84. Damasare: Hidden in Plain Sight


“All war is based on deception.”

–Sun Tzu


My friend was eager to show me the latest book in his collection. The book focused on one koryu, but also had sample kata from other koryu schools, including our own.

“But look at these photographs,” he said, smiling like a Chesire Cat about to spring something on me.

The pages he showed me had sequential photos of several kata from our martial arts school. But they were odd. They were so odd, I couldn’t chalk then up to regional or instructors’ personal differences. There was something just wrong about them, as if the people demonstrating didn’t truly understand the meaning of the kata, like they learned it by looking through a cracked prism at the actual techniques.

The demonstrators, who claimed to have master’s licenses in several koryu, also wrote that they had studied directly under one of the headmasters of our school. How could that be, I asked rhetorically, when their techniques were just…odd.

Ah, my friend said. Maybe it was damasare.


There might have been something unsavory about the writers that the headmaster didn’t like, but he couldn’t get rid of them. Maybe they kept coming around pestering the teacher, so finally the teacher taught them something just to get them out of his hair. Something wrong. And then he sent them off. They were secure and smug in their knowledge, but anyone who knows anything about the ryu would know immediately that they had learned a flawed, mistaken, and incomplete version of the kata he was taught. Good enough for general consumption, perhaps, but the ‘keys to the kingdom” were missing. Those who know could tell they didn’t get it right.

Deception is not just a technique used in warfare. It is an integral part of martial arts education, particularly the koryu, since they are closer to combative methods than pure sport competition. And I don’t mean just deceptive fighting techniques, like a feint to one side to set up an attack to the other side. Damasare, deceiving those who you don’t want to learn your methods, is a technique used to keep your school’s techniques within the school.

Deceptive methods to protect your methods from being co-opted by unscrupulous outsiders or even students of your own who you don’t trust go back a long way. One teacher of my school has suggested that he has found in records and documents examples that go back to at least the Edo Period (1600-1868 CE), back when our ryu had quite a number of dojo and several thousands students. You couldn’t trust all the students to have the ryu’s best interest in mind. The ones you can’t kick out but don’t trust entirely may be taught incomplete or wrong methods.

There were already some folk back then, he said, who were known to be “kata collectors.” They would train only long enough to learn enough upper level kata for their own purposes, then leave for another school without permission, train a while there too, and then eventually set up their own schools, with no allegiance to their former teachers without permission. The teacher, if he suspected someone to be like that, would deliberately teach him wrong methods, or give wrong or incomplete explanations. After all, back then you never knew if that guy from another fief who displayed a selfish, self-seeking personality, might face you in battle in a civil war. Why teach him stuff that could get yourself killed?

Not all ryu do this overtly, but I think some kind of damasare, of trying to retain methods or meanings only within the ryu, is in nearly all traditional koryu arts, and can perhaps be found in more “modern” budo too.

One of my karate friends said as much, when he began to study Okinawan karate in Okinawa, from teachers who were intelligentsia: professors, lawyers and doctors. They had the acumen and ability to research the origins of various kata. They had long conversations with him about the history of karate kata, and he concluded that a lot of the kata transmitted to Japan from Okinawa were incomplete, insofar that some of the more esoteric meanings were deliberately withheld from some Japanese students. That, too, was a subtle implication I got when interviewing Asai Tetsuhiko, the late Shotokan master instructor. He said that he frequently went to Okinawa to study older kata and kobudo that were not part of the original Shotokan curriculum in order to understand what was left out or forgotten.

That is one reason why I take askance at some karate bunkai demonstrations done in tournaments that take kata literally. Ostensibly, bunkai demos are performed to explain a set of moves from a kata. But many kata themselves are full of damasare. Some of the moves aren’t what they literally look like. So if you take a literal interpretation of a move, it may not necessarily be what it really means. For example, think about it. Stepping forward three times, with three alternating downward block in a kata makes no sense in a combative situation. Who would step backwards and try to punch you at the same place and fail, three times?  Those aren’t blocks. And not all of them are at gedan level, I would conjecture. They are hidden techniques, hidden within plain sight. Those who don’t know think they are just three gedan blocks done one after another. Those who do know what they really mean…well, a lot of times, they won’t tell you unless you’re part of their school, and a trusted student at that.

It’s the same with aikido. A lot of people think that it’s all about grabs and wrist locks. But Ueshiba Morihei, the founder himself, once let slip that “atemi is aikido,” or attacking vital parts is a foundation of the art. So that Kote Gaeshi technique: maybe the pugilistic attacker won’t try to grab your wrist. He’ll try a straight right punch. But the same attack to the wrist works whether it’s to a grab or a strike. Instead of reaching for the wrist, tori is really striking the wrist at a nerve bundle. But you say, “Oh, but why would I want to take a fall if it’s only a little wrist twist?” Yeah, but that pivot and turn of your wrist? It’s coupled with a left punch to your jaw, then the grab of your wrist with the left, then as tori pivots, his elbow smacks the other side of uke’s jaw. Those strikes to soften uke up really help him to go with the “flow.” And that throw, by the way, is a way for uke to survive practice. Done full speed, it’s really meant to dislocate wrists, elbow and shoulder while standing up if uke resists.

But if you practice that way, however, two bad things happen. One, you lose your training partners real fast. Two, you may lose sight of learning how to “flow” with the attack, since you’re so intent on causing so much wreckage to the attacker. That destroys the overall goal of aiki training: to develop a flowing, smooth body dynamic on the part of the student. So the actual “fighting” explanation of the move is hidden from most students even during training.

So those who know, know. Those who don’t…they make up weird bunkai.

For the koryu in the modern Internet and video age, it’s a tricky way to track who really learned the art and who just picked up a book or magazine, or learned only a few techniques and ran off claiming full mastery.

A while back a friend pointed me to a web site that featured guys in black t-shirts doing what looked like our ryu’s short dagger grappling techniques. However, instead of traditional weapons (kogusoku or wakizashi), they were using butterfly knives and flying around like monkeys high on caffeine. The techniques were recognizable as ours, though, although through careful scrutiny, I could tell that most of their kata were probably derived from a very good imitation of stuff they copied from books and videotapes. There were some deliberate change-ups put into the kata specifically to hide their real meaning. Anyone attempting to pilfer the techniques via videos of a demo or online videos would also copy the mistakes and omissions.

So that brings another kind of damasare: during embu, or formal public demonstrations, our koryu (and I’m sure other koryu) will deliberately change some aspects of their kata compared to what is practiced in the dojo. There is “kata for the dojo” and “embu style kata.” Instead of a particular strike point, for example, we attack a different point. It’s still a viable attack point, just not the particular one our style wants as a primary target. Members who know will immediately recognize the difference. Outsiders who don’t will surreptitiously video it, copy it and practice the demo kata without knowing what they are doing is not quite the right way to do the form in a dojo. They don’t know the difference. Plus, they’ll be outed as superficial kata copiers.

While on the face of this, a lot of damasare may seem like unwarranted paranoia, you should remember that its origins were in a time before copyright laws protected the owners of the techniques. It was also a time when there was a real possibility that some of the methods could possibly be used in battle or civil war against another clan. The less you shared with outsiders who you didn’t fully trust, the better. Why show potential enemies your style so that they could learn how to beat you, not in a sportive contest, but in a life or death situation?

Nowadays, the purpose of damasare has changed somewhat. It is used to mask the essence of the ryu from those who would steal the methods via printed media or videos and market it as their own.

With some of those outsiders, you could tell them to go away and they will disappear. Others are annoyingly persistent, and so you have to figure out a way to not give them the keys to your secrets as they keep showing up to train or buying all the DVDs and studying videso on YouTube.

The more a style is a koryu, the more you will see these kinds of damasare at work; to hide the methods from outsiders, from those who would steal the methods for their own greed and selfishness, from even one’s own students who do not exhibit the best of character traits, and from potential adversaries and possible future combatants.

Going past these hidden veils means proving yourself worthy not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Are you trustworthy enough? Or are you perceived as just another jerk who wants knowledge only for narrow, selfish purposes?


16 thoughts on “84. Damasare: Hidden in Plain Sight

  1. Great timing, Wayne — I was just thinking about this topic, though I didn’t know the name for it. I’m starting to overview primary sources for my current research, and I’m struck by the same feeling of oddness when I read the descriptions of “jiu-jitsu” techniques in some.

    1. Beth, the problem with that is that as you found out, even some primary resources may have got it wrong, if it’s not by an “insider” or some researcher who really understands what’s being shown. Usually, though, honest researchers are able to at least describe accurately historical aspects of a ryu. It’s when you want to present techniques that it gets dicey, I think. You can maybe get a flavor of it but I wouldn’t trust any books or videos as a primary learning resource.

  2. It occurs simply because the majority will never, ever have to make it work in a violent situation. It is easy to say it is something or other but to make it work in a violent attack or combat is where the rubber meets the road.

  3. In our ryū, there’s not much of what I could call damashi or damasare. I mean, Empi is a lot like Katori Shintō-ryū kata; because of the expanded maai and redirected targets, you might not see what it’s really about just from watching. And there’s always the mongai-fushutsu stuff — the kata that are generally not used in embu.

    On the other hand, I’ve always found it interesting that the first thing you are taught is gasshi. It’s the core of the ryū, the technique that is inherent to virtually all others. It is indeed the gokui of the gokui, and all you need to do to learn it is join the ryū for one week. It’s the worst kept secret!

    But it’s a technique of utmost “truth”. It can’t be faked. I mean, you can learn the katachi easily enough, and with a willing partner you can pass off a simulacrum. But unlocking its secrets, and thus those of the ryū, is a lifelong endeavor. So if you join the ryū for one week, learn gasshi, then leave and keep working at it on your own, until eventually you can really do it, for reals, with no collaboration…well, congratulations. You’ve mastered Shinkage-ryū.

    1. It brings up a subtopic, too, Josh. …That a lot of the “secrets” of a ryu may be found in the beginning, or shoden level techniques, if you knew what to look for. But it usually takes progressing up to the higher level kata, the okuden, to see the connections, and then you go, “Ah, so THAT’S what it’s all about.” It may be another example of hiding things in plain sight…

  4. Paragraphs 14-15 “While on the face of this…” It is difficult I find to explain the concept of not being an open book and spilling one’s technical guts to the students. Most students gawk at the idea rebutting with in implication they have a right to know. Our educational societal philosophy is the teacher doesn’t hold back from his students. Teaching is instructing all the students by providing them all the course knowledge they require to be successful. Some students take a consumer approach and see the art as a goods and service. In their view, they are paying and thus demand the knowledge.

    I like to change it around and alter the perspective. As a non-profit group I tell the students it is more akin to keeping trade and operational secrets, thus protecting the brand. Which in turn helps everyone. Keeping the “trade secrets” secrets in this information age is like protecting the hen house when all the chickens are already out. By the way, knowing a secret doesn’t make you more skilled, practice does. That is if you work hard enough at it and think about it enough you figure it out, or you fall into it. Well most people who stick with it and have the patience do anyway. Just like Po did with the Wuxi Finger Hold in the movie, “Kung Fu Panda.”

    The other thing is most people don’t have the technical knowledge and savvy in the martial arts overall to spot something wrong during a public demo. That is because martial arts are no longer a professional combat tool where accuracy of knowledge is required for survival. Koryu arts now are an demonstrative art form with the ambition of preservation of that art form, like the fine arts of ballet and theater.

    Koryu secrets today is knowledge withheld by the sensei from student(s) who have little or no experience in the art. The secrets I image have change many times at the whim of sensei’s and alike once the koryu art no longer had a viable purpose in combat. Secrets instead of being ways to effective and quickly kill someone have now become subjective, being technical idiosyncrasies and minutia. Or omitted technicalities deem as part of the preserved art. By which will make someone look foolish or mocked on an internet board if they discuss it. Overall, it is only something of “koryu snobs” concern. Otherwise the schools that do it improperly wouldn’t out number the schools who do it “right.”

    These students for a short time buy into the idea of secrets, until the decide to hit the books and the internet and find out the secret, or they figure it out for themselves; demonstrating the same thing Po found out when he opened the coveted Dragon’s Scroll that reveal the secret of limitless power.

    Skadoosh! 🙂

  5. To a novice student, it is all a secret, it is all a mystery. And trust of a system is subjected heavily to nepotism, inherited by an family heir traditionally. IF an heir/successor is ever appointed. Which walks hand in hand with having all the secrets revealed. Which they never are any way, all secrets completely revealed. If a sensei wants a legacy he will take some secrets to the grave. Btw, in the day of Koryu, and the samurai “trust” didn’t exist. It is my understand trust was something any warrior found dangerous in feudal Japan. FWIW. 😀

  6. Since am on a blabbing roll, I am adding the following. How does one really reach mastery? I think what isn’t talked about in these type of discussions is the importance of talent and the ability to figure things out. Allot of times in Japanese martial arts circles you will here the word genius to describe someone with extraordinary ability. One person, I can think of where the word genius is applied is to the famous Mifune Kuzyo of Judo. He is also an example of someone who “figured it out himself.” There where no “secrets” in Judo back then. Granted Judo isn’t considered a Koryu, but Kano did take from Koryu, and had the genius and motivation to again take what was hidden from him in his Koryu training where he was an outside student and fill in the blanks. I am saying what Wayne has said and throwing it out the window. No.

    It is clear to me the conventions Wayne has talked about are put in place by Koryu and even Gendai arts has a purpose. It is a defensive mechanism. What I have learned about the Japanese in this sense is there is always a reason for what they do. Regardless if we, the student, Japanese or not, like or not. My focus then is on the student (mostly those who are not raised in Japan) who are weeded out, who do not cut the mustard either in spirit, attitude, or ethics associated to a koryu usually complain about mistreatment. That whine and protest about not getting all the instruction, all the secrets. It really is unfavorable and unbecoming behavior. They need to stop thinking martial art training is a purchased goods and service.

    When in high school I was cut from the football team several weeks into the season. I just couldn’t cut the mustard, couldn’t meet the demands of the team and the coach. Like many other athletes who get cut, I sucked it up. I didn’t protest screaming that the coach didn’t teach me all the secrets of the sport. That is just stupid. I had to earn my spot on the team and then work hard to keep it. It was my responsibility to do that and not the coaches’ or the team’s. If I was talented, had the right attitude, and the right stuff, I wouldn’t have been cut.

    I see being a inside student isn’t something that is given, it is like making the team. A privilege and not an assumed right that is solely to the discretion of the sensei. If the sensei due to some idiosyncrasy or not decides who gets the secrets or not is his call. A genuine students will not let that bother them. They will work hard and continue to work hard, exploiting and developing their own talent and genius just like any good player a football team. They will not be a dojo petulant who doesn’t not take responsibility for their own training and development.

    1. Jon,
      I don’t necessarily condone “hiding” technical information if it’s only for the teacher’s ego gratification. I think that if taken to the extreme, students will catch on and leave, disgusted with the teacher, and/or the ryu will suffer a decline in technical achievement and, as happened with a lot of ryu, go extinct.

      On the other hand, there is such a thing as having to wait until the student is prepared for learning the “secrets.” Maybe the teacher is watching and waiting patiently until the student can finally manage through one level before teaching him another level, based on his assessment of the student’s technical ability and character. There are on the Internet some photos and anecdotes of parents giving five-year-olds fully functioning assault rifles for birthday presents, as a way to teach the kidpride in gun ownership. Whatever side of the gun regulation debate you are on, I would hope that you realize this is really crazy. A child that age has neither the emotional maturity or physical ability to safely care for and handle such a weapon. In a more subtle way, a koryu teacher may “hold back” because the student isn’t ready.

      I ran an experiment once, frustrated with the progress of some of my student’s staff basics. I said, look, you guys really, really need to get the kihon and basic level kata right or I can’t teach you more advanced stuff. Then I offered to at least show them what I meant by teaching them some okuden bo. They were soooo eager to learn it. But in the very first kata I showed them, I said, Okay, now in okuden the speed is very fast; so if I’m coming at you with a bokken, you will need to step back and plant your foot quickly in proper hanmi position and receive the strike. It’s just like the basic kata, only faster.

      I went at one student. He wasn’t very mindful of his basic techniques, so when he stepped back quickly, his front foot hit the shin of his back foot and he fell on his rear end. That was the end of my teaching them okuden. I said, Well, you see what I mean now. Please, please try to get your basics better, like your stances and stepping. Or you’ll never be able to do the higher level kata.

  7. Wayne you make a good point. I guess when it comes to secrets the topic falls into being a parallax. Not between us, rather in terms of the object of secrets its self. You’d have to be a goofball not to see the importance of metered teaching. Analogy I like to use is, “you don’t feed a baby steak.” Student learning is a process where the pace of information development is acutely controlled by the teacher not to exceed the pace of student learning. You feed the baby steak, and it chokes. Withholding information, even liquifying it , in the case of baby food, in this sense is critical to proper learning development. Information presented on a level of sophistication beyond the student’s understanding by default becomes unattainable information. Therefore, I couldn’t agree more.

    I agree, and feel it is completely irresponsible and dangerous to give any young child a kitchen utility knife, or pair of scissors much less a high powered weapon.

  8. Wayne I respect and support what you are saying, I want to throw out a comment that may or may influence how we communicate on the subject of marital arts secrets. object of secret information is best described in my opinion as a parallax then the popular perceived aphorism of “hidden in plain sight” that has been popularized by the martial artist writer Ellis Amdur and his book.

    I don’t think information can be withheld, or hidden in plain sight, and using that phrase is impeding, and deceptive in itself. I fear it leads to the continued aliment of Functional Fixedness plaguing martial arts. It is not resolving anything, rather reinforcing and creating maladies; such as student resentment when they feel deceived. Or outsiders hacking legit techniques and then fraudulently claiming and propagating them for their own successfully. The genuine and legit school and techniques are over shadowed by the shysters and looked on as the fraud. It is my opinion the phrase hidden in plain sight is both inaccurate and opens up damaging results.

    What is deemed as secret information is really a matter of an alteration in the line of sight not made by the student. Rather then anything really being hidden. As you said, and I agree, the basics are it, they are openly taught to everyone. And unless taught one on one privately that information is readily available and open to everyone. Especially if taught in the normative educational theory; metered teaching which is taught to some degree most modern dojos.

    But, a student’s reason gets the best of them and they are convinced either by themselves or their sensei there is special secret information purposely stored away out of sight, out of their grasp, out of their reach. Which is used in many ways by the sensei from being a carrot to a reward. And then often creates a backlash when the student discovers the deception that the information was all the time hidden out in the open. A matter of simply camouflaging, disguising and hiding information right in front of their noses- as hidden in plain sight. I think this is a flawed perspective and error in thinking doing more harm than good. 

    I prefer to use parallax and stay within the normative educational theory; metering out information as the explanation. Rather then using “hidden in plain sight” implying the existence of secret information, a misnomer. When talking about “secrets” in the martial arts is a matter of a parallax, where the responsibility falls equally upon the student for their learning.

  9. Lastly, in my dojo then the sensei would demonstrate in the dojo the dan ranks would get up and move from seiza relocating themselves to another spot to watch the demonstration, repeatedly. This gained them a learning advantage. Whereas, the kyu ranks never broke seiza or ranks to move. They only seen the instructional demonstration from one angle for years.

  10. Jon, you bring up a a lot of good counterpoints and reinforcing points, which I will largely leave on their own, since they actually have given me ideas for future blogs! 😉

    Per the last comment, about how higher ranking students and beginners learn, it’s interesting in that in my koryu dojo in Japan, especially during special training sessions when a lot of us from foreign countries pack the dojo along with the regular students, we always break out and stand around as close as we can to observe a new demonstrated kata. Nobody sits in a straight row, far away. We all accumulate around the kata being performed at different angles, moving around, trying to figure it out, asking questions afterwards, and then trying it out ourselves. When I first entered this koryu dojo, I was really not used to this seemingly informal learning style, since I had done aikido training, where everyone sat quietly in seiza facing the demo at the same frontal angle. Again, there’s much that can be learned from observing a smaller, more intimate koryu instruction, I think. It individualizes the learning and allows for multiple points of view. Just one comment. I’ll be thinking of the others when I write another blog!

  11. Wayne can’t wait to read it! I am glad you understand I am not intentionally being argumentative and disagreeable. My comments are what pops in my mind as a result of the topics you write about. It’s for me just kicking some ideas around basically, FWIW. I appreciate the opportunity to comment. As you can tell, I really get involved in what your write and enjoy it tremendously. Your writing mirrors many of my experiences, thoughts and philosophies, I experienced at my small intimate koryu dojo, lead by a strict, conservative and traditional Japanese sensei. I agree the small intimate koryu dojo is preferable, and agree with what you said, recognizing its value.

    Btw, the mudansha where too afraid to break the line and seiza, including myself when I was a mudansha…ha..ha.

  12. My karate teacher is of the opinion that the shotokan kata contain a lot of “hidden” techniques – moving forward when the actual application would require moving backwards, side stepping in the less-optimal direction, combinations of single-handed techniques practiced as two-handed techniques, etc – all designed to either make the kata practice more difficult than the actual application, or to prevent outsiders and novices from grasping the more dangerous aspects of the art.

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