101. Book Review: John Stevens’ “The Way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano & His Students”

 A happy confluence of events happened this weekend.  I read a wonderfully written biography of Kano Jigoro by John Stevens, titled The Way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano & His Students, printed by Shambhala Publications, Inc., and I let my wife choose a movie for our Saturday night date. I was expecting a weepy romance date movie, but she inexplicably chose The Grandmaster, a highly fictionalized biopic about Ip Man, the teacher of martial arts movie star Bruce Lee. Both were superlatively entertaining and, from a martial arts point of view, enlightening.

Both, coincidentally, tread on about the same time frame: Asia in the early to mid-20th Century, and how martial arts in respectively China and Japan underwent transformations through the life and times of two great masters of their generation.

In The Grandmaster (video trailer: http://youtu.be/uC5amKLgnFU), a kung fu action biopic of Ip Man is transformed by director Wong Kar Wai into a visually stunning, complex movie that takes, for me, one step beyond Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in turning kung fu movies into an arthouse rendition. There were other movies about the life of Ip Man, but this movie transcended the genre. And who could not enjoy seeing the beautiful Zhang Zhiyi perform kung fu in slow motion? But enough of that; I’ll leave the movie reviews of Chinese movies to someone else.

But back to Steven’s book. As the title says, the book is a compilation of the history of Jigoro Kano, his life, his times, and the students he influenced. It also summarizes his philosophy of life and martial arts. The value of the book is that it gives us an insight into the goals and mindset of the founder of a preeminent modern budo; the man whose influence, in many ways, formed what budo is to this day. His influence reached far past beyond even his own invention, judo, to affect the histories of aikido, karatedo, even kendo and the survival of older koryu arts. A devoted shepherd of his Kodokan judo, Kano was deeply concerned about the propagation and survival of all forms of budo.

Kano, as Stevens notes, was also a quintessential Meiji man; that incredible person born in the turn of the 20th Century Japan who had one foot in Japan’s feudal past, and one foot firmly in its future, who was inculcated both with traditional Confucian ethics and a samurai-influenced code, but who eagerly studied Western culture and traditions to forge a new, modernized nation. Because of his training and intellect, Kanos’ influence was not limited to just budo. He was one of Japan’s great educators of his era, founding several academies, serving as an educational leader, and working tirelessly on behalf of sports education and the Olympic ideal. Kano was pivotal far, far beyond judo, in Japanese modern history.

One of the many strengths of Stevens’ book is that it places Kano and his students in the context of his times. While some of his students appear less than laudatory in their political and personal lives, Kano struggled to embody and promote culture, education, international peace and goodwill in a time of chaos and Japanese ultranationalism. While the overall arc of Kano’s life was positive, on a larger scale, it embodied a bit of tragedy, as he tried in his own way to promote peace in a country running headlong into perpetual war and imperialism.

It is also instructive to note that Kano himself began to criticize his own creation as the years went on and judo became more and more a competitive sport, rather than an ideal physical regimen that complemented a sound mind in a sound body. He felt the overemphasis on tournament play and winning was detrimental to an art which he wanted to use to create well-rounded gentlemen (and women), but by then, the cat was out of the bag, so to speak. How to return the genie to the bottle and cap it when it was already well past its time to do so? So what to do now? One can only wonder. As a youngster, I loved the rough and tumble of judo randori. As I aged, I found greater insights in its kata, and was inspired by the open-mindedness of Kano’s beliefs, his rational, systematic approach to training, and his acceptance of other forms of budo.

But judo changed even in my generation, and I also changed as well. Now I look at it from afar as a concerned outsider. The book will inspire both judo practitioners and non-practitioners alike. But it should arouse some introspection on the part of judoka as to the true purpose of their sport, and serve as both an example and a warning to other martial artists about the paths their arts could take.

100. Go and Ju, and finding a balance

Martial artists of all styles and stripes and colors are generally aware that one should seek a proper balance between “strength” and “gentleness”, “soft” and “hard,” or in Japanese, the go and ju of Goju-ryu karatedo. But what does that mean, really? My own understanding is that it’s a bit more complicated than that, albeit in some ways, by understanding the complex workings of our bodies and mind, the action and attitude is really quite natural and should be more reflexive and unforced.

Let’s look at the “go” part. This often literally translates as “hard,” as opposed to “soft” (as in Goju-ryu karatedo; a balance of “hard” and “soft” movements). A superficial understanding of go is that you use all the strength in your body, meeting an attack forcefully, head on, and replying with brute force. That’s an interpretation of the go as “strong” or “forceful.” But consider a different interpretation. Consider Go and Ju another way of saying Yin and Yang (or In and Yo, or Onmyo, in the Japanese pronunciation). Yang is the bright, sunny, hot, extroverted “characters” of elements, while Yin are the shaded, shadowy, introverted characters of elements. There needs to be a balance in the body and mind of Yin and Yang, in Chinese Taoist theory, for one to be healthy. In this case, Go goes beyond merely being machismo and macho. It’s not just getting rock-hard and taking blows to your abdomen or face, or tightening all your muscles to forcefully block an attack.

Go means your attitude has to be forceful and dynamic as well, not just your physical form. But in Taoism, within Go there is always a bit of Ju, and within Ju, there is always a bit of Go. Being completely tensed up all the time is not proper use of Go and Ju. It’s just being completely tensed up.

Here’s a concrete example: A video made the rounds of my martial arts friends recently, which got me to thinking about WHY did we react so negatively to it? Several people made fun of the kata performance, but WHY did we think it was so bad?

I decided to take the video seriously and try to self-analyze myself and the other folk as to why we reacted the way we did, rather than just laugh at it and make fun of it. The video was of a kata performance at a “traditional karate” tournament. The performer was performing the entire kata with a kind of strange dynamic tension, made evident by a breathing pattern that I could only compare to a combination of Sanchin kata breathing, “hot” Yoga fast breathing, and abdominal pushing for breathing that I could only compare to when someone has acute constipation, is passing a kidney stone, and/or hitherto movements I only saw at a strip bar which featured some extraordinary feats of muscular control and spare change in quarters.

Her kiai were like uncontrolled raging screeches of pain, going out into the arena and then getting lost way out in the hinterlands, not compact and controlled. But proper kiai is a whole other subject, in any case. The glaring problem was that she had poor focus, over-exaggerated and improper form, stiffness throughout the kata, and bad breathing. I think she and her teacher mistook “go” or strength for just what is called “baka-chikara,” “stupid crazy person brute strength.”

To be sure I wasn’t just being critical of the way “traditional” karate was being taught nowadays, I searched the Internet for other “traditional” karate kata videos, particularly those of women karateka. I found some JKA All-Japan women’s kata contest videos and watched these women. Their kata were superb. And they were definitely different: Precise forms, sharp focus, real attention to the riai and applicability, sharp and controlled kiai, and controlled breathing. Wow. Soft and hard, blended together.

The former karateka moved like a robot, stiffly, as if you could hear rusty joints creaking and then snapping, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, because her muscles were tensed all the time. The latter karateka women moved like greased lightning, from one position to another, because they moved effortlessly, without any stiffness, and then stopped instantaneously at a precise moment, at the apex of their movement. THAT to me was proper go and ju. You need a balance of both within the same kata. Too much go and you end up too stiff and contrived.

Too much ju, of course, is also a problem. The best examples of being too “soft” tend to come in aikido; where some beginners think “relaxing” and being “ju” means being soft, like a wet noodle, or like being a couch potato slouched in a very soft living room couch or bean bag chair. In actuality, a better definition of ju is not “soft,” but “flexible,” as in green bamboo, that bends with a strong wind and then snaps back into its original stance, or a limp, flexible whip that can generate incredible cutting force when it is lashed out. Having a too-compliant tori in aikido that will fall over if you even breathe on him will often lead a beginner to think being “ju” means slouching and moving like a wet soba noodle, without any backbone or dynamic energy.

I have always considered Chinese internal martial arts to be the most sophisticated when it came to describing internal body dynamics, although sometimes I think the  concepts based on traditional Chinese medical concepts may be antique and unscientific. In those arts, such as Tai Chi Ch’uan, there is a huge difference between being a limp rag that has no integrity, and a dynamic, energetic martial artist. “Softness” is translated again as “flexible,” not a wet noodle. There has to be a backbone, and in Tai Chi Ch’uan, posture and flexibility go hand in hand. The spine has to be properly aligned, erect and held together by proper posture and musculature. Having an erect spine means it’s like a central post, upon which your limbs can rotate and have complete freedom of movement.

The headmaster of the Wu style Tai Chi Ch’uan, Sifu Eddie Wu, once put it like this to me: too many people think Tai Chi Ch’uan was like being a slug, in that “relaxed” meant having no strength. He pulled out a handkerchief. Here, he said. This is too relaxed. This has no backbone. He opened up the handkerchief and let it fall. He explained that the handkerchief can’t stand up on its own because it had no backbone. Rather than that, the “relaxed” nature of Tai Chi meant a kind of dynamic, moving reaction to the forces outside your body, using your spine and natural supporting muscles to have substance and strength, while your limbs snap about like whips, deflecting blows or striking out.

“Strength” arises, therefore, naturally, from proper posture, created by the proper use of muscles that are meant to hold up your spinal column and body parts as they should, naturally, so that your appendages, your arms and legs, can be the supple, flexible elements of the go and ju combination.

Perhaps the problem arises in kata geiko training in aikido (too “soft”) and karate (too “hard”) because the kata forms don’t find testing in “free training,” as in judo, or other grappling arts, which eschew too much theoretical clap trap and just have you go at it. As senior grapplers will tell you, if you are stiff all the time, you are going to wear yourself out much faster than the opponent will. If you are a limp rag doll, then of course you are going to be beat. You need to combine a careful application of strength only when you can apply a proper technique, or evade an attack, not stiffen your body throughout the entire free sparring match.

Still, it’s difficult in finding the proper balance in any martial art, even in koryu, even in judo (I have had too many experiences of judo players who try to stiff-arm their way through entire training sessions), in any martial art, all over the place. And I also have to have the humility to constantly check my own self during training to make sure I’m not stiff where I should be supple. It’s a constant battle, a constant testing.

And combining go and ju is not just a physical method. It is internal, mental and philosophical as well. There is a wonderful Japanese phrase that is somewhat hard to translate literally into English. “Shikkari seyo!” More or less, it means “Get a grip!” It doesn’t mean stiffen up, it means get yourself together and grow a backbone.

In my own club, sometimes some students misunderstand it when I try to get them to balance go and ju. They make their arms stiff as wooden planks when they block an attack, but their bodies are slouched over and in poor alignment, with no tension in their seika tanden (lower abdominal area) when it should be the exact opposite: they should have good posture, a little tension in the seika tanden, and a relaxed, whiplike feel to their arms. So when they meet an attack, they shake from the impact because they aren’t properly centered with their “one point.” They need more strength internally, in their seika tanden, and less stiffness in their arms.

Philosophically speaking, too much mental laxness will lead to laziness and inability to endure. Too much stiffness will lead to selfish, one-track mindedness and brutality. Self-discipline needs to be balanced with compassion, endurance with understanding, Stoicism with humanity. In essence, learning to balance go and ju is learning to be more fully human.

99. The Paper Trail in Koryu Budo

Trying to pass on not just the technical aspects of a koryu budo (classical martial way) is hard enough, but making sure the students grasp the cultural and philosophical characteristics of that particular ryu makes the task even harder. On the other hand, it is often a blessing in disguise, as the students’ questions or unawareness forces me to question the foundations of my own understanding to come up with answers and reasons WHY things are done a certain way.

One of those things about Japanese budo is that it comes from a very literate society, even going back to the medieval times. Records keeping was a mania, especially among traditional institutions like samurai administrations, temples, and so on. Hence, most researchers of Japanese martial arts history will scoff at claims of a hitherto unknown martial system suddenly popping up in a Western country being off the radar of anyone in Japan, because “it was a super-secret martial art taught to a clan of ninja way in the mountains only to one family, and then passed on to one Westerner in secret, so there’s no mention of it in any historical documents.” Is it possible? Yes. It’s possible, once in a blue moon. Is it probable? Not really. Big difference.

The main reason for that disbelief among koryu “snobs” is that there really should be some kind of paper trail. Within han (domains), nearly everything that occurred was recorded, from rice harvest yields to family births and deaths (recorded in the temples) to historical documentation. If any group of individuals not tied directly to the ruling samurai administration let out even a hint that they were practicing a martial art not sanctioned or allowed by it, they would be immediately checked out by the samurai magistrate. The last thing that the rulers of a han wanted was a bunch of people learning fighting methods unknown to them, with the possibility that they could start a rebellion. That is not to say that there weren’t independent dojo. There were dojo and systems sponsored by the clan, and dojo that were independent, especially in towns where teachers could set up shop on their own. There were also wandering ronin, like Miyamoto Musashi, who taught wherever he found students. But there are a whole bunch of caveats that came with that. In order to travel through check points that separated one han from another, you needed…guess what?…paperwork. Like passport screeners nowadays, each han was an autonomous domain, ruled by a daimyo, and in order to get through a check point, you needed paperwork from some government authority attesting to your business, such as being on your way to a religious pilgrimage (which was one of the few ways commoners could travel past their domain, hence the modern Japanese mania for traveling to shrines and temples, but having raucous drinking parties at night), study at a  school, business and trade, or for martial arts training.

Anyway, the paperwork extended to what I really wanted to discuss in this blog: the documentation that comes with being in a ryu and continuing training. They are many and varied, and often are different from ryu to ryu. But this paper trail also contributes to the documentary, compounded accretions that make up a historical ryuha, or martial system.

The first certification, not always found in all ryu, is a nyumonsho, or certificate signifying one’s formal acceptance into the school. This is like receiving an acceptance letter to college, in a way. It’s concrete, written evidence that you are a member of the ryu. Moreover, you are registered in a student registry. Nowadays, that registry could just as easily be a computer database (the Japanese are not averse to technology when it actually makes things easier); in the past (and still in the present in some schools) it can include having your name written on a wooden fuda (small tab) and hung up on a dojo wall, along with the fuda of all the other students that entered through the dojo doors.

As you advance in ranking, you receive other certifications. In koryu influenced by modern dan/kyu ranking, you receive new belt colors, from brown to black, for example. Those are basically external symbols of what is really significant: your rank certification, which are those big, diploma-looking type certificates that are handed out. They look like diplomas because they are based on academic diplomas, with the ornate bordering and considerably thick and handsome paper and watermarks. The teacher will write your name and his own name, to certify your rank. Also note the numerous “chops,” or hanko, stamps in red ink, plastered all over the certificate. In Japanese, personal stamps are like personal signatures, good even for money transfers at banks. They attest to the authenticity of the document. If you are observant, you will see that at least one of the “chops” is stamped partially off the edge of the certificate. The teacher does that because he has a book that records each promotion, and alongside his documentation is the other part of the stamp, showing that your particular stamp matches up with the rest of the stamp recorded in his book.

Most modern budo schools that are somewhat organized in some manner will have some aspect of this paper certification and documentation, as will most koryu, although some very, very small groups may not be so formal. This was, however, not a very ancient tradition, since my suspicion is that this flat kind of certificate was derived from Western style academic diplomas. In the premodern era, certifications of rank were written on scrolls. The scrolls, or makimono, were hand-written, and included the student’s name, the instructor’s signature, the date of the writing and the rank being bestowed. It also included a mokuroku, or a catalog of the techniques the student knew at that rank, and the listing of masters from the founder to the current master. The writing would be in black sumi, a very durable kind of ink, annotated and highlighted by red ink and chops.

–Hence, the plot for many cheesy Chinese and Japanese martial art movies about a stolen “secret” scroll whose bearer would learn the super-secret deadly technique that would make him master of all martial arts. Oh, yes. Even a “Kung Fu Panda” movie had that plotline.

Not a lot of schools will still go the route of handing out makimono, because the materials to make them simply cost too much and there may be too many students, and it just takes too much time. One of my own teachers gave me one of the last makimono he ever produced and then proclaimed, “That’s it. It took me so long because I kept making mistakes and had to go over it over and over again, that I’m going to use a word processor from now on and make certificates.” Sigh. So much for tradition. Welcome to laser printers and automation in koryu.

Besides makimono and more current diplomas, however, there used to be another kind of certification. These are midway between the makimono and diploma-style certificates, and I think they appeared close enough to a modern diploma-style certificate that teachers got into their heads to utilize the latter. These are flat pieces of white Japanese paper, folded up and placed in a protective covering of white paper. Made of pure Japanese mulberry, the hanshi (“half size paper”) is a thin but strong and very beautifully fibered paper. Unlike the makimono, this certification, called various things, including “origami” (yes, “folded paper”; like the term used for the folded paper creations of paper cranes, crabs, Millenium Falcon models, and so on), does not have an extensive listing of techniques. Instead, it may just have a few techniques, special to the certification. Or it may simply certify the student’s special status, perhaps, as having attained teaching rank, or permission to open up his own independent dojo, or the bestowing of his martial “name.”

Such papers are still used extensively in the tea ceremony school I belong to, along with  plastic student ID cards with magnetic strips that verify my status and rank, if fed into the proper computer database! Origami certificates are also is part of the documentation of one of the koryu schools I study.

There are, of course, some schools that forego several, or all of these kinds of paper documentation. But larger organizations need documentation the bigger they get, hence modern budo schools, with worldwide memberships in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, will have some kind of rank certification process, and diploma-style menjo (certificates).

There are also koryu exceptions to the rule, but they stand out because they ARE exceptions. Because Oei Masamichi, in the early 1900s, opened up the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu school of iai, for example, to what was formally a martial art only for Tosa han samurai, he also decided to drop a lot of other traditions, in an attempt to modernize and popularize the system outside of his native province. That kind of openness continued with several of his students, and their own students. Iwata Norikazu, who my own iai sensei considered one of the most brilliant Eishin-ryu teachers of his generation, in later years stopped taking promotions for ranking administered by the All Japan Kendo Federation. He also let it be known that he didn’t care about ranking or what organization you belonged to, as long as you had a sincere wish to learn from him, he would teach you. That was in keeping with Iwata sensei’s own attitude about learning, since he sought out all strains of Eishin-ryu teachers to study under, and even worked with Muso Shinden-ryu instructors, so that he could get a wide understanding of all the variations and methodologies surrounding Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and the sister school of Muso Shinden-ryu.

Should a modern budo school acquire the trappings of origami and makimono to be “more traditional”? I don’t think it would be appropriate. Western-style diploma type certificates are more than adequate, and such certificates are also used in koryu nowadays in the  majority of cases. There is no precedent or tradition that says you need to revert to such older forms of certification in arts such as karate or aikido, judo or kendo.

And really, the documentation is important, but what’s really central to one’s training is the training, not so much the papers. When I was a newbie in a koryu, I remember studying with the late Donn F. Draeger, a pioneer Western researcher and koryu exponent. One day he lined up three of us relatively inexperienced students and declared that we would now, henceforth, be considered sankyu, or “brown belts” in the koryu. No test. No belt change ceremony, no certificates. He had trained with us in our small group long enough to have gauged our skills intimately. He’d register our rank in the organization and that was it. It was really anticlimactic, in a way, but also in another way, kind of in keeping with a koryu kind of shibui (“astringency” of feeling and art). No big deal. You guys deserved a rank up, here you go. Now don’t let it get to your heads, let’s move on and keep training. That’s kind of the implied feeling I got.

On the other, other hand, and it’s a minor point, but I do enjoy traditional trappings of Japanese culture, and I treasure my own makimono and origami as personal, one-of-a-kind mementoes, not so much for the honors granted me, but for the spirit of my teacher embodied in them. He wished me well, and I can only hope I live up to his expectations. I look at them occasionally, to marvel at my teacher’s calligraphy, and then I put them away for safekeeping, not looking at them for months or years on end, and continue the real work of training and living.

98. The Nobility of Budo


The late Pat Nakata sensei, demonstrating Okinawan kobudo.

空手は 君主の武芸

 Karate wa kunshu no bugei (Karate is the martial art of intelligent people).

–Funakoshi Gichin

We like to think of martial arts as being egalitarian, in which ethnic or racial prejudices should hold no sway. Unfortunately, budo is a reflection of the culture it is in, and it will therefore reflect that culture’s positive as well as negative aspects, carried into the training hall. Yet, of course, budo, as a Way, a shugyo, should aim for being better than the narrow minded prejudices that negatively color the society it is bound in.

However, martial arts is not for everyone. The quote from Funakoshi Gichin, who brought Shotokan karatedo to Japan from Okinawa, reflects that sentiment. The martial art of karatedo, he thought, was for people who had the maturity and intelligence who would do credit to the art, not drag it down as a street brawling technique. It was an art for gentlemen and gentlewomen.

Funakoshi had several reasons why he made that statement., not just speaking only in a grand, philosophical way. He was trying to overcome the prejudice Mainland Japanese (Naichi) had at the time for Okinawans (Uchinanchu). Historically, the Ryukyu Islands were late to Japan’s feudal unification. It had been, in fact, its own separate kingdom, under a series of kings. When it was subsumed under the shogunate, it maintained its lineage of kings, although it became controlled by  Japan. The nature of this takeover made Okinawans, although their islands were part of Japan, treated like “second class citizens.” They weren’t “pure” Japanese, so to speak (although, as one native Japanese history buff told me, the notion that Japanese are a “pure” race is just bunk. From ancient times, and through DNA studies, the Japanese people are a mongrel race, closer to Koreans than many of them would like to think).  They were looked down upon., their art and peoples considered foreign and inferior.

When Okinawan karate masters were invited to teach karate in Japan, I am sure they were keenly aware of this ethnic prejudice. It is, therefore, probably no accident that Funakoshi was one of the first teachers to bring this art to Japan in the early 1900s. His social standing as an educated man, an elite in a society that still clung to Confucian values of respect for intelligence, gave him the social status that a better but less literate karate teacher could never hold.

Funakoshi taught first at a dormitory for students from Okinawa. Later, he set up a dojo at Keio University. Again, this was no accident. Funakoshi was trying to make karate a martial art for the intelligentsia, not just for brawlers or thugs.

That’s the historical context. In addition to that, when we look at the comment, philosophically speaking, “kunshu” can more specifically be termed “noble elite,” or, as the Nelson Dictionary translates it, “(royal) ruler.” Why did Funakoshi use that term when there no longer was a royal class to speak of, outside the main Japanese imperial family and the remnants of the old Japanese lords and Okinawan kings, who were now called “counts”?

In Okinawa, kunshu once referred to the Okinawan royalty, but the royalty relied upon an upper class of bureaucrats who served in government positions. These positions were based upon passing examinations based upon a study of the traditional Confucian classics. Thus, entrance to the intelligentsia, the elite among the Okinawans, outside of those in the royal bloodline, was based upon knowledge. A “noble elite” was a person who was versed in the wisdom of his society, his culture. In the past, it was the Confucian classics. In Funakoshi’s modern era, it was having a grasp of the Westernized education of the day. A kunshu, to Funakoshi, probably meant that nobility was gotten in these times through diligent study, a proper education, and a grounding in morals and ethical behavior reflective of those times. To go further, Funakoshi wanted karatedo to be a budo for the intelligentsia, but not just for book-smart people. By using the term kunshu, which reflected a kind of traditional nobility, he may have been saying that karatedo was for people who had  a nobility of spirit, not just of the mind.

Of course, I could be putting words into Funakoshi’s mouth that he never meant, but I do suspect that his specific use of the term kunshu meant that he wanted his beloved karatedo to be for people noble in spirit, not just for actual, blood royalty, or for heartless intelligentsia. Not everyone can avail himself of an advanced college degree, but everyone can cultivate such a spirit, no matter what one’s social standing or occupation is in society, no matter one’s race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality. When I started judo classes as a youngster, my teachers were blue collar workers: sugar plantation workers, auto mechanics, mill workers. When I joined a karate club a few years later, my first teachers were police officers. They weren’t intellectuals, university professors or upper class white collar workers. But they all carried themselves with dignity, and served as role models for me, a young man, not just for martial arts, but for life: this was what being a decent, honorable citizen was about. They brought honor to their martial arts. That honor, I think, is the nobility that Funakoshi Gichin was hoping his art would bring to people.

97. Can I play in your sandbox?

Two emails came to me regarding training in my club’s dojo, to which I replied in markedly different ways. The differences might help illuminate what I think are some of the misunderstandings among the general martial arts community about koryu budo/bujutsu.

One was from a fellow student of one of the systems I belong to, the Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu. He was going to be in town with his parents on vacation. I’ve trained with him on numerous occasions, so getting back with him again was a treat for me. I made time in my schedule and we met once, informally, in a park in Waikiki. Dressed in t-shirt and shorts, we went over some advanced kata under the shade of some overhanging trees, only a few yards from the white sand beaches of Waikiki, with my dog watching lazily. We are also going to train formally at my dojo during its regular Friday night sessions. If he had more time in his family’s schedule, I would have been more than happy to accommodate him and work in more training times. No problem. And contrary to some stereotyped notions that koryu folk are all “stuffy” and snobby, training in shorts and t-shirts was fun. And I’ve done that several times in the past with other koryu folk with no problem when that was all we had to work with. No big deal. When you’re in a park and don’t want to draw too much attention to yourselves (as if swinging around big sticks at each other didn’t look weird enough), then we would doff the keikogi and hakama and go through the movements informally to figure things out.

Another emailed request was very problematic on a number of counts. That email came from a person unknown to me, asking if she could come train at my dojo on a Sunday, the best time for her when she was coming on vacation. She introduced herself as being a student in some system I had never heard of, and she wanted to not just observe, but practice with us. As politely as possible, I informed her that we did not train on Sundays, although she was welcome to come and observe the class on a Friday night, if she had time, but jumping in and training with us would be a pretty hairy proposition. So far, I haven’t heard back from her.

Subsequently, I did an Internet search of her style, and in my opinion, decided it was what I call a “bullshit ryu.” The founder supposedly studied some offshoot of Takeuchi-ryu that I never heard of, but the photos on the school’s web site displayed nothing related to Takeuchi-ryu. So I realized that she was probably curious to see what our system looked like, since there appeared to be a tenuous relationship to her ryu. Supposedly. The images on the website, however, looked like every other mix-and-match MMA-Brazilian “ju-jits”-kurottee-judo-ahkeedo-kempo mashup that you see plastered all over the Internet, with multi-colored keikogi, arnis fighting sticks, and dubious-looking techniques.

It’s probably not her fault that she landed up in that system. From what I can see, it’s very easy to fall into such schools and, unless you have a decent grasp of what’s going on vis a vis orthodox Shinbudo systems and koryu, you may very well think what you’re doing is some kind of traditional, legitimate martial art. Or, you may not think about it at all. Hey, any studio down by the closest mall that has “self-defense” martial arts is fine. They’re all the same, right? In any case, there was no real linkage to our system that I could ferret out.

That’s the hard part. I didn’t go into details with that person because I didn’t feel like I wanted to get involved in a lengthy diatribe of why I thought her system was suspect. And unless she had a certain character and I worded the reply correctly, she may just conclude that I was just one of those “koryu snobs” that a lot of people seem to talk about on the Internet.

On the other hand, her request illuminated a lot of basic misunderstandings rife in the general public, one of which being that koryu is just another shiny new version of martial arts, just like what they see down at the strip mall karate/kung fu/Tae Kwon Do/aikido/MMA school, a professionally run, for-profit operation open all hours of many days a week. And if we do something called koryu jujutsu, why, it’s just another variation of that there “jew-jits,” as some MMA players like to call it.  Maybe just a bit stiffer and more formalized, not as “free flowing” and “rockin’” as modern “jits.” I don’t really blame her. It’s just a matter of education.

Koryu are generally not for profit. That’s not to say you are supposed to starve if you teach it, or avoid any remuneration. Even in Japan, many koryu, mine included, have a monthly dues structure, fees for promotion and advancement, and sundry requests to help with supplies and upkeep of the dojo. Some padding of the costs is included to help with my teacher’s time and teaching.

On the other hand, as one of my koryu teachers said, “I loved doing koryu as a young man but I realized I was never going to make a decent living off of it, enough to feed a family, so I went to college to learn a trade, so that I would never have to depend on teaching budo. If I were to force budo to pay for my living expenses, I would perhaps be tempted into doing some things that compromised the ryu’s integrity.”

Mind you, this is the current headmaster of a 480-year-old tradition talking. Even the family head of one of the main branches of the Takeuchi-ryu, the sodenke Takeuchi Toichiro sensei, was by profession a schoolteacher. The former head of a koryu fencing school that once taught shoguns and warlords was an elementary school teacher. And if anyone in this school should have been capable of going “pro,” it would have been people of their caliber. So some koryu will indeed charge some kind of fee. Others won’t charge anything at all. But most of the teachers don’t depend on the fees as their sole source of income.

What such teachers realized was that the allure of koryu is relatively small, the appeal limited, and the ability to extend its franchise severely curtailed by the weight of its cultural baggage and methodology. Altering some of those factors would destroy the very nature of the ryu. Even now, although my own line of the school has branch dojo in different locations in Japan and the West, the school remains miniscule compared to an international modern budo organization like aikido, Kodokan judo or modern kendo.

If it sounds like I’m denigrating such modern budo systems, I’m not. Professionalizing the teaching of karate and aikido, in particular, has allowed for a higher level of students and competitors, a greater proliferation of excellent karate and aikido schools, and a greater public profile for both. Dojo run by those professional teachers can be open more hours for students to train, encouraging a higher level of excellence and physical abilities among the students. If anything, I envy that part of modern budo schools.

But it just won’t work in a koryu, for various reasons. Chiefly, koryu has certain inherent limitations regarding their ability for expansion. And I’ll leave it at that. Now, I could be wrong. There could be a way to make a decent profit off koryu, but I haven’t yet seen it yet.

Therefore, that was one basic difference in characteristics between most koryu and modern (shinbudo) schools that the person did not recognize. We don’t train every day. I’m not a professional martial arts teacher. I have a day job. All my students work and have their own family obligations.

On the other hand, I did make the time to train with my friend, right? But we are both in the same ryu. We know the same kata, we have even worked out with each other before so we know each other’s timing and characteristics when doing kata together. We know each other’s capabilities and how far we can move up in the kata training. As a member of the same ryu, there are literally very few secrets I would withhold from him.  That’s also koryu. As my teacher remarked, “We’re not really a business; we’re more like a brotherhood (and sisterhood); once you are a member of the ryu, it’s like a budo family. We have to take care of each other.”

But because each ryu have vastly different methodologies from another ryu, to suggest just “dropping by” to train for one session is just crazy. Leaving aside the question of the legitimacy of her system, whatever she’s doing looks nothing like what we’re doing. You can call it “ju-jits” or whatever you want, but it’s not koryu jujutsu. More, it’s not Takeuchi-ryu jujutsu. Even someone doing Yagyu Shingan-ryu, or Sosuishitsu-ryu, or Tenshin Shinyo-ryu (all koryu jujutsu systems) would be out of place doing Takeuchi-ryu. You can’t just plop in there and try your hand at it. Just learning a simple an action as grabbing someone’s lapel may be different. Then how do you approach someone, how do you take a breakfall (each ryu may have a slightly different way they throw someone, leading to slightly different ways to do a breakfall), how do you kiai, what is the zanshin, what is the conceptual framework behind the attack and defense? They are all different from ryu to ryu, and markedly different from koryu to modern Shinbudo and even disastrously different from modern mix-and-match schools.

Mind you, again this is not a qualitative judgment. It may well be that the founder of that person’s bullshit-ryu stumbled across techniques that combined judo with MMA with ballroom dancing and created something totally devastating, something that would make our own efforts look antiquated and outdated. But even if that was the case, the differences in training would be so great that it just wouldn’t work. I would be spending a whole night just working with her on how to sit, walk, move, grab, and do one or two basic throws, that I would ignore the rest of my beginning students. I can’t do that without neglecting my students, and she has offered no real reason for me to do so.

Yet, had she better creds and foreknowledge, I would not begrudge anything. That’s also koryu. Once I attended a scholarly presentation of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu by Otake Risuke sensei, given at a prestigious private university just outside of Kyoto. Most of the audience was composed of university faculty, historians and professionals. Otake sensei discussed koryu and the ryu’s history, and then had his sons and students demonstrate some techniques. When it came time for questions and answers, Otake sensei got so excited and talkative that he doffed his suit and demonstrated some techniques, while still in formal dress and a tie. He would often say, “Well, to answer your question, this is the concept in our ryu…” and he would demonstrate a movement, then say, “Well, this part means this, and it’s really okuden (‘secret’ teachings) but the meaning is this…” I could just see his sons rolling their eyes. Oh man, Dad’s giving away the farm. But Otake sensei saw no qualms in discussing things openly with a respectful, knowledgeable audience of college professors.

By the same token, once a friend of a friend came to one of my school’s private embu (ritual demonstrations) as a guest. He was a foreigner who taught English at a prestigious Japanese private college, and also did Daito-ryu, a different jujutsu system. My teacher sat next to the guest during the demonstrations and happily explained some of the more arcane techniques to that person because he was respectful, curious and genuinely interested in understanding why Takeuchi-ryu was different from Daito-ryu. It wasn’t like he was going to take some of the techniques he saw and them make up his own style. He was from a legitimate ryuha with an honest curiosity.

I’ve also exchanged basic techniques with a friend from another koryu who I greatly respected. We each showed and taught each other basic forms from our ryu and explained the methodologies and meaning. Because I held him in the highest respect, and I had known him for decades as an honest, upright person, I knew he was never going to misuse what we showed him, and vice versa. We were simply very, very curious about the other’s ryu and concepts in an academic and respectful manner.  And, by that time, I had been given permission to teach, so I could make my own decisions about how and when to teach someone.

Another problem is that the person emailing didn’t seem to understand the nature of a request to observe a koryu school. We are more than happy to ask people to come in and quietly observe our classes when they show up at our dojo’s doorstep. Inquiries to observe a class, out of the blue, are always answered. Requests to train, however, are studied more scrupulously. I usually talk to a prospective trainee first to make sure the person seems to be of somewhat sane mind and body, so as not to imperil other students. I ask what other martial arts they might have done, and why they want to train with us. I want them to consider, before training, whether or not they are serious about training for a while, because making a commitment is important. I will be investing time and effort with them where I could be spending time with other students. If you just want one or two sessions to get “a feel” of the system, it’s really not worth my effort. Sorry, but I don’t have the time or inclination for that. I’m not getting younger and I need to parcel out my time judiciously.  So maybe after one or two months, you figure that it’s not working out, and it’s not for you. At least you made the effort. You didn’t just bop in and bop out after two or three sessions, like how some people I’ve tried to train do, wasting my time. It just didn’t work out. Too bad, end of story.

It was good of the person to note her previous training. If she had said she had done some recognized shinbudo with a reputable organization, or trained in another koryu, I would have been honored to let her watch my class. Still, maybe not train. But observing is fine, if she could make it to our Friday night session. But a scan of her ryu’s web site led me to believe that its legitimacy was suspect. The problem with people from such systems is that they fall into two general categories: One is the “loyal follower”: the student truly believes what he/she is doing is legitimate, historically speaking, and is a decent, honest practitioner simply seeking more knowledge, but is duped by the ryu’s leader(s). The other is the person who foisted such falsehoods, and the further I am away from such people, the better. Their only goal would be to get their pictures taken with me to establish a kind of photographic record to legitimize themselves, or to purloin training methodologies so they can add it to their mashups.  I’ve encountered a couple of both types online and in person. The former are often genuinely nice people who had the disadvantage of being swindled. There’s no shame in that, swindlers are good at swindling. I’ve seen and encountered my own share of swindlers. They just strike me as slime-balls, people with something missing in their moral compass.

So can you come play in my sandbox? Well, sure. But do you have cooties?

Seriously, you can, sort of. But before you can, do you really know how to play in MY sandbox, because my sandbox is not like your sandbox. And are you going to steal my toy soldiers and sand to fill up your own sandbox, or are you going to share your toys with me, i.e., your time and effort, respect and appreciation, or is it all a one-way, selfish street where you just take things away? Then why would I want you to play with me in my sandbox?

96. Kata Classification in Koryu

One of the things I had to wrap my head around when I started to do koryu after over a decade of training in shinbudo (the more “modern” martial Ways) was that there were different levels of kata.

Judo, for example, may have harder kata forms that are meant for more advanced study, but they are not clearly demarcated. Nage No Kata can be considered by some teachers to be more applicable to beginners than Ju No Kata, but there really is no formal restriction that keeps beginners from learning the latter, more complex, subtle form. Nor are any of the individual techniques taught in a stratified, restrictive manner; rather they are simply taught from the easiest and most applicable to the more individualistic and complex, according to the individual instructor or the necessities of testing and ranking. In large part, this must have been influenced by Kano Jigoro’s approach to education and pedagogy. He was, besides the creator of modern Kodokan judo (and hence a distant ancestor who laid down the basic DNA for all modern grappling arts influenced by judo), one of Japan’s most important public school educators at the turn of the 20th Century. Kano embraced the open, facts-based, inquiring nature of Western educational theory. Besides training sessions, he would hold lectures on the philosophy, theory and mechanics of judo. By his actions, we see that Kano believed in disseminating knowledge; not just within the new Kodokan style but also distilling important information from the various different jujutsu ryu before they faded away, taking their knowledge with them. He wanted to open up education.

Also, too, karatedo had kata but no real hierarchical structure as I’m about to describe. Some kata were harder, more technically complex, but once you reached a certain level of ability, you would conceivably be able to learn all of them per the judgment of your teacher. I suspect this may have arisen from the very different nature of traditional Okinawan arts compared to traditional Japanese arts. As an Okinawan karate friend related to me, from his interviews with very old karate sensei in Okinawa, before the consolidation of the kata into specific “ryu,” karate was taught more like how the art of sanshin (Okinawan “shamisen,” or three-stringed musical instrument that strikes me as a kind of Asian banjo) was taught. You apprenticed yourself to a master and learned that master’s specialty, perhaps two or three songs that he’s famous for singing. In the same way, you’d study under a karate teacher and learn perhaps two or three kata and the basics. When you reach a certain level, the teacher may tell you, “Okay, you have learned as much as you can from me. Now go study under my friend in the next village. He’ll teach you his own special kata (or song, if it was sanshin),” and off you’d go to work on a couple more kata. Pretty soon, after making the rounds of different teachers, you end up with your own specialty or flavor and start your own little school (a karate or sanshin club), or you would decide you’d rather not be a teacher and go back to studying under a teacher that you really like and whose style and emphasis you want to emulate.

With modern kendo, the standardized Kendo Kata were established by a committee for grading purposes. Everyone learns them for ranking. There’s no “secret” kata only for higher ranks. There is, therefore, only one level and you are judged by your performance per that open and widely understood parameters.

With the koryu, however, there are different ryu whose methods are so different that you can’t compare and contrast one person’s technical abilities directly with another person. Some of the gross body movements may be similar, but the execution and direction, the timing and intent of similar-looking cuts and strikes may be totally at odds from school to school. So I can understand why, in casting about for a standardized set of kata that would unify kendo players or iaido practitioners, you need a system that would hold everyone to the same form and application.

But beyond that, within each koryu ryuha, there are classifications of kata based on your ability to absorb the teachings, on a technical physiological level, and on a mental/theoretical level. Grossly speaking, I am referring to what are called the Shoden, Chuden and Okuden levels of kata.

You will find these general stratifications in all traditional Japanese arts, from music to Noh drama, to flower arrangement to tea ceremony. They may be named differently but the basic concept of levels of stratification remains the same.

In the Urasenke School of Tea, for example, you have Nyumon, a primary certification that allows you to learn the most basic temae, or tea forms (which we could equate to martial kata), then you quickly move from these basics to Konarai (literally, “little teachings”). These lay the foundation skills in the temae. Then, generally speaking, you have Shikaden; an intermediary set of temae, and Okuden, the forms not published or openly taught. What you can be taught depends on your “ranking,” which is  somewhat aligned to the level of temae, but not quite exactly, especially at the upper end of the temae.

In most koryu forms, the foundation level kata are classified as shoden, meaning “beginning teachings.” Quite obviously, shoden kata are taught to beginners, and are the simplest to learn, easiest to grasp, rudimentary kata. These kata can also be called Shin (“formal, concise”) or “Omote” (“outward”).

Chuuden, or chuden (just matter of translating the pronunciation into English) are “middle teachings.” They are intermediary in complexity. They can also be called “Gyo” ( “Running”) as opposed to the stiffer, more stylized “Shin.” Sometimes they are called “Ura,” as in “the other side of Omote”).

Okuden, or “hidden” teachings are often referred to as “secret teachings.” While they are limited only to the initiated, the meaning of okuden is not so much “secret” as it is “far in the back or remote part, of a training hall.” In other words, these forms are taught in the far end of a dojo, away from prying eyes at the entrance, in the oku, or deepest recesses of the room. There are also references to this level as being “Soh” of the Shin/Gyo/Soh classification. This is derived from the three levels of Japanese calligraphy, which correspond roughly to structured, angular writing (Shin), more free-flowing script (Gyo) and the hardest: very spontaneous, expressive, free flowing writing (Soh).

In a sense, if you look at the geomantic symbolism, shoden techniques taught when you just have a foot in the door of the dojo. Chuuden are when you are fully engaged and committed to the school, and you are training right in the “middle” of the dojo. Okuden is  taught way back in the remotest part of the dojo, taught when you are ready to plumb the depths of the ryu.

There are good reasons why this stratification of kata exist in koryu, and also good reasons why they perhaps shouldn’t in modern shinbudo. The reasons range from the practical (if you have over 450 kata, you’ve got to categorize them in some way or you will have information overload and it all will be a jumble of too many kata!; and cataloging them according to technical/mental complexity is a really logical, intuitive way) to the financial (by charging a fee to be licensed to learn each level, the teacher and the school has a progressive stream of income).

Philosophically speaking, I think modern budo does not like to deal with this Shoden/Chuden/Okuden demarcation because of Kano Jigoro’s influence as a progressive educator. He wanted to modernize traditional jujutsu and he therefore eschewed the secrecy involved in the classification. You learned the techniques and kata when you are able to learn it, and you don’t need a certificate or pay an additional fee to do so. When you have no secrets, then everything is an “open book,” and everyone can contribute to studying the techniques, refining them, and possibly retooling them to work better in contests and training bouts. Hence, you will not see any such classification in judo kata, kendo kata, or karate kata, that I am aware of.

There are also secondary classifications. Betsuden (meaning “separate from the tradition) is a class of kata that are derived from outside the primary, original teachings. You can also call these kata Bangai (“stuff outside”), or Bette (“Separate Hands, i.e., separate techniques). They may have been devised by a headmaster or master instructor based upon existing techniques and then made part of the curriculum, or they may have been grafted onto the system by exposure to another ryu, perhaps in a case where a headmaster studied under a different ryu for a while and received a teaching license and then returned to his former system but wanted to retain what he learned.

Within the Okuden, there are also discreet levels. Their names vary depending on the ryu. Of the ones I am aware of, you have Shinden (kata whose origins are directly inspired by a spiritual vision by the founder, or his lineal successors), Soden (the original kata devised by the founder), Oku-iri (kata that introduces you to the okuden), and so on. Different ryu will have different ways to subcategorize their kata.

The danger I see, however, is mixing the two systems of teaching up. Trying to introduce the Shoden/Chuden/Okuden into modern shinbudo doesn’t make sense. The ship already left the harbor. You can’t change the teaching methodology without messing up the entire integrity of the system. So a koryu wannabe karate studio really shouldn’t just make up classifications for the sake of charging more money for teaching an “advanced” kata like Wanshu or Bassai Dai because the teacher read about it in my blog and thought, “Hey! More money!”

Likewise, breaking apart the classifications to “modernize” koryu just makes no sense. The classifications are there for very good reasons, not the least of which is that it establishes a progressive learning system that makes sense of a full, rich curriculum.

Within the Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu of my teacher, Ono Yotaro, the attainment of a certain level allows you to first learn certain okuden kata that are called Soden, kata passed down from the founder for over four centuries. When receiving permission to learn these forms, your certificate only lists the names in cryptic, often confusing Chinese characters that give very little clue to their meaning. There are no written explanations to how these methods are done. You are taught these methods only one night a year, on the anniversary of Takeuchi Hisamori, the founder’s death. After other students receive their rank promotions, all the assembled students above a certain rank gather in the dim moonlight and firelight, on the side of a mountain that overlooks Kyoto, and we cooperatively teach the techniques to the newly inducted. Each of us reviews the methods, then we let the newly promoted a chance to try the techniques out, and we go over them, one after another, under the quiet and watchful eyes of our headmaster. In that way, the tradition is passed on from us to each other, as we learn to teach, and the new ones learn the absorb the teachings, in a truly traditional, exclusive manner.

I thought that everything I had been taught at the Shoden and Chuuden level, and even at the first Okuden levels, were now evident as techniques to prepare me for this moment. And yet, the techniques were at first baffling to me. They were simpler, faster, more…dare I say it?…upfront and powerful than anything I had been previously taught. Some of the techniques were so fast and brutal, they negated anything I learned in the previous categories. Yet, perhaps had I NOT been trained towards that moment, what seemed simpler may have been impossible for me to perform even half-way decently because the seeming simplicity hid, quite possibly, precise techniques that would not be possible for me to do without prior training. I know, this paragraph seems confusing. Perhaps it’s because I’m still digesting the implications of learning the Soden and Shinden methods. They were so different, yet so similar, that it felt like a whole new world opened up to my understanding of the ryu.

In a way, too, as you progress from one level to another, from Shoden to Chuuden, your understanding of the methods also change, and at that stage, no doubt they also appear as radical a change of view as what I experienced that night. As I tell my students, think of Shoden as going to elementary school and learning how to write the alphabets. You really need to go through this stage to become literate, and you have to keep practicing. But you also have to graduate from elementary school one day and move on to middle school, and high school, and eventually to Okuden, which is like college. Shinden or Soden? That’s like graduate school and you’re going to get a Ph.D. But if you can’t write, you can’t get very far at all, let alone even the intermediate level.

95. Reminder on Blog Forum Etiquette

All: things have gotten strangely heated up lately, and before this blows up, a gentle reminder:

Please refer to these guidelines:

25 Forum Posting Etiquette Tips

Forum Posting Etiquette

A couple other reminders:

–I am approaching Japanese budo (martial Ways) from a particular point of view that may be interesting by way of contrast or similarities to other budo, or even other koryu systems, for that matter. As for non-Japanese or more modern systems, I have no expertise or experience, so let’s make that clear.

–If the word count of your total postings are more than my blog entries, then perhaps you need to have your own blog.

–Since this is a blog about classic budo training, if you want a forum to discuss how great MMA or other modern systems are, or the worn-out tired comparison between competitive versus kata training, I suggest you find another blog. It’s like the flame wars I see on some Macintosh sites, between Windows and Mac fans. It won’t change anybody’s mind if you constantly call people idiots who disagree with you. And people are on Mac sites because they like Macs, so don’t poke the denizens of that zoo needlessly. That’s like fellow high school kids I saw once who teased a gorilla in a zoo. They even made fun of him when he began to poke a pile of feces and look their way, obviously annoyed. The teenage boys thought he was an idiot, a dumb beast and kept calling him names. The laugh turned on them when the gorilla suddenly flung the feces right at his taunters, hitting them in the face and chest. On the way home from the excursion, other students made fun of the students for being dumber than a “dumb animal.”

–Feel free to disagree with me or anyone else, but note the posting etiquette tips. Calling someone names or belittling another person sight unseen is rude. Agree to disagree, point out your reasons, and see if your logic wins, not your own personal emotions. And if both sides can’t reach a conclusion, then just leave it and agree to disagree.

–Consider your actions: would your sensei approve, or your parents? By your actions and words, you represent your teacher and your school. Please act accordingly.

94: Tatamu and Musubu: Folding and Tying Your Gear

Have you ever thought that you could get a glimpse of the attitude and philosophy of a dojo with the way people handle putting away and putting on their gear? Granted, it’s not a major indicator, but it is an interesting way to observe how that dojo and the people in it functions.

I mention this because I’m thinking about my own club and some of the students’ lack of attention to such matters, and something that happened some years ago that brought this point into focus for me. First, the latter incident:

I had been invited to teach some very basic sword methods to a friend’s aikido class for youngsters. The class was fun, the kids got to play with pointy wooden objects, and I got to work with a totally different bunch of people. It was, all in all, a very enjoyable experience. Class ended, and as was my usual habit, I wandered off into a corner to take off my hakama and keikogi. Immediately, one of my friend’s senior black belts rushed up to offer to fold my hakama for me. I demurred several times, but the student kept insisting, and my friend finally had to intercede on his behalf. That was how he trained his students to pay respect to higher ranking teachers, he said. Plus, they learn how to fold up and stow (tatamu) a hakama properly.

I relented and let the student fold my hakama, not wishing to break his dojo’s traditions. It was their dojo and their customs. The student did a wonderful job folding the hakama and tying up the cords, giving it to me in a very nice rectangular, compact shape. I thanked him and he was very happy.

As soon as I got home, I shook the folded hakama open and refolded it my way. It wasn’t just because the “aikido way” of folding a hakama is different from the way I idiosyncratically folded my gear. In my own dojo, every individual is responsible for his stowing his own gear, higher ranking members and teachers included. It just felt wrong for me to leave the hakama like that, folded by someone else. Who knows, he might have slipped a poisonous snake inside its folds? Paranoid? Yep. You bet. That’s koryu thinking. We’re a bunch of deluded paranoid crazies.

There’s no wrong or right here, but really just different mentalities, and one which quite possibly illustrates a divide between modern (gendai) budo and koryu bujutsu (older martial systems). In that aikido class, the tradition of folding your teachers’ and sempai’s hakama reinforces a structural hierarchy and uniformity of methodology. It emphasizes the order of higher to lower ranking, consideration of the instructor, and mutual respect. Possibly the interaction builds personal connections between the lower ranking and the higher ranking members, while retaining the hierarchy, an important aspect in aikido, especially when you want to inculcate respect for elders and social etiquette in youngsters. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it’s a laudable custom.

In the koryu that I have trained in, however, nobody gets to handle somebody else’s dogi (training outfits) to put away or take out, or for that matter, no one touches another person’s training weapons without permission. This is, I will admit, probably stemming from a paranoid tradition among the bugeisha who used to train in the earliest koryu arts, and most likely comes from their hereditary warrior mentality. When donning a keikogi, you should learn to put it on yourself and take it off yourself, the better to be completely sure that you have cinched it on just right for your body so it doesn’t fall apart in the middle of practice. And when folding your outfit for storage after practice, you usually want to fold it yourself so you know exactly how it was folded, so that when you put it on again, you can very quickly don it without being caught, literally, with your pants down, trying to figure out how to don it.

That is why I recently mentioned to my students that they should really not spend a lot of time gabbing with each other when they are changing into their keikogi. Being half-dressed is really a poor position to counter an attack, so the faster you change, the better, then you can talk story all you want before practice starts. But don’t do it and extend the time you have with your pants down and you’re just in your boxer shorts.

That sense of real and mental preparedness also filters down to weapons. When they are stored away, each person is responsible for bagging his own dogu (tools). In iai, for me, it’s a practical matter. Before I store my iaito, I check the handle and blade, make sure the pin that holds the blade in the handle is secure in the socket, and then oil down my own sword. I don’t let anyone else do it because it’s my responsibility to make sure the weapon is in proper shape and not liable to breaking or falling apart the next time I train. Then I wrap my sageo around the handle of the sword in a particular knot (musubikata) that is characteristic of my ryu. It may be that someone may be able to figure out the knot, undo it, fool around with my sword, and then retie it, but the tie at least will give some pause to anyone attempting to disturb it or alter its condition.

I liken it to modern soldiering, where each soldier is responsible for keeping his personal gear and weaponry in top shape. You don’t let someone else break down and clean your rifle before you go out on patrol, least of all someone who might be lax in his attention to details. You do it yourself, you make sure the weapon is secure, properly oiled and properly sighted for your own personal preferences, because having a weapon that will not jam on you due to someone else’s laziness will literally be the difference between your life or death. And even if someone does do you a courtesy of prepping your gear, it’s really a good idea to double check the magazine and rounds, and make sure the machinery is working before going out on your patrol.

Now, adhering strictly to these dojo rules is not going to make a practitioner any “better” at “fightin’” and “grapplin’” and mixing it up, perhaps. It doesn’t make you a better MMA fighter or tougher dude. No way. But they do address the mentality of the koryu, and paying attention to such details are, I believe, an attempt to inculcate not just a physical, but also a mental preparedness, a way of thinking, so to speak.

In terms of “self-defense” or “martial” ability, there is only a limited degree that physical training can count for. The rest is mental attitude. One can study and intellectualize about this, and read any number of excellent books on the nature of real combat, physical confrontation and survival by authors who I have recommended and quoted in the past, but you still have to cultivate a mentality that isn’t superficial or skin deep. And part of it is developing that kind of attitude from the moment you step into the dojo: being observant, being careful, and being watchful. Being attentive to your surroundings, and being prepared with your equipment.

So, tatamikata, the way you fold things: Old Japanese residences (and even new apartment rooms) have very little closet space, comparatively speaking. And what little there is is taken up by linens and futon bedding that are stowed away during the day. In the “old days,” that meant that a lot of your clothes were folded and stowed, not hung up on clothes hangers. Kimono were, however, put on racks to air them out, sometimes over an incense burner to smoke away some nasty body odor, but as soon as they were deemed ready, they were folded. The verb, tatamu, denotes a kind of folding in an orderly manner (you can “tatamu” flat a cardboard box, for example, or “tatamu” a complex folded paper craft item; the verb is also, I think, a root for the word tatami, the reed mats, that are flat and rectangular. You can tatamu tatami by piling them up, one on top of the other), so the clothing wasn’t just smashed flat. They were folded to best take advantage of naturally occurring seams and places where folds were expected to appear, to lie as flat as possible in a neat package, so that they could be put away in a chest with room for more items on top or beside them. Although each dojo will claim they have the “right” way to fold a keikogi and hakama, actually I’ve experienced several different “right” ways. So the only advice I can give is that you do it the way your dojo’s sempai do it. We do it differently from aikido folk, who do it differently from Shinto Muso-ryu folk, and so on. I don’t think it’s a really big deal. As long as it is “properly” folded and stowed, it shows proper dojo etiquette. (I will admit a mea culpa, however, to just throwing my hakama into my gym bag at the end of class sometimes and then carefully folding it up when I get home, after I air it out overnight. I have to do this in order to get back home, over a mountain range, just a few minutes earlier to make dinner before it’s too late in the evening. Here, family responsibilities trump neatness.)

As for musubikata, how you tie things up: How you tie up your cords and clothes gets into kitsuke, the way to properly dress in a kimono, which is a subject by itself. But often, you will stow away equipment that has bags or accessories that require some kind of knot. Again, this goes back to premodern Japanese culture, when there weren’t much in the way of zippers or buttons. Everything was cinched and knotted. Even in the West, knowing how to tie things up was one of those skills that came with daily life, whether on a boat or in the woods, like how to start a fire without modern fire-starting chemicals and charcoal brickettes. We’ve just forgotten a lot of it unless we were in the Boy Scouts or have sailing experience. It’s really not all that esoteric and exotic, except that for me, tying anything other than a bow and a square knot drives me crazy. I’m still having fits learning all the intricate and symbolic knotting that goes into tea ceremony.

With budo, there are fewer instances of tying things up, but you do need to tie up your cloth belt, your hakama cords, and so on. With weaponry, there are bags that need proper knotting, and that pesky sageo cord on the scabbard of an iai sword can just drive you crazy. Again, the different schools of iai will have you cinch up your hakama and sageo in different ways for practice. But stowing away the gear may also require some tying techniques.

When I first started iai in Japan, students in the Seitei Iai (Standardized, Modern iai) classes took off their sageo because it was too troublesome to deal with. Then one year when I returned, I was asked, “Hey, where’s your sageo????” So all of a sudden, we had to use the sageo, like the older koryu. So it goes.

Because the sageo was, in a way, reintroduced to Seitei Iai, dealing with it when the iaito was stowed away had to be reevaluated. Some of my sempai simply wrapped it around the hilt and stowed the sword in their carrying bags. Then more students tied it down to the length of the saya (scabbard). What I do with my own sword is tie it up in a particular pattern of knots that secures the sword into the scabbard. It looks complex, so someone who does not know how it was tied would have a hard time undoing it and then rewrapping it, but it is easy to tie up quickly, and it can be undone and the sword ready for use very, very quickly. It is an affectation of mine that I do not require of my students. I only tell them to stow their sword and sageo neatly, show them some basic methods. If they want to do it my way, I tell them, as my teacher did, that they have to just watch me do it and learn how to “steal” my techniques: learn by observation and trial and error.

The thing of it is, if all this was good for was to prepare you for fighting or combat, then the koryu would have disappeared long ago when the weaponry involved became supplanted by guns and more sports-oriented, exciting modern martial arts. But I think that attention to detail, to mindfulness, is in itself part of the active meditative shugyo (spiritual discipline) that makes the koryu so attractive to many people. As a practical consideration, nobody goes around with a long sword stuck in their belts for self-defense, after all. Or even a six-foot staff while going shopping for groceries. But as an art and a shugyo, the koryu still manage to convey relevant information about one’s state of mind, one’s attitudes, and one’s abilities in physical health, spatial awareness, and mental preparedness. These generalized traits are of immense service not just for combative purposes, but in everyday life. Paying attention to how you fold your hakama and tie and stow your weapons are part of that shugyo, not just an afterthought.

93. Sempai: The Treasures of the Dojo

In any dojo, the sensei, the main teacher, is the central pillar. He sets the pace, level and atmosphere. But if the sensei is the central pillar in the grand tent of a training hall, the treasures are good sempai; senior students.

I use that adjective of “good” because mediocre ones or lackadaisical ones really don’t matter much, one way or another, and bad ones are destructive of the dojo environment, causing a degeneration in training quality even if the teacher has all the best intentions. I’ve experienced all three types of sempai both as a student and a teacher.

First, some definitions: sempai is a Japanese term meaning one’s seniors in an educational or work environment. In public schools, for example, a sempai can be a student of your own high school who graduated a couple of years ahead of you. He will always be your sempai, no matter what, because of his/her seniority to you, and you are the kohai, or junior student. It is also used in an office environment, such as if a fellow clerk has more experience than you in the same position by some years, or even months or weeks. In martial arts, therefore, a sempai is someone who has been training longer than you.

It tracks, somewhat, the levels of ranking, although not quite entirely. Students who rise up quickly to surpass more senior students may have a higher rank, but in the Japanese frame of mind, that still won’t make you sempai to the more experienced student who may not be as technically and athletically talented. This has implications which I’ll get into later.

Being a sempai is a fluid, dynamic position dependent on individual relationships within the group. You can be sempai to one person, but a kohai to another. Think of it like being an older brother to a younger sibling, but a younger brother to an older sibling. It’s your place in the hierarchy of who showed up first.

Because of the relative nature of being a sempai, I found it curious when a friend of mine returned from a seminar he gave to a karate group. He said he was somewhat taken aback when, at a dinner hosted by the club, the sensei gave out “sempai” certificates, with “sempai” patches that the students could stick on their training outfits, along with the usual belt promotions. I guess the teacher figured out another money stream by devising the sempai “ranks” and patches. But it really makes no sense, because you can be a sempai to one person and a kohai to another. Then again, I’ve seen “sempai” patches affixed to the sleeves of karate students in other organizations, so, well, maybe I’m behind the times and need to get with the newfangled schemes to make more side money.

The thing with being a sempai is that, in general, you are expected to have a wider knowledge of the workings of the group from your more extensive experience, even if it’s but a month or two more than your nearest kohai. Beyond the basic technical expertise of the system, you know what went on before, in the past, before the newbies showed up. You know where the skeletons are in the closet, so to speak. And that knowledge is constantly being built up as you add to it, year after year, with additional experiences. As you age and mature, you also bring to bear your personal, professional and other experiences as well, rounding out your knowledge with what we can describe as a kind of wisdom, a view of the wider implications of what you are pursuing within the dojo. It comes with age, and it comes with maturity. That doesn’t quite exactly correlate with technical expertise, you see. So getting old is generally a pain the rear end, but at least age should give you a more mature outlook on life. Perhaps.

Within a dojo, therefore, you could be a 30-year-old and sempai to a 60-year-old new student, because you know more about the dojo and its workings than the beginner. On the other hand, being his sempai in martial arts doesn’t necessarily make him your kohai in other things outside the dojo. He could be an experienced medical doctor and you could be just finishing up medical school, so in that case, he’s your sempai when it comes to the professional world. So you see how relative being a sempai is? That’s why I’m not so sure patches that declare you a “sempai” are really appropriate. One person’s sempai is another person’s kohai. And that same kohai of yours could be a sempai to you in some other endeavor.

Another misunderstanding might be the role of a sempai. Primarily, having the designation over other newbie students is not like having carte blanche to bully them, abuse them, or denigrate them. In Japanese culture, a sempai is like an older brother or sister. And that means an observant and protective older brother, and you assume huge responsibilities, not privileges. You have to make sure the newbies are learning properly, they have the proper attire, they are following the proper etiquette. If they screw up, it’s as much your fault as it is theirs because they were supposed to have been prepped by you.

Wait, you say. Isn’t all that teaching the role of the teacher? Yes and no. A teacher sets the standards, yes, but as a student progresses, he should also be internalizing the technical, social and etiquette aspects of the dojo so that he also expresses them. Sempai become roles models, like the main sensei, and they assume teaching responsibilities both informally and formally. As sempai mature, the teacher can focus less on the minutiae of some basic technical skills and dojo formalities and move on to teach more advanced processes to students. If the teacher is forever pulling back in order to teach everyone at all different levels, that’s not the optimum use of his time or energy, when sempai should shoulder some of the burden and help with the teaching.

In educational theory classes, I learned the sempai-kohai relationship is very much like a peer relationship between students. Many people think pedagogy is one to many; one teacher is the sole arbiter and instructor to many children in the class, but close observation of successful classrooms show that students with more skill and experiences augment learning by helping other students. In a classroom of homogenous-aged students, it’s not so much sempai-kohai but those with skills helping those with lesser skills “get it.” In a Japanese environment, it extends beyond one’s peer group to include those senior to you and junior to you in a learning environment who help you with your training and education.

In educational theory, the best type of learning occurs when you have not only a healthy teacher to student(s) relationship, but you also have peer to peer teaching, or what one of my educational professors (Ann Bayer), called “collaborative apprenticeship” learning. It’s not just one-to-many (one sensei to many students), it’s a multifaceted many-to-many.

In my own ryu, good sempai are a necessity. My main teacher and his top students do not make a full time living teaching martial arts. They have successful professional careers, and there are times when they have to miss regular training dates. My teacher is a landscape architect, and he has enough sempai to carry through any training days he may miss without worry. Likewise, his top two students in Japan who run dojo in Tokyo are high-level officials in the banking industry and non-government organizations, so they, too, rely on sempai to cover for them when work precludes training.

Sempai are, indeed, treasures in these cases, because they build up a level of expertise and knowledge that is not dependent solely on one person, one teacher. They also are, in a way, training to become sensei of their own dojo, so being sempai is a step along the way to that independence. Not that every sempai wants to be his own teacher with his own dojo, but they should be training towards having that ability in case something happens to their sensei.

Bad sempai tend to see their roles more as an ego thing, not so much a responsibility to shepherd the newbies along. I was in one very small group whose teacher was one of the finest gentlemen I ever had the privilege of studying under. But at the time, his senior students were a volatile mix. On days when the teacher couldn’t make it to practice, the senior students tried to lead the class. Inevitably, it used to lead to heated arguments between two of them, with them yelling and swearing at each other at the top of their lungs, and the third senior just playing passive-aggressive and wandering off to practice by his own self in a corner. I loved that sensei. I couldn’t stand the sempai, so I left the group.

I’ve also seen indifferent sempai. They don’t really harm the dojo, but they don’t contribute in any meaningful way. They are in it to train themselves, and don’t look much past that to helping other students. For them, even though they’ve had years of exposure to their teacher, they still infantilize their own selves and look to the teacher for every piece of guidance and teaching, and don’t understand the responsibilities that come with being a senior member.

It vexes me, but it’s not something a teacher can easily correct, like a problem in a kata. That’s because you have to correct the way a person perceives his entire world and how he fits into it. It’s not just how they interact in a budo setting, it’s how they of interact with other people in any social environment. Some people tend to be good sempai and some don’t because some very naturally accept responsibility and some just shuck it off. Is the attitude one of give me, give me, give me, or is it a mutual give and take?

I’ve also been blessed by and large with some very good examples of sempai, too numerous to list individually, both in Japan and in the States. They have been sempai to me, and I have managed to train up some good sempai. The sempai to me have given me insights and subtle details to the budo I study that often are glossed over by the sensei. Through their guidance, I’ve managed to deepen my grasp of those arts.

I was also lucky to have cultivated several senior students of mine who are great examples of sempai. Unfortunately, they moved on after reaching a higher level of expertise because they were also burdened with personal and professional responsibilities. To the ones who are most capable, go the most responsibilities.

It’s not a cultural thing. The good sempai I am discussing are both Japanese natives and non-Japanese. One of my own sempai that I trained, who I ended up treating like a younger brother, went on to be a kind of sempai in his military career. After three tours of Afghanistan, including leading his own cadre of soldiers and training them to survive under his leadership, he’s now Stateside training a whole new generation of soldiers in his role as a sempai of soldiering. But he has those skills. When he trained with me, he watched, listened, learned. He learned the techniques of the school, but also he paid careful attention to how I positioned myself while teaching, how I mentioned some things in an offhanded way as a suggestion but he picked up my tone of voice to understand the deeper implications and expressions, how I worked with the students and tried to make them focus on particular aspects. He absorbed all those things internally and became an embodiment of the ryu, not just a decent but superficial mimic. He took all those skills of observation and learning and applied them in a life-threatening arena.

Can the system of sempai-kohai be abused? Certainly, as the example of the yelling sempai demonstrates. I have heard of some professional martial arts instructors making their senior students teach classes for free, without any remuneration, as a kind of “training” to be a sempai. That’s taking advantage of captive labor, if it is overused. Abuses of this system abound, even in Japan. But the case is more often that having a good group of sempai in a dojo is a boon. They add to the entire learning environment, they enhance the sensei’s teaching, and they give the newer students alternative ways to understand a lesson. Good sempai are a treasure, and should be nurtured.