25. Hataraki…ad-libbing in kata training

Sometimes things just don’t go as you planned it. Or, as the Scottish poet Robert Burns would say, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley (often go astray).”

In my last blog, I stressed the importance of repetitious training in order to be “natural.” Kata training is really glorified repetitive drill training (well, it’s more than that, but mainly it’s drilling) that is supposed to embed movements and reactions into your body and mind so that you don’t need to spend precious amounts of time cogitating over whether or not to block, say, a sword stroke at your head or scream like a little girl and just die. Hopefully, through such training, you won’t curl up and die should the actual time arise.

On the other hand, you may have trained incessantly for a specific action, but when the time comes, the situation is not quite right and your technique needs to be altered in order for it to work. For martial artists who have a component of training with a resistive partner (as in “sparring”), “catch as catch can” action-reaction is nearly second nature. No partner is going to let you apply that choke hold perfectly without resistance in judo mat work, for instance. So you improvise. For kata-based training, however, developing this ability to improvise is a bit more problematic, but still important nevertheless. Not everyone is going to come at you with a perfect forward-leaning stance so you can throw him magnificently in a kote-gaeshi, for example.  In a self-defense situation, you may have to improvise a lot to get that throw to work.

Although in kata geiko (“forms” training) it’s best to try to perfect the kata as is, unless the practitioner is aware of the possibility of your partner “breaking” the form and going at you in a different way, you’re just going through the motions. You don’t have the right frame of mind of being focused on executing the right counter to the right attack. That’s why solo kata exercises are great for developing your own stance, balance and timing, but it’s a good idea to also include partner-based training or some form of free exchange. For kata based systems, going overboard with “free exchange” might taint the style with too much emphasis on sports budo. But sans that, working in kata with different partners who have different heights, weights, timing and attack patterns are a decent way to develop the ability to adjust one’s form.

Thus, if you look at the few solo-type kata styles, such as iaido, karatedo or even a Chinese art like Tai Chi Ch’uan, the solo exercises are always augmented in some way with partner-based training. You never know what a partner will think of doing, even in a regulated exercise. Your distancing, angles of counter and attacks will change according to one’s partners.

The ability to improvise is not absent in traditional Japanese budo. It’s there, but most beginners don’t know about it because the emphasis in the beginning is on getting the form right. Later, when the “form” is inherent in your moves, you should be able to “break” the form yet still move within the framework of what you learned in the style.

Let me explain by drawing on a term and examples from a different art, the Way of Tea, or chanoyu. Japanese tea ceremony is concerned with seemingly infinite minutiae of details of movements and timing. Many of my tea teachers hammer me incessantly in practice if my arms are just one degree to high or too low when I’m holding the tea whisk. Each temae, or form of tea, has to follow very rigid steps, rules and movements. Yet, when you host an actual tea event, a chakai or chaji, any number of things can go wrong, throwing your performance off kilter. What do you do? You can’t very well tell the guest, “Oh, well, this room is not the right size for the amount of steps I’m supposed to take to get to the kettle, so I’m cancelling the ceremony.”

No. You improvise. You take smaller or larger steps, or you add or subtract the amount of steps you take. The hot water in the kettle may not be hot enough for the tea when you start your temae, so you slow down your preparation to let the water heat up before you scoop the tea and add the hot water. In tea, this is called hataraki, a word from the Japanese verb for “work.” Literally, you “work” the problem out. You improvise.

It’s assumed that by the time you’re capable of putting on a chakai, you have had enough experience in practice and in assisting at other people’s chakai to learn how to improvise, or do hataraki, when things don’t go as planned. In kata training, the same attitude holds true. You should have enough training to eventually improvise should the moment call for it.

Be careful, however, how you try to improvise in kata training. There’s a good way and a really, really bad way. A bad way is to use it as a kind of one-upmanship, to show how you can tag your partner who is trying to learn a kata properly when you don’t follow the kata form yourself.  Sometimes that will work and you can feel superior to your partner. Sometimes it can backfire very, very badly.

One of my acquaintances once told me of a time when a training partner had come at him during a complex kata and deliberately swung his bokken (wooden sword) at his head at the wrong time, in the wrong way. The bokken was coming fast and furious. My friend, who had decades of training, reacted by instinct. His jo (short staff) went up from a low position where it should have been to block the expected low strike, it whipped the bokken away and the tip came down square on the partner’s head, literally right between the eyes. Bam. The partner went down like a ton of bricks, on his rear end, nearly unconscious.

A better way, perhaps, would have been if his partner had said, look, let’s take apart this kata at half-speed. I’m going to “break” the kata at some points and react in a different way that might still make sense, tactically, and let’s see if we can figure out alternative defenses and attacks? Let’s work on this together.

Such an investigation might have led to insights as to why the kata was set up the way it is.

In solo kata like in karatedo, you might take apart a form, say such as Annanko, and say, okay, sensei’s bunkai here is that it’s a turn and block against a punch from someone attacking to your rear. But what if the guy in front of you holds your arm? What if it’s not a punch but a kick? How would I improvise as I am turning? …And then you work it out at half speed first, trying to see what works, what won’t.  Stick to the theory of the kata but change your reaction. So for example, if you turn and use a chuudan uke, maybe you turn the same way but try a gedan barai uke. Does the theory of turning and blocking still work? Can you improvise with what you know about body turning, balance and deflection blocks?

The fact that not all opponents will react the same way impelled many kata-based systems to add what are called henka, or variations, to their basic kata. That also explains, at least in my own jujutsu school, why we have so many kata. Actually, we have a limited set of body movements; it’s just that over the centuries, the system developed variations and variations of variations of the same defense if the attack came at a different angle, position or distance.

In one kata, for example, an attacker strikes and you deflect the punch, lock his elbow in an arm lock, and then step to his front, leading him to his front and throwing him forward so he takes a forward roll. But what if he doesn’t want to do a forward roll? In a kata right after this one, instead of throwing your partner, you feel his resistance to the role and instead step in and sweep his front foot so he falls flat on his face. And there’s yet another kata with the same initial movements, but this time the attacker, upon being forced down, fights against the throw and tries to stand back up, arm bar or not. So then there’s a leg sweep throwing the person on his back. One initial attack, one reaction, but depending on how the attacker reacts to the first application of the lock, three different scenarios.

By having a skillful partner who can react properly as “uke,” you can train in these three forms and develop a sense of “feel” as to what would work under such scenarios in reality. These examples help to build in hataraki in martial arts that are primarily forms based.

And one of the best ways, as my teacher told me, to develop this sense of improvisation in a kata-based system is to occasionally do embu. For those who aren’t aware of this term, embu is a kind of “demonstration.” But it’s more than just showing up at kid’s day at the local shopping mall to demonstrate your karate school’s children’s class. Koryu embu are serious stuff back in Japan. When different koryu ryuha (schools) get together, there’s a feeling of camaraderie, but there’s also an underlying sense of competition. You don’t want to look like cow poo compared to the other schools. So you do your best.

As one koryu practitioner told me before she went up to perform her naginata embu, “I’m off to battle.” I thought she was joking. But no, her kata didn’t look like it was just going through the motions. It looked like if her partner didn’t get out of the way, he would be in a serious amount of hurt, even though the naginata was wood and not sharpened steel.

Her kata looked magnificent. At the end of the kata, she bowed to her partner stoically, they walked off the embujo (performance area), and then very quietly she said, “Dang it, he went thataway instead of thisaway, and he nearly took off my head. So I had to block that cut and whack him in the shins to make him realize his mistake.”

So the kata done in an embu is intense. My sensei encouraged me to choose quality embu to participate in, now and then, because “one embu is like 10,000 regular practices.”

Or, as another person said of his first embu, “Holy shit, he came at me like it was shinken shobu (a duel with live blades) so I thought, okay, I’m going to give as good as I get.”

Thus, another reason why serious embu is good for training is because so many things can just go totally wrong but you can’t just stop in the middle of a kata. If you’re used to working on a smooth hardwood floor in the dojo, doing kata swinging solid wooden swords on an uneven, grassy and rock-strewn field can really test your concentration and balance. There’s bound to be mistakes, slipped feet, and missed targeting. So you get good at improvising. You do some hataraki.

At one embu, I complimented a student of a sword art. I had never seen that particular kata of that school, I said, but it looked really good.

“Yeah, well you’d never seen it before because we don’t have it!” he said. “My sensei was totally out to lunch. We started off in a kata and then he just lost his sense of where we were. Maybe it was too hot and his brains were fried. He came at me with something when we should have ended it! So I blocked it and looked at his face, and his eyes told me he was on autopilot. He came at me again with a strike and I blocked it again, and we went on and on until I finally whacked him HARD on the wrist. That kind of woke him up and we just stopped, finally.”

While he said it was a weird experience, it was also telling in that the student was trained enough to quickly improvise and block all the cuts directed his way. He was doing hataraki, without stopping the kata and bawling, “No! You got it wrong!”  You can’t do that in an embu, and you can’t do it in a battle.

24. Musashi’s bird on a branch: think about tomorrow, not just today

One of the many misconceptions that martial arts teachers have to dispel among their new students is the notion that Zen…and by this I mean the Westernized, California-ish, 1970s alternative hippie style Zen, not the Soto or Rinzai style garden-variety Zen you find in Japan…is the main bedrock of martial arts. Zen does have some influence on Japanese budo, but so do a lot of other Buddhist sects, Taoism, Confucianism, Japanese Shinto, and even (as one koryu teacher suggested) Christianity. Such religious and spiritual philosophies loaned a lot of their ideas, rituals and practices to budo training, but budo is budo, religiosity is religiosity. No more, no less. They are related, but different.

–And one of the main tenets of this kind of “California-ish” Zen is that the self-indulgent, selfish “do what you wanna do” attitude can be justified by Zen. This is another instance of people trying to stick their own attitudes on a different culture to justify their own predilections. The same goes for people’s attitudes about the supposedly exotic demure compliance of a “geisha,” which are mostly extensions of Western male dominance fantasies, I’d say. Or the notion that a martial artist is some kind of hulky tough guy like those found in ads on the back covers of old comic books. We’re looking at a funhouse mirror glass not at a different culture, but at ourselves, reflected and distorted back to us. It’s “orientalism” at its worst.

Anyway, let’s look at the notion that Zen and the “exotic” Asian martial arts stress a “don’t think about tomorrow” attitude. This notion is really a carryover of what I would call hippie Zen, popularized by folks like Alan Watts, which gave an excuse to all the excesses of that era: “if it feels good, do it,” “let it all hang out,” and so on. Don’t think about tomorrow. Live in the “now.” That was supposed to be sooo Zen. Remember that song with the refrain that goes, “Sha-la-lalala live for today…And don’t worry ’bout tomorrow, ba-aby…!”? Boy, it’s stuck in my head now.

However, what are left out are the antithesis and the counterbalance, also found in Zen and in other Buddhist sects. As much as Zen and budo try to get you to focus on the reality of your current situation, they also ask that you simultaneously meditate how you got there in the first place, and where you’re going to go afterwards. Maybe you live for today, but you also have to plan for tomorrow and think about how you got to where you are. Not so simple, is it?

In my opinion, Buddhism, after all, has one of the most nuanced, thoughtful attempts to explain the nature of our existence, and you don’t get to that point if your entire philosophy is based on “let’s party hearty and don’t worry about tomorrow.” The Four Noble Truths is a simplified, extremely logical theory of the nature of causation and interconnectivity expounded by the historical Gautama Buddha, and it clearly notes that the reasons for our immediate state of being is related to our past actions and how we can affect change to our future to cut through our “karma.” The Buddha did a heck of a of thinking, to the point where he finally exhausted his entire rational mind. He didn’t throw out his rationality, he drove it to the edge and then found something beyond it.

What? Do I mean to say that “spontaneous, natural” Zen isn’t all that spontaneous and natural? Well, it is and it isn’t, and this statement, in my opinion, is also true of martial arts.

Consider this: in order to become “natural” and “spontaneous,” acolytes of Zen spend hours and hours for many years undergoing zazen, a grueling ritual of meditation sitting in seiza, half-lotus or full lotus positions. This is not like lounging around in your stuffed couch eating potato chips and feeling “natural” and “spontaneous.” This is hard work getting to be “natural.” This is planning for the future, training and self-discipline, definitely NOT “let it all hang out.”

I liken it to the Japanese art of bonsai, miniature gardening. The little mini-trees and shrubbery look so much like natural landscapes scaled down. But to get that effect of “naturalness,” the gardener spends years binding the trunks and branches with wire and strings, to guide the “naturalness.”

That’s like budo training. To get “natural” in it, to become “spontaneous,” you need years of training getting your body and mind attuned to that “naturalness.” It’s a paradox, but there you have it. Being natural in a budo really means your body is trained to react in a particular way, which may be UN-natural to your original behavior.

As one of my teachers noted, if someone swings a stick at you, a “natural” reaction would be to cower, scream and put your hands up in fright and fall to pieces. Proper budo training, he said, tempers that “natural” movement and tries to make you react a slightly different way: instead of cowering, you sidestep to get out of the way, kiai and raise your hands up to slightly deflect and redirect the strike. It’s still “natural,” but in a disciplined, mannered way.

This was brought to mind the other night when I was trying to correct my students’ attempts at a technique meant to break a wrist grab and throw an attacker. The defending student kept turning into the wrong angle and distance. His main focus, it seemed, was on twisting his partner’s wrist to break the grip when he sidestepped. Then, in order to effect the throw, he stepped back right in front of the attacker.

“Whoa, hold on! You’re not thinking about what you’re doing!” I said. “If you step back there, you’re going to get your head clocked by the attacker’s free hand. When you break the grip, you also have to already disbalance the attacker, do kuzushi, to make it hard for him to react when you turn again. And when you pivot your body, don’t step right in front of him. That angle makes it easy for him to hit you even if he’s off balance. Plus, you want to throw him to his front. With you standing right there, you’re in the way. You have to think two or three steps ahead! Pivot so you’re on his other side, all the while keeping him disbalanced, so that when you do the throw (it was sort of like an aikido “Kote Gaeshi”), you’re not in the way of your own throw!”

Then, I continued: as you are throwing the guy, you already have to set up your own position. Don’t wait. While the attacker is doing his roll, start to move already into position so that when he hits the mat, you’re right there at his side, in proper position to apply a joint lock to his elbow and a strike to his temples. Think two or three steps ahead! That’s heiho (martial strategy).

I had a feeling that my students looked at me like I was speaking Swahili.

I had to explain the whole concept of thinking ahead of time. I suspect the students were raised on all this faux Zen pap about thinking “in the moment.” Yes, you have to be aware of what’s going on around you at the moment. But a part of your brain has to also be calculating trajectories and angles for the next move and the move after that. Good athletes do it all the time, subconsciously. A ballplayer fielding a fly ball has to judge where the ball will land, follow its trajectory, and plan on being at the right spot in the outfield to catch the ball. It’s very fast, but the ball player is actually therefore planning ahead of time.

The “now” after all, of “be here now” changes with each second since we constantly move forward in time. If all you are thinking of is the “now” now, then when it does happen, you’re living in the past, because the future has become the “now” and the old “now” became the past.

Hey, how’s THAT for a koan?

I then told my students the story of Miyamoto Musashi’s painting of the shrike on a branch (“Koboku Meikakuzu”). My jujutsu teacher has a copy of that scroll painting, and he once unfurled it and showed it to me and said, “This is considered a national treasure because it encapsulates Musashi’s budo philosophy. What do you think?”

I replied that I had seen the image in my Japanese art history class, and at the time, in an academic setting, all that my teacher discussed was Musashi’s masterful use of empty space versus the positive shapes. A thin branch rises vertically out of morning mist, and at the top tip of it sits a bird. All else is emptiness, but because of the design, the emptiness is “full” of potential, of things unseen but ready to appear out of the void. Or at least, that’s how my art teacher put it.

That’s okay, my sensei said, but that’s an art historian’s point of view. A martial artist who knew heiho would say this is an incredible image and deserves to be a national treasure because of what it SAYS, not just for its design.

Okay, I said. So what does it say?

He pointed to a squiggle on the lower part of the branch. I had never noticed it before.

“See this? That’s a caterpillar or worm.”

I had always thought it was just a squiggle, nothing more. But I played along.

“Ah! So the bird is looking down at the worm and is going to pounce on it and eat it, like a bird of prey!” I said.

“Like a martial artist attacking his enemy!” said another student.

“No. That’s shallow heiho,” my sensei said. “True heiho always looks two or three steps ahead, into the future, the unseeable, the void.”

Huh?

My teacher continued to explain:

What a bugeisha sees is that the shrike already knows about the worm. But he knows the bird is thinking beyond the worm. That’s why the shrike is not going after it. The bird has noticed a fish in the pond below, about to jump up to swallow the worm when it loses its balance on the branch. The shrike therefore isn’t planning to eat the worm. It’s looking down at the fish; as soon as the fish leaps, the shrike is going to snatch up the fish that is going after the worm. THAT’S the bigger prize for the shrike.

“But…uh…I don’t see the fish?” I said.

If Musashi spelled it out for everyone, it wouldn’t have been an okuden (secret transmission) only to bugeisha, said my sensei. That’s why the “emptiness” is really full; you have to imagine what is really in that empty area in the painting. Musashi is saying, don’t just look at the immediate gains, the short-term victory. Be like the shrike and plan two, three, four steps ahead of your opponent.

In Western martial terms, it might be like saying, don’t just think of the immediate battle. Think strategically as well as tactically. What benefits you in the long term?

For example, a student might say, “Hey, sensei, will this technique work if I end up in an alley after I had a bit too much to drink at a bar in Hotel Street and I’m facing a gang of thugs that wants my wallet?”

Well, first of all, I’d say that you’d need to practice a heck of a lot more to make sure the techniques really worked. But ideally, don’t go into that alley. Better yet, don’t go to that bar on Hotel Street if you think the alley next to it is dangerous. Even better, stay home and don’t get plastered. Think ahead of time. Think two or three steps ahead. Think strategically, not just tactically. Learning to physically defend yourself is what Musashi would call “little heiho.” But learning to avoid a fight entirely by not going into that alley is what he would call “big heiho.”

Thinking about the consequences of one’s actions is particularly hard for young men, I would wager, since I was once young myself and know how impulsive I was (my wife would argue that I’m still pretty impulsive, a bane that afflicts all us men, she would say). But proper budo training should temper spontaneity with forethought, in equal amounts.

People who don’t have enough prefrontal lobe brain development are also the bane of law enforcement officers. Most of the criminals arrested in the local police blotter here aren’t masterminds of some elaborate criminal activity, like you see in the television series “Law and Order” or in the bad guys of some James Bond movie. Most of them act impulsively without thinking, “Is this going to get me in jail or what?”  So most petty criminals and psychopaths are extreme cases of lack of forethought.

On a lesser level, I used to shake my head in bewilderment at some of the antisocial, anti-authoritarian actions of teenage students when I taught high school. They were so lame, I used to wonder if they thought of the consequences of some of their actions. In most cases, no, they weren’t thinking about future repercussions at all. So when hauled before their parents, their mom and dad would scream, “What were you THINKING???!!!” Actually, they might not have been “thinking” at all, and that’s the problem.

To be fair, the prefrontal lobes of boys, educational psychologists told me, develop a little slower than girls and don’t catch up until they are in their mid to late twenties. So while bad girls are already learning to think two or three steps ahead to annoy their rivals or figure out how to manipulate each other, the boys at the same age often are still thinking about bashing their toy cars or Transformer toys together or reacting with “fight or flight” attitudes to each other. Or their raging hormones will pop their tops and they’ll take out their immediate negative reactions on the closest adult authority figure, which was often their schoolteacher, namely me. Our society does them no favors, either, by allowing them to act up as “adolescents will” in an extended childhood that goes past their twenties. In some societies, boys as young as eight are already working at jobs such as mechanics or child soldiers, forced to forego their childhood and live in a harsh, unforgiving world.

Anyway, in the case of my budo students, they were having so much problems with simple, immediate issues of angling, disbalancing and movement that their brains were on overload, and couldn’t seem to fathom the forethought that had to also be part of the technique.

However, to make the kata truly work, to make it more than just rote step-by-step, means thinking a couple of steps ahead of your opponent. You can’t see it, but that mental attitude has to be there, because it affects why and how you move a certain way, where you place your feet, and how you set yourself in relationship to your opponent. Once you manage to go beyond the basics of rote step-by-step and proper distance, angling, timing and speed, forethought has to be part of your mental arsenal. The future had to be part of your present. Only then, as Musashi revealed, would your martial methods become an art.

23. The ghosts of practices past…

There is something that happens when I put on my practice outfit, or keikogi, that colors that particular, current training time. I remember the past. It’s fitting, after all, because the Japanese word for training, keiko, is made of two Chinese characters that means “to consider or reflect upon the past.”  So in teaching, I try to inculcate in my students what I myself had learned in the past from my own teachers, as best as possible, in my own way.

But lately, I’m thinking that when I tighten my obi, I also reflect upon the ghosts of my own practices past. Like a doddering old geezer, when I slip on my white training pants, white quilted uwagi, cloth belt and hakama, I recall the many times I did so in the past, in memorable training sessions that lasted far into the night. Maybe it’s because I long ago turned 50 years of age. That’s half a century. That’s more years behind me than ahead of me, probably. That’s all my youth gone and went, and now I’m in the autumn staring at the twilight years. That’s…as some college kids would blurt out….really OLD, man. “Man, you’re like my father,” some of them used to say. Now they say, “Man, you’re as old as my grandparents!” Sheesh.

So I put on my keikogi, we bow in, warm up, and work on our techniques. I’m focusing on what the students are doing at the moment. But behind them, behind the way I teach, the way I emphasize certain things, are all the ghosts of practices past.

There’s the ghost image of my jujutsu teacher, when I first met him, at the peak of his physical prowess, moving like a greased monkey throwing people around, then losing interest and going into the back room of the dojo to play his shakuhachi while we fumbled over the techniques. In the cold, wintery Kyoto nights, sometimes it was just me and Takagi-san, hammering away at each other while our sensei played the evocative bamboo flute, watching us and sometimes getting frustrated and stepping back on the mats to correct our moves.

There’s the fleeting image of my Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu iai teacher when I first met him in the Butokuden in autumn, cupping his ears so he could hear me better, a gentle old soul, I thought, whose iai was so expansive it truly was like the nickname given to that particular strain, “tonosama no iai,” or the iai of a warrior lord.

There’s the memories of the tough judo practices and fun times over beers afterwards that I enjoyed with a sensei and friend. I learned that he later ended up passing away in a frenzy brought on by an extreme bout of his chronic manic depression, striking at enemies of his mind in a bamboo thicket.

There’s the ghost image of another judo friend, who later counseled me when I was going through a divorce. He had gone through his own problems and was telling me things will get better; he found his wife in bed with another man, he hated his job, and he finally crashed his car into a tree…and walked away from it all, to a new town and career…and he built a new life, becoming a professor in a field he enjoyed, with seven great kids and a supportive wife.

There’s the great sempai I had in karate. We used to train outside of regular sessions on the beach on the North Shore of Oahu, going over kata and kumite over and over again. A few weeks before I had my thesis presentation and fine art show for graduate school, one of my sempai, who had become a police officer in the toughest beat in Honolulu, called me out of the blue to ask if I could come over for a few brewskis and to talk story about the old training days. I had to turn him down, saying I really needed to work on my master’s degree final presentations.  That moonlit night, after the phone call, he walked on the beach where we used to train and put a bullet in his head, probably due to the stress of his law enforcement duties and his personal life.

There’s the training sessions that I was allowed to participate in with the U.S. Olympic judo team. It gave me a glimpse into how great a gap there was between me and the cream of the crop. There was just no comparison, and I realized that I had better pay more attention to my schoolwork because there’s no way I could ever be a professional athlete. The U.S. representative in my weight class dumped me all over the place. If anyone has any question as to whether judo is an effective martial art or not, I’d just say, try getting thrown by one of those guys in an asphalt parking lot. You’d be lucky if you can stand up after that in one piece. Surprisingly, for both him and me, however, when we ended up grappling on the mat I easily pinned him. There was nothing he did on the ground that I couldn’t easily counter. That’s when I realized I owed a debt to my judo sensei, whose own teacher was Mikinosuke Kawaishi, the renowned judo teacher who taught a very balanced, technique-oriented style of judo that emphasized equal dexterity in both standing and groundwork techniques.

There’s the training sessions I used to have in jojutsu, out in a park on a mountain top, come rain or shine, even in the middle of tropical thunderstorms, where we’d be slipping and sliding in the mud and trying mightily to keep hanging on to our jo so that it wouldn’t slip out and whack our partners in the head.

There’s the winter time judo training sessions I had on the Mainland, where we ran barefoot in the snow in Upstate New York, us adults freezing our toes while the kids in the group were traipsing and laughing at the novelty of the experience, unaffected by the cold.

There are so many memories of really good times, and really hard times, times that made fast friends, and times that drove unbreachable wedges between me and other people.

And there’s the very first memories of when I first stepped onto a dojo mat, even before I owned a keikogi, and took my first lessons in breakfalls. The dojo was a former sugar plantation meeting hall, termite eaten, old, cobwebbed in the corners, retrofitted with a canvas-covered mat. It was taught by blue-collar workers: sugar plantation workers, garage mechanics, tractor drivers. That was well over 40-odd years ago, when I was barely entering my teens, and those gruff old men were my first role models besides my father and school teachers on what it was to be an adult.

So I knot up my obi and cinch up my hakama and for a brief moment, those ghosts come up from the past, making the instant bittersweet with its memories. Then I put those nostalgic bursts of recollections aside and train. And I make new memories.

22. The difference between training tough or stupid?

The difference between tough and stupid in martial arts is a very thin line.

I’ve heard a lot of stories from my seniors and teachers, some of which are true, some of which are probably apocryphal, about physical toughness in budo training. Those tall tales notwithstanding, in my old age I’m figuring out that in reality, as far as my own training is concerned, there’s a difference between tough and stupid. Oh, yeah, and then there’s crazy.

If you go to YouTube and watch a video of the judo legend Kimura Masahiko, you’ll see the definition of tough bordering on crazy. Kimura was one of the toughest martial artists alive in his prime, an opinion first voiced to me by Donn F. Draeger, who was no slouch himself. Kimura was one of Draeger’s teachers, and the stories he told me of Kimura’s grueling training sessions would put them on a par with any pro boxer or wrestler’s prefight training schedule, and then some.

In the video I saw, the narrator (an American judo player) spoke matter-of-factly of Kimura’s students doing 600 push-ups a day. For warm ups.

Draeger told me he once had a cold that was so bad he thought it was turning into pneumonia. Kimura appeared at his house, took one look at him, and said he should quit lollygagging around in bed and get to the dojo. He even helped by dragging Draeger out of bed and scolding him for his laziness.  At the dojo, Kimura dumped Draeger all over the mats, all the while scolding him for being too soft and mushy.

That kind of training is so tough, so intense, it borders on crazy. But you know, if you wanted to get to Olympic-caliber toughness, if you wanted to be as tough as Kimura, that’s how you trained.

Another example of toughness:

One of my Takeuchi-ryu sensei said that he used to sometimes wonder if he was coming back from training in one piece. The training was that tough. Although it was mainly “just” kata training, he said the speed at which the higher ranking students trained was at the speed of “reality,” and that they applied a good 75 percent of the actual strength it took to dislocate or break the bones of their partners. They were so skilled, they rarely endured or gave debilitating injuries, but it was scary how close they could get.

That’s pretty tough.

Then there’s stupid. I overheard two of my students talking about a martial arts style they both used to train in. In hindsight, they agreed that their old school might have taken the idea of “tough” a bit too far.

For example, one of my students said there used to be a young woman in the class, barely five feet tall. They were practicing a move where you would get behind the opponent and pick him up and slam him down with a sort of body slam. They were practicing in a rented hall with a solid concrete floor, no tumbling mats. The woman’s partner didn’t make allowances for her lighter weight and shorter stature. He upended her and threw her face first into the floor, instead of on her side, and knocked out all her front teeth.

I interrupted, saying something like “Why weren’t there mats? Why didn’t they take it step by step at first so they knew what they were doing and nobody got hurt?”

The student shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, you know. That’s how they thought. You gotta be macho in martial arts. No need mats. Tough it out. Go full blast from the start. The poor lady, though, she was young and pretty but she got all her front teeth knocked out.”

He went on to say that a lot of students got so beat up in free sparring, which was so wild it was nearly out of control, that they couldn’t go to work the next day, losing valuable income. A lot of people quit, he said, because the training was too rough and tough. They couldn’t train and go to work at the same time.

That, I would submit, is not tough. That’s stupid.

Unless you’re a prize fighter, professional athlete, attempting to get to Olympic-style competition level, are independently wealthy, are in military or law enforcement and training for life-and-death fights, or are simply young and gung-ho and have parents who can take care of your medical bills, you have to pace yourself so you can get up the next day and go back to work to support yourself and your family. That’s the sad truth of budo training for most of us average slobs who have to work at some separate day job for our daily bread. Budo training has to be paced so we can still get to work.

You can, of course, still endow the training with a modicum of “toughness,” according to your capabilities, but it has to be worked towards, not engaged in from the first day, and it has to make sense. You don’t knock out someone’s front teeth because you think that’s “tough.” That’s sadistic. You get some darned mats. You train to avoid needless injuries. People get injured enough even WITH all sorts of teaching and training safeguards in place. You don’t have to make it any easier to get hurt. That’s just senseless.

Training for an hour or two without a water break in normal weather, steeling yourself to endure the ordeal slowly over time, is good for teaching your body to conserve energy and build endurance. However, forcing a newbie with no endurance to train like this under a blazing summer sun with zero humidity and no shade is just asking for a sunstroke.

Sparring at near-maximum speed and strength with other people who are at the same level or higher than you are builds up your skills and toughness. Beating up students who are obviously below your caliber, without giving them a chance to develop their meager skills, is not making them “tough,” it’s just sadistic. And it’s stupid. Before that student can develop his/her skills, you’ve discouraged him/her and maybe lost a training partner. That’s stupid.

Carefully working towards near full-speed and full application of a technique under supervision and control is pretty tough. Doing a technique half-arsed, wild and out of control so that you hurt your training partner is not tough. It’s stupid.

In my younger, more carefree days, I had the good fortune to train with some topflight budo folk in competitive martial arts. I remember the time I sparred with a former All-Japan Karate tournament winner. The first time he punched me, I was knocked right on my rear end. I had never been hit by anything so well-timed, so fast, and so powerful before. But I wasn’t permanently injured. He hit me in a legal target zone, not in my throat, groin, or other dangerously weak structural area. I managed to get up and keep on sparring. As he built up my skills, I managed to train harder and harder with him, until in some sessions we were going full blast, and we were sparring, as he said, “like back in Japan,” and he would grab my arm or leg if I was too slow retracting it, throw me, and then we’d end up grappling on the mats, no quarters given or taken, going for pins, arm bars or chokes.  But he built me up to that point. He didn’t just knock me down and knock me out from the outset. He didn’t deliberately try to injure me or hit me in illegal and easily damaged body areas.

I was also very lucky to have trained with members and coaches of one of the United States’ Olympic judo teams. The judo players needed people to work out with, and I happily volunteered. The first time the player in my weight class threw me, I felt like I had hit the mat so hard I must have left an impression of my body all the way through the mats to the hardwood floors to the ground under it, all the way to China. It was one of the fastest, most unstoppable throws I’d ever felt. It was a tough throw, but it wasn’t a sadistic one. He didn’t deliberately attempt to maim me by throwing me in a wrong way. Because I did a textbook ukemi (breakfall), I only got slightly winded…and dazed from the speed of the throw and the sting of the impact. Nothing else, except my pride, was injured.

Those were tough sessions, but save for strained muscles, a cut lip now and then, and inevitable spot injuries, I actually made it through those days with less hurt, injuries and pain than what I endured during my high school days playing football or wrestling. My budo teachers trained me tough, but smart.

Nowadays, I’m usually the teacher and I try to inculcate the lessons I’ve learned from the best of my teachers. I try to pace my students’ training to challenge them, but not to abuse or brutalize them. Toughness has to be built up, along with skill, endurance, speed and strength. Some of my students have more ability and can advance faster than others. Some of the students may never reach much higher than where they are because of some kind of mental, physical or personal problems.

But I hope, by positive encouragement, to train them to become tough, not stupid.

21. On the killing of Osama bin Laden

Any time the Western way of war can be unleashed on an enemy stupid enough to enter its arena, victory is assured.
–Victor Davis Hanson

As Americans, I think whatever our political persuasion we all breathed a collective sigh of relief with the killing of Osama bin Laden, al Qaida’s leader, this past Sunday, May 1, 2011.

Yet, as martial artists and Americans, many of us were taken aback by the spontaneous gatherings and party atmosphere of crowds screaming epithets like “U-S-A!” or holding up one of their fingers to indicate that we were Number One, like it was a giant pep rally for a college football championship.

Certainly, a similar scene of joy did occur on VJ Day, to celebrate Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. That was the end of a large scale conventional war of massed armies. But there is no end to the “War on Terror,” since “terror” is a tactic, not a country, and it’s used by myriad of still-extant cells of religious and political extremists, fanatics and jihadists. Perhaps it’s a joy among people young enough that over half their lives were spent in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attack; a feeling of closure now that the chief architect of that tragedy has been put down. Youthful exuberance. That’s hard to deny them their celebration.

I certainly went through conflicting emotions. First was uncertainty…was it for real? Then came amazement, then the greatest sense of relief. Relief that this man, who had become a symbol for thousands of twisted, angry people, had been taken off this Earth, and thereby perhaps in the long term we have lowered the chances of further jihadi attacks against civilians in the West and also in Arab countries. As one news source noted, bin Laden and his philosophy of violence had, over the course of ten years, been battered not just by the pushback from American military and political forces, but the Arab “street” itself has begun to peel away from the use of violence as a tactic. And, it should be noted, al Qaida killed a whole lot of fellow Muslims in their pursuit of violent jihad, and the organization and radical supporters justified it by their twisted, abusive interpretation of a great religion.

So I shed no tears for the man’s death. Yet I also do not crow over the victory. Why? A couple of other martial artist friends commented on their own feelings in their Facebook pages, so my opinion is hardly unique. These acquaintances gave me the idea for this blog.

In summary, it may be that because of our martial training, we simply have a mindset that does not feel good about gloating over a man’s death, however evil that man was. In our opinion, war and killing are horrible options. To do so, even to counter great evil, may be a necessary evil, just as the actual application of martial arts methods in real violent encounters should always be a last and final option, not the first. One FB correspondent quoted Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. The abridged quote goes like this:

Weapons are instruments of killing and destruction, which are contrary to the nature of life.
…Because weapons are inauspicious, they are not to be the instruments of a gentleman.

Only when one has no other choice may one resort to using them, and if their use is necessary, one must employ calmness and restraint, for peace and quiet are the normal nature of universal life.

Even in victory there is no cause for excitement and rejoicing. To rejoice over a victory is to delight in killing and destruction.

…This indicates that war is treated as the equivalent of a funeral service.

…Even when a victory is won, the occasion should be regarded as lamentable.

(translated by Hua-Ching Ni)

If some say that this is just some passive “Or-ee-entl” mindset, then we should pay heed at least to a Western philosopher, the Stoic warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Lest we become as bloodthirsty as the jihadi, he said:

The noblest kind of retribution is not to become like your enemy.

I think it was proper and fitting that the US military performed Islamic death rites as best they knew and could, given the situation, and after verifying it really was bin Laden, they disposed of the corpse and the government chose not to release the photo of the body. That certainly was more respect than al Qaida ever offered its thousands of victims after they were killed, and we have to be better than the terrorists. That is what this whole battle is all about: it’s a contest between ways of thinking, a clash of ideologies, and we cannot sink to their level else we become no better than them.

Photographs will do no good and could be used by our enemies as a rallying point. Worse, they could be used by idiots to glorify the attack. I’m sure some screwball would immediately silkscreen the bloody, gory photos on a t-shirt and sell it in the streets of New York City immediately. Bad taste has no boundaries.

As martial artists, therefore, I think many of us reacted surprisingly the same way: relief, but no jumping in the streets screaming at the top of our heads and getting drunk as a skunk. Relief, but a sense that this wasn’t the end; it was just a milestone along the way to the final defeat of violent jihadi ideology.

This is zanshin in budo translated to our regular lives. Even after victory, the saying goes, you tighten your helmet straps. Don’t lose sight of the goals. Don’t show any openings, because the enemy can still strike if you are momentarily distracted.

Martial artists are not military folk, although the two often overlap. I would not dare to put any of us on the level of training, fitness and abilities of serving military, especially of our special forces. Nor can I compare the daily sacrifices of our police and security officers to what we do as a pastime. But I believe there can be a shared mental attitude of service to others and preparedness. Therefore, if one is to be a total budoka, not just someone who goes to a gym for a twice-a-week physical workout in something called martial arts, then the mental and spiritual component of budo is really important as a major part of training. That attitude is a martial one, in the old sense of the word, in the sense of attitudes stressed by Lao Tzu, Confucianism, Buddhism, and other religious and philosophical sources that made up the spiritual and mental wellsprings of our art.

Chinese philosophers were Confucian at their civil service jobs and Taoist in their personal retreats. Roman warriors could be stoic in battle but epicurean when it came to enjoying life. One does not have to be a dour and salty old soldier to do martial arts. But I would suggest that without investigating how martial philosophy does affect one’s personal outlooks, you’re only learning half of what budo offers.

So I close with two other relevant quotes, both from philosophers who were addressing military men and martial artists:

To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.
–Sun Tzu

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.
–Marcus Aurelius

20. When it comes to traditional arts…Who’s your daddy?

Two events converged recently to give me the topic of this blog. One was the annual Merrie Monarch Festival, held on nearby Hawai‘i Island (what we once colloquially called the “Big Island,” but which I am informed by my Hawaiian friends is no longer considered proper), and the other was a note from a friend regarding someone’s application to be part of a festival of Japanese arts and traditions held on the continental United States.

Both touched upon the nature of a practitioner of a traditional Japanese art and his/her authenticity, believe it or not.

When it comes to the most classical of Japanese arts, such as koryu bugei (classical Japanese martial systems), tea ceremony, flower arrangement, Nihon Buyo (classical dance), Noh drama, kabuki stage performance, classical musical instruments, and even the arts of the geisha, you are talking about certain rigorous standards of certification.

These standards include technical characteristics, “naming,” documentation and lineal descent; in other words, who’s your (art) daddy?

Granted, some traditional systems have moved out of the old standards. For example, my strain of the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu school of iai no longer has any one single soke, or headmaster. Since about the mid-20th Century, there have been generations of teachers, but no headmaster (other strains do claim to have lineal soke still going strong). Still, verification of one’s credentials in our system rests partly on being able to say who you trained with.

The Merrie Monarch Festival brings together the best hula halau (groups) in friendly competition to decide that year’s best individual dancer and male and female group performances in auwana (“modern”) and kahiko (“classical”) hula. Hula and Hawaiian music has always been popular in Postwar Japan, and in the past few decades kumu hula (master hula instructors) have been flying up to teach and certify branch schools in Japan.

Now, you could certainly put on a plastic hula skirt, stick a coconut shell bra on your chest, pick up an ukulele and start up your own hula club even if you didn’t know a kahiko from an uku, and you could say that you learned your hula from a mystical old Hawaiian named Kamawana Boogie Boogie who passed through your town and then disappeared, when you actually learned all you knew from old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movies and Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii,” but the Japanese don’t play it that way. They treat hula like a classical Japanese art. The Japanese students will find an authentic kumu, they will fly to Hawaii to study under the teacher and/or pay to have the teacher fly up to Japan to teach. They want the real thing with a real connection to the tradition, not some fake plastic skirt b.s. A good number of Japanese nowadays appear in the audience of the Merrie Monarch Festival, soaking up the performances and cheering on their hula brothers and sisters. Some Japanese students have studied so diligently and for so long, they have become certified teachers in their own right, given permission to teach by their kumu, with full access to the more esoteric doctrines of kahiko hula, and with their own hula names signifying their lineage within their specific tradition. But they have accomplished this cross-cultural feat through long years of study directly under a master instructor. There’s no learning from videotapes or YouTube. It costs time, money and effort for this first generation of Japanese kumu to gain their mastery, but for the Japanese, it’s part of the deal. You don’t get something like a kumu title so easily. You have to work for it.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Classical Japanese arts are the same.

So when I got an email from a friend alerting me to a person who applied to participate in a Japanese cultural festival as an American geisha…well, my first response after seeing her own web site was that of being totally flabbergasted. The person tried to skirt the issue of authenticity somewhat by not calling herself a geisha, although she offered the services of a geisha (playing silly games, tea ceremony, music, “escort” services, kimono lectures, etc.).  But there was no proof of authenticity. It was a sham.

…There are, as far as I know, only two instances of Western women ever breaking into the geisha training system as of this date. One is the American, Liza Dalby. Her web site is http://www.lizadalby.com/LD/welcome.html. She trained in Kyoto, in the traditional heart of the geisha and maiko. The other is the Australian, Fiona Graham, at http://www.sayuki.net/. She apprenticed in Tokyo. Both are also academics of the highest standards and have written dissertations and books on the true geisha tradition.

Now, what you do in the privacy of your own home is entirely your own business. If you’re a middle-aged, bored lady who likes to put on kimono and parade around looking at yourself in the mirror fantasizing that you’re a grand seductress…that’s up to you. You’re not making any public claims that you’re a geisha. That’s like me and my fixation with reading spy novels about incredibly handsome, incredibly brainy secret agents who always end up with beautiful women falling in love with them. But I don’t go around pretending to be a spy. It’s a fantasy.

But if you go out and then try to make money from it, or advertise yourself as a master of a traditional Japanese art, then I have a problem with that, because that’s fraudulent business practice. You’re basically lying to people.

Real classical Japanese arts have certain characteristics. I’m not necessarily talking about more “modern” Japanese martial arts, such as karatedo, judo or aikido, although they do retain some vestiges of such characteristics. Some of the characteristics include:

Technical character

When observing a performance of the art, a knowledgeable viewer will recognize the techniques or signature moves. For example, I’m not a student of the Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu school of martial arts, but I’ve seen enough embu (demonstrations) in Japan and here to recognize certain body movements and even whole kata from that school. I can even make a stab at figuring out who the demonstrator’s teacher was based on how they move. Someone claiming to do that system and then doing something totally unrecognizable to me in terms of body movements and techniques would put up red flags for me. Conversely, if someone “stole”…er…”borrowed” a Katori Shinto-ryu kata and just stuck it into their fabricated system, I would recognize it. And I would also recognize that the person has no idea concerning the riai (meaning), timing, rhythm or concepts embodied in the kata. Those fakes are just waving swords around.

Likewise, if you claimed to be able to perform or teach tea ceremony, I’d say, “show me.” I’m a certified upper level tea student. I could probably tell if you really learned from a teacher or not from the moment you sat down to do the temae just by watching you. And no, learning it all from books, YouTube videos or instructional DVDs don’t cut it. There’s a lot of things that are missing from those resources, however good they are as crutches to learning. Such resources are valuable adjuncts to actual teacher/student contact. But they don’t replace it.

“Naming” and documentation

In most classical arts, documentation is an important part of validation. In other words, you need the papers, whether it’s verification of a sword, mastery in koryu bugei or being an accredited geisha. Again, the bugei became a bit more haphazard in records keeping, especially after the end of the Tokugawa Period (circa 1868), but in most cases, there’s some kind of documentation. A student who is accepted into a very traditional school is registered in the nyuumoncho; the register of students. When I was back in Japan recently, my teacher said I should be moving up in the ranks soon, since I was in my current level for a while. Both of us forgot what my rank was, so we ambled over to a wall where he had hung the fuda (wooden name placards) of all his students, according to rank. Mine was way up in the rafters, collecting dust, and darkening with age. But I’m there. Anybody with a question about my authenticity can see my name up there, as well as in my teacher’s student enrollment list. I’ve also collected different documentations regarding my level of accomplishment. The first document I was given was a handwritten scroll with my teacher’s personal seal. After that, my sensei said he was getting too old and too tired to keep writing those scrolls one by one, so he put it all on a word processing file on his computer. Whenever a student is given a higher rank, he spits out a copy on his laser printer and then certifies it with his signature and personal seal.

Still, when I learned the “God-given” secret jujutsu techniques of the school, I was given a “kirigami” (folded, cut paper) certification entirely hand written by my teacher, because at that high level, the documentation had to be done by hand.

Some koryu schools no longer do this. They are more informal except for the highest level certifications, if at all. Again, in my iai school, there was no paperwork. If you wanted a dan ranking, you took a test given in Seitei Iai from the All-Japan Kendo Federation. No one thought of specific ranking in the koryu anymore. You sought out the teachers for koryu based on what you saw of their skill, their dan level in Seitei Iai, and their lineage.

In the case of the geisha, or other such arts, you also receive scrolls and certificates, like diplomas, attesting to your having mastered your craft, signed by your teacher(s), and showing your school and affiliation.

The “name” thing is an interesting one, since it’s found in both Hawaiian and Japanese traditional arts. In hula, you are not a master teacher until you are acknowledged as such by your teacher. Along with that, you receive a “hula name,” i.e., a name that is chosen by your teacher to embody your spirit and lineage. Quite often, this is a variation of your own kumu’s hula name.  It’s the same in Japanese arts.  In tea, when I received my first high-level rank, I also received a chamei (“tea name”). The two-character name combined a Chinese character from the headmaster’s name with a character from my Japanese middle name. The name is a reference to my lineage.

A friend who’s a Buddhist priest informed me that the same practice is prevalent in Japanese Buddhism. If anyone claims to be an esoteric Japanese Buddhist priest, he said one of the first questions he’d ask would be “What’s your Buddhist name, and who’s your teacher?” He said he would probably be able to figure out what temple you trained at and what specific sect and subsect you belong to based on the answers. And if your name and teacher was made up, he’d also quickly figure that out too, since the naming followed certain rules that a fake might overlook.

In the jujutsu that I practice, a student will receive a budo name when he reaches full access to the “secret teachings” (okuden) of the school, and it will, as in Buddhist priests’ names, reflect both my family name and my teachers’ name and lineage.

Again, not all koryu schools will do this. Certainly, you don’t get a budo name in Eishin-ryu iai, although I was surprised that, after several years of training and correspondence, my iai teacher started to give me a budo nickname, informally giving me a martial name even though it was no longer part of the pedagogy anymore.

However, like Buddhism, tea, flower arrangement, and kabuki, you DO certainly receive a stage name for any geisha art. And that name will reflect your own geisha house lineage.

Lineage

That thefore brings us to the whole lineage thing. Modern budo doesn’t focus too much on this aspect. After all, a lot of modern budo is more sportslike, for good and for bad, not who your teacher was or who your teacher’s teacher was. It’s more like, are you technically competent to teach? Technical competence is important in the classical arts as well, but lineage is REALLY important. Who you studied with is a stamp of authenticity. You just simply cannot go up and perform Noh drama on a professional stage if you say, “Well, I learned some from watching a DVD and reading some books…”

It just can’t be done, no matter how technically proficient you may be. Alas for the wannabe’s, whether in koryu or the geisha tradition.  You need a human link. You need to go and find a living, breathing teacher. You can’t just make things up in your parent’s basement. Without the human link, you simply don’t have the connection to the source, the original founder of the system.

As my Buddhist priest friend informed me, you may want to be a Buddhist priest all you like, you can fantasize about it, but unless you have a real teacher, you’re not a priest and never will be, even though you read all the books and saw all the DVDs and YouTube videos on how to act like a priest. Unless you have a human link from you to a teacher to their teacher, all the way back to the historic Buddha, you are not a priest, because you have not had access to the spirit of the Buddha that is only transmittable from person to person.

Likewise, you can post all the videos of yourself in full yoroi armor you like on YouTube, posing and grimacing in the woods to flute music, but unless you actually studied under a koryu teacher, you’re not doing koryu. You’re indulging in some Final Fantasy cosplay.

And, sadly, the same went for the geisha wannabe that my friend pointed out to me. As much as she wants to live the fantasy of being a geisha, a fascinating woman skilled in conversation and all the traditional arts, when I saw her publicity photos and her self-descriptions, they were sadly out of kilter. It was like a geisha wannabe, with things not quite right; the makeup just a bit off enough to look more sad than alluring, the kitsuke (wearing of the kimono) just off enough to look more silly than amorous.

I saw through that charade quickly enough, though, because I’d already seen my share of koryu budo wannabe’s. And like the geisha wannabe, they too were all sadly out-of-kilter and silly.

19. Tagai No Rei…Thanking Each Other

There are times when I, as the senior member and de facto teacher of my club, get pretty frustrated with my small cadre of students. Why can’t they pick up the techniques faster? Why can’t they progress faster so I can work with them on more advanced methods? Why don’t they take on more responsibility for their self-learning? If any of you have ever taught, you will recognize the same frustrations if you have high expectations of your students.

On the other hand, there are days where the students surprise me with their enthusiasm and willingness to push beyond their comfort zone. If not for them, I would be training all by myself, with no one to work out with. If not for them, I wouldn’t have the tuition money that helps to pay for the rental space. For this, and for other things, if you are a teacher you should be grateful. If you are a fellow student, you should be also grateful for other students as well, because without them you wouldn’t have training partners to help you improve yourself.

That gratefulness is expressed best in a traditional dojo with the tagai no rei. It is usually enunciated as something like, “Otagai ni rei!”; this basically means the formal thanks (rei) you give to your peers (tagai; the O- is an honorific), usually at the end of the class. There may also be thanks given to one’s teacher(s); a senior student might lead off the bow by saying, “Sensei ni rei,” or “Give thanks to your teacher.”

In both cases, you are thanking a fellow human being for the opportunity to train and learn. This is different from the bow at the beginning and end of class in a dojo that pays thanks to an ancestor/founder/guardian deity/spirit of the system, as embodied in the little altar at the front, or kamiza of the dojo.

There are, in Japanese budo, variations. If you are training in a modern budo, such as judo or karatedo, there may not be a little Shinto shrine at the front. Modern budo systems attempted to go past family or location deities or specific religiosity and deliberately tried to be inclusive national organizations (and later, international organizations). Therefore, you may simply see a picture of the founder up front (such as Kano Jigoro for Kodokan judo, or Ueshiba Morihei for aikido), or in the case of a lot of kendo dojo here, an American flag paired with a Japanese flag, and/or a Hawaii state flag, and bowing to the flags encourage good citizenship, civic pride and respect.

A lot of budo classes are held in rec centers or rented halls, even in Japan. The multipurpose rooms may be used for volleyball practice afterwards, or ballroom dancing, so there may not even be those simple accoutrements of a flag or picture of a founder. It can’t be helped. But that’s why you’re bowing to the front of the dojo even though all that may be there may be a set of mirrors and some peeling paint off the wall. You are repeating a ritual that would be, in a properly laid out private dojo, paying respect to the ancestors/founders/deities of your ryu, or style. There’s no religion there. You’re just showing respect, like doffing your baseball cap when entering a church or high school classroom.

Even when I was doing jo (staff) in a public park, we would pay such respect by facing north and bowing to the tree line in substitution for a proper kamiza.

In one of the kobudo (older martial arts) systems I study, the bow to our ryu’s deities is rather elaborate compared to the usual bow-your-head-to-the-mat type usual bow. It involves clapping ones’ hands and several bows. This is derived from Shinto ritual, and is appropriate since our guardian deity is a Shinto presence at Atago Shrine (which, curiously, according to syncretic Shinto/Buddhist beliefs, is also a localized Japanese embodiment of the Buddhist deity Marishiten, (in India: Marici), so everybody is happy, Buddhists and Shintoists. I’m waiting for the day when some enterprising Buddhist will try to correlate such deities with Catholic saints and start selling St. Christopher medals at someplace like Yasaka Shrine…). But that’s our tradition.

As I noted, modern budo systems don’t adhere to specific Shinto or Buddhist deities as a general rule, and to try to attach one to them would be, in my opinion, artificial and opposite the very nature of a modern budo, which strives for inclusivity. This applies, I think, just as well to trying to turn modern budo into a vehicle for any specific, narrow religious or social factions. Whatever your religious persuasion or social POV, it should be left at the doorsteps. Training should be for training’s sake, not for proselytizing Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, heterosexual or homosexual practices, or the joys of transgender cross-dressing. You put on a white keikogi, and you are a budo student, period.

Then there’s the bow you give to your teacher. Of course, students should thank their teacher. If it weren’t for the teacher, there wouldn’t be any training or lessons.

But sometimes we forget to also thank, with our hearts, our fellow students. That’s what the tagai no rei is about. Some schools will formalize this show of respect at the end of practice, some won’t. Most schools will ask that you bow to your training partner before you engage with them during practice. This is also tagai no rei.

Several years ago, a judo teacher informed me of a problem in his location regarding such a bow. A judo player at a tournament refused to bow to his opponent at the beginning of a match. The judo player and his family felt that it was an imposition of his religious freedom to bow, Japanese style, because it implied some kind of Buddhist ritual. The player was kicked out of the tournament by the judo teacher. The family (the judo player’s mother was, I was also told, a former Japanese national, so there’s no accounting for general ignorance no matter what nationality you are) even took the matter to court.

The silliness of all this is that the bow to one’s opponent is a ritual, yes, but it’s one of Japanese sportsmanship, not Buddhist ritual. Players even bow to each other in Japanese baseball, certainly NOT a hotbed of Buddhism or Shinto. That’s like shaking the hands of your opponent. Or like boxers bumping boxing gloves before a match, Olympic style fencers holding their foils in a certain position to offer respect to each other, or basketball players high-fiving each other after a game. To refuse to do this might earn angry stares in other sports. In judo, the teacher and tournament organizers have every right to boot you out for not following specific sportsmanship rules as stated in their athletic organization’s guidebook. It doesn’t infringe on your freedom of religion. Rather, the student was trying to impose HIS ideas on a sport, as if he was exempt from long agreed-upon rules that governed the sport. What’s next? He’s exempt from not using a hammer to hit his opponent in the head so he can do a better osoto-gari because he thinks it’s a freedom of religion matter?

So the tagai no rei is done throughout a class. It hopefully develops proper respect for each other. You want to train hard, but you want to train with people who respect you enough that they won’t deliberately try to maim or hurt you because they have no regard for you as a human being. They respect you, and you should respect them. Budo is dangerous enough as a physical training system without having to deal with a psychopath as your partner. The tagai no rei ritualizes that respect. For some people, that ritualization may not mean all that much. They may still look at you as merely a punching bag at their disposal, but at least the form of respect tries to embody respect. It’s better than showing no respect at all. And if you find such a fellow student, just avoid the jerk.

In one of the martial arts I study, the tagai no rei before and at the end of a set of kata with someone is enough. We don’t necessarily need to bow to each other at the end of class. In another form of martial arts that I practice, the formal bowing to the teacher and the kamiza is done, class is ended, and then the students turn and bow to each other sitting in seiza. Different ways of showing tagai no rei may differ from dojo to dojo, depending on their own traditions.

Whatever way this is done, formally or informally, the tagai no rei should be an integral part of training. Or, at the very least, everyone should at least have the feeling of being thankful for having fellow students around to train with.

18. Want to do martial arts? Get a job!

Recently, when I was in Japan for advanced training, a fellow student approached me for some personal advice related to martial arts. I suppose it was because I had been training in our school for some 26-odd years, not because I was any good at it yet. He was in his late 20s, had been in Japan for three years, enjoyed a whole of fun training and was now at a crossroads. He could sign up to continue teaching English in Japan and thus enjoy more years of budo training at the source, or go back to his home across the sea. What to do?

In summary, this is what I told him, and it’s what I would tell every young student who’s enamored of budo training: Get a job, get a life first, then think about budo.

When you’re young, your passions take hold of you and doubtlessly, I’m sure that you want to do martial arts forever and ever. I was like that, but being mediocre at best also made me realize that I could never make a living off it. So I balanced training with going to school to get an education.

I told my friend that he needed to look at things long term. How will you survive in ten years, in twenty years, in thirty years? Will you be able to pay your mounting bills, look to a secure retirement, and take care of yourself as well as any family you happen to create? Taken in those terms, budo training should take a backseat. Cool your jets, young man (or woman). Project yourself out to thirty years from now and think, where would you like to be in your life in the future?

If you forsook career advancements to pursue budo, what happens in the future when you want to take a trip to Japan or China for advanced training and can’t afford it because your job doesn’t pay enough for that luxury? What happens when some of your youthful aches and pains become full blown structural damage that may require surgery to fix, and you can’t afford to pay for medical expenses? If you forsook a family because you devoted yourself solely to martial arts, would you feel your life was rich and full if you were still living by yourself in a tiny one-bedroom apartment at age 60?

Even Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary “lone samurai,” actually ended up in his latter years living with his adoptive son and then as a guest of the Hosokawa clan, who gave him enough of a stipend to live a comfortable old age.  Being a traveling loner is hard when you get into your 60s, even for Musashi. With his lodging and food taken care of, Musashi was able to write his “Gorin Sho” (“Book of Five Rings”).

I know a friend who, as a child, was crazy about karate. He wanted to do karate more than anything in his life. But he also was pretty analytical for a kid and he realized that unless he was very, very luck and very, very good at karate, he would not be able to make a living purely from martial arts. So he shrewdly chose his current profession of real estate law. Now he quickly breezes through his daily casework, finishing by the early afternoon. The rest of the workdays, he says he gets to go to watch martial arts movies, hunt for rare martial arts books, and he is able to teach and train in the evenings. Plus, his income allows him to support a large and growing family, and he feels most fulfilled now as a grandfather. Every now and then he closes his office and flies up to Okinawa to study with some of the top Okinawan karate teachers there. As a lawyer, his social status is very respected in Okinawa so he has had entrée to some of the best, most intelligent budo teachers there, some of whom are also university professors and corporate heads.

Life is good for him. It wouldn’t have been so good for him had he chosen to just do martial arts and forget about studying and establishing his career.

Here’s an opposite, cautionary tale. I have another friend. He’s probably one of the toughest guys I know in a very tough martial art style. Back “in the day,” he refused to take on anything but freelance work for his profession because he felt a regular 9 to 5 job would take too much time away from his martial arts training. He eventually became a martial arts instructor, but in a town like Honolulu where you can throw a stone down a street and hit ten martial arts teachers, making a living at it is very, very hard. Only a few really good teachers can do it. This friend manages to hold classes at his rented one-bedroom apartment once a week where he trains for up to six to eight hours at a stretch, with his students pounding each other to exhaustion. He loves it. But because he had forsaken a professional career path, and because his brand of martial arts is not easily turned into a system that can entice lots of tuition-paying children, he barely ekes by on the occasional freelance work and the low tuition he gets from his martial arts students, who are similarly income-challenged. He can’t afford a car and can’t pay for car insurance. When he gets injured in training, he has to make do with home remedies because seeing a doctor is too expensive without health insurance. He lives alone, with no family, no retirement income in the foreseeable future. And he’s pushing 60 years of age.

I suppose he’s doing what he wants to do, but is this what YOU want to do? Is this where you want to be? He might be happy with this situation, but will you be happy?

So I told my fellow student: Think long term. Where would you like to be years from now? What kind of personal relationship would you like to be in, what kind of financial situation would you like to be in? Then aim for that. And budo will have to take second place. But on the other hand, if you think long term and secure yourself personally and financially, everything else will fall into place. Doing budo and paying for the expenses of budo won’t be a struggle. Do you stay in Japan or do you return home? It’s up to you. If you stay in Japan you can study at the main dojo all the time, but does staying also add to your future career plans? Surely, if you return home you may not be as close to the “source” as you like, your training will be curtailed, but then again, if returning is your better career choice, then eventually you will be able to better finance your training, your travel to return to Japan, and everything else.

Twenty-six years ago, I continued, I lived in Kyoto in between finishing graduate school and finding a long-term career and job. It was a wonderful time in between my academic life and my “real world” life. At the end of the year, I was sorely enticed to stay, but I realized I needed to really start on a long, hard road of becoming an artist, writer and/or teacher, and it would take a lot of hard work and years of professional apprenticeship, one that would better be served back in my home of Hawaii than in Japan. It took me 26 years, but I finally managed to reach my goals, and now I’m relatively quite happy with a family, a dog, a house in the suburbs, and a retirement account that will allow me to retire some time in the future (hopefully, as long as the my retirement fund doesn’t go bankrupt and Social Security still exists).  I have enough disposable income to enjoy evenings out with my wife, and we can travel a bit. I can pay my medical bills, which seem to mount each year the older I get. I also have enough money to now and then travel back to Japan to train.

I may not be as good in martial arts as I could have been had I stayed longer, but I was realistic. I had no Sugar Daddy, I had no family endowment fund to live off. I had to pay my own way, and this is the best situation I could create. Nowadays I go back for training and I can continue my advancement. It’s slower, but I can do it and still have a rich life.

When I lived in Japan, I met someone through a mutual friend who took a different path. He loved martial arts so much that he went to Japan to study kendo. He scraped out a living teaching English at first. When those teaching jobs dried up, he decided to stay rather than return home. Some school administrator felt sorry for him and gave him a job as a part-time janitor. When I met him, he had already spent many years living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with no running water, doing kendo four to five times a week and cleaning toilets during the day. He loved it. But he was young. What happens when you start to feel the aches and pains of middle age, and living like that hand-to-mouth loses its youthful, idealistic, romantic appeal? Do you have a fallback? Do you have a career, a life?

It’s the same advice I’d give any student, even those I teach in my regular college classes in computer graphics. Sure, I’d tell a surf bum. Being young it feels like going surfing is one long endless summer. But sooner or later your good looks and your parents are not going to let you get by.  You’re going to have to pay your own way, and unless you’re one out of many thousands of surfers, you won’t be good enough to become a pro surfer. Do you have a backup or are you going to end up on welfare? As much as you love surfing, or cars, or nightclubbing, or whatever, what’s your backup? What happens when you get to be as old and ugly as me? Do you have that figured out or are you going to become just some mean and nasty irrelevant surf bum, budo bum, icky old man in a bar whose life just passed him by?

Success is measured in many ways. Even if you don’t become a millionaire, I’d say you’re successful if you lived a full, rich life, loved someone, and was loved in return. Budo training, in my opinion, can enrich such a life. But budo training alone doesn’t lead to such a life. It’s just the topping on a cake, and as much as you may love budo, don’t mistake the topping for the cake.

17. Cross Training in Martial Arts

I am of the general opinion that doing too many different martial arts systems is like chasing after too many women at the same time. It’s possible, but you won’t ever end up in a long-term, meaningful relationship that grows and matures unless everyone involved is open to polygamous marriages.

On the other hand, I’ve done quite a few different martial arts styles myself, and continue to study a couple of systems, and so I hesitate to make this a blanket judgment. Doing a couple different systems does help me to see similarities, different points of views and innovative ways of looking at the same movement of a system.  But I wouldn’t pursue too many martial arts at the same time. It can get too overwhelming, at the least.

But what I really want to espouse this time around is cross training outside of martial arts. For the well-rounded classical budoka, I think it’s a necessity. Most traditional Japanese martial arts systems are not for-profit, at least in Hawai‘i. The result of this is that the dojo may often be a rented space in a dance studio or local gym, and the teachers and rental times preclude you from training all the time, 24 hours out of every day. Maybe you train once or twice a week, at most. Or if you are in a semi-pro or professionally taught dojo, maybe three or four times a week. After all these years of training, I would suggest that an ideal situation would be to train in one system about twice a week (my own situation is far from ideal since I can only rent a space once a week) and devote the other free time you have for exercise to do some cross training.

Others may have different opinions on different training regimes. The disclaimer here is that I’m no exercise specialist, and I may indeed change my mind later on, but here’s what I’ve been thinking lately.  And it’s certainly possible to have a totally different opinion and pursue a totally different training schedule and still be in shape. But this works for me.

This blog, by the way, was inspired by a link that an aikido and jo friend posted on his Facebook page. “Everything You Know About Fitness is a Lie” (http://www.mensjournal.com/everything-you-know-about-fitness-is-a-lie) is a fascinating, provocative, entertaining article about one person’s journey to super-strength health and fitness.

Traditional budo systems are specialized. Hence, in aikido the focus is largely on joint techniques and throwing, down to the beginning of controlling holds. There’s a lot of cardio-vascular work, balance and body alignment, distancing and timing involved. Ditto karate, but it’s more fistic, punch-and-kick, not very much groundwork at all. Judo, because it’s grappling and competitive, gives you a very good cardio workout, with strength and core strength building built-in if you do the basic exercises and uchikomi properly. Kendo involves a huge amount of cardio vascular conditioning, balance and movement. There are so many varieties of classical koryu budo that I hesitate to paint them all with one broad generalization, but I would say that in most part, they provide great balance, body alignment and a base amount of cardio vascular conditioning.

Unless you have a very large component of competitive, or as one acquaintance puts it, “force on force” training or their equivalent, however, you don’t get the kind of real maximum, push through the pain, grit your teeth and get through the threshold strenuous exercise that you can find in judo, or perhaps very competitive karate or kendo.

Note, too, that there is not a lot of attention paid to sheer muscle strength building. While building cardio-vascular strength will inevitably help with muscle strength and tonality, most traditional budo do not have exercises that directly and singularly focuses on sheer muscle strength. The exceptions include some traditional Okinawan exercises that makes use of what looks like body-building equipment, such as weights, Okinawan dumbbells, and the like.

I suspect this tendency is based on the Japanese systems’ preferences for development of skill, technique and body balance over sheer brute strength. That’s a very good skill set, but over the years, I’ve concluded that all these things being equal, if you are in better shape than the other guy, that does help count for a whole lot. If a person is eminently skilled but smokes ten packs a day and can’t go through a kata without stopping to take a breath, or has whiplike fast punches but no muscle strength, then his true ability as a budoka and athlete will be very limited, “ki” power notwithstanding.

Of course, for many of us, being able to put in several sessions of budo training a week plus additional cross training is impossible. We have families, jobs, and personal responsibilities. But I’m suggesting that you can aim for your own personal athletic best if you follow some simple core principles that don’t require a lot of time or the cost of a personal trainer to work with you for years and years. Just as Daniel Duane, the writer of the article previously mentioned notes, there are some really simple guidelines you could follow and then tailor for yourself.

Look at what you are doing

Be self-critical and analyze your martial art. Do you spend 80 percent of the total time in kata training, standing up, such as in traditional karate? Do you do a lot of joint manipulation and throwing such as in aikido? What exactly are you doing and how much of it is cardio-vascular, strength building, endurance, balance, flexibility and movement, core-strength building, and so on?

Look at yourself

Look at your own physique and situation. How much endurance do you really have? How much core muscle strength? Balance? Agility? Flexibility, tone, etc.?

Do something about it

Admit to yourself what your budo training lacks and what you need to work on personally, and then create a cross training regime that fits your own body.

For example, one of the problems many of my students have is lack of core muscle strength. That’s a real foundation for everything: everyday body stresses, budo training, basic movements, etc. I have so little time to teach that I can’t spend my one training session a week with them on squats and other exercises. They need to find time in their lives to cross train. Core muscle strength is not really about super-duper big hunka muscles like the Incredible Hulk. It’s about having the strength in large basic muscle areas to do general exercises and to keep body balance and alignment in normal and stressful situations. The ability to maintain proper body alignment is due to proper muscle strength and posture. Being able to keep doing throwing techniques over and over again requires proper strength in the hip and thighs.

I’m not saying you need to turn into an Arnold Schwarzenegger type body builder. But doing some weight-bearing training does wonders for core muscle strength. And for us old timers, weight-bearing training keeps us from losing muscle mass and tone as we get older.

Doing some kind of cardio-vascular training outside of budo, such as bicycling or jogging, helps with endurance and muscle tone. Combining this with muscle core building exercises creates a strong physical foundation that makes it so much easier to do martial arts. And I’m not talking about having to always go to a gym. You can get strong by working in the yard. One of my main teachers is a landscape architect who works alongside his crew. I used to marvel at his ability to grab me in an iron grip and throw me around like I was a wet noodle. I thought it was some kind of esoteric magic. A fellow student told me, “Nah, I think it’s because he moves boulders around all day. When you can figure out how to move big rocks all the time using leverage and proper application of your body, throwing around somebody is child’s play.”

I’m old enough to remember some teachers who scoffed at cross training. Just working hard at one’s particular martial art was enough, they would say. In many budo, weight lifting was denigrated because it was felt that it would lead to muscle-bound, stiff bodies that weren’t pliant and flexible enough. That may have been true in the old days when weight training wasn’t a very well thought-out system. However, it’s been since found that a properly directed weight-bearing training regime does add to one’s training, if done properly. A groundbreaking study of weight training for judo by Donn Draeger and Isao Inokuma in 1966 (Weight Training for Championship Judo) led the way in breaking the barrier in modern budo. As another example, Western weights were neglected in professional sumo wrestling until the relatively lightweight grand champion Chiyonofuji began his winning streak in the 1980s. He incorporated weights into his grueling traditional training.

What kind of weights would I suggest? Some diehard gym rats would say that you just have to work out with regular old dumbbells and free weights. Forget the expensive machines. If you do training at home, just pick up a set of used free weights and that’s it. Just learn how to use them properly and they will last you for years.

I tend towards working out at the local YMCA with machines because they are more stable (which, many would rightly argue, is a handicap; you should use free weights because they force you to try to manage and control the weights, but they also leave you open to more possible injuries). In any case, as advocates of cross training note, you should first work on core muscle strength: build up basic muscle groups that allow you to stand, squat, and move. Squats build up thigh and hip muscles. Bench presses, dead lift type exercises, military presses. Then work on other areas, such as forearms, etc., to develop overall muscle strength. All too often in the gym, I see guys who work on their upper body muscles to get that “Arnold” look, but their legs look like Pee Wee Herman’s. Develop a regime that addresses ALL parts of your body. And when you lift, be sure to lift properly. If you’ve never done weights before, find a trainer who can spot you and give you advice on proper lifting or you may end up hurting yourself.

As an aside, don’t be blind to the pluses that martial arts do provide, by the way. Swinging a sword isn’t just cardio vascular.  If you are using a shinken or a properly balanced iaito, you are using your muscles with a weight-bearing load. That is a really good exercise because it builds up muscle strength, endurance, and body alignment and balance when handling an object, almost like free weight lifting.

This leads to another possible cross training regime: finding something that helps you align your body properly. All the weight lifting in the world won’t help if you lift weights improperly, using the wrong muscles at the wrong time. If your body has been doing things wrong for a very long time, you’re going to eventually end up in a lot of hurt that will cost you lots of money in chiropractics and maybe even surgery, and will therefore hinder your progress in martial arts.

Are you moving properly? Is your body alignment right, or does your teacher constantly tell you to “stand up straighter,” or “move with your hips, not with your shoulders”? If your posture is out of synch, you may need to take up some other cross training such as Pilates, gentle yoga or Tai Chi Ch’uan. For myself, I found that taking Tai Chi really helped me to understand body alignment and posture because it takes martial arts techniques and breaks them down into very slow, very focused movements. It forced me to pay attention to exactly how my spine is aligned, how my body leans, how my hand is linked to my wrist, to my forearm, to my shoulder, when I push forward into a punch.

Are you getting enough cardio-vascular exercise so you can effortlessly do your martial arts forms over and over again? If not, maybe you need to do additional cardio-vascular work, such as jogging, bicycling or walking. I know a person who does classical sword and jo (staff) work. He augments his training with hours of bicycling nearly every day. The bicycling also has the additional plus of giving him lots of fresh air and a fresh outlook on life, that helps not only with his budo but with clearing his mind for his regular day job. Being somewhat middle-aged, I don’t jog anymore very much (all that pounding on the pavement!) but I do feel responsible for giving my dog her daily exercise, so I spend quite a bit of time walking the dog and doing yard work that requires squatting, pulling, digging, sawing, and other strenuous activities.

In fact, I have a family history of high blood pressure. I tried martial arts, gym workouts and other regimes. Nothing worked to lower the blood pressure although I did get physically stronger. The only thing that seemed to work was a simple daily walk with my dog of about an hour or so. Doing it every day lowered my blood pressure enough to finally help me lower my medication! This didn’t cost hundreds of dollars in personal trainer fees or expensive private gym fees. I just walk my dog once a day.

As one budo person told me, “You don’t do martial arts to get into shape. You get into shape to do martial arts.” Think about that.

Therefore, don’t blame your martial arts style if it’s not giving you a total, all-around fitness regime. They weren’t meant to be that, not by themselves. It’s up to you to fill in the gaps. A martial system is only good at what it does, and it won’t solve all your health problems unless you realize that you can’t shoehorn your own particular physical needs into a basic system that you’re doing with twenty or thirty other students at the dojo. You need to take control of your own personal weaknesses, analyze your own physical attributes, see how your own martial arts are addressing them, and then see how you can fill in the gaps with your own training system. You need to take control of your own health.

By looking at your general health as the beginning foundation of your entire well being (this also implies that you should think about your mental health, too, but that’s another blog!), and that martial arts is but one part of it, you place budo in its proper context. It’s not the be-all and end-all of everything, even if you really love doing budo. Martial arts should, for those of us who are not professional martial artists, be a component of, not the only ingredient of a balanced, overall healthy mind and body.

16. See, it’s like a job…

Boy, talk about controversy. Here I was thinking maybe all of five people in the whole world read my blog and then when I posted a frustrated piece about dummies walking into my dojo, I got a whole slew of comments, arguments and replies, positive and negative. That took me off guard, not so much because some people disagreed with my blog…after all, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion…but because there was so much discussion about it.

So I’m raking the leaves in my yard this morning and thinking about it, and maybe my blatant description and frustration with bad behavior from prospective students isn’t getting through. So let me tone down the heat, cool my jets, and use a metaphor that just hit me in explaining why some people, in my eyes, don’t get it.

Trying to join a koryu is not like walking into a Burger King and being able to have it your way as long as you pay your money. It’s more like a job interview.

Sure, the koryu can seem snobby and elitist compared to most modern budo schools. That’s just how it may seem. And so one might consider my own attitude to be snobby and elitist. Maybe. On the other hand, I’ve never turned away students like how some of my cohorts have.  I’ve taken in folk who stumble when walking, who are still working on basics after ten years of training, who had tattoos up and down their entire bodies below their neckline, who had no prior background at all in any martial art. I’ve even taken in an elementary school-aged student, even though my stated policy is not to do so, because I knew the father and he begged me to let the kid in.

In my own way, I tend towards the attitude one of my former teachers had. Quintin Chambers sensei was a gentleman truly of the old school, educated at Oxford in England, trained in modern budo and koryu in Japan. I asked him once about why he let in some people who I thought were really a couple quarts short of normal, and he replied that outside of the criminally insane or simply weird, he felt that he should give anyone wishing to join a chance. They pretty much weeded themselves out anyway, he said, and the ones who aren’t serious to begin with usually drop out quickly to join something flashier and more upbeat. It’s just natural attrition.

However, I myself do temper my entrance requirements, and in my earlier article I railed on about people who come into the practice room thinking we owe them, carrying on with bad manners and an inflated self-worth.

Lest my prior article sound that snobby, I know fellow koryu teachers in the West who are even more stringent than I am. One teacher, in 20 years of teaching, has only taken on one deshi. He’s turned away everyone else because they didn’t fit his requirements. Another will tell you that if you have tattoos visible outside of a keikogi, you either have to hide them somehow or have them removed. Period. If you don’t like, there’s the door and don’t let it slam your butt on the way out. Still another teacher will simply refuse to teach people who had aikido training. He himself was a high ranking aikidoka, but he once told me that when he took in a couple of aikido students into his koryu school, they kept “moving like they were doing aikido,” not like they were doing his koryu. He gave them a couple months to change their body dynamics and attitudes. They didn’t or couldn’t. He kicked them out and for a while he didn’t care that he didn’t have any students at all. Then through word of mouth, he slowly assembled a new cadre of students, most of whom have had competitive grappling or law enforcement training. These were physically tough guys you wouldn’t want to confront in a dark alley even without koryu training. They moved more “realistically” he said, more like what his particular ryu demanded.

Do I think they’re more snotty and elitist than me? Nope. They’re the teachers. They make the rules and if you don’t like it, hey, there’s a different dojo down the street. They’re not into building up martial arts empires. They are into passing on a very specialized koryu system only to people who they think are worth their time and effort, because life is too short for them to be teaching some prima donnas or people who will drop out when the going gets just a little too tough.

So anyway, I’m raking the leaves and my dog is begging me to play with her by holding a squeaky toy in her mouth, and it dawned on me. …I thought of a great metaphor:

There are some modern budo schools and a whole lot of koryu schools in which joining is less like paying your money and then expecting some kind of service, and more like applying for a job. …And you may not necessarily get the job even if you wanted it.

You see, as much as you think you want to get something out of training in a koryu, becoming a part of a koryu means you must shoulder some responsibilities of being part of a living, breathing legacy, and not disgracing that legacy and that school. As much is expected of you as you might be expecting of the training.

That is why, when you present yourself, it’s really important to put your best foot forward, like it’s a job interview. …Because you really are being scrutinized to see if you are a good fit for the ryu.

So the father and son who got me ballistic because they horsed around and showed a lack of attention? Of course I had a bad impression of them. If it was a job interview and the kid came in and started playing noogie noogie on my head or tried to fool around with my computer before I could even ask him questions about his education or work experience, I would have shown him out the door without even a fare-thee-well.

Or what about the person who came in to observe a class and instead spent half the time stretching out and demonstrating his front kicks to impress me? …Would you do that in a job interview? Would you play with your cell phone or Nintendo while the interviewer was trying to explain the job responsibilities?

The latter person came up to me after class ended, full of self-confidence, asking about joining the class. I gave him the particular information, and then he asked about how often we gave promotion tests, because, of course, he saw no problem in learning things quickly because he was sooooo good at it. I replied that in a really old koryu, there are no “tests.” The teacher trains with you so intensely, one-on-one, that he KNOWS how good you are, he doesn’t have to give you a test to find out. You get your rank when the teacher thinks you deserve it. That was the first of several replies that threw him for a loop, but he still insisted that he was going to join us from the next class because he thought he could get a “black belt” in no time at all.

In both cases, after they left, I turned to my students and said, “I’ll bet you guys good money that he/they won’t come back again.”

And you know, they didn’t. So why waste my time and their time trying to encourage such people to join my class when they aren’t really a good fit anyway?

On the other hand, there was a gentleman who showed up at the same time as the father and son. He asked to observe the class, we talked a bit and he said that he had only a limited background in martial arts. He “wasn’t that good.” That was so unlike the father and son, who touted their aikido and kendo training, who said they didn’t have any questions because they knew all they needed to know, and so on. The father and son fooled around with applying joint locks on each other when they saw us working through some jujutsu kata. The other guy simply sat quietly, intently watching us train. At the end, the father and son just bagged. They walked out the door laughing and still horsing around like two kids. The other gentleman came up to me and asked very good questions about time, tuition, affiliation, and so on. He asked if he could join, and when I said he could, he asked about a training outfit.

Of all the examples, he was the only who subsequently showed up to train, and he’s still training as of this date. So not only did he show the right attitude, he had the right intent, and his attitude was on display because he presented himself as if he was asking for a job, not demanding a right to train like you would demand how done your hamburger is at Burger King. He realized that he had no God-given right to join, he had to ask and I had to allow admittance, just like a job interviewer sums you up from your interview and your resume.

Later, I found out that his “limited background” in martial arts really meant several years’ worth of a very rough and tough system. He wanted to do martial arts again, after dropping it to get a busy, demanding job and raise a family, but couldn’t go back to his old system where sparring would be so bad that sometimes people had to miss work because they were injured so badly. We were a lot less accident-prone, perfect for his needs, and he is perfect for us because he brings a maturity and natural athletic ability that helps to raise the bar for the rest of the students. He brings as much to the class, or even more, than what we can possibly teach him, and for that I’m grateful for him, as I am for each of my students, no matter their particular athletic abilities.

He realized joining a martial arts school is not a Constitutional right; it’s a privilege that he had to be worthy of, and he carried himself appropriately.

If that attitude and expectation of prospective students is elitist and snobby, then I am proud to be guilty as charged.