80. A link on self-defense

All, a very interesting article on “self-defense” and the US legal system by Marc MacYoung:
(Partial quotes:), from his “Latest Thoughts” page (http://marcmacyoung.com/LatestThoughts.htm):

“…Do yourself a favor and don’t limit your training on this subject to just the physical. Unfortunately in most training, there is entirely too much emphasis on ‘winning’ in a violent situation. A popular fad is how to overcome the freeze response and explode into blindingly fast response time. People are afraid of failing in a self-defense situation, and that’s what they want to know. I will say: This new training is good, it is important.

But so too is what I call ‘planning for success.’ If you successfully use your training, there WILL be an aftermath. An aftermath that can be more complicated and dangerous (in other ways) than the original situation. This article is to introduce you to just one aspect of the aftermath.

Unfortunately — in most so-called ‘self-defense’ training — subjects like avoidance, violence dynamics (de-escalation and deterrence), ‘do you have to engage’ decision making, and legal consequences are all given a hand wave. By this I mean: “Oh sure we teach that too, now let’s spend the next six hours learning how to bust someone up” or “Well, obviously you should try and escape, but here’s all the things you can do with your weapon when you can’t escape.”

There is no denying that this kind of training is fun and exciting. It is a confidence builder. It can be good exercise. It also can be very powerful fear management, but it is not danger management.”

79: Go For Broke

I’ve often wondered how to fold the story of the Nisei Soldier into an appropriate discussion of budo. With the recent passing of US Senator Dan Inouye, a 442nd Regimental Combat Team veteran, and praise for his service in the military and in politics, I think it’s time to say something from my perspective.

Hopefully by now most of my few wonderful readers know about the 100th Batallion/442nd. Inouye was a member of that legendary unit, and his last combat exploit earned him a belated Medal of Honor.

As a journalist for a local Hawaii Japanese American journal, I had the privilege of interviewing Inouye once, on political matters, and frequently interviewing many of his fellow 442nd “Go for Broke” (a reference to a Hawaii gambler’s cry of betting everything all at once) cohorts, as well as Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) who served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) as translators in the Pacific, and the 1399th, a corps of construction engineers. I’ve also researched their history and lore as part of several articles I wrote for that journal.

What I think is the relevant take-away for budo folk is a theme I keep going back to: heart and spirit in budo training is as important as technique and process. It’s true in budo as it’s true in the more serious and deadly domain of combat. Proper training in budo, be it classical or modern, should be as much about forging a spirit and heart as it is about physical competitiveness. It becomes more so the older you get, I think.

The 100th/442nd amassed more unit citations and individual awards than any other Army unit of its size and duration of battle. Its rescue of the Texas “Lost Battalion” (1st Battalion, 141st Infantry, 36th Infantry Division) is considered by the US Army as “one of the top ten land battles” in the entire history of the United States Army.

What drove such men to such feats? When I used to talk to them, it was hard to imagine those old, graying geezers as heroes in the mold of back-talking wise guys like you see in action movies. They were stooped, white-haired, gentle old men with twinkles in their eyes. They were much more comfortable talking about the fun they had, such as making chicken hekka in the middle of a German countryside, than in their exploits on the battlefield. Or how the mess crew had to scrounge and finagle to get enough rice to feed the unit. Or how they loved dancing with the tall, blonde haole girls at socials near Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

Yet, one old newsreel stands out. As the 442nd began to amass its stunning record in World War II, the national news began to play up the uniqueness of their ethnicity. The Japanese nation was at war with America, yet a group of ethnically Japanese was fighting for the US. Why? And why did they fight so hard?

One soldier replied, well, it was because they were a combination of “Yamato damashii” and American fighting spirit. Interesting notion. But probably rooted in a real ethos. These kids…and they were literally kids fresh out of high school at the time…had been raised in a multi-ethnic environment. They could play the ukulele and dance hula better than they could sing any Japanese patriotic song. Yet, their parents admonished them to live by traditional, old-fashioned standards of honor, humility and hard work. When they went off to the US military, many of them were given sennin-bari, the thousand-knit belly warmers given to samurai for safety, woven by everyone in the community. Their parents, emigrants from Japan, told them to fight with “honor,” and to “not bring shame upon the family,” old Japanese warrior ideals.

…That is, if their parents were there to see them off. I remember one family’s story. Two of the boys were debating whether to volunteer for active service. Their father had been detained and sent to a Mainland Internment camp, his only crime that of being a Buddhist minister, a person involved in Japanese cultural and religious activities. Why should they fight for a country that locked up their dad?

“Because you have to. America is your country now,” their mother told them. “Japan is not your country.”

But as much as they had Japanese ideals inculcated in them from their parents and after-school Japanese language schools, they also attended public schools, where they had civic lessons in American culture. The ideals of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln were part of their upbringing. The late US Representative Sparky Matsunaga wrote in his memoirs that he used to argue constantly with his Social Studies teacher. The teacher lectured about the ideals of American freedom and equality. Matsunaga said that was all right and good but it’s not true. Many ethnic Americans, including Japanese Americans, were excluded from fully participating in many economic and cultural opportunities. And look at the segregation of African Americans on the US Mainland. The teacher replied that it was therefore up to his generation to fight for those ideals. America wasn’t done, it was in the making. Nothing comes easy.

That’s not to say they were altogether stoic and stuffy cardboard cutout heroes. A lot of them were given gifts of money when they left the Islands for Mainland training camps. And a lot of them lost their money in the nonstop gambling at craps and cards on the freight ship to San Francisco. The “local” boys from Hawaii typified local Hawaii outspokenness and rowdiness. They got into so many fights with their Mainland Nisei counterparts over misunderstandings with their pidgin English patois that the Caucasian commanding officers came close to disbanding the unit before they saw their first combat. The Nisei from Hawaii were willing to pick fights with anybody who looked at them cross-wise at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, be it other GIs or redneck civilians. When they were told to use the “Whites” toilets instead of the “Coloreds” toilets at the movie theaters, so that they wouldn’t face the same prejudice that African Americans faced in the South during that time, some of them simply urinated on the wall in between the two entrances. “We weren’t black and we weren’t white, after all,” one veteran told me.

Another veteran recalled to me how a bunch of them got into trouble for commandeering a bus. They were on their way back to camp, after a night of dancing with the local girls and drinking, when the bus stopped at a stop and an elderly black woman wanted to get on. The driver told her that there was no room in the back of the bus for “colored” folk so she had to get the next bus. It was late. The lady protested that she had just pulled a night shift as a cleaning lady and her feet were tired. The driver told her she could walk, then. She tried to get on, and he pushed her, sending her sprawling on the pavement. The GIs saw the exchange. They offered her a seat up front with them. The driver still refused to let her on. So, the veteran laughed, “We beat his ass and kicked him off the bus, took the lady on the bus, and drove the bus to her house, dropped her off, dropped everybody else off, and got back to camp.” The next morning they were reprimanded from their commanding officer, who couldn’t help laughing while he was yelling at them. They weren’t angels.

In addition, the ranks of the “Hawaii boys” were stuffed with high school and amateur athletes; football players, baseball players, Golden Gloves boxers, judoka, kendo competitors. When I was at their clubhouse, a veteran pointed out a photo of a veteran. “He was, I think, fifth dan in kendo already by the time we got to Basic Training. But he was the smallest guy in our group. So the drill instructor picked on him to beat up during the first bayonet practice. He beat the crap out of the drill instructor.”

It also helped that the average intelligence tests of the unit showed that the majority of the 442nd volunteers had enough aptitude to enter officer’s school. A veteran showed me a scrapbook of his artillery unit once. After the war, he went on to law school, became a lawyer, a judge and a state representative. He showed me a photo of his buddies in his unit. “This guy became a Federal District judge on the Mainland, this guy became a doctor, and this guy became a professor…” Nearly all the people in his unit took advantage of the GI bill and became white-collar professionals. They were smart.

While the draftees of the 100th Battalion were already fighting in North Africa and Italy, up to Monte Cassino, the volunteer 442nd was formed and then trained. And trained. And trained. The problem was, as I was told, that nobody wanted them. They were enemy “Japs.” Army commanders were afraid that they would turn on them. So they kept training longer than the usual combat unit’s duration of Basic Training before they were finally assigned to a theater of combat. That led to a very, very well trained unit. A veteran with the unit’s field artillery said that they trained so much, they scored among the top for firing accuracy over and over again.

So you had unit cohesion, perfected training, intelligence, motivation and spirit. That’s a perfect blend for a combat unit, and interestingly enough, the best description of what budo training should be about.

Eventually the 442nd joined up with and absorbed the 100th Battalion, fought up the boot of Italy, through to the gates of Rome, and then fought in France (where they faced combat in the Vosges Mountains and rescued the Lost Battalion), before being split up. The infantry units were sent back to Italy to break through the Siegfried Line, while the 522nd FA Field Artillery unit was detached and joined General Patton’s push into Germany. The Americans had been stymied for months at that line of emplacements in the Italian Alps. The 442nd climbed up the slopes in the night and routed the crack units under Field Marshall Albert Kesselring in one morning.

The forward spotters for the artillery unit entering Germany moved so far ahead of the field artillery that they became among the first Allied forces to break into the concentration camps at Dachau. Their recollections of seeing the camps were heartbreaking. It haunted them for decades, and when some of them recounted their stories to me, it still seemed incredulous, to them, that such horrors were visited on human beings.

For all that, unless you were part of their group of fellow veterans, it was often hard to get them to open up and talk about themselves or their battlefield exploits. They would rather talk about the funny incidents than any act of heroism, and it was only until some books were written and they had gotten much older and further removed from the horrors of war that they began to talk openly. One veteran said, “We didn’t want to talk too much because that would sound like bragging, but we realized that our kids and grandkids would never know what we went through.” So in their latter years, they began to open up. It was about time, and it was a good thing they did, else much would have been lost.

The toll of war was heavy on them, though. I used to invite Nisei veterans to speak to my Ethnic Studies class when I taught at the University of Hawaii. Most of them would recount their unit actions, their history, their funny anecdotes. Few of them spent too much time discussing details of actual battles.

However, one veteran, the late Mike Tokunaga, told a story about the time he was scouting a hill. It was a beautiful day. The tall grass was waving in the wind, leaves glinting in the bright sunlight. He crouched as he advanced up the rise, then stood up at the summit and found himself staring at an enemy soldier not ten feet in front of him, doing the same thing. They were both surprised and raised their guns at the same time. “I was lucky,” he said. “I got the shot off first. I shot him. And he looked like he was younger than me, just a teenager. A beautiful young man with blue eyes, blonde hair. And I killed him instantly.”

He paused. Quiet in the room. He asked if there were any questions. A student from Japan raised her hand. She said, “I don’t know, but your stories…they sound like they are glorifying war.”

Mike shook his head. “No. We decided to tell our stories not to glorify war. We are telling them because we don’t want war like that to ever happen again. War is a horrible thing. That young boy…it was him or me. I didn’t find it glorious that I had to kill him. I’m telling you these stories because I don’t ever want any of you young people to ever think it is glorious. It is horrible. It’s not like a video game. I hope you learn and don’t take war lightly ever again.”

Bringing it back to budo: I myself am not a veteran. In my youth, I don’t think I would have fit into the military. I was too much of an iconoclast, an artist, a misfit. But I’ve always looked at budo as a way that kept me on a straight path when so many things in the rest of my life was chaotic, and it wasn’t just because of the physical exercise. It had to do with the ideals and mental and spiritual goals of the training. The goals of a unit like the 442nd may be different; that of combat, but the mental and spiritual ideals are so similar to budo training done right: honor, loyalty, taking responsibility, compassion, and unit cohesion. We can take a lot of lessons from them, and honorable military units like theirs.

They served, and America is better for it.

78. Budo and Class

A budo student of mine recently sent me an Internet link to an article and video, thinking it might make for good commentary on this blog. The article described a recent MMA fight in which one of the participants gave a middle-finger salute, to his opponent, in the middle of the fight. This fighter has done it before in the past, in other fights. But perhaps as a kind of poetic justice, he lost that match. So much for his bad behavior. The guy is a loser.

I thought about the incident a lot, and not just in particular. Boorish behavior, I realized, is all over “martial arts.” There’s no getting around it. It happens. But if you narrow it down to budo; the Martial Ways (implying a kind of spiritual as well as physical training) of Japan, it’s frowned upon. It’s not part of the classical warrior’s code. What that guy did in his sport may be fine for his sport. So if that’s what their sport is all about, then go for it. Who am I to say anything about boorish behavior there?

However, in the context of Japanese culture and history, the bujutsu arts, or bugei, the predecessors of modern budo, were the fighting arts of a warrior class. It was a hereditary social class that prided itself on its traditions and heritage. As a social class, no matter the personal wealth, a member of the buke was expected to carry himself or herself in a certain way, as the “flower” of society, as a representative of all that was good and noble about the culture.  He had to have “hin” (elegance or quality, as my martial arts teacher would tell me).

Especially in times of war such ideals are, of course, often abridged or forgotten. The history of Japanese classical wars is rife with episodes of rank brutality, traitors, turncoats, atrocities perpetrated on civilians, the purposeful slaughter of innocents, the torture of the weak and defeated. Seppuku, the act of ritual suicide so fascinating to Western Japanophiles, may have arisen not just out of a sense of honor (to avoid the shame of being captured alive) but out of fear of incredibly cruel torture.

And yet, from the earliest beginnings of the warriors on to their self-imposed demise in the Meiji Period, countless samurai philosophers have stressed the necessity to embed altruistic ideals in the head of the practical fighting bushi, be it man or woman. Different clans and families created many kadenho, or “house rules” that described the comportment and attitude a warrior should take. Bujutsu teachers would write not only about the technical, tactical and strategic implications of their art, but also about the way to develop a proper mindset, and how to confront and survive the chaos of battle, the mind being the last battlefield. They realized that a brutalized warrior was not a warrior at all, but a beast, a madman. To contain the madness of war, the violence of combat, and to survive in times of peace, a samurai had to adhere to a set of guiding principals that made him more than just a killer of humans. He had to live up to a higher sense of purpose.

Much of the writing may be culture-specific. Every culture will have a different view of what war and combat is all about. For example, Maori warriors would stick their tongues out at British redcoats during the colonial wars in New Zealand. Even more disdainfully, some of them would drop their clothes and moon the Brits with their exposed rear ends, although I suspect that they were mindful of being just out of accurate musket range after a few such encounters in which they might have been shot in the buttocks. The peruperu style of haka, an aggressive war chant, was performed before battle between Maori tribes, with exaggerated gestures and postures, to scare the enemy.

By contrast, samurai are encouraged to be understated and restrained. It’s influenced by classical Japanese society. Being upper class meant being elegant, noble, and wise, sort of like a medieval “Jedi Knight.” Think of the contrast between two characters in Kurosawa Akira’s epic movie, “Seven Samurai,” between the leader of the samurai, who epitomizes the best traits of the bushi, and Mifune Toshiro’s character, a samurai wannabe.

Kanbei, played by Shimura Takeshi, is introduced to us in a scene that describes his selflessness. In order to rescue an infant held hostage by a thief, he nonchalantly shaves his head to pretend to be a priest, in order to get close enough to the criminal. For many Westerners, the shot of him cutting off his topknot and shaving his head by a river is a throwaway scene. For Japanese, however, it’s a momentous moment. The topknot hairdo signifies warrior status. To cut it off usually meant you were being thrown out of your caste, or forgoing all your ranks and privileges to become a pauper, farmer or priest. Yet, Kanbei easily cast aside the outward trappings of his hereditary rank in order to save the life of a farmer’s child. For farmers and onlooking samurai alike, that act of humanity, and his superlative martial handling of the criminal, was a cause for great admiration, so much so that a young warrior intent on learning how to “be a samurai” asks to become his student. It’s not just about technical ability to swing a sword or throw people around. It’s about mental and spiritual training. Kanbei gathers his group of warriors who follow him not for riches or victory (one samurai comments early on that he thinks it’s a losing cause. Again. But, unlike other battles for land and power, a noble one. So he’ll join the group not for glory or riches, but to follow this noble leader one more time.)

One may argue that in this day and age of predator drones and missile attacks, that the lessons of the bushi are archaic. Perhaps. And much of it is, as I noted, culture-specific (learning how to properly dress a decapitated head for presentation to one’s lord is, after all, not something I’m going to ever use in my job as a college professor, after all). On the other hand the general admonitions to humanity, humility, elegance, humbleness, fortitude, rectitude and so on do still resonate across time and cultures. Those same traits are admirable in many different cultures and military and warrior traditions. In large part, they form the ethos of what philosopher Joseph Campbell called the Universal Hero, the evolving epic hero of all great adventures in all times. Maybe we don’t read much about samurai heroes like Kanbei or Kusunoki Masashige, or the woman warrior Tomoe Gozen, but the same archetypal warrior-philosopher-hero can be found in modern epics, such as “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Batman,” and so on. We may have moved away from Achilles’ grief, from the tales of King Arthur’s struggle to bring peace to England, from even the “Gods and Generals” of our own epic Civil War, but pop culture still serves our need for tales of unadulterated, selfless heroism.

Even on a practical level, such lessons may still be relevant. One of my students is now on his third tour of Afghanistan. He’s a smart guy, so he eventually ended up in charge of the day-to-day intelligence gathering from captured insurgents. He was quick to point out that the US Army doesn’t do waterboarding or torture. Instead, the military quickly re-discovered that the best way to get a prisoner to spill his guts was to treat him with honor and dignity. It was a technique first perfected in modern times by a German officer, of all people, during World War II. He interrogated captured British and American officers. As my student noted, that officer didn’t torture anyone. He simply sat down and offered food, coffee and cigarettes, and lent a sympathetic ear. He became, in an odd way, sort of like their new Best Friends Forever, albeit it was for the purposes of extracting military secrets. Before long, he had his prisoners unknowingly telling him all sorts of important information. His skill at parlaying his small acts of kindness into usable information was so good that during the postwar War Crimes trials, his former Allied prisoners became his staunchest defenders.

My student and his Army cohorts use the same concepts. The way to treat a prisoner, he said, is not to humiliate them (unlike what was done at Iraq’s Abu Graib Prison), not to torture, not to debase. Most of the insurgents have had a rough enough life already. Some are mentally retarded. Some are drugged out and forced to be suicide attackers. Some were sold into the Taliban by cash-strapped families. Only a few are hardcore fanatics. Most of them react best to human kindness and empathy, sometimes the first act of kindness they’ve ever received in years. Torture them and they will only tell you what you want to hear, not what may be the truth.

That is just one example of how lessons learned from classical warrior training and philosophy still have relevance. I could go on and on with other examples drawn from the historical record and from anecdotes I heard from veterans of war.

But basically, the way you survive, mentally as well as physically, is to have a secure set of values that enable you to see yourself not as a bully, aggressor or murderer, but as a warrior, with a set of values and ideals that set you apart from the terrorist, rapist and criminal. The classical bujutsu systems knew this, and trained you overtly and subliminally, in a value set. A lot of modern budo also attempt to do the same, although not all teachers and not all schools recognize this beyond giving lip service to those ideals.

As far as “sports” goes, however, what relevance does old-fashioned warrior attitudes have? Again, it depends. Perhaps the modern MMA style fighting is encouraging a kind of behavior in keeping with the subculture of the fans and its athletes. That’s their kuleana (property) then, and I shouldn’t butt in. If bad behavior sells, then go for it. It’s all about the money, after all.

I doubt, however, that if the sport’s businesspeople want to further expand the appeal of the sport and make even more money, they really should allow or encourage such behavior. It doesn’t make good business sense. A lot of parents will just frown on having such foul-mouthed, lewd and rude people serve as role models for their kids, who spend a lot of money on tickets and merchandising. That’s why big money sponsors of sports like professional basketball and football have clauses in players’ contracts that kick in if the athletes act badly. Acting like a jerk affects the bottom line. Even, I would hazard to opine, in a blood sport.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? People forget that in America, “class” is not really a matter of your heritage or wealth. It’s how you comport yourself, and part of being willing to get an education is to learn, inevitably, what it means to have class. –As in having some common sense, common courtesy and propriety. Sometimes we forget that being “classless” means not having a social hierarchy based on accident of birth.  You do not have to be born into some kind of warrior class to take on the noblest attributes of that ancient social class. You do not have to be uber wealthy to be magnanimous and charitable, or learn a bit of decorum and social etiquette, such as how to eat properly when at a restaurant that gives you cloth napkins instead of paper towels. Give me a break, I’m not Miss Manners, but it irks me to see kids at our college cafeteria hunch over their lunches, one hand surrounding their plate, the other holding their forks in a fist and shoveling food into their mouths and talking at the same time. And that’s just the girls. That’s like jailhouse etiquette; eating and making sure nobody steals your food or you’ll stab them in the eye with your fork.

In the case of that fighter, well, he’s a minor footnote in a sport that is struggling to gain repute and acceptance as a mainstream spectator sport. He’ll fade away sooner rather than later. The impact that he and others of his ilk have on youngsters, however, will last longer. Give me more time and I can harangue your eardrums about how bad behavior in pop culture icons lead directly to bad behavior in my teenage students at the college I teach at. It’s gotten to a point where I post copies of the Student Code of Conduct in each of my classes because, inevitably, I get one or two students who think it’s funny, creative or visually appealing to turn in digital art projects that are lewd, obscene, misogynistic, racist, sexist, abusive, full of illegal drug iconography, or violence-prone, with literally no redeeming social value. That’s their milieu. That’s the kind of pop culture they live in. But that’s not college, and that’s not showing class or intelligence. If they aspire to go beyond what their lives are, they need to learn a new way of thinking. Only a few days ago I had to zero out a student’s project grade because she turned in a web site design where the big photograph on her main page was of her giving the viewer a two-fisted middle finger salute. Like that’s funny, ha-ha. I had to explain to her how that was simply in poor taste, with no sense of composition, creativity or layout. And that obscenity does not equal creativity.

Much of classical bujutsu training is completely foreign to this kind of mentality. To think that one should have dignity and a sense of class! Who do we think we are? The sad thing is, many youngsters may have that pugnacious attitude but pop culture is conversely so full of attempts to strive towards a sense of such classiness: Jedi Knights, noble superheros, knights in shining armor, elegant elves with bows and arrows, samurai warriors. But so many youngsters forget that, as that old Spider-Man movie noted, “with great power comes great responsibility.” To become a hero, you have to act like one, not like a gangsta wannabe.

We think that being class-less means that we should forget about basic social etiquette and proper decorum all the time. That’s not classless. That’s just no class.

77. Nyuunanshin: Being “open” to your feelings

The second that I hefted the new student’s bokken (wooden practice sword) I confirmed what my eyes were telling me. Just by looking at it, I thought that the length, shape and balance of the sword was going to be off. I held it in a seigan no kamae (middle level position) and its weight in my hands confirmed my visual inspection. I said, “Nope. Better not to use it. Its balance is off. If you keep on using it, you’re going to develop problems in your shoulder because of its bad balance, and your technique will suffer as you try to counteract the bad balance by straining your muscles.”

I showed him the balance point of other, cheaper bokken made in Japan. Their balance, as well as an iaito I had nearby, were similar. The odd one out was his bokken. I knew his former teacher specified that style of sword, I said, familiar with his old sensei. But I disagreed with his old teacher’s self-formulated concepts and methods. Not only that, some of his assertions ran counter not just to my own teachings, but made no sense against all the sensei I studied under, and all the technical books I read about traditional Japanese swordsmanship. The newbie’s former teacher was flat out wrong, any which way I could look at it, as long as he claimed to be teaching some kind of weapons work based on traditional Japanese swordwork. If the teacher doffed his hakama and Japanese-style katana, then I wouldn’t say anything. “New Age knife fighting” is out of my league, and so I wouldn’t comment on anything he’d do thereafter. But Japanese swordsmanship; that’s another story. I’ve studied under several different sword systems, from among the oldest, to the most modern, with several different methodologies, and learned to accept what each teacher was teaching me, as I searched for the best answers to fit my own situation and training situation. And my conclusion, after all those years and training, was that this wooden sword was going to wreck his shoulders.

Now in fact, there is no real monolithic edifice, no singularity to “Japanese swordsmanship” outside of modern kendo and the standardized modern iaido systems. Alongside these large organizational structures and methodologies are a bevy of styles, or ryuha, especially among the existing koryu (classical Japanese martial arts). Each koryu, I found, has slightly different variations on handling a bladed weapon. So I can understand variations. I can also understand, however, when something is so totally out of left field, it’s not even in the ball park of “Japanese swordsmanship.”

Anyway, with that in mind, and short of practice weapons that night, I said, “Well, you can use it tonight but you should bear in mind my opinion, and try to get a cheap bokken that has a better balance later on. It will save your shoulders from getting all messed up, believe me.”  I left it at that. But the student came back the following practice, carrying the same sword, even after I told him it was not balanced properly, at least for my dojo.

It’s an odd habit among some newbie students who have prior martial arts training. They can’t let go. If they can’t let go of old habits that don’t fit in the new environment of my dojo, why even train with me? It’s like the old saying of having their cup too full, they can’t absorb anything substantially new.

It’s also symptomatic of a problem among many young and gung-ho students, who are taken up by some charismatic teacher or system that they think answers all their martial arts problem forever after perhaps only a year or two of training. They don’t have the quality of nyuunanshin, something every student should have from the first day of training to their last days as a master teacher.

Nyuunanshin roughly translated means having a “flexible, pliant, generous spirit.” It’s having an attitude of being open to one’s feelings, environment, and situation, and trying to adapt instead of trying to be like an unmoving, solid block of wood. It’s sort of a contrast to the notion of fudoshin (being immovable, like the implacable god Fudo-Myoo); but fudoshin concerns a spirit of facing adversity. Nyuunanshin is not so much about a combative mind as it is about being able to grasp or accept concepts in a learning environment. It’s not about being a pushover; you do have convictions. But you are flexible enough to look at all sides and then make a conclusion.

There’s lots of examples for nyuunanshin. Let’s say you’re a highly ranked black belt in karate, but you realize you lack enough grappling skills. If you have nyuunanshin, you may seek out a judo or grappling school and willingly put on a white belt and start at the beginning to learn how to ‘rassle. You don’t need to put on airs about your karate rank. Or if you are a grappler, you realize that you may need to understand the mechanics of throwing a punch better, so you seek out a pugilistic school, or at least find someone who can give you the rudiments of punching and kicking, if only to learn how to defend against such attacks better.

I remember once training with a master teacher of my jujutsu school. His techniques were incredibly fast and whiplike. How did he do it? He showed me some exercises that he devised to develop strong hips, legs and arms. I told him that they reminded me somewhat of some tai chi ch’uan exercises I had learned. He said, “Of course, that would make sense, because I also studied tai chi ch’uan and aikido, and adapted some of what I learned that helped me to understand my jujutsu better. Wouldn’t you do that too? You take every experience in your life to understand everything else. You don’t isolate and compartmentalize your learning.”

He explained one of the sayings of our school. Although it is well over 450 years old, and stands a great deal on tradition, the saying was: “It is important to protect and pass on the true traditions of your teacher and the teachers before him and her. But it is not enough to only preserve the old. You must extend it and add to it.” In other words, you have to constantly seek to improve the tradition by fine-tuning it, based on your own experience and accumulated wisdom, while keeping to the tradition.

You have to have nyuunanshin, in other words. You have to be able to be open minded enough to see how something else can add to your understanding of the techniques.

So I watched how a student in my school who’s a top flight chef and restaurant owner handled his short sword, because he really had experience slicing things apart with a sharp knife. The best session I had in terms of learning standing dislocation techniques was when I worked with a teacher whose real occupation was as a chiropractor and bone-setter. He brought his work experience with him when it came to figuring out how to work with joints.

In what I consider one of my biggest technical challenges, I met up with a fellow student of my  late iai teacher a year ago and he showed me how he had changed his techniques based on how our sensei started to teach before he passed away, and how the best iai teachers in the ryu began to teach, going back to what they thought were more “koryu-ish” roots; abandoning the prior kendo-influenced techniques. It was up to me, he said, to stick with the kendo-influenced seitei style or change over. He wasn’t going to make up my mind for me. But I thought I had to be flexible enough, have enough nyuunanshin to weigh the pluses and minuses, the technical and political implications of the choice I had before me, and then I abandoned what I had previously learned and taught for the new way of cutting and moving, because I thought technically and organizationally, what he was now espousing was better. I had to start all over again, but once I felt the “new” old way was better, I couldn’t go back to doing it the old “wrong” way.

These are all examples of what nyuunshin could be. Having nyuunanshin is NOT about dropping one art for another, willy nilly, without careful thought and consideration. It’s not about having no backbone or convictions. It IS about having an open mind and an ability to sort through things on your own, without relying on prejudiced and uninformed dogma.

Nyuunanshin is also about being sensitive and open to the environment and the equipment, and that comes only from years of proper training. For example, it’s like a good judoka who has the ability to “feel” an opponent’s attempt at a throw before he fully executes it. A lot of mental and physical attributes go into this ability (such as being able to assess the opponent’s plans by sensing the tenseness of his muscles under the sleeves that you are grasping), and so on, but you can generalize all those characteristics by saying “nyuunanshin.”

It’s the sensitivity of a tea person who can, in the middle of a complex ritual, intuitively judge the temperature of the hot water in the kettle and make a bowl of tea neither too hot nor too cold, too thick or too thin. The tea person will gauge the water’s temperature by the room temperature relative to the steam rising out of the kettle, the sound of the simmering water in the kettle (called “matsukaze,” or “wind in the pines”), the season of the year, the moisture in the tea powder.

Nyuunanshin is the ability of a sushi chef who can look at you and say a few words, and then figure out what kind of sushi you would enjoy, without you telling him.

And, eventually, it’s the ability of a swordsman to pick up a sword and being experienced and sensitive enough to use it like an extension of his body, as long as the sword is balanced right.

How do you get nyuunanshin? Well, practice is the main road to that goal. But it’s purposeful practice. Or as Vince Lombardi, that great sensei of the NFL football team, the Green Bay Packers, said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” In other words, if you train properly, you will naturally develop a sense of nyuunanshin. But that’s a big “if.”

The “ifs” include: if you have the proper open minded attitude, if you have the willingness to  set your mind to trying to grasp the conceptual as well as technical skills behind the raw motor skills you are learning, if you have a proper teacher, and if you are learning the right system.

Finally, a concluding anecdote: a few weeks ago I wandered into my favorite budogu shop in Japan after a morning of sightseeing, quite on the spur of the moment. I ordered a new hakama to replace one that I had damaged, and while I was waiting for the receipt, I glanced at the rack of iaito swords. Bad idea. I was intrigued and asked to see a couple of the swords. I mused about replacing my present practice iaito. It was several years old, getting a bit worn at the handle, and perhaps I thought that at my doddering old age, I should move up to something with a bit more durability and quality. I started with the higher priced swords at the cheap end. I took one out of its scabbard, felt its balance. Not bad. Just like my old sword.

Then the clerk took another sword off the rack. It was slightly more expensive than I would have liked, but she put it down on the glass display case, on top of a felt blanket right in front of me.

“You really should try this, though,” she said, noticing my hesitancy. “All the sensei here recommend it, and many of them use this model themselves.”

Why is that, I asked? What would make it that much different in price? Was it the fittings and the handle wrapping, which looked a bit more high quality? She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Why don’t you try it?”

I pulled the iaito out of its saya. Cosmetically, it looked just a tad better than the standard issue beginner’s student grade sword I had been looking at. Okay, so it looked more like a real sword. Then I held it in my two hands. Immediately, it FELT right. The balance felt perfect, like no other iaito I had ever bought or used. I held it in one hand. I moved it around. It was heavier than my current iaito, but it moved as if by itself, it was so well balanced.

“Why don’t you try swinging it outside in our courtyard?” the clerk offered, opening a glass door to an inner garden.

I stepped out, took a jodan no kamae stance, and then swung it down a couple of times. The sword felt like it was doing all the cutting. It was so perfectly balanced and curved. “This is great!” I said, but I regretted it, because I knew it was going to put a dent in my credit card. But then again, I realized that such a well-balanced sword was going to be much better for my aged and creaking shoulder joints, which already had some calcification due to old football injuries. I walked back into the store, tilting my head, figuring out how long it would take to pay off the credit card bill if I bought it.

“I thought you would like it,” the clerk smiled.

“The balance is excellent!” I said.

“The reason why so many sensei recommend that sword is the balance,” she explained. “It’s an iaito, but an actual swordsmith finishes each blade, balancing it as if it were a real sword. That’s part of why it’s a bit more expensive than your baseline, mass produced iaito. But I wanted you to feel it for yourself.”

Out came my credit card.

I thought, well, one thing I discovered was that after all these years, I’ve developed my own sense of sword balance, and it must have been developed the right way, because I’m in synch with all the top sensei in that city in Japan, at the least. That’s good company.

Then I thought of that newbie student, whose badly balanced bokken and own stubbornness was going to hamper him from developing a proper feel for well-balanced swords. He would never develop the ability to immediately grasp the balance and feel of a good sword because of his lack of nyuunanshin. And that’s closing up a whole world of experience and sensitivity. Then again, there’s always room for change in young people. I remain the perpetual optimist.

76. Embu: “Going Into Battle”

When I finally had enough students in my koryu dojo to make it work, I announced that we would have an enbu (or embu) before we took our usual August summer vacation. Everyone would have to demonstrate for a few minutes. I didn’t explain much about it at first. I wanted to let it sink in.

I was surprised that the first student to approach me and ask questions about what exactly is an embu was someone who had decades of modern budo experience behind him. In fact, he was so highly ranked in his own martial arts, that he would be invited frequently to fly out to give seminars at various locations for his shinbudo organization.

“It’s just an in-house embu, just ourselves, so that the lower ranked students will get an idea of what it’s like,” I said, thinking that would be explanation enough for him. “You know, like how you guys would do it in your own group.”

He drew a blank face. “Uhm…We have tournaments. Do you mean like a kata tournament? With points and judges?”

No, I replied. Not a tournament. You know, an embu.

“No, I don’t know,” he said. “We never had…an ‘embu’ before.”

A “demonstration”? Maybe. But not an embu.

What? Decades of training and no embu? That struck me as odd, but in retrospect, I now realize that not all martial arts groups, especially shinbudo organizations, understand what an embu is, even though it’s one of the few public venues in Japan in which one can observe a different koryu other than your own.

Very roughly put, an embu is a demonstration. But that’s like saying BMW makes pretty good sports cars. Yes, they do, but my BMW-loving car enthusiasts would rankle at my lowbrow description of automobiles that make them salivate in Pavlovian desire.

Embu can be translated as a “presentation of martial skills.” What it has evolved to become is a public presentation of the characteristic kata of a koryu school. Sometimes it is only one school. Sometimes different koryu gather together at big annual shindigs, such as at the Budokan, Butokuden, Meiji Shrine or Itsukushima Jinja, and put on a big festival of many different koryu.

What you will NOT see at these embu is audience participation. There are also no calls for volunteers from the audience, or jazzy dance numbers mated to kata, or salesmen-like announcers asking for hoots and hollers and applause from the audience. Embu, however fun it is to be in them (as I have), however wonderful the camaraderie that is created among dojo mates and even with other koryu folk, are serious matters. You are demonstrating to outsiders to the best of your abilities, as a representative of your ryu. In the koryu of this era, this is as close as you can get to a stressful, competitive based public situation, since sportive aspects of the koryu have been moved out to fit into judo, kendo and other modern shinbudo.

Embu probably goes back to a time when martial arts schools were still relatively relevant for training warriors in applicable combative skills. Since you never knew which province you might end up fighting in the next civil war, or which group of samurai, dojo usually guarded their techniques from the general public most of the time. You didn’t want to show potential enemies your signature methods and tactics or they may use it against you later.

The only general exception to this might be when you would be asked to be part of a “command performance,” in front of a daimyo lord or nobility, or as an offering to the village deities, or other such special audience or occasion. Because of that historical characteristic, embu are considered respectful, serious matters.

The history of my own koryu, Takeuchi-ryu, has documents pertaining to its first embu. It wasn’t before a raucous audience. Centuries ago, the second and third masters did embu before the Japanese emperor and his court members. Being granted the embu was considered an unprecedented honor for any bugeisha of that era, and the style was thus given the title “Hinoshita Torite Kaizan (The pinnacle of grappling methods, greatest of all)” Take(no)uchi-ryu by the Emperor himself. In a similar manner, some years later, the other budo that I study, Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, had its exponents perform before the Taiko (regent) Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who bestowed the title “Muso,” or “Tenka Muso”; meaning “No Equal Under Heaven.”

In some ways, I can liken it to the difference between modern auwana hula and the way ancient kahiko hula were practiced and performed. Before the relatively recent popularization of hula, very few people knew or studied kahiko, old style hula. That style was considered sacred, a dance form that went beyond simple entertainment. A kahiko hula dancer was channeling the spirit of one’s ancestors and protector deities, and the kahiko, while an audience may observe it, was primarily an offering to the gods. Kahiko can be joyous, it can be somber. It can recount epic, tragic human battles or the conflicts of the gods. It can even now speak of ancient lust and romances, and have Christian motifs. But the dress, dance, and entire singing style and carriage of the participants speak of dignity and spirituality. Kahiko hula masters, called kumu hula, harbored so much mana, or spiritual power, that they were given equal footing with kahuna, or the spiritual and medicinal priestly caste of old Hawaii.

There were legends about one of the last truly old-style hula masters, ‘Iolani Luahine, who is credited for saving the art of hula when it had fallen into disfavor during the early modern era. The legends would say that when she danced, even the gods would watch her. One college professor acquaintance told me of a chance incident in which he was sitting at a bus stop in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kaimuki with her, who by then was an elderly old lady. It was pouring rain. My friend said that he made an offhand remark complaining about the rain. The elderly Hawaiian woman smiled and then began to chant in Hawaiian, in an eerie but beautiful, powerful voice. And then he said, “I swear, Wayne, one moment it was gray thunder clouds pouring rain as far as you could see. The next moment, the rain stopped and the sun burst out, then she smiled at me and got on the bus and I realized that was ‘Iolani Luahine!”*

That sense of spirituality may have once been attached to koryu masters as well. I read several articles that describes Otake Risuke, of the Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu sword style, as a swordmaster who will sometimes perform folk rituals to ease the aches and pains of his rural neighbors. The oldest koryu have very strong attachments to particular shrines, temples and guardian deities. That connection may have led to a belief in the trascendant being available in a study of the old koryu.

Perhaps the best video to demonstrate the feel and tenor of an embu is here on Youtube, by Empty Mind Films:


In this video, there are quite a number of people in the audience. For the participants, however, a lot of pressure is put on them not just because so many people are watching them, but because the deities themselves are watching; they are performing embu as an offering to the spirits. And of course, there is the practical pressure of not making a fool of yourself in front of other koryu practitioners who really would know a thing or two about whether or not you screwed up your kata.

It is instructive that in the first embu I participated in with my top student, representing the Takeuchi-ryu, we overheard another participant say, before she stepped onto the embujo (demonstration area): “Well, I’m off to battle.”

At first, my student thought it was humorous hyperbole. But she wasn’t joking. Her embu kata really did look like it was a battle between her and her partner. They went at each other, within the boundaries of the prearranged kata, as if each cut mattered, each block if missed would lead to death. Probably unseen by the general public, there were moments when a block was missed and when a cut went the wrong way, leading to a whacked limb. But neither of them flinched throughout the whole of their embu.

It brought to mind a story I once heard from the late Dr. Sachio Ashida, a judo teacher (and professor of animal behavior, hence the appellation of Doctor). I asked him what prewar Judo was like. He said it was more like a budo, less like a sport. To draw an example, he said he once saw a demonstration of Nage No Kata at an All Japan Judo Tournament before World War II, and the emperor happened to be in the audience. Ashida sensei had a ringside seat. He saw the two judo masters go through the kata. In the middle of it, there was a sutemi-waza, a throw in which tori (the “thrower”) falls to the ground in order to pull and throw the partner over his falling body. Uke (the “thrown”), however, messed up his breakfall and as he went over in a forward roll, Ashida clearly saw that he inadvertently kicked tori with his foot in his face. But the two continued the kata as if nothing was wrong. They finished, bowed out, bowed to the emperor, and walked off the stage. Ashida said that only after they had left the stage did the person performing tori spit out all his front teeth in front of him. The kick had knocked them out in the middle of the embu but he had continued the kata.

“That was REAL judo spirit,” Ashida said. “In those days, doing embu was like life and death, especially if you did it in front of the emperor.”

Lest it sound like I’m espousing a return to that kind of physical harshness, the point I want to make is that even nowadays, embu should be considered spiritual, serious matters that should be a challenge to the participants. When you do kata geiko in regular training, it should be with proper feeling and attitude, to gain skill so that your sword work, your weapons work, or your unarmed grappling really does reach a combative level, even if the combative skills are archaic in this day and age. The mental attitude you engender happens only if you take kata training beyond just fun and games. Performing embu takes that atmosphere and multiplies it many times over because of the pressure involved doing kata in front of strangers, your teacher(s) and other koryu folk.

Inevitably, because of that added pressure, you will screw up. How you react also is a challenge that good practice and embu experience addresses. As in a “real” combative situation, not everything goes according to kata. What happens when the kata is “broken,” if by situation (such as slipping on wet grass) or by human error (such as your partner going thisaway instead of thataway)? The poorly trained person will stop dead in his tracks. But doing so in embu or in reality will get you killed, even if only symbolically.

I was watching a pair of swordsmen go through an unusually long kata during their embu. When it was done, I told the junior student (who was the “tori” or “winner”), “Boy, that was an interesting kata. I’d never seen one like that which was so long in your style.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It was long because my sensei was totally out to lunch. I think he had so much on his mind, he came at me the wrong way, from a different kata, so I just had to block the cut and react. And I looked in his eyes, and he was, like, totally lost. I think he was thinking too much about something else. So he saw my cut, and he just reacted and tried to block and cut, so I blocked and tried another cut, and he reacted, so I reacted, and we just kept going until I finally hit him…hard…on his wrist. That kind of snapped him out of his brain fart!”

(In an earlier blog reply, Josh Reyer noted another incident in which Yagyu Nobuhara, the late master of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, revealed his own stumble during an embu, and that led his father to “break” the kata and come down on his head with his bamboo practice sword. Yagyu sensei recovered quickly enough to block the impromptu cut and continue the rest of the kata. Reyes’ comment, in fact, led to this new blog about embu.)

So you know you have really trained well in kata geiko when you can recover from such a “break” and recover, and finish the kata in embu. I daresay, only a few of my students so far have reached that level, but I’m sure if they keep on training, they can get there, as long as they have the right attitude.

When I first was asked to participate in a Takeuchi-ryu embu, I remember my teacher reminding me of a saying. He encouraged me to do the embu, and that mistakes will be part of it, and I would learn from the mistakes. “One embu is worth 1,000 training sessions,” he said.

Indeed, it is, if done with that mind of “going into battle.” Of taking it with all its intended seriousness and sense of purpose.

And my student who asked me what an embu was? He liked it so much, he told me that he was going to incorporate an embu at the end of all his seminars from henceforth. They used to have mini-tournaments for kata and kumite, he said, but an embu would offer similar challenges, but not as much over-the-top competitiveness. It would be a chance for everyone, young and old, skilled and experienced or beginning level, to challenge themselves equally without just one winner and the rest relegated to being “losers.”


*See the Wikipedia entry for ‘Iolani Luahine: “…Some who knew her told stories of Luahine’s “mystic abilities.”[3] The Honolulu Advertiser wrote that those who saw her perform “typically speak about the almost mystical experience she seemed to channel.”[4] Some say she had “a deep, spiritual connection to the hula goddess Laka and the volcano goddess Pele.”[4] Others claimed that she “could call up the wind and the rain and could make animals do her bidding.”[3] In 1969, organizers of the Merrie Monarch Festival were about to cancel their parade because of heavy rain, but Luahine said the rain would stop for two hours starting at 1 p.m.[4] Even organizer Dorothy Thompson recalled: “She told me the parade had to start on time, at 1 o’clock, because the rain would stop for only two hours. It poured cats and dogs. At 1 o’clock on the nose the rain stopped, and at 3 o’clock the rain came down.”[3]

Hula master George Na’ope told a story that the Queen of Tonga and an FBI escort were visiting Hawaii, and the queen would not get out of the car because it was too windy. According to Na’ope’s story, “Iolani turned around, chanted, and the wind stopped. After that, the queen and the FBI were supposed to go to a hotel in Kona, and instead they went to Iolani’s house in Napoopoo, where she summoned all the animals to greet the queen. Her dog barked, her cat meowed, her rooster crowed, her pig oinked, and they bowed to the queen. When someone said that they are not supposed to be at Iolani’s house, an FBI agent replied, ‘If she can stop the wind, we are going to be here.'”[9]

75. Te No Uchi: Skill At Arms

Inevitably, if you are doing some kind of traditional Japanese martial arts, you will encounter the term te no uchi. In its narrowest context, it means how you grip your weapon. In a larger context, it means a kind of overall skill level for a craftsman. Having good te no uchi is something every good kendo player strives for, what every good swordsman constantly tries to improve, and what a karateka using any Okinawan kobudo weapon should aim for. In fact, I would venture to say that te no uchi can also be used to describe some aspects of unarmed fistic and grappling skills as well.

Literally translated, te no uchi means “inside the hand.” In other words, how your palm grips something. How you handle a tool or piece of equipment says a lot to a keen observer. Hold it too tightly and you are choking the weapon, not giving it enough play and resilience. Hold it too loose and you stand to loose it upon impact or in an unexpected clash with something else. The trick is to hold the weapon just right, so that you can easily manipulate it, but not too loose that any whack or unexpected jarring will not knock it loose. Since bladed weapons were the prime focus of study in classical Japanese weapons arts, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on proper te no uchi on swords, short and long.

In my early years, I used to think there was only one good te no uchi, and that was what I was learning from my primary weapons instructor. Then I started learning other koryu arts and found that there were other variations. It was the same general concept, but quite a bit of variation that may seem rather minor to the general observer, but opened up a world of difference in terms of weapons theory and application from ryu to ryu.

For the most part, the sword grip is securely in the palm of one’s hands, so that the top part of the handle fits right into the center of one’s palms. To do that, the wrist has to be flexed. On impacting anything with the sharp edge of the blade, the resulting force meets up with the palm, buttressed by the wrist. If the wrist is not bent, or turned inwards (perish the thought!), then the handle is being held more by the fingers, not the palm, and if there is a strong impact, the sword could slip out from between the fingertips.

Once the tsuka, or handle, fits securely in the palm, the fingers wrap around and grip it. The last two fingers and the thumb grip the handle securely, with the first two fingers having more play. This allows for a firm but maneuverable grip.  The right hand grips the sword close to the tsuba (sword guard); the left below it. How far up and below? Different ryu will argue the millimeters’ differences. My current tendency, from two koryu, is to hold the handle so that the pointing finger of my right hand almost butts up to the metal fushi, or spacer, below the tsuba.

The left hand holds the sword below the right in a similar grip. The distance between the right and left differs, I found, from ryu to ryu. Some schools will hold the sword so that the left is at the base of the tsuka, creating quite a gap between the two hands. One school will hold it so low that the little finger is off the tsuka, wrapping around itself and hiding the butt end. On the other hand, a different koryu I know holds the left hand only one finger’s width apart from the right. It’s an interesting dichotomy. Which is “better”? Neither, I think. The two different grips speak to quite different ways the different ryu handle the sword. One system tends towards more use of the sword in large, sweeping arcs, without much small movements, closing the gap with the body and then crashing down. Another ryu likes to work the sword very close in, hence the need for quick flipping motions of the sword, calling for a closer-hands grip.

I have also found the difference in hand gripping may have something to do not just with particular koryu systems, but also with the progression of budo in time, as emphasis changed. Of the three oldest koryu sword arts I’ve seen, the grip has been somewhat tight, with the first two fingers nearly as tight as the last two. When it gets to modern kendo te no uchi, however, the first two fingers are very, very loose. Other koryu styles fall somewhere in between the extremes.

I thought about it a long time because doing iai causes one to think a lot about such seemingly miniscule things. Then when our club switched over from seitei (kendo-influenced “standardized” iai) to doing only koryu iai, and I retrained with a sempai, I found that the classical iai we had been doing all along had a huge amount of kendo-influence in it, which was now jettisoned in favor of a “koryu” flavor. That included the te no uchi. Luckily, I was working on a tighter te no uchi anyway because that’s how we did it in a different, older koryu.

One of my friends, who had been a high-ranking kendo player before switching entirely over to koryu training, also studied the different te no uchi and he stumbled across a short, insightful comment by an iai sensei who had studied a wide variety of styles under different teachers. Putting together the sensei’s comments and my friend’s deductions, the gist of the discussion was that the tightness of the grip is a matter of emphasis. In koryu, you want to have a good, secure grip on the sword so that you don’t lose it in a battle. That will inevitably narrow the amount of free play and speed you may have with the swordwork, but it’s better that than to lose your sword in a life-or-death situation. However, as swordsmanship went from the battlefield to individual combat, to bamboo staves for contests, the grip loosened so that there could be quicker, faster play with more dexterity and smaller movements. On the other hand, you do run the risk of losing your sword because the grip is looser.

Also on the plus and negative side of the equation, my friend noted that constantly gripping a sword tightly could lead to problems like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Holding it looser with more play would mitigate the stress on the wrist. On the other hand, getting Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in a few years is not the biggest worry if you are going into battle against someone whose goal is to kill you that day. Better Carpal Tunnel in some distant future than getting killed right away.

What adds fuel to that theory is that both of us also study a koryu that is rather old, but not as old as the oldest koryu, and the grip for the sword in that school tends towards the oldest koryu style, but with a slight variation that allows for quicker, faster flicks and cuts for closer-quarter fighting. It’s like tracing the DNA of a technique through historical examples.

In Japanese koryu, there are also specific te no uchi for handling staff weapons, which are markedly different from holding a Japanese sword. The level of specifics and general characteristics are pretty sophisticated, so much so that I would hazard to say that most of what I see in terms of bo, jo and sword work among many modern practitioners of karate and aikido are quite rough. If you’re going to use a weapon, you need to really understand how to grip it, and from what I’ve seen, there’s not enough emphasis placed on te no uchi among such practitioners yet.

A good observer can deduce their opponent’s skill by seeing the te no uchi because the hand grip will tell volumes about the rest of the person’s weapons abilities. I can also winnow out so-called self-styled “masters” of martial arts by simply observing their te no uchi. The fakes and incompetents usually have no idea how to have good te no uchi.

Because te no uchi reveals so much about one’s general skill level, it also has come to mean one’s general skill level. Thus, you can have good te no uchi in kendo and that can also mean you are, in general, pretty good at kendo. You cah have good te no uchi in gripping your opponent in a grappling art. “Grabbing” someone actually has some skill to it beyond just grabbing and hanging on like a pit bull sinking his jaws into the leg of some unfortunate interloper. I’ve had a tai chi ch’uan master “grab” me with what he called a very “loose” grip and I couldn’t squirm out of it. That was really good te no uchi. No strength, just a whole lot of technique.

Te no uchi, as I noted, also refers to skill in pursuits beyond martial arts. A sushi chef can have good te no uchi. In fact, the term might have come from the world of sushi. Squeezing the hot rice grains together in the palm of one’s hands so that they are firm but not compacted and then slipping on a bit of wasabi and raw fish in a few seconds inside of one’s plam (te no uchi) was such a skill that chefs would hide what they were doing from guests and possible spies from other sushi bars when they made sushi. In fact, try going to a top-rated sushi bar and watch how they make their sushi. I would guess that just when they finalized the forming of the sushi, they would hide what they were doing in the palms of their hands so you couldn’t exactly see the final touches.

The greatest compliment a sushi maker could receive would be that he/she has good te no uchi. Here, it doesn’t just mean grip. It means the skill that is central to the chef’s craft. Good te no uchi, then, can also be used to describe the skill a woodworker displays in manipulating a wood-bodied hand plane, or how he uses a chisel to carve out a butterfly mortise joint, all by hand. Good te no uchi is how a chef can use a knife to cut so quickly and effortlessly to make paper-thin slices of a tomato or cucumber.

An old Chinese Taoist tale tells of a philosopher who stood in a market amazed at the skill of a butcher, who seemed to cut through pieces of pork effortlessly, his large knife not needing to be sharpened often. The philosopher finally asked the butcher how he learned his skill. The butcher replied that it was no great feat; it was simply being sensitive to the meat and bone and how the knife sliced into the flesh. He didn’t cut into bones, rather he aimed to cut through the spaces in between the joints. That way, by letting his knife slip through spaces instead of trying to cut forcefully through bone, he let the knife seek its own easiest way. The philosopher was enlightened, but the butcher simply felt it was a matter of common sense, honed over years and years of cutting pork. I think te no uchi in Japanese sword work is the same. It may seem so arcane and esoteric, but it’s really based on common sense applied with great attention to detail, honed and honed over years of careful attention.

As for me, I would hazard that I have fair to middling te no uchi in my own style, and perhaps given a decade or two more, I’ll get better. After all, there was one kendo eighth dan in his 80s who admitted that, as much as he had done kendo for over six decades, he was still trying to improve his te no uchi because he wasn’t satisfied with it.  I figure, I’m a heck of a lot younger than him so I can also improve as well, and hopefully I have more time to get my te no uchi better.

74. Koryu is not a sport

Note: I sent an email to my students and made a note about what was bothering me at the previous practice. Because it was primarily for my own few students, it was informal and blunt. But I needed to make a point. Perhaps this may also help in illuminating my own views on koryu bujutsu.

My TR folks:

Just a note that this Friday we are going back to kogusoku, omote. For more senior students, you guys really need to nail the first ten kata down better. For beginners, the kogusoku is one of the three main bodies of study in Takeuchi-ryu: bladed weapons, bo (staff) and jujutsu (taijutsu). It’s a basic foundational skill.

Also, another note:

Takeuchi-ryu, and classical koryu bujutsu is not sport. Get that out of your heads. This may be a new concept for the newbies among you, but for the older timers, this should be atarimae; it goes without saying. But I had to say it and after I thought about it, it really upset me to even have to say this after all these years of training. You folks should know better and should teach the kohai better.

Here’s the concrete example: The other week we were doing some quick studies of standing jujutsu work. I noticed that one pair was doing something really weird, but couldn’t quite put a finger on what was wrong because I was busy helping the other paired group and trying to help everyone get the basic waza right. Then it hit me. You guys were helping each other up off the mat after the throw. What the heck was that about???!!!!

Okay, look: say you’re in a wrestling club, or a judo club. Yeah, you help the guys off the mat because that’s sportsmanlike. Like after a good hit on a quarterback, you help him up in football. Good sportsmanlike conduct. Very nice.

But in koryu, the kata doesn’t end with the throw or the “finishing technique.” The kata ends when you end up back where you started from, ready to start another kata. When you throw the guy down, you do a finishing move and then step away carefully, so that the opponent doesn’t have a chance to harm you in a last ditch attack. That’s the notion of the ending zanshin. You find that attitude in TR, you find it in our Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu class, you find it in every koryu style you can think of. You do NOT help the enemy get up off the ground so he can beat you up again. This has nothing to do with sportsmanship. The koryu originally had to do with sheer survival. It’s not a game. You don’t score points and then shake hands. You are being trained to survive an encounter with someone who wants to do harm to you and/or your family, if even only in a classical, remote sense using sticks or swords or whatever. Same same.

If you want to be mindful of your training partner, you do so by being sure of your technique so you do not harm him in a needless manner. You train to their potential and abilities. You be the best sankaku and maru you can be. You do not “break” the kata and do it wrong, thereby causing a wrong reaction or non-reaction, unless you both can handle it. You perform the proper etiquette before and after the kata with mindfulness and appreciation, not just for form. You do NOT lend a helping hand in the middle of the kata.

I have told you all the true story over and over again of the police officer who trained to take away a gun pointed at him. But in practice, he would immediately give it back to his training partner. Well, one day he actually walked right into a dangerous situation and the bad guy pointed a gun at him, point blank. By instinct, he quickly snatched it out of the surprised criminal’s hands. Then, without thinking, he gave it back to the perpetrator! He did it because he was operating on autopilot. He acted the way he trained. Luckily he recovered quickly enough to wrestle away the gun again and survive the encounter.

So let’s say there’s a guy who invades your home. He wants to rape you AND your wife and kids, then cut you into little pieces while you’re still alive, and then burn your house down, dog included. You have no choice. This is not a pissing match or a bar fight where you don’t have to prove your stupid manliness. You can’t walk away. This is life or death. You have no recourse. You have to knock the guy down and stop him. So you do that. You throw him to the floor, and he’s stunned. What do you do? Offer him a hand to help him up? No! Of course not. He’s just going to get up and rape and kill you. You make sure he’s knocked out, tie him up or something, and then call the cops.

Or (for Joel), let’s say some crazy Jihadi got it into his mind to go knife everybody he saw in the street, and you just happened to be walking along minding your own business when that happens. Thanks to your superb training, you take the knife away and knock him down. Then what? Do you help him up and give him back the knife? Heck no. You make sure he doesn’t get up, and then back off very, very carefully, making sure he doesn’t have a concealed weapon, bomb, or he doesn’t have any buddies lurking around. That’s zanshin. It has nothing to do with being a nice guy or not in a sporting match. It has to do with training to survive. Sports and koryu are very, very different mindsets.

So if in practice you help the guy up, guess what. You are going to do that subconsciously when it’s for real. You are how you practice.

See, that’s the difference between koryu training and training for sports. Sports is fun. Sports budo is great for letting off steam, for competition and getting in condition and so on. But koryu bujutsu is not a sport.

That said, I therefore make it REQUIRED that you read every book by Dave Lowry you can get your hands on, and go through every article posted on the koryu.com web site so you understand what koryu is all about. If you have a hard time reading stuff online, then support the folks at koryu books by buying their books, which are collections of the essays. I used to recommend that you read these resources. Now it’s required. I know you all work, so it will take time to go through all the writings, but you need to read them, especially if the above explanation about zanshin and koryu has you scratching your head in puzzlement. If you still don’t get what the big deal is about, then seriously, there’s better sports budo schools all over Honolulu where you might get better training at. Without zanshin, there is no integrity in koryu training. Train hard, train with mindfulness.


73. Shake Your (Budo) Booty

The other day, out of curiosity, I asked students in one of the digital art classes that I teach approximately how many hours a day they spend in front of some kind of monitor: a TV, computer, smart phone, etc. I was somewhat mildly surprised to find that even in Hawaii, with the sun and surf so near at hand, most of the students spent a huge chunk of time gazing at photons coming out at them from LED and Cathode ray tubes.

They’re doing schoolwork, homework, watching television reality shows of people not looking at monitors doing things in the fake “real world,” Facebooking friends back and forth, sending and receiving Tweets, watching movies, texting on cell phones, and so on. One robust young man who looked like a linebacker for a professional football team said he spent at least 11 hours gazing at a computer screen on a school day. A wan, thin young lady admitted to about eight hours. A military veteran said, well, maybe seven to eight hours doing school work, but it was better than when he was in the military service, working as a legal adjunct, writing up briefs. Sometimes he would put in 18 hour days writing up reports on a computer.

Whoever we are, as long as we are dealing with parsing and creating information in this modern society, we spend a whole lot of time sitting, reclining, slouching, lying around, gazing at a screen, our bodies disconnected from movement save for the clickity-clack of typing or moving a mouse or other pointer around. There’s no way around it. In an information and technology driven society, many of us, my digital art students included, will need to acquire and use skills that require manipulation of digital information. But that has got to take its toll on our bodies and, subsequently, our health.

I was thinking about it, and I thought that perhaps I too often pose critiques of martial arts and koryu, pointing out this esoteric issue or another. What’s wrong with that, what’s the problem with this. On the other hand, there’s a lot of good going on if you do any kind of martial art that gets your booty out of the reclining chair and burns off fat, regardless of what you do.

That’s because whatever budo you do, you’re moving. Now, I will still argue that there’s “better” martial arts training practices and there’s also important aspects of martial integrity, and other things that will qualify and quantify what I think are best practices in budo. These are important, because repetition of bad practice will only hurt, not help one’s health and well-being.

But back to the main point: Our human bodies, over thousands of years of evolution and survival of the “fittest” has become a biological machine that needs movement to stay fit and healthy. Then, in the past half-century, a new revolution has come and gone: the Information Revolution, in which digital processes have taken center stage as the driver of many economic, social and personal advances. It’s unprecedented. Our bodies are not geared for sitting around doing nothing all day while our brains do all the heavy lifting. We need to find time to rebalance the equation, to make sure our bodies and mind are both moving along healthily.

One student that I queried looked up from his computer monitor and asked, “Hey…what DID you guys do before computers?” What indeed. We watched television, when the reception was good. We played board games. We spent a lot of time in face to face conversations with our play pals, shooting the breeze in tree houses, dirt forts, on the beach, after work. We read books. Real books, printed on paper pages. There were movies, of course. I remember being there at the beginnings of the computer age and playing computer games, like Atari and PacMan. Writing term papers? That was a typewriter and big bottles of White-Outs. When I was in graduate school in Fine Art, I was keen on seeing what main frame computers in the university’s computer lab could do by way of visual art. And all I could get them to do by my own programming was to draw wireframe cubes and squares. So I went back to painting and printmaking by hand.

Still, in any day and age, there were ways to avoid physical exertion: binge drinking, imbibing illicit substances, hanging out, chewin’ the cud, doin’ nothin’ worth nothin’ at all. It just seems that nowadays, it’s a heck of a lot easier to be a sloth. And this urge to kick back and eat a bag of potato chips has to be countered with fun, meaningful exercise—not as a chore, but as something enjoyable, that the body craves and needs. Budo can do that, if you enjoy that kind of training.

What I have always enjoyed about budo training, in addition to its health benefits, is that it has other beneficial characteristics besides physical exertion. Done right, martial training can address overall joint dexterity, coordination, and mind-body unity. It also gives you a healthy dose of grounded reality. You may take on an “avatar” and be the hottest streetfighter in a video game, but if you can’t really lift your leg up past a bulging tummy, then you’re living in a fantasy world. There’s a place, of course, for fantasizing and entertaining games and movies. But some younger students that I encounter sometimes put too much emphasis on insubstantial projections of themselves on monitors and screens, and don’t work on themselves enough as living, breathing human beings who have to interact with other real people and real life.

So there are lots of peripheral positive benefits of good budo practice. You have to learn to interact with your peers in a social setting that involves cooperative group work and learning.  You develop meaningful bonds based on shared experiences and goals. You find mentors and become a mentor. You find lifelong friends in the “real” world.

You could argue that an avid amateur golfer could find the same benefits in his own sport. I’m sure you can argue that point. Hey, whatever rocks your boat and gets your booty moving. It’s just that for me, martial arts training gets me out of my easy chair and away from the video screen, and gives my body a workout it needs and craves. It’s a great break, a wonderful relief. I love digital art and photography, but the eyes and mouse finger do need a rest sometimes.

So I may rant and rave in these blogs about some inequity or problem in budo, real or imagined, perhaps overblown or seriously endangering martial arts integrity. But in the grand scheme of things, I just love doing budo. It is a healthy outlet for my body, and it also helps keep my mind sane and active, too!

72. Direct Transmission

In the koryu, there is a tradition that can generally be defined as “direct transmission.” Literally, this is what “jikiden” means, as in Muso JIKIDEN Eishin-ryu; i.e., the direct transmission, from one person to another, in an unbroken line, of the system of Master (Hasegawa) Eishin, the unparalleled (Muso) art thereof. Or, Tenshinsho, as in Tenshin Sho(den) Katori Shinto-ryu, the Katori Shinto tradition passed on (shoden) directly from the Heavens (Tenshin).

Whether or not such descriptions are in the title of the koryu style or not, the implication is that there is an unbroken line from a founder, who had divine and/or esoteric inspiration, from master to master. A general appellation of particular kata within a ryu (which are often taught only to upper level initiates) can be okuden (teachings taught only in the back, rear, or deepest part of the house, where only family members or initiates are allowed), shinden (teachings from God or Gods), or souden (soden); the teachings passed on in an unbroken line from the original founder.

Every year at the Choufukan dojo in Kyoto, my own school of Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu, adherents gather to celebrate the founding of the ryu. On a particular Saturday in August that is closest to a festival night for the deity of Atago Mountain (the ryu’s guardian spirit), we receive new rankings, perform kata for the spirits, and the newly minted higher-ranked students are taught the soden torite kata, a series of methods that encapsulate the essence of the ryu’s grappling methodology.

Soden, the passing on of methods from one generation to the next, is an essential characteristic of a koryu. It is done from person to person, teacher or senior to student. For better or for worse, it is the ONLY way for anyone in a koryu to be considered a legitimate exponent of the ryu.  You have to have learned it from a living, breathing person.

I personally think the tradition has its origins in the way Buddhism was passed on. Buddhism, like Christianity and Islam, is a book religion. In Asia, Buddhism explored the inner psychology of human beings and developed an extensive cosmology and complicated esoteric knowledge (much of which, it should be admitted, were borrowed from Hinduism and other extant antecedents). Written objects such as scrolls, placards and books were essential elements for an academic study of Buddhism. However, it is believed that the true essence, the core of the original historical Buddha’s teachings, can only be verified and transmitted from person to person, in a way that is beyond any written means or verbal description.

A story goes in the Flower Sutra: one day, the historical Buddha was to give a lecture. Instead he just held up a single flower. Only one of his disciples,  Mahakasyapa, understood what that gesture meant, and smiled. Hence, the Buddha said (in a translation by Dumoulin 2005:9 , ISBN 0-941532-89-5):

“I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle [D]harma [G]ate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.”

Thus, the origins of Ch’an Buddhism, which later became called Zen in Japan.

Whether the story is true or not, there thus exists a tradition in Asia (and in the Mystery cults of the West) in which esoteric knowledge  is passed on that is beyond words, beyond print, beyond intellectual description, that can only happen from person to person, spirit to spirit.

I believe that this tradition found its way to Chinese and Japanese martial arts with the concept of soden/jikiden. You can’t truly “get it” unless you studied directly under someone who “got it.”

Nowadays, even in a hoary old koryu like mine, we are allowed to take notes, even videotape kata for future individual reference, and we discuss things via the Internet, on bulletin boards and discussion groups, on Facebook and through email. We are able to see demonstrations of koryu on YouTube. I keep up a spotty long-distance communication with my own sensei in Japan through emails, and he often sends me photos of the goings-on of his dojo. Modern technology is not ignored completely. In fact, I think it’s embraced quite a bit, especially since it seems the Japanese are as gadget-crazy as we Americans are, perhaps even more so.

All these learning crutches and modern communications, however, do not take the place of learning directly from a teacher, who learned it from a certified teacher, who learned it from…all the way down the line to the original founder of the ryu.

Without that characteristic, it’s not a koryu.

There are several videos I’ve seen on YouTube in which some clubs are doing what are obviously such-and-such a kata from a particular koryu style. The koryu world is small, so I can pretty easily ask around and find out if they were legitimately trained or not. When I point such videos out to exponents of a ryu whose kata they appropriated, reactions range from shocked disbelief that anyone would be crass enough to do something like that, to head-nearly-splitting-open outrage.

One friend, however, shrugged his shoulders. You’re not pissed off? I asked.

He replied, “Well, I could get mad, but what can I do about it? Travel thousands of miles to those people’s dojo and ask them to stop? People who know koryu will know that they are doing bullshit. Just look at their form: it’s stiff and robotic. They probably learned it self-taught from books and videos that are readily available. It’s pretty obvious they’re full of crap.”

What about people who don’t know enough to recognize their poor level of ability? My friend replied, “Well, all anyone needs to do is ask them, ‘Who was your teacher?’ If they say they learned it from such-and-such a sensei, it’s easy enough to figure things out because the koryu world is so small you could probably deduce whether they were lying or not. If they say they learned it from osmosis through videotapes, then anyone with half a logical brain can figure out that’s crap, because you don’t learn the essence of a koryu from videos or books or stealing techniques from other people. You can only learn it from a teacher. All you’re learning from a videotape is that you put one foot ahead of the other, but you have no idea, no idea what it’s really all about.”

When the e-budo discussion site was a happening place, I once gave an opinion about a particular group’s web site. They claimed to be a koryu. A study of their claims and observation of their technique led me to believe otherwise, especially when they started posting photos of their side business  teaching Japanese tea ceremony. I know tea ceremony, and friend, those pictures weren’t of any tea ceremony that I knew of. I thought they were bogus. One observer countered, however, “They LOOK so good, though! I don’t care if they’re fake or not, I would love to study with them!”

What? Okay, so let’s say you’re in need of open-heart surgery. You have a choice between two doctors. One surgeon has been board-certified, he has a verifiable degree from Harvard Medical School and interned at Johns Hopkins. You can verify that. The only problem is he doesn’t look like your stereotyped concept of a Marcus Welby M.D. type surgeon (for those under 40 years old, that was an old TV show). The other doctor claims he got a degree from some obscure medical school you never heard of, from a fly-by-night college in the Third World country of Krapistan. He isn’t certified to practice in your state, but he’s cheaper, he claims to be an excellent surgeon, and he looks like a surgeon, he acts like a surgeon, and he talks like a surgeon. So never mind his lack of certification and verifiable credentials. He ACTS like what you think a doctor should act like…so would you go with the Harvard Medical School surgeon or this goober?  Gee, not that hard a decision, is it?

My friend who’s not overly anxious has a point, though. To borrow a politician’s phrase, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Without direct transmission, a fake is a fake, even if it’s a pretty good fake.

71. Age-appropriate Budo Training

My teacher is at an age when he keeps making rumblings of someday soon “retiring” from martial arts. I don’t know if he brings up the subject only to scare the heck out of me so I visit him more frequently before he makes good his threat or what, but the last time he brought it up, he noted that (thankfully!) he still has a few more miles in his gas tank, so to speak.

“I was ready to hang it up,” he said, “But lately I’ve had lots of housewives, children and older people join the dojo. At first, I used to think that budo training was too intense and hard for them. But you know, I got old too. I found that I could still keep up by teaching the older fellows things like bo (staff work) and short staff, weapons kata and the like. And I also found that they’re really fun to train with. It gave me a new lease on enjoying budo training myself!”

I was relieved that my teacher was newly inspired to keep on teaching. I still had a lot to learn from him, but it also highlighted something I’d been thinking about myself, especially when I turned the half-century mark and knew that my best raw physical strength I could ever possess was probably way behind me in my past.

When I was young, I thought budo was exciting because it tested my physical and mental endurance to the maximum. Although not quite as taxing as the high school football and wrestling that I participated in as a teenager, organized martial arts training did allow for really grueling workouts in my college years up to my late 20s and early 30s. I threw myself into it. At one point, while in graduate school and working part-time, I also somehow managed to train in karate, aikido and judo at the same time.  I took side roads into some yoga classes and other activities, too.

However, as I got older and transitioned from the somewhat unscheduled student life to that of entering the working world, time became more precious. I couldn’t spend three or four hours every day training, then working, then doing graduate studies until the wee hours of the night. My body and mind could no longer do it, and regular employment required that I show up, on time, and put in a full day’s worth of work, training injuries or not.

Inevitably, I found that competitive budo was receding away from me. No longer could I train hard enough to give judo players on the National AAU level fits with my newaza, or score occasional points against local, national and All-Japan karate champs in kumite. I couldn’t put in the hours to be in semi-pro athletic shape. And it bugged me because as my wife likes to chide me, I may act like I’m unassuming, but I have a huge competitive streak in me.

So gradually, I pulled out of competitive budo because I knew my glory days were long, long behind me. In addition, I had trained long enough in some budo to become soured on their organizational or personality problems. I found my way to budo that were noncompetitive, more into kata geiko. I could still put in a full workload during the days, but because kata geiko budo clubs didn’t force me to train like crazy, I could still have one foot in budo without sacrificing my professional career or family life.  Eventually, I ended up in my comfort zone: I practice a sogo bujutsu (a martial system that includes a variety of armed and unarmed kata) and an iai system. It’s been good for me all the way from my 30s to my current 50s. I also try to do some Tai Chi Ch’uan when I have spare time, and I’m looking at picking up my childhood hobby of Western archery again soon.

Some people, blessed with more natural physical talent and endurance than me, will be perfectly happy continuing to train in competitive martial arts well into their senior years. It’s up to them. But even in their case, they surely will have to admit that injuries sustained over the years, and the weakening that occurs from simple aging has slowed down their training so it’s not like when they were 19 or 24 years old.

It’s a natural process. If it is a natural process, then there’s really no “better” way to train in martial arts. I think there’s a need to acknowledge that there’s just different ways to train depending on your age and temperament.

Young children taking up budo is really great. They can learn how to tumble and not get hurt. Doing randori or kumite will drain out a lot of excess energy. Taught properly, budo for children will teach them self-discipline, respect and mental focus, besides helping to keep them physically healthy.

I’m not a big fan of the late action movie star Bruce Lee, but I was listening to an interview with his daughter on the radio, and I was surprised to hear (because he often cast Japanese martial arts as the “bad guys” in his movies) that he encouraged her to take up judo when she was a child. Lee thought an art that included tumbling and free form throwing and grappling was best for kids. I do too. Judo or aikido is a great way for kids to learn how to take a tumble and not get hurt. Learning ukemi as a youngster is a skill that will serve anyone well even if they go on to take up other arts, such as karate or wrestling, boxing or football. And since falling and hurting yourself is a major source of injury among seniors, learning ukemi at an early age may help keep you from becoming bedridden as an older person.

For youngsters, I would advise a parent or teacher that the main thing is that a child learns social skills, mental concentration, self-discipline and respect for others. Tournaments or competition are a plus. They’re not necessary, but they do encourage kids who are competitive to strive for competitive goals. Lots of kids like to test themselves. So competition should be used as a way to inculcate moral and physical health in youngsters, not as ends in themselves.

While I was doing karate, I saw too many examples of kids pushed too hard by their status-conscious parents or teachers who wanted them to win in tournaments at all costs. There was this one little tyke who was a Tasmanian Devil of a karate kid. He could do jumping-spinning back kicks over and over, slam rapid fire punches at his opponent, and scream and yell like a psycho case…which I thought he was on the verge of becoming, because he also faced a whole lot of pressure to excel by his father. I could tell that the kid was really wound up tight. That was too much pressure for a kid. It’s like parents getting so involved over a soccer game that they will have physical altercations with the referees if they kid’s team loses a match. That’s not good parenting.

Better, however, to be age-appropriate and focus on what’s best for a child’s growth at that point in his/her age. By way of contrast, I also encountered a doctor who had just emigrated from Korea. He decided to enroll his twin daughters, both in elementary school, in our karate dojo. I talked with him and mentioned that there were a number of very active Tae Kwon Do schools in town. Maybe because he was Korean, he might prefer a Korean martial art? He shook his head. At the time (of course, things have changed!), he told me that in Korea martial arts had a reputation of being just for thugs, for people who wanted to fight and compete for trophies. As a member of the upper class in Korea, he said he wanted his daughters to learn karate because he saw that my teacher emphasized proper respect and discipline in the classes.

“I don’t care about Tae Kwon Do being Korean, or fighting,” he said. “I want my daughters to learn respect and have good health.” And, he said, the Tae Kwon Do schools he visited didn’t emphasize those qualities. They were keener on winning tournaments.

As I got to know him and his daughters, I found out that the girls had a busy schedule: they went to a private academic school. They took piano lessons, ballet, and soccer as well as karate. They were smart, respectful and diligent. They even won a whole bunch of trophies when they entered competition, but the father made sure to keep their winnings in perspective. They had to also ace their grades at school, and when they got older, they both were accepted to prestigious universities. More than anything, their father stressed that martial arts for his children wasn’t about fighting or competition. It was about helping to develop a whole, successful person.

The later teens and early twenties are the apex of one’s physical prowess, however, so if a student is so inclined, that’s when he/she should strive to test themselves physically, whether in competition and/or in mastering the highest levels of kata geiko. Trust me, you young guys; it doesn’t get any better than when you’re young.  The bones are developed. The muscular structure is mature enough for intense training, and you are at your peak mental abilities. So training long and hard is great at that age, If you can swing it.

Soon enough, however, physical decline begins to set in. Work and family responsibilities also edge into your training time. That’s just how life is. Unless you’re a professional martial arts instructor, you need time to establish a reputation and start a family.

If you only think martial arts is going full-blast in kumite or randori, of course you will stop doing martial arts, because you simply won’t be able to keep up with kids half as young as you who don’t have the responsibilities and worries. You end up like a lot of ex-football players who suddenly stop sports when they can’t continue college or high school athletics, and then their guts balloon out from sitting on a couch watching TV, drinking beer and reliving their glory days.

It doesn’t have to be like that. As my teacher discovered, and as I learned, it’s okay to slow down. It’s okay to accept one’s limitations, and then train a bit less aggressively. I can still “roll” in jujutsu techniques, but lately I enjoy weapons work a bit more, where I don’t have to tumble as much. My body thanks me for that, and I’m more able to get up the next morning and go to work without as many aches and pains. Do I miss the grappling and sparring I used to do as a youth during karate and judo? Of course. Do I think I could go back to competitive budo?  Not on your life. I’m past that age.  I would hazard to say that a good 17-year-old competitive judo player could now dump me all over the place in standing randori because I’m simply a bag full of old judo and football injuries that preclude me from going at it like I used to.

But I would venture to say that even if you do karate or judo, there are wonderful advantages to aging. You can focus more on techniques, more on the kata, less on training for competition. Maybe you do a bit less sparring, or spar for specific purposes, such as to sharpen your waza, to figure out self-defense tactics, to modify techniques so you don’t have to put out as much youthful energy. There are all sorts of ways to make any budo training age-appropriate.

My own teacher found that teaching children and older people had rejuvenated his interest in teaching martial arts. In a recent trip to Japan, I had to take a break from training. I sat next to him as he watched his regular class train with some visiting students from other countries. His frontyard dojo was packed to its gills with students; maybe some 40 or so crammed into a dojo only the space of a medium-size American garage. There were young men throwing each other, slamming each other into the mats in jujutsu. There were kids doing bo. There were older people doing weapons kata. It was loud, happy and boisterous.

I thought back to when I first entered his dojo, almost three decades ago. When I first started I was in my late 20s and there were only two or three other students, in their 20s, on a good night. We trained long and hard, as young, earnest men are wont to do, but it was pretty somber. Now, with people of all ages doing all sorts of kata, it looked like a lot more fun, even though the level of physical exertion in training was much more uneven.

I asked my teacher, “This looks like so much fun nowadays. Did you ever think you would have this many students training here, of all sorts and nationalities and ages?”

He replied, smiling, “Never in a million years.” And he kept on watching, and teaching.

I’m hoping that instead of retiring soon, the wide range of students will inspire him to keep on walking down from his home to his dojo to teach. I still have a lot more to learn from him. And while my body may age, I think my mind is still young and eager to learn more. So budo can be age-appropriate, and conversely, it can keep you young, at least mentally, if it continues to bring you enjoyment!