104. Finding the Time for Budo

A reader recently asked me to comment on how one finds the time to train. We live in a day and age, he noted, that puts a stress on how many waking hours we have to devote to training in budo. How did the great masters of the past manage to train so much? How can we devote all the time we really need when we have jobs, families, and other responsibilities?

It’s not a minor question. Surveys show that we Americans, at least, are working more hours and getting paid overall less (figuring in inflation) than a decade or two ago, and stereotypes notwithstanding, we work more productive hours than almost any other country, including the vaunted Japanese worker. All that work and then having to deal with daily family life will, indeed, put a crimp on training time. Surely, if you’re an adult with a job and a family of any sorts, you can’t be going to the dojo five nights a week to train for five or six hours. It just ain’t gonna work.

First comment: an author I admire and respect (plus, he’s my bud), Dave Lowry, addressed this issue in, I think, a past column in Black Belt magazine. So what I say is nothing new, and much of it is cribbed from his own article, since I pretty much agree with his observations.

Second: We’re not alone in our predicament. Every generation has had to struggle with figuring out how to balance training with living a realistic life.

When the earliest martial systems were founded in Japan and China, they still provided a modicum of practical application for life-and-death situations. Learning to handle a spear or sword, or grapple to the death (or for subduing criminals) were skills a hereditary warrior had to know to better survive if called upon to serve in a war or police action. So it wasn’t much of a choice between pastime or work. Learning the bugei WAS part of one’s occupation. There was no conflict of time between pastime and work.

Go down a bit more in time and, in Japan at least, there was an extended period of relative peace of the Tokugawa hegemony. But early in that period, civil war was still a relative possibility and so martial artists who were skilled at their craft could parlay their prowess into being hired by a feudal lord as part of his retinue or as an instructor. The martial arts were still practical skills that could, in fact, be utilized to save your life during the execution of your duties as a warrior.

However, if you study the records and proclamations, much of the martial ardor and pugnacity of the Sengoku bushi (Warring States samurai) faded as two centuries of peace ensued. Several Tokugawa shoguns had to write public admonitions to the samurai class to continue to practice martial arts and study strategy because as bushi, that is what their station in life was supposed to be about, never mind that the wars were over. So as the samurai became bureaucrats, administrators, teachers and lawmakers, they, too, struggled with balancing work, family and budo training. The problem of finding the time to train is nothing new. The issues are the same.

Here’s my own opinion: if you can’t commit a reasonable amount of time to your training, then perhaps your life is full as it is already and you may have to forego it, at least for the time being. The two koryu master teachers who I admired as my main teachers in Japan both said the same thing: there is a hierarchy of values, and never let your love of martial arts eclipse the other responsibilities you have, or in the end you will be left with nothing. You have to put in adequate time for family, first, because without the support of your family, your life is meaningless. Whether family is just a spouse or significant partner, or ten kids, a wife and three ex-spouses who receive alimony, you have to shoulder the responsibility you took on, and spend the time and effort with family, and extended family, to make sure the family endures, and you as an individual in that family contributes your fair share. That is what being an adult is about. You no longer take everything. Now you have to give.

Second, of course, is your job. Without a stable job and income, you really will have a hard time paying to train. You need to pay dues, room rent, buy new training gear when the old ones wear out, be able to pay for travel expenses to attend seminars and workshops,and pay for medical bills if you fall the wrong way or get hit in the head by a wayward stick. So you have to do your best at your job and to secure a decent wage for a decent days’ work.

Finally, if all the above is working relatively well, you can enjoy budo as a pastime. With a supportive family and good job, doing budo is a plus, a way to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy, a way to engage in an activity that you enjoy with others who enjoy it with you, a way to develop bonds and friendships outside of family and work. Having the mental and physical health that comes out of good budo training will add to your abilities at work and in your  family and social life, but all these parts have to work together and you should never use budo training as an escape to avoid dealing with your responsibilities in the other two spheres of your life.

From my own personal experience, trying to find your own balance can be frustrating at times. I wish I could train more myself, but given my work and family responsibilities, I only have a limited amount of free time in a week. I therefore know that I am not progressing as rapidly as I could  were I still in Japan, training four nights a week. But I tell myself that I was glad I was young and reckless and did that, but now I am older and have responsibilities so those days are long past. I will still grow in my skills, only slower. In the meantime, I am also progressing in my work, and my little family is growing as we live and learn and love together.

I’m not saying that you have to abandon martial arts entirely if work or family needs take precedence. I know a budo student who will sometimes get into terrible arguments with his partner because he wants to take one night out of an entire week to train. That’s not an unreasonable request, in my opinion, because training night is basically his one and only social night out “with the gang.” He doesn’t gamble, play golf, drink, or go to parties. He just works and comes home. Asking him to cut off his one and only social engagement is a bit too possessive, I would say. People need a way to blow off steam, to exercise, and to make friends outside of family and work.

On the other hand, training all the time, every day, when you have the chance to the neglect of family and work, may be fine for professional athletes and young teens with time on their hands, but it’s not a healthy goal for anyone who does have family and work. Your life will suffer, and even for young men and women, there has to be a fallback in case martial arts as a professional career doesn’t pan out as you think it would have. Find the time, I say, to stop and smell the roses. Learn about life, study philosophy, look at art, experience things outside the dojo. A greater maturity in life will lead to a greater grasp of things inside the training hall.

After all, it’s all about striking a proper balance, something even the vaunted samurai had to do when they lay down their arms and had to survive as administrators and bureaucrats, as well as martial artists.

In addition, if you find yourself an adult with only a limited time for the dojo, you should also not think that budo training ends once you step outside the doorway of the training hall. One of my sempai works as a busy executive for a large bank in Tokyo. He has a family; a wife and a child. He has to put in very long hours as one of the bank’s top mid-level executives. Gone are the days when he was a college student, training in three to four different martial arts, five to six days a week. Now he teaches two classes on the weekends when he’s free, and sometimes he has to let his senior students take over when the bank asks him to work on the weekends.

Still, he maintains a sharp edge. He’s still one of the most skillful technicians I’ve seen in my style. How does he maintain his edge? I think that he values his time so much that when he does train, he is fully engaged. He trains very hard, without wasting time, and tries to teach and practice as much as he can when he’s in the dojo. Time is a commodity too precious, he knows, to waste. I try to tell that to my students in budo and in my college computer graphics classes: life is short. You think you will live forever, but a human lifetime is short, you never know when you are going to kick off, so work hard, engage yourself in whatever you do, and pay attention. Don’t just slouch your way to oblivion and then regret that you didn’t have a fuller life in the end. Be engaged in the world, in your life.

Second, my sempai told me that he’s constantly training, even when he’s not in the dojo. How? Well, he explained, when he’s on a subway train to work, he tries to train himself to learn balance, as the train sways and shifts under his feet. When he walks through a crowd, he tries to slide through without bumping or jostling other people. He tries to be aware of his surroundings, making note of entranceways and exits, how people interact near him, how they move. He tries to always be aware of his surroundings. “That is a kind of budo training,” he said.

He also spends the time to go over the kata in his mind, as a kind of mental exercise. By imagining and repeating the kata in his mind while he is on the long subway ride to and from work, he is engaging in what many professional athletes do before a game or match; previsualization sharpens your mind, prepares it for the actual event, and hones your senses. It may not be as physically beneficial as actually doing the movements, but it does prepare your mind for the engagement.

Thus, one does need some amount of time training in a dojo. But if you consider that total “training” doesn’t stop at the dojo, you can envision parts of your life also being part of budo training, actively (like paying attention to how you walk, how you breathe, or keeping your balance in a subway train) or passively (previsualization, going over kata in your mind). In doing so, budo becomes not just a separate, disparate part of your life, only done in a dojo, but an integrated, integral aspect of your whole life, as you engage in work and family life.

103. Practice Does Not Necessarily Make Perfect

(Note: I originally sent this email to my students prior to an iai practice.)

A note on training:

Lately, we’ve been focusing on basics, going over the shoden level seiza forms over and over again. There’s a reason for that. I’m still not satisfied with our basics.

In all traditional Asian combative arts, there is a strong emphasis on reaching a particular expertise in the repetition of proper form, none, perhaps, more so than in iai. Since iai proper does not have competitive matches (although lately they have instituted a kind of forms competition in some organizations in Japan) that pit one person against another, the only way to evaluate expertise in iai is through perfection of form. This emphasis has become such a fetish in iai that even some koryu folk will admit that watching iai is nearly as exciting as watching grass grow or paint dry. It is just going over a form, over and over again.

However, that is why I keep emphasizing working on basics, all of us, myself included. Proper form is really important in iai.

When you study a particular ryu, or ryuha, you are basically trying to reach an appropriate level of “form” that indicates you are in line with a certain way of doing a kata, a series of linked movements. There may be variations from one dojo to another, and one teacher to another in the same school, but there are some basic signposts that declare that you either “get it” or you don’t: Your timing, perhaps, or the way you move, handle the sword, the angle of your chiburui, or angle of the cut with the sword. This is one step beyond simply repeating the steps, or procedure. This is polishing the steps and instilling in them the particular WAY you move with the sword in hand.

When you begin to “get it,” your swordwork begins to assume an actual personality: that of your own, of course, but also that of the ryu you are performing. That balance, that tension between individual character and the characteristics of the ryu is the hardest to attain, as beginners. When you start with iai, everything may seem random and arbitrary. If you progress, however, and you observe other ryu, you should come to a realization that there are implicit reasons why you do things a certain way, and why another ryu does things a different way. You will begin to grasp the differences in timing, technique and mental kamae (posture). What many of you who have been doing it for some months need to do to break your logjam is that you have to somehow internalize the ryu’s sensibilities as your own, and subsume what your mind and body seem to want to do under the mantle of the ryu’s methods.

You may want to slouch and hunch your shoulders because all your life, that’s how you stand. Or your body wants to use your shoulder and arm strength instead of your hip muscles. You have to consciously, mentally, force yourself to make the corrections. The other part is you also have to make the connection with your own body, forcing it to move that way too when you perform the kata. Again, there may be long-standing habits in your body that you have to break.

You have to see what is being done, internalize the concept in you mind, but you then have to transmit that movement to your body. A lot can mess things up in this two-step process. Be aware of what you are seeing and doing.

Koryu study is basically this: you break down bad habits and try to institute new ones, hopefully better ones. I know, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of training, but training without thinking or self-correction is no improvement. You are simply reinforcing bad habits and making them harder to break. I think it was football coaching legend Vince Lombardi who said something like, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

What he meant was, even if you put in time and effort in training, if you are training the wrong way, you aren’t really getting any better, you’re only getting better at doing something badly.

Thus, being cognizant in training means you have to be self-aware of your mistakes and self-correct, always doing a kata and then never being happy with it, considering it from all angles, and correcting your mistakes, forever striving to approach the model of the kata demonstrated by your sempai and sensei.

Even the best teachers I know are never satisfied. Of their own kata, they would say, “Mada, mada (Not yet, not yet)” They were constantly polishing their skills. These were men and women who were superb in their arts, yet they were never satisfied. And that dissatisfaction was what, perhaps, caused them to excel as far as they did.

I don’t feel adequate in my own skills. But every time I do a kata, I try to improve it. Do I need to tip the edge one degree up or down? Am I using too much right arm in that cut or not enough left? Am I leaning too far forward? I try to remember what my teachers have told me, and work on their advice, over and over again.

Finally, going back to your mental approach: You also need the ability to self-evaluate. That means you have to see clearly whether or not you are doing things right for yourself. You need to tame your body and ego so that they do not get in the way of a truthful, honest feedback. I am reminded that the second kata of the Takeuchi-ryu kogusoku is called “Sumashi Miru (Seeing clearly).” Ono sensei once told me that not only does it describe the technique of the kata (looking right at the opponent and challenging his/her mental aggression) but it may also describe a very important heiho (martial strategy) of the ryu. You have to be able to read a situation clearly, without blinders of ego, fear and doubt. In advancing in a koryu, you have to see clearly what you need to improve and work on it every practice session.

A teacher may guide you along the way, but a teacher can’t carry you to the end. He or she is only a guide, who points the way. It’s really up to you to walk that road and get to your destination yourself. The really hard work has to be done by you, as in other aspects of your life.

102. On Becoming More Human

While this blog is about my take on classical martial arts, permit me a story about photography which, I promise, has implications for the subject of budo.

I recently attended a lecture given by a famous professional photographer. Over the years, at computer graphics conferences, I had always made it a point to attend his lectures and workshops. I’ve been at his feet, metaphorically speaking, for some 12 years, having listened to his presentations at least five to six times, as near as I can count. To me, his technical understanding, his ability to explain his vision and his craft, are without peer. At the end of any of his talks, my notebook is full of little nuggets of knowledge: Photoshop Layer techniques over a photograph, using the Histogram, rendering to grayscale using color curves, using light and focus for composition…

As far as the art, science and craft of digital photography, I thought he was a true master. He was also funny, acerbic, witty and could ad lib jokes that kept the audience in stitches. I learned as much from him about public presentations as I did about digital photography. Yet, I thought he had flaws. Huge ones. He was certainly helpful when people had questions, and never lost his temper. But I sensed a tremendous ego. Like all artists (and, my wife says the same about me), he had a huge amount of self-centeredness, all the better in order to focus on himself and his art, I suppose. But in some ways, it made his edges seem somewhat jerky. There was a part of him that seemed an act,  a theatrical performance, and not something heartfelt.

Nevertheless, I kept on attending his lectures whenever I could. He was that good.

Recently, he came to Honolulu to give a lecture and series of workshops. I encouraged one of my best photo students to go to his public lecture because I felt he would really inspire her and help her technical growth, and I had made his book mandatory reading for her. We both went to the evening lecture, got there early, and sat in the front row. I had warned her. “The guy is one of the best technical masters of digital photography, in my opinion,” I said. “But I gotta warn you. He comes off as a bit of an asshole.”

Nevertheless, when we sat down and I got a look at him as he talked with the organizers of the lecture, I sensed something different about him. After 12 years, he had aged. Yes. Physical appearances do change. He looked older, with more hair on his chin than on the top of his head. Yet, there was something else that had changed in his demeanor and whole spirit.

He strode up to the centered podium and fiddled around, making small talk with the audience before the start of the lecture. My student took the time to ask  him to autograph her copy of his book. He did it with gracious good humor, and a touch of sarcasm directed only towards himself.

Then the lecture started, and I was, again, intensely scribbling notes about his technical concepts and conceptual theories, page after page. He had the same incredible range of knowledge, expanded even more over the years, he had the same jokes, easy repartee, and brimming self-confidence. Yet, there was something else I hadn’t seen before…a warmth to him? He projected image after image to demonstrate particular methods. All wonderfully shot photos, as usual. At the end, though, things changed. He offered to show a couple of slide shows of his work, with little monologue, just to show the sum total of his technical and artistic theories to date.

And then he prefaced the slide shows with a story. One of his most recent freelance jobs had been to photograph a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who had just been released from years of detention by the military junta that ruled her country. The experience humbled him. He had been used to shooting famous celebrities and movie stars, actors and fashion models. He wrote to her, citing his resume, and at first she turned him down. “I am not a movie star or model,” she wrote bluntly. It floored him. Who WOULDN’T want to be famous for fame’s sake?” he must have thought. He kept at it, sending more requests, until finally he received a tentative positive reply, and a cryptic requirement: He had to “do right.”

In the country, he saw poverty, suffering, and a nation that seemed to be facing a new burst of freedom and democracy for the first time. He encountered people with few material possessions who seemed happy and content to share their laughter and friendship with him. Then he met the laureate. He had to talk through an interpreter because, while she knew English perfectly well, the junta still ordered that she not talk directly to any foreign correspondent or photographer. So the communication on the first visit was roundabout.

Yet, he did communicate. And he asked this and that, and always said, “Please,” and “Thank you,” trying to act humble. He asked the laureate, as a “by the way,” how one would say thank you in her native language. The reply stunned him. She said, through three people, “In our language, we do not have  words for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ unless you are asking or doing something that requires extraordinary effort, beyond the pale. In our everyday life, we do everything with thanks and mindfulness, so we do not need to say it. We do it.”

The words must have struck him like a bolt of lightning. He had tried to act humble, but he realized he was still acting. It dawned on him that “do right” meant that words are one thing, but actually doing actions in the right manner (as in the Buddhist Eightfold Path of “Right Action”), was different from just ACTING or talking the right way. And to do right, his mind had to think right.

The revelation churned in his head for days, perhaps months. Now, he said, he was going back to that Third World country for a follow-up shoot. But also, he was planning a photo book about the country and its people, and he didn’t know how but eventually, he wanted all the profit from the book to go towards building a school for that country’s children. Somehow, some way, he was going to do it, because he wanted to do one right thing in his life, something outside of his own life, for others. Rather than just harvesting images of other people and creating beautiful pieces that showed how good he was, he wanted his photographs to touch people’s hearts. Because, he said, isn’t that what sharing photographs should be all about?

And at the end, he used the Hawaiian word for thank you, “Mahalo,” that he was taught by my Native Hawaiian student. And it sounded like he meant it.

My student, her husband and I walked to our cars together. In the parking lot, she said she was blown away by the presentation. The photographer, she said, was “like a Zen master of photography.” In reply, I said I had never felt that level of humanity and greatness in him before. He was always a master technician and artist. But now…he was something more. By believing in something outside of his own self-centered career, he was like…a sensei.

I say this because in any endeavor, in any field, you have those before you who have technical and artistic skills. In the budo, you have teachers who may have the greatest knowledge and technical ability. Couple that with teaching ability and you have incomparable mastery of martial arts…at one level. There is more than enough that you can learn from such teachers. But there is another level, and if the budo aspire to be more than just sports in white pajamas, or redundant ways to cause harm to others, then the other level of mastery is important to note. The budo should make of us better human beings. That is the promise and mystique of Asian martial arts, but all too often, it is woefully abused, overly mystified, or debased, even in the countries of  their own origins.

One of my friends thinks that martial arts don’t necessarily make people better. It just brings out people’s inner personalities, so you can more clearly see whether they’re thugs, normal people, or extraordinary human beings. I tend to think that IF the budo are pursued as a shugyo, as a discipline that encompasses physical, mental and spiritual training, they DO offer a path to inner training, but only if the budo student seeks it. But then again, there will always be people who have different opinions about everything, including life, social relationships, work and creative endeavors. For some, budo or photography are nothing more than just ways to make money, or in the case of martial arts, to better beat up other people. For others, it can be a path of humanity.

In that way, I count myself lucky to have studied under several teachers who exemplified the best traits of a budo sensei, not just technically, but in their personalities and demeanor. They will always stand out as role models for me to emulate. Were they perfect? No one is perfect. They had personality flaws and human weaknesses, but given that, warts and all, they stood out as wonderful human beings. They were the ones who put aside their egos when teaching, and helped us students out, not to show off what they knew, not for more money from dues, not for fame or fortune, but because they truly wanted to help the students get better. They thought of us. And we could tell it wasn’t faked. Their concern for others were truly genuine. Like the photographer’s tale, the best sensei don’t have to act like good teachers. They ARE good teachers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100. Go and Ju, and finding a balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

99. The Paper Trail in Koryu Budo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

98. The Nobility of Budo


The late Pat Nakata sensei, demonstrating Okinawan kobudo.

空手は 君主の武芸

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

–Funakoshi Gichin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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