107: Why Do You Train?

Why do you train in budo?

I don’t think there’s one (or even two) right answers, really. There might be better ones, silly ones, stupid ones and awe-some bodacious ones, but one, or two right answers? No. But there are two paths a student can take when motivated to begin martial arts. One road ennobles, another adds insult to injury to a broken, crooked spirit.

As a student, and as a teacher, and even as a student who has trained long enough to be asked to help instruct, that’s something you have to consider when approaching a student to offer instruction.

You need to consider this when, perhaps, trying to figure out why a person may be hesitant in performing a particular kata, or stumbles this way instead of that way, or is too eager to learn too many kata instead of focusing on improving what he already knows, or is much too involved in attaining (or, in the case of a teacher, charging money and giving out) rankings.

Even as I say this, I’m actually not quite sure what kind of answers I’d get from my own little group of students. What they tell me may be markedly opposed to what I really want to know, because people learn to be good at giving “right answers” in a social environment.

“I want to learn how to better myself, to develop my health, and to learn about budo philosophy…” Yeah, sure. Then you watch them and they are all over the place, stumbling over themselves, not pushing themselves after classes to learn for themselves, and engaging in some pretty un-healthy lifestyle choices. Hmmm. There’s some cognitive dissonances going on there.

I write this because my wife, bless her heart, wants me to better organize my budo paperwork for my club. “What is your mission statement? What are you DOING?” she asked. “Why do you train?”

“Uh…because it’s…fun?” I answered.

“Not good enough,” she replied, putting down her pen and looking at me. “Why don’t you ask your students why they train?”

I do, and did, I replied. Whenever a new student joins, I ask them why they want to train.


Well…I get answers all over the map. Because they want to learn koryu: the history, the theory, the philosophy of classical martial arts. Because they enjoy the training but can’t do competitive training anymore. Because they want to learn how to twist wrists and throw people around.

She sighed. That’s not going to help. You need a concise, precise five-sentence statement.

I’ll try, I said. But really, ask five different people, and you may get five different answers or non-answers (like a shrug of the shoulders and a, “I dunno. ‘Cuz it’s fun!”). And even at that, the answers may not truly be why they train, in their heart of hearts. You often have to watch them and observe their attitudes and performance when they train to get at the heart of what their goals are.

The other reason for my musing on purposes for training is because I was just at a street celebration for Chinese New Year. As is the tradition in our Chinatown, a parade full of dignitaries, politicians, military marching units, high school bands, and assorted crowd favorites walked down the main street of the Chinatown section of Honolulu. Along with those folk were quite a number of local martial arts groups. There were Chinese martial arts/lion dance groups that livened up the festivities. And there were a lot of tenuously Chinese-y or totally non-Chinese martial arts groups walking down the street, in their training outfits and running shoes, stopping to perform mini-demonstrations midway.

All the groups looked to be McDojo types (I say this more in a descriptive way; not as a pejorative): lots of tykes and teenagers in ill-fitting outfits, lots of younger people in various stages of grunginess, as if being unshaved and without a visit to a barber in months lent more street cred toughness to them in their white, blue, black or combination of all the above plus red, white and blue colors.

I watched with some amusement (my wife dissected my gaze and said, “You’re just a snob!” to which I will admit to) and then told her that we didn’t have to stay and watch the martial arts very long. We could go find a stand that sold jai, noodles and gau to take home. The demo’s were bor-ing. Same old same old punch and kick, or some half-okole “ju-jits” moves stolen from legitimate Gracie systems.

One thing I’ll say though, I thought I understood why many of us, and many of the students I observed, took up martial arts. It was to appear (note that word, “appear”) tough. Join a dojo, wear some cool pajamas, learn a couple of killer moves, and then think you are a tough, badass assassin. Be “strong.” And you don’t have to work too hard at it, from the looks of their techniques. It’s an alluring incentive, especially for youngsters (think of how they channel themselves into being dinosaurs, monsters and wizards), and for young men and women seeking to find some self-confidence as awkward adolescents, but without trying too hard. I would hazard that even I started off in budo that way: I was tired of being beat up in schoolyards so I joined a judo club to get physically stronger and tougher.

The “Be Strong” allure is a powerful one, and I suspect that’s what brings a lot of people into budo training (and a lot of other martial arts besides Japanese budo). Attaining a sense of physical dominance is a natural impulse across cultures.

One of my students served in military intelligence, and he noted that modern combative training emphasized MMA-style grappling. When he complained to the drill instructor that they wouldn’t encounter nearly naked grappling fights on a modern-day battlefield, the instructor replied, basically, that he knew that was true, but with only a few days for hand-to-hand training in between cardio and marksmanship, at least the raw recruits would develop a SENSE of competency in hand-to-hand, even though they really weren’t going to learn much of anything. At least they’d FEEL more confident.

When my student served overseas, he analyzed captured terrorist videotapes used at their camps. Funny thing, he wrote. There’s a lot of stuff where the new recruits in those terrorist camps are being taught en masse to punch and kick, like a karate class. When was the last time you saw a terrorist attack a mall, bus or building using karate? Never, right? But the training itself lent a James Bondian sense of being a killer elite to the terrorists recruits who would probably sooner strap a bomb to themselves than attack someone with their bare fists. So it’s all about creating an imagined, if not a real, sense of physical strength.

There’s a lot of “churning” going on in those factory-style dojo, however, for various reasons. Sooner or later, a student’s self-delusion about being the next James or Jane Bond, secret agent, is dashed when he is beat too many times in a contest or tourney. Or he realizes through a fog of self-delusion that there are a whole lot of people better than he is, and he is hampered by a mess of obstacles (physical, social, mental, and congenital) along the way to being Batman, Superman, Kwai Chang Caine or the next incarnation of Bruce Lee.

When that happens, the student inevitably drops out. He learned enough to be dangerous to himself, full of inflated self-confidence. Now he can brag about being a yellow belt to his drinking buddies, but he doesn’t have to do more work to get any higher, because, hey, his hands are deadly “fists of fury.”

On the other hand, one shouldn’t diss all such beginnings to become “strong.” I was like that too. I did become physically healthier. Doing judo opened up a whole new world for me, a bookworm: that of athletics. From judo, I went on to high school football, a bit of wrestling, then aikido, karate do, and finally ending up in koryu.

In my case, I didn’t quit because what supplanted my quest to “become strong” was a quest to learn more about the whole nature of budo, and how it could become a part of my body, my mind, and my life in ways that went beyond physical brute strength, combativeness and “looking tough”  to actually “being tough” mentally.

For me, I think the problem is when some people enter the martial arts seeking such outward, superficial machismo and never grow out of it, moving on to becoming seniors and even teachers without ever deepening their understanding of their own nature and that of other people. When their own physical limitations, old age, infirmities, etc., stymie them, they drop out, sometimes sooner, sometimes later.

Several of my own teachers have noted that this attitude can be a problem. There are many kinds of martial arts, they admonished me. All of them can lead up to the top of a mountain along different paths, but they all have the same goal, technically, physically, and philosophically. So don’t be so critical of other schools or their approaches if you understand that they are attempting to reach the same goal but in a different way.

On the other hand, they also noted that there ARE some paths that lose their way, that go downwards into a dark valley instead of a mountaintop, that become not a path for self-cultivation to becoming a better individual, but a dark road to selfish brutishness. And that can include any kind of martial arts, modern or classical, eclectic or traditional.

“That is the way of the Demonic World (of Buddhism),” one sensei told me. “People act like vicious, violent animals, selfish, greedy and self-centered. That is hell on earth, which comes about from ignorance about one’s true humanity.”

The goals of training, therefore, lie along those two paths: to one’s betterment (however it may be, such as physical, mental, spiritual and so on) or to the negative path of being prone to violence, pride, self-centeredness. The tools (budo training) are the same. It’s how you approach the budo and use it that makes all the difference in the world.

The teachings of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu heiho, and even one of the okuden in one of my own school of koryu is the concept of “Satsujinto, Katsujinken.” In discussions with other people with more experience, I’ve been told that the concept has several levels of understanding, from the personal to the tactical, to the political. A full discussion of all the meaning of this phrase, meaning “The Sword that Kills, the Sword that gives Life,” is beyond the scope of this short blog essay.

However, I am led to understand that one of the meaning is that the sword symbolizes one’s training in martial arts. Like a sword, martial arts by and of itself is neither inherently good or bad. It is how the practitioner uses it, and approaches it, that creates either a weapon that is used either for good or for evil, for the development of positive physical and mental virtues, or for the creation of a thug.

Why do you train? Ask yourself this. And/or ask your students this. Watch their lips move, but then observe how they train, and decipher their true motivations from how they act, not what they say. Becoming stronger is admirable. Becoming healthier, wiser, smarter, better. But beware of fostering the flip side of the coin: by becoming “stronger,” does that mean becoming meaner, crueler, stronger without compassion, powerful but more selfish? Whatever the answers, is the student looking for a Sword of Life or a Blade of Death?

9. Dan and Kyu…and You’re Welcome!

Ranking in Budo

The subject of ranking terminology in martial arts has been repeated several times by other writers and commentators, but it bears repeating, if only because there are always new students entering the fold. If you are a beginner, the mystique of that cloth black belt around the waist of your teacher may be fascinating. Fraying at the edges, it seems a mark of the “master,” something that you aspire to gain some day as a visible token of your physical prowess, perhaps. Belt colors are the visible symbols of the dan-kyu ranking system, a tradition that, actually, is not all that old.

In what are called the “modern” Budo, such as Kendo, Aikido, Judo, Karatedo, and so on, ranks are based on the dan-kyu system. As far as most researchers can tell, the system was devised (or if not totally devised, then adapted and wildly popularized) by Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan Judo.

By all accounts, Kano was quite an intellectual. As Japan rapidly modernized around the turn of the 20th Century, Kano strove to recast the traditional grappling arts, collectively called jujutsu, into a universal, systematized, and popular physical activity akin to a Western sport. Kano’s professional career was as an educator, trained at the best Westernized institutions of learning in Tokyo, and he saw much that he thought was dangerous, nonsensical, and/or backwards in the attitudes and training regime of many jujutsu schools of his time. The general public, enamored of all things Western and foreign, looked down upon these schools as being backwards and furukusai, having a rotten smell of the old. Moreover, as Kano described, many schools taught without rhyme or reason regarding their training system, bullied and beat up beginners, fought in the streets, and even engaged in bloody public matches in front of drunken audiences looking for cheap thrills. Hey…sound familiar?

Kano wanted to change all that. There was much that he felt was worthwhile in the Japanese grappling arts, and much that he thought Western sports culture could offer to the Japanese public. Thus was born his Judo, a system of sport, physical activity, and to a relatively minor level, self-defense. Kano and his top students took what they thought were the best techniques and ideas of many different jujutsu schools and incorporated them with what they thought were the scientific and logical process of Western sports and wrestling to create Judo.

Kano systematized the training into a progressive system of learning, from ukemi (tumbling) to nagewaza (throwing), to newaza (ground grappling), to atemi (striking). He encouraged the tightening of rules of contest, within his school and without, held frequent lectures to encourage not just the physical aspect of Budo, but also the intellectual and philosophical parts as well.

Kano had, unusually for anyone in any culture, a broad outlook. Kodokan Judo was his gift to the world. His top students regularly engaged in heated contests with representatives from traditional jujutsu schools. However, he continued to seek the advice and input of jujutsu teachers, and he encouraged the spread of other martial arts, such as when he supported Funakoshi Gichin’s introduction of Karatedo to Japan, and when he encouraged Shimizu Takaji to spread the art of Jo (a short staff) in Tokyo.

Well, one of the innovations of Kano’s was the dan-kyu ranking system. Previously, rankings in the old jujutsu schools were a mish mash. Different jujutsu schools would rank their students according to different criteria, and award ranks with differing names and titles. There was no national standard. Kano wanted to change that. By creating a national uniformity to Judo ranking, he probably knew that the standards could be expanded to include international ranking standards, thereby helping to spread Judo worldwide.

The older system, called the menkyo kaiden system, is really not one general, universal set of ranking. For example, my own school of the Takenouchi (or Takeuchi) –ryu ranks students according to shoden mokuroku (meaning you know the “entry level” methods), chuuden mokuroku (“middle level” techniques) and okuden mokuroku (“secret” techniques). But there is a parallel ranking system that defines what you can teach and how independent you can be, and a third system adopted from the dan-kyu system to make some sense out of this whole big gorilla.

Other schools may have other terms, such as oku-iri sho, kirikami, menkyo kaiden (license to teach based on you knowing all the methods), etc.

In the menkyo kaiden system, when you joined a school, you were a nyuumon; a student who had just entered the school. Then you trained for a while before you attained shoden mokuroku or its equivalent, which is like wearing a white belt for years until you were suddenly rewarded with a black belt.

Kano probably felt it was rather discouraging for beginners not to see visible signs of advancement until you got a black belt, so he devised several gradations of ranking leading up to the black belt, and grades after attaining the black belt. From white to the first rank black belt, you were either a white belt (no rank), or sankyu (third level), nikyu (second level) and then ikkyu (first level), progressively, with ikkyu being just before black belt. Sankyu to ikkyu were designated by a brown belt. Maybe. I’m not sure if Kano devised the brown belt or not. And I don’t really trust some web sources enough to state definitely yes or no.

Upon reaching a physical and mental level that showed you understood the basic principals of Budo, you were given a shodan (“beginning” dan), the first rank of black belt. In Japan, having a shodan is laudatory, but it’s not the big deal we in America sometimes think it is. A shodan simply means you “get it, sort of.”  So now comes the REAL training. That’s what a shodan means. You are actually only beginning the real stuff.

Subsequently, you work towards a nidan (second level), sandan (third level), yondan (fourth level), and so on.

Kano created ten dan levels, awarding juudan (tenth dan) to only the very best of his students. Very, very few Judoka (Judo players) in history have reached juudan. One of the few was the famed Mifune Kyuuzo. If you see videos of him, you may realize that his skill and teaching level was extraordinary. So juudan was a big deal indeed.

In most cases, by the time a Judo student reaches godan, his best competitive years are over and the rankings are awarded based more on technical mastery, teaching ability and contributions to the sport.

The system worked so well, and was so easy to understand, it was adopted by the newly formed systems of Kendo and Japanese Karatedo, and then with Ueshiba Morihei’s Aikido.

So the main demarcation was the shodan, or beginner’s black belt. You either had a black belt (yudansha) or didn’t (mudansha).

You will see, sometimes at seminars, some Judo teachers donning a red-and-white belt in lieu of a black belt. This belt is often worn by instructors who are godan and above, with acknowledged teaching capacity. Since a hakama obscures kendo and aikido teachers, wearing this red-and-white belt is unnecessary, and in fact, kendo teachers don’t wear a colored belt other than their usual cloth obi under their hakama to hold their jacket together.

Whence came the other various colored belts for the other kyu ranks below sankyu? In all likelihood, it probably came from the judo teacher named Kawaishi Mikonosuke, according to researchers more versed in Judo history than me. Kawaishi taught in Europe before and after World War II.

By all accounts an innovative instructor, Kawaishi felt that he needed to add more ranks, especially in the lower levels, to motivate and inspire his European students. Hence, the green, yellow and purple belts to denote yonkyu, gokyu, and rokkyu and whatever else is now used. Quite possibly, he also introduced the brown belt, but of this I’m not sure based on my cursory search online. (He was also one of my Judo sensei’s original instructors, and through that connection I think I learned very strong groundwork, a characteristic of Kawaishi-style judo.)

The thing with adding more rankings, of course, is that if you charge for ranking, you can fill up your coffers more by adding more ranks, each with a fee for being promoted. When I trained in a community Judo club, we paid a few dollars for registering our sankyu and above rank with the Kodokan. That was it. When I joined a for-profit Karate studio, I found there were a lot more ranks I had to pay for and a lot more money involved. Well, the studio had to pay rent and pay its instructors. I don’t begrudge them. But creating more ranks is a clever way to generate more income.

I have heard of some martial arts schools even expanding the ranking past tenth dan. and way past gokyu (or fifth kyu). You can get 15th dan, for example, in their schools. What they do is up to them, but frankly, in my opinion, at a certain point too much ranking starts to reek of money grubbing. What’s next? 22 and ¾ dan? 49th kyu?

So I remain deeply ambivalent about how ranking is done these days. It’s necessary to recognize the skill level of the practitioner. Officially recognized ranking also verifies that the person is in proper standing with some certifying board. On the other hand, it can get out of hand in terms of money involved, and it can also become politicized, and the worst effects can occur when you combine money and personality politics.

My own iai sensei, the late Ohmori Masao, was highly ranked by the All Japan Kendo Federation. That gave him political power to shield me, I found out, when there were some xenophobic voices in the iai world that wanted me and other foreigners out of Iaido. On the other hand, one of Ohmori sensei’s own teachers, Oei Masamichi, never held a Kendo-sanctioned dan rank. Yet, because of that fact, Ohmori sensei viewed Oei sensei, who passed on the once-secret Tosa province art of Eishin-ryu iaijutsu so it could become the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu, as a superlative teacher who did not bow down to partisan politics. In addition, he held the greatest respect for his contemporary, Iwata Norikazu. At a certain point, I read that Iwata sensei decided that he wouldn’t seek any higher rank from the Kendo Federation. He would simply teach anyone regardless of affiliation, as long as they were interested in learning. Without the need for ranking and approval or disapproval by any governing agency, he is free to teach whoever wants to learn from him.

Not seeking ranking, in those cases, freed such teachers from being beholden to certain political bodies that govern ranking. While in general such bodies are good for maintaining standardized levels, as I said, sometimes when co-opted by the wrong individuals, the whole system can be distorted to serve money and personalities. By circumventing ranking, teachers with established and unassailable credentials like Oei sensei or Iwata sensei sidestep those pitfalls.

I am not recommending that everyone abandon ranking, however. I am simply stating notable exceptions to the case, and these two teachers can be considered as being so good, they were “beyond” ranking. Kano also envisioned, probably, that the whole concept of the juudan in Judo originally was that at that point, you were beyond ranking entirely. Not many of us other mortals can claim such skill and teaching level.

Thus the “tradition” of the black belt and dan-kyu system is relatively new. It began with Kano Jigoro at the turn of the 20th Century so it is about 100 years old. –Not that old, considering that various forms of the menkyo kaiden system goes back maybe some four centuries-plus.

A friend of mine who does research in karate history has also told me that prior to the 1900s, Karate apparently had no Japanese-style ranking system. That makes sense, since Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate, was originally its own kingdom, separate and apart from Japan proper. And, the dan-kyu system, as explained, was actually taken from Kodokan Judo and applied to Karatedo much later in time as part of the Japanification of Karatedo.

So what, you may ask, was the ranking system of ancient Okinawan Karate? Well, my acquaintance thinks there weren’t any. If you were good, people knew you were good, and that was that. Word of mouth spread quickly in a small country like the Ryukyu kingdom. Practice would be performed bare-chested, in loose trousers, without any belts or other forms of visible ranking. The teacher would observe your training and when you attained a certain skill level, he would tell you to go study with his best friend, who specialized in another set of kata. Circulating among the different karate masters and gleaning the best of all of them, you eventually became a master in your own right and were recognized as such because everyone else knew your skill level. Then you began to teach others. It’s a simplified description, but in any case, in “ancient times” your level in Karate apparently wasn’t decided by the color of a cloth belt.

More or less, the same free form, communal method of teaching was embedded in other Okinawan arts such as sanshin (the stringed banjo-like musical instrument of Okinawa) and Okinawan udui, or dance. And just like Karatedo, all that changed under the influence of Japan, when the Ryukyu kingdom became annexed as part of Japan. So now you have distinct, separate schools of Okinawan dance and sanshin, with teaching licenses and rankings bestowed by certified teachers.

Where do you stand in all of this? Well, you stand with whatever your school and system does in terms of ranking. No more, no less, unless you run away and make your own system. Then you can do whatever you please, I suppose.

If I demystified the whole “black belt” mystique, then my job is done. Ranking, as a guide to your level of skill, should not be the primary goal of your training, else you get too wrapped up in the ranking and color of that cloth belt around your waist and not the true goal of the ranking, which is to indicate mastery of training; mentally, physically and spiritually.  A black belt, after all, means nothing if the rest of your life is a shambles, or if it doesn’t help you develop health, happiness and inner peace. There is no profit in attaining a black belt if you end up a vicious, narrow-minded thug. You may have gained a colored cloth belt but lost the world. One needs to have some perspective regarding the black belt and ranking in martial arts.

As the late actor Pat Morita said in the movie, “Karate Kid,” his belt was from Sears Roebuck and he used it to hold up his pants.

8. But…Does it work? –The “Warrior’s Mind”

The other day I walked past a dojo where a group of earnest karate students were practicing their kicks and punches. They looked pretty good in their nice, white, traditional karategi, but after a few seconds of observation, I surmised that none of them, not even their black belt instructor, had a kick or punch that would keel me over with one “killing blow.” And that’s not saying much, because I’m an aging old geezer over 50 years old.

So…does traditional karate NOT work? Is it true that the only really practical martial arts are the ones where you “rock and roll” and mix it up, like judo or Brazilian jujutsu, or the MMA type stuff?

Well, since it’s my blog and it’s my opinion, I’d say for the majority of people in a dojo like the one I saw, not really. But lest you think Wayne-o has gone over to the Dark Side, I’d say maybe almost the same percentage of practitioners in MMA and other nontraditional martial arts are also incapable of really mixing it up.

Here’s the sad truth, as I see it. Whether it’s MMA modern cage fighting or traditional budo, the majority of students in the United States (I can’t say my observations are any good outside of the US) are probably going to be mediocre when it comes to a high stress, truly combative situation. Will they be better off compared to if they had not had ANY training at all? Perhaps. And that goes for myself. I can’t truly say I’d be the last man standing in a violent confrontation, and I’m not talking a drunken brawl over spilled beer. I’m talking a life-and-death situation.

I would say, however, that all things being equal, MAYBE a judoka or MMA practitioner might have a slightly better chance of survival because of the high level of endurance training they undergo, and that on average active judo, karate and MMA players are younger and more reslient, and being younger they are able to train harder and longer. But take out factors of youth and training time, and I’d say any kind of martial arts training, on average, will give you only a marginally better chance of survival.

UNLESS…(there’s always a caveat with me)…unless you train with real intent. I don’t mean coming at each other with a beer bottle in practice and cracking your partner’s head if he/she fails to properly block your swing. I mean with real focus and mental intensity. In other words, you really, really think about what you are doing when you are practicing, and you don’t waltz around like two contestants in “So You Think You Can Dance.”

If you read books by folk who do real research in survival and combat stress situations (and not books by “wannabe’s” posing with camo pants and short little weenie knives), books by folk like Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (On Combat, at http://www.killology.com) and Ben Sherwood (The Survivors Club), you will note that in many high stress combative and extreme survival situations, the major factor for survival is not physical (although repetitive combat and survival training does help), but mental. You have to have a “survivor’s mind,” or a “warrior’s mind.”

For some illiterate, ignorant nutcases, that means being a stone cold psycho killer one step away from lawlessness. You know, like those bad guys in the old “Karate Kid” movies: “Yes Sensei! No mercy, sensei!” There are, unfortunately, people in our midst who don’t have a mental barrier that keeps them from hurting other people. They have no compunctions when it comes to killing, maiming, stealing or hurting other people. That’s not a warrior’s mind. That’s being a psycho.

But that’s not the case at all when you dissect what writers like Grossman and Sherwood are saying. What they are saying is that through proper training, the mental as well as the physical is conditioned to be prepared and to react properly under duress, without freaking out. Under high stress situations, our body goes through documented physical changes, including the release of hormones that can stimulate our brains in different ways. Our nerves react with either the fight, flight or freeze as stiff as a board impulse, brought on by thousands of years of genetic imprinting. Our breathing gets faster, our vision narrows, our heartbeat speeds up and our blood is flooded with hormones that move us to either run as fast as we can, flail away at our attacker, or freeze in disbelief because “it can’t be happening, it can’t be happening!”

Unsticking our body and minds and then getting them to move in the right way in order to survive a combative or survival situation requires two things: preparation and proper mind set. As far as preparation goes, that can mean proper budo or martial arts training. Whether it’s classical budo or MMA type training, if your body has been properly trained in repetitive combative or semi-combative situations, you should be somewhat physically prepared to do something. Preparation in a survival situation, as Sherwood culls from actual incidents, can be as simple as knowing where the exits are on an airplane before an accident happens, or buckling up your seat belt before you drive on that really accident-prone stretch of highway, or avoiding a darkened alleyway because you heard that it’s frequented by muggers late at night.

Having the proper mind set, what Grossman calls a “warrior mind,” is being able to have some amount of control over your instinctive, subconscious impulses with your cognitive mind, even in the midst of the chaos and “fog of war,” violence or traumatic incident.

Sportive type martial arts advocates often decry “traditional” martial arts practice because they see kata geiko (practice of preset “forms”) as “unrealistic.” However, you could classify a lot of training that modern law enforcement and military units undergo as kata geiko. Running through a simulated urban environment shooting at targets is a form of kata geiko, for example. Repeating evacuation procedures for flight attendants is kata geiko. If, therefore, kata geiko is not any good, why are they still used as a major form of pedagogy in modern systems of combat and survival training?

In budo, kata geiko performs the same function, more or less, as in more modern systems of training. Sans being put in actual danger, kata geiko offers a modicum of safety while the student performs physical movements that may be necessary in high stress situations. By repeating the training over and over, the movements become almost instinctive. Having the movements be instinctive is a good thing, because in actual situations, the cognitive brain can “freeze” or lock up. So if you take too much time thinking, “Well, I’ve got to make a fist. Let’s see, close my fingers together, thumb over other fingers, thrust out the fist, strike the guy with the knuckles of my fist just below his nose…” That’s too much thinking, especially when a part of your brain is screaming, “Oh my God, Oh my God, he’s trying to kill me! I can’t believe it! Let me out of here!”

No. You just have to punch your attacker in the face without having to think about HOW you are going to form a fist and make a strike.

The weakness of kata geiko for classical budo students is that it can become a dance. It can be shorn of their combativeness, their intent, their seriousness. If you don’t practice a karate kata with proper focus and intent, and then you try a half-arsed punch at your attacker and he’s still standing, you are in real deep poo poo.

Lest the MMA and sportive crowd snicker at the kata folk, there is also a danger in too much sportive training done the wrong way. Again, if you treat your training too much like a sport, while you may gain a lot of physical conditioning, you may not gain the proper mindset for a combative or survival event. An actual violent or survival confrontation is not a sport. There are no rules, no out-of-bounds targets, no neutral corners. “Playing” at a martial art like it’s a game doesn’t help in the development of a proper mind set.

That’s why, I suppose, when I was a young judoka, judo was treated a lot differently than it usually is today. I talked about it once with an old-timer judo instructor. We both mused over the differences in intent. In the old days, he said, we never could just amble off the mats to drink water and lie around in between matches. We had to sit up straight and focus on the practice. That was because, I now realize, judo still retained a sense of  budo-ness; it was still trying to develop a warrior mind, not a sports mind.

The judo sensei shrugged his shoulders and commented further. Nowadays, he said, students think nothing of walking off the mat, sucking on Gatorade or water from water bottles, lying on their backs and talking amiably with each other. “Well,” he concluded. “It’s a sport. What can I say? It’s not like the old days. We can’t force them to endure, to do shugyo (severe mental and physical discipline).”

It’s even worse if you talk about the kinds of aerobic exercises that use martial-artsy moves like kicks, punches and blocks. All the examples I’ve seen have not convinced me that they have any shred of real utility in a combative situation. The intent of those exercises is mainly for sheer aerobic exercise. In most cases, I see most of the practitioners executing movements with terrible form, poor kime (focus) and with very little delivery of real force at the point of attack.

One famous movie star testified that after doing a form of aerobic kick-boxing, he felt confident that he could “kick ass.” I don’t think so. He looked pretty good in spandex tights hopping around, but as far as really stopping someone in their tracks with his bare hands…Uh, nope.

Unfortunately, whether it’s classical budo or modern MMA type martial arts, you can’t FORCE someone to develop a “warrior mind.” You can encourage them to focus on training, but it’s hard to outwardly judge intent, focus or mental preparedness. You can only suggest it to others, and prepare your own self, mentally, for such real life situations.

Going back to that karate club with the bad techniques: What I will say is that the members appeared to be trying hard. Some kind of training is better than nothing, and perhaps given where they started from, the members may have come a long way in their physical dexterity. I couldn’t say. So they were crappy. But maybe they are better than if they had done nothing at all. I have to give them that much.

But the biggest fallacy for any martial arts student is to be smug. Performing kata half-assed or “playing” at randori or groundwork without focus and intention are both detrimental to the development of the “warrior’s mind.” I’m not saying that everything should be stoically, deadly, boringly serious. No, what I’m saying is that practice, whether kata geiko or free “sparring,” should be focused and thoughtful, and one should never be satisfied with what you can do. You should always strive to get better in some way. By striving, the mind is actively engaged in honing the movements, in paying attention to what’s going on. By focusing on practice, you focus on training the mind and body to have the proper movements and reactions “stick” to you mentally and physically, with less and less effort.

That, for me, is to have a “warrior’s mind.” And maybe, just maybe, your techniques MIGHT work.

5. When it’s time to quit

Budo should be fun! A student enjoys sake through a lotus stalk after hard practice.
Budo should be fun! A student enjoys sake through a lotus stalk after hard practice.

I’ve previously written about joining a classical Japanese martial arts.

But conversely, there are times when you should quit a budo.

This sounds like heresy, right? Maybe it is. But at a certain point in time, you may stop and think, “What the hell am I doing? I’m not enjoying myself, I’d rather be (insert a pastime here), and I’m hurting too much after practice.”

That’s when it’s time to reassess your goals and personal feelings about your martial art. Sometimes careful reflection rejuvenates your commitment. Sometimes, if you take a long, hard look at the physical, mental and emotional toll a budo takes on you, it may be time to leave. Okay, you may think of yourself as a “quitter” and you forego rational and logical conclusions and continue to beat yourself up mentally, physically and emotionally. Let up, bro. There are other things in life besides the dojo.

This sounds antithetical to promoting the martial arts, but I’ve left a couple of schools myself and feel better for it. So I “quit.” Hey, I’ve still got a happy life and a decent job. That’s the more important things that matter more than a pastime, be it budo, golf or playing bridge on Saturday nights.

To start with, you have to go back to why you joined a budo in the first place. Hugh Davey (Shudokan Martial Arts Association) and I were sitting in front of a cheap Japanese restaurant waiting to be seated and we conjectured that if all you wanted to learn was how to defend yourself, most moderately athletic people could learn that in a few months, give or take a week or so. So then what comes after that. Between the two of us we had close to 50 years’ worth of martial arts backgrounds, and yet we figured that nothing more really comes out of it if self-defense is all you’re looking for. Learn how to punch, kick, gouge eyes and knee a groin, and the rest is pretty much learning about the mindset and strategies of personal self-defense. You don’t need to perfect a front kick for years to defend yourself adequately. So we concluded that folks like us who continue to practice for decades are probably two shakes short of crazy.

On the other hand, if you enjoy budo practice for other intangibles, such as the physical exercise, the body dynamics, the camaraderie, the philosophy, the history, the sheer FUN of doing it…then you continue budo…Until these don’t become fun any more.

Several reasons may therefore impel you to leave. If it’s the physical exercise, then if you conclude that the physical training is hurting you more than it is helping you, you’re basically beating up on yourself. You could pull back on training and realize you’re not a twenty-something anymore. If that’s impossible given the training requirements of the style, then you may consider leaving so as not to water down the training system.

When you get older, your body ages and weakens. Age has its advantages but as a middle-aged guy, let me tell you, what it does to your body sucks. So you may have to forego training simply because your creaking old body can’t take the punishment anymore. No shame there. We all get old. Football players, for example, age really fast. You don’t see many 50-something-year-old professional football players still in the first ranks of the pro leagues, do you? The body can take only so much punishment from a contact sport like football before it simply gives out. Ditto extreme sports like rugby, boxing, pro wrestling, and so on. The lifespan of athletes in those competitive sports tend to be rather short. Why wouldn’t competitive judo and karate be different?

When I was in my mid-20s, I started graduate school. I was holding down a part-time job to pay the bills and I loved martial arts so much I was training in karate, aikido and judo at the same time, all the while jogging several miles a day. My body fell apart eventually and I realized overtraining was a bad thing. (D’uh!) I had to concentrate on getting a degree so I scaled back my training. By the time I finished graduate school I was getting close to 30 years old, and my schedule didn’t allow the freedom anymore to train as hard, and besides, my body was already aging. I had to focus on only a couple budo that I could do that wouldn’t hobble me when I needed to go into work. Doing competitive judo and karate, and then doing hours and hours of aikido simply was not physically possible for me anymore. So practicality forced my eager hand to scale back on training.

Another problem may arise when political and interpersonal dynamics become messy. A dojo is a place for training, but to keep it going, you need structure. The dojo needs to have a teacher, it needs to be part of a system of budo, and oftentimes, the technical system is held together by an organization. The organization can be big, such as a national group, or it can be an independent dojo run solely by the teacher. In any case, the political and social structure of the dojo may turn sour. Rather than subject yourself to that kind of emotional and psychological anguish, you may rightfully decide to leave.

There was one aikido dojo I used to train in that didn’t feel quite right. Instead of helping each other, oftentimes students who were senior to me (in spite of having trained in aikido for some four years prior, I donned a white belt to practice at this place) tried to beat on me or poke me when I was trying to work slowly on a technique. It took all my self-control not to side kick or punch out those students  in reaction to their snitty jabs because by then I had all those years of aikido, a dan ranking in karate, and a dan ranking in judo.

But where did that snotty attitude come from? It came from the senior teachers, who had a problem with their self-esteem. Soon enough, I began to understand the dynamics of the place. Some teachers hated other teachers. They were jealous of their ranking and spent a lot of time maneuvering to put other factions under their power. It was not a happy place. Eventually, I left. I didn’t want to deal with those off-the-mat politics. Later, I learned that the head instructor finally left and set up his own dojo because he was disgusted with the politics as well, and a huge split fissured the remaining teachers into two parties, with each side threatening to sue the other side in civil court. Do you need that kind of b.s.? I would hope not. Luckily, living in Hawaii the were always alternatives to training at that really spiritually draining place.

There was a karate group I used to train in where the physical training was excellent for young folk. It was intense, physical and challenging. However, over the years I was training, the whole system slowly began to focus on tournament sparring, something I had very little interest in. But I was just one of many low-level black belts. If I didn’t like what the head instructor was doing, then I couldn’t really challenge him on his decision to focus on tournament play to the detriment of everything else. It was his dojo. So I left.

As for judo, I enjoyed it immensely as a young man. But the emphasis in many judo dojo nowadays is on competition, especially since it’s now an Olympic sport. The intensity of keeping up with national-level competitors for me was too much when I had to also work and go to graduate school.

Did I wimp out? You could say that. On the other hand, I had reached a level where I was training with folk from the US Judo Olympic team. They could wipe the floor with me when it came to stand-up randori, but due to my training in Kawaishi-style judo, I managed to hold my own and even tie them up in matwork. And in karate and aikido, I had excellent instructors and trained with a number of very good karateka and aikidoka in the day.

It was just that the politics, emphasis and personalities made things very uncomfortable. And so, because I didn’t HAVE to do it for a living, when it ceased to be fun, I left. After over a decade of training, I walked out the door and never returned.

Although I still miss judo randori, the beauty of doing karate kata and the smooth flow of aikido, I don’t miss the politics and the wear and tear it took on my body. Your experience might be different, of course. One of my friends teaches Okinawan karate and he spent years researching the roots of karate, traveling to Okinawa to study under the best teachers of his system. If I were younger and not involved in what I’m doing now, I’d study with him. His style is wonderfully technical, powerful, and is doable even for older people. When I “retired” from competitive judo, I still helped out with a children’s judo dojo to enjoy being thrown and tumbling around with the kids, until my work schedule precluded that. And I find that my early aikido training really helps my current jujutsu training.

In the end, however, I left. I quit. Yes. I was a quitter.

But I was lucky to have stumbled into other martial arts that seemed appropriate for my lifestyle, personality, work commitments and locations. I eventually began a study of tai chi chuan and classical Japanese martial weaponry. Then I spent some time in Japan and began my lifelong study of iai and Japanese kobudo. Lest it sounds like I was hopping from style to style, I remain somewhat amazed that I have been in the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu iai system and the Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden kobudo for some 24 years now.

The head instructors I met impressed me as teachers and as human beings. The political structure of both organizations were bearable, i.e., they pretty much left me alone and rarely asked anything of me. I’m a cranky old guy and not being asked to do a lot of organizational stuff was a real plus for me. The fellow students I met were accommodating, friendly and helpful. There would be an occasional jerk, but not more so than what you would find anywhere in any endeavor. Moreover, as I aged into my middle ages, I found I could still train without falling apart physically. The training for iai and kobudo could be structured so as to take into consideration my oncoming physical senility. So I stayed.

If the groups suddenly turned into a crazy cult that worshipped Brillo Pads, would I leave? In a heartbeat. I love training. I love budo, but it’s a PART of my life. It’s not my whole life. It enhances my life, makes my life richer, and enhances my health and sense of well-being. I enjoy it a lot. Training in budo gives me a lot of personal satisfaction, health, poise and stress relief. Once it becomes a drain, once it becomes a negative in my life, once it becomes a weird sucky cult, I would quit.