Monday, April 4, 2022

So You Want To Be Samurai


So you want to be a samurai, eh? When I ask people who revere the samurai “What is it about the samurai that you find so great?” The most common answer is that they are impressed by the bushido code. There is a lot of good stuff found in what is termed the bushido code. Most of it predates the bushi by 1500 years or more, and the rest was added in the early 20th century when the term “bushido” was first widely used.  Most of the stuff about sacrificing oneself for one’s lord other such more extreme was only added in the early 20th century.

The parts of “bushido” that weren’t added by fascist military promoters in the 20th century are quite good. It's just that they are basically the 5 virtues of Confucius. I have a piece of calligraphy in my living room done by my budo teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan, that lists them in this order:

智  仁  義  礼  信

In Japanese they are read:

Chi or “wisdom”.

Jin or ”benevolence”

Gi or “righteousness” 

Rei or “ritual propriety”

Shin or “Trust”


 These all seem like really good virtues, especially if you understand a little about Confucian thought. I can’t think of anyone who would argue that chi, or wisdom, is a bad thing. Developing wisdom requires having some understanding of the world, so study and learning is encouraged as a means of acquiring wisdom. This includes active, lifelong studying for self-improvement. Once you have some wisdom and understanding, you have to act on it. Wisdom without action isn’t really wisdom.

Jin, or “benevolence” can be a tougher sell for some people until they begin to understand the context. Jin includes acting in a way that makes the world better for everyone, not just for yourself. It’s not giving charity blindly. It’s actively making the world around you a better place. In some situations that may mean giving charitably. In others it may be buying a quieter lawn mower so you don’t disturb your neighbors when you cut the grass. It could be volunteering to help kids with their homework or to just give them a safe space to be kids. Take a CPR class. Begin composting. Donate blood. Take an art class and improve yourself. There are infinite possibilities for benevolent action.

Gi, or “righteousness” sometimes makes people uncomfortable because they associate righteousness with self-righteous people who already have all the answers and know exactly how everyone should behave.  In this sense though, gi is about doing what is right in any situation rather than what you want or what benefits you as a person, and it has almost nothing to do with telling others how to behave. It means, and this was critical for the samurai, doing whatever you have to to fulfill your responsibilities and duties in society. This is something that is usually overlooked when talking about the samurai. The samurai were all about meeting their responsibilities.  Ideas of personal rights would have been considered the ultimate in selfishness. Choosing to do the right thing has always been difficult. Confucius and the philosophers of ancient China were debating what is right and how to do right 2600 years ago. For Confucians, being righteous has always been about right action first and foremost. The samurai was expected to be quiet and demonstrate his righteousness through action. 

Rei, or “ritual propriety”, in Confucius’ time could be read as literally meaning “rites” as in ritual actions. Confucius used it in that sense, but in a much broader sense as well. He was not only talking about religious rites, or formal ceremonies of state. He was also talking about the proper etiquette you have learned and should use in each situation. These are rei as well. Saying “Good morning” when you walk into the office. Shaking someone’s hand in a way that is neither trying to crush them nor just making a show of touching their hand without any sense of connection. It’s remembering to announce that you’re home so no one is surprised because they didn’t know you were home. It’s helping clean up the table after a meal instead of rushing back to your game. It’s etiquette, but more than just the formal bits. It is also seen as a means of self-cultivation. By behaving according to propriety, you learn to guide your heart/mind to propriety so that the ritual ceases to be ritual. It becomes sincere action.

Shin, or trust, is about others being able to trust you. In the dojo that means your partners can trust you to do the exercises that are being practiced that evening, and not suddenly go off and do your own thing. In kata they are confident that you will do the kata correctly so they can get the maximum benefit from the practice. You don’t overwhelm those who are less skilled, and you do your best when working with the seniors. You can be trusted to keep your word and to honor implied agreements like the agreement in the dojo that no one tries to hurt or injure anyone, that everyone helps each other to learn to the best of their abilities.

These are the real samurai values. They are at the core of nearly everything that was written and believed about how samurai should conduct themselves. The best of samurai embodied these values in how they lived. The samurai were as human as anyone else, and they had all the faults and shortcomings of humans. The more you see leaders and thinkers of the samurai writing about the value of a particular virtue, the less likely you were to find that virtue being displayed at that time. Throughout the civil wars leading up to the Tokugawa shogunate, loyalty was praised loudly. It shouldn’t be a surprise that betrayal was common. None of the Confucian virtues are easy. Virtues never are. I know I fall short of anything like being a wise, righteous, benevolent man of proper action and trust. These values are worthy goals, but they don’t belong just to the samurai. Confucian scholars began promoting them in China 2600 years ago, and the Japanese recognized their value.

Rather than just parroting the virtues, I suggest studying them a little.  For an enjoyable introduction to Confucius, try Confucius Speaks. It an excellent introduction to Confucius by Taiwanese cartoonist Tsai Chih Chung. Two good places to go a little deeper are The World Of Thought In Ancient China by Benjamin Schwartz and The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About The Good Life by Michael Puett. There is also a free class you can take with Puett about this at EdX.  These two cover more than just Confucius, but they both start with him. Everything else they go into was also important in any discussion of values and ethics by the samurai. 

Samurai values weren’t platitudes. They weren’t (usually) jingoistic. They were values and ideas that real people struggled to understand. How should these values be manifested in the world? People struggled with living up to what they found was good and right. If you really respect the samurai and their values, find out what things they studied and study them yourself. You can do worse than by starting with what Confucius had to say.

What does all this have to do with budo? If you’re really learning any form of Japanese budo, but particularly koryu budo, these values shape everything within the budo world. Koryu budo ryuha are built on Confucian values. That’s part of why you can’t learn koryu budo without a teacher. Part of being a member of ryuha is learning the behavior that is expected and the responsibilities that go with being part of the ryuha. The techniques and kata are the physical part, but there is much more to be learned about relationships, responsibilities and right action. That is all part of koryu budo. It’s not just about how to win a fight. It’s about learning to fulfill your duties in the ryuha and society so that perhaps fighting won’t be necessary.

My thanks to Kevin Tsai, PhD. for his assistance in expressing the Confucian values accurately in understandable way. Any errors are mine.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

The Emperor Has No Clothes




“His technique surpassed human ability.”

“This is exactly how ****** Sensei did it. We want to do it exactly as he did.”

“Nobody can ever equal ******* Sensei.”

“My karate teacher’s teacher was the best ever, that’s why our system is the best!”

“******* was unbeatable.”

“He was a living kami.”

“If he says it works, it must work.”


Teachers who can’t be questioned, for whatever reason, are dangerous to their students and themselves. They seem to inexorably fall into the trap of believing their own propaganda. It happens all the time, in all sorts of arts. As soon as students start going along with whatever sensei does because sensei’s technique is the ultimate, the perfect, the divinely inspired (take your pick), teachers are trapped in an ugly downward spiral.

 The problem for the teacher is that since their students always go along with sensei’s technique, the sensei stops getting honest feedback with regard to their training and teaching. As a result, the teacher’s technique inevitably begins to deteriorate. They can’t avoid it. Any time their technique wasn't right they would feel more resistance, which would tell them they need to sharpen fundamental practice and technique. When their students always go with the flow, the sensei never gets that feedback, and therefore never experiences a technique working less than perfectly. As a result, the sensei has no way to know if their skills are sharp or dull.

 The result is the teacher’s technique gradually becomes duller and duller. However, this can’t be blamed entirely on the teacher. The students are lying to themselves and their teacher about the quality of the techniques. Without opportunities to train with people who recognize a teacher’s imperfections, the only possible result is a slow deterioration of the teacher’s skills. 

 This is sad for the teachers and the students.

 There is a phenomenon in martial arts of students deifying teachers. It can happen in any art with superlative practitioners and teachers. In the world of Japanese budo I’ve seen it in both gendai and koryu arts, and it’s a sad phenomenon no matter where it happens. Budo teachers are human, maybe especially human.

 To be a martial arts teacher is to have a high degree of skill.  Being skilled at martial arts means possessing a certain type of power. Those with skill are seen as being able to subdue, control, or just plain beat into the ground anyone who threatens them. A few people with bad attitudes and/or impulse control problems are even seen as being dangerous to just about anyone because they won’t wait to be threatened. They’ll pick the fight just because they are confident they can do it without getting hurt themselves.

 As a kid growing up, the power to physically subdue someone, or pound them into the ground, was a very attractive power. I was a skinny kid with allergies and not a clue how to relate to other people, so I was picked on. A lot. I didn’t realize it then, but later I figured out that I caused a lot of the issues just by being so socially inept. That doesn’t make the schoolyard abuse any better, and while I was going through it I fantasized about having the superpower of being unbeatable. It was a wonderful daydream.

 The temptation to revel in power is strong. I understand that temptation. When I started training Kodokan Judo in college, the realization that I was becoming good at grappling was shocking, and the temptation to abuse this ability was powerful. In my case, my friends and sempai were more than happy to remind me that I was thoroughly human and quite beatable. As I moved through the kyu ranks, it was easy to idolize my teacher and attribute more than normal wisdom to him. He was very human though, and he never implied that anything he did was perfect or that we should blindly copy his technique or his life.

 When I see students of any teacher proclaim that their teacher’s way is absolutely correct and that one should not deviate from the teacher’s example even a little, I worry about those students and that teacher’s legacy. When students start idolizing a teacher and idealizing the teachings, I can only see bad things happening. A teacher who is never questioned and never challenged in any way is trapped. That teacher can’t sharpen their skills by practicing with their students.

 Teachers need challenges as much as any student. Any teacher worthy of respect looks for things and people who will challenge their technique. That’s how we all progress and improve. We try something we can’t do, and we work at it until we can. The best budoka don’t discourage students from giving them puzzles to solve and difficulties to refine their technique against - people like Kano Jigoro and Kunii Zen’ya come to mind. Most of us are not undefeated legends like Kunii Zen’ya, but I’ve seen lots of teachers challenge themselves and ask their students to help them stay challenged. 

 I remember being at a seminar with some of the top people in the art we were training, folks who could make a strong case for being the best in the world at what they did. The most senior teacher there chose me to be his uke when he wanted to demonstrate a strangle using a weapon. He reached in, placed the weapon and applied the strangle. I didn’t tap. His technique wasn’t working. It’s not that the technique was bad, just his application of it at that moment. It was a technique he demonstrated fairly regularly at seminars, and I think people had been tapping out for him just because of his status. I’m too stupid to do that, so I just sat there. Sensei stepped back, looked at me a moment, adjusted his technique and the strangle got better. He played around with it for a few seconds more, the strangle sank in and I tapped. He never said anything about my failure to immediately tap. Some of his students seemed a little horrified that I had embarrassed Sensei with my behavior. He never said a word, but after that, whenever I was present, he called on me to be his uke for that technique demonstration.

 I think he appreciated that he had to do the technique absolutely correctly on me. I didn’t give him a pass just because he was so much senior to me and in general one of the finest technicians I’ve ever seen. With me, he knew he would get an honest reaction to his technique, so he could tell how well he was doing it. People who just go with whatever technique you are trying to do will ruin your technique. Anyone who wants to stay technically sharp has to be challenged regularly. I don’t mean they have to do challenge matches. Rather, they need situations where they have to fully engage to be sure their technique will work. 

 A martial artist who isn’t open to partners who challenge their technique isn’t going to be able to maintain that technique for long and will end up relying on students to take the fall or tap out from the technique. This isn’t good for the teacher or the students. The teachers find their technique slowly degrading from the lack of a stone to sharpen it on. The students have to lose respect for their teacher as they realize that the only reason his technique works is because they let it.

 It took a child to call out the emperor when he was naked. No teacher worthy of the title deserves to be put in a situation where someone can call them out because their students haven’t been giving them honest practice.



Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, PhD. for making this smooth and readable with her excellent editing skills. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Ki Ken Tai Ichi





Ki ken tai ichi. A student recently asked me about the relationship of ki ken tai ichi to seitei iai and jo. It’s a fundamental concept in Japanese budo but it’s not difficult to be confused by it. It breaks down as:

  • Ki : Yes, that ki. The one that folks argue about endlessly. In this case it is will, intent and energy.

  • Ken : This ken is read tsurugi when it stands alone. It’s the same ken found in “kendo”, and it traditionally refers to a straight, double-edged sword common in Japan from about 450 to 950 c.e. that was superseded by the curved tachi. In this usage it represents any weapon you might use. 

  • Tai : This character is read karada when it stands alone, and it means body.

  • Ichi 一致: Ichi is the difficult bit in this little 5 character phrase. It means “to agree, to conform, to be congruent, to be in concert, to be united, to cooperate, to be in accord”.

Intent, sword and body as one. Ki ken tai ichi.

Will, sword and body in accord. Ki ken tai ichi.

Intent, sword and body in agreement. Ki ken tai ichi.

Because the English and Japanese words only overlap as very poor Venn diagrams, there are  numerous translations. None of them are 100% right, but each captures some of the spirit of the Japanese. There is no fragmentation;here can be no divisions. Your kokoro (heart/mind), your body and your weapon must be combined into a single unit. 

When you move, do you do it with hesitation or doubt? Is the sword a tool in your hand, or is it an extension of your body? Can you feel what is going on in your partner’s body when you cross swords? Does your body move as a coordinated whole? Does your will and intent express itself instantly in your body and the sword?

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My student is quite familiar with ki ken tai ichi from his deep experience with koryu. However the Kendo Federation has ki ken tai ichi broken down almost to a science. There are particular markers to look for when someone does seitei iai or jo that indicate whether or not the will, the body and the sword are in accord. 

Does the whole unit reach the conclusion of the movement together without any separation? This is the central clue. Teaching this concept to students starts with the mechanics of how to swing the sword. From there teachers have to backward engineer the timing from the point where mind, body and sword all arrive at the completion of the movement together and become as one.

Moving backwards, the student has to consider that the hands are faster than the body, but for a sword cut the hands and sword have further to travel than the body. If the body and the hands begin their movement together, the body will finish its movement and come to rest followed by the sword. If the body and the sword are united, the full power of the body will be transmitted through the sword. If they are not united then the sword has only the power of the hands when it makes contact. For the full power of the body to be transmitted through the sword, the sword tip has to begin moving first and the body begins moving next so they will complete their action together, united in power and timing. 

Breaking down the timing of a sword cut into fine segments makes it a little easier to explain and teach the outer aspects of ki ken tai ichi. A little. Students can start work on training their hands and body to move in accordance with the timing of the sword to transmit the maximum power through the blade. However, just because a student has mastered the timing of their movements doesn’t mean they’ve achieved ki ken tai ichi. This is much harder than simply copying the timing. 

One thing you may have noticed that is missing in the above description is the intent, the will, the ki. Even after you train yourself to move hands first, then body when cutting,, you still haven’t achieved ki ken tai ichi. You’ve got the sword and the body, but the intent, the heart/mind is much more difficult. This is a lot more like achieving mushin. You can’t be thinking about anything else if you want to achieve ki ken tai ichi. Your mind has to be quiet and still so that your intent comes naturally in the situation and your body moves as the intention occurs in the heart/mind, so there is no separation such as thinking and acting. Intention and action become one as body and sword are one.

Combining intention and action into one is much more difficult than bringing body and sword into accord. After you’ve got your body and weapon acting as one, it takes a great deal of additional, focused practice to unite the mind with the body. This is an ongoing effort. Any little thing can disrupt the unity of will, sword and body. A bad day at work. A fight with a friend. Worry over someone’s health. All of these and an endless list of other things can knock your mind out of sync with your body. Mental stillness is difficult to achieve, and that much more difficult to maintain.

気検体一致 Ki ken tai ichi. Intent, sword and body in accord. First practice until the sword is an extension of your body. Then teach your body to move so the power of body and sword are united at the instant of contact and they finish moving together at the bottom of the cut. At that point  you have the outer form. Now learn to still your mind so that nothing separates intention and action. When intent, body and sword are united, that’s ki ken tai ichi.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for editing.