Monday, September 28, 2015

Secret Techniques Versus Special Techniques

Ono-ha Itto Ryu.  Photo Copyright 2015 Grigoris Miliaresis

The movie hero studies and studies to learn the secret technique that will make him unbeatable (why is it always “he?”). The secret strike or trick that the foe can’t stop. We love secret techniques and hidden wisdom. Legions of movies and books are built on the premise that somewhere, somehow, there is a secret that will make the possessor unbeatable. Many budo systems are said to have been created when the founder had a sudden inspiration or even a divine revelation into the special use of their weapon.

Many of us started martial arts looking for that secret. The heros in kung fu and karate movies had to have some secret that made them so incredible. From the power of Iron Fist in Marvel Comics to the secret balancing training in The Karate Kid, the secret teaching brings power, and that is really attractive. The secrets of Katori Shinto Ryu are said to have been handed down to it’s founder by the kami Futsunushi No Kami, enshrined at Katori Shrine.  The secrets of Shinto Muso Ryu are said to have been revealed to it’s founder in a dream by a divine child.

Many classical Japanese ryuha protect their secrets and won’t let outsiders see them practiced. Shinto Muso Ryu has 5 secret kata that are only taught to the highest level of student and are never shown to anyone else.

This makes sense. An opponent cannot defend against what she doesn’t know about. Surprise attacks work. Attacking with something your opponent can’t imagine is coming is a wonderful tactic. I can see why a secret technique would be useful. The premise is very appealing. One set of techniques that you show to the world, another set held in reserve to maintain the power of secrecy.

Secret techniques sound fascinating and mysterious, but they aren’t usually what win.  Throughout the Tokugawa period (1604-1868), the most popular systems of kenjutsu were the various branches of Itto Ryu. There were Itto Ryu dojos all over Japan, and especially in Tokyo. The Tokyo dojo were significant for the spread of knowledge about Itto Ryu, because all of the daimyo and many of their servitors spent 6 months of the year in Tokyo. Their children were raised there. People could and did meet and train in dojo throughout the city.

The techniques and strategies of the Itto Ryu branches, particularly Ono-ha Itto Ryu, were well known and widely practiced. Yet this does not seem to reduced the effectiveness of the style. Ono-ha Itto Ryu may well have been the most practiced school of kenjutsu by the last half of the Tokugawa period. Not having a secret doesn’t seem to have cut into it’s popularity.

If secret techniques have so much power, why would a school like Itto Ryu, where the basic strategy and technique is well and widely known and recognized be so popular? The answer to that is simply that it was effective in the gekiken competitions that were increasingly popular.  In that environment, Itto Ryu technique worked well.

In the 21st century, Ronda Rousey competes in an unarmed combat venue similar in nature to the gekiken sword competitions of 18th and 19th century Japan.  She may be the epitome of not having a secret technique. Even before she entered MMA fighting, she fought in judo competitions. Throughout that time, she never had a secret technique. There are no secret techniques in judo or MMA. The nature of the rules mean that all the possible techniques are known.

Secret techniques have a significant flaw. They only maintain their special power so long as they are secret. As soon as you use a secret technique where it is seen, everyone will study it, know that you do it, and figure out how to defeat it. The power of a secret technique, like any secret, vanishes when it becomes known.

Ronda Rousey doesn’t have a secret technique.  Everyone knows what she’s going to do. She’s going to attack an arm lock. Most likely, she will be attacking what is known to judoka as jujigatame.  Even though everyone knows what she will do, for some reason they still can’t prevent it. It’s not a secret technique. It’s the opposite of a secret technique. It’s a specialized technique, and it works wonderfully.

The same was true of the signature technique of Ono-ha Itto Ryu. Everyone knew what the Itto ryu practitioner would do. Their signature cut is still famous and the basis of modern kendo technique. Everyone knows what Ronda Rousey is going to do. It’s a classic judo technique.

These techniques are powerful, and they are polished. That makes them stronger over the long run than any secret technique. Secret techniques lose their power quickly from the moment they cease to be secret. Special techniques don’t lose anything by being known. They may even benefit from being widely known. Everyone knows what Rousey is going to do. She’s going to do jujigateme.  So everyone spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to stop her jujigatame. Everyone who faces an Ono-ha Itto Ryu swordsman knows what she will do. She’s going to cut straight down the center, right through your defense. If you want to face someone with a special technique, you have to spend your time figuring out how to stop it.

The corollary is that when you spend all your time learning to stop someone’s special technique, that leaves you vulnerable to all of the other things they can do not quite as well as their special technique. Their special technique makes all their other techniques more effective. Itto Ryu opponents are worried about losing to kiri otoshi. When they focus on defending against that, they open themselves up to the other techniques in the Itto Ryu curriculum. Rousey’s foes focus on stopping her arm locks, which makes her perfectly sound striking and throwing techniques all the more effective.

Secret techniques won’t carry us very far. Their very nature makes their power and effectiveness short lived. Once a secret technique is known, it loses it’s power. Highly polished special techniques on the other hand, maintain their power even after they become well-known. For someone like Ronda Rousey or a student of a system like Itto Ryu, the very notoriety of their special technique can be asset, because it makes people focus on the special technique and neglect the rest of their repertoire.

The lesson in all of this is an old one. Kano Jigoro Shihan was famous for saying that the secret to success in judo is “Practice. Practice. Practice.” That hasn’t changed. Practice your entire art, but polish your special technique. Practice it and practice it. Make it shine so bright it obscures the effectiveness of the rest of your techniques.

9/30/2015 Special thanks to Meik Skoss for a correction on the Itto Ryu terminology.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Budo Is An Anachronism In The 21st Century

Budo in the 21st century is an anachronism. Whether we are talking about koryu budo from the before 1868, or the gendai budo, the modern arts founded since the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, budo doesn’t have much to do with the worlds most of us live in. Sword, naginata, bo; these don’t have a place in the world we live in.

The samurai who created the koryu budo were professional soldiers and police. The tools of the modern soldier and police long ago surpassed the tools of budo. Even the modern arts of judo, kendo, and aikido don’t really relate to the world around them. They are amusing sports and hobbies, but they do really offer anything beyond other sports and hobbies? What can they offer to the average practitioner, much less to professional combatants like soldiers and police that can’t be found anywhere else?

The weapons may be archaic, but the fundamental skills taught by gendai and koryu budo are as valuable now as they were 400 years ago. People see the particular techniques of a ryuha and make the mistake of thinking they are seeing the fundamental teachings of the ryuha. Just as in Chuang Tzu’s parable, they are mistaking the finger pointing towards the moon for the moon itself. The martial practice has always been somewhat separated from the real conditions of combat. This is an inescapable fact. Training conditions that too closely resemble real combat will result in the same sort of injuries and death as real combat. Training has to prepare students for combat without crippling or killing them in the process.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

This means that kenjutsu kata are practiced using wooden swords. Sojutsu (spear) kata are practiced with padded tipped weapons. Jujutsu throws are done without the final turn that would break uke’s neck. For all this, warriors and soldiers recognized the value of this training 400 and 500 years ago. Wooden swords are very different from steel: different weight, different balance, different grip. For all those differences, the things learned from training with them were still valuable in the age when people still fought regularly with steel.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

As Ellis Amdur points out in his excellent book about koryu budo, OLD SCHOOL, people in Japan in those ages grew up doing lots of sumo. From the rise of the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1336 onward, Japan was rife with conflicts and wars. These culminated in the Sengoku Era starting in the 1467 and running until Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle Of Sekigahara and unified brought the whole nation under his rule by force in 1604. People were less interested in sparring than in practice for realities they knew too well.

People sought out teachers who would train them with wooden weapons instead of steel, and whose jujutsu training didn’t include any free sparring. That training was valuable enough to seek out in the Sengoku Era, and in the decades after the Tokugawa’s came to power before everyone became complacent with the realization that peace and not war was the new status quo. What of value could be learned from all this mere training without sparring? As it turns out, quite a lot. It’s still valuable. Humans haven’t changed noticeably since long before we learned how to write down our adventures, and not at all in the last 500 years.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis
Those classical methods for teaching students the big, obvious things like a solid physical structure, how to read spacing and a good understanding of the timing involved in using various weapons are still effective. Whether we call them kata or forms or training drills, they still work.  No one can train for every possible eventuality, that’s why “what if” games are so pointless.

Instead, the good systems focus on teaching the principles of movement and encounter, of understanding effective spacing versus spacing where you can’t do anything, good timing and the consequences of bad timing. These are the fundamentals of budo. They aren’t the only things that have remained relevant from the 16th century to the 21st.

Many koryu budo train with weapons of varying lengths, weight and make-up. Schools like Takenouchi ryu include everything from unarmed to tanto to tachi to naginata and bo. That covers the reaches and ranges for most handheld weapons in any time.  Even in the age when Takenouchi Ryu was founded, they didn’t teach every possible weapon. There wasn’t time to learn every weapon.  However there was time to learn the principles of spacing and timing at all the various ranges you could encounter weapons.

Late in its history, Shinto Muso Ryu added kusarigama to its curriculum. Shinto Muso Ryu covers the use of most lengths of stick and sword, but a chain weapon like the kusarigama seems like a leap away from the core of the art. If you think about studying this weapon so you can be familiar with the properties of chain weapons though, it makes a lot of sense. Shinto Muso Ryu covers sticks and swords. With the addition of kusarigama, the Shinto Muso Ryu student can grasp the principles underlying chain and rope weapons so those can be effectively faced as well.

Hmm. Sticks, knives, swords and chains. That covers most of the range of possible handheld weapons even in the 21st century with the exception of firearms.

Photo Copyright Grigoris Miliaresis 2014
I’ve been surprised at some of the other lessons found in various koryu that are appreciated even now. Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu contains kata about performing surprise attacks. These are lessons not just about how to make a surprise attack. They are also lessons about when and where we are vulnerable. If we can do something to someone, they can do it to us.  

500 years of technological progress haven’t made a dent in that truth.

There are lots of little lessons in budo that get overlooked while we focus on the big combat techniques. These little details that seem like decorations on the combative techniques are often the bits that I can apply in the parts of my life where I’m not actively engaged in a fight. Someone recently pointed out a whole list of lessons that are embedded within the kata of various koryu.

Mugendo Budogu: Fine Martial Arts Equipment

There are lessons about taking advantage of lighting or position for an ambush that also teach what conditions are dangerous for us, and what we should be aware of. At night if someone can draw our attention to lighted space, it’s easy for them to attack from a shadow we’ve ignored. Lessons about securing clothing and equipment are as applicable today as they were in the Sengoku era.  Learning to be aware of our surroundings is always a good lesson.

Koryu budo in particular are not just collections of discrete fighting techniques. They are whole schools of thought and behaviour. They teach how to handle and care for tools and weapons. There are lessons about places and situations to beware of. It’s surprising how much the lessons of good budo are simple, solid, good sense.

Which makes me wonder, are koryu budo anachronisms after all? Their lessons about structure and posture and spacing and timing are just as relevant to in the 21st century as they were 500 years ago. The length and variety of weapons available hasn’t diminished any in the last 500 years.  The principles governing how those weapons can be used and what sort of spacing and timing is important are still the same. The places situations we have to beware of haven’t really changed either. It seems I was wrong. Koryu budo aren’t anachronisms.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Organizing The Body For Budo

The fundamental skill of budo is not particular kata or even special techniques. Those are built on something else. The techniques and kata of a budo ryuha, ancient or modern, are the teaching syllabus and the textbook. The practice of those techniques and kata are the way one acquires the fundamental skills of the ryuha. 

If the techniques of a ryuha aren’t the fundamental skills being taught, what are they? The fundamental skills of a ryuha are all the things that make the techniques and kata possible. The essence of any ryuha is how the body and mind are organized. These are the fundamental lessons driven and learned through the practice of all those kata.

The kata provide a framework for learning to organize our bodies and minds. Kata only happen when the fundamental techniques are solid. Techniques are solid when the body is properly organized. That organization is what makes everything happen. How do you grip the weapon (or your opponent if it’s unarmed)? That’s a start. If the structure of your grip isn’t good, if the bones and muscles of the hand and arm aren’t well organized, the grip will be weak and the techniques ineffectual.  

How the feet, legs, hips, torso and head are organized is the true foundation and the fundamental teaching of any art. In koryu arts, this is a core secret. For Kodokan Judo though, this is open knowledge, though not even everyone who practices judo understands it. The majority of people doing judo do competitive judo and rarely train in the kata, where Kano Jigoro and his senior students encoded the essential lessons of the art.

In contrast to the low, solid, heavy stances common to in judo competition, the body is organized higher and lighter in the kata. This reflects the fact the Kodokan Judo kata are intended to teach how to handle a variety of combative situations including grabs, strikes, and weapons, as opposed to the narrow range of attacks permitted in the competitive arena. How do you organize the body to handle all of these different possibilities?

The way the body is organized for competition is optimal for conditions in a tournament where attacks come from the front. No one ever tries to strike you, No one carries any weapons. The problem I had initially with training in the kata was that the body is organized quite differently than for competition. The low, stable, immovable stance that is so ubiquitous in randori is exchanged for an upright, light, mobile posture that can quickly adjust and react to the wide variety of attacks presented by the kata.

With so many more possible ways to be attacked, and from so many more distances and angles, the body has to be organized differently. Instead of organizing my legs and hips to be able block out a throwing attack and then counter it, I have to be prepared to move to a new location quickly to avoid a punch, kick or weapon, or to enter inside the attack to deal with it. The knees will be slightly bent and the core engaged to take on the weight.  Instead of energy and strength being focused forward to meet an incoming throwing attack, the focus is more diffuse to allow quick movement in all directions.

Contrast this with way the body is organized for ZNKR Kendo and Seitei Iai. Instead of the low, solid posture common to competitive judo, or the light, upright posture of classical Kodokan Judo, for iai the posture is very upright, but with the body pressing forward, ready to surge into action the moment a foot is released. There is tension between the legs, so that movement happens the instant a foot is lifted. No time is wasted shifting weight, everything is ready. The koshi is kept engaged to provide a solid platform while the arms are light and relaxed to swing the sword quickly and effectively.
Beyond competitive martial arts, every koryu has its own way of organizing the body, and this is a core secret of the art. Historically, keeping information about this secret was one reason members of a ryuha would avoid training with anyone outside their ryu. If you understand how someone organizes their body, you know a lot about what they can and cannot do. Modern systems like judo and ZNKR Seitei Iai lay everything out in the open.

The way an art conceives combat, the situations envisioned, and the strategies employed all come together to determine how the body is organized. For something as specific as competitive judo or kendo, very specialized postures and organization develop. Budo that assume many more options have to organize that body differently. Rather than very specialized techniques only applicable to one situation, they require physical organizations flexible enough to adapt to the myriad of situations that can develop.  A good competitive bodily organization will maximize the potential within the narrow confines of the arena. Sogo budo 総合武道 (general budo) have far broader potential applications and need a body that isn’t organized for one specific match.

The more specialized the art, the more apparent it is in your body.  I was visiting a friend’s judo dojo for the first time a few weeks ago, and as I walked up to a young man I said “You’re a wrestler, aren’t you?” The way a body is organized for wrestling is a bit different from that of judo, enough that I could see that he was a wrestler even before we started working together. Karateka and competitive judoka are easy to spot too. The way we learn to organize our body is something we carry with us everywhere. It’s not something that turns off when we leave the dojo. It’s so apparent that we can learn to see it in the way other martial artists stand and walk.

How we organize the body for action is at the heart of every budo. It is basic, fundamental, and very difficult to get right. Mastering the body mechanics of an art is literally half the battle. Until the body is properly organized and moving in accord with the basic principles of the art you’re studying, none or the rest will be correct. No technique, no punch, no cut, no strike, no throw can be done correctly until the body is organized to create the platform upon which the technique occurs. Until the techniques are right, the kata don’t stand a chance of coming together with the right spacing and timing.  It all starts with how the body is organized. ( I might deal with organizing the mind another time, but that’s more difficult to describe.)