Showing posts with label Kodokan Judo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kodokan Judo. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Efficiency, It's Not Just For Judo

Kano Jigoro realized that efficiency of movement is one of the highest principles. He enshrined his insight in this maxim of Kodokan Judo, “seiryoku zen’you”  精力善用, most often translated as “minimum effort, maximum efficiency.” Seiryoku zen’you is probably better translated as “best use of energy” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as neatly as “minimum effort, maximum efficiency.” This is the foundation of Kodokan Judo’s technical curriculum, just as jita kyoei 自他共栄 or “mutual benefit and welfare” is the foundation of Kodokan Judo’s moral and ethical principles.

The principle that Kano Shihan so succinctly clarified in just four kanji characters has always been a critical part of martial arts.  Kano’s genius lay in clearly elucidating that principle and building his entire system around it. Even though it took until the 1880’s for the principle to be made explicit and public, it has always been essential in weeding out techniques and practices in the martial arts. Anything that doesn’t contribute to success in conflict will eventually be eliminated because those who rely on it will lose.

Making the “best use of energy” seems like an obvious good idea, but things like this often seem obvious in hindsight. Even if the idea wasn’t explicit, it has always been implicit within the martial arts. The universe is ruthless, and during the long centuries of civil war in Japan leading up to the enforced peace of the Tokugawa Period, anything that wasn’t efficient for teaching, learning, practicing or applying the martial arts was culled simply because anything that wasn’t efficient would get its proponents killed.

Look at pretty much any koryu budo. They aren’t filled with endless lists of techniques. They have a few techniques that are polished like treasured gems, and then are practiced in a variety of kata so students learn the real foundations of the art and how to apply them spontaneously. Effective budo has to be efficient. 

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That’s the secret reason why koryu budo generally don’t have extensive curriculums with endless lists of techniques. It’s not efficient. Instead, a basic principle or two are embodied in the fundamental technique of the system which are then explored through a limited set of kata result in that teaching the plasticity of the main principles.

Sword systems are often based around one fundamental cut, with the entire system expanding on that. Sasamori Takemi talks about the kiri otoshi of Ono-Ha Itto Ryu. Kashima Shinryu kenjutsu is built around the a fundamental cut practiced in the Kihon-tachi. Arts that teach other weapons are similar. Shinto Muso Ryu calls its fundamental jo technique hon te uchi, or “fundamental hand strike.” Judo has a large syllabus by comparison, with five basic principles for throwing expanded into the  Gokyo, or “Five Teachings.”  Aikido also breaks up it’s main principles into 5 techniques, called ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo and gokyo, or “teaching 1, teaching 2, teaching 3, teaching 4, teaching 5.”  In both judo and aikido, there are numerous expressions of the five teachings, but they all start from the same fundamental principles.

It makes sense when you consider it. Which is going to work better under stress, one technique that you can apply to a thousand situations, or a thousand techniques each of which is good for only one situation?  

Efficiency shows itself in myriad ways. Learning one technique well takes less time than learning one thousand techniques to mediocre level. This why in Olympic judo, the competitors don’t spend their time trying to master all the throwing techniques of Kodokan Judo. They focus on two or three techniques and develop their understanding of the techniques and their principles so they can apply them in any situation.

Within those fundamental techniques is another level of efficiency. Techniques have to work with as little effort as possible. This is true of any effective martial art. Efficiency of energy is a key component of effectiveness. If a technique requires a lot of raw strength to perform, it will be useless when you run into someone bigger or stronger. The more efficiently the principle uses your strength, the greater the situations you can deploy it in. I was in Japan recently practicing with one of the shihan from Shinto Muso Ryu, and he kicked my butt over this. I was doing kuri tsuke ( a technique for catching a sword attack and binding the sword to the attacker’s body) and it was working, but Sensei pointed out that I wasn’t doing it as well as I could. He resisted my technique and I was able to muscle through his resistance. He then showed me how to do the technique with minimal modification so that I didn’t have to dig in to muscle past his resistance. If I got the angles right, I left him without a stable platform from which to resist.  I had learned a more efficient way to perform the technique.

He didn’t use the word, but the term that floated through my head was from Kodokan Judo. Kuzushi”  崩し. Don’t attack strength to strength. Maneuver your adversary to a position where they cannot apply their strength and attack there. In other words, attack where your opponent’s strength is minimized and your own is maximized. Seiryoku zen’yo in action.

Our strength is limited. I might be able to muscle through Sensei’s resistance because I’m a lot bigger than he is. I know plenty of people who are bigger than I am though, and there is no way I could muscle through them. But, If I do the technique efficiently, strength is no longer a concern. The efficient technique is the effective technique. This is true no matter what you’re doing.

Here are a couple of videos that have been floating around the web. One shows a little girl screaming and flailing around with a sword with great effort. The other shows a little girl cutting with no effort at all.  Efficiency gets the most out of the energy being expended. Which one better embodies seiryoku zen’yo?


Flailing little girl

Efficient and effective little girl

Efficiency is a critical component of any martial art. Just because Kano Jigoro enshrined seiryoku zen’yo as a maxim of Kodokan Judo doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist in other arts or that you can ignore if you don’t do Kodokan Judo. Making the best use of your energy is always a good idea.

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.)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Young Guy Judo Vs Old Fellow Judo


I wrote this about judo, but it applies just as well to every other budo I’ve seen.

I watched the young guns at judo going at it like they were hammering each other on an anvil. They were working hard fighting each other strong and fast, with all the strength and speed they have. Young guys really work at their judo. The referee called out “Hajime!” and they grabbed each other, started attacking, doing everything they could to throw each other. In no time they were panting from the effort. I was getting tired just from watching them. They were really working hard to throw each other.

It took a while, but eventually even the strength and stamina of youth wear out, and the guys on the mat needed break. Granted, they lasted at least twice as long as I would have trying to work that hard, but they still wore themselves out. After the young guys bowed off the mat and headed for a water break, the referee turned to Harold and I and invited us to take their places. Harold and I are a couple of middle-aged guys who’ve been doing judo for a while.

The referee yelled “Hajime!” Harold took a step forward, held out his hands in invitation, tilted his head and smiled at me. This was pure “old fellow judo.” Harold didn’t want to attack hard and give me any energy I could use against him. He also didn’t want to work like those young guys had been doing. Neither one of us has that kind of stamina anymore. Besides, one of the maxim’s of Judo is “Maximum efficiency, minimum effort” and Harold understands that.  I keep trying to get my ego to understand it too, so I stepped forward a little, held out my hands to make my sleeves easy to grab, and smiled back.

We stood there smiling at each other for a moment, then we gingerly reached out for each other without committing any energy that could be used against us. As we moved around the dojo it felt a lot more like a dance than a fight. As you become more skilled you become less eager to throw energy at your partner because he’s more than happy to accept it and do something with it.  We moved with a complete awareness of this, so instead of the fast, sudden movements of the young guys, we old fellows moved slowly and smoothly.

The young guys put a lot of effort into it out there, pushing and pulling on their partner, working to make a technique happen. Harold held my dogi lightly and we moved gently around the dojo looking for opportunities to work our partner’s movement.  I’ve learned from being thrown far too many times that if I push hard into someone, or pull on them, an experienced partner is just as likely to get out of the way of my push and toss me over onto the mats as not.

Harold and I were trying to feel what was happening and what the other was doing. Neither one of us was trying to make our partner do something. We were moving around the dojo. Our goal is to feel what our partner is doing and help them do more of it. We moved around the room, our feet sliding across the mats, never stepping.  A nice, big, John Wayne type step is an invitation to be thrown with everything from a simple and subtle foot sweep to a great big, literally over-the-top seioinage throw. Harold and I studied each other. He has a dropping seioinage that he likes, and I’m working on a interesting ouchigari. We’ll both take a nice footsweep though if it’s available.


So we moved around the mat, occasionally making little attacks, going after foot sweeps when our partner’s structure felt a little bit off or trying to add some energy to their movement to destabilize them and create an opportunity for some other technique. The young guys are constantly trying to do a technique to their partner. They are working hard to do some judo. Old fellows know better than to rush. We’re patient and we wait for it to happen.

Good judo techniques aren’t forced. You can’t make them happen.  If you’re making something happen, you’re not doing judo.  It’s that old “maximum efficiency minimum effort” thing. Don’t make something happen.  It’s more like letting something unfold naturally. If you’re trying to force your will on the situation, it’s not great judo. Oh, you might be able to force a technique to happen, but that’s not very high level judo. The best judoka don’t have an intention of what’s going to happen. They let their partner decide how they will be thrown. There are lots of ways of describing what is happening. You flow with partner’s energy or match their intent or blend with them.  The young guys try to do judo.  They push on uke and pull on him and try to make him react or just force their way to a place where a technique can be done. The old fellows just let it happen.

Old fellows don’t work too hard. The best techniques sneak up on the person being thrown and suddenly the floor is slapping them between the shoulders. A foot sweep happens when uke is moving and their partner adds some energy to their foot and changes its direction so that instead of settling on the ground and supporting his weight, uke’s foot ends up over on the other side of their body while their weight continues down to the ground in the original direction. There are lots of ways to get to this technique. When I was learning this, (yeah, I really was a young guy once) I would jerk on my partner’s arm trying to yank them forward to I could sweep their foot. Now I just wait for the weight shift and add a little energy to the foot and draw gently on their arm in the direction they are already moving. At least that’s what I try to do. Harold feels for a forward weight shift, draws on the arm that’s moving forward, drops and turns underneath the arm and does a neat drop seioinage. No fighting with your partner, no strength opposing strength.

To me, the finest judo techniques are de ashi harai and uki otoshi. Neither one can be forced. You have to use what your partner is already doing and just guide their inertia. This video is a beautiful example. Uke tries to drive in to do ouchigari. Instead of resisting the force, his partner works with it, slips out of the way and guides the energy from uke in a spiral so uke goes from standing upright to horizontal facing up and falling to the floor. This is not a technique where the person executing it adds a lot power or puts a lot of effort into what is happening. On the contrary, you have to get out of your own way. It’s pure old fellow judo.


It’s funny. Old fellows can keep at it in randori for quite a while. They don’t waste a lot of energy pushing and pulling at their partner. They are just there, quietly, calmly, patiently moving around the room with their partner, not fighting them, no trying to make anything happen.  The young guys keep pounding away at you, working hard at their judo expending incredible amounts of energy. The old fellows are there, relaxed and happy, gently moving around the dojo deflecting all that excess energy and throwing their partner from time to time when they are able to guide some of that exuberant energy in a way their partner doesn’t want but can’t prevent. It’s kind of amazing, but old fellows are so much more efficient than young guys that we can stay out and do a 5 minute randori session with people 25 or 30 years younger than we are, and not be any more out of breath than the young guys.  

It only looks like we’re keeping up with the young guys though. Old fellows aren’t really keeping up with them. Old fellows just flow along on the current of energy being thrown out by the young guys without resisting it, so the old fellows are using a fraction of the energy the young guys are expending. It can be interesting watching a someone more than 60 years old playing with a college student and realizing that while the college student has youth, speed, strength and stamina in their favor, the old fellpw is the one who going easy on his partner, as he smiles through the randori, and gently tosses the young guy to the ground.

It’s that old seiryoku zenyou, maximum efficiency minimum effort. Old fellows just don’t have as much energy as the young guys do, but what we have, we use a lot more efficiently.  Old fellows aren’t there for a short stint. They’ve been around a while and plan to to be around for a lot longer. They have to make what they’ve got last for the long haul. There are lots of people to do randori with, and we want to play with them all. Old fellows really enjoy practice. They aren’t working at, they are playing with it, in the best sense of the word. They are playing with the techniques and timing to see what works and what they can do. Old fellas have been thrown by everyone, so they don’t mind getting thrown when they make a mistake, and they are thrilled when a younger student figures out a lesson and applies it to them, even when that means taking a big fall. It’s fun to see others make progress. After a while, all that ego that used to scream that we have to throw everyone goes away and we can simply enjoy the randori, whether we are the ones doing the throwing, or the ones being thrown.

Young guys work at it and need to throw everyone. Old fellas play with whatever they get, and even when they are thrown, they’re smiling.




Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Budo Training and Budo Philosophy


There is a lot of philosophizing that goes on in budo circles.  I know that I am in the first rank of those guilty of it.  There is far too much of philosophizing about budo by a lot of people who don’t have the depth to do a good job of it.  This might be a symptom of the internet age though.  Everyone who trains should be thinking about the ethics and values of Budo, but not everyone’s thoughts are ready for prime time.  With the advent of the internet bulletin board and personal blogs (like this one) any fool (like me) can expound to the world.  That’s probably not a great thing.  However, budo without a philosophy of well considered ethics and honor is just another way of hurting people, so I’m glad to see there is so much time and effort being put into thinking about it.

Having said that, I think you need a ratio of at least 100 to 1 ratio of practice to philosophy, although it might need a lot more practice than that.   Consider that the Tao Te Ching can be read in an hour, and then you can spend years discovering new stuff from it.   All the good budo that I have encountered has been deeply thoughtful and filled with philosophical content, but the bulk of that content is written in the kata and application, not in words.  The kata and application are structured so they teach nearly everything about an art, whether it is a koryu bugei such as one of the branches of Yoshin Ryu jujutsu, or a modern art like Kodokan Judo or Aikido.

The kata and applications practiced don’t just teach how to do a technique.  They teach what the art values and thinks as well.  If you haven’t studied the kata and application of the art deeply, any written or spoken lessons about the art will be meaningless.  In Kodokan Judo there are 9 sets of kata, and they teach a full range of techniques for throwing, pinning, joint locking, choking and disarming.  But the techniques taught are just the beginning.  The kata teach how to apply them from a variety of ranges and attacks, so you can also learn something about when to apply the technique.  

When studied properly the kata teach a student to see how close someone has to be before they are dangerous.  The kata also teach an arts philosophy on how strongly to respond and what level of damage to inflict on an assailant.  Some arts believe in preemptive strikes (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu share the same assassination kata Tana No Shita. One of the first kata in Araki Ryu is an assassination kata).  Other arts don’t include surprise attacks but are willing to strike first once they have been threatened (Shinto Muso Ryu’s Tachi Otoshi).  Still others refrain from action until actually attacked (Kodokan Judo).  This is philosophy at a fundamental level that is embedded in the kata of the particular systems.  These kata all make an ethical statement about what is acceptable behavior in the eyes of the people who crafted the system.  

Studying an art’s kata teach you what the system approves of and disapproves of.  It also teaches about things such as how strongly to respond to a given situation or provocation.  Some systems always respond with lethal force (see pretty much any koryu bugei from before 1604 c.e.).  Others have a variety of responses that range from killing or crippling an attacker down to simple restraint.  Shinto Muso Ryu has a variety of responses in the kill, cripple or seriously injure range, while arts like Kodokan Judo and Aikido tend to focus on the range from causing injury down to simple restraint.  These are all philosophical statements, but without deep practice of the art, the philosophy of the arts cannot truly be understood.

Most arts also have written or verbal teachings that supplement the physical training, but the physical training is the core of the system and really teaches what they system believes.  The associated writings help one to better understand the art, and provide some guidance in the form of things to think about while practicing. However, without intensive training in the systems kata and application, the writings and verbal teachings are nearly meaningless because they lack the proper context for understanding their intent.

Kano Jigoro Shihan, the founder of Kodokan Judo famously crafted two guiding principles for his art:
自他共栄   Jita Kyoei often translated as Mutual Benefit And Welfare
精力善用 Seiryoku Zenyo often translated as Maximum Efficiency Minimum Effort

These are simple statements, but the true depth of their meaning and intent can only really be understood through intensive practice of the system that embodies their meaning.   Mutual Benefit And Welfare sounds very nice, but actually practicing it in the dojo while you train is much more difficult that the simple phrase suggests.  The dedicated student has to learn how to do this even when they don’t like their training partner, even when they are tired, angry or annoyed, and even when a partner may have actually harmed them in some way.  The principle is not easy to implement, and it isn’t meant to be applied just during keiko.  

Seiryoku Zenyo is even more difficult to understand, though perhaps it less emotionally difficult to implement.  It starts out in technique, but grows quickly after that.   All Kodokan Judo students soon realize how important the principle is for doing the techniques of the system properly and effectively.  That is quickly obvious when you see a 60 year old judoka doing randori with a 20 year old, and you notice that the 60 year old is relaxed and breathing easily while the 20 year old is stressed, stiff and gasping for air.  Same techniques, same art, but the 60 year old is doing a much better job of applying Sieryoku Zenyo.  While the 20 year old tries to use strength and youthful energy, the 60 year old is doing only as much as is really necessary, resulting in the 60 year old being fresh and relaxed after a few minutes of randori while the 20 year stands next to him exhausted and panting for breath.  The difficult secret is that you are supposed to be able to scale the application of Seiryoku Zenyo to everything else you do in your life. It’s not meant just to be hidden in the dojo.  Without dedicated practice in the dojo though, the real depth of the concept will never be revealed though.  There are lots of things that seem efficient at first but that the trial and error of practice reveal to be mistakes.

As a student advances deeper and deeper into a budo school, they slowly discover more and more depth to the teachings, both the practical, physical teachings of the system and the written teachings.  The core of any budo system is the physical teachings of the art, the kata.  The writings associated with the art help a student to understand what is embodied in the kata, but without extensive practice of the kata and deep appreciation for their contents, the writings will just be so many scratches on paper.  This is true whether they are Kano Jigoro’s writings about mutual benefit and maximum efficiency, Ueshiba Morihei’s writings about the circle, square and triangle, Shinto Muso Ryu’s shiteki bunsho about the nature of the jo, or some of the esoteric teachings of other styles like Yagyu Shinkage Ryu or Araki Ryu or Miyamoto Musashi’s writings for Niten Ichi Ryu.  If you haven’t studied the physical portion of the curriculum deeply, the philosophy will be meaningless.

Now get out there in the dojo and study your art’s philosophy.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What Is Martial Arts Rank?

I got involved in the another discussion about the real importance and value of rank again.  This conversation has been around since at least Kano Shihan establishing the now popular system using black belts and ten steps of rank (known as dan 段 in Japanese).  You’d think I’d be over this discussion, but I can’t seem to let it go by without taking another whack at it.  I’m sure there were huge discussions within the Kodokan, because the rank system there evolved over several decades before it was finally settled in the form we are all familiar with.   


The question of what does a particular rank mean can be an interesting one.  People are constantly asking “ What is a black belt?" and “What does rank really mean?”  These questions need to be looked at in connection with a couple of other questions.  Those are “What is a sensei?” and “What is a student?”  


In the world of classical Japanese martial arts, the koryu bugei, these questions don’t seem to exist.  It might be because people are not evaluated in comparison to each other’s level of attainment.  They only give scrolls that correspond with the portion of the system you have learned, and teaching licenses that lay out what you are qualified to teach.  This only leaves one question to ask if you are talking to a possible teacher, and one to ask anyone you are training with.  The question for possible teachers is “Are you licensed to teach?” and the question for training partners is “Can you do this technique or kata?”   


For me, part of the issue is that I’ve been in the iaido and koryu worlds for a long time.  I started in judo, and I still train, but I spend a lot of time in other arts.. The Kendo Federation (where I got my iai and jo dan ranks) has ranks, but there are no symbols of rank. Everyone in the room dresses alike, from the guy who just started, to the 8th dan who's been at it for 80+ years. The koryu dojo I'm in are even less about the ranks and such. Yeah, you get some paper sometimes, maybe a license, but that's pretty much it. There are even fewer signs of rank there than in the Kendo Federation. The fascination with belt colors is only in judo and karate systems, and something that is big outside Japan. In Japan, you get a black belt comparatively quickly, and all it tells people is that you are a real member of the club who can take the ukemi.


This leads back to the initial questions: “What is a sensei?” and “What is a student?”  These seem obvious.  A sensei is someone who teaches, and a student is someone who learns.  Those answers work fine in a standard school classroom setting where most questions have right and wrong answers, the kids sit in the desks and the teacher stands in front of the white board.  They don’t work so well in dojo where everyone mixes, the teacher might be in his 30s or 40s and the students are anywhere from 9 years old to 91, and even the teacher is working to improve her understanding of the art.


The student’s role seems straightforward.  The student is there to learn the art.  To do that, that the student is responsible for showing up healthy and ready to learn, with a good attitude.  The student is responsible for herself.  That was quick and easy to write, but it’s not very satisfying.  Showing up healthy is pretty simple.  Budo is practiced in close contact with other folks, so please take responsibility for yourself and don’t expose your training friends to every illness you get.  Stay on the sidelines when you’re sick.  This might not be a complete answer, but what is a sensei needs to be considered before we can go any further.


So what is a sensei, and what is she responsible for?  I’ll start by disappointing everyone who wants to break down the Japanese word 先生 and define it by it’s parts.  We don’t understand the modern meanings of English words because their original German, Greek or Latin roots meant something a thousand or two thousand years ago.  We define them based on how they are used today, and the same goes for Japanese.  In Japanese today, ”sensei” is used to address a teacher, doctor, lawyer, politician or other important person.  Most commonly, it just means teacher.  Nothing more.  It has no fancy, special, abstract or mystical meanings.  It just means teacher.  The word doesn’t help us.


In a budo dojo though, the sensei doesn’t do a lot of classical talk and chalk teaching.  Keiko in a budo dojo is a different situation from teaching an academic subject in a classroom, with different concerns, conditions and goals.  The teacher has responsibilities to the students and to the art she is teaching.  I’m partial to the modern version of koryu budo instruction rather than the military style instruction that became popular in Japanese and Okinawan during the 1930s and 1940s in militarist Japan, and which continued and was spread worldwide afterwards in gendai budo like karate.  Koryu is generally done in smaller groups, with more personal instruction and less regimentation.  This reflects what sensei is responsible for.


Sensei is responsible for students’ having a safe training environment, that should go without saying, but it doesn’t, so I say it often.  This is koryu bugei, and one significant difference I’ve found between koryu bugei thought and practice and nearly every other teaching situation I’ve seen is that in koryu bugei the sensei has no responsibility for making sure students learn anything.  Sensei is responsible for making sure students can learn if they make the effort.  If someone doesn't make any effort and doesn’t learn anything, that’s the student’s issue.


In both koryu bugei and gendai bugei, the sensei is not only responsible for teaching the student.  The budo sensei is responsible for the art as well.  They are responsible for passing on the entirety of their art to the next generation.  They are not responsible for popularizing the art and teaching to as many people as possible.  In fact, many senior members of koryu bugei systems  view trying to spread an art as being an abdication of their responsibility to the art.  Trying to spread an art quickly risks having poorly or incompletely trained people teaching and not doing a good job of teaching, and worse, corrupting the art because they don’t understand it well enough.


The lessons of any good budo system, koryu or gendai, are far more complex, and deeper than just the movements.  In addition to the physical movements there are strategies and tactics for controlling the spacing between you and your opponent.  There are techniques and concepts for controlling yourself and your mind.  Most of a budo system is beyond the physical movements, and these are the real heart of a system.  WIthout a proper understanding of these aspects, an art cannot truly be taught or learned.  The sensei’s responsibility to the ryuha includes making sure that only students with an adequate understanding of all parts of the system are teaching.  It is better to remain small and obscure and pass along the entire system than to grow into a huge, globe straddling organization that is teaching only the merest shadow of the original art.  The teacher’s responsibility to the art is greater than to any individual student.


Interestingly, it’s strange how quickly most students begin to see and understand this. The art, the system dates back generations, particularly for koryu bugei ryuha which can be more than 500 years old, but even Kodokan Judo, the exemplar of gendai budo, is over 130 years old.  The ryuha (system, school, art) has it’s own priorities and requirements and benefits. These outweigh the needs of individual students.  As students develop an understanding of the deeper nature of the ryuha’s teachings, they also understand that the ryuha will continue long after them, and that their responsibility is to learn the system to the fullest of their ability so that those who train with them and follow them will get the full system and none of it will be lost or corrupted.  


Students who begin to understand this, also begin to see and take on responsibility for maintaining the system.  Mastering the art is no longer just about gaining personal skill.  It becomes about being part of a larger structure that stretches back into history, and pushes on into the future.  As students move from beginners to experienced students to teachers licensed to teach a portion of the system and occasionally become licensed to teach the entire system, their rank isn’t about status.  It’s about responsibility.  The higher your rank, the more responsibility you have to the system.  Students who are only interested in learning the system for themselves and who don’t take responsibility for the system should be, and usually are, slowly frozen out of the school, and sometimes even simply expelled.


This is the way it should be.  As I’ve been reading more about the early days of the Kodokan and the new rank system that Jigoro Kano Shihan implemented, and it’s evolution, it becomes clear that in the early Kodokan, rank, at least at the early to middle levels, was strictly about how well you could fight.  Students were promoted when they defeated 4 people of the same rank, instead of based on how well they knew the whole of Kodokan Judo.  I suspect that this caused a not so subtle twisting of priorities amongst the growing membership of the Kodokan.  We can see the effects today in the way the International Judo Federation values competition above all else, and downplays or ignores the other 90 percent of the Kodokan syllabus.  What has happened is that in many modern budo, rank has simply become a symbol of competitive accomplishment and not a reflection of system mastery or responsibility.


This leaves me with the sad reflection that we have two different answers to the question of rank.  The first is what should rank mean?  It should be a reflection of student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it.  The second question is what does rank actually mean?  In koryu bugei, rank is still a reflection of a student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it.  In gendai budo sometimes rank is a reflection of a student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it, and sometimes it is a recognition of the student’s competitive accomplishments.  Figuring out which is which usually isn’t too difficult.




Thursday, December 5, 2013

What Kata Isn't

Let’s get this straight.  Classical martial arts kata are not practice fighting.  They are not what fighting is or was. Martial arts kata do not simulate combat conditions.  They do not recreate actual combat scenarios.  If kata aren’t any of these things, then what are they, and why bother with them?
Kata are pre-arranged training sequences.  Kata are training scenarios for learning about essential elements of conflict.  I train in both classical and modern Japanese martial arts, and both use a lot of kata.  Classical arts tend to focus almost entirely on kata training.  Gendai arts like Judo use a combination of formal kata training, randori/sparring, and informal kata.
Kata are not for mimicking combat . Kata are for getting better at combat. They are a training tool for learning the skills necessary for dealing with combat.  They are an exceptional tool that has survived hundreds of years of testing and application. As a training tool, they provide a framework for practicing various aspects of combat, not just repeating techniques or practicing in a sparring situation where much of what is effective is not acceptable because of the risk of injury.  
Kata is not sparring, and with good reason.  All sparring assumes a dueling scenario.  2 people faced off and fighting.  Any equipment is equal.  There are no surprises, no unexpected changes. There is an assumption of fairness.  Kata is not handicapped by any of these of these assumptions.  Kata allows a much broader investigation of conflict conditions.
Classical martial arts kata generally start out simple, but they rarely assume anything is fair or equal.  Araki Ryu Kogusoku is famous for one of the first kata taught to its students.  It assumes asymmetrical armament (tori has a tray, uke has a tanto), and applies surprise to defeat the better armed opponent.  There is nothing fair about this situation.  It is unfair and tricky and applies deception.  Just like a lot of conflict in real life.  Sparring is worthless for learning these lessons.
The kata of Kodokan Judo, unlike the games of Olympic Judo, rarely assume anything is fair or balanced.  The Kime No Kata is a great example.  It is a set of kata of encounters between two people.  One person, always unarmed, is attacked in sequence in a variety of scenarios.  First the two are kneeling facing each other, as if talking, and one, uke, attacks the other in a variety of unprovoked and basically surprise attacks.  Then uke attacks from the rear.  After that a succession of attacks with a knife from the front and side.  Then both stand up and there are unarmed attacks from the front, side and rear, followed by attacks with knife, stick and sword.
Sparring is extremely limited in so many ways that kata is not.  In all of these jujutsu kata, the only thing the person being attacked, nage in Judo terminology, know is what attack is coming.  They don’t know when, or how fast, or from what range, or how strong the attacks will be.  Uke has complete control over these.  
One complaint sparring enthusiasts often make about kata is that you always know what attacks are being made, so it’s never a surprise.  The same is true in sparring.  In sparring a very small set of techniques and attacks are allowed, and the vast majority of possible attacks are excluded under the rules.  On top of that, in sparring the attacks are always coming from the front, eliminating 75% of the directions attacks come from.  With it representing such a tiny fraction of possible encounters, sparring seems quite overrated as a training method for anything except sports encounters.
Another thing kata isn’t is completely prearranged.  Kata leave a lot of room for changes in range, timing and rhythm. In koryu bugei systems, the uke is always supposed to be the senior, more experienced person.  It’s uke’s job to control the speed of the kata so their partner is always learning and being pushed into new territory.  In addition, just because know exactly which attack is coming doesn’t mean handling the attack is easy.  No one tells uke when he has to attack.  Uke gets to decide the exact moment of the attack, its speed and intensity.  I have had uke’s drive me completely helpless just by drawing out the attack a little bit and then drawing me into responding at a different rhythm and speed than they attack with.  This left me wide open with a big stick incoming at speed and completely unable to do anything about it.
Kata isn’t locked into one interpretation.  Uke’s job is to adapt the kata’s speed, intensity and range to the student’s level so they learn as much as possible from the training.  Kata also isn’t locked into just one uke.  If you train with many different uke, each will bring different things to the training, things that make each practice of the kata unique.  Different sizes, heights, strengths, speeds and levels of experience in each uke  all combine to change the kata every time you do it.
Kata doesn't have to work every time you do it.  In fact, when you are learning, it shouldn't work a lot of the time.  You should be making mistakes and your partner should be stopping to show you why that particular way of doing it won't work.  There is abundant room in kata training for failing.   Are you getting bored?  Then uke should ramp up the speed so you are having difficulty doing the kata.  Or get a more powerful uke. Or one who is difficult for your to read. Boredom banished.  If you are practicing kata in such a way that you can always make it work, you're doing it wrong.
Kata isn’t some dead, fossilized thing that you trot out to see how things were done at some time in the past.  Kata are vital and alive and being changed and adapted all the time.  No one says you and your partner can’t decide to try the kata differently and see what an appropriate response would be if you change one element.  For advanced students, that’s a great thing to try.  The creation of kata isn’t over either.  People are creating new kata all the time.  Most new kata don’t end up being preserved and passed on, but sometimes the kata have enough value that they are added to their system.  The history of styles like Eishin Ryu and Shinto Muso Ryu show how things were added to these systems down through the centuries.  Gendai budo do the same.  Kodokan Judo didn’t create the Kodokan Goshin Jutsu until the 1950s.  Over time, kata get tested, and the worthwhile ones are kept and passed on, while the others are dropped and forgotten.
Kata are a teaching method for practicing the most fundamental and important aspects of conflict.  They are a time tested method that allows you to practice all sorts of dangerous attacks and defenses in a controlled manner.  Kata allow attacks from every angle at all sorts of speeds and force levels, and they allow that practice in all sorts of asymmetrical match-ups. Kata give practitioners the opportunity to practice these match-ups at a variety of speeds, strengths and intensities, so they can grow and their skills progress.