Showing posts with label jo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jo. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How To Be A Good Uke



In most systems of budo, it takes two people to train. On one side is the person studying the technique or kata.  The other person is not the teacher.  The other person is their uke 受け.  Having a good uke to train with is as important as having a good teacher.  The problem is, a good uke can be as difficult to find as a good teacher.

Uke is your training partner.  Just as in most things budo, there really is no consistency of terminology.  So aikido and judo use uke 受け.  Kenjutsu systems often use uchitachi 打太刀.  Another terms you may hear are aite 相手 or partner.  You might sometimes hear teki 敵 or enemy, but that’s not accurate or appropriate when talking about the people you train with.

For the person doing the techniques, I’m partial to the judo term tori 取り, because it implies taking form from chaos (randori anyone?).  For now, I’ll use tori to indicate the person doing the practicing.

I’ve see lots of descriptions of good ukes, such as : “provides committed attack,” “Gives sincere attacks.”  I don’t find these descriptions very helpful.  What’s a “sincere” attack? On the other side, why does an attack have to be committed to be effective.  Believe me, even a half hearted attack with a sword or knife or crowbar will do plenty of damage.  I’ve heard people say that uke has to understand why he has to lose in practice.  The problem with that is that this is practice. There is no winning or losing. If people are caught up in worrying about winning and losing during practice, they’ve missed the point of practice.

I’ve written before about what a good uke is, and I’ve seen other good writings on the subject. Steve Delaney has an excellent article.  What is missing seems to be direction on how to be a good uke or uchitachi.  Hopefully we can get a conversation going.

The first thing a good uke does is understand that this is not a fight and it’s not a competition.  This is often overlooked or underemphasized by teachers. We have to emphasize to students that this is practice,keiko 稽古, renshu 練習.  This should help to get rid of some of the ego I see floating around so thickly in many dojo.  As soon as people learn enough to be able to hinder or stop tori’s technique, they do. That’s not practice anymore.

Uke’s job is to facilitate their partner’s training. That means giving them access to their body so they can complete the technique or kata being practiced. If uke makes it so difficult that tori can’t do anything, it’s not practice. On the other hand, if uke is so limp that tori can do anything without effort or challenge, that’s not practice either.  Uke’s job is not to give committed, or sincere attacks. Uke’s job is to give appropriate attacks.  

Once people understands that this is about learning and not competing or showing how strong they are, they can start learning how to be an uke.  Good ukes don’t just attack. If the attack is a strike, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all attack.  What is an overpowering and uselessly powerful attack on a beginner, may be ridiculously over-committed and telegraphed for a senior student. In both cases, the attack is wrong.

Being uke is a significant job and it takes far more thought and effort to do properly than most people give to it. It seems simple.  Whatever the designated attack is, uke does. Boom. Simple. Wrong. Uke starts with the designated attack, and then decides how much warning she will give. Will she telegraph the start of the attack so tori has lots of time to react and adjust, or will she hold back all indication of the attack for a while.  A big, telegraphed attack is great for beginners and public demonstrations, and just about nothing else.  As tori becomes more and more capable, uke has to consider tori’s ability and make the attack more and more difficult to detect.

Once the attack has begun, how fast should it be?  If tori is a beginner, or if the technique is unfamiliar, slow it down a few notches. As tori demonstrates the ability to handle a slow attack, then you can pick up the speed a little to the point where tori has to work at doing it right. Not too much though.  If uke attacks so fast that tori can’t do the technique properly, it’s not practice anymore.  Practice means doing it right.  Forcing tori to work beyond their ability is stealing their practice time from them.  If tori can’t do the technique under the conditions uke provides, uke is wasting tori’s time.

This applies whether the attack is a strike with the hand,  grab on the wrist, a cut with a sword, or blow with a stick. If the attack is a grab, grab with what you think is an appropriate amount of force.  If tori can’t do the technique, let up a little until she can. If she can do the technique, add a little more to the grab, or ask if she would like a stronger grab or more resistance. I’ve got enough experience that I can manage my own training.  I’ll tell my uke, “Please be stiffer at that point.” or “Please resist a little more.” or whatever is necessary to raise the difficulty of the technique for me to a point where I am being challenged and can practice the element that needs polishing.

This sort of communication is, to me, essential for good training and learning for both tori and uke. Particularly when it is a senior tori working with a junior uke, this kind of communication gives the person learning the uke role the feedback she needs to become a better uke. Many dojo, whether aikido or judo or other art, don’t take the time to train people how to be uke. This feedback is important, and ukes need it. I appreciate all the times I have been uke and my teachers or partners have told me what I needed to do to be a better uke at that moment. It has helped me learn a lot about being a good uke.

Uke is a tough job. We have to think about it. We have to give the right attack, at the right speed, and in the right place.  This is another important aspect of being uke that I don’t think gets enough attention. Whether the attack is a strike with the fist, a thrust with a knife,  a sword cut, or a blow with a stick, it has to be accurate. Tori is trying to learn how to deal with an genuine attack. If their uke only offers attacks that would never be on target because they don’t want to hurt tori, they’re already hurting her. This sort of attack robs tori of the opportunity to learn real maai, or spacing.  Pulling your attack short, or swinging to one side, doesn’t help tori learn anything.  If you are worried about hurting tori, attack more slowly, but keep it accurate. Once you’re confident tori can handle the attack slowly, pick up the pace slightly.  Keep doing this, always maintaining the accuracy of your attack, and you’ll find out what tori can handle without hurting her.

I often read in aikido circles that people want “committed” attacks. What seems to be meant by this are what I would describe as off-balance, over-committed attacks. Uke seems to be throwing themselves at tori instead of attacking. Just because you are attacking doesn’t mean you have to give up the balance, posture and structure that you train so hard to develop. The first problem with this is that you rob tori of the chance to learn to break your balance. That’s a really important lesson, absolutely fundamental in judo. When you’re working with a beginner, you don’t go all out resisting their efforts to take your balance, but you don’t attack without any balance either.  They have to have the opportunity to practice taking your balance.

Once students get past the initial phase of learning, then uke can attack with a more and more stable structure, giving tori a consistently more challenging kuzushi puzzle to figure out.  Again, don’t be impossible, just be challenging enough that tori has to work for it.  This requires uke to consider what they are doing.  What lesson is tori working on? Will it help tori if uke maintains the same level of stability and increases the speed, or will it be better if uke slows down a little and increases their structural stability?  Being uke isn’t easy, and sometimes it helps to ask tori “How do you want this attack?”

Once you get comfortable with varying the speed and intensity of your actions as uke, and you’re working with an experienced tori, you can start messing around with the rhythm as well. I think my seniors enjoy pulling this one on me. They will subtly change the rhythm of their attack, drawing me into attacking a half step too early, or waiting a heartbeat too long. Either way, they’ve got me. If I attack too soon, uke evades and there is nothing for me but empty air. Wait too long, and I find a sword tip a millimeter from my nose before I can do anything.

This is great practice for more advanced tori, and it does require an advanced uke as well. This is what any uke should be striving towards though.  Tori can’t learn effectively without a good uke. To be a good uke, you have to constantly be considering how you should attack to give tori the best learning opportunity you can. Uke controls the speed, the intensity, the strength and the rhythm of the training.  This means that on every repetition uke has to think about how fast, how intense, how strong and what rhythm the attack should be. Uke should never attack on auto-pilot. Every attack has to be a considered for tori’s benefit (and uke’s safety. Attacking on autopilot is a good way for things to go very wrong for uke).

Uke’s role may be even more important than the teachers when it comes to how well tori learns things.  The teacher can demonstrate and correct, but it is with uke that tori does the homework where the real learning takes place.  Uke has a huge amount of responsibility.  It’s not enough for uke to just throw out whatever attack is called for without thinking about it. Uke has to chose the right mixture of technical elements so tori can get the best, most focused practice on the elements that particular person is working on.  This means considering how fast or slow the technique should be. How much should uke telegraph the attack so tori learns to read uke’s body better? How strong should uke be in this case? Is tori working on smoothing out their technique, in which case fast but not overly strong attack might be called for.  Or is tori working on refining balance breaking or initiative stealing, which might mean they want a slower but more solid, stable attack from uke. Every tori is working on different things and needs uke to adjust their attack to the individual tori. Individual tori work on a lot of different areas too, so uke has to adjust not only from tori to tori, but from moment to moment as the same tori works on different aspects of their technique.

Being a good uke is at least as important an role as that of the teacher, and requires as much focus and attention to what you are doing as being tori does.  Please make the effort to be a good uke. Your training partners will appreciate it, and you might even find that the effort put in makes the rest of your technique better as well.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kata's Hidden Wisdom




Practice is always good, even when it’s bad, but last Saturday was exceptionally good. There is a lot to be learned from exploring kata, even when it’s one you think you know well. This morning we were working on the kneeling kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. We had out our usual assortment of training tools and were working through the kata using swords.  Some of us have live blades and some are using iaito (unsharpened practice swords that let you keep your fingers if you make a mistake).

Iaido, unlike pretty much all other Japanese koryu bugei, is practiced solo. It’s difficult to learn essential concepts such as ma’ai (combative spacing) and timing without a partner. On the other hand, it’s tough to find new partners when you are using a live blade, or even a blunt steel weapon.  Mistakes happen.  Wooden weapons leave bruises. If you’re lucky, steel will only break things. One of the key purposes of iaido is to learn precisely how it feels to handle genuine swords. So we compromise and practice iaido solo for the most part, and do paired kenjutsu practice with bokuto (wooden swords, also called bokken).   

We had the swords and iaito out and were working our way through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. There is one kata in the set that is similar to the kata “Kesa Giri” in the Kendo Federation’s Seitei Kata. That one has always made sense to people.  There is another kata in the set that starts the same way, with a rising kiri age kesa cut, but then switches to a perfectly vertical cut, straight down the middle.

The basic scenario isn’t much different than the Kesa Giri style scenario, so what’s going on here?  Just going through the solo kata over and over again doesn’t seem likely to reveal all the wisdom and secrets that might lie embedded within the kata, but then the question becomes, how do we tease out everything there is to be learned from the kata? We can play with the kata at different speeds, but to really get at it, something more is needed.


I’ve mentioned before about learning by investigating kata, and on Saturday we decided it would be good for us to take my advice. So we put away all our metal blades and got out some bokuto and shinai (bamboo kendo swords) that I have for just these sorts of occasions. Shinai are great because the split bamboo stings if you get hit, but it won’t break anything.

We started by modeling the kata slowly and looking for openings and weaknesses in the movements.  The spacing is envisioned slightly differently from a Kesa Giri scenario, and we discovered one thing right away.  Even though the initial cut forced teki back, it wasn’t likely to injure or stop him. My partner could recover and counter attack faster than I could get my sword flipped around at the top and make my following strike. Even with shinai, getting hit in the head is no fun. At that point the first feature that Kiyama Sensei has always emphasized leaps into focus.

In this kata we don’t cut any higher than absolutely necessary.  This means the sword stops with the tip still pointing at teki’s face.  With a partner trying to counter attack this stop makes a lot more sense. With the sword tip right in front of his face, teki can’t recover and attack. He’d either impale himself in the face on the sword, or cut off his own arm trying to bring it down.  Ok, so that stalls teki.  The next move is a sweep around that moves through a uke nagashi position to a big downward cut. 

The reason for the sweep and the particular way it’s done quickly made itself clear. As soon as I lifted the pressure of the sword tip from teki’s face, he could counterattack.  If I brought the sword up past my ear as in some Kendo Federation kata, or dropped the tip too far, the counterattack landed on my head. When done properly, the sweep provides  necessary cover for my skull.  When doing the sweep, if you move the sword as if doing uke nagashi, it smoothly covers you against the counterattack.

Unfortunately, even after you do everything right your position is still lousy.  After you do the rising cut and drive teki back, hold him there with the sword tip and then sweep your blade around through an uke nagashi block to protect yourself, you are still sitting within easy range of someone who is also holding a long piece of sharpened steel and intends to use it to bisect you. This presents something of a problem.  The best you could seem to hope for is to cut your opponent at the same time he cuts you.

My partner tried cutting into me at an angle thinking perhaps he could knock my sword out of the way, but at best we still ended up smacking each other in the head.  When we went straight at each other we ended up smacking each other even harder.  This is not an auspicious way of ending a kata, so there has to be something else.

There is a technique, most famously found in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, but not uncommon in other sword systems, where you cut straight through your opponent’s sword as she is cutting you. Your opponent’s sword is driven off her target and yours continues smoothly to your target. It’s not an easy technique and it takes quite a bit of work to get right. It’s subtle and looks mysterious if you aren’t familiar with it.  It works quite well in this situation.
My partner swung straight at me and I cut straight through his sword. He missed and my shinai landed on his head.  Problem solved. Expect that then we had to spend some time working on cutting through an opponent’s sword while he’s attacking with it. We work on all sorts of these things like this, and the whole time we are practicing the kata.

Kata are often derided as being outmoded learning tools. I think that comes from fundamental misconceptions about how to practice kata. People seem to think that the only way to practice them is to drill them endlessly, in what basically amounts to rote practice.  I’ve seen karate and TKD schools do this with large groups of students repeating the same kata over and over together, everyone maintaining exactly the same timing and spending more time worrying about running into their fellow students than they do about how variations in speed, timing, and spacing might make major differences in how the kata is conceptualized and imagined for practice.


Kata aren’t rote exercises. One of the keys for understanding that is realizing that there are many ways of practicing the same kata.  Whether the kata is solo or paired, you don’t want to do the kata at the same speed and visualizing exactly the same spacing and timing every time you do it. My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is great at messing me up by playing with the timing in kata. He’s as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen with a jo, so I’m always racing to keep control when he is my uchitachi (senior who takes the losing role in paired kata). Except that he’s also brilliant at putting a sudden pause in at critical points in the kata. If I’m not really sharp, I’ll move the way I need to for what I expect Sensei to do, instead of what he’s actually doing. Sensei then gently cuts me in two in as he points out my woeful lack of awareness during the kata. That’s a simple way to mix it up within a kata.


If you’ve got what is a solo kata, that’s fine. Practice it solo. You don’t have to though. I’ve never seen it written anywhere that you can’t grab a partner or two or three and work through a solo kata with them to deepen your understanding of the envisioned timing and spacing, and to understand exactly what is going on with those attacks and defenses.


Yes, I’m sure you’ll have to slow some things down. Maybe you’ll have to use different training tools. Instead of a steel swords, maybe wooden ones, or bamboo shinai, or even foam boppers if those are what’s available and most appropriate for what you’re working on. You’re training and those are all tools for training. Don’t forget that at some point in the past, bamboo shinai were the latest in high tech safe training equipment.  This is training, not a major public demonstration. It’s ok to look silly as you are figuring things out.


Take out the appropriately safe equipment for whatever you want to experiment with and start experimenting. You’ll learn a lot from the exercise, and you might surprise yourself with what you can understand about the kata without being told, just by changing the way you approach it. I can’t even begin to list all the neat tools and equipment my students and I have come up with over the years so we can work on various things without hurting ourselves, the dojo space, or some expensive piece of special equipment like a real sword or a live person.

That was the core of our practice Saturday. We practiced and studied the kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. It may not have looked like we were practicing a bunch of solo iaido kata, but we were. No, we didn’t always have metal swords in our hands, and no, we didn’t always do things solo. Sometimes we did solo practice, and sometimes we found a partner and explored aspects of the kata together. Sometimes we used bokuto and sometimes we attacked each other with shinai and sometimes we even did the kata just the way it is taught in the system. We had lots of questions about the kata, and lots of different tools for exploring those questions from different angles. We explored the kata and looked at what could be done and what happened when we did things differently.  We learned a lot about the kata and improved our understanding. That’s what I call a good practice.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Modern Musha Shugyo Part 4: A Castle, 2 Dojo and a Holy Mountain



After spending an incredible day training and talking with Kiyama Sensei, on our Musha Shugyo, Deborah, Adam and I  had a day without training planned, then we were scheduled to spend a day doing jodo in Osaka, a night at Mount Koya, and then training at still another jodo dojo in Osaka.  Shiga is lucky enough to have one of the few remaining castles in Japan, so we headed there for our free day.

Hikone Castle Donjon. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014



Hikone Castle Donjon. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014




Hikone Castle was started in 1603 and completed in 1622. Many of the surrounding buildings have been lost, but the main castle donjon still stands, as well as the surrounding walls and gates.  The castle sits on a natural hill, and the first gates are  well before you begin to climb the hill.  We had lunch within view of the castle, and then began climbing up the winding path to the top.  

Hikone Castle gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014


Part of the defensive strategy was to make the journey up circle through several gates.  An invading army would have climb the hill and at the same time get past numerous choke points where they could easily be attacked from above.  At one point as we circled up the hill, we arrived at the bell just before the hour, so we are able to stand and hear an ageless sound that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.

Hikone Castle Bell. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

The next day we traveled to just outside of Osaka to the Yoshunkan Shinto Muso Ryu Dojo. This dojo is in the garden of I. Sensei’s home.  It is one of most lovely private dojo I have had the privilege to train in.  It’s not large but it is lovely and simple.  I met I. Sensei though my jodo teacher, M. Shihan, and I come to train at his dojo whenever I can.  I. Sensei is the kancho for the M. Shihan’s group, so as is typical in Japan, everyone calls him by his title, “Kancho.”

We arrived just after the beginner’s seitei jo class ended.  A couple of the more senior students stayed around to help us train. Kancho said that M. Shihan was planning to come by the dojo later.  In the meantime, he asked me what we wanted work on. Knowing it’s never a bad thing to practice your kihon, and remembering that Adam is still new enough to not be familiar with the basic format of training, I suggested we drill kihon techniques.

This turned out to be a good idea for all of us, not just Adam.  I have been teaching a lot of kihon techniques, but I haven’t been drilling them in the same way M. Shihan’s organization routinely does, so while Adam was being overwhelmed by the intensity of practicing with some of I. Sensei’s more senior students, I got to work at remembering many of the important points for the uchi side.  Uchi is always the senior. While shi practices the kihon, uchi received shi’s technique and controls the spacing and speed of the practice so shi will get the most out the training.

Adam and Deborah got a lot of good training, and I got some excellent corrections in how things should be done.  Training is Yoshunkan is quietly focused. Kancho doesn’t yell at anyone. His training is intense but he is gentle about it. It is completely unlike the atmosphere in movies or stories of traditional teachers who yell or don’t say anything at all.  Kancho made sure each of us was stretched, but the feeling was one of having a treasure quietly shared with you rather than brutal training.  Fujita-san worked me hard in both the kihon and some of the kata that we did. Adam was sweating from the effort that was being pulled from him as he worked to keep up with the demands of his partner and to integrate the corrections from Kancho. Deborah and Adam were both my guests in the dojo, so I was really responsible for them. However, between my own practice and trying to keep an eye on Adam, I left Deborah to fend for herself. I wasn’t really worried about her though.  Her Japanese is quite functional and she’s traveled to Japan numerous times on her own. She doesn’t need any help from me.

Adam occasionally got that deer-in-headlights look though. His partners were drawing him up and down the length of the dojo, making him work at each of the kihon techniques while also subtly changing the distance for each attack so he could learn to understand and read spacing as well as practice the individual techniques. He had plenty to work on. On top of practicing techniques he’s not really strong at yet, he had to try and understand the corrections he was getting from Kancho and the senior students. When the corrections were straightforward, his basic Japanese skills were up to the task. Whenever the corrections were more subtle though, he was quickly floundering in a sea of unfamiliar Japanese vocabulary. I tried to stay out of it as much as possible, but when things got too complex, I would bow to my partner and then give Adam some language assistance.

While we were practicing, M. Shihan arrived. He is a delightful man, about 5’2” (157 cm) tall. If you see him on the street, aside from his incredible posture and carriage, he looks like a fairly average Japanese man. When he starts talking about Jodo though, he lights up with an energy and enthusiasm that is incredible to see and feel. I know from experience that Shihan’s jodo is powerful and inexorable. There is no stopping it. We didn’t get to feel it this day though. He had a busy schedule but had taken time out to visit the dojo to see us.

He asked what we had studied at the gasshuku, and we described our training there. Shihan asked Deborah to demonstrate the Omote set, and for me to act as uchi. We worked our way through the entire set under Sensei’s critical eye. Neither one of us wanted to make the least error. Despite our effort, there was still plenty for Shihan to correct. His corrections are always couched in a way that makes you think about not just what he’s correcting. He asks questions as he corrects that make you consider why you do something in a particular way. In this way, working with Shihan pulls our technique and understanding of everything behind the technique upwards.

After commenting on Deborah’s Omote, and the way I was doing the uchi side, Shihan asked Adam to demonstrate a couple of the kata he felt comfortable with. Shihan gave his some corrections, but didn’t overload him. I know Adam came away from this practice with plenty to think about.

Shihan had to leave before the practice was over, but it was wonderful to see him and get some instruction from him. Before he left, we mentioned that we were planning to visit another one of the dojo in the Osaka area that he leads on Monday night. Shihan warned us he might not be able to make it, but encouraged us to go train.

After Shihan left, and we had bowed him out of dojo, we practiced for a while longer, focusing on the points Shihan had corrected. Eventually though it was time to wrap up practice and bow out ourselves. Kancho served some tea and we chatted a little bit before we changed and headed for the train station. We had plenty to think about while we rode the train back to Shiga.

The next day we headed to Mount Koya, or Koya-san as it’s known in Japanese.  Koya-san is where the head temple of Shingon Buddhism is located.  Founded in 819 C.E., Koya-san is a major pilgrimage site. It is a wonderful, peaceful area in the remote mountains of Wakayama. The only way there is a funicular train, and the only places to stay are temples. We stayed at Daen-In, one of the numerous temples there. The temple provided dinner, sleeping rooms, breakfast, and an early morning Buddhist service of chanting, bells and incense for the numerous pilgrims visiting the temples and graveyard.

Daen Temple. Mt Koya. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

Buddha statue on Mt. Koya. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

We spent the afternoon and evening walking about the graveyard. The graveyard is huge, and no one knows how many people have been buried and memorialized there. Filled with moss covered graves and 600 year old cedar trees, it is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. Numerous rich and powerful families from the last 1200 years of Japanese history have graves there.

Mt. Koya grave. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan
 
Mt. Koya Grave. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan


Mt. Koya graveyard. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

A more recent trend is for large companies to have a grave site for memorializing all those who work at the company and have passed away.


Yakult company employee memorial gravesite. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan





Nissan company employee memorial grave site. Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan



One of the most interesting graves was erected by the termite exterminators association. Buddhism teaches that no living being, including insects, should be harmed. The exterminators have erected a grave for the spirits of all the termites they kill, a place where the spirits of the termites can be prayed for and offerings can be made on their behalf.


Memorial grave site for termites killed by exterminators.
Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan

We spent the night in the temple, ate the wonderful temple food (all vegetarian of course), and attended the 5:45 AM service. After some more time wandering around the temples, we got on the train back to Osaka.  We had Jodo practice that night.

At the dojo that evening, we arrived early, but several of the senior students and teachers were there ahead of us and practicing. We got changed and started warming up. H. Sensei was there with his wife, who is quite accomplished also. And while we were warming up, Kancho came in. He doesn’t train at this dojo usually, but some of the members were preparing for a competition the following Sunday, and he was there to help them get ready.

H. Sensei told me that M. Shihan had called and wouldn’t be able to make it this evening, but that we should please stay and train. We were happy to do that. Even without Shihan, there were a couple of 7th dan teachers and plenty of other senior students in the room.

H. Sensei is a very different style of teacher from Kancho or Shihan. He reminds me much more of the classic image of the brusk, severe Japanese teacher.  We worked our way through the warm-ups, and H. Sensei focused on Deborah, Adam and I. As we were working on hikiotoshi uchi, Sensei started yelling at me. I’ve been reworking my technique, but it seems I’d let my attack angle flatten a little in doing so. Sensei yelled at me that I’d never be able to do anything with that weak technique.

H. Sensei asked me what I thought I was doing and made me work at it until he was satisfied. After he watched Deborah and Adam for a few moments, he decided that we would focus on kihon for the evening. He found partners for Deborah and Adam and started us drilling. He yelled at Adam. He yelled at Deborah. He yelled at me more than the two of them combined.  He asked what sort of Jodo I was doing? He yelled that we would never be able to do anything with such weak technique. He yelled and kept us working hard.

H. Sensei is an example of a classic Japanese teacher. I don’t think he is constitutionally capable of being complimentary during keiko. You know how much he cares about you and your learning by how much attention he pays to you. Unfortunately for us, the only way he knows to express that is by being harsh. From the amount of attention we three got, he is very concerned with us learning to do it right. Which is what I want from a teacher.

If H. Sensei ever said anything nice about my technique, then I’d be really worried. If he, or teachers like him, see anything worthwhile in you, they will yell and hound and badger you to bring out the best that they can see. If he ever said something nice about my technique and then continued on, it would be the worst comment I ever receive. If he says something nice, it means he doesn’t see any reason to bother giving me corrections or attention. A compliment from one of these old style teachers is the kiss of death. The compliment is their way of dealing with someone they rate as a waste of time to teach. They can compliment you and walk away.

If they decide to invest time in you though, that’s the sign they see something of value in you. Deborah has been around Japan long enough to have encountered this style of teacher before, but I was worried about Adam. Adam is still a beginner in Jodo, so this was an intense experience without having a 7th dan teacher yelling at him from close range and making him do techniques over and over until the teacher was satisfied. Deborah knew the best course is to stay silent or just said “Hai Sensei” if a response is needed. Adam’s Japanese isn’t anywhere near to being ready for dealing with this. When things really got tough, he’d look at me and I’d give some translation help, and then we’d be back to practicing the kihon.

I never complain about practicing kihon. Nearly everything in Shinto Muso Ryu can be boiled down to the 12 kihon waza that Shimizu Sensei developed. The better your kihon are, the better every other part of your Shinto Muso Ryu will be. So we drilled kihon. H. Sensei had me call out the commands for practicing the kihon in the dojo to make sure I was doing that right. Somewhere along the line I had flipped a couple of the Japanese words, so I got excoriated for not even knowing the Japanese commands. As we worked through each of the kihon waza, Sensei made sure Adam and Deborah were getting it right. A couple of times he had Adam attack him with a sword so Adam could experience how the techniques should feel when done properly, which is always a worthwhile experience.

I noticed as the evening went on, Sensei’s demeanor softened quite a bit. Adam and Deborah persevered under his pressure. They took everything he threw at them, and they kept showing him their best effort. They never gave up. They took each correction and worked to integrate it into their technique. Deborah and Adam let Sensei yell and they just kept working. By the time we reached the break, Sensei could see that they were going to work hard. He started backing down the volume. He still got all over them for anything he felt was poor technique. He didn’t give up on them, but he was clearly less harsh. They had proved to Sensei they were worthwhile students who are mature enough to handle serious instruction.

H. Sensei let me know that he was still disappointed with me. As a teacher, it’s my job to bring everyone up to the level he expects. I got quite the lecture about that. We all learned. Deborah and Adam got to polish their kihon under the close attention of a high level teacher. I learned what my teachers expect me to be focusing on with my students. I’ll be changing my lessons going forward. Lots more kihon.

At the end of the evening, as we were bowing out and then sharing a post keiko cup of tea, H. Sensei had us introduce ourselves to everyone. Even Adam’s basic Japanese was quite appreciated. People were impressed that he serious enough about Jodo to travel to Japan to train, and to put in the effort to begin learning Japanese. With keiko over, H. Sensei returned to his normal self, which is to say he was very pleasant to chat with. Everyone invited us to come back and train again soon. We promised we would.

Training with H. Sensei can be tough, especially if you don’t know about traditional teaching attitudes in Japan. There is long tradition that being nice to students of anything will make them soft and encourage them to give less than their best effort. The traditional way was to never compliment the student. If you know about this, some of the traditional teachers don’t seem nearly so harsh. They can still be tough to endure, and sometimes they will make you want to break and run. They can really toughen you up though. Day-to-day trials are a lot easier. That boss that likes to yell and pound on his desk? He doesn’t seem nearly as intimidating after having a 7th dan teacher verbally flay you and then insist that you attack him so he can demonstrate the flaws in your technique.

Maybe there are some real benefits to that traditional teaching that I hadn’t considered before.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Most Essential Principles In Budo: Ma'ai


There is no single essential element of good budo. There are a number of elements that make up the common foundations of all good budo, whether it is empty hand, small weapons, swords, spears and naginata or even kyubado. I wrote about structure in a previous post.  Another essential principle is ma’ai 間合, often translated as spacing. This one seems simple, and turns out to be exceedingly complex and subtle.  

At it’s most basic level, spacing is the distance between you and your opponent.  That’s the most basic level.  After this it quickly gets complicated.  Ma’ai 間合 is the Japanese term, and and while it refers to distance, it also implies the proper or correct distance. The problem and complexity comes from the fact that what is the proper distance is different for every encounter.

Let’s start just with empty hand encounters to keep it simple. I’m 183 cm tall. My reach and range is longer than someone who is 160 cm tall, assuming we’re both using the same sorts of attacks. My range is longer, so I don’t need to be as close to reach out, make a connection and apply a judo technique. An opponent who is 160 cm has to come well inside my range before she can attack.   

Seems simple enough. How about this then? I’m a judoka, so I’m not big with punches and kicks.  So let’s assume my 160 cm opponent is now proficient at Tae Kwon Do. Oops! The ma’ai just changed significantly, and not in my favor. Now my opponents kicks are effective at a greater range than my grappling. On the other hand, if I get inside her effective range, my grappling is more effective than her striking.  

So good distancing,ma’ai, changes with the person’s reach and the techniques being used. It’s the combination of your effective attacking range and your opponent’s. What’s good for one is more than likely not optimal for the other.  Kendo breaks down ma’ai into several discrete ranges, which is easier in kendo because the shinai’s length is controlled to prevent major differences between kendoka.   The Kendo community has analyzed their three main ranges, toma, issoku-no-maai, chika-ma (outside of attack range, attack with one step, close enough to attack without moving).  Their analysis is focused on two very similar opponents with identical weapons.

Once we get outside the competitive arena with it’s requirement that things be “fair,” whatever that might be, ma’ai becomes a very fluid distance. In both gendai and koryu arts, kata are designed to teach the fluidity of ma’ai by setting up the student to practice against a variety of weapons and partners.  This is true in Judo in the Kime No Kata where the student must deal with everything from grabs to strikes to knife attacks to swords.  It’s true in most Aikido training as well, with a variety of tanto and sword disarms.  

Many classical bujutsu systems cover the entire gamut of weapons combinations, from both persons unarmed to one person armed, to both armed with the same weapon to asymmetrically armed training.  Many weapons arts mostly emphasize asymmetrical training scenarios.  In Shinto Muso Ryu, the only time both partners are armed alike is in a few of the okuden forms, and seven of the Shinto Ryu kenjutsu kata.  In JIkishinkage Ryu the combination is usually sword versus naginata.  Most koryu arts include a variety of weapons in their curriculum.

Once we get to this variety of combinations the terms for ma’ai become much more interesting and challenging.  If I’m holding a kodachi facing an opponent with a tachi, her issoku-no-maai is longer than mine.


 If I switch to jo, mine is now longer than hers.  If she’s got one of those giant naginata or a yari, hers is longer than mine.  And then we have the variability of some types of kusarigama, but I’m not going to go there today.  


The continually changing combination of an individual’s range and her weapon’s range makes ma’ai exceptionally difficult to master (and even more complicated to write about). By practicing with a variety of partners and in a variety of weapon combinations you can develop a good sense of maai.  I’m starting to understand some aspects of it, but I have a long way to go.  

One thing that is critical for learning learning ma’ai is that attacks have to be effective. I hear a lot about “sincere” and “committed” attacks in some arts.  I’ll be honest, I really don’t care if the attack is sincere or not, and I really don’t care if it’s committed.  I care about whether it will be effective.  A sincere, committed attack that will never reach you is worthless for training because you will never learn at what range you are vulnerable, and at what range you are effective.  The same is true for an attack that purposely misses to either side.  I can’t learn how to deal with an attack that isn’t effective.

The attack doesn’t have to be fast and hard.  It doesn’t have to be heavily overcommitted.  It does have to be on target.  That’s the key.  On any number of occasions I’ve told students to “Hit me.”  They swung their weapon and I didn’t move because I didn’t need to.  I could see they weren’t doing anything that would impact me.  I stood there and watched their weapons swing past in the breeze.  Then people asked why I didn’t move.  I didn’t move because my sense of ma’ai is strong enough that I can see when someone is attacking effectively and when he is just waving at empty air.  Waving at empty air is not effective or threatening.

Every attack, no matter how slow, has to be such that it would impact my position.  If it’s not going to do that, how am I going to learn what distance and attack is dangerous and what isn’t?  If you don’t know the difference, you will fall for every feint and false attack.  An effective attack is not one where you overcommit and throw yourself at your opponent either.  For an effective attack you move in maintaining your balance and integrity while striking or cutting so that you will impact your partner if she doesn’t move.  

As you practice kata and randori with a variety of partners and weapons combinations, you will develop a more and more sensitive understanding of ma’ai.  With an understanding of ma’ai comes awareness of the difference between an empty threat, and a position that is vulnerable to attack.  You will also be able to see  when your opponent is open to attack on the other side.  Without an understanding of ma’ai you are vulnerable to every threat and intimidating move because you won’t know the difference between an attack that will affect you and movement that cannot hurt you.

NOTE:  “Ma’ai” has 3 syllables in Japanese:  mah-ah-ee.  In English it comes out as 2 syllables “mah-eye.”