Showing posts with label kenjutsu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kenjutsu. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Budo Dream


I had a get together this weekend for a bunch of friends. It’s the fulfillment of an early budo fantasy. When I started out on my budo journey, I really didn’t know anything. I’d read some articles and looked through a few books, but this was the 1980s. The internet was still 10 years away, and I’d have to wait  20 years for Youtube to be created.

Like many at the beginning of the journey, I had fantasies about what the journey would be like, where it would lead, and what I might become. You know, a powerful martial artist, strong and respected by senior teachers and masters. I started in judo, and had visions of myself as a senior teacher easily throwing strong, young men about the room. People would treat me with respect and deference, and call me “Sensei” like I called the people I respected and looked to for guidance in mastering judo.

All I really understood was that it takes a long time and a lot of practice to get there. That didn’t seem like a particular hardship, because I was having so much fun learning and playing with judo that spending time practicing in the dojo may well have been my favorite thing to do. Fortunately, the dojo is still one of my favorite places to spend time.  Training and working up a sweat with the various budo I do now (which still includes Kodokan Judo) is something I look forward to and can’t get enough of.  I spent this morning doing iaido, and hopefully I’ll do something tomorrow.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/budo-bum-anthology#/

Time passed.  I graduated from college and managed to do what a lot of people say would be wonderful but few ever do. I found a way to move to Japan to live and train. I spent years living in Japan, training judo as much as I could (sometimes 4 or even 5 practices a week).  I earned a black belt, and promotions beyond that. I found new arts to train in alongside judo. Now I can confuse people by saying that I do judo and jodo.

I met genuine masters.  People who had been doing budo for more than twice as long as I’d been alive at that point. I met a swordsmith and got to work as his assistant. I learned to handle swords that were legendary in America. I cut myself more than a few times in the process. I trained in dojo that had no air conditioning in the summer and no heat in the winter. I learned that I could do judo and iaido even when my feet are numb. I also learned that I really don’t want to train when my feet are numb with cold.

At judo I got thrown around by everyone. Guests always wanted to try out the gaijin and see just how strong he was. At first, I wasn’t. They threw me all over the place. I kept coming back.  Honestly, I was still having loads of fun. As the years passed, I must have learned something, because guests kept challenging me, but I started throwing them from time to time, and then more frequently. Then one of my seniors in the dojo started pulling people aside and whispering in their ear if he saw them headed my way.

My sword teachers were more than three times my age, yet they still moved with a strength and elegance I envied. 80-year-old men who could move a razor sharp sword with ease, speed and precision. They would put on their kendo armor and totally dominate strong high school athletes who trained every day. Takada Sensei practiced with a monster blade that was 400 years old.

Eventually I moved back to the USA, but I never stopped training. I’m still training. And last weekend I realized that I had achieved the fantasy of my early judo practice.  I had a little gathering of friends. I invited martial arts friends from all over the country to come train together and share aspects of their arts with each other.  Among the guests were senior teachers from several traditions: judo, a couple of different styles of aikido, an iai teacher, and a classical jujutsu teacher.

They all came with respect for each other and for me. More than anything else I’ve done, this tells me that I’m doing something right. That so many fine martial artists would be willing to join me and share the lessons they’ve learned is amazing to the kid who started judo back in the 80s.

We had a wonderful time. Friends started arriving on Thursday afternoon and we were all like kids in the budo candy shop. We talked and explored ideas and drank beer and talked some more.  We went sailing. Friday was spent making numerous trips to and from the airport to gather up all the friends arriving that day. I became very familiar with the construction zones at the airport. No one complained that I drive like judoka, they just accepted it with a smile.

Conversations ranged all over the map. In the group are doctors, artists, scholars, world champion athletes and brilliant minds of all sorts. We talked budo, medicine, budo, science, budo, books, budo, philosophy, and more budo.

Saturday we laid out mats and started training. I’d rented two nice sized halls so we could have organized training going on in one room, and casual discussions and explorations in the other room at the same time. There were always folks playing with weapons somewhere, and there always seemed to be someone trying to grab or hit somebody else to see what would happen.

We explored some great techniques from aikido and I noticed the relationships to some Daito Ryu I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. The balance-taking and controlling are also similar to some things I do in judo. Then we had a fun round of judo.  We saw some interesting judo kata, and we got to play with something that looks completely different from anything in aikido -  foot sweeps.  Except that they aren’t completely different. The same principles of timing and controlling your partner’s center apply,  and the ukemi to protect yourself when thrown is remarkably similar.  The mindset is a little different, the strategy very different, but the principles and effects are remarkably similar. Uke goes flying. Disrupt the center, remove stability and take uke to a place where there is nothing to support them. Beautiful, simple, efficient and nearly effortless. It was great fun watching the aikido folks working out the timing and movement for something so far from the techniques they practice regularly while still applying many of the same principles. In the spirit of the weekend, they leaped into it with enthusiasm and without comments or claims. They just tried it and enjoyed the ride any time their partner got the sweep right.

After the judo, we put the mats away and got out bokuto - wooden swords. A friend of mine taught some kenjutsu kata she inherited from her teacher. During the class there was pure respect.  No cries of “Well, we do it this way.” from the class. Everyone was focused and interested in learning as much as they could from from a respected teacher in a tradition other than their own. Everyone shared the desire to learn as much as possible from everyone there.

Egos were left at the door. No one had to prove anything to anyone. We were all looking to learn and share. Each teacher was respected for what they brought to the room. This can be pretty rare in budo circles. For a practice that is supposed to help us transcend our limitations, a lot of us get trapped by our egos, worried about how good we are compared to the person next to us and busy trying to prove our way is the best. It’s a trap I know from the inside, because it’s caught me a time or two.

I’ve been blessed with some incredible teachers who’ve helped me recognize the damage ego has done to others, and to escape the trap myself. Over time, my teachers have honored me with their respect and trust. They have entrusted me with treasures of learning and knowledge handed down from their teachers and teachers before them. As I become responsible for these treasures, I discover that the gifts my teachers have given me are both an honor and a burden. These treasures are not for me to hoard and keep to myself. They are meant to be shared with people who will take the lessons to heart and use them to grow and to pass them on to others beyond themselves.



With this gathering of friends there is both the honor of being accepted as someone with gifts and skills to share, and to be surrounded by people who I know will soak up what I have to share. They will make the best possible use of the techniques, even as I’m busy trying to absorb as much from them as I possibly can in an all too short weekend.

After my friend finished sharing her teacher’s kenjutsu with us,  we cleaned up a little, went out to the courtyard, and did a little tameshigiri.  None of us are part of the Battodo Federation or any similar group that spends a lot of time on tameshigiri, so it’s a lovely treat and challenge for all of us, from those who specialize in the sword to those who may have never picked up a live blade before.  One of the big secrets of cutting with a good sword is to let the sword do the work.  It’s a great tool and will cut beautifully, if you let it.  

After we turned a stack of rolled mats into a large pile of mat confetti, spent the evening back at the house talking about everything imaginable, and playing with even more budo.  I looked in living room and there was a Yoshinkan Aikido teacher and a jujutsu teacher arm-to-arm playing with different approaches to techniques.  Out on the deck the discussion of budo philosophy had gotten frighteningly complex. In between in the family room someone had set up massage table and a couple of people were working on a third and trying to free up some range of movement.  It was definitely not a relaxing massage.  When things wound down everyone, regardless of rank, grabbed stuff and helped clean up. No egos, no expectations, everyone just pitched in and started doing whatever looked like it needed doing. Everyone was here as a student of budo and everyone contributed.


http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp


Sunday was more of the same. We studied some jodo while the weather was cool enough to be outside. Lots of fun and the occasional big smile as a light bulb went on and people connected the jo practice with things they knew from other practices.

In the afternoon we had a session with an aikido teacher from Yoshinkan. Everyone was out on the mats, the Aikikai folks, the judo guys, the jujutsu teacher all got out there and tried this stuff. The stuff that is similar is surprisingly similar.  We all emphasize correct posture, breathing and movement, even when we approach them from different directions.  I’m trying to figure out how to get some of these lessons across to my judo students now. I can see where they would benefit from some of the ideas being emphasized by the different traditions, I just have to find a way to present it that communicates in a judo framework.

The last session of the weekend was the least martial, but perhaps the most universally applicable.  One of the teachers has developed a curriculum for teaching safe falling to non-martial artists. There are lots of people who are at risk of taking a dangerous fall, and she’s worked out a way to teach them falling without having to learn the high impact ukemi of aikido or judo. It’s a brilliant application of budo techniques and principles to the wider world.

After dinner that evening, we were somber for a while. All of us have been training long enough that we have lost teachers and friends along the way. We remembered a friend we trained with last year who passed away, and we remembered teachers and friends, some gone many years, but still alive in our hearts and in our practice. A somber time, and an important one. Our budo journeys didn’t start in untraveled wilderness. We each took our first steps on pathways that had first been cleared and later paved by teachers and students long before we were born.

My first judo teacher is gone.  So are my first iaido teachers. I continue to practice their lessons and pass them on to my students. I’m sorry they can’t be here to see how I’ve developed thanks to the lessons and directions they gave me as I was starting out. I still find it hard to believe that I’m teaching their lessons to students of my own, and that teachers of other styles whom I respect seem to have as much respect for me. In an important way, these teachers I respect stand in for and represent the teachers I have lost. They help me test and grow my understanding, and they are perfectly happy to call me out when my ego gets too big or my ideas are simply foolish.

The Monday after all the training was a little quieter.  We hung around in back and talked and swapped jokes until someone had the idea to go to the zoo. If someone was thinking that this would be a safe place for us, they were very wrong. The use of humor as atemi became so strong and effective that one poor member of the group had to run away because her face was hurting from laughing and smiling so much!

One thing that came out of this wonderful weekend was the reminder of just how little I know and how much there is still out there for me to learn. Even after decades of training with empty hands and a variety of weapons, I spent much of the weekend learning new things and getting a new perspective on things I thought I understood. Aside from all the marvelous learning I was doing, it is inspiring and joyous to know that the journey is far from over.  It’s been so much fun getting to where I am that realizing the journey is still in its beginning stages makes me happy.

All these teachers and budoka came to visit and share and laugh and train together out of respect and admiration for each other. That they have as much respect for me as I do for them is the fulfilment of that young judoka fantasy. The journey has been long and the lessons learned along the way humbling and amazing. That I have earned this much respect from people I respect is a frightening thing. I often wonder what they can possibly see in me to be worthy of their respect. My teachers saw something in me worth teaching though, and these teachers see someone with something to share with them that is worthy of respect. That’s something wonderful, and great gift to someone who frequently feels like a beginner who knows nothing.

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.

http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp

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.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kuzushi Is More Than Off Balancing


Kuzushi means “off-balancing.” Everyone knows that. It’s been translated that way for decades. Off-balancing must be an accurate translation of the word if everyone keeps using it. The truth is it’s a terrible translation.  Not the complete misdirection that is translating 柔道 as “the Gentle Way” but still pretty awful.

Kuzushi comes from the word “kuzusu 崩す” which according to the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary means “to break, pull down, tear down, knock down, whittle away at, break, change.” Judo is pretty clear about the process of throwing though, separating it into 3 steps that go kuzushi - tsukuri - kake. Tsukuri is roughly “making” and in this case is something like making the technique by getting in the right place. Kake is executing the technique. Kuzushi happens well in front of execution, so it can’t literally mean knocking something down in this case. We’re also not breaking our partner, so what are we doing?

My friend Michael Hacker likes to interpret kuzushi as “undermining the foundation.” For a long time, this was the best interpretation of kuzushi I had found. It’s quite a graphic and effective image. If you undermine the foundation of a building, it falls down under it’s own weight. If you can undermine the foundation of your partner, they will begin to fall down and all you have to do is direct your technique so they can’t recover.

I like this much better than the simple “off-balancing” that is the common translation. Getting someone off-balance is nice, but they can recover. From a tactical point, off-balancing is usually obvious to the person being attacked. If you subtly destroy the foundation of their stance though, they may not even notice that you are doing it. Often people can even be lead into compromising their own structure. If you can get someone to push or pull harder than can be supported by the foundation of their feet and legs, then you’ve undermined their foundation.

Undermining the foundation was my working concept for kuzushi for quite a while, and it helped me find the way to my current understanding. I’ve been working on a somewhat different way of thinking about kuzushi. I’ve found myself applying what I recognized as kuzushi not just when doing judo and aikido, but also when training in kenjutsu and jodo. At first it was just about getting someone off-balance or wrecking their foundation so they couldn’t resist my technique. In jodo, there are techniques where you attack your partner’s weapon, and if your attack doesn’t steal their balance for at least an instant and force them to take steps to recover, your technique has failed and you find a bokken uncomfortably close to your nose.

Then I started to envision the concept of kuzushi slightly differently. It was a combination of experiences from Aikido, Daito Ryu, Shinto Muso Ryu Jo, and several styles of kenjutsu. I found that kuzushi worked well in all of them. And not just the happo no kuzushi that is introduced in judo. Often what is happening is not the big movements described in judo classes where you are drawing, lifting or driving someone’s center of gravity away from the support of their feet and legs. It is much smaller and subtler.

That’s why I like Michael Hacker’s definition of “undermining the foundation” even as I look for something that is simpler and more generally applicable. An experience with Jim Baker, an amazing Aikido teacher, got me thinking about this more. What he does in standing kokyuho practice is lock up your body starting at your wrist when you grab him. Without any significant motion, he then locks your elbows, your shoulders, all the way down your spine, and then he makes your knee give way. I’m not sure how he does the last bit, because I can only lock someone up through the shoulders with any consistency, but he does it to me without effort. I tried to find a video of it, but there aren’t any where you can see what’s going on.

Jim isn’t attacking the foundation. He doesn’t even attack the support structure of the leg until after the upper body is completely locked up. I realized this is similar to something I do in judo to setup some throws. Often I don’t try to break my partner’s balance. For some techniques I try to set my partner up so they are well balanced, so well balanced that they can’t move to defend themselves because they’ll start to fall if they do. Then I attack.

What Jim Baker and I are both doing (though he does it much more elegantly than I) is not off-balancing our partner or undermining their foundation.. We’re destabilizing them. All the way along when I do this in judo, my partner is balanced. If I let go without throwing, she’ll stay upright because I haven’t unbalanced her.  What I have done is make her unstable, so she can’t move without starting to fall. Jim Baker does the same thing. He makes your body’s structure, the bones and joints, lock up and become unable to adjust to changes as they are designed to.

The same thing can happen with crossed weapons. A good partner can move you into an unstable structure so that you can’t do anything to respond to her. Many kata in koryu are designed to teach how to do just that, drive you into a position where you don’t have enough stability to be able to respond to your partner’s attack, create a moment where you cannot move into a safe position. This happens a lot in the higher level kata of many classical systems, although they don’t usually call what they are doing kuzushi. It’s a great term for what is happening though. They are destroying their partners stability, making it impossible to respond effectively. In Shinto Muso Ryu there a number of techniques that are only really effective when they disrupt not only your partner’s weapon, but also your partner’s stability. Maki otoshi is a good example.


Each technique by jo in the above video disrupts and momentarily destabilizes the swordsman. The first technique twists his structure to the left and off his center. The second technique, a stop strike, drives the swordsman’s head and upper body back and slightly off balance, giving jo time to attack the sword directly.  The attack on the sword is followed by maki otoshi. Maki otoshi is actually a very soft technique that done correctly, as it is here, completely disrupts the swordsman to the right. The technique destabilizes him so much that he must take a step to regain some stability. This is good kuzushi.

Our bodies are loaded with flexible joints. We maintain stability by flexing the joints and moving. In budo, good balance and stability are not about standing statically upright. Good balance and stability are dynamic. That’s why counters work so well in judo. If you attack but I retain or regain my stability I can go from being thrown to throwing you, even if I’m already in the air. In a situation like that, even without a foot on the ground, I have a stable center that I can use to destabilize you and get you airborne.  When facing a stick or sword, you can maneuver and manipulate your partner so they aren’t stable enough to resist you.

Kuzushi can be off-balancing your partner. That’s not all it is though. Kuzushi doesn’t have to be big and obvious, pulling someone off their center. It can be smaller, rearranging their posture just enough to make them unstable even while they are still balanced, and unable to respond to what is happening.  If you make someone unstable, they can’t respond to what you’re doing, and have lost. That’s kuzushi.

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.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Simple Genius Of Kata

I was contemplating the Tao Te Ching recently. It’s an incredibly insightful collection of short poems from China of 2500 years ago.  81 brief poems that encapsulate a huge amount of wisdom. The wisdom of ancient people from a culture as different from mine as can be imagined. Yet each time I read from it I learn things. Koryu budo kata are much the same.

The Tao Te Ching has been looked to for wisdom and insight and understanding ever since it was written, and it’s value hasn’t diminished even after 25 centuries. People still look to it for wisdom and insight and understanding. It’s only 81 short verses totalling about 5,000 characters.  Not much for a text that many feel encompasses great truth about the universe. How can something so brief, so compact have such deep wisdom that continues to resonate with people after so many centuries?

Kata are a lot like the Tao Te Ching in that sense. They are short. I can’t think of any system, modern or classical, that tries to be encyclopedic in its collection and treatment of kata. Many systems have well under a hundred kata. Systems that have more are usually teaching offense and defense for a variety of weapons so they have to have a least a few for each weapon so students can become comfortable with each weapon in the curriculum. Of course this adds to the system’s collection of kata. The number of kata added for each new weapon though is comparatively small, just enough for the student to become familiar with the weapon. No system gets too large. Yet with these relatively small sets of kata, a huge amount of information can be transmitted.

What do budo kata and the Tao Te Ching have in common in their brevity that makes them so worthwhile that the Tao Te Ching endures and is popular after 2500 years, and budo systems like Katori Shinto Ryu and Yagyu Shinkage Ryu and Eishin Ryu continue to thrive 400, 500 and more years after they were founded? People still find wisdom and understanding about the world in the Tao Te Ching, brief as it is, and they still find classical fighting systems effective for learning about combat.

What gives both the Tao Te Ching and budo kata their continued usefulness and effectiveness is precisely their brevity.  They don’t try to lay out all their answers and insights to every potential scenario. They give you the rough framework and you have to do the work of building the understanding. You can’t just memorize the Tao Te Ching and understand it. You can’t just memorize the movement patterns of a set of budo kata and be good at budo.

To make them work, you have to work at them. The Tao Te Ching is deceptively simple.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the origin of heaven and earth;
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Therefore let there always be non-being so we may see their subtlety,
And let there always be being so we may see their outcome.
The two are the same, but after they are produced, they have different names.
They both may be called deep and profound.
Deeper and more profound,
The door of all subtleties!

The more time you spend thinking about this, the greater and deeper the implications and ideas. The entire collection is like that. Brief, simple, deep and profound. What makes it profound?  Much of that secret, and the secret to the incredible usefulness of kata is in plain site in this verse, number 11 in the Tao Te Ching.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

The Tao Te Ching does not lay out every detail of its philosophy and ideas for the reader.  In just 81 verses totaling about 5000 characters, there is now way it could.  Instead it lays out a few ideas and principles while pointing to more. It is this lack of detail that makes the Tao Te Ching useful and relevant across 25 centuries and changes in culture that were unimaginable when it was first written. If the Tao Te Ching had laid out too many details, in particular relating it to the culture within which it was written it would have long ago lost relevance as the world changed and the cultural touchstones it referred to were forgotten. Part of its genius is that it gives a rough, bare framework to the ideas within it, forcing each person who encounters it to complete the picture with their own details.

    Because it lacks specific details, it is like a clay pot that is useful precisely because it has a hole in the middle which will hold other things. The Tao Te Ching gives shape to the details of life in any age by providing a frame which can hold the details and information of any age, any culture. Good budo kata do much the same. It’s amazing how much information can be encoded in just a few good kata. It would be foolish and impossible to train for every possible permutation of combative scenario. Kata are the solution.

Kata are those stiff things you see karateka do. They are also the judo kata often seen demonstrated at glacial speeds. There are iai kata and kenjutsu kata and kata for pretty much every weapon imagined in Japanese history. Most systems don’t have a lot of kata though.  Eishin Ryu has around 45 iai kata depending on which line you follow.  Very few systems have more than this for any single weapon, though some systems have accumulated a large number of kata because they teach a variety of weapons.  None of them try to teach by having students practice every possible situation with a particular weapon.

I am always amazed at how much the group of sword masters who created the Kendo No Kata were able to pack into the 10 kata that make up the set.  They figured out how to teach the fundamentals of Japanese swordsmanship in 10 simple kata.


These kata aren’t definitive. They don’t make any attempt to show everything that could happen. They do provide a platform for students of Japanese swordsmanship to explore and learn.  In any good kata based system, the kata are really only a rough framework. The students have to fill that framework themselves. The kata become most relevant when the students start to fill them. As the movements become more complicated, the students have to explore the kata and discover things.

Pick a kata and take it apart. Figure out what makes it work. Don’t bother your teacher with a million “What if” questions. You won’t learn much from her answers. Grab a partner and work through the kata slowly. If you have a question about why the kata is done a particular why and not another way, try it with your variation, slowly.  See what will make sense for your partner to do in response. Look at 50 different ways to do the kata.

When you start taking the kata apart like this, you’ll understand why the kata is taught in precisely one way. Everytime I take apart a kata I discover that bad things happen more suddenly and much faster than I would have guessed. When I try doing this with a kata too quickly, I usually end up with bruises because I get hit with something I wasn’t expecting. Look at the first Kendo No Kata. It’s ridiculous in its simplicity. Uchitachi attacks, shitachi evades and counterattacks.

Now play with it.  Enter a little too deep too soon and your partner will nail you with a quick thrust.  There’s lesson 1: how close is too close. Don’t enter deeply enough and you can’t hit your target. Lesson 2: how close is close enough. Shitachi is sliding back and forth. Don’t retreat far enough and you get cut. Retreat too far and you can’t recover and enter to counter attack before your partner recovers from her attack. There’s lesson 3: How are far is too far. Play with the kata and really learn just how close is close enough, and how far is too far.

These aren’t lessons you learn from thousands of mindless repetitions of the same kata. These are lessons learned from exploring dozens of variations of the spacing and distancing used in this kata. Once learned, these lessons can be applied to every kata you ever encounter. If you just repeat the kata the same way every time though, you’ll never understand this.  

Great kata systems are not comprehensive. They don’t make any attempt to be comprehensive. A system that was comprehensive would be too large to learn in any useful sort of timeframe. A comprehensive system would have to have a kata for every one of those variations you might discover on your own while exploring the kata. Such a system would be too large to be of use.

A comprehensive system also wouldn’t teach students to take apart and understand situations. A comprehensive system would have all the answers. It would have all the answers for the scenarios its creators imagined. It wouldn’t have answers for anything else. As soon as the situations started to change, new ideas or scenarios are introduced, it would be obsolete.

A good kata system is spare and simple rather than bloated. There are lots of opportunities for students to ask themselves (not the teacher!) “what if?”. A system where there is plenty of room for the students to explore is flexible, because students can explore new ideas and new strategies, try out the same kata with different weapons and different ideas and different partners. A system that doesn’t claim to be comprehensive has room for students to explore and expand their understanding. A comprehensive system doesn’t leave room for that kind of development.

The Tao Te Ching remains relevant 2500 years later because it doesn’t attempt to have all the answers. It gives the reader an abundance to consider and reflect upon. The principles it points to are endlessly applicable. They are endlessly applicable because they aren’t locked into any particular time or culture.

Good budo kata remain relevant hundreds of years after they were conceived because they don’t attempt to answer every imaginable scenario of the period in which they were born. The present situations that are rich with opportunities for students to learn. The lessons continue to be of use because they don’t attempt to be comprehensive for any particular age or place. Each generation of students must explore and understand the kata within their particular world. Just because the kata seem simple, don’t think they aren’t deep.


Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.