Showing posts with label modern budo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label modern budo. Show all posts

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Better for what?

A friend of mine asked about swords.  He was wondering which was a better investment for iaido practice, a sword made of high quality modern steel or one made in the traditional fashion. I think he may have been surprised at my answer.

"Best for what?" For iai practice, you don't even need a sword made of steel. A well-balanced, well constructed iaito made of zinc-aluminium alloy will do just fine. The problem with many modern “samurai swords” is that they have the balance of crow bar. For classical Japanese sword training like iaido, the most important thing is the construction and balance of the sword. Bad balance or poor construction makes it impossible to learn good technique and can actually injure your arms. Poorly balanced swords put stress on your arms in ways that can damage them..

The best Japanese swords are still the ones made by classically trained smiths. This is because the classically trained smiths understand sword design, geometry and balance in depth. They've studied hundred of great blades and know what shapes are good for different applications and uses. Western made "samurai swords" look vaguely like a Japanese sword, but they generally lack the real character and traits that make a sword of a particular style or era that was designed for real use.

It's less about the particular steel than the geometry and balance. Modern steels are great. They are strong, resilient, inexpensive and rust resistant. Classically made, folded steel is expensive, strong, resilient and rusts if you look at it wrong. The real difference for practice is what the smith does with it. For that, the classically trained smith is hands down the best.  Good iaito are made to mimic the weight, geometry and balance blades made by traditionally trained Japanese smiths, which is why they make the best investment for immediate practice.

This sword discussion reminds me a lot of my thoughts whenever someone asks me what the best martial art is. “Best for what?”  What you want to do with the martial art will determine where the answer goes. Martial arts have as many differences as they do similarities. What’s best is going to depend on what you want out of it. Unfortunately, becoming an unbeatable super warrior isn’t something any art can give. Give some realistic thought to what you want. Is it unarmed or armed skills? Primarily physical or more mental? Do you want to sweat heavily, or only moderately (not sweating is not an option when learning martial arts)?  Lots of contact or not?

While I am an unabashed fan classical Japanese koryu budo, they aren’t best for everyone. One reason is related to why my friend was asking about the difference between swords made with modern steel and those made by classically trained smiths: the cost to acquire one!

Genuine koryu budo are rare, even in Japan. In the USA where I live, they are exceptionally rare.  I can count the number dojo teaching real koryu within a 2 hour drive of my home on my fingers. There are a couple of iai dojo, a jujutsu and kenjutsu ryuha, and my dojo with iai and jo.  That’s it, and in a lot of places there aren’t even this many dojo. What this scarcity means is that learning real koryu budo is expensive.  It means investing a lot of time and money just to get to someplace where you can learn one.  Even then, there’s a good chance that what’s available isn’t exactly what you’re looking for.

Iai is great, but if you’re looking for kenjutsu or bojutsu or jujutsu, it’s not going to do you much good if the only things around are iai dojo. To really study something, you are probably going to have to travel a lot further than 2 hours.  I teach Shinto Muso Ryu and Shinto Hatakage Ryu, but if I want to get instruction for myself, I have to go to where my teachers are. Japan. That’s the only real solution, and it’s not cheap.  I’m lucky enough to be able to do it once or twice a year.

What happens if you can’t afford to travel an hour or more each way to practice, or worse, have to fly somewhere to receive hands on instruction? Koryu budo doesn’t look like a great option. On the other hand, the faux koryu stuff floating around is kind of like the faux “samurai swords.” It may look vaguely like the real thing, but under close examination it will lack many of the characteristics of a genuine koryu budo, and when you try to pick it up and use it, you may discover that it has the balance of a crow bar.

I love koryu budo, but good quality gendai (modern) budo is great too. The metaphor above breaks down a little here, because gendai budo isn’t an attempt to mimic koryu budo the way an iaito mimics a shinken. Gendai budo were created to suit the ages of their founding, and have evolved since then.  They aren’t koryu budo. Good gendai budo don’t try to be.  Good gendai budo are honest about their age and qualities and history.  Judo or aikido or kendo will teach a lot of the same things that you learn in a koryu budo. You’ll learn good structure, breathing, movement, spacing and timing. It won’t have the history or breadth of koryu budo, but it still has a huge amount to teach you.

If you want to learn good budo, do something that will teach you good fundamentals.  I’m fond of saying there are no advanced techniques. There aren’t, and anything that is too specialized, too focused on a particular precise application, won’t be broadly applicable in new situations. A good foundation of understanding your body, structure, breathing, spacing and timing can be quickly adapted and applied to any new situation or study.

Koryu budo are still rare. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near where one is taught, then it’s probably not the best budo for you. I love koryu budo, but if nothing is available, then the best budo for you is probably something that is. I’ve found old Japanese swords in antique shops in the middle of nowhere, but they usually aren’t very good and often have fatal flaws such as deep rust or, worst of all, cracks that make the blade useless. Good judo or karate or aikido or kendo, whatever you can find, go in with eyes open. Just because someone has high rank or a teaching license, there is no guarantee that they are good teachers.

It’s better to learn good quality basics from a relatively low ranked and effective teacher than it is to learn poor quality advanced technique from a highly ranked person who has no teaching skills. It’s better to learn good fundamentals from a good, local, budo teacher than it is to bemoan the fact that you can’t afford to travel to where the art you dream of is taught. Start with an iaito and learn the fundamentals while you save to buy a shinken. Learn good budo fundamentals in a local dojo while you can. When you finally save enough for that beautiful shinken, all the training with the iaito will mean that you can handle it with confidence and safety. All that training in the fundamentals of structure and spacing and timing in the local budo dojo will mean that when it becomes possible to start studying the art you’ve been dreaming of, you’ll already have a solid foundation to build on, instead of having to start completely from scratch.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Am I Really Practicing Budo?

We go to the dojo regularly.  We practice hard.  We listen and try to follow sensei’s direction when she says “Cut with your hips” or “More extension” or the all-purpose direction “Relax.” We do these things.  We learn to do o soto gari or nikyo or kiri oroshi or whatever the technique is. Are we really practicing budo though?  Is budo what the samurai did in Japan? If that’s the core of what budo is, how is it possible for us to do budo now, in the 21st century?

Of course, if budo is what the samurai did in ancient Japan, then the next question is, which samurai in which period of Japanese history? The samurai of the 14th century were quite different from those of the late 16th century, who differed tremendously from those of the 17th century, and who might not have recognized all of the attitudes and behaviors of the samurai in the 19th century.
In the 14th century, samurai armies were often paid in loot. As for budo, the first of the ways, cha no yu or sado (tea ceremony, the way of tea) was just beginning to form.  Such a thing as “budo” wouldn’t be envisioned for several hundred years. The idea of forming bugei ryuha wouldn’t become common for another 200 years.

Katori Shinto Ryu only stakes its founding in the 15th century, while Kashima Shinryu and Kashima Shinto Ryu both date to the 16th century, as does Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. In that era the term “budo” hadn’t been coined yet, in part because the idea of discrete Ways, michi, 道 was still being formed in the teaching and practice of tea ceremony. What people did when training in these early ryuha was bugei 武芸. That second character is the same as in geisha 芸者 and means an artistic skill, technique, or performance.

It’s only in the 17th century, with the establishment of peace throughout the Japanese islands by the Tokugawa shogunate, that we begin to see a flourishing of discrete bugei ryuha.  Prior to this soldiers would be training together in armies moving and fighting all across the country.  Skills were constantly practiced, applied and evaluated in battle. After the the Pax Tokugawa was established in 1604, the armies were disbanded and skills were no longer used and tested.

With peace, there came time to codify and systematize teachings. People saw a genuine need for bugei schools where samurai could train in skills that were no longer applied on a regular basis. Over time, being able to show certification of training became important for samurai to earn promotions and to gain increases in their stipend.

Iaido schools flourished in the peaceful world of Tokugawa Japan

As the Tokugawa peace continued, townspeople who couldn’t wear the two swords of the samurai began to train in various bugei, and jujutsu systems flourished. With an emphasis on unarmed techniques and a variety of weapons besides the sword, these styles were well suited to the interests and legal limitations of merchants, craftspeople and wealthy farmers as well as samurai.

Over centuries the weapons changed as well. The famous samurai sword was originally little more than a backup sidearm for when the mounted archer ran out of arrows. The skills a samurai practiced were known as kyubajutu 弓馬術, “bow horse skills” since the primary role of the samurai was as a mounted archer. The sword might only be drawn when the battle was finished to collect the heads of defeated opponents for presentation to the winning lord so the samurai could get his reward.

Over time, pikemen armed with yari grew in importance on the battlefield and tactics for countering the speed and power of the mounted archers developed. Then in 1543 Portuguese merchants sold matchlock rifles to a Japanese lord and within 20 years these weapons that could be used by anyone with minimal training had transformed the battlefield. 65 years after they entered Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu used firearms to decisively take control of the country and bring the age of warfare to an end in Japan.

Under the reign of the Tokugawas, firearms were secured for the sole use of the Tokugawa and regional daimyo forces. Following in the path of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, only members of the samurai class could carry swords. The samurai for the most part ceased to be soldiers and warriors as they transformed into the bureaucratic class responsible for running the country.

As government officials in a peaceful nation, members of the samurai class practiced swordsmanship. Without battles to test themselves in, challenge matches with bamboo weapons proliferated and styles such as Itto Ryu, whose tactics and techniques were well suited to this sort of dueling, grew in popularity along with the matches. Non-samurai also began studying and styles emphasizing unarmed skills such as Tenjin Shinyo Ryu flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Following the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868, the reopening of Japan to the world and the abolishment of the samurai class, the martial practices changed along with the world. Competitive displays flourished as the old martial skills lost their role in society. These competitive displays mixed with new ideas about sports from western culture and the modern arts of judo and kendo emerged. Instead of being used in battle, or being a part of a class and role expectation, the arts became educational and recreational activities.

Kano Jigoro 1860 - 1938
Kano Jigoro lead the way by molding his Kodokan Judo into a system that could be incorporated into the physical education curriculum of the new government’s national education system in Japan and by instituting a clear tournament system. Leading swordsmen in Japan soon followed Kano’s example and did the same, taking elements from numerous forms of kenjutsu and creating a standardized system for national use that was incorporated into the public education system in Japan.

In the 21st century, all of these are called budo.  Are they all budo though? Is the modern study of judo and kendo the same budo, the same spirit, that the samurai in the 15th and 16th centuries learned in Katori Shinto Ryu, Kashima Shinryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu? Of all the experiences of budo through the centuries, which one is the true budo?  The guys who fought for loot and collected heads for reward? Perhaps the true budo was practiced by the samurai of the Tokugawa era, who might go their whole life without needing to use their martial skills. Or is it only the modern budo, with the influence of Kano Jigoro in judo and the great kendo teachers like Nakayama Hakudo in the 20th century that is true budo? Is it only budo if you’re using it professionally as the samurai did? Do you have to be a soldier, guard, or law enforcement officer to truly do budo?

Nakayama Hakudo 1873-1958

A mistake we often make when encountering something from a different culture is to force it into a pre-existing category from our own culture. We try to draw the same lines between things that we are used to. There are many people who maintain that any art or way that seeks to promote individual development cannot be a true martial art. I’ve also encountered people who maintain what they do is superior because exponents explicitly talk about peace and harmony while bending joints and tossing people around the room.

One of the most difficult things to wrap my head around when I first moved to Japan was that things do not have to be clearly differentiated black or white. People there are generally not Buddhist or Shinto. They are Buddhist and Shinto who might well get married in a Christian ceremony, exchange chocolate on Valentine’s Day and check the calendar for auspicious and unlucky days from Taoism.

It is not Japanese culture that draws sharp lines between things. There is no need to call one the budo of one era “the true budo” (though you do run into people in Japan who claim that things in modern Japan have deteriorated and degenerated badly and need to be infused with the spirit of some previous age. Mishima committed suicide while making just that claim).  Ways are paths, roads, and roads can go long distances through wildly different terrain, all while changing from concrete to asphalt to gravel to dirt and back again.  It’s all still the same road.

If we stop trying to fit things into the discrete categories that our culture tries to fit everything into, and adopt a lesson from the home culture of budo, it might be easier to see that we are all on the same road. It’s a lesson that never tires of slapping me in the face from different angles. The beginner who just walked in the door is on the same road as the 90 year old master who’s been training for 80 years.  They are on very different stretches of road, but it’s the same road none the less.

The same idea applies to the people who have practiced budo in all those different eras.  They were on the path, practicing the Way. They weren’t where we are. They were on other sections of that road. The bits that are “relevant” keep changing. Armored warfare with bows, arrows, spears and swords dominated the fight for centuries. Firearms transformed things and made armor obsolete. Technology moved forward and somehow armor is back.

The immediately applicable bits and the historical scenery change, but the fundamental lessons that form the foundation of the budo Way never seem to. I’ve written about what I consider fundamental to budo. Whatever else it does, budo has to teach how to move with good structure, an understanding of the effective ranges of movement, how to use time, and it has to be concerned with making practitioners not just better fighters, but better people.  If it’s doing those 4 things, it’s probably budo.

Those 4 essentials haven’t changed   since some samurai in ancient Japan first started putting together a budo curriculum. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, those essentials have to be there. Whether it is unarmed jujutsu, kenjutsu, kyudo or modern firearms, you have to understand structure, spacing and timing to be effective, and those ancient samurai teachers recognized that bullies and jerks need to be grown into decent human beings if they are also going to be entrusted with martial skills. If those items are the basis of everything else going on in your training, then what you’re doing will still be budo, whichever century you’re in.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Organizing The Body For Budo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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