Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Being Uke Versus Taking Ukemi


Photo Copyright Girgoris Miliaresis 2014

Nearly everyone in the gendai (modern) budo world talks about taking ukemi (receiving a technique), and being uke. Real ukemi is not something you take, and uke (one who receives a technique) is not a passive existence. The character in both “ukemi” and “uke” is “受け” “to receive or incur”. Being uke is really about receiving your partner’s technique and how you absorb it, and it is a very active role. There is nothing passive about it.

Gendai budoka, be they judoka, jujutsuka, aikidoka, or any other group, will say that they “take ukemi.” What they really mean is that they put their body out there for a partner to apply a technique to without offering resistance. The only time resistance shows up is during whatever sort of randori training their group does. Their ukemi is passive, and their job as an uke is to present no difficulty or opposition to their partner. The only real requirement for the job is that you be skilled enough to survive whatever technique is being practiced. 

  The real depth of the role of uke becomes clear when you look at the structure of uke’s role in koryu budo, or classical Japanese arts. The teacher, or other high level senior, takes the role of uke.  They are actively engaged in what is going on, not just passively “taking ukemi.”   In all of these precursors to the various gendai budo, uke’s role is considered critically important, and a beginner cannot understand what is required of a good uke.

Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2019
Uke indeed receives their partner’s attack, but not passively. If stand alone techniques are being practiced, uke has to decide how they will receive the attack. If the attack lacks a critical element of timing or kuzushi, if the attacker is not well-balanced and solid, uke is under no obligation to let the technique succeed. If any of these elements is missing uke may decide to simply stop the technique from continuing, or they may decide that their practice partner needs a stronger lesson about the suki, or opening, that they are leaving and counter-attack into the suki. Uke has to be skilled enough to understand what suki are being presented, and be able to execute the counterattack without endangering the tori (there are many terms for this role, I use tori because it can apply to any art or weapon being practiced).

This is true whether what is being practiced is some sort of empty-hand jujutsu or even if weapons are involved. My students know that if they leave too big an opening during an attack that my sword will fill it, stopping their attack and showing them their weakness. It’s not me showing off. The trick is judging when the kata is broken and attacking an opening. Students are learning, so of course they leave openings. I’m constantly calibrating my responses for individual students. Someone learning a new kata gets a lot of leeway to make mistakes while they learn movements. The same student practicing something they should know well doesn’t get much room for mistakes at all. If they were practicing with someone who wasn’t already skilled in the art, they would end up practicing all sorts of incorrect movements, spacing, and timing,  embedding these mistakes in their bodies.

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For uke, there is also the challenge of receiving attacks properly. Uke isn’t passively accepting whatever the student does to them. Uke is trying to receive the technique in the best way possible from a martial perspective. If uke is just going along with whatever the student does, uke is teaching themselves to move in ways that aren’t optimal for receiving such an attack. Uke has to be able to move in such a way that they receive the energy of the attack in a manner that is safe and gives them the best opportunity to counterattack.  

It’s not enough to just receive an attack in such a way that it doesn’t immediately end the encounter.  If your receiving technique simply sets you up for a different finishing technique, it’s not effective ukemi. It’s a failure. Good ukemi should move uke to a position where she can counterattack or break off the encounter. Even in kata practice, there should always be a tension between uke trying to successfully attack tori, and tori trying to eliminate the possibility for the uke to attack. Uke has to learn to move not just to receive the attack, but to the most advantageous position to receive the attack. As long as it is possible, uke’s movement should put her in a strong place to both defend, and to launch another attack. Tori’s job is to close all of uke’s options until uke is defeated.

Throughout a kata, uke should be seeking opportunities to attack. This seems obvious, but I see lots of kata being done where uke makes an initial attack, and after that they only attack the most obvious of openings. This is where a kata can come to life. If the kata is well designed, when done correctly there is only one optimal movement for uke in each situation. When tori does their part correctly, uke’s options are constricted so the best choice may well be limited to one thing. If uke is participating in the kata with the intent of continuously attacking tori, they will attack into any opening tori leaves.

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Uke isn’t breaking the kata when she does this. Tori breaks the kata when she leaves the opening for uke to attack. It is this interplay that makes kata live. If uke is just going through the motions, then tori isn’t going to learn much. If uke is seeking those openings that tori leaves and filling them with attacks, tori quickly learns to close those openings.

Uke isn’t there to receive an attack. Uke is there to teach tori how to move and act without leaving openings that an opponent can exploit. Receiving an attack is the smallest part of the job.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, PhD. for editorial guidance and support.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Teacher Responsibility in the Teacher-Student Relationship

I've written before about the responsibility a teacher has for their students in Japanese martial arts. Here is a great example. A sumo wrestler was severely punished for the misbehaviour of one of their students. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-68381695 Teaching martial arts is not something to take lightly. It is a deep responsibility.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Budo: The Way of Change


Great day of training. It must have been 95F (35C) in the dojo, though.

I talk a lot about the benefits of budo. We go to the dojo and we sweat.  We work at improving some aspect of our skills every time we enter the dojo. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been training or how old we are.  My iaido teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, was still training in his 90’s. A friend of mine pushed himself to improve his jodo to challenge for 8th dan when he was 90.He didn’t make it to 8th dan, but he was pushing himself to improve until the day he died.

Budo, much like other Japanese arts such as chano yu and shodo, makes three assumptions about practice and us. First, that perfect technique can be imagined. Second, that we can always work to come closer to perfection. Third, that we’ll never achieve perfection, but that’s no excuse for not continuing to grow and improve.

All of the streams of thought that come together to form budo assume that human technique and character can, and should, continue to develop throughout one’s life. Confucius, Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), all provided strands of thought and ideas to the cultural stew of China and Japan. All of them assumed that people could change, grow and improve at every stage of life.

The Zhuangzi is filled with stories that emphasize taking your time and learning things. The idea that learning and development never end is intrinsic to the all of the lines of thought in ancient China that used “way” as a metaphor for their school of thought. There were a lot of them.

On the other hand, there is a common idea in Western thinking that we each have some sort of unchanging, immutable core or essence. I’ve heard many people say “I can’t change. That’s just the way I am.” or “I don’t like it, but that’s who I am.”  Once they finish high school or college, many people seem to think that they are done growing, changing and evolving as a person. Thankfully, there is no evidence to support any of this.

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Everyone changes, every day. Whatever we experience changes us. Little things change us in little ways, and big things can be, as the saying goes, “life changing.” Life never stops working on us, changing us, molding us. We are not stone. We are soft flesh that changes and adapts to the stresses it experiences. An essential question is whether we are going to be active participants choosing how we change and what we become, or are we going to be passive recipients of whatever life does to us..

A central concept of the idea of a Way, michi or do is that there is always another step to take, another bit of ourselves we can polish, a bit of our personality that we can improve, and that we can direct that change. This is true whether we are talking about Daoist thought or Confucian thought or something in between. The idea of a finished, unchanging human really doesn’t come up. 

Budo constantly reminds us that we aren’t finished growing, developing, improving. Rather than declaring that we can’t change, budo is a claxon calling out that we change whether we want to or not, and that we can direct that change if we choose.  Budo is about choosing to direct how we change instead of just letting the circumstances of life change us.

We are making the choice to take part in how life shapes us from the moment we enter the dojo, although I doubt many realize how much budo can influence who we become when we make the decision to start training. Good budo training should, and does, change us. Physically we get stronger, more flexible, improve our stamina and develop the ability to endure fierce training and even injuries. That’s the obvious stuff. More importantly, budo changes who we are. It should make us mentally tougher and intellectually more flexible. It should help us to be more open to new experiences and ideas. It should teach us that we can transform ourselves. It’s a cliche that budo training makes people more confident, but it’s also true of good budo training. You go to the dojo and you get used to people literally attacking you, and as time goes on, you’re not only okay with that, but you look forward to it. I don’t know anyone who started budo training because they enjoyed being attacked, but it doesn’t take very long before that sort of training, whether it is done through kata geiko or some sort of randori or free sparring, becomes something you look forward to with a smile.

Keiko, the formal term for budo practice in Japanese, is the highlight of my week. The time I spend in the dojo practicing and doing budo never tires my spirit. It exhausts my body, but my spirit always comes away refreshed, recharged, and ready to deal with all the stresses of life outside the dojo. Budo practice isn’t something we “play”. In Japanese you never use the verbs associated with play when talking about budo, and even judoka avoid words that emphasize the competitive and focus on terms like tanren 鍛錬, forging. Budo is about change; conscious, self-directed change.

The wonderful thing is that once we learn how to change ourselves in the dojo, we know how to do it outside the dojo as well. The discomfort we get used to while pushing ourselves in the dojo teaches us how to deal with discomfort outside the dojo. That’s one thing budo doesn’t eliminate - the discomfort of changing. Self-directed change is difficult and pushes us into places and situations that are anything but comfortable. I can remember being a pugnacious jerk, and dealing with disagreement and conflict as a win-lose scenario that I had to win. It took a lot of time in and out of the dojo to learn that just because there is conflict there doesn’t have to be a winner and loser.  There are lots of other ways to deal with conflict, and I’m grateful to my budo teachers that I learned something about conflict as something other than a zero-sum game.

Budo has a lot to teach us about life, how we can change and adapt to the world instead of letting the world change us. All the effort that we put into learning the techniques and skills of budo also teaches us how to direct an equal amount of effort into changing any aspect of ourselves that we wish to confront. The budo path has no end destination. We just keep working at it.

Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, PhD. for her editorial support and advice.


Thursday, August 17, 2023

Budo's Principal Lesson


Photo Credit Patricia Anderson Copyright 2023

Koryu budo schools teach many things: strikes, throwing techniques, joint locks, strangles, weapons, defenses, counterattacks, proper breathing, proper walking, techniques for receiving attacks, ukemi. However, the one thing every koryu budo school that I have encountered spends the most time teaching and practicing isn’t any of these techniques. It’s awareness; self-awareness, spatial awareness, temporal awareness, and awareness of others.

I’m purposely limiting this to koryu budo because gendai budo spend most of their practice time drilling competition techniques and sparring. Koryu budo schools spend most of their practice time on mental focus and awareness. If you give it a little consideration, it is clear that the amount of time spent on technical skills is second to what is spent on awareness and mental development.

The bulk of koryu budo training is kata. Pick any koryu budo ryuha and watch some of their kata. A kata might take anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds from the start to finish of one repetition. The technique practice in the kata will generally last from 1 second to around 10 seconds. The rest of the time is spent practicing awareness and focus. This is true whether it is iai or kenjutsu or jojutsu or naginata or jujutsu or anything else.

If we look at the first iaido kata in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu, the kata starts while the practitioner is standing. She takes the time to sit in seiza carefully and attentively. Once she is sitting, she does not rush into drawing her sword. She stays calm and focused. She begins moving carefully, being fully aware of what she is doing and what her kaso teki (imagined opponent) is supposed to be doing. She begins drawing her sword slowly, completely focused on the situation, and does not rush anything. When everything is right, she finishes her draw and cuts quickly across kaso teki. She pushes forward and raises the sword over her head, then cuts quickly down through kaso teki. She pauses. Focusing and extending awareness, she considers if kaso teki is still a threat. She shifts her blade and pushes it slowly out to her right, then brings it in close to her head and drops it across her front for the chiburi and rises to her feet, all the while remaining focused on kaso teki, just in case the threat has not been completely eliminated. She pushes her right foot back into a relatively deep stance. Maintaining her focus on kaso teki, she brings her left hand to the koi guchi, and the tsuba close to her left hand. She pulls the back of the sword along her left hand until the tip drops into the opening in her hand and then slowly brings the saya over the sword tip and begins sheathing the sword, still staying focused on kaso teki. As she sheathes the sword, she slowly lowers herself to her left knee. Once the sword is sheathed there is a pause while she continues to focus on kaso teki. She rises, still focusing on kaso teki. Only after all of this, does she lift her eyes from kaso teki. Maintaining her mental focus, she expands her awareness to the whole space around her, and then she returns to her starting place with deliberate care and focus.

That’s a lot of time and effort to practice two cuts. The most important lesson isn’t the draw or the cuts. It’s the focus and awareness. Awareness combined with the ability to focus on what is critical are the most important skills in koryu budo. That’s why we spend more time practicing them then everything else combined. Awareness will keep you out of more fights than any technique can win, and focus will prevent distractions that cause losses. 

Paired koryu kata spend just as much time on awareness and focus as iai kata do. Take the omote kata Monomi from Shinto Muso Ryu. The partners start facing each other separated by around five to seven steps. The kata starts when tachi raises their bokuto to chudan. Jo carefully moves their weapon so that they are holding it by one end with the right hand and the other end is touching the ground on their left side, all while maintaining perfect focus on tachi. Tachi raises the sword to hasso and steps forward with their left foot, keeping their eyes and mind focused on jo. Tachi advances carefully into cutting range without breaking their focus on jo. When they are one step away from being able to cut jo, tachi swiftly raises the bokuto, steps forward and cuts jo’s head.

Jo has spent all of this time focused on tachi, ready to act the moment tachi begins any sort of attack. The instant tachi begins to raise their bokuto, jo moves just enough to the left to be out from under the bokuto’s cut and simultaneously brings their weapon up. As the sword is cutting through the space where jo’s head was, jo steps back with their right foot and brings their weapon down on tachi’s wrist. Tachi and jo are each focused on the other, minutely aware of each other. Tachi pulls their bokuto out from under the jo and steps back into jodan. As tachi is stepping back, jo whips their weapon around and points the end directly at tachi’s eyes, preventing tachi from stepping forward to attack. Then jo steps forward and thrusts the stick into tachi’s solar plexus. Jo carefully raises their weapon to tachi’s eyes, and tachi carefully slides back and lowers their bokuto. Jo and tachi are focused on each other, watching for the least sign that the other will try another attack. Jo moves their hands to the ends of their weapon and places their right hand on their thigh without letting their focus on tachi waver. Jo shifts their hands on the ends of the weapon and tachi deliberately pulls their left foot back to their right foot. Jo brings their left hand to their front and slides their weapon through their right hand to its middle and brings their left foot forward next to their right foot. Tachi begins to carefully retreat back to their starting point, remaining focused on jo the entire time. After tachi has taken their first step back, jo begins carefully backing towards their starting point, never letting their eyes leave tachi or their focus waver.

That’s a lot of time spent focusing on each other to practice one cut, one strike, and one thrust. The action takes about a second, maybe two. The rest of the kata is spent developing focus and awareness. When will tachi attack? Jo doesn’t move until tachi begins their attack. Move too soon and the opening is lost. Move too late and you’re hit in the head. Tachi has to be aware of everything that jo is doing and not doing. Jo has to be just as focused on tachi. If jo’s focus wavers for the smallest instant, tachi can cut them before they can act. After the cut and counter strike there is a brief impasse, with the partners focusing to sense the smallest intention to do something. If tachi tries to do anything other than step back, jo has to sense it and ram their weapon into tachi’s solar plexus. If tachi detects jo’s focus slipping they will instantly launch an attack. 

After the final thrust, jo and tachi are still focused on each other, each without an iota of trust for the other, until they are finally back to their starting points and the kata is over. The ability to maintain that sort of focus without letting it break for the slightest instant takes time to develop. Jo often learns to not trust tachi the hard way. I let my focus waver towards the end of a kata once and tachi hit me, seemingly without warning. As my sense of awareness improved, I began to sense when tachi was going to try to “cut” me and I could move to stop it. When I got better, I could sense tachi’s intention and shut it down by sharpening my focus, without making any movement. As tachi, I’ve learned to watch for breaks in my partner’s focus and attack into them. Jo learns to never trust tachi for an instant.

The principle lesson in koryu budo is mental. It’s the one that we devote most of our practice time to, and it’s the one that is most applicable to every moment of every day. Stay aware and focused. Don’t let your attention be diverted from what is important. 

Our society doesn’t encourage focus or awareness. We are surrounded by distractions. TV, radio, internet, cell phones. Advertising works best when it can distract your mind, interrupt your focus and make you think about what the advertiser wants you to think about. Distracted driving is such a menace that it injures more people than drunk driving does, and the number of deaths attributed to it is climbing fast. We have trouble staying focused in classrooms and in offices. Distractions on worksites are as much of a danger as distracted driving. 


Learning to focus and be aware was never easy though, even without our modern distraction machines. If it had been, the people who crafted the koryu budo that we train in would not have devoted so much of their pedagogy to practicing staying focused and being aware. All the other things we do in the dojo feed back into this principle lesson. If your breathing and posture are bad, you can’t focus nearly as well as when you are upright and breathing properly. If you are tense, you will focus on the wrong things, and you’re liable to react to the wrong stimuli. Proper posture and breathing help you to stay relaxed so you remain focused on what is critical. 

The essential mental state in koryu budo is known as heijoshin 平常心 in Japanese. One reading of heijoshin is “normal mind”. When I was first learning this I thought it was strange, because the focused and aware mind that koryu budo teaches is anything but normal in the world I live in. I don’t meet many people outside koryu budo who can combine focus and awareness like the experienced koryu budoka I have known. This kind of mind is special, and requires a great deal of specialized training to achieve. The goal of all this time spent practicing focus and awareness in the dojo is to transform that special state of mind into our “everyday mind”. 

Being focused and aware is more complicated than just paying attention. You have to learn how to mentally acknowledge things beyond you and your training partner without losing your focus on your partner. I’ve seen people who didn’t understand what was happening (or whose awareness was atrocious) walk right up to people who are swinging weapons about. I’ve also trained in a lot of places that weren’t exactly perfect for what I was practicing. Places where the walls were a little too close to be able to move as you want to in the kata, or where there is a pole or other object in an inconvenient spot in the dojo, or outdoors on uneven footing. If you are so focused on your partner that you don’t know what else is going on around you, or where the walls and obstructions are, or what is under foot, you need more awareness practice.

As your understanding of budo grows deeper, you begin to be aware of critical details that you couldn’t have noticed in the past, things like what your partner can and cannot do from a particular stance or position. In that Shinto Muso Ryu kata above, if tachi is so focused on jo that they don’t notice where jo’s weapon is targeting, they are likely to try an attack that will end with them (hopefully) on the ground because down was the best direction to go to avoid the counter-thrust to their eyes. If they are too slow or overcommitted, they may end up taking the stick in their eye. Awareness includes being aware of which options are open, and which are closed. When can your opponent attack? Which potential attacks are viable, and which can be ignored? Where is your opponent likely to attack you? Where is your opponent open to your attack? This kind of awareness takes a lot of time to develop, and you don’t develop it by doing reps. You develop it by taking time to see your opponent and by taking the opponent’s role. Slowly you become more aware of not just your opponent, but of everything around you. 

In koryu budo, we spend more time practicing being focused and aware than everything else we do combined. It’s that important. None of the cool techniques will work if you aren’t aware of a threat or aren’t able to stay focused on a threat. Awareness and focus are critical at every step in training, and they are just as critical, if not moreso, outside the dojo. Anyone who has driven on Detroit freeways knows how important awareness and focus are to getting home in one piece. There are accidents all over the freeways caused by people who aren’t focused on driving and lack awareness of what is going on around them. Detroit commuter traffic is the perfect application for the focus and awareness that all of my koryu budo training is developing.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman PhD. for editorial support.

Monday, February 6, 2023

When The Senior Is You


Adam Grandt, Deborah Klens-Bigman, Kiyama Hiroshi, Peter Boylan.  Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2023

I still remember clearly, the first time at the judo dojo in Omihachiman, Japan, that we lined up to bow in and there was no one to my right. I was so shocked at being the senior on the mat that I promptly forgot half the commands that the senior calls out at the beginning of practice. Thank goodness the dohai on my left remembered them and was kind enough to whisper them so I didn’t look like too much of an idiot. Maybe I should have realized that this could happen and made a point to really memorize the commands, but I never in my wildest imagination thought that I would be the senior person on the mat. Fortunately, on that occasion it didn’t last very long: about 10 minutes into practice a sempai showed up and I was quite happy to have someone else be responsible. 

Being the senior in the room is one of those things that happens slowly, and then suddenly. We start training and we have no idea what we are doing. As the weeks go by and we get a sense of how things work in the dojo we don’t have to know much and we don’t have any responsibility. As the weeks turn into months we start learning some of the basics and we’re able to contribute a little to the dojo besides our dues and our ignorance. As the months turn into years we find ourselves helping beginners figure out that they need to step with their other left foot, how to take a fall or a strike, how to do the warm-ups and what the dojo etiquette is. 

Gradually our place in the lineup shifts towards the deep end without us doing anything more special than showing up for practice regularly and putting some effort into learning what sensei is teaching. If you’re lucky, sensei will help you learn the senior ropes and maybe even have you teach occasionally while she watches so you can get some experience at the front of the room and start feeling the weight of being responsible for teaching well and making sure everyone finishes practice in health as good as when they started.

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It’s not uncommon though, to be taking your time edging your way up the seniority ranks, when you show up to practice and sensei is out sick, or one sempai has to work late, or another has child raising duties…no one knows where the others are, but you’re in charge! 

Dennis Hooker, the late founder of Shindai Dojo was fond of saying when asked how you become a senior martial artist: “Don’t die and don’t quit!” - that, and a little genuine effort to learn your art are all it really takes. Seniority certainly doesn’t take talent. If that were required I would still be a white belt.

Becoming a senior student is something that happens if you don’t quit and you don’t die. Succession in the martial arts is fraught with ego, but first you have to not quit and not die. One of the arts I train in, Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho, very nearly ceased to exist when the soke passed away, and then a month later his son and successor was killed in an automobile accident. Suddenly my teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, was the most knowledgeable person practicing Shinto Hatakage Ryu.  He didn’t set out to be the head of the system. He was just learning it as best he could by copying what Noda Shihan was doing. 

It doesn’t take planning and desire to become a senior; it takes the quiet dedication to show up for practice day in and day out. Then one day you don’t do anything new and suddenly you’re the senior in the room.

I’ve seen lots of people so desperate to be the senior at the top of the heap that they will start their own organization or even invent their own art. Somehow folks imagine being the senior is a glorious parade where everyone treats you with deference and you can do what you want. Being senior is the opposite of glorious. 

What is often missed in training is that increases in rank aren’t rewards. They are weighted with responsibility. Every time you move up in rank, the responsibilities become a little heavier. As a white belt my responsibilities were to show up, and if I got to the dojo early, make sure I was on the floor sweeping it before anyone senior to me could show up and grab the broom. As you get more senior you get more responsibility. Maybe you start handling some of the record keeping, or you’re taking care of the bookkeeping. Then you start teaching occasionally. Then one day sensei asks you to take a regular spot on the teaching roster. 

Rank doesn’t equal privilege. Rank equals responsibility. Kiyama Sensei passed away in September. That means that three of us who have been around long enough without quitting are suddenly responsible for everything that he taught us. We are responsible for teaching all the principles that he shared with us to the very fullest of our ability. We are responsible for Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho. We are responsible for whether this ryuha and these teachings live and contribute to another generation or are forgotten and lost forever.

That’s what happens when you become senior. You get the responsibility. Deborah Klens-Bigman, Kawakami Ryusuke and I received this responsibility. If we fail, then Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho becomes just another footnote in some books.

Everyone who does budo, whether koryu or gendai, has this responsibility to a certain extent. We are all responsible for the arts we train in. We are responsible to those who gave their time to teach us, and we are responsible to those who take the time to learn from us. Our rank just tells us how much responsibility we bear.

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 In an art like judo or kendo or aikido, with plenty of dojos around, you don’t have to worry much about being responsible for the survival of the art. You still have the responsibility to your teachers and the other members of the dojo. If you’re teaching, you have responsibility to your students, and the responsibility to carry on the traditions of the dojo and to pass on the understanding of your teachers. That would be plenty of responsibility for anyone. Those who climb to the highest echelons of an art take on the responsibility of seeing that the art that is passed on to the next generations is a strong, healthy one.

Small styles like Shinto Hatakage Ryu are wonderful jewels. There are perhaps 200 small ryuha surviving in Japan. Many of them have only two or three or even just one dojo with a handful of students. In such an environment it doesn’t take long to find you have a lot of responsibility. When you're at the top, you’re responsible for everything in the dojo, from teaching the classes to making sure the toilet works. If you belong to a small koryu you might discover that you have at least some of the responsibility for the art living into the next generation. 

That’s what happens when you’re the senior.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Transmitting Koryu - A reaction to Ellis Amdur


Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan. Photo copyright Yamada Kumiko.

For some, no. For some yes. I think part of it has to be conveyed through intensity - and honestly, many non-traditional, non-Japanese instructors are reluctant to do this. If one trains in a dojo where there is an emphasis on hinkaku (dignity), formality, etc., certain essential qualities are certainly conveyed, but they could equally be done so in tea ceremony or flower-arranging. I believe that there has to be a sense, in bujutsu training, that your mistakes are unforgivable and unredeemable. I was told that in a least one elite combat unit, if an 'operator' makes one mistake concerning weapons-management, he's out. Period.

One of the problems people have with this is that they imagine, therefore, a dojo of screaming abuse, etc. I've written about this as 'wolf-pack etiquette' - the wolves are relaxed, even playing, but are continuously aware of the alpha(s) and at the slightest muscle twitch, they are 100% committed in attention and action.

That said, this is an elite model - and some people will never bring the intensity, some people may collapse mid-way.

And in this model, there is a lot of self-study required - not only introspection and solo-training, but in rounding out your knowledge any way one can, through books, etc

Ellis Amdur, from a conversation on Facebook


Transmitting koryu budo ryuha is a challenge, even in Japan. Koryu don’t fit neatly into the modern world of computer games and polite work cultures. The ferocity and intensity of good koryu practice are not generally welcomed in the workplace or anywhere else. The spirit of practice is very different from modern budo forms that have been created to fit into a sporting style of training and encourage ideas of fairness and openness. Teaching the techniques of a koryu budo tradition is the easy part. It’s transmitting the essential spirit of a koryu budo ryuha that is difficult.

Koryu aren’t nice, they aren’t sporting and they really aren’t fair. Koryu are about self-mastery and survival. Not all koryu are as raw as EllisAmdur’s descriptions of Araki Ryu training, but they are all ferocious in their approach to training and to living. Nice, at best, would get you ground under foot in the worlds of hot and cold conflict where they evolved in the Japan of the 14th through 19th centuries. Even during the enforced peace of the Edo era, daimyo were in conflict with each other, and everything was fought in ways that required absolute self-mastery.  The 47 ronin ended up committing seppuku because their daimyo, Lord Asano, didn’t have the self-mastery to deal with the indignities that Lord Kira is said to have inflicted on him. There were right ways and wrong ways to go about handling a matter of honor between two men of their rank. Losing your temper and drawing your sword in the shogun’s castle was the worst way. Asano’s actions declared him unfit to be a daimyo. 

Hinkaku 品格、 is an essential quality that all traditional Japanese arts seek to instill in their practitioners. The Kodansha Online Dictionary defines it as “grace; dignity; class; style; panache”. These qualities are fundamental to hinkaku, and are developed in all Japanese arts, from shodo to cha no yu to koryu budo (they are supposed to be taught in gendai budo as well, but from the behavior I have seen at judo, and karatedo tournaments, this idea is honored more in the breach than in the keeping). Hinkaku in koryu budo has additional characteristics. It is fierce with a cold intensity that can freeze others with a look. 

My iaido teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, displayed hinkaku every second I was with him. He even managed to project hinkaku when playing with my then preschool daughters and with his own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of the things that sets koryu budo apart from other arts is this ferocious intensity. With Kiyama Sensei, that intensity was something that was always there if you looked for it, but the only time I saw it fully uncovered was during koryu budo practice. His intensity during iai was so great I expected the floor of the dojo to start smoking where his gaze was focused. During kenjutsu training he could freeze me in place with his ferocity. 


Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan, Photo copyright Yamada Kumiko.

For all that ferocity and intensity though, he was never tense. He was the embodiment of relaxed power even when tearing me apart in kenjutsu. Relaxed and focused and ferocious all at once. The ferocity and intensity of the hinkaku displayed by koryu budo adepts is what sets the hinkaku they display apart from that shown by masters of shodo, cha no yu and other arts.

That ferocious, relaxed intensity is an essential element of living koryu budo. Developing such intensity, whether in a local dojo or a distant study group, is a challenge. Early on in my training my teachers were often frightening in their intensity.  Over time, as my skills and my own intensity developed, I came to relish those moments when they unleashed it. I had to discover within myself the ability to stand before that level of focused ferocity and not disintegrate under its power. It is this aspect of the spirit of koryu budo, of relaxed, ferocious intensity that I am still trying to figure out how to develop in my students.

Describing that intensity and ferocity can cause people to imagine a world of teachers barking orders, students rushing around with military precision, corporal punishment and casual physical abuse. It’s not. Koryu dojo are the most relaxed places I have ever trained. Gendai budo are much more militaristic than koryu budo. The intensity and ferocity of koryu budo are always available, always within easy mental reach, but they are only pulled out when they are to be used. 

That the koryu dojo is not run with military precision does not mean that people are sloppy and lackadaisical. Just as with any good budo, there is no unnecessary tension. Everyone is aware of what’s going on and paying attention to sensei. Sensei never speaks louder than necessary to be heard. He doesn’t have to. People are paying attention and always ready to react to sensei’s direction, without looking like they are standing at attention.

One of my seniors is the nicest, gentlest person I have ever met. He’s Japanese and he is so gentle that he uses keigo (very polite, honorific language) with everyone he talks with, whether they are the most senior teacher or the most junior student. It is impossible to imagine him saying anything harsh, and I can’t imagine how you would have to misbehave for him to yell at you. However, bow in to train with him, and he is intense, ferocious and wickedly fast. He apologizes profusely if you get hit during training (he’s so precise that if I get hit, I know it was my fault) but he doesn’t pull his attacks. He comes in with intensity whenever he is actively training. In between he’s sweet and gentle.

Teaching the focus and intensity that characterize this kind of practice is one of the great challenges for koryu budo teachers in the 21st century. When my teachers were growing up and were first learning their koryu Japan was a hard place to live. Kiyama Sensei was born in 1925 and grew up when Japan was at war. Much of the education system was devoted to developing toughness and ferocity in the students. The first couple of decades after World War 2 bred their own sort of toughness, with food shortages and everyone’s energy directed towards rebuilding the country. What would be an overwhelmingly brutal practice session now was a walk in the park for people who had lived through WW2 and the post war deprivations. 

I got the tiniest taste of it when I was first training in Japan. Most dojo still weren’t heated yet, so winter training in unheated dojo was the norm. I was training with plenty to eat every day and working a cushy job teaching English with plenty of rest. Food wasn’t rationed and I wasn’t laboring 12+ hours a day to rebuild my community and then going to practice.

We all, Japanese included, now live relatively comfortable lives. How you teach the ferocity and relaxed intensity necessary for good budo is a real question inside Japan and out. In the past teachers could start out expecting certain basic toughness from their students on the first day. Being willing and able to survive those sorts of practices was a given. Life was harsh at best. 

In the 21st century, anyone who expects that sort of toughness on the first day won’t have many students. Toughness that was a given 75 years ago is hard to find. People in the industrialized world don’t need it, so it isn’t automatically developed.  But such toughness is a necessary foundation for the intensity of koryu budo, so how do we develop that in our students in such a way that we don’t drive students away and we don’t weaken the ryuha?

To successfully transmit the spirit of koryu budo, teachers and training must be ferocious and intense. When I started koryu budo, I had several years of Kodokan Judo training, including in those old, unheated gymnasium dojo to develop a foundation upon which my koryu teachers could build. Even that did not prepare me for the particular quality of koryu budo training. Gendai budo, like any modern sport, has intense training that requires strong  focus and dedication. I respect and honor that. However, koryu budo training brings in something additional that isn’t necessary in modern budo and sports.

For me, it comes down to the cliche of life and death. What we are doing in koryu dojo is going as close to the edge as we can, and then having our teachers and our seniors drag us several steps further through training. If I lose focus for an instant in judo, I get thrown or choked or arm locked. The moment passes and training continues; it’s nothing special. If I lose focus in koryu budo training, I’m liable to come in contact with my partner’s weapon. Even if your partner is tremendously skilled, the training is done with such intensity that there is no room for error. If you lose focus, you will get hit. You will know that you died.

Even when everything goes well, the margins in koryu dojo are only a centimeter or two. That’s all the space you have between success and death. Those weapons come in horribly close. You have to be so intent on your partner that having a dangerous weapon swing just past your nose doesn’t elicit the smallest response. For example, there are several kata in Shinto Muso Ryu that involve aiuchi situations. Uchitachi attacks and shijo doesn’t try to evade. She doesn’t try to block. She stops the attack with her own strike to uchitachi’s face. That end of the jo ends up about 5 cm deeper than where uchitachi’s face was. If uchitachi isn’t paying attention, she will get hit between the eyes. Hard. There is no room for error here.

In koryu kata there are many places where the margin for error has been removed. You either do your part perfectly, or you get hit. I’ve been hit a number of times. One of the most memorable involved a dear friend of mine. We were doing kenjutsu and I got careless. I started my evasion too early and gave her the time to adjust her cut. She did a wonderful job of tracking me and connecting her bokuto with the side of my head. I had an impressive swelling and bruising at the site for a couple of weeks. Other times I’ve moved too late or too slowly or left my elbow behind when I moved and gotten whacked. None of this is ever malicious. It’s just that the margins leave no room for errors. 

When I train with any senior student of Shinto Muso Ryu, I know they will be focused on hitting their target, and I’m the target. The cuts and strikes are precise. Move too soon or too far, and I create an opening that my partner will exploit. Move too late or not far enough, I get hit. Training at this level of intensity is always quite thrilling, and if I make a mistake it can be painful.  

As a teacher, I have to develop this intensity in my students. If you come to my dojo, I will try to make some of every practice as intense as I think you can handle. Often this will be more than you think you can handle. If I’m wrong, you probably won’t come back. The difficulty for teachers is gauging what a student can handle correctly. Even with a dedicated student, pushing too far too fast can be disastrous. People can get seriously hurt. Sometimes people decide not to come back, even if the teacher hasn’t made any mistakes.  

That’s okay. Koryu aren’t concerned with having lots of students and members. That’s not what they are about. Koryu budo are about training people to fully embody the spirit of the ryuha. The spirit of any living koryu is ferociously intense. Each ryuha has a unique spirit. Araki Ryu is very different from Shinto Muso Ryu, and both are far different from Yagyu Shinkage Ryu. Training in any of them is a fiercely intense experience. The individual differences are clear when you watch experienced practitioners. 

That intensity is always present at a low boil. There is laughter and joking, but always respect for the lessons we are learning, the weapons we are using and the people we are training with. Ellis’ metaphor of the wolf pack is apt one. If Sensei motions for attention, everyone is immediately silent, regardless of what sort of shenanigans were going on at the moment. There is a richness to this intense focus and practice that I don’t experience in the normal world outside the koryu budo dojo.

Koryu are not for everyone. That’s not an elitist or exclusivist statement. Lots of people bow into the dojo. Very few stick around. The dropout rate in gendai budo is high, but it’s even higher in koryu budo. Most people aren’t interested in the level of intensity required to fully transmit koryu budo; however, change the intensity level , and you won’t be doing koryu budo. The intensity is an essential part of the training.