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.


Friday, December 30, 2022

Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan


Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan. Photo Copyright Yamada Kumiko 2022

It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of our teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi Sensei, on September 26th at the age of 97.

Kiyama Sensei was born in 1925 in Shiga, Japan. A lifelong student of budo, Sensei’s grandfather introduced him to a branch of Yoshin Ryu jujutsu at the age of five.  In elementary school he also studied Shito Ryu karate. In Japan in the 1930’s opportunities to study budo were everywhere, and by the time Sensei was in junior high school he was studying kendo, iaido and jukendo.

In addition to his budo activities, Sensei played outfield in his school’s baseball club.  He maintained a lifetime affection for the game, and was an avid Seibu Lions fan.


Photo Copyright Yamada Kumiko

In 1942 Sensei entered the air division of the Japanese Imperial Army and served as a pilot on the Korean peninsula until the end of the war in 1945.

In 1952, after the GHQ ban on kendo was lifted, Sensei resumed practice. He trained in both gendai and koryu budo from then on. He trained and taught kendo under Noda Shigeyuki Sensei, from whom he also learned Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho, a small but vibrant form of iaido. He also studied Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu intensively with Ito Hakuen Sensei. In addition, he studied Shinto Muso Ryu Jodo with Nakajima Asakichi Sensei.

After returning from the war, Kiyama Sensei settled in Kusatsu, married Emiko, and started a family. He found work in the Kyoto City planning office, where he worked until his retirement.

Kiyama Sensei earned the rank of 7th dan kyoshi from the All Japan Kendo Federation in Kendo, Iaido and Jodo. He taught kendo and iaido at the Kusatsu City Kendo Federation for over 50 years, and had innumerable students. He continued teaching and training well into his 90s.  He credited his long, healthy life to growing his own vegetables in a small plot outside his home in Kusatsu. He was especially happy with a large persimmon tree - the coffee table in his living room never failed to have cut persimmons in a small dish when they were in season.


Photo copyright Yamada Kumiko 2022

A few personal recollections give a faint idea of the strength of Sensei’s personality:

From Peter Boylan:

I met Kiyama Sensei in 1994. I was studying Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu with Takada Shigeo Sensei at the time, and he sent me to attend a Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Chuden seminar that Kiyama Sensei was teaching. Kiyama Sensei was so focused and had so much presence that it wasn’t until quite a while later that I realized that he was less than 5 ft. (152 cm) tall. He filled the space with his presence. When Takada Sensei passed away, Kiyama Sensei accepted me as his student. He and Takada Sensei had been kyodai deshi under Ito Sensei. It was during an iaido seminar that I first saw Kiyama Sensei doing a strange, flippy thing with his sword. When I asked him about it, Kiyama Sensei said “That’s just Shinto Ryu. You don’t want to do that.” After that I pressed him to teach it to me, and one night he finally agreed to teach Shinto Hatakage Ryu to me. I will forever be in Sensei’s debt for this.

From Deborah Klens-Bigman:

Peter first introduced me to Kiyama Sensei around 2008.  I had been doing Muso Shinden Ryu iaido for many years at the time, but I was immediately struck by the beauty and fluidity of Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho.  I was even more impressed by Kiyama Sensei’s energy and timing.  By the second or third training session with him, my whole concept of iaido had changed.  I remember thinking, “I want to be like him when I grow up,” and, in addition to practicing the kata I learned from him, I began to modify the ma of my Muso Shinden forms to echo the energetic jo-ha-kyu feel of Sensei’s approach to iai kata.

My original Muso Shinden ryu teacher, OtaniYoshiteru, died in 2004, and I had practiced by myself since that time.  One of the most moving sessions I ever had with Kiyama Sensei was when he asked me to perform all of the Muso Shinden ryu kata for him.  I did my best, sweating through my gi the whole time, and felt a connection to Otani Sensei that I had not felt in a very long time.  I was in the presence of someone of the same generation, and I could feel the deep affection Kiyama sensei had for my MSR practice, even though it was not a style that he personally taught.

As Jun Shihan of Shinto Hatakage ryu iai heiho, we will endeavor to continue to teach, as well as expand our understanding of what Sensei taught us. While we miss him dearly and mourn his passing, we are grateful for the time and care he took to give us the best of himself and his long lifetime of knowledge and keen insight. We will strive to live up to his expectations for us and honor his legacy.

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Shinto Hatakage Ryu Shihan

Peter Boylan, Shinto Hatakage Ryu Shihan

Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Role Of Competition In Budo


Final of All-Japan Judo Championships in 2007   Photo Copyright Gotcha2. Used under GNU Free Documentation License.

There is a continual discussion in budo about the importance of competition. The argument for competition has two prongs. The first is that you have to learn to perform techniques under stress, and competition is the best way to pressure-test technique.  The second is that you have to learn  to deal with the unexpected and the only way to do that is in a competitive situation. I agree  that you have to be able to perform under stress and that you have to be able to deal with the unexpected.  If you’re not learning to do things when you are stressed, and you’re not learning to deal with the unexpected, you’re not learning budo.

I’ve heard a lot of people expound on the stress benefits of competition. The desire to win ramps up the stress, and in judo or full contact karate, the fact that effective technique can hurt, and may even leave you unconscious, ramps it up further. Add the frustration that builds when your adversary prevents your technique from being effective and the stress level can get pretty high. You can certainly learn something about stress in competition.

I know that for most of the time I was competing I found competition stressful. I would get anxious and it would become harder and harder to stay still and not fidget as the match approached.  I had to learn to apply breathing and relaxation techniques in order to control the stress so I didn’t become tense and lose my ability to move flexibly and quickly. 

Once the match starts the tension can get worse. The more skilful the adversary, the more frustration and stress. It’s a quick check on students getting cocky about the strength of their technique. It is one thing to practice a technique on a partner who isn’t resisting, and another thing to try to throw someone who is trying to throw you. The experience of learning to flow from technique to technique is great. The dynamism and volatility of competition are excellent experiences for many people.

As Rory Miller so eloquently points out in Meditations On Violence, every training methodology includes a fail. That is, there is always a way in which what you are doing fails, and specifically doesn’t mimic the real world. In competition, it’s that fact that there are rules limiting what you can do, and what your partner can do to you. The possibilities are artificially limited so people can compete with a reasonable expectation that they will be safe and healthy at the end of the competition. Just think of all the techniques that are excluded. Or the protective gear that is worn. Then there is the referee who is there to award points, but also to make sure no one does anything harmful.

This is a safe environment to train in. And the stress level never gets too high because we know it is safe going in. As much as it is a pressure-testing experience, the fact that we don’t have to worry about someone taking a shot at our throat or eyes, or attempting to destroy our knees or elbows means that we’re not experiencing anywhere near the pressure of dealing with someone who genuinely wants to harm us.

There are different kinds and levels of stress. I’ve never seen evidence that competition can rise to anywhere near the level of stress and fear and adrenaline dump that a confrontation outside the tournament area and outside the tournament rules produces. When someone swings a knife at you, the feeling in your gut is quite different from the one when someone is trying to pound you with the ground or choke you unconscious in a tournament. The fear and the adrenaline hit you  much harder. That doesn’t make competition useless; we just shouldn’t think it can do something it’s not specifically designed for.


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One of the best things about competition is that it is fun. We enjoy it, whether it’s a friendly match in the dojo where no one is keeping score, or it is a national level tournament, we enjoy competition. Competition is so much fun that people will come back to train again and again just so they can have the fun of competing, both in tournaments with medals and trophies, and in friendly bouts in the dojo. Competition is a great motivator for many people, but it’s not combat preparation and we shouldn’t pretend it is. 

There are lots of ways stress can be induced in training. I know the most stressed I’ve ever been in the dojo wasn’t some sort of competition. Some of the most intense stress I’ve experienced was the day my teacher swapped out his wooden sword for a metal one during jodo practice. I’ve made plenty of mistakes during practice that resulted in me getting whacked with a wooden weapon. Some of the bruises have been spectacular. When Sensei swapped out the bokuto for a metal blade though, I broke out in a sweat. If I screwed up, the consequences could have been a lot more severe than a nasty bruise. 

Other ways stress can be induced: Train into exhaustion. Ramp up the speed. Increase the intensity. Yes, even compete. Don’t imagine that any of these comes close to combative stress. The closest I’ve come to feeling stress equal to what I’ve felt in real confrontations was in kata practice. Paired kata training as is done in koryu bugei has consistently generated the most stress-filled training I’ve done. It can range from very gentle walk-throughs to adrenalin rush inducing intensity. It all depends on what your partner is giving you.

My koryu teachers have never given me more than I can handle, but they have been more than happy to give me more than I thought I could handle. They ask me to put as much as I can into practice, and sometimes that includes dragging me past the edge of what I perceive as my ability into frightening new territory. That’s part of their role. In koryu the senior is responsible for taking the losing role. It is the senior's job to control the speed and intensity of training so the junior gets as much from the training as is possible.

One of the complaints that people make about kata training is that you know exactly what is going to happen. In good training that is, and isn’t, true.I was strongly reminded of that recently. I was working with a senior teacher who would attack into any opening I left while doing the kata. I got whacked on the head with his fukuro shinai in places where it’s not called for in the kata. It was good kata training. He showed me openings I was leaving as I did the kata. In most instances I was too focused on one aspect of the kata and he attacked where my awareness wasn’t. 

Talk about inducing stress! My stress level went well above what I have felt in competition. It was a lot like randori because I never knew when he would spot an opening and fill it with his sword. Thank goodness it was a fukuro shinai; a bokuto would have left colorful bruises in a number of places.

This way of practicing kata is a great one, and it provides the same sense of uncertainty that competition does. In koryu kata practice, your partner is supposed to be trying to kill you. It makes sense that they would attack any opening you leave, not just move with the choreography of the kata. Uchi’s intention to attack you anywhere they can is important for making the kata practice as effective as possible. In koryu kata the role the junior person takes is the winning side, and the choreography of the kata on their side is the optimal set of techniques for the situation. That doesn’t mean the senior, in the role of uchi, should just go  along and forget about any attacks that are specified. In good kata practice, uchi is always looking for additional opportunities to attack. If the junior does a good job, there won’t be any. Since the junior is in the process of learning, they will make mistakes, leave openings, and get attacked. If you practice kata correctly, the planned actions are the logical ones. If you don’t, other options present themselves.  Or not.

The element of unpredictability and spontaneous action is what gives competition its real value, but the  stress level of competition isn’t any greater than many other exercises. Competition involves  learning to see openings and to close them. Learning to deal with unexpected attacks and how to prevent them. Learning to flow from one action to the next without pausing and without leaving openings. That’s where the real value of competition is. I just don’t think that it’s the only way, or even the best way, to learn these things. 

The rules that make safe competition possible also limit its value for learning to deal with spontaneous action. Too many options are artificially eliminated. Judoka get used to nothing coming at their faces and not having to worry about strikes. Karateka don’t have to worry about opponents closing with them. No one learns to deal with weapons attacks. No one learns to deal with asymmetrical situations where people are armed differently.

In competition everything has to be fair.  No one would show up for a competition where you don’t know if you or your opponent will be armed or unarmed, or even armed similarly. That wouldn’t be fun, and it wouldn’t be a fair comparison of skills. It would be much more realistic though.  And more dangerous!

I think that too much concentration on competition will render one blind to everything that is not allowed in competition. A little competition for the purpose of learning to be spontaneous and flow  isn’t bad. Too much focus on competition and you risk training the things that aren’t allowed in competition right out of your system. If you ignore all the stuff that isn’t allowed in competition, very soon you aren’t doing budo. You’re only doing sport. Kata training can fill in some of the gaps. Budo training doesn’t need competition to be effective.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D., for editorial support.

Monday, April 4, 2022

So You Want To Be Samurai


So you want to be a samurai, eh? When I ask people who revere the samurai “What is it about the samurai that you find so great?” The most common answer is that they are impressed by the bushido code. There is a lot of good stuff found in what is termed the bushido code. Most of it predates the bushi by 1500 years or more, and the rest was added in the early 20th century when the term “bushido” was first widely used.  Most of the stuff about sacrificing oneself for one’s lord other such more extreme was only added in the early 20th century.

The parts of “bushido” that weren’t added by fascist military promoters in the 20th century are quite good. It's just that they are basically the 5 virtues of Confucius. I have a piece of calligraphy in my living room done by my budo teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan, that lists them in this order:

智  仁  義  礼  信

In Japanese they are read:

Chi or “wisdom”.

Jin or ”benevolence”

Gi or “righteousness” 

Rei or “ritual propriety”

Shin or “Trust”


 These all seem like really good virtues, especially if you understand a little about Confucian thought. I can’t think of anyone who would argue that chi, or wisdom, is a bad thing. Developing wisdom requires having some understanding of the world, so study and learning is encouraged as a means of acquiring wisdom. This includes active, lifelong studying for self-improvement. Once you have some wisdom and understanding, you have to act on it. Wisdom without action isn’t really wisdom.

Jin, or “benevolence” can be a tougher sell for some people until they begin to understand the context. Jin includes acting in a way that makes the world better for everyone, not just for yourself. It’s not giving charity blindly. It’s actively making the world around you a better place. In some situations that may mean giving charitably. In others it may be buying a quieter lawn mower so you don’t disturb your neighbors when you cut the grass. It could be volunteering to help kids with their homework or to just give them a safe space to be kids. Take a CPR class. Begin composting. Donate blood. Take an art class and improve yourself. There are infinite possibilities for benevolent action.

Gi, or “righteousness” sometimes makes people uncomfortable because they associate righteousness with self-righteous people who already have all the answers and know exactly how everyone should behave.  In this sense though, gi is about doing what is right in any situation rather than what you want or what benefits you as a person, and it has almost nothing to do with telling others how to behave. It means, and this was critical for the samurai, doing whatever you have to to fulfill your responsibilities and duties in society. This is something that is usually overlooked when talking about the samurai. The samurai were all about meeting their responsibilities.  Ideas of personal rights would have been considered the ultimate in selfishness. Choosing to do the right thing has always been difficult. Confucius and the philosophers of ancient China were debating what is right and how to do right 2600 years ago. For Confucians, being righteous has always been about right action first and foremost. The samurai was expected to be quiet and demonstrate his righteousness through action. 

Rei, or “ritual propriety”, in Confucius’ time could be read as literally meaning “rites” as in ritual actions. Confucius used it in that sense, but in a much broader sense as well. He was not only talking about religious rites, or formal ceremonies of state. He was also talking about the proper etiquette you have learned and should use in each situation. These are rei as well. Saying “Good morning” when you walk into the office. Shaking someone’s hand in a way that is neither trying to crush them nor just making a show of touching their hand without any sense of connection. It’s remembering to announce that you’re home so no one is surprised because they didn’t know you were home. It’s helping clean up the table after a meal instead of rushing back to your game. It’s etiquette, but more than just the formal bits. It is also seen as a means of self-cultivation. By behaving according to propriety, you learn to guide your heart/mind to propriety so that the ritual ceases to be ritual. It becomes sincere action.

Shin, or trust, is about others being able to trust you. In the dojo that means your partners can trust you to do the exercises that are being practiced that evening, and not suddenly go off and do your own thing. In kata they are confident that you will do the kata correctly so they can get the maximum benefit from the practice. You don’t overwhelm those who are less skilled, and you do your best when working with the seniors. You can be trusted to keep your word and to honor implied agreements like the agreement in the dojo that no one tries to hurt or injure anyone, that everyone helps each other to learn to the best of their abilities.

These are the real samurai values. They are at the core of nearly everything that was written and believed about how samurai should conduct themselves. The best of samurai embodied these values in how they lived. The samurai were as human as anyone else, and they had all the faults and shortcomings of humans. The more you see leaders and thinkers of the samurai writing about the value of a particular virtue, the less likely you were to find that virtue being displayed at that time. Throughout the civil wars leading up to the Tokugawa shogunate, loyalty was praised loudly. It shouldn’t be a surprise that betrayal was common. None of the Confucian virtues are easy. Virtues never are. I know I fall short of anything like being a wise, righteous, benevolent man of proper action and trust. These values are worthy goals, but they don’t belong just to the samurai. Confucian scholars began promoting them in China 2600 years ago, and the Japanese recognized their value.

Rather than just parroting the virtues, I suggest studying them a little.  For an enjoyable introduction to Confucius, try Confucius Speaks. It an excellent introduction to Confucius by Taiwanese cartoonist Tsai Chih Chung. Two good places to go a little deeper are The World Of Thought In Ancient China by Benjamin Schwartz and The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About The Good Life by Michael Puett. There is also a free class you can take with Puett about this at EdX.  These two cover more than just Confucius, but they both start with him. Everything else they go into was also important in any discussion of values and ethics by the samurai. 

Samurai values weren’t platitudes. They weren’t (usually) jingoistic. They were values and ideas that real people struggled to understand. How should these values be manifested in the world? People struggled with living up to what they found was good and right. If you really respect the samurai and their values, find out what things they studied and study them yourself. You can do worse than by starting with what Confucius had to say.

What does all this have to do with budo? If you’re really learning any form of Japanese budo, but particularly koryu budo, these values shape everything within the budo world. Koryu budo ryuha are built on Confucian values. That’s part of why you can’t learn koryu budo without a teacher. Part of being a member of ryuha is learning the behavior that is expected and the responsibilities that go with being part of the ryuha. The techniques and kata are the physical part, but there is much more to be learned about relationships, responsibilities and right action. That is all part of koryu budo. It’s not just about how to win a fight. It’s about learning to fulfill your duties in the ryuha and society so that perhaps fighting won’t be necessary.

My thanks to Kevin Tsai, PhD. for his assistance in expressing the Confucian values accurately in understandable way. Any errors are mine.