Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Visiting A Traditional Japanese Sword Smith

While visiting Japan recently, I had the opportunity to visit an old friend who represents one of the rarest and most beautiful facets of budo.  Kawahara Sadachika is a traditional Japanese swordsmith, making gorgeous blades in a tradition that goes back unbroken for over a thousand years.  Each of his blades is both a work of art, and a traditional weapon of the highest quality.  It is always a wonderful day when I can sit and visit with him.

Like most Japanese martial arts students, I spend a lot of time studying the techniques of the styles I train in.  Not nearly enough of us spend time learning to appreciate the skill, craftsmanship and artistry that go into many of the weapons we use.  In truth however, the weapons of the classical Japanese warrior were, if anything, even more refined and developed than the arts they practiced.  The tradition of the Japanese sword is twice as long as any of the extant martial traditions, with gorgeous blades that are clearly part of the nihonto tradition dating from the 900s.

Kawahara Sensei trained in the Gassan tradition of swordsmithing under Gassan Sadaichi.  Today he works in a small forge he built on the side of mountain in rural Shiga Prefecture.  The forge building is a simple, old style Japanese building with mud walls, many of which were damaged in recent typhoon.

The basic forge hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years.  Metal ventilation hoods now cut down on the number of fires that burn down forges, and most smiths can’t afford to keep a cadre of apprentices to swing the big hammer that does all of the heavy work, so they usually have a power hammer tucked into one corner.  It does the same thing an apprentice does.  It smacks the same spot time after time while the smith puts the steel in the right spot.

My friend Grigoris and I spent wonderful day with Kawahara Sensei talking about swords and looking at some blades he made.  Each one is wonderful display of master craftsmanship, exquisite functionality and subtle beauty.  He cleaned each one carefully for us so we could appreciate every level of it’s detail.

And the details are spectacular.  I only wish my photography skills were anywhere near what is required to take detailed sword photos.  The hamon and jihada stand out clearly and beautifully, so that the craftsmanship and artistry that are combined in making a nihonto are wonderfully visible.

As an iaido practitioner, I evaluate swords from both an aesthetic point of view and practical point of view.  The sword has to both look good, and feel good in my hand.  Kawahara Sensei is a master of making beautifully balanced swords.   They are a pleasure to hold in the hand and to swing.  Don't even bother asking if they will cut, because they cut slightly better than your average scalpel.

After Grigoris and I had looked at every blade Kawahara Sensei had for us to look at, and we managed it all without drooling on the swords, he took us to the forge, which is on one end of the low structure he built as a workshop.  He let us handle some of the equipment, including the big hammer used by apprentices and assistants to do the heavy pounding on the steel as it is folded to drive out remaining impurities and to get the layers of steel just right.

That hammer is a monster.  It weighs somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds (5-7 kilograms), and has zero balance.  I’ve swung plenty standard Western style sledge hammers.

After we’d looked around his forge for a while, Kawahara Sensei fired it up for us.  The fire pumps out a lot of heat on a warm fall day.  It takes a surprisingly long time to get the fire right, because it’s not just the heat of the fire, but the earth and brick that contain the fire have to get to the right temperature as well, otherwise the environment won’t be right for working the steel.

 We watched while Kawahara Sensei carefully prepared the fire and got all of his tools arranged.  Then he slipped a lump of tamahagane, the raw steel that is used to make a Japanese sword, into the fire and watched it until it changed color to just the right shade that meant it was ready to work.  That's when we got the surprise.  Kawahara Sensei told us to grab the big hammer and swing it for him.

I have to say, that offset haft makes controlling it far more work than the hammers I’m accustomed to that have the shaft connecting to the center of the head.  Keeping the hammer swinging in a controlled arc draws on a whole bunch of muscles I don’t normally think of as being involved with swinging a hammer.  On top of that, this is precision work. 

You have to hit the steel squarely with the flat of the hammer’s head.  You can’t hit at an angle because that will change the shape of the steel and the pattern of folds that the smith is working on.  When you’re hammering a spike into something, that’s not a concern.  If you’re angle is off a bit, the spike if fine.  With steel for making a fine sword, even small angles count.   Fortunately the steel we were working on wasn’t that far along in the process, but we were still expected to do it right, which is a lot harder than it sounds.  In addition, the smith will signal where he wants each strike by tapping the steel with his smaller hammer.  He uses the hammer to set the pace and signal the strikes and to tell us when to stop.

Grigoris and I took turns swinging that hammer for about an hour, all the while working the lump of steel flatter and flatter.  Fortunately for us, the steel would cool fairly rapidly, and then it had to go back into the fire for a few moments to come back up to a temperature where it could be worked.  Kawahara Sensei told us during one of these breaks that in the past a smith would have 3 or 4 assistants swinging hammers so no one would get too tired.  That is certainly easy to believe.  With the heat of the fire in front of us, and the sun coming in from behind, we got tired and hot quickly.

Eventually the steel got hammered to the point that Kawahara Sensei wanted, and he gave us the final signal to stop.  Then we watched while he cooled the steel, put out the fire and cleaned up the forge area. 

It was a fantastic experience, and even if we weren't that skilled with the hammer, I look forward to visiting Kawahara Sensei again.  I want to look at the swords he's created and to help him make some more.  Hopefully I'll be better with that big hammer the next time.  And if anyone is interested in buying a sword from Kawahara Sensei, please feel free to email me.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Can You Truly Understand Budo Without Training In Japan?

This blog post is an attempt to give a reasonably complete answer to a question in reply to a post here.

I would say that it is possible to truly understand Budo without training in Japan, but that it is really very difficult.. There are a few teachers out there who might be able to transmit the whole contents, but not many. In the US, I'm thinking of people like Phil Relnick, Ellis Amdur, Wayne Muramoto and Meik Skoss have a shot at doing it, but it's really tough. I'll be brief here, and go into detail in a full blog post. Budo is not the techniques. It's everything else. The techniques are really a vessel for carrying the all the things that are Budo: the values, the customs, the expectations and behaviors, the honor and the duty and the loyalty, the way of thinking about things and the way of interacting with the world as you move through it. These all make up what Budo is, and to think that by learning techniques and kata you are learning budo is a great mistake. Budo is vastly more.

So what is budo if it’s not just the techniques.  The word is made up of 2 characters, “bu” 武 and “do” 道. Often it is a wild goose chase to try and figure out the intention of Japanese words by taking apart the kanji characters they are written with.  Many words are of ancient vintage and actual usage has changed so much that relying on the kanji to give you the keys to understanding is a mistake.  The important thing is how the word is used in the language today and not how it was used hundreds of years ago when the word was first written.

From one angle, this is true of budo as well.  It is often used to simply mean “martial arts” in everyday usage in Japan.  For example, when I check the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary, it gives the following definition:

どう1【武道】 (budo)  the martial arts; military science; 〔武士道〕the precepts of the samurai; chivalry

By this definition boxing is budo, and fencing, and Thai kickboxing, and sambo, and many other martial arts.  And I will admit that it is a definition I have heard used in popular conversation and media in Japan.  Anything that trains one in some sort of combat is budo.  If this is what you are interested in, then you’ve probably read enough and can skip the rest of this.  On the other hand, in conversation within the budo community in Japan, the usage is different, much more complex and nuanced.  This is the meaning that I’m concerned with.

This more complex meaning is one that includes budo with a number of other cultural practices in Japan.  Practices like sado 茶道, kado 華道, shodo 書道, and kodo 香道.  These are known in English as tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, incense smelling respectively.  Yet like budo they all contain that “do” 道.   What we have is an entire class of activities that are “do”, but what is “do”?

“Do” 道 is a character meaning “road, path, way” and it goes back to the ancient Chinese concept known as Tao or Dao.  There are 2 primary sets of writings that provide the foundations for what has become known as Taoism in English.  The first is a small collection of 81 brief poems that can be read in less than an hour. Best known as the Tao Te Ching, there is a decent translation at http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html.  These are the foundation writings on the Tao.  The other set of writings are by Chuang Tzu. There are links to several translations on the web here.  

The Tao is a good place to start.  The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, the oldest writings about it, says (see footnote 1):

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

If “the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” then explaining the Tao is going to be tough.  Miriam Webster Dictionary gives us: “the unconditional and unknowable source and guiding principle of all reality as conceived by Taoists “ which is actually a good start.  Tao becomes the source and origin of everything.  So if we can bring ourselves into moving and acting in one with the Tao, then we will be in harmony with the universe and our actions will be correct.

In the story of Cook Ting from the writings of Chuang Tzu (the second great set of writings on Tao) it is shown that any activity can be practiced as a means for achieving an understanding of the Tao.  Ting is a cook in the kitchen of Lord Wen-hui.  When asked about his marvelous skill he replies “All I care about is the Way. If find it in my craft, that’s all.”  Cook Ting uses his craft as a vehicle for finding and deepening his understanding of the Tao.  This is not necessarily an intellectual understanding, for he says “now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are.” (Footnote 2)

This is the simplest base upon with all of the various Do are built, whether it is sado or shodo or kado or budo.  The goal is to use the craft you are practicing to come closer to the Tao and to remove the barriers between ourselves and the Tao.   This is what we are trying to do when we practice any Do.  We are trying to achieve a closeness and understanding of the Tao, the universe, the origin of all things, through the practice and development of our craft, our art.

If you watch a really good kendoka or judoka, they don’t seem to be fighting an opponent.  They seem to just move naturally and without apparent aggression and their partner’s actions are nullified.  They move again and their partner is defeated without them having taken any real action.  I know I have felt this at the hands of some of my Judo teachers.  We are moving around the mat and suddenly I’m airborn.  My teacher hasn’t done anything dramatic.  His movement seemed to naturally place him in a position where a technique happened.  He didn’t throw me.  Everything came together so I was thrown more by my own action than anything my teacher was doing.  He was just there and I was moving in such a way that I bumped against his hip and went flying.

This is the little goal of budo.  You strive to be so in harmony with the essence of your art, with the world and the Tao that things happen without your doing anything.  This is a principle concept of the Tao Te Ching known as wu wei 無為.  In action, the master kendoka or judoka doesn’t appear to actually do much of anything, yet is victorious.  In chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching it says

The Master doesn't try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The big goal is to expand this mastery and understanding of a small, limited field to the rest of life and achieve this same understanding and oneness with the Tao in all aspects of life, so that everything one does is effortless and perfectly in harmony with the world around you.

The idea of the Way is not limited to Taoism however.  One of the classics of Confucian thought, The Great Learning, begins

The way of great learning consists in manifesting one's bright virtue, consists in loving the people, consists in stopping in perfect goodness.

Tao is a critical element of the Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought that was a major influence on Japanese thought throughout Japanese history.  In Confucian teaching Tao was more focused on human affairs and making right action so natural that it happened without thought.  Confucius was focused on society and human affairs, so when he writes of Tao his focus is on its importance at that level.  In Neo-Confucian writings it the focus is more on the cosmic significance of Tao, but in all of them, Tao is a critical and fundamental concept for understanding the world, our place in it, and how we should develop ourselves and live in the world.  In addition, when Buddhism arrived in China, the concept of Tao was appropriated to describe many ideas in Buddhist teachings as they were translated into Chinese.  As a result, everywhere one looks in classical thought you find the Tao and its related ideas.

The Tao Te Ching and The Great Learning are texts that have been fundamental study for the educated in China for thousands of years, and in Japan since writing was introduced from China around the 4th century CE.  They are just the first, and shortest of the many writings that make use of the concept of Tao that were considered essential study for any educated person in Japan up to the end of the Edo Period in 1868.  These concepts were used to explore and conceive everything from ideal social order and relationships to the the cosmos.
Budo, and the Ways that preceded it, sado, shodo and others, were all the province of the educated classes in old Japan.
In a coment, someone said “budo is “nothing special””. I agree that budo is "nothing special". In Japan that is. The techniques you are practicing and the craft one is learning, are just tools for practicing all the "do" 道 aspects. So much of what is the "do" is embedded cultural knowledge that Japanese take for granted as shared cultural and historical knowledge and experience. Outside Japan, we don't have that basic cultural and historical knowledge, so what is ordinary and a given in Japan, is exceptional an unknown outside Japan. This is true whether we are talking about budo or any of the other cultural ways from Japan. The teacher outside Japan must have a thorough understanding of these cultural elements to be able to fully transmit their budo. For a foreigner training in Japan, these elements smack you in the face so often that you learn them almost as organically as the Japanese do growing up. Training outside Japan, the teacher has to consciously include them in the instruction. It can be transmitted across cultures, but the teacher has to understand what elements beyond the techniques have to be taught as well for a student to fully grasp the "do" portion of budo.
In my experience, very few teachers outside Japan have made the effort to educate themselves about the cultural matrix in which budo is embedded within and relies on to give the teachings their full context and relevance.  Budo training that includes that understanding is such a rich and deep experience that is makes the training without seem like eating the paper plate at a picnic instead of the food on the plate.
I’m not trying to suggest that budo teachers outside Japan have to become experts on Taoist and Confucian philosophy.  That is a life’s work by itself, and there are precious few Japanese budo teachers who are also masters of philosophy.  Most Japanese teachers have a native cultural understanding of the concepts that they have absorbed from living in Japan.  For a teacher outside Japan, I think some reading of the classic texts from Taoism and Confucianism along with plenty of quiet thought about how they relate to budo practice is probably enough.  Quiet thought fertilized with the ideas of Lao Tsu, Chuang Tzu and Confucius should bring about some profound realizations on the nature of practice and what the great teachers who created the Ways hope for us, their students, to achieve.

1.  All quotes from Tao Te Ching taken from S. Mitchell translation at

2. Cook Ting quotes from

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Budo Professionalism

Should budo teachers be professional?  This is a discussion that comes up with fair regularity in modern and classical budo circles.  They are a lot of people who see budo as a pure art form and equate accepting money for teaching as selling out the soul of the art.  As an art form and classical legacy, budo should remain pure and above simple economics.

My early budo background is in Kodokan Judo, which in the USA nearly has an allergy to professional instructors. There is a feeling common in Judo and many classical budo circles that being a professional budo teacher requires that you sell out the core of your budo to attract a steady stream of students to pay the bills.  The feeling is that to make money teachers have to quit teaching real budo and start doing marketing schemes and selling belts.

Then there is the example of Japan.  There are very few professional budo teachers in Japan.  Pretty much every city and town has one or more public dojo that anyone can rent for a very reasonable fee and hold a class.  Nearly every town has a judo dojo and a kendo dojo, while cities may have several (we won’t even talk about Tokyo and Osaka, which have so many judo and kendo dojo it would take years to visit them all).  Many towns and cities also have a couple of koryu being taught as well.  None of these teachers is getting paid for teaching.  The dojo communities are clubs where everyone gets together for the love of what they are doing.  It doesn’t hurt that even smaller towns will have several kendo seventh dans and the judo club in even a small town will be run by a 5th dan or higher.

But there are professional budoka in Japan.  Not a lot, but they do exist.  There are some professionals employed by the various local and regional governments to teach budo to the police. There is the wonderful example of the Kokusai Budo Daigaku or International Budo University, which is what it's name says, a 4 year university focused on the martial arts. It employs a lot of people who are professional budo teachers and researchers. There are also a few professional instructors around teaching privately. Most of the ones I'm aware of are teaching karate or aikido.

What you don't have in Japan is a martial arts industry promoting business techniques for maximizing the cash flow generated by schools with a variety of schemes to get students to pay for extra classes and training.  The budo teachers are professional teachers, not professional businessmen.  The difference is, to me, an important one.  Professional budo teachers are focused maximizing the effectiveness of their teaching of budo.  Professional businessmen focus on maximizing the profit of their business.

Every teacher I have dealt with in Japan never stops displaying professionalism.   Professionalism is defined by Miriam-Webster’s online dictionary as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well”.  It is something I have found lacking in many so-called teachers outside Japan.  There are many teachers who do show professionalism outside Japan, but there are far too many who start teaching long before they have sufficient mastery to serve as examples of good technique, much less be able to communicate what students need to do.  Just because you’ve got a colored belt doesn’t mean you’re ready to teach.

In fact, the organizations in Japan generally have a minimum rank for running your own dojo.  In the Kendo Federation it’s 5th dan.  In the Judo Federation it’s 4th dan.  Those are the minimums, but you don’t see many dojo run by people with the minimum rank.  The only time that happens is if an area doesn’t have anyone else.  Generally in the Kendo Federation, no one under 7th dan opens a dojo.  In Judo it’s usually 5th dan.  You don’t see people running out to start a dojo.  

Running a dojo is considered a serious venture that calls for lots of experience.  Outside Japan, 5th dan may sound like a high rank, but in Japan it’s not.  It barely gets you into the “serious student” category.  People spend a lot of time developing their skills to the point where they can teach.  Often even after they open their own dojo they will may the journey a couple of times a week to train with their own teacher.  I have to say, watching 7th dans working on things while an 8th dan makes corrections is a fabulous thing.  They are all working at such a high level that it’s gratifying if I can just figure out what the correction is.

Outside Japan see a lot of “teachers” who have stopped training, or at least their physical condition suggests that they aren’t training very hard.  If training and continual improvement is good enough for your students, it’s good enough for you too.  Budo teachers owe it to their students and to themselves to keep practicing, to keep training, to maintain their physical abilities and continue polishing their themselves as examples of budo.

Oddly enough, I’ve never seen an example of teachers who stop training before their bodies give out in Japan.  In fact, I see just the opposite.  Teachers whose bodies are slowly fading still pushing themselves to get out on the floor and train, working hard to slow down the fading of their skills, discover something new about timing or spacing or control and giving their students another lesson in perseverance.  It’s not about always being the best.  It’s about always giving our best.  

This is what I would like to see more of.  It’s not about having a pretty belt and a nice title.  It’s about always working to have the best for our students.  It really doesn’t matter whether you are being paid money or not.  Students are giving you a chunk of their time, their life.  If a teacher is worrying about how to extract money from their students and is constantly coming up with new programs to sell to students, that’s not professional.  If a teacher is constantly working on improving their ability to transmit the fundamentals to their students and is working every day on improving her own fundamentals, that’s a professional teacher.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Training In Japan Isn't What You See In The Movies

I just came back from a wonderful visit to Japan.  I was able to train intensively in iaido and jodo, including 3 days with 4 or more hours of training.  Practice in Japan is like practice everywhere.  You go to the dojo, you dress, and your teachers kick your butt all over the room.   Then again, it’s not.  I attended a training session where there was one 7th dan instructor for every 2 students below 7th dan.  How often can you get that kind of attention?

There seems to be a popular image people have of practice in Japan, with everyone lining up with military precision and shouting “Oss!” at everything Sensei says, standing rigidly at attention all the time, and jumping at every command.  The reality is quite different, more relaxed and more focused and, frankly, more effective.  

Classical Japanese martial arts don’t require military style discipline, and they don’t need it.  Teachers in Japan of classical arts aren’t looking for overdone displays of rigid behavior and military-style behavior. (You do see this sometimes in school clubs and and arts such as karate  and Yoshikan Aikido that were popularized during the years when the militarists were running things in Japan). They expect students to already have self-discipline, and if a student doesn’t, the correct behavior is on display all around them.  The atmosphere is subdued and relaxed, but very focused.

In nearly 25 years spent living in Japan, or traveling there as frequently as possible for training, I can’t remember a teacher ever yelling at me.  It’s just not a part of how things are done.  Everyone trains hard, and we all focus.  It’s sort of necessary in arts where training involves your partner trying split you with a nice piece of oak.  We come in, change our clothes, bow together for the start of practice and go from there.  We’ll do the warm-ups together, but eing the leader isn’t much of a position.  Everyone takes turns calling out sets of 10 reps as we work through the various warm-ups and fundamental technique practices.

If Sensei has a correction for me, it’s done gently and my response is a gentle “Hai”.  No yelling or big displays.  Just demonstrate that you are paying attention.  Sensei walks over and makes the correction, sometimes with a little smile that suggests to me that I really ought to have figured it out on my own.  Corrections are quick and simple and low-key.  Kiyama Sensei will walk by and pat my butt if my posture is off.  I know what he means, so he doesn’t need to say anything else.

Fukuma Sensei spent an hour patiently watching me do kata over and over as he carefully corrected every aspect of what I was practicing.  We worked on posture. We worked on cutting technique.  We worked on foot position. We worked on how the movement corkscrews up and around to deal with the kaso teki.  He would demonstrate or explain a little, maybe move a my foot to where it should be or adjust my grip slightly.  Everything was done quietly, simply, without flourish or shouting or berating.  We were focused on what we were working on, and we didn’t have any side comments of off-topic conversation.  Everything was as focused and concentrated as we could make it, but in a relaxed atmosphere.  There was none of the barking like drill sergeants or the rigid postures of military recruits.  This isn’t the military.  It’s koryu bugei.  Your attention and focus are expected to be developed and refined as natural parts of your being rather than imposed from outside.

Truly worthwhile discipline comes from within.  It’s not imposed from the outside.  That’s the atmosphere in koryu budo dojo, and in the better gendai budo dojo in Japan.  At Jodo keiko the training is incredibly intense.  Your partner is genuinely aiming to hit you with a big piece of oak, and it hurts if you screw up and let him do it.  My partner on Thursday was a very nice 7th dan. His intensity as he approached for the attack was wonderful, and pushed me to meet it with an equal level of intensity.  Then the kata is over and we can relax.  Matsuda Sensei comes over to give me corrections. There are smiles and gentle, but powerful, corrections made.  Sensei shows me exactly what I’m doing wrong.  Just like at iaido practice, the instruction is low key, with great respect given and received by everyone.  The 7th dan I’m training with is powerful and intense, but never brutal.  There is no unnecessary violence and no yelling or abuse.  I show him how much I respect him, and he treats with just as much respect.  

Matsuda Sensei, who outranks us all, treats us with respect and what I can only describe as gentle affection.  This is not the image of a Japanese dojo that you get from movies and television.  He doesn’t bark, he doesn’t yell, and he never hits anyone.  When he approaches, he doesn’t yell.  He is quiet and understated.  He’ll set me up in a position and gently but inexorably show my why my stance or movement is weak.  Then he’ll move my foot or my hand to show me what I need to do.

There is great mutual respect within the dojo.  One of the great drivers for improvement, at least for me, has nothing to do with external pressure.  It is the respect that everyone shows me and the gentle affection I feel from my teachers.  I work far harder to not disappoint them then I ever would in a situation where it was all about external pressure.  My effort is the best way I can show them how much I appreciate their lessons and patience.  I’ve never seen them reprimand anyone.  They don’t have to.  The idea of doing anything that would embarrass them is horrifying to think about.  What more motivation is needed?

If you haven’t been there, classical budo training Japan probably isn’t what you imagine. It is tough and challenging.  Not harsh and brutal.  The dojo are actually fairly quiet because people are focused on good training and not yelling at each other.  Teachers and students are treated with respect and honor.  Oh, and the level of training is amazing.