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.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

The Emperor Has No Clothes




“His technique surpassed human ability.”

“This is exactly how ****** Sensei did it. We want to do it exactly as he did.”

“Nobody can ever equal ******* Sensei.”

“My karate teacher’s teacher was the best ever, that’s why our system is the best!”

“******* was unbeatable.”

“He was a living kami.”

“If he says it works, it must work.”


Teachers who can’t be questioned, for whatever reason, are dangerous to their students and themselves. They seem to inexorably fall into the trap of believing their own propaganda. It happens all the time, in all sorts of arts. As soon as students start going along with whatever sensei does because sensei’s technique is the ultimate, the perfect, the divinely inspired (take your pick), teachers are trapped in an ugly downward spiral.

 The problem for the teacher is that since their students always go along with sensei’s technique, the sensei stops getting honest feedback with regard to their training and teaching. As a result, the teacher’s technique inevitably begins to deteriorate. They can’t avoid it. Any time their technique wasn't right they would feel more resistance, which would tell them they need to sharpen fundamental practice and technique. When their students always go with the flow, the sensei never gets that feedback, and therefore never experiences a technique working less than perfectly. As a result, the sensei has no way to know if their skills are sharp or dull.

 The result is the teacher’s technique gradually becomes duller and duller. However, this can’t be blamed entirely on the teacher. The students are lying to themselves and their teacher about the quality of the techniques. Without opportunities to train with people who recognize a teacher’s imperfections, the only possible result is a slow deterioration of the teacher’s skills. 

 This is sad for the teachers and the students.

 There is a phenomenon in martial arts of students deifying teachers. It can happen in any art with superlative practitioners and teachers. In the world of Japanese budo I’ve seen it in both gendai and koryu arts, and it’s a sad phenomenon no matter where it happens. Budo teachers are human, maybe especially human.

 To be a martial arts teacher is to have a high degree of skill.  Being skilled at martial arts means possessing a certain type of power. Those with skill are seen as being able to subdue, control, or just plain beat into the ground anyone who threatens them. A few people with bad attitudes and/or impulse control problems are even seen as being dangerous to just about anyone because they won’t wait to be threatened. They’ll pick the fight just because they are confident they can do it without getting hurt themselves.

 As a kid growing up, the power to physically subdue someone, or pound them into the ground, was a very attractive power. I was a skinny kid with allergies and not a clue how to relate to other people, so I was picked on. A lot. I didn’t realize it then, but later I figured out that I caused a lot of the issues just by being so socially inept. That doesn’t make the schoolyard abuse any better, and while I was going through it I fantasized about having the superpower of being unbeatable. It was a wonderful daydream.

 The temptation to revel in power is strong. I understand that temptation. When I started training Kodokan Judo in college, the realization that I was becoming good at grappling was shocking, and the temptation to abuse this ability was powerful. In my case, my friends and sempai were more than happy to remind me that I was thoroughly human and quite beatable. As I moved through the kyu ranks, it was easy to idolize my teacher and attribute more than normal wisdom to him. He was very human though, and he never implied that anything he did was perfect or that we should blindly copy his technique or his life.

 When I see students of any teacher proclaim that their teacher’s way is absolutely correct and that one should not deviate from the teacher’s example even a little, I worry about those students and that teacher’s legacy. When students start idolizing a teacher and idealizing the teachings, I can only see bad things happening. A teacher who is never questioned and never challenged in any way is trapped. That teacher can’t sharpen their skills by practicing with their students.

 Teachers need challenges as much as any student. Any teacher worthy of respect looks for things and people who will challenge their technique. That’s how we all progress and improve. We try something we can’t do, and we work at it until we can. The best budoka don’t discourage students from giving them puzzles to solve and difficulties to refine their technique against - people like Kano Jigoro and Kunii Zen’ya come to mind. Most of us are not undefeated legends like Kunii Zen’ya, but I’ve seen lots of teachers challenge themselves and ask their students to help them stay challenged. 

 I remember being at a seminar with some of the top people in the art we were training, folks who could make a strong case for being the best in the world at what they did. The most senior teacher there chose me to be his uke when he wanted to demonstrate a strangle using a weapon. He reached in, placed the weapon and applied the strangle. I didn’t tap. His technique wasn’t working. It’s not that the technique was bad, just his application of it at that moment. It was a technique he demonstrated fairly regularly at seminars, and I think people had been tapping out for him just because of his status. I’m too stupid to do that, so I just sat there. Sensei stepped back, looked at me a moment, adjusted his technique and the strangle got better. He played around with it for a few seconds more, the strangle sank in and I tapped. He never said anything about my failure to immediately tap. Some of his students seemed a little horrified that I had embarrassed Sensei with my behavior. He never said a word, but after that, whenever I was present, he called on me to be his uke for that technique demonstration.

 I think he appreciated that he had to do the technique absolutely correctly on me. I didn’t give him a pass just because he was so much senior to me and in general one of the finest technicians I’ve ever seen. With me, he knew he would get an honest reaction to his technique, so he could tell how well he was doing it. People who just go with whatever technique you are trying to do will ruin your technique. Anyone who wants to stay technically sharp has to be challenged regularly. I don’t mean they have to do challenge matches. Rather, they need situations where they have to fully engage to be sure their technique will work. 

 A martial artist who isn’t open to partners who challenge their technique isn’t going to be able to maintain that technique for long and will end up relying on students to take the fall or tap out from the technique. This isn’t good for the teacher or the students. The teachers find their technique slowly degrading from the lack of a stone to sharpen it on. The students have to lose respect for their teacher as they realize that the only reason his technique works is because they let it.

 It took a child to call out the emperor when he was naked. No teacher worthy of the title deserves to be put in a situation where someone can call them out because their students haven’t been giving them honest practice.



Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, PhD. for making this smooth and readable with her excellent editing skills.