The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Japanese War on Kanji

As a pastime, I study the Japanese language. In 2019, I will be traveling with my employer to Japan again and I hope to be better able to hold my own there. 

As far as reading and writing goes, I have hiragana and katakana down pat. At the beginning of the year, I began to study kanji. Once I get through the ~2000 kanji required of high school students, I am going to begin trying to read Japanese books, to put the study into practice.

I came across this article that describes how the Japanese government has over time, actually tried to suppress the use of kanji. Below is an excerpt. The original post may be read here.

Reformers and Abolitionists

In 1866, as the Edo period drew to a close, the statesman Maejima Hisoka submitted a proposal suggesting that Japan abolish kanji to the last shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Maejima, who had both learned and taught English, bemoaned the amount of time students spent memorizing Chinese characters, which could have been used for other study. He was just one of many would-be reformers and abolitionists of the kanji system in the modern era.
The idea of doing away with kanji altogether has rarely been seriously considered at the highest level. Reform, however, has been a constant topic for discussion. The early postwar era was a high-water mark for the reformers. The government introduced a list of 1,850 characters in 1946, known as the tōyō kanji. Official instructions accompanying the rollout stated that when words used kanji not in the list, the writer should either choose a different word or write in kana.
The aim of this rule was to thoroughly discontinue usage of any kanji not in the list. It was applied to laws, public documents, newspapers, and magazines. However, the excluded kanji did not die so easily, and critics complained that preventing their use was a barrier to free expression. In 1981, the list was replaced with the jōyō kanji, consisting of 1,945 characters. More importantly, the wording of the accompanying introduction was softened to emphasize that these were simply guidelines, and compliance was optional.
Today, restriction of kanji usage is highly variable, depending on the text. Elementary school teaching materials are carefully graded to exclude characters children are not due to encounter until later in their studies. Newspapers are expected to largely stick to their slightly different version of the jōyō kanji, although numerous exceptions are allowed, such as characters used in the titles of films and television programs or terms used in the classical arts. Commonly used words also often appear in kanji rather than kana, such as the tei in 鼎談 (teidan; three-way talks) even though 鼎—also pronounced kanae, meaning a three-legged metal vessel from ancient China—is not part of the newspaper list. Many writers for adults, however, are limited only by the audience they wish to reach.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Agility in Martial Arts

Over at The Martial Body, there is a good article on agility in martial arts. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

The power of a technique, a method or a strategy is only apparent if it is brought to bear as planned. When we think about defending ourselves in a martial exchange the consideration of power and how we can minimize its effect is one of the first problems to solve. There are many ways we can avoid, re-distribute, transform or neutralise forces affecting us in the martial context. But one of the most useful, if often shunned, is the use of agility.

Agility is the ability to move or think quickly, appropriately and efferently. It is a characteristic that we see in some of the top-flight boxers or MMA athletes, who seem to have an uncanny ability to avoid being hit. But as a general point it is the rapid utilisation of the mind and body in a completely unencumbered way.

Often, we see that martial artists will promote the ‘immovable’ method of development. They will get partners or lines of people to push against them and not budge from the spot. This approach has its uses and at a high level represents very refined mechanics, but it can also become a trap. People chase this immovable skill and can end up rooted to the spot while an agile opponent picks them apart one Jab at a time.  I have seen this directly many times. People from an immovable background simply unprepared for what true agility can bring to the table.

Ideally, we want to develop a body that can be both immovable and highly mobile, it may seem a contradiction but a consolidated body moving quickly through space is quite a problem for an opponent! A difficult balance and an inevitable trade off will result of course you may not be as immovable as the specialist in that skill, or as agile as the acrobat, but you will have some of both.
A good analogy for the agile body is to think of a boat on a stormy sea. It rides the immense powers of the ocean and can weather the storm. Contrast that to the solid coastlines that crumble under the constant pounding of the waves forces.
The agile fighter can be the boat. They can move in ways that can completely negate even the largest volumes of force.

Agility is born out of developing both our bodies and our minds. To be agile a fighter will need both the mind and the bodies ‘quickness’ to be developed through targeted training. Much of the methods for agile work can be found in the ‘ElasticBody’ section of the MartialBody system. Elastic in that context refers to both the quality of the tissues in the body and also the ability of the mind to stretch and spring into action.
Even complex forces can be avoided with the right level of physical and mental agility. It is very easy to not be affected by a force if you are not interacting with it and this is the most common way in which we see Agility utilised. The high level martial artist will have the ability to read the method of the opponent, sometimes subconsciously, and simply not be there when their method arrives.  It is easy to understand how this looks in the striking context, there are in numerous examples of agility in use in combat sports where one persons strikes hit nothing but air. If you have ever sparred with a high level boxer you will know immediately what I mean. You can hardly land a glove on them and almost never with any efficacy of delivery. This is a clear and very good example of agility.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Martial Arts Training in the Summer Heat

Below is an excerpt from a post at Kung Fu Tea regarding training in the summer heat. The full post may be read here.

Late last year I published another short essay on training in extreme weather.  At the time we were concerned with the costs and benefits of working out in the snow.  Ultimately we concluded that there are substantial health benefits to be gained if certain precautions are taken.  So what about training in the summer heat?  Is there any gain to be had from all the pain?  Should we all head out for a run in the heat of the day?

As always, there are certain dangers that one needs to be aware of, and you should never undertake any serious exercise program without consulting your doctor.  That is always good advice, but it turns out to be especially true when discussing physical training in extreme weather as that may stress your heart or lungs. 

So lets start with the bad stuff.  What could possibly go wrong? Quite a bit as it turns out.

Dehydration is probably the most common issue to arise.  One needs to be well hydrated before starting any outdoors activity, and in extreme heat it is important to stop and take regular water breaks as you may already be well on the way to dehydration before you feel thirsty.  Common symptoms of dehydration include muscle cramps (like the ones that I experienced in Japan).  Also note that children are more susceptible to dehydration than adults.  While I am generally all for “traditional training,” I would approach with caution any practice that restricted your access to water while exercising in extreme heat.

More serious is heat exhaustion. Watch out for feelings of lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting, physical weakness, excessive sweating or cold, clammy skin.  During a bout of heat exhaustion one’s internal body temperature may rise as high as 104 degrees.  If you continue to exert yourself beyond this point bad things tend to happen.

The most common of those would be heatstroke.  This is a life and death condition that occurs when an individual’s core body temperature moves above 104 degrees.  The skin may be red and dry from lack of sweat.  Heart beats per minute and respiration rates shoot up as the body seeks to cool itself.  Lastly, confusion, irritability, visual problems and dizziness may be followed by loss of consciousness, organ failure and death.

  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Low blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate (beyond what one expects during exercise)
  • Visual problems

If you begin to develop any of these symptoms, stop, move to a cool place, get hydrated and let your body temperature return to normal.  Remove any excessive clothing or bulky training gear. Individuals suffering from heat exhaustion will need to seek medical help if their body temperature remains elevated.  Needless to the say, the same goes for anyone with signs of heatstroke.

That is basically everyone’s official list of things to watch for in extreme heat training.  I would like to add a couple of additional items based on my own observations.  To begin with, most of us only experience exercise under these conditions when we are outdoors. Always wear waterproof sunblock whenever you are training outside.  Nothing ends an outdoor exercise program quite as quickly as a bad case of sunburn on the first or second day.

Second, consider all of the things that want to eat you.  In central New York that mostly means mosquitoes and ticks.  I suppose if I was in Florida the list would be different.

Mosquitos are a nuisance that can be taken care of by finding sweat resistant bug spray.  Ticks, however, are a more serious matter.  As carriers of Lyme disease they are becoming a serious public health issue where I live, particularly for individuals who may include hiking or trail running in their workout.  And lets face it, there is nothing more epic than doing your forms after hiking or jogging to the top of a cliff.  Always check for ticks at the end of any instagram worthy adventure, and consider wearing long, breathable, workout pants if you know that you will be hiking in an area where they are common.

With all of that on the table, is there actually any reason to put up with the risks of training in the summer heat when most of us have access to temperature controlled spaces? Absolutely. There is a small body of clinical evidence that suggests individuals who properly acclimatize and train in the heat for short periods of time (typically a couple of weeks) see greater performance gains than athletes doing identical workouts in cool spaces.

The paper that is most often cited in these discussions is a 2010 experiment conducted by Santiago Lorenzo at the University of Oregon.  After carefully observing the baseline performance levels of 20 elite cyclists, 12 were assigned a workout schedule to be conducted in a temperature controlled room set at 100 degrees, while the remaining control group did the exact same workout in a room cooled to a chilly 55 degrees.  At the end of a 10 day training period the performance of the two groups of cyclists was once again observed and measured.  

The results were striking.  The control group showed no improvement, most likely because they were all elite athletes near the top of their game to begin with.  But the group who had worked out in extreme heat saw a 6% performance boost.  Researchers hypothesized that this was a result of increases in their VO2Max (the total amount of oxygen your body can use during an intense effort) and their total blood volumes.  By producing more blood the body was able to continue to cool itself efficiently without robbing the large muscle groups of the oxygen that they needed to function (which is a contributing factor to the cramps discussed above).

As with all good things, moderation is the key.  One must be in excellent shape to carry out this sort of regime while locked in a 100 degree room.  Most of us will be working our way up through the 80s and 90s, slowly acclimating to the rising temperatures, and remembering to pay close attention to the humidity.  High levels of humidity interfere with the body’s ability to dissipate heat through sweat and that increases the likelihood of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Yet from an athletic standpoint, the interesting thing is how quickly the body can adapt to these new conditions.  It wasn’t necessary for these athletes to train in the extreme heat for months.  They saw marked improvements in less than two weeks time.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

A Tale of Two Knives

At HROARR, a website dedicated to western historical martial arts, there appeared a very interesting article about two iconic fighting knives, the KA-BAR and Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife. The history and combat philosophy behind these are fascinating. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

The knife is a silent and deadly weapon that is easily concealed and against which, in the hands of an expert, there is no sure defence, except firearms or running like hell.
-From the declassified Special Operations Executive Syllabus
When it comes to modern combat knives, the two most iconic knives of the Western world are undoubtedly the American "KA-BAR" and the British Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife. These two knives represent completely different philosophies with the KA-BAR being a very strong and sturdy fighting knife of utilitarian design, and the Fairbairn-Sykes representing a more elegant design for more delicate use in clandestine operations.
To really understand these knives, however, we have to look back at the contexts for which they were designed and what needs they were intended to satisfy.

Fairbairn & Sykes

So, stepping back in history...

Famous British Lt. Col. W.E. Fairbairn joined the British Marines at the age of 15, using faked documents stating that he was of legal age, i.e. 18. He was deployed to serve in Japanese-occupied Korea already in 1903, then at the real age of 18. Here he spent much of his time practicing various forms of martial arts with Japanese and Korean fighters, practiced drilling with the Royal Marines and fighting Japanese Army troops with bayonet.

Fairbairn left the military in 1907 and instead joined the Shanghai Municipal Police, serving in one of the red light districts, then considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world. Shanghai was a one of the most important centres for the opium trade, the precursor of today's heroin and cocaine trade and just about as sinister, with related crime and well-armed gang activity. This increased dramatically after opium trade once again became illegal in 1906, after having been forced upon and "legalized" in China by the British Empire. (For more on this see the 1st Opium War & the 2nd Opium War). Of course as with any city, and in particular port cities, gambling and prostitution was also common and it was by some called the vice capital of the world. Around this time more than 10% of the Chinese were smoking opium. About 15% of China's crop acreage was dedicated to opium while 20 years later twice as much, a change which would greatly diminish the need for British export of opium to China.
As a result of the initiative taken a year earlier, the Shanghai Municipal Council stopped issuing licenses to opium dens in 1907, the very year of Fairbairn's arrival. The same year he was stabbed a dozen times by members of a Chinese separatist gang and left to die in the back streets of Shangha, but luckily he managed to survive this brutal experience.
Ten years later, in 1917, the last legal opium shop was closed. Opium trade didn't disappear though. Quite the contrary. This was a golden age for the Green Gang triad, collaborating with the senior Chinese officer in the French gendarmerie Huang Jinrong in taking over the whole opium trade which now made more money than ever.

As if this wasn't enough, Shanghai was also haunted by increased Chinese nationalist activity, an increasing amount of armed robberies. Terrorist kidnappings & bombings and rioting and large-scale conflict was also very common. The Green Gang was often hired by Chinese Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang for political violence and they, along with other criminal gangs took part in the White Terror massacre where some 5,000 pro-communist strikers in Shanghai were slaughtered in April 1927.
It was a huge boiling pot of vicious violence and Fairbarn was right in the middle of it at quite young age, something which would shape the rest of his life, laying the foundation of a very pragmatic and ruthless perspective on violence and martial arts.
Later, after the war, Fairbairn would create and train a special anti-riot squad for the SMP and many of the tactics and techniques developed here are still in use today.
It is here, in 1919 in Shanghai, that he met Eric A. Sykes, while Sykes was still working with weapons import/export at a British Secret Service-run company. Sykes was an expert marksman and came to form and oversee a team of civilian & police snipers for the SMP and naturally he also became the head of this unit in 1937. In 1939 Sykes would properly join the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS-MI6).
Based on their experiences and training the two designed their own martial arts system for specific use for the Shanghai Municipal Police called Defendu. For hand-to-hand combat Fairbairn mixed Savate, Jujitsu, early Judo, Chinese martial arts (he had studied Kung-Fu with the Empress' former bodyguard), wrestling and boxing, all of it reflected against his own experience of raw and brutal street fighting as a police.