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 ~

Monday, November 12, 2018

One of the Last Great Samurai

I've posted about Tesshu Yamaoka a few times before. Below is an excerpt from another fine article about him. The full post may be read here.

Yamaoka was born in 1836 when Japan was in the final stages of 252 years of peace and isolation from the rest of the world, a time that most World historians would agree was the most amazing times in world history wherein there was relative peace in a country, at the time known as the Edo period. At the tender age of 9 he began to study the way of the sword. Remember during the Edo period the possession of real swords was outlawed and practitioners of the sword would work with either the wooden sword known as a Bokkuken or a bamboo sword known as a Shinai. When he was 17 he began to study the way of the spear under a teacher known as Yamaoka Seizan. When this master died Tesshu married one of his daughters and went on to carry the name of Yamaoka throughout his life. This was a practice that has continued until the present day although less common in Modern Japan.

Yamaoka was intensely focused on the sword and sword fighting throughout his life but along the way he was the subject of countless stories that border on the mythical in stature.

In his late 20s a senior member of his group announced when they were drinking that he was about to set off on a 1-day trip out to Narita and back. It was only Yamaoka who was brave enough (or foolish enough) to vow to go along on this 140 Kilometer adventure. When Yamaoka arrived at the senior`s house early in the morning he found he was too hungover to go and so Yamaoka steadfastly undertook the journey out and back in less than 24 hours on his own in a tremendous downpour, And in wooden Japanese clogs, or Geta (下駄)to boot (no pun intended).
Yamaoka when he was in his early 30s was defeated by a skilled swordsman named, Asari Yoshiaki
Yamaoka became his student and even though he was larger than his teacher standing around 182 centimeters which was gigantic at that time in Japan and was known by the nickname of the Demon Tesshu, he could not come close to dealing with his teacher`s greater mental skill. It is said that Asari would drive Yamaoka to the back of the Dojo, out onto the street and after knocking him down would slam the door shut.
For years Yamaoka thought about little else than sword fighting and immersed himself in sword skills, mental training and meditation. It wasn`t much later when he was 45 years old that while sitting in Zazen he attained enlightenment (悟り). Following this, when he went to the Dojo and stood in Tachiai with Asari, the teacher realized immediately that Yamaoka had become enlightened and could no longer defeat him and backed away from the fight. He told Yamaoka that he had arrived at his destination and that there was nothing more he could teach him. Yamaoka went on to open his own form of swordfighting known as “Mutou Ryuu” or, “The No-sword way”. That is 無刀流 and not 武藤 as in Ayami (武藤彩未).

Being an incredibly skilled and powerful warrior he became a tutor for Emperor Meiji when he was a teen.

Friday, November 09, 2018

One Kata, Three Styles; a Side by Side Comparison

The video below shows the Bassai Dai kata as performed by three different styles: Shotokan, Shito Ryu and Wado Ryu.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

A Traditional German Martial Art

Below is an excerpt from Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

Making Jiu-Jitsu German
Sarah Panzer, who recently finished her PhD in History at the University of Chicago, authored a chapter in J. M. Chao et al.’s edited volume Transnational Encounters between Germany and Japan (Palgrave, 2016).  I decided to skim the collection on the odd chance that it might have some discussion of the early history of the Asian martial arts in Europe, and it did not disappoint.  Readers will want to check out Panzer’s paper “When Jiu-Jitsu was German: Japanese Martial Arts in German Sport and Korperkultur, 1905-1933” (91-106).

The article is just as evocative as the title suggests.   While historically, rather than theoretically, oriented, it chronicles the initial introduction of the Japanese jiu-jitsu into Germany, and its steady rise in popularity through the middle of the 1930’s.   At first blush this success might not appear surprising.  Historians of sports and popular cultural have already commented on the global spread of jiu-jitsu during the early 20th century.  When you have Teddy Roosevelt literally promoting a Japanese fighting system from the Oval Office, it is not hard to understand why a variety of scholars would take note.

Yet Panzer notes that the German case suggests some unique paradoxes.  Rightly or wrongly, German society during the early 20th century had a reputation for being hostile to foreign sports.  Given that this was the great age of nationalism in Europe, that trait was not entirely unique.  In the period rhetoric that surrounded these discussions, great emphasis was often put on the local “rootedness” and cultural value of a given activity.

Given that context, it would be hard to think of any more exotic a physical practice than Japanese jiu-jitsu during the 1910’s.  One might suspect that this art would have enjoyed only a modest degree of success.  That was not the case.

Jiu-jitsu took off at a pace unmatched in most places in the West.  Indeed, the early success of the Japanese grappling arts in Germany seems to be an almost textbook case of cultural borrowing and acculturation.  Panzer notes that by 1937 Nazi leisure organizations could, with no sense of irony, advertise their jiu-jitsu programs as “typically German” types of recreation along with swimming, horseback riding and calisthenics.

German’s fascination (and later close political relationship) with Japan was a critical aspect of this story.  As in other places, Japan’s victory over Russia (1904-1905) set off a wave of admiration and questioning.  Germans were fascinated by the stories of the surprising strength, endurance and mental resilience of the Japanese troops in Manchuria.  In this environment certain individuals came to see the Japanese as ‘kindred spirits’ and perceived in them an alternate model of the link between hyper-masculinity and nationalism.

Jiu-jitsu came to be seen as the secret code that would allow the outsider to unravel the mysteries of Japan’s military strength, won in seeming defiance of the strict racial hierarchies of the day.  To those whose interest were broader, it was also taken as a key to the island nation’s success in rapid industrialization, a mirror revealing its perceived quality of spiritual equanimity, and even a clue to the excellence of Japan aesthetic sensibilities.  As always, the Asian martial arts seem to have thrived when they were accepted as the key to unlocking an entire range of values stretching from the realms of masculinity and militarism to culture and spirituality.

In this environment, it is no surprise that pioneers like Eric Rahn would begin to train themselves in these techniques, or that the demonstrations performed by Japanese sailors on a goodwill tour would win an elite audience and result in the art’s introduction to police and military academies.  Panzer notes that the first dedicated jiu-jitsu club opened in Berlin in 1906.  By 1923 there were no fewer than 13 established schools in the country.

Still, by the 1920s the first flush of “Jiu-Jitsu Fever” had cooled off in much of the rest of the West.  Jared Miracle has noted how the art’s introduction fit with changing notions of masculinity in North America.   Yet Wendy Rouse has argued that the critique of traditional masculinities which drove much of the initial enthusiasm for the art never quite fit with the overall trend of the progressive era in the US.  Thus one suspects that additional forces might help to explain the success that the art enjoyed in Germany.

Panzer notes some key differences in this process of acculturation.  At the most basic level German students did not simply take up ‘Japanese’ practices.  Rather, they sought to transform them in such a way that they could legitimately be understood as extensions of German, rather than Japanese, values.  Some thinkers went even further, formulating an argument that jiu-jitsu had, at heart, always been German, and may have emerged from the nation’s brutal medieval battlefields.  In that sense, there was nothing uniquely Japanese about the art at all.  It was simply another example of the knightly cultural traditions that were revered in so many other places within Western society.
Panzer states:
“Indeed, one of the first scholarly works on the discipline [of Ju-Jitsu] was an explicit attempt to redefine it as fundamentally German.  Martin Vogt, an instructor at the Theresien-Gymnasium in Munich. Published his own findings on the cultural heritage of jiu-jitsu under the title Dschiu-Dschitsu der Japaner—das alte deutsche Freiringen.  In this meticulously illustrated pamphlet Vogt juxtaposed images of standard jiu-jitsu holds and grips with woodcut images from medieval German texts on wrestling, including one illustrated by Albrecht Durer.  Vogt claimed that he had felt compelled to write the book in response to the growing visibility of jiu-jitsu in Germany following the Russo-Japanese War; his work was meant to be a response to the growing suspicion among Germans that the Japanese possessed some secret or special knowledge about combat and self-defence that made them especially formidable opponents. Vogt attempted to dispel any existing anxiety about jiu-jitsu by making it more immediately familiar and recognizable thereby effectively recovering it as a forgotten piece of German cultural inheritance.

In the text that accompanies his elaborate pictorial comparisons of jiu-jitsu and medieval German wrestling Vogt argued that jiu-jitsu was, quite simply, a system of practical techniques paralleling those used by medieval Germans, preserved and formalized in Japan.  He never went so far as to suggest that one evolved out of the other, but instead argued that any logical study of the human body and its weaknesses in hand-to-hand combat, unencumbered by the demands of chivalry or rules of combat, would have yielded similar and practical strategies.” (p. 95-96)

A uniquely German approach to jiu-jitsu emerged in more practical venues as well.  Panzer documents the shifts that occurred within the German umbrella organization as the “self-defense” aspects of the art (often those that would be of the most interest to law enforcement or military personnel) fell out of favor and were replaced with training regimes that placed much more emphasis on the basic movements that would be useful in competition.  Indeed, this debate on the value of competition defined the evolution of the art in the post-WWI period.

Given the success of the art’s sporting wing, one might be forgiven for assuming that judo, which also shed many of its militant techniques in favor of those that could be used in more sporting settings, would have been a great success.  This was not the case.  The cultural and moral aspects of the practice that Kano went to such great lengths to promote rubbed many of these early German practitioners the wrong way.  They sensed within them the inescapable presence of Japanese nationalism and identity.  In their view none of that was really essential to jiu-jitsu, which at its core was an expression of universal truths about human combat, and (under their guidance) had evolved into a uniquely German system of physical training and competition that did not closely resemble daily practice in the Kodokan.

Nor were they swayed by appeals to judo’s greater ‘internationalism.’ Defenders of the emerging discipline of German jiu-jitsu pointed out that none of these arts had developed as successfully in other Western countries as they had in Germany.  And in any case, it was the expression of uniquely German values transmitted through specifically developed bodily technologies that gave the practice its intrinsic values, not Japanese moralizing.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

The Reality of Budo

Strictly speaking, Budo is a method of self development using a Japanese martial art as a vehicle. I like to think that I learned something about Budo when I trained in aikido under Kushida Sensei

As I no longer practice a Japanese martial art, but strive for the same ends through distance running and Taijiquan, I call what I do "Budo with a small 'b'."

Over at The Budo Bum, there was a very good article about just exactly what Budo really is. An excerpt is below. The full post can be read here.

What we do in the dojo needs to be real. It’s budo, not sport or athletics or some kind of game. We are practicing the serious art of controlled violence. This an art where mistakes have consequences. As Ellis Amdur points out so well in his essay The Real Importance Of Reishiki In Koryu, even the little things are critical. Even in arts that don’t seem to have any direct application in the 21st century such as naginata or kenjutsu have to be treated as real or the true value and lessons that the art has to teach are lost. What does it mean though, for budo to be “real”?

For budo to remain real, and not devolve into rhythmic gymnastics, a mindless dance or a meaningless competition, we have to remember what it is we are training ourselves for; at the most basic level, real budo training treats life seriously.

Proper keiko constantly reminds you how serious it is, even in the little things. All  those nit-picky little requirements about how a bokken or other weapon is handled, about never stepping over weapons and how you interact with everyone in the dojo all reflect that seriousness. Weapons, whether they are shinken (live blades) or wooden practice pieces, are treated with full regard for the damage they can do. Wooden practice weapons are handled just like the real thing, because you don’t want to have sloppy or careless habits when handling the real thing.

Live blades are merciless. They don’t forgive mistakes anymore than a firearm does. For all the care I take, I’ve still cut myself a couple of times. Those were just shallow cuts that reminded me what I do is very serious, even when we’re not actively doing kata. Those nitpicky teachers insisting that there is only one proper way to handle your weapons and that even wooden swords should always be treated like they are live are not being pedantic. They know how much damage the weapons can do and do not want you to learn the hard way.

Humans are liable to distraction and hurry. If we always do something the same way, it becomes an unconscious habit and the way we do things even when we are distracted. If you start out with a bokken or iaito and always handle it like a shinken, then you will handle the shinken properly when your teacher hands it to you. When I started iai, I did so with an iaito.   A couple of years later we had a new student join the dojo who didn’t have his own iaito yet. While he was waiting for his iaito to arrive, Takada Sensei walked over to me one day, undid his sageo, took his shinken out of his obi, handed it to me and said “Give your iaito to him and you practice with this until his iaito arrives.” Sensei didn’t give me any special instruction about how to handle his shinken, he just handed it to me and went on teaching the new student. Sensei was confident that I had absorbed the lessons about proper weapons handling from training correctly with the iaito.

Takada Sensei was confident that his teaching had prepared me to handle a shinken without giving me any additional warnings. The kata teaching method works well. I handled Sensei’s shinken the same way I handled my iaito and didn’t have any issues with it. The proper technique was ingrained to the point of unconscious competence and came forth from my hands naturally and easily.

Even when it is not shinken shobu, budo must be treated with the seriousness of a shinken. We train seriously with wood and bamboo weapons so that when the moment comes and we find ourselves holding the real thing, when it’s not kata but life, the right things happen without conscious effort. The little things are the big things.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Promotion Test Jitters

Have you ever found yourself nervous about taking a promotional test? Have you ever really thought it through to figure out what you could do about it?

Our friend Zacky Chan at Green Leaves Forest had a very nice post about just that. An excerpt from that post is below. The whole post may be read here.

I’ve been running myself down a dark little tunnel in my training lately.
I’ve got the shinsa shakes.
“Shinsa” are tests in kyudo, and when you’ve got one coming up, it’s going to start messing with your brain sometime. Some people get them on test day. Some a week earlier. Some maybe midway through the test.
I can just imagine someone standing up just before they make their shot, realize all of the judges are sitting right in front of them staring at them, and say, “Holy crap, this is happening right now!”
For me I got the shakes about 5 weeks before the actual test, and I’ve got two weeks left until the day. Which I’d say is pretty long. Perhaps the time gets longer as the stakes get higher. I’m planning to move back home in the near future, and this may be my last chance at 6-dan before heading home. This means I only have two arrows to try my chance at this goal of mine. I’ll probably still be a number which puts me at the very beginning in the first sitting (No. 1, No. 2, or maaaaybe No. 3 or No. 4, I assume), which means if I don’t hit both arrows, then there’s no chance at passing.
I can only imagine the kind of stress that goes with taking tests from abroad. Taking time off work, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars, being jet-lagged, shooting in an environment completely different from one’s own, in a whole different country. Shooting your best under such conditions is really something special.
There may be a lot of different things that come up with the shinsa shakes, but I would bet the number one topic that comes up for everyone is …
hitting the target.
“Don’t worry, you’ll pass if you just hit the target.”
This is one thing you’ll often hear from other training partners. I think it’s meant to help you relax and stop worrying about all the little things you can worry about. Or maybe they really mean it, and that you’re shooting is good enough just the way it is at this level, and all you need to do is do your best shot and hit the target. Surely everyone has the capability of doing this, be you ikkyu or hanshi.
But that’s just another piece of poison that can mess with your brain.
“Maybe they’re right. All I have to do is hit the target and I’ll pass.”
And so you start either trying too hard to hit the target, throwing off your form and making it even harder to hit the target. Or you let up all your energy and don’t put enough effort into your shooting.
So what should we do?!
What is the best way to prepare yourself mentally and physically for a test?
What is the best way to train?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And you know what?
It’s different for everybody.
And what works for you will continue to change with your experience and progress.
Because you’re a living being! And change is the only constant.
But here I’d like to finally start talking about what I set out to talk about, and that is the importance of hitting the target in kyudo, and finding a practice that includes this without focusing only on hitting the target.
So, my reaction to all these shinsa shakes has been extremist. Since 5 weeks before the test, I decided I was only going to practice zassha (ritual test-style shooting that takes a lot longer than normal shooting practice) with the kimono, and shoot at the makiwara (practice hay bail).
My reason for this was to get my body so used to the movements and kimono and shinsa atmosphere, so that when the day came for the test, the only shooting I would know would be that of the shinsa atmosphere and I could shoot my best arrows without any question. I also thought that by doing such a practice would allow me to put my entire focus into each arrow … since each one took so long to shoot, and the mental stakes of a shinsa are so high. With the makiwara, I could make sure that my shooting form was as close to perfect as I could tell with my own eyes.
My very first teacher told me to do only zassha shooting for the week before the test when I first started. At that time I thought it was overkill, but I’ve kept with that tradition since then and I think it’s helped me immensely. This is the first time I’ve extended that time, and perhaps I’ve gone overboard … way overboard.
I’ve been doing this for 3 weeks now, and sure there are lots of benefits, but you know what?
I’m getting farther and farther away from hitting the target.
When missing, I don’t curse myself, and instead move on to the next shot anew. This is also good mental practice. But yesterday I thought,
“I hit the target so infrequently now … and I don’t feel like I’m getting any closer. In fact, I think I’m getting worse!”
I’ve had good intentions, but maybe I’m really sabotaging myself!
What is happening is that I’m just hoping that my hard work pays off and I will naturally hit the target when the time comes. It’s all “hoping” and “praying.” It’s putting me in a position of weakness, when what I really need is one of confidence. I need to go into the test with the confidence that I can hit both arrows in the target.
For a while now I’ve really been thinking a lot about the importance of taihai (all of the movements other than shooting like walking, standing, sitting, etc) and how they must be done to the best of your ability every time in order to help your shooting and art. I’ve thought a lot about the mental strength to not worry about hitting the target and always remaining relaxed, unaffected by the temptations around. I’ve thought about making the best of our shooting, and trying to fix our bad habits instead of just forgetting about it all and caring only about hitting the target.
But what about hitting the target?
Hitting the mark?
Achieving the goal of what you set out to do?