Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

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 ~

Saturday, January 28, 2023

The History and Evolution of the Japanese Kimono

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at My Modern Met. The full post may be read here.

 For generations, Japanese style has been defined by a single garment: the kimono. Historically significant, aesthetically fascinating, and steeped in symbolism, the kimono captures the exquisite elegance of Japanese culture and design, proving that clothing can be much more than meets the eye.

Here, we look at the fascinating evolution of the kimono, tracing its exceptional history from the 8th century through the present and exploring its role in contemporary Japanese culture.

Derived from the words ki (“wear”) and mono (“thing”), the kimono is a traditional Japanese garment. Kimonos come in a range of styles and patterns. They are typically hand-sewn into a “T” shape from four single pieces of fabric called tans and tied with an obi, or belt.


Kimono Symbolism

In addition to their unique aesthetic, kimonos are valued for their symbolism; style, motif, color, and material work together to reveal the individual identity of the wearer.

Traditional kimonos come in a variety of styles. The type of style worn is dictated by a range of specific criteria, including gender, marital status, and event. For example, an unmarried woman would wear a furisode (“swinging sleeves”) to a formal event, while a male store owner would wear a happi (a type of jacket) to a festival.

Patterns, symbols, and other designs also help communicate the wearer's status, personality traits, and virtues. Similar to woodblock prints, popular motifs include nature-inspired elements, like leaves, blossoms, and birds (namely, cranes).


Sunday, January 22, 2023

On Martial Arts Study Groups

Ellis Amdur is a long time practitioner of traditional Japanese martial arts and a prolific author. His many books may be found here.

He had a post on his blog, Kogen Budo, on the efficacy of teaching traditional Japanese martial arts via study groups. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

There is an image today of koryū as small isolated groups of a few students, headed by one headmaster, engaged in a many decades-long pursuit of martial perfection. Something like this can be true today—many people remain students of a teacher for almost a lifetime. I know of individuals who have trained for fifty years without ever receiving certification of full knowledge of the school or a teaching license. But I do not think that this is true to the original nature of koryū bujutsu. Of course, in the aforementioned case, the students in question may simply be incompetent or not suitable, in their instructor’s eyes, but it may also be due to something else—a fundamental change in the nature of martial ryūha within Japan.

It is undeniable that classical martial traditions are best taught by direct, personal instruction from a master instructor (shihan). However, shihan were not so uncommon in the past—there was (legitimately) ‘one on every block’. Remember all the word really indicates is a ‘certified instructor.’ Not only that, there were often many shihan of a single ryūha.

Ryūha Were Not Hidden Away Hermetic Cults

The concept of a ryūha taught in one location by one person, the only individual competent to pass on the essence of the school, was rather unusual in the past. Before the Meiji era, instructors’ primary goal was to teach as many worthy students as possible, and thereby spread the influence of their own school. It made political sense—and it was profitable. Remember, the ryūha were commercial ventures: were one to achieve an official position in a feudal domain, one received a salary. If one opened up a machi-dojo (‘town dojo’), one earned a living. Bushi received a kind of continuing education credit when they achieved each certification, thereby increasing their rice stipend from the domain. Commoners accumulated social capital—something one still sees today in kuro meishi (name cards covered with black ink – the enumeration of each martial arts certification).

On the shihan’s side, by increasing the curriculum, one also made money by selling each rank. In this process, various ryūha created many fully certified people, who could then go elsewhere and teach the same material, starting their own lineage of students, often losing all contact with their own teacher, other than putting the instructor’s name on their own lineage chart. Nonetheless, even though ‘graduated shihan’ did not send money home to their teacher, his or her name spread along with the ryūha – in feudal Japan, an honor-based culture, one’s name was the most important capital one owned.

To be sure, there were some martial traditions that were so attached to an area or family that their reach was limited, but even such schools as Maniwa Nen-ryū focused, by definition, around Maniwa village, had subsidiary dojo in other locale, even in Edo. Maniwa Nen-ryū even managed their ‘overflow,’ people who, for one reason or another, they didn’t wish to place in a leadership position within their own school, by sanctioning the development of off-shoot schools. These off-shoot schools might, as in the case of Honma Nen-ryū, remain full allies, but at minimum, they were bonded by common ancestry. By the later part of the Edo period, there was a lot of cross-training between different ryūha, particularly those such as the various off-shoots of Ittō-ryū that shared a common ancestry.

For another example, consider this account by Sugino Yoshio and Ito Kikue, in their book,  Tenshin Shoden Katori Shintō-ryū Budō Kyohan concerning the 16th generation soke, Iizasa Morishige. Some in recent decades have made the fallacious claim that TSKSR was always located in one area, headed by one soke (with the possible addition of one shihan per generation). They also asserted that TSKSR never was employed by any feudal domain. However, Sugino and Ito (both shihan of the TSKSR, by the way) note that the art was taught to individuals who were employed by a variety of feudal domains: “More than 80 licenses [menkyo] were given to these warriors and the art became highly popular in the country.”

Modern Times: Rivals Banding Together to Survive

Things changed in modern times, as Iizasa Kinjiro, the 19th generation soke, wrote in the same book: “However, after the Meiji restoration when the time of feudalism ended and a new civilization arose, we stopped appreciating the old spiritual beauty. We enclosed ourselves in Katori and sealed ourselves off from the outside world. We paid no attention to the fact that we were excluded from society. . . .Since the Nihon Kobudo Shinkokai has been founded in the spring of the 10th year of Showa [1935], society no longer allows an individual to think only of his own style and remain isolated.”

The implications of these two passages are as follows: up through the end of the Edo period, what we now call koryū were vital entities, that strove to build themselves up and disseminate themselves widely. Records of a variety of ryūha show that people received teaching certification in what is, today, a very short period of time: five to seven years was not unusual, sometimes even less than this. However, with the inception of the modern age, these martial traditions truly fell by the wayside—few Japanese had any interest in them. No longer useful for war, and unsuitable, for the most part, as a means of civilian self-defense, martial traditions, even in the 19th century, were considered about one-step removed from the kind of ‘Civil-War re-enactors’ we have in America. Sakakibara Kenkichi of Jikishinkage-ryū, tried to revive interest in martial traditions through his gekkiken kogyo, exhibitions of different ryūha showing kata, kenbu (a stylized form of dance with martial themes), and freestyle matches (some staged, some honest). Here is a passage from Little Bird and the Tiger, a novel of mine soon to be published, showing (at least in my imagination), Sakakibara’s logic:

Sakakibara held up a hand in apology. “Let me get to the point. These are terribly hard times. Since the beginning of the Emperor Meiji’s reign, and the dismantling and rebuilding of our country, and with the feudal domains no more, we martial arts instructors have fallen. Everyone seems to love the West, all these new things, and most of all, guns and modern warfare. Yet what created Japan, what made it a country superior to all others, if not the sword? Now people are walking in the other direction. What will become of us? If we put down the sword, we will cease to be Japanese. And, to be blunt, if we teachers starve, even if people someday become interested in the sword again, we will not be there to teach them.”

He noticed her doubtful look, as she surveyed the thriving dojo. “Yes, even here. I pay for the upkeep of two thirds of these young men. To my embarrassment, I’ve had to open up an inn – to become a merchant – to keep this dojo open!

“So I have an idea. Perhaps it lacks dignity, but there must be some way to excite people’s imagination again. They are impressed by marching peasants, wearing French-made uniforms with guns on one shoulder. Why? Because that’s the most powerful thing they have seen. What if they saw the power of our own martial virtue? We are not legends. We are not dead! To be sure, the sword, alone, cannot win a war anymore, but men with the spirit of the sword are a different breed than peasants drafted off the farm and drilled on a parade ground.

“I am organizing a gekkiken kogyo, a stable of fighters. We will present exhibitions of various martial traditions, and, I dare say, we will take money for it. It is awful that we have sunk so low, but there are no daimyo to support us anymore. The public will become our feudal lords, sad to say. At any rate, after our presentations, we will invite people to try arms with us. How can people know the power of our Japanese traditions if they don’t see it – more, if they don’t feel it? To be sure, there will be merchants and farmers, and maybe yakuza and sōshi, those gangs of political thugs you see everywhere these days, but they will be no problem. There will also be former samurai in the crowd: think how glorious it would be for them were one of them to win, and think what attention it would bring, the idea that anything could happen, a ronin from some unknown ryūha stepping on stage, revealing himself to be something of a master himself.

Sakakibara’s plan, however, was not realized. Any popularization of a traditional art soon sinks to a low common denominator, and the gekkiken kogyo were no exception. The authorities viewed them as a threat to public order, and in a few years, they were shut down. In the end, they were often paired with stage and circus performers—literally so. I’m seen programs from 1905 that list famous kenjutsuka followed by clowns balancing themselves on balls. The gekkiken kogyo did provide a significant service, however, ushering in the development of modern kendō. However, this negatively impacted traditional martial arts even further, as it encouraged the amalgamation of martial arts into martial sports. The Japanese of the late Meiji period onwards, if they even thought about it, believed that the most important thing—‘the spirit of the sword’—could be maintained through martial sports, and done so in a manner far more interesting than the sterile repetition of kata in a traditional dojo. This way of thinking was quite similar to that of England, exemplified by the phrase uttered by the Duke of Wellington while observing a cricket match, “The battle of Waterloo was won here.” In other words, competition breeds fighting men.

By the 1920’s and 1930’s, the ryūha were regarded as anachronisms, and Iizasa Kinjiro’s statement is evidence of the parlous state to which they had sunk. Things were so bad that an organization had to be created to help preserve these martial traditions, many of which had been reduced to only a single dojo or a single teacher. This organization, the Nihon Kobudo Shinkokai (and other similar groups, developed around the same time) primarily fostered public awareness of its members by organizing enbu – public exhibitions. Until modern times, enbu were confined to a) honō enbu, offerings to a Shinto shrine (the gods being pleased or entertained by a presentation of the ryūha’s art); b) presentation before a feudal lord, either as a kind of ‘employment interview,’ or ‘recertification’; c) dojo celebrations, such as kagami biraki, the New Years opening ceremony, that might include one or more other ryūha that were friendly to that dojo. What was new was the phenomenon of group presentations—a variety of schools demonstrating together in one venue. Through the Kobudo Shinkokai, a circuit of enbu (public demonstrations) were organized—often at shrines as before, but also at a variety of public venue, including auditoriums and stages in local parks. To a considerable degree, the center focus of training for all too many ryūha became enbu—and this is certainly true today. Exhibition of one’s art became an end in itself, to such a degree that in a court decision of 2018, a judge proclaimed that “the primary purpose of kobudō is enbu.” Lest there be any misunderstanding, I do not blame the judge for this–if the practitioners of koryū had not created this impression, the public, embodied in the person of this court official, would not hold such a viewpoint.

This organization of koryū as a kind of association of groups, rather than independent rival entities, did lead to somewhat of a revival during the build-up to the 2nd World War, as people practiced with the intention of connecting with the ‘spirit of the sword’ to help them survive on the battlefield with courage, as well as withstand all the horrors of war that gradually, but inescapably, came home to Japan. A number of ryūha offered training within the secondary school system to prepare children to this end.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Vintage Goju Ryu Kata Video

I love these old videos. 

Below is a video from the 1950's showing some Goju Ryu kata. Enjoy. 




Monday, January 16, 2023

Taijiquan Qinna

It seems to me that Taijiquan is just made for Qinna, but then again, my early training was in aikido.

Below is a video on Taiji - Qinna. Enjoy.



Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Dong Huling Taijiquan

Dong Huling was the son of the renowned master Dong Ying Jie. Here he is performing the Dong style Yang Taijiquan form.



Sunday, January 01, 2023

Bruce Lee Documentary

Happy New Year! Let's kick the new year off to a good start with a documentary about Bruce Lee.