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 ~

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Path to 8th Dan

Over at Kenshi 24/7, there is a translation of an essay by a high level kendoka about how he prepared for his 8th Dan exam. It should provide good food for thought for all of us. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Before we get to the essay, below is a documentary on the 8th Dan exam in Kendo.

My route to hachidan 八段への道筋

The following is a loose translation of a short essay from a book entitled “Kendo: the route to promotion.” There are two books in the same series, each containing about 60 short essays by people who have passed hachidan. In the essays the sensei discuss their mindset and approach to the exam.
Of course, the vast majority of people who pass hachidan do kendo as part of their job (i.e. policemen or teachers) so their experience might not seem immediately relevant to your average kendoka. However, I do think there are some things to be learned from other peoples journey, whether some circumstances are different or not.
From the 120 or so essays over the two books, I picked a sensei who I personally know and have studied under for a while.
Yano Nobuhiro sensei
Short bio: Yano sensei was born in Miyazaki prefecture in 1962. After graduating from kendo-powerhouse Takachiho high school he started working at Osaka police department. He passed hachidan in 2008 and is currently a professional police kendo instructor in Osaka.

Use video to improve your technique
From 2001 until 2006 I taught kendo at the Osaka police academy. These five years were a chance for me to re-examine my kendo. In fact, it was from this time that my kendo life completely changed. Between teaching kendo classes to police recruits, I was luckily able to do lots of kihon and jigeiko with the (more senior) sensei that were working there. More importantly, for me, was the chance to do lots of kakarigeiko and to learn under good instructors.
During this time I realised that my kendo had still some way to go, so in order to tackle this I started to video myself.
For example, during breaks when I was working night duty (even police kendo pros sometimes have to do other work), I’d tape markers on the wall then video my kamae, posture, basic cutting shapes, etc, and then check my form with the markers.
I also recorded kihon and jigeiko sessions and studied things like: my posture when I was struck, what type of seme I used when I struck successfully, my posture when I struck, my posture after I struck, etc.
At this time it wasn’t that I was aiming for hachidan per se, rather I worked hard to become a good model for the police recruits at the academy.
After doing this day-in-and-day-out, I started to feel my kendo slowly change.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Laws of Power, #26: Keep You Hands Clean

One of my favorite books on strategy is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.  Where The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is written as an overview of the whole topic of strategy, seeking to provide an overall understanding of the subject; and The 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking through 36 maxims related to well known Chinese folk stories, Mr. Greene focuses on how we influence and manipulate one another, ie "power".

Mr. Greene draws from both Eastern and Western history and literature as his source material. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli as cited as much as wonderful stories of famous con men. Among my favorites is about a scrap metal dealer thinking he bought the Eiffel Tower.

Each of the 48 Laws carries many examples, along with counter examples where it is appropriate that they be noted, and even reversals.

It is a very thorough study of the subject and the hardback version is beautifully produced.

One of the things I admire about Greene is that he not only studied strategy, he applied what he learned to his own situation and prospered.

Today we have #26: Keep Your Hands Clean.

You must seem a paragon of civility and efficiency, your hands are never soiled by mistakes and nasty deeds. Maintain such a spotless appearance by using others as scapegoats and cat’s-paws to disguise your involvement.

Monday, September 17, 2018

4 Levels of Training in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from a post at Green Leaves Forest. The full post may be read here.

Training in kyudo can change your life. The bow can be used to make ourselves strong, focused, and develop a greater understanding of the world. We can also make some great friendships along the way. At the highest levels we can cultivate compassion and our sense of service.
But it doesn’t necessarily always work out like this.
We often hear the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” But that’s not it.
Perfect practice makes perfect.
When we start beginning training it takes all of our energy just to remember all the things we have to do and make sure the arrows goes in the direction of the target without hurting yourself or anyone around you!
One day, you hit the target, and if you’re not hooked by now, this is when it usually happens. You have figured out that by using your body in a certain way with the bow, you can hit the target, and it feels awesome.
After a while, we get comfortable with the bow and start working to improve our form to better hit the target. At this point we’ve probably experienced different phases of hitting the target, then forgetting, then hitting again, and so on. We also have probably found out that we have some bad habits. We find out about these bad habits because either they naturally feel horrible and we want to change them, or more likely, we find them by getting advice from our teachers or training partners. The latter is more likely because I think we naturally get rid of bad habits that don’t feel right. Instead, we naturally find a way to shoot that is easiest for us while hitting the target. We may be hitting the target, but by using our bad habits, we’re using only a temporary plug to keep back a flood instead of fixing the flood at its source.
This can be a very frustrating experience because we have these “bad habits” that we are “supposed to fix,” but they’re difficult to do, they often can’t be seen by ourselves when we’re shooting, and we probably don’t consistently hit the target when trying to fix them. Fighting against these bad habits feels unnatural, so our body and mind rebel against all else, be it the equipment, the dojo, our training partners, or teachers.
This becomes our kyudo situation.
So, what do we do?
There are myriad problems with specific answers, but after thinking about all of this, I came up with 4 basic levels of training that one can undertake in this situation.
1.) Try and Give up
This is where we are conscious of our bad habits, make some initial effort to fix them, but eventually give up and revert back to our natural bad habits. This process could happen in one single arrow. For example we could try to make sure our tenouchi is set in the daisan phase, but mess up, and proceed throughout the shooting relying on our old way of shooting. It could happen in a set of two arrows. For example we try to fix our habits on the first arrow, mess up, and revert to our old shooting on the second. It could happen in one tournament, where we try to fix our habit in the first set of arrows, then give up and just revert to our old shooting on the next. This could also happen over a day, week, month, year, or maybe our whole life! It’s certainly not the best way to train but I’d say this is a pretty common way of shooting. It’s natural, and in most cases needs to be experienced before we can move on. Perhaps this is one explanation of why “we need to fail before we succeed.”
2.) Don’t even try
This is where we know our bad habits, but don’t even try to fix them. In one respect, this is definitely not a good way to practice. A teacher at a seminar lately said, “If we’re doing things wrong subconsciously, then we have to try to fix them consciously.” This really hit me at the time. Our bad habits won’t naturally fix themselves, and we won’t magically “get better with time.” I thought this for a long time, but after experience in tests, tournaments, and seminars, it becomes very very clear that just practicing for a long time doesn’t necessarily make you a great archer.
In another light, though, nobody wants to not improve, right? We all want to become better than we are now, right? If that’s the case, but we find ourselves in this “Don’t even try” phase, it could be because we don’t know how to fix our bad habits, even though we know they exist. That’s a difficult situation to be in for sure, and requires the energy to research or find people to help.
Or, we could find ourselves in this phase because people aren’t giving us the right answers to fix our problems. For example, we aren’t pulling the bow enough, and a teacher says pull the elbow to the back, but we don’t want to pull the elbow to the back behind us because it disrupts our sanjuu-jumonji form and prevents nobiai. This is a really difficult spot to be in, because it can start to build tension in your dojo with your training mates. I’ve been really lucky to participate in a lot of kyudo events with a lot of other experienced archers, but it also means I’ve gotten a whole lot of advice that I don’t agree with. In Japan, this is especially difficult to deal with because people don’t generally contradict their seniors. In rare cases when I’ve been really brave I’ve told teachers that I understand what they’re saying, but I’ve tried it, it feels really uncomfortable, it doesn’t work, and I’m trying to do something different now. Thank you for trying to help. In those rare cases the teachers have understood and stop trying to teach me because they realize I’m not listening. It’s difficult, but sometimes necessary. I can only imagine though if someone feels like this and the teacher keeps pressing. Every situation is different, but one thing is for sure, teachers need to understand when they’re pushing too far and not respecting the archer they’re trying to teach. For any students who are experiencing this, be brave and smart and don’t give up! And above all maintain your humility, patience, and grace. For teachers that are pressing their unwanted ways on others, nothing good can come of it, so take some responsibility and figure out a better way.
Anyway, I believe this is a phase that we want to grow out of.
3.) Try and Fail and Try
This, I believe, is the best place we can be in our practice.
This is heaven on earth. This is finding enlightenment in our very lives. This is living with the bow. This is experiencing our mortal humanity.
This is shin, zen, bi. Truth, goodness, and beauty.
In this phase have our bad habits, and are on a track trying to fix them. Ideally, we have a teacher we trust who is there to teach us the technical way to fix our problems and provides the right balances to mentally encourage us. Or, we could be looking at videos of our own shooting and trying to fix them on our own. We could be asking other teachers and visiting seminars looking for answers. This comes in a variety of forms, but it’s basically having a plan to fix our problems and consciously trying to fix them.
It’s really really hard. We may not see the light at the end of the tunnel. We may receive criticism from others.
What’s wrong with you lately? Just hit the target like you used to.”
We may do well in our practice at the makiwara, may do good practicing on our own, or may do good shooting in our own dojo. But what about when we go somewhere we haven’t before? Or have to shoot in front of others? Oftentimes we give up on trying to fix our habits and just rely on our old ways of hitting the target. This is natural, but you know what? …
I may be weird, or stupid, or you might not like what I say …
but I despise it.
Changing our form out of fear. Giving up just to hit the target, or not look stupid. Throwing our selves away to the desires of the mob.
What do they know? What do they care? Who cares?
You do.
Right there inside of yourself, in a place where you can’t run away. Maybe you’ve fooled the others, but you can’t lie to yourself and expect to be believed.
Once, my teacher told me, “苦労すればいい。” “You should struggle.”
The masochistic side of me translated it to, “You should suffer.”
It may sound a bit dark, but if you’re not ready to struggle or suffer in kyudo, then you’re not going to be able to fulfill your potential.
Technique is so simple. You just learn to do it. It takes time, but matters of technique can be taken care of with proper training. Nobody does the proper technique in the beginning, and anyone that works hard enough at a particular technique will eventually achieve it.
Mentality on the other hand though, is the really difficult part. It’s so simple. Just do your best and don’t be afraid of failing. It’s so fricken simple, but are we doing it? Are we doing it every single arrow? Be it at the makiwara, in our own training, at tests, at tournaments? Are we always shooting our best arrow? Some may spend their whole lives without accomplishing this one feat of the human spirit.
Why? Why not?
The simple answer is fear, and what we do with it. My answer to this is number 3 of these phases, “try and fail and try.”
4.) Try and Succeed
This is the magical phase of trying to do what we set out to do and succeed. This is where we all want to be, but probably don’t experience it for very long if we ever do. Maybe it happens only once a day, once a month, or once in a whole lifetime! As glorious as it sounds, its a really precarious place to be in. Those arrows or days I really felt like I succeeded, I sometimes lose all my desire. “Well, I did it. Might as well go home now.” Or worse, “Well, there’s no way I can do that again. Might as well go home now.” This phase will remain the goal, but I don’t think we have much control over when or how it comes. All we can really do is just do our best.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Canadian Martial Art of Defendo!

Below is an excerpt from an article about Defendo, a martial art constructed by a Canadian, Bill Underwood, during WWII for hand to hand combat. The full article may be read here, and includes a video demonstrating the art.

Before getting to the excerpt, immediately below is a video of a more modern interpretation of Defendo.

John Ferris was 15-years-old, athletic and apprehensive, upon meeting Bill Underwood for the first time, at the old man’s self-defence academy in Toronto’s east end. Underwood was in a white undershirt, dress pants and stocking feet. He wore owlish glasses with black frames and looked like an 84-year-old Grandpa, with a stick-out belly, long arms and a kindly way. When he spoke, his accent betrayed his British roots, while his preference for tea — two bags to a cup — did not hint at any internal menace or capacity to cause grave bodily harm.

“Bill was a short old man,” Ferris recalls. “The first time I was introduced to him he came right over, and it was as if he wanted me to know that it didn’t matter that I was young — I still didn’t stand a chance against him. And then he put me down, hard and fast, and I remember saying, ‘Bill, that really hurts,” and Bill said to me: “Don’t worry. Nothing is going to break.””

So began Ferris’ stint as a human rag doll, with suitably flexible limbs and forgiving bones that an octogenarian, in glasses and an undershirt, would wrench and twist and throw about gymnasiums and church basements, demonstrating his craft.

“Bill was a showman,” Ferris says.

He was that, and more.

Robbie Cressman is an amateur historian and the keeper of the Underwood legend. It is a mostly forgotten story about a great Canadian innovator whose homegrown creations, at root, involved keeping the good guys — soldiers, cops, commandoes, spies, citizens and seniors — safe while saving democracy. Cressman’s interest in Underwood has a professional application. The 48-year-old is an elite hand-to-hand combat instructor, working with law enforcement and military personnel around the globe. Part of his mission has been to popularize the Underwood name, by telling Bill’s story to the “deadly serious” people he works with, while the other part involves teaching those same people how to fight like a Canadian, as Underwood once did.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Redevelopment of Kyokushin Karate

Below is an excerpt from a thought provoking post that appeared at The Martial Way. What do you believe is the purpose of your training and how are you working towards it? The full post may be read here.

There is no question that Kyokushin is a Budo, with a focus on bettering oneself and character, cultivating an indomitable spirit, through hard training and overcoming personal obstacles. Which is a great purpose to have.

However, when I look at the origins of Kyokushin and the words / philosophies of the founder, Sosai Mas Oyama, there was also a focus on developing a martial art that was meant to be a force to be reckoned with, that could stand with any other martial form and be an ultimate form of self-defense, or Goshin-Jitsu (護身術).

Today however, there tends to be mostly a focus on the sport aspect of full-contact, or knock-down, fighting. Which of course is great! And Kyokushin is famous for it, but not everyone will compete, and for those who do, many won’t compete beyond an amateur level, and the others can only compete for so long before age catches up. So those who remain are left with the focus being the athletics and spirit, but should there be more?

Mas Oyama wrote dozens of books in Japanese (a few translated to English), and most had a focus on self-defense, utilizing the same components that make Kyokushin a formable force in sport full-contact knock-down tournament kumite. Utilizing kihon and applications of the kata in realistic training.

This isn’t meant to be a debate on the merits of kata (bunkai), but rather open the question of realistic self-defense training focus, in ADDITION to the sport tournament side.
Kihon and kata by themselves won’t make you a good fighter and we know that. However they do have use. They develop focus, muscle and strength, muscle memory, proper breathing, and coordination, plus much more. And that’s if we put aside the bunkai aspect of kata, which can be very good…. IF and ONLY …. drilled properly.

Kyokushin isn’t just a sport, and I don’t believe it was meant to be. Knockdown fighting is the sport side of it but not the only focus. Originally there was a great focus on street techniques (developing reflexes, strikes to vulnerable parts of the body, joint locks, throws, etc.) But we don’t see much of that anymore.

There are many reasons for this I believe, but primarily it was the focus on competitive training in the 1970s, to help build and spread the reputation of Kyokushin.

Bunkai is rarely trained in Kyokushin, and other styles of karate. Realistic bunkai is even rarer. Training bunkai enough that you can use the techniques, as well as you can the kumite techniques, is almost unheard of.
Mas Oyama believed that if you wanted to use karate effectively for self-defense, you had to train hard and fight hard. In addition to traditional Kyokushin kihon (basics) and kata (forms), with their self-defense applications, Mas Oyama incorporated jissen kumite (full-contact fighting) into his style, but not exclusively.

The early days also incorporated grabs, throws, clinching, grappling, joint locks and much more. Remember, Sosai was also a 4th Dan in Judo, not to mention a teaching license in Aiki-jujutsu and Taikiken practice.
As a result, Kyokushin Karate evolved into one of the most formidable martial arts styles in Japan, and the world. It soon became known as “The Strongest Karate”, not only because of the incredible feats of strength and endurance that Mas Oyama performed, and not only because of the sport aspect, but also because of the rigorous requirements of training.

When you see pictures of Sosai in the early days, as well as his books, they incorporated strikes, joint locks and throws that come from kata and that are not used in kumite because of the rules.
Recently I have noticed an increase in popularity for authentic scenario based training again and resurgence in traditional training methods. I believe this is in part because people are seeing moves in mma and thinking, hmmm… that looks familiar, I’ve seen that move before somewhere. Never noticing before that it was always a part of the kata, and had never trained it as such.

Many of the moves you see in mma are not exclusive to one martial art. There are techniques you see in BJJ, Sambo, Muay Thai, etc., that can be found in the traditional syllabus of Okinawan Karate. The human body can only move and react in so many ways.

You don’t have to train for this purpose. Kihon and kata are very good strength and conditioning exercises. For example doing a kata in horse stance develops very powerful and strong legs and doing the basic blocks and punches as drills develop strength, as the same muscle groups are used as in sparring. However, there is so much more, if you are willing to put the time, effort and training in, as well as forgoing ego.

My own personal background included many years training in a purely self-defense system. Kenpo. An offshoot of the system Shihan Bobby Lowe was doing before his switch to Kyokushin. However, it lacked realism and contact, so I sought out Kyokushin and an incredible teacher to fill that gap.

Now having trained for a few years in Kyokushin I see that it can be an ultimate form of martial art, because it does have those components as well. We just don’t focus on them often.