Sunday, June 25, 2017

Musings Of A Budo Bum

My book is out! I've put together a collection of my some of my favorite budo essays, arranged them by themes and published them as Musings Of A Budo Bum. It's over 150 pages of pure budo stuff, with everything from how to use budo titles to how to stand up, plus many, many other things.

I want to thank everyone who contributed to the IndieGogo campaign to help get this published. You are awesome!

Signed copies are available at Mugendo Budogu in the USA.

Globally it is available from Amazon sites around the world, Chapters, and other fine booksellers.

 Musings Of A Budo Bum


The subjects covered are

CONTENTS
Introduction
Getting Started
Do you have to study in Japan to understand budo?
Etiquette: Form and sincerity in budo
Sensei, Kyoshi, Hanshi, and Shihan: budo titles and how (not) to use them
Different ranks in martial arts?
Zanshin
Do versus Jutsu
What kata isn’t
Trust in the dojo
Training
Training, motivation, and counting training time in decades instead of years
The most effective martial art
The dojo as the world: learning to deal with violence and power
Budo and responsibility
Investing in failure
The spirit of learning
Training hard and training well are not the same thing
When it comes to training, fast is slow and slow is fast
Getting out of the comfort zone
There are no advanced techniques
Essentials
The most essential principles in budo: Structure
The most essential principles in budo: Spacing
The most essential principles in budo: Timing
Philosophy
The only things I teach are how to walk and how to breathe
Budo expectations and realities: understanding the limits of what we study
Will budo training make me a better person?
Budo as a “professional skill” and professionalism in budo
Budo training and budo philosophy
How to adapt an art form to fit you
Is kata too rigid and mechanical? 

Thanks everyone! 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Budo Training and Stress

A friend asked me to write about budo as a stressor vs budo as stress relief, and how this interacts with the concept of "If your practice is comfortable you are not growing as a budoka"

At the most basic level, budo works as a stress reliever in the same way that any physical activity does. The activity burns off excess cortisol and adrenaline. What makes budo different is that budo training is, as you suggest above, also a type of stressor.  Competent budo training takes the student (and we’re all students of budo, no matter how long we’ve been studying) out to a place where there is physical and mental stress as a regular part of training.

The practice of martial techniques is pointless if the mind is not developed to be able to handle the stress of conflict. Therefore, competent budo training prepares the body by practicing techniques and strategies, and prepares the mind by placing gradually increasing pressure on the student’s psyche while teaching techniques for managing and mitigating that stress. Having someone trying to hit you with a big stick is stressful even in a training situation. To be effective, budo practice must train students for the stress that being in actual conflict will elicit.

Budo practice doesn’t start students out with full speed and force attacks. It starts them out with an attack that is within their capacity to evade and counter. The attacks are real though, in the sense that when I attack one of my students, she knows that my weapon will shortly occupy the precise space that her head is occupying now. The attack is not as fast or as powerful as I could make it. It is as fast and as powerful as it needs to be to require the student’s best action. The goal is not to hurt or injure the student. The goal is to train the student to deal with the possibility of harm and handle it calmly. As the student masters various parts of the training, the speed and power of the attack must be increased to maintain the challenge for the student and to ensure that the student continues to grow. What had been stressful as a beginning student will cease to be stressful to a more advanced one.

In other words, the student will have learned to handle a certain kind and degree of stress. The budo teacher’s job is to increase the stress and at the same time teach the student techniques for dealing with that stress. I find that good breathing technique is the most fundamental of stress management tools. Early on, students will begin to take quick, shallow breaths that don’t sustain them.  That shallow breathing, in turn, will increase their stress level. The experienced student of budo has learned to breathe efficiently, from her diaphragm, in a steady, measured manner.  Good breathing technique helps the student to remain calm and in control, even as the speed, force and intent of her partner’s attack increases.

The senior student remains calm even under attacks that would overwhelm a beginning student. The repeated experience of gradually intensifying attacks combined with learning to master one’s breathing and reactions through the exercises of a particular budo system increases the level of stress the student can successfully manage. It is not that having someone attack them is no longer stressful, but that they have been trained to raise their stress reaction levels. An attack by a senior teacher that would have been overwhelmingly stressful before, one that  would make a student start hyperventilating while waiting for the attacker to approach, becomes something they await with calm, measured breathing and a quiet, mirror-like mind.

As budo practice continues,  the student finds that she can summon this calm breathing and peaceful mind not just in the dojo, but anywhere she feels stress or conflict. Eventually the student reaches a level where even when her teacher presents a new situation that she is unfamiliar with, her body and mind remain calm and peaceful.  She then becomes confident that she can handle whatever is coming.

This is one aspect of budo training that makes senior exponents appear to be super-human to beginners and non-practitioners. They are in command of themselves, controlled and calm, even when under intense stress. The more effectively a student internalizes the lessons about breathing and mental calmness, the more the lessons will show up outside the dojo.

Being able to remain calm and and unstressed is useful in all sorts of places and situations that don’t involve people trying to hit you with big sticks, tossing you across the room or choking you into submission. It’s surprising how useful this skill is in business settings where negotiations are going on and people are trying to ratchet up the pressure. There are all sorts of adversaries who don’t attack with big sticks, but do attack in other ways, with verbal attacks, implied threats and physical intimidation by imposing on personal space. These can all bring out stress responses.

Budo training can be applied in all of them. Just remembering to breathe calmly when the person across the room starts raising their voice gives the budo student an advantage. Being able to maintain her calm, steady breathing helps to keep a peaceful, undisturbed mind, which does a good job of making many pressure tactics seem almost silly. People who like to intimidate others by their close physical presence are often unnerved themselves when their targets remain calm and confident while their personal space is violated. People who like to yell and pound the table during negotiations tend to grow quiet and uncomfortable when their outbursts are met with calm disregard. It’s like the physical attacker who expects you to stand there and get hit. The student can rewrite the script for the interaction simply by remaining calm when under attack. It doesn’t matter what form the attack takes. With her calm breathing and clear mind, she gets to choose her actions rather than being pushed into the reaction her adversary is looking for.

Budo training works both sides of the stress equation. The physical and mental intensity of good budo practice provides vigorous exercise that relieves accumulated tension. Over time, the lessons learned from the vigorous practice lowers the pressure you feel overall because the training works to raise the bar as to what is stressful, and to help maintain mental stability and calm even when things get hot.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Are You Practicing Budo in a Vacuum?

Osaka Castle Main Tower. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.


I love visiting Japan. It’s a fantastic opportunity to train in dojo where there are several senior students, each with more experience than most teachers in the USA. The teachers who lead these dojo are incredible.  My teacher, Matsuda Shigeharu Shihan is based in Osaka. He doesn’t run his own dojo, but rotates around a group of dojo run by his senior students, people like Kazuo Iseki and Hotani Masayuki. Outside Japan, Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei would each be highly recognized, but inside Japan they run dojo and look to Matsuda Shihan for leadership. I also get to train sometimes with Matsuda Shihan’s colleague Morimoto Kunifumi Shihan.  To get to train with these people, who have 40, 50 or 60 years of experience truly is an honor and a privilege.  

However, this post isn’t about my teachers, or even training in Japan. It’s about the frame and background that surrounds them. I’ve seen people try to practice budo without putting any effort into understanding the history and cultural background of the art they are studying. To me, they are studying budo in a vacuum. It can be argued that fighting can be learned without studying the cultural milieu within which it takes place, but I don’t think the arguments are very convincing.  Without understanding the culture and history of your opponent, you will not be able to understand her goals, which leads to misjudging what tactics and strategies are most appropriate.

Budo wasn’t created in a vacuum by a bunch of guys with vivid imaginations. Budo comes from a concrete world of sweat and blood. The world of the founders of the many ryuha  was filled with obstacles that could block your weapon if you didn’t pay attention to your surroundings.  Even your own weapons and clothing could interfere with your ability to react.

The many different schools of Japanese budo are impossible to truly understand and appreciate without  understanding the history and culture which nurtured and contributed to the individual schools. There are dozens of surviving schools of Japanese budo; some with histories from the 1400s like Kashima Shinryu and Katori Shinto, as well as other,  more recently developed schools, such as Kodokan Judo and Ueshiba Ryu Aikido. Each of these schools shares a great deal of Japanese culture, but they also each have a unique history that informs the particular values of the school.  The circumstances that surrounded the founding of a school in the tumultuous era of the 15th century were different in almost every way from those that led to Kano Jigoro founding Kodokan Judo in the 1880s or Ueshiba Morihei establishing his Aikido in the 1940s.

When I go to Japan, it’s an opportunity to immerse myself in the unbelieveable depth of experience in the dojo, but also to soak myself in the culture and history that has shaped the arts I study. When I went to Japan in November, I had a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of Japan that has influenced the budo I study and practice.



I arrived in Japan on a Saturday evening and spent much of Sunday getting adjusted to the time change and doing some jodo training. On Monday morning I got up and headed over to Osaka Castle Park. I wanted to see the dojo I’d be testing in the following Sunday, and see Osaka Castle itself.  Somehow, in nearly 30 years of traveling to Japan, seven of them spent living there, I’d never gotten around to seeing Osaka Castle. It’s the site of some of the most horrific and important battles in Japanese history. The castle tower has been built, destroyed and rebuilt several times, but visiting the castle and the surrounding park provides good perspective on the Japan of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Osaka Castle Main Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016


Osaka Castle Inner Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016


The castle tower is big.  It was easily the tallest object around for hundreds of years. What is more amazing are the walls and fortifications around the tower.  These are massive, and they easily give a feel for the huge armies that were involved in the wars of the 1500s that raged back and forth across Japan.The idea of carrying a sword and being part of those huge armies changes the view of what combat might have been like.

 
Shudokan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016
 
As it happens, the Shudokan Dojo, where I was to test, is part of the Osaka Castle Park complex now.  It’s a lovely building from the Showa Period (1926-1989) built just for budo practice.  I wanted to check out the interior where my test would be, but the dojo didn’t open until later in the afternoon when I would be training with Hotani Sensei.  The outside of the building was lovely, and the sign said anyone was welcome to practice for just 300 yen. What can be rare and hard to find in America is open to anyone in Japan with 300 yen and an interest in budo. 
After several days of training, I was starting to get a little sore.  I needed a break.  So before keiko that Tuesday we went to Kiyomizu Temple to do some sightseeing.  Kiyomizu Temple is at the site of an ancient spring with pure water used for sado, tea ceremony.  The temple complex is about 1200 years old, though the current buildings date from the late 1600s. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most picturesque places in Kyoto, so it’s always filled with tourists from all over Japan and the world.

Kiyomizu Temple overlooking Kyoto. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.



Recently, it’s become popular rent traditional clothing to walk Kyoto in. This is a new trend that I like. There were lots and lots of women in kimono, and even a few men in hakama. The city of Kyoto has worked hard to maintain its traditional buildings and architecture, and the tourists in traditional clothing fit right in. It’s not hard to imagine how the temple and city must have looked when everyone dressed that way.

Ladies in kimono at Kiyomizu Temple. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.


After walking through Kiyomizu Temple, my friend Bijan and I and walked around the small shopping streets from the temple to Maruyama Park. The road leading up to Kiyomizu Temple from Maruyama Park is, in this era, really a foot path, even though locals and delivery trucks insist on pushing their way through the crowds. It’s lined with small, traditional snack shops, green tea ice cream vendors, and traditional craft shops of all sorts. I bought some lovely tenugui at a little shop along the way.  When I asked the man at the register how long the shop has been there, he told me that he’s the 6th generation owner. This is not at all unusual in Kyoto, and helps bring alive the idea that the living traditions handed down carefully from generation to generation that we train in aren’t all that rare in Japan. Besides shops, there all sorts of crafts where the living masters trace their lineage back generations and hundreds of years. Kabuki, Noh, potters, painters, sword makers and sword teachers can all trace their lineages back through the centuries. In places like Kyoto, this sense of age permeates the atmosphere and brings a sense of the normalcy of such things to those of us from countries that  are younger than the arts we study.

Wandering from Kiyomizu Temple to Maruyama Park also makes some of the kata I’ve studied over the years much more practical and less philosophical. Many of the homes and store complexes have an actual gate or mon 門. If you have a kata in your system with the word mon  in the name, such as Mon Ire in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu or Muso Shinden Ryu, you can easily see why there are particular kata for fighting around a gate. The top of the gate is low and the space is not very big. You have to be careful just walking through the gate, much less trying to fight there.

Another feature of old Japanese cities are the narrow streets. I know several bugei systems with a kata called Hoso Michi 細道, or Narrow Street. The street from the temple to the park is only about 10 feet (3 meters) wide, and there are many little streets connecting to it that are only 3-6 feet (1-2 meters) wide. After you see just how many narrow streets there are in a traditional Japanese city like Kyoto, the only surprise with having kata called Hoso Michi is that there aren’t a lot more of them. There are little tiny alleyways everywhere.

The path leads past all sorts of little, traditional shops and many small temples in addition to Kiyomizu Temple.  We had a lovely sushi lunch in one.  Sushi as we know it isn’t all that old, only really dating from the mid-19th century, but some of the senbei and dango shops, like the place where I bought the tenugui, have been there for generations. Being able to walk the streets this way, you can feel the atmosphere of centuries past, and now, thanks to all the tourists wearing kimono and hakama, you can get sense of how the people may have looked as well.

Budo, like any living tradition, and any living person, has been shaped by the culture and history through which it has passed.  You can’t study budo in a vacuum. Without understanding where budo comes from, there is no way to really understand what you are doing or how those lessons might apply to the world as it has become. Those funky kata are just arm waving exercises until you can clearly see the world they came from and how they fit. Without that, there isn’t any way to connect what you are studying and practicing with the world you live in. Even the modern budo of judo and kendo are more than 100 years old in their current forms. Aikido isn’t quite 100 yet, but some of its elements are from far older traditions. Shiko, knee walking, goes back to particular styles of court dress from the Edo period. Judo contains kata against weapons of the Edo and early Meiji eras. Kendo, is, well, a sword art.

If you don’t know how the art you study relates to the world it came from, what possibility is there for you to relate it to the world outside the dojo you live in? This is especially true in the koryu bugei, but as in the examples above, it relates to more modern budo as well. In the Shinto Hatakage Ryu that I teach, there is a strange little movement during the noto that doesn’t make a lot of sense as iai is usually practiced. Iai is usually practiced with just a katana in the obi, but that’s not how the samurai who created the art and lived it for generations dressed.  They wore two swords, a katana and what we call today a wakizashi, a short sword worn beside the katana. That strange little motion looks like silly arm waving, and it is. At least, it is until you put a wakizashi in your obi next to the katana. Then the motion makes perfect sense as you maneuver around the wakizashi to get the katana back into the saya without banging the swords or your wrist. There’s a lesson here about being aware of your surroundings and moving in accordance with them that shows up in many places in budo kata, regardless of which ryuha you are studying.

The lessons of budo kata and training aren’t meant to be particular. You’re not learning about how to wield your sword in an alleyway in Japan, or how to fight in and around the gate of a traditional Japanese home. The kata chosen in any ryuha represent specific examples of general problems.  How do you draw your sword in obstructed spaces? How do you move in loose, baggy clothing, or be aware of obstacles in your environment? If you think of each kata and lesson as an isolated instance, there is no way to understand and absorb everything it has to offer. Knowing the history and background of a kata makes it possible to extract general rules from specific lessons. There is no way to make a kata for every possible variation. There isn’t enough time in one life to study every possible scenario. The creators of budo chose lessons that could be extrapolated from individual kata to the whole panoply of life.

Generations ago when the budo ryuha were being created, these general lessons were easier to pick up because the specific practices were drawn from daily life. Now we have to study not just the kata, but the history and settings of the kata before we can extract all the lessons they contain.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Being Senior In Japan

 
Iseki Sensei in his dojo.  Photo Copyright 2016 Peter Boylan

I was in Japan in November to take my 5th dan test in jodo. I arrived a week before the test so I could prepare. My friend Bijan had come along to take his 4th dan test. There are so many people who’ve been training for decades in the dojos in Japan that I’ve never really had to think about what seniors have to to.

Bijan and I had arrived at Iseki Sensei’s dojo and we were ready to go. The regular class has a variety of students; from 5th dan-holders like Mr. & Mrs. Fujita all the way to unranked beginners. I’m still not really used to being on the senior side of the room in the dojo in Japan, but that’s where I am.

Matsuda Shihan visits a few different dojo around Osaka that look to him for leadership and teaching.  Iseki Sensei’s Yoshunkan Dojo is one of them. Hotani Sensei’s dojo in Shonai is another.  Both Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei are 7th dans who were highly ranked before I started jodo.  The nafudakake (name boards) in their respective dojo are loaded with senior students ranked 5th, 6th, and 7th dan. All these high ranking students in a dojo where they aren’t the teacher. What are they doing?

Traditional dojo, especially koryu bugei dojo, aren’t run the same way dojo for modern arts like judo, kendo and aikido are. The teachers don’t demonstrate techniques and have everyone try/copy/follow along. They don’t run them like drill sergeants with the teacher barking commands and all the students leaping to do what is called out. All those high ranking students are wonderful resources that traditional dojo make frequent use of.

Practice in the dojo may start out looking familiar. In Iseki Sensei’s and Hotani Sensei’s dojo we start with the basics, but it’s once we’re warmed up and past the basics that things start to change from the more well-known models of practice. We pair off, each junior with a senior student, never two juniors together.  In traditional dojo one of the key responsibilities of senior students is working with beginning and junior students.  Developing good fundamentals is too important for the dojo and the future of the art to allow beginning and junior students to flounder without strong, experienced supervision.

Even in a small dojo, the teacher can’t be everywhere. Senior students are responsible for a lot of the learning that happens in a traditional dojo. In traditional dojo like Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei lead, the seniors have a lot of responsibility. They aren’t there just to polish their own skills. Being a member of a koryu bugei comes with a broader responsibility than just paying your monthly dues and getting your lessons from sensei.

During my last visit, when we lined up to bow in, it was clear that I was well into the deep end of the dojo. I can’t pretend to anyone that I’m one of the juniors anymore, not even to myself.  The juniors get embarrassed if I try to line up below them, and the seniors don't wave me away anymore when I offer to help take care of things in the dojo. After the warm-ups, the seniors lined up one side of the dojo and the juniors lined up on the other side of the dojo.

We worked our way through the paired kihon practice, with the seniors acting as uchi tachi (as uke is called in Shinto Muso Ryu). Iseki Sensei called out the techniques and the seniors guided and directed the juniors’ practice by adjusting the spacing and offering the correct opening for each attack being practiced. As the juniors practiced honte uchi and hikiotoshi uchi and maki otoshi  and the other fundamental techniques, the seniors were responsible for helping them learn the spacing and range of each technique.

After working through the kihon, we moved on to the kata. The Kendo Federation’s standard jodo is made up of 12 kata done as a pair with jo and tachi. For this part of the practice, each junior was again paired with a senior. This time the senior’s responsibility was to guide the much more complex application of the kihon  techniques in the kata themselves. For this the senior had to know both the jo and tachi side of the kata deeply.

This, for the seniors, meant not just going through the motions of the tachi side correctly. The senior had to adjust the speed and intensity of the attacks to match the lessons the junior was learning. Too slow or gentle would have resulted in  the junior not being challenged. Too fast or hard and the junior would have simply been crushed under the power of the senior’s attack. Either way, the junior would not have had  the opportunity to learn anything from the practice.   

The junior I was partnered with only knew the first 7 kata, so when we got up to the eighth one we cycled back to the first kata and worked through that again. Sensei will decide when a student is ready to learn a new kata. On the senior side, I had enough work adjusting the way I performed the tachi’s role to suit the learning level of the particular person I was working with.

My technique was challenged when it was time for the seniors to practice with each other. Then my partners pushed me to the edge of my skills and made me reach for a little bit more. The week  before the godan test, Fujita San, one of Iseki Sensei’s godan students, worked with me almost every day, acting in the role of senior so I could learn the lessons Iseki Sensei, Hotani Sensei and Matsuda Shihan wanted me to learn. Fujita San kept the intensity and power of the practice at a high level so I was always challenged to do just a little bit better.

The responsibility of being senior in the dojo doesn’t end with helping juniors learn to practice. In Japan, the seniors make the dojo function. Sensei doesn’t worry about taking care of the dojo or introducing new students to the routines and jobs around the dojo. At the end of practice, it’s not the newest students who are running to grab a broom and sweep the dojo.  It’s the seniors. Just as we are training in a martial way, each dojo has its own way of cleaning up, taking care of the dojo, and running practice. It’s not Sensei’s job to introduce new students to customs and rhythms of the dojo. That’s the job of the seniors.

When I go to Hotani Sensei’s dojo in Shonai, it’s the seniors who run to get the covering for the tatami mats unrolled and secured before class. After the class the seniors run to roll it up and put it away. When a new student starts, the seniors quietly explain the proper formalities of bowing in to the dojo, and the starting and ending formalities for practice. The seniors help new students figure out what sort of equipment they need, and give advice as to where to get it.

Often someone will have brought some omiyage (souvenir or treat from a trip), or some other treat to share with the dojo. After practice is over, it’s the senior students who get the cups out, pour the drinks and distribute the treats, not the beginners. When it’s all done the seniors make sure everything is cleaned up and put away.

One of the signs that you’re really a member of the dojo is when people start letting you help out with a lot of these things. There’s no hard and fast rule about this, but until you’re allowed to help, you’re sort of on probation with the members of the dojo. You can offer to help, but more often than not your assistance will be politely declined.  When people start letting you help, it’s a good sign that you’ve been accepted. When people start looking at you like you know what you’re doing and they are looking to you to lead something, you know it.

Helping out and taking care of things for Sensei is one of the best ways of saying “Thank you. I appreciate you teaching me.” Being part of a dojo in Japan is not simply an economic exchange. All budo in Japan, not just koryu budo, have a significant social and cultural aspect that may be quite foreign to someone who trains in a commercial dojo where you simply pay your dues and come to class. When you join a dojo or a ryuha, you’re joining a living group with traditions and ways of doing things that you are expected to learn and contribute to. Everyone takes care of the dojo, sweeping and cleaning and washing. Everyone finds ways to take work out of Sensei’s hands so she doesn’t have to worry about all the details of running the dojo.

Just as the seniors are the ones that Sensei relies on to help the juniors get the most out of practice, they are also the ones Sensei relies on to keep the dojo running smoothly. The seniors in the dojo don’t get to rest on their rank and seniority. Instead they are expected to assume more responsibility, whether that is by guiding junior students’ practice by being effective partners, or helping clean up after practice, or coordinating an enbu (demonstration) or some other dojo activity. I’ve been around Iseki Sensei’s and Hotani Sensei’s dojo for so long that I really am one of the seniors. Now I have to live up to that responsibility.



Monday, February 6, 2017

The Utility Of Jo-Ha-Kyu


Photo – Kyu – the conclusion of a cut. Photo by Rick Frye, 2014

 Today I have the pleasure of introducing a guest blog on jo-ha-kyu by my colleague and friend, Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D. There are many concepts  that came into budo from other areas of Japanese culture. The idea of jo-ha-kyu is one of them. Klens-Bigman Sensei's background as a Jun Shihan in Shinto Hatakage Ryu as well her expertise in Japanese dance gives her an excellent position from which to examine this crucial concept. 

The utility of jo-ha-kyu
Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

If you have spent time training in Japan, or your teacher is Japanese, sooner or later he/she will mention a concept that is as essential to the study of koryu as any other practical aspect. That concept is jo-ha-kyu.
If you look up the kanji (序破急), you get a set of straight-up definitions. Jo () means beginning. Ha () means middle in this particular context, but it can also mean, interestingly, to break or destroy, the same kanji found in shu-ha-ri (a subject for another essay). Kyu () means a fast pace, and appears most familiarly to visitors to Japan as designating an express train. But, just as looking up the roots of words in English only hints at their current or contextual meaning, those simple definitions don't begin to describe the depth of the meaning of the idea of jo-ha-kyu, nor its importance to the study of any traditional movement form, including koryu budo. As I mentioned above, jo-ha-kyu is a practical aspect, essential to achieve a level of understanding beyond just the mechanical movements of a given kata or waza.
There is a lot of discussion of the application of strength or not, but less about the speed (or lack thereof) in applying given techniques. Generally speaking it seems that we like speed. We learn the elements of waza and look forward to using them “at speed.” However, in koryu budo training, speed is a relative thing, to be used judiciously. Simply put, once a student understands the mechanical aspects of a form or technique (properly learned at a glacial pace), the teacher should begin a discussion as to how the student performs the movements of the form.
In its simplest aspect, jo-ha-kyu suggests rising acceleration. When drawing a sword for a nukitsuke cut, the iaidoka begins the draw slowly, and with a relaxed grip. As the sword is drawn, the speed increases, and the grip becomes more firm (but not tight) until the sword is free. Once free, the iaidoka snaps the monouchi of the sword towards the target by tightening her grip to the utmost. The iaidoka’s grip then relaxes as she re-positions her sword for the second cut of the kata, and the process of acceleration begins again.
Simple enough, yes? And easily seen, though perhaps not as easy to do. But jo-ha-kyu does not only refer to the elements of a given kata. The entire kata exhibits jo-ha-kyu. Let’s go back to our iaido example. The nukitsuke cut is a small cut. Depending on the style, it may be given as a warning to a would-be opponent to back off, theoretically making the balance of the kata unnecessary. The kata assumes, though, that that a second cut is necessary, and so the follow up to the nukitsuke is a much larger, and more lethal, cut. Afterward, if the bunkai of the kata only involves one opponent, the iaidoka performs chiburi and noto and the kata is finished.
http://iaikai.com/

Weapons kata seem to make the understanding of jo-ha-kyu pretty obvious (though I can state from experience it’s much harder to learn how to do properly), but the same sense of timing can be seen in empty-hand forms as well. Grab your opponent too fast or too hard, and your technique will in all likelihood, fail. In techniques for Daito ryu, the defender often has to wait for the attacker to do something before he can react. And the timing of his reaction and the execution of his technique depends very often on a sense of acceleration, not a sudden movement.
Jo-ha-kyu works in layers, starting with the individual elements of a given kata or technique, then to the design of the kata overall. But jo-ha-kyu doesn’t stop there. Sets of kata also reflect jo-ha-kyu. For example, the shoden set of Shinto Hatakage ryu consists of six kata. In the process of learning the six kata, the iaidoka learns how to: draw and cut in a shallow, rising diagonal, kirioroshi (straight down) cut, nukitsuke in a rising reverse-diagonal cut, a straight-on thrust, downward kesa (diagonal) cut, tsubame-gaeshi (reverse diagonal followed by downward diagonal; literally “barn swallow [and] return” because it resembles a swallow’s forked tail) cut, ko-(or yoko-) chiburi , simple noto (resheathing of the sword) and kaiten chiburi, in which the sword spins in the iaidoka’s hand, followed by a reverse-hand noto. The first form in the set is straightforward, followed by increasingly complicated bunkai of the subsequent forms. After that, it gets complicated.
Regardless of the style, shoden sets of forms always teach – well – basics. The second set of forms assumes this basic set of skills and applies them in different (sometimes radically different) ways. Some teachers have suggested the shoden set is like playing scales on a musical instrument – learning how the instrument works and what it is capable of. In koryu budo, the practitioner learns how the weapon works, whether a sword, a stick, or his own body. Over time, techniques increase in complexity.
Now, everyone knows that levels of training involve beginner, intermediate, and advanced forms. But considering a ryuha in terms of jo-ha-kyu gives more depth to the utility of a layering of rising acceleration. And I don't mean speed. I mean depth of understanding. Once a practitioner begins to see jo-ha-kyu in the techniques, kata, and overall ryuha, the utility of the concept can be seen practically everywhere, even in aspects of everyday life.
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Author’s Note: I would like to thank Ismael Franco Sensei of Tora Dojo and Peter Boylan Sensei Of Michigan Koryu Kenkyukai for vetting portions of this post.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Practice In Japan


Yoshunkan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

 Practice in Japan has a different feel from training in the U.S.. In Japan, everyone is quietly intent on the training. There is no chatter, and not even much in the way of questions to Sensei about how things should be done. Keiko proceed with a smooth regularity. Everyone except the newest students knows how practice in their dojo operates, and they all work to make sure everything goes smoothly. This is not to say that everyone is already perfect - far from it. Everyone in the dojo is there to learn and train hard. Training time lacks the social element that is often present in dojo outside Japan. There is no extraneous conversation while training is going on. Before and after practice? Of course. During breaks? Sure. While actual practice is going on? Not at all.

It’s not that anyone is yelling or enforcing silence. Everyone is there for a reason and a purpose, and during practice they focus on it. No one has to tell them to focus. It’s not like the pseudo-military atmosphere I’ve seen in some dojo outside Japan, with the instructor acting as a drill sergeant, yelling at anyone who isn’t exactly in line. In most Japanese dojo, the discipline comes from within the students themselves, not from the teachers. I would be mortified if I were to be so out of line that anyone, fellow student or the teacher, felt a need to say something to me about my behavior.

Everyone who comes into the dojo has to learn the dojo routine, but no one is harassed while they are learning. New students are as quiet as senior students, maybe quieter, since they don’t want to risk offending anyone. Beginners are busy trying to learn the dojo routines and etiquette, so they don’t have much time to say anything.  Senior students are comfortable and at home in the dojo, so they they don’t need to say much.

Practice moves along at a rapid clip. Dojo in America often have a lot of chatting and talking among students, or at the other end, a rigidly enforced atmosphere of silence. Traditional dojo in Japan are quiet and focused, but lack the authoritarian feel of many large, modern dojo. You don’t see a lot of external discipline. Students are expected to know how to behave politely while they figure out the dojo customs. Teachers expect to be able to be heard and lead class without yelling.

For example, Iseki Sensei leads the jodo class, and everyone takes turn in the counting of technique repetitions while we’re working through the kihon (fundamentals) at the beginning of class. Sensei speaks loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the dojo, and no louder.

Kazuo Iseki Sensei. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

Once we finish with the kihon, Sensei splits us into senior and junior members so the seniors can act as partners for the junior students. This is something I don’t see enough of in modern dojo. The seniors use their understanding of timing, spacing and control to help the juniors get the most out of their technique and kata practice. The senior adjusts her speed and intensity to a level where the junior can practice and learn. The senior doesn’t spend much time talking to the junior; they are both focused on the training. If significant corrections need to be made the senior will make a brief comment, but that’s all that’s needed.

The teacher lets the students practice without a lot of interruption. Rarely will the whole class be stopped to make a point. The teacher will correct individual issues individually, and the rest of the class will wait for the pair being corrected to get back on track, or continue working on kata if the correction is taking more time than usual. Working with the juniors is not a sacrifice for the senior students. They are also working on the spacing, timing, and control for the tachi side.

Practice gets more interesting when Sensei has the junior members of the dojo sit down to watch while the seniors work together. This practice is intense, with the seniors working at the edge of their skill. The juniors don’t chatter while watching. They’ve learned well how to quietly observe somewhere else. They don’t have to learn that here. The seniors will all be working on different parts of the curriculum, as directed by Sensei. Sometimes Sensei will step in and act as the partner so the student can focus her  practice on a particular point. 

Traditional Japanese Swordsmanship


Through all of this the only time Sensei will yell is when he calls for a break. Most corrections are made at a conversational tone by Sensei. If one senior is helping another, the corrections are usually made at a whisper so as to not disturb anyone else’s training. The whole atmosphere is one of intensity and focus on learning. Even the juniors sitting at the side are quiet and focused on picking up as much as they can from watching the seniors practice. There is plenty to learn that way about footwork, timing, rhythm, and all the other details of the art. There is room for smiles and quiet laughter at mistakes and accidents.  Then it’s back to practice.

Talking would disturb everyone else in the dojo, and the last thing anyone in Japan wants to do is bother someone else. This doesn’t mean the dojo isn’t friendly and social, because all of the traditional dojo I’ve been in have been friendly and social. The students just recognize clear distinctions between training time and social time. The “friendly” is always there. People are genuinely concerned about their partners’ well-being. When training is over, people are very social. There are questions about how people are doing, jokes and laughter.  Often there is time for a drink together after training.

That’s after training. During training everyone trains. No one chatters or talks other than necessary. They just train. The focus is quite different from dojo I’ve been to elsewhere. Everyone shares the focus.  This is something I need to bring to the dojo where I train outside Japan.