Showing posts with label Budo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Budo. Show all posts

Monday, February 19, 2018

Discipline and the Martial Arts in Japan

Martial arts and self-discipline are nearly synonymous in modern American culture. The benefits of developed self-discipline are heavily touted in advertisements for many martial arts, from karate to judo to Brazilian jujutsu to kung fu and Taekwondo. Popular images of ranks of martial artists performing technique after technique in perfect unison; “Senseis” who bark commands and students who leap to comply.

This is the image of discipline in U.S. martial arts, and if you travel to Japan, you’ll easily find more examples of this sort. Gendai budo culture was forged in the first half of the 20th century in the heat of Japanese nationalist fervor that saw the martial arts as a means of instilling “samurai values” into the masses of Japan. Modern budo that were systematized during this period often are run in a strict, formal manner. This is most clearly seen in karate and kendo dojo, especially in school dojo. These arts were molded to the service of the military culture of the day, and so they adopted many practices that are suitable for large numbers of people to train together.

Pre-modern budo, or koryu budo, in Japan weren’t designed or intended for training large numbers of people at the same time. They were, and are, about individual transmission, teacher to student.  As such, they don’t really lend themselves to large group instruction, and so the military tended to ignore the classical budo.

But there is one crucial difference between US budo practice and practice in Japan: Regardless of whether the art is classical or modern, students in Japan are expected to have self-discipline before they start. I can’t imagine anyone trying to get their child into a koryu budo so they could learn discipline.  It’s even more difficult to imagine any koryu budo teacher accepting a student in those circumstances.

In modern budo as well, Japanese students are expected to arrive with self-control. Teachers of modern and classical budo in Japan expect to be teaching their art, and helping their students forge themselves, not working on developing the basic self-control and focus students need to get through class. Learning self-control and focus starts at home in Japan, and it starts early. Children are encouraged from an early age to sit with a stillness that seems unnatural to an American. Behaving well in any public situation, whether it is riding the train, sitting in class at school, or practicing a sport, a martial art or a hobby, is emphasized and socially enforced from from the age of 3 or 4. It’s not that parents enforce good public behavior, but that society does it.

Japanese groups are self-regulating. School children are allowed to regulate their own social interactions, and they can be harsh. Kids who don’t play well soon find themselves ostracized and alone. Peer pressure isn’t just a thing in Japanese society.  It’s the only thing, and children learn to behave in public very quickly without much interference from adults. Teachers don’t usually need to enforce discipline, and from what I’ve seen they really don’t know how enforce it when it is needed.
Japanese society is quite ruthless about excluding anyone who can’t follow the norms of good behavior. There are stories of seeing children being allowed to fight or quarrel among themselves over toys or some such, and later, when the observer returns, he discovers the child who had been aggressive and pushy is ignored and alone while the rest of the children play together.

Even when students start budo at an early age, there is an expectation of self-control. The judo dojo in Omihachiman always had a few toddlers just out of diapers running around in dogi. The toddlers were gently encouraged to copy the older children, but if they went off script and sat in Sensei’s lap, that was greeted with an indulgent smile. By the time they were about 4 years old, they were capable of taking part in class, sitting at attention when called for without anyone having to yell or make a fuss. They learned self-discipline within the culture of the dojo and society at large.

In Japan, by the time most people start a martial art, usually in a junior or senior high school club, they are expected to have self-discipline already. Anyone without it won’t last. It won’t become an issue the sensei has to deal with. Their fellow students won’t put up with them. Japanese groups won’t tolerate undisciplined members. For self-discipline, it doesn’t matter whether the budo is old or new in Japan. Students are expected to enter the gate with self-discipline.

Discipline in the traditional dojo is modeled by the members, not dictated by the teacher. All that is required of a new student is that she sincerely work to learn the proper etiquette and behavior. I’ve been in dojo in Japan long enough to have been through the process myself and to have seen new Japanese students enter the dojo and learn.

Enjoy the blog, get the book! The best essays from the Budo Bum! Signed copies at

New students in Japan don’t come into the dojo with arrogance, or even an air of confidence. New students are expected to enter the gate with sincere humility and a sincere desire to learn. As long as the student is sincerely working at learning the way things are done in the dojo they won’t have problems and mistakes will be forgiven and gently corrected. One thing you will NEVER hear from a new student or guest is “In my dojo we do it this way.” If you’re in a dojo, you’re there to learn, not show what you know or how you’ve done it somewhere else.

This applies not just among Japanese children ostracizing kids who won’t play well, but also to large, socially awkward non-Japanese as well. I’m surprised at how generously I was tolerated as I blundered around the judo dojo when I first moved to Japan. I think I was regarded much as one of the toddlers in dogi running around the dojo were regarded; I was too lacking in proper learning and development to know how to behave.

By the time I moved to Japan, I’d been doing Judo for 4 years, so I’d sort of learned the basics of good dojo behavior. But in the years I spent in Japan I absorbed much more. I learned to really appreciate the simple respect and expectation of self-discipline that was embodied by everyone in the dojo.
Arriving in Japan fresh out of college and quite full of what I thought I knew, I made more mistakes than I can bear to remember in these sorts of things. I lacked the awareness of what everyone else was doing and what they would think of me that is an essential part of learning and entering the dojo as humbly as students in Japan should. The patience which my teachers and fellow students showed me as I slowly learned humility and emptied my cup amazes me still.

If dojo in Japan enforced discipline in the harsh way movies often imagine I would have been beaten into silence any number of times for my cocky, heedless behavior when I first arrived in Japan. I was greeted with calm patience instead. I did eventually learn to sincerely try to see what was going on around me, but it took longer than I care to admit.

The big, bearded gaijin was treated with much the same sort of indulgence as a toddler when I first showed up at the dojo.  I knew the some of the basics of dojo behavior, like when to bow, but I was completely lacking in the finer points of good behavior, of good self-discipline. I didn’t know how to properly receive an answer to a question or a particular point of instruction. I remember Hikoso Sensei teaching me about footsweeps one day. I had asked something about the timing, and Sensei carefully showed it to me once. Then he turned to someone else.  I was disappointed because he hadn’t gone into the details and spent time working with me until I “got it.”  What I didn’t understand then was the expectation between teacher and student that the teacher would show it, and then the student would go off on their own and work on the particular point rigorously by herself. The teacher or coach doesn’t expect to stand there making endless small corrections.  The student is expected to woodshed the point until she understands it deeply and fully.

My endless questions about things that I could have figured out for myself with enough work on my own were handled with what I realize now was a touch of disappointment that I was 23 years old and still so immature. I’m lucky I didn’t find koryu budo until I’d been in Japan for several years.  By then I had started to absorb some of the Japanese ideas about personal dedication and effort. I learned that if I asked a question about maki otoshi in jodo one week, I’d  better show that I was listening to the answer by putting in a few hours of polishing the technique before the next practice so Sensei could see that I was paying attention. Japanese children learn to apply themselves in that way very early from their parents. If a child is taking piano lessons or shodo class or karate, she is expected to be as dedicated in her practice away from the teacher as she is when the teacher is standing next to her.

The common image of the Japanese sensei yelling and berating their students isn’t false, but it’s not as common as the mythology would have it, and it’s missing the necessary context.. A Sensei doesn’t start yelling and berating students until she feels the students are dedicated to the practice already. Most of my teachers in Japan have not been fond of yelling.  They just don’t give you any energy if they think you won’t do anything with it. Whatever you do is “good” because they don’t want to waste time on you. When the teacher starts paying attention to you and tearing apart your technique you know you’re doing something right.

I do have one or two who like yelling. The funny thing is they never yell at new students. They seem to base their attention on who they feel is the most dedicated, and one sure way to show dedication is travel six thousand miles to train with them. Then you really get some attention. It can be disconcerting and downright frightening to have a senior teacher yelling at you with this kind of intensity. He expects you to have the self-control and dedication to knuckle down and do what he’s demanding.  If you don’t already have it, you’re not going to survive in the dojo. Those who don’t have it tend to leave at the end of the night and not come back.

The English idea that discipline is, as the Cambridge Dictionary defines it “training that makes people more willing to obey or more able to control themselves, often in the form of rules, and punishments if these are broken, or the behaviour produced by this training”. In Western society, discipline is something imposed from outside to train   Discipline is assumed in budo in Japan, whether it’s koryu or gendai. It’s just there when the student enters the dojo, or they aren’t welcome. The situation in the USA is vastly different. Society doesn’t assume children can have discipline. There is no real expectation that everyone will learn to follow the group and behave accordingly. This puts a different requirement on budo teachers in America if we want students.  We have to be ready to impose a certain amount of discipline from the outside because we can’t automatically assume that our students come with it built-in.  What’s thought of as “teaching discipline” in the US just doesn’t exist in Japan.  Japanese students learn that sort of self-control and develop the ability and maturity to apply themselves with dedication very early. Martial arts teachers don’t have to teach that; they expect discipline to be there before the student knocks at the gate.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Budo: The Art Of Living

I was watching an otherwise excellent documentary by NHK called “Real Samurai” about modern practitioners of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. It’s a very nice look at the modern practice of a great koryu budo. One thing bothered me though. The narration kept referring to budo in general and Katori Shinto Ryu in particular as the “art of killing”. I think this may be the biggest misconception about budo as it has been practiced since the Pax Tokugawa took effect in 1604.

The documentary repeatedly talked about Katori Shinto Ryu as an “art of killing” and emphasizing the potentially lethal aspects of what is taught and studied. It seemed unable to deal with the  contradiction offered in nearly every frame and comment by the practitioners themselves, that Katori Shinto Ryu practice informs and transforms their way of life.

For me, the fact that the skills we study can result in killing is outshone by their usefulness in living, and living fully. I find it hard to imagine that even during wartime the focus of bujutsu study was killing. Despite a few folks like Yamamoto Tsunetomo who were obsessed with dying, budo has always been about living.The reason for studying these arts, even five hundred years ago, was less focused on killing than on surviving horrible circumstances and going on living. Perhaps budo is not really an art of killing. If it’s not an art of killing though, then what is it?

Without the constant threat of warfare, there would be little reason to study arts of killing. Peace encourages us to consider not just living, but how to best live. Budo as an art of killing isn’t relevant to a life of peace. But budo is just as  much about living. Life is filled with conflicts of all sorts, and all forms of budo are intense studies of conflict, both physical and non-physical.  Methods of dealing with  conflict can also be applied throughout life.

 In budo, the first things you practice are things you’re already doing all the time. You learn how to hold your body, breathe well and move powerfully. What’s more essential to living than breathing? The building blocks of good budo turn out to be the same ones used to build the foundation of a good, healthful life. 

Enjoy the blog?  Get the book!
Enjoy the blog?  Get the book!
Budo reminds us, every practice, of our limits. We stare death in the face with every kata we practice. Most koryu budo kata are paired, and being off just a little for either person can result in a nasty whack that would be deadly with live weapons. Crucially, someone always loses in these kata, and losing equals dieing. In the paired kata we learn to see just how narrow the difference between success and failure, life and death, really is. Learning this is solid preparation for life outside the dojo. The lessons about moving enough, but not too much, emphasize the need to respond appropriately to whatever happens. I can think of many kata in Shinto Muso Ryu where action is essential to not getting hit in the head with a weapon, but where overreacting is nearly as bad as failing to act. When uchitachi thrusts during Sakan, if you don’t act you will be stabbed in the gut. If you overreact you block the thrust but leave yourself open to a number of follow-up attacks that flow smoothly from your excess movement. If you do everything right, you move when uchitachi has committed to the thrust and you deflect the sword tip just enough to miss but not so far that the sword can come in through a new opening. Action must be appropriate to the situation.

I’ll say this again and again. Breathe well.  

Remain calm and relaxed. Budo practice emphasizes this. It doesn’t matter if someone is trying to throw you across a room, split your head open, or choke you. You still have to be calm and keep breathing. It’s amazing how often people in the dojo have to be reminded to breathe. Under stress they start holding their breath. It happens so often I have to wonder that people aren’t passing out right and left in their everyday lives. Budo practices teaches us to relax into stress.

Tightening up only makes things worse.  Stiff arm a judoka and the result is a beautiful throw or an elegant armbar. Tense up while holding a sword and you’ll be much too slow to respond to whatever your partner chooses to do. A lot of practice is required to overcome our bodies’ natural tendency to tense up under stress so we can relax into difficult situations. Someone yells at us at work. A deadline gets moved up. Our uncles get into an argument over politics at the family dinner. Things that can cause us to tense up are everywhere.

Breathe. If you find yourself getting tense, let go of the tension. Don’t cling to it. Budo practice is the only place I’ve found that practices the essential art of relaxing into stress. Having someone try to throw or choke or hit you is stressful. If you can learn to stay relaxed and calm under this pressure, you can do it anywhere. When life tries to hit you over the head, relax, breathe, and move just far enough to avoid getting hit, but not so far that you can’t hit back.

As a kid, I always thought that being “grown up” meant that you were finished becoming you. Budo has a way of reminding me that I will never be finished becoming myself or becoming a better person. I’ve been at this budo stuff for over 30 years and every day I make new discoveries about myself and how much I can improve. It is often said, and always true, that budo is a path, not a destination. We’re never done learning. We’re never done polishing ourselves.

It’s easy to forget that we’re never done changing, so the opportunities for improving never cease. We can keep working on our technique, and ourselves, until we die. My iaido teacher is 94. My jodo teacher is in his 80s. When Real Samurai was filmed a few years ago, Otake Sensei was 88. One of the saddest things I hear people say is, “That’s just the way I am,” as an excuse not to change and improve. It’s the way you are today. Whether you want to or not, you will change and be a little different tomorrow and each day after that.

The difference that budo makes in my life is that it teaches me over and over again that I don’t have to be satisfied with what I am today. I can influence how time changes me. I can passively receive the way life molds and shapes who I am, or I can actively participate, choosing how I want to change and who I become. This is the art of living that budo teaches us.

I’m not finished. My teachers aren’t finished. They still practice. They are still changing and improving. That time spent refining my kirioroshi and my hikiotoshi uchi is not just time spent learning an obscure skill with an archaic weapon. It’s also about refining who I am. That practice breathing calmly and deeply is useful wherever I am, whatever I am doing. Teaching myself that my default condition is calm and relaxed even when someone is actively attempting to throw me across the room, and especially when they succeed in throwing me across the room applies to dealing with “all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Budo is not an art of killing.  Budo is an art of living.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Efficiency, It's Not Just For Judo

Kano Jigoro realized that efficiency of movement is one of the highest principles. He enshrined his insight in this maxim of Kodokan Judo, “seiryoku zen’you”  精力善用, most often translated as “minimum effort, maximum efficiency.” Seiryoku zen’you is probably better translated as “best use of energy” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as neatly as “minimum effort, maximum efficiency.” This is the foundation of Kodokan Judo’s technical curriculum, just as jita kyoei 自他共栄 or “mutual benefit and welfare” is the foundation of Kodokan Judo’s moral and ethical principles.

The principle that Kano Shihan so succinctly clarified in just four kanji characters has always been a critical part of martial arts.  Kano’s genius lay in clearly elucidating that principle and building his entire system around it. Even though it took until the 1880’s for the principle to be made explicit and public, it has always been essential in weeding out techniques and practices in the martial arts. Anything that doesn’t contribute to success in conflict will eventually be eliminated because those who rely on it will lose.

Making the “best use of energy” seems like an obvious good idea, but things like this often seem obvious in hindsight. Even if the idea wasn’t explicit, it has always been implicit within the martial arts. The universe is ruthless, and during the long centuries of civil war in Japan leading up to the enforced peace of the Tokugawa Period, anything that wasn’t efficient for teaching, learning, practicing or applying the martial arts was culled simply because anything that wasn’t efficient would get its proponents killed.

Look at pretty much any koryu budo. They aren’t filled with endless lists of techniques. They have a few techniques that are polished like treasured gems, and then are practiced in a variety of kata so students learn the real foundations of the art and how to apply them spontaneously. Effective budo has to be efficient. 

Enjoy the blog? Get the book!

That’s the secret reason why koryu budo generally don’t have extensive curriculums with endless lists of techniques. It’s not efficient. Instead, a basic principle or two are embodied in the fundamental technique of the system which are then explored through a limited set of kata result in that teaching the plasticity of the main principles.

Sword systems are often based around one fundamental cut, with the entire system expanding on that. Sasamori Takemi talks about the kiri otoshi of Ono-Ha Itto Ryu. Kashima Shinryu kenjutsu is built around the a fundamental cut practiced in the Kihon-tachi. Arts that teach other weapons are similar. Shinto Muso Ryu calls its fundamental jo technique hon te uchi, or “fundamental hand strike.” Judo has a large syllabus by comparison, with five basic principles for throwing expanded into the  Gokyo, or “Five Teachings.”  Aikido also breaks up it’s main principles into 5 techniques, called ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo and gokyo, or “teaching 1, teaching 2, teaching 3, teaching 4, teaching 5.”  In both judo and aikido, there are numerous expressions of the five teachings, but they all start from the same fundamental principles.

It makes sense when you consider it. Which is going to work better under stress, one technique that you can apply to a thousand situations, or a thousand techniques each of which is good for only one situation?  

Efficiency shows itself in myriad ways. Learning one technique well takes less time than learning one thousand techniques to mediocre level. This why in Olympic judo, the competitors don’t spend their time trying to master all the throwing techniques of Kodokan Judo. They focus on two or three techniques and develop their understanding of the techniques and their principles so they can apply them in any situation.

Within those fundamental techniques is another level of efficiency. Techniques have to work with as little effort as possible. This is true of any effective martial art. Efficiency of energy is a key component of effectiveness. If a technique requires a lot of raw strength to perform, it will be useless when you run into someone bigger or stronger. The more efficiently the principle uses your strength, the greater the situations you can deploy it in. I was in Japan recently practicing with one of the shihan from Shinto Muso Ryu, and he kicked my butt over this. I was doing kuri tsuke ( a technique for catching a sword attack and binding the sword to the attacker’s body) and it was working, but Sensei pointed out that I wasn’t doing it as well as I could. He resisted my technique and I was able to muscle through his resistance. He then showed me how to do the technique with minimal modification so that I didn’t have to dig in to muscle past his resistance. If I got the angles right, I left him without a stable platform from which to resist.  I had learned a more efficient way to perform the technique.

He didn’t use the word, but the term that floated through my head was from Kodokan Judo. Kuzushi”  崩し. Don’t attack strength to strength. Maneuver your adversary to a position where they cannot apply their strength and attack there. In other words, attack where your opponent’s strength is minimized and your own is maximized. Seiryoku zen’yo in action.

Our strength is limited. I might be able to muscle through Sensei’s resistance because I’m a lot bigger than he is. I know plenty of people who are bigger than I am though, and there is no way I could muscle through them. But, If I do the technique efficiently, strength is no longer a concern. The efficient technique is the effective technique. This is true no matter what you’re doing.

Here are a couple of videos that have been floating around the web. One shows a little girl screaming and flailing around with a sword with great effort. The other shows a little girl cutting with no effort at all.  Efficiency gets the most out of the energy being expended. Which one better embodies seiryoku zen’yo?

Flailing little girl

Efficient and effective little girl

Efficiency is a critical component of any martial art. Just because Kano Jigoro enshrined seiryoku zen’yo as a maxim of Kodokan Judo doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist in other arts or that you can ignore if you don’t do Kodokan Judo. Making the best use of your energy is always a good idea.