Tuesday, July 1, 2008


In an effort to simplify my blogging (again), I've decided to roll my Martial Arts blog in with my Buddhist blog (Tengu House). Toward that end, I've recreated all my posts from this blog here: Aiki-Kuzushi at Tengu House. Future essays will be posted there as well, of course.

Typepad has better functionality, in my opinion, and can be used to better advantage.
I will keep this blog as-is for a while, and then I'll delete it.

PS: I've been told the above link isn't working, so here it is (this one will work): http://tenguhouse.typepad.com/aikikuzushi/

Thursday, June 12, 2008

An Explanation of Lineage

Welcome to the dojo. In this picture, the man on the right is my teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher.

What is lineage? What does it mean? Once, not too long ago, I spoke with a guy who claims a very lofty position with the martial arts, but couldn't provide a comprehensible lineage. In fact, he got all mad when I asked him about it.

Since then, I've talked to martial artists from many, many different traditions, and all have been able to provide their lineages easily.

Which led me to wonder: Did that first guy misunderstand my request? Did I misrepresent it? Personally I just think that guy was a fraud and an idiot. In a chain of emails, he called me "Mr. Linage" [sic], and threatened to come to my dojo and teach me a lesson.

Jeez. But hey, ya get that, from time to time. It's part of being a martial artist and trying to interact with other martial artists. There are a lot of flakes out there.

But in the interest of cooperation, let's look at what lineage means, okay? First of all, everybody has one. Think back to when someone - your kindergarten teacher, your mom, whoever - taught you how to write your name. Okay, now imagine that she, when she was very young, had someone to teach her how to write her name. Right? And so on, and so on. This is lineage. This is a long, unbroken tradition of people teaching others how to do something. Personal transmission of an art, from the master to the student.

Everything you've ever been taught had to first be taught to your teacher, and to his or her teacher before that, etc. If you study the Shinto Muso Ryu (a four-hundred-year-old school of stick fighting, specializing in methods by which to use a four-foot staff to neutralize sword attacks), you're obviously learning from a teacher, who in turn learned from his or her teacher, and so on, all the way back to Gennosuke, who developed the art from bojutsu techniques after losing a fight against Miyamoto Musashi (or so the story goes).

In the martial arts, who all of these people are can be a good indicator of a martial artist's background.

Let's take my tai chi background, for example. It consists of something like five classes. That means that in my whole life I've taken something like five classes in tai chi - so I really don't know anything about it. The teacher's name is Chuck, but that's all I know about him, other than that he's a really, really nice guy and that everyone likes him a lot. Always smiling, always friendly. But since I don't know much about him (since I don't know his lineage), does that mean that he doesn't know anything about tai chi? Of course not. I'm sure he's a great practitioner of the art, and some of the others in the class have been studying from him for years. But it does say something about how little I studied tai chi under Chuck, doesn't it? If I were a master in tai chi, I think I'd be able to tell you more about my teacher than I can now.

Because if I were a master, I would have been studying under one teacher for many, many years. I'd be able to tell you where he was born, his age, everything about him. I'd be able to tell you who his teacher was, where and when he lived, and on back at least a couple of generations.

This is just an examplen but it shows how my lack of knowledge about my own lineage in tai chi speaks volumes about how little I've trained in it. Right? You can see the correlation.

Lineage doesn't make someone a great martial artist, but it can be a useful indicator if you're looking at potential teachers.

And there's really no such thing as a "lack" of lineage. Either you have a perfectly legitimate background, or your martial arts are just made up junk. One or the other. Either someone taught it to you, or they didn't - you weren't just born with it.

Now, here's another pitfall. What do you do if you ask someone who their teacher was, and the name they give you is that of a known martial arts fraud? What would you say if your potential teacher said he'd studied for years under Ashida Kim, or Frank Dux? Would you want to learn from that person?

See? Lineage can be important. Not the be-all and end-all of the martial arts, but it can be something worth asking about. If you don't know who your teacher's teacher was, I recommend looking into it, until you have as much information as possible. Lineage isn't a pedigree, and a good lineage doesn't necessarily make a good martial artist. But serious students should at least know their own background. And I'd be weary of training under anyone who doesn't know or can't provide it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Proto-Kuzushi - The Origins of Off-Balance

Welcome to the dojo. For the last few years, I've been exploring the relationship between judo, aikido, iaido, jodo and kendo - and some other arts.

In 2006 I visited an archeological museum in Taiwan, where I found an ancient terra cotta camel that had been traded there - which tells me that the trade routes across Asia, the different versions of the 'Silk Road', didn't necessarily start and end where I would have thought. Today, I'm of the opinion that we can translate this same concept to our martial arts training - and to the history of the development of off-balance.

The principle of kuzushi, or off-balance, is vital to many modern martial arts. In kendo, for example, one player lunges forward with a mighty yell, while the other recoils in defense (or takes a whackin'). When I tried it, I spent a lot of time on my heels, trying to back-pedal out of the kill zone (I'm not a very good kendo player). It may not be readily apparent to the casual observer, but off-balance plays a major role in the kendo attack.

The principle of off-balance isn't always taught in aikido schools, except in Tomiki aikido, which is heavily influenced by judo. In Tomiki aikido, the judo/jujutsu off-balance is key to the proper execution of most techniques.

But where did this principle develop? Where did it come from? There will be some (including most of the sensei whom I've met) who'll tell you that it's an exclusively Japanese creation. They say that, although the basics of jujutsu were imported from China by way of Korea in the 15th century, the off-balance principle was only added once the art was sufficiently codified by the early Japanese masters. Of course, there are also people who'll tell you that jujutsu, like the Japanese language, was handed down from the gods.

Check out the Chinese art of shuai jiao (fast wrestling). It's basically a Chinese version of judo, only much older, and much less refined. It's fairly obvious, from my perspective, that elements of jujutsu could have been developed from shuai jiao. I say could have been, because there are significant differences between the two, even on a fundamental level.

Shuai jiao is a very old art, and elements of its throwing curriculum outdate Japanese jujutsu. But where did it come from? This is only speculation on my part, of course, but through the sanda connection, one might make the argument that shuai jiao developed from throwing techniques evident in old Shaolin forms.

Now, I know what you're thinking: Here we go again with the "All Roads Lead to Shaolin" thing. Right? Well, no. It can be argued that Shaolin was a stepping stone for what we call the martial arts on their way from India to America, if you like to see it that way (I certainly do). Shaolin gets a lot of credit in my book, but was hardly the birthplace of the ability of one human being to throw another human being to the ground. What I'm saying here is that it may be that the Shaolin monks developed - or at least codified - a version of off-balance techniques that eventually became the nucleus of modern "ju" arts.

Does this make modern arts like jujutsu, judo and aikido any less Japanese? Of course not. Nor does it steal anything from their credibility as martial arts. But the human body only moves in a finite number of ways, and it only makes sense that people were throwing each other around in other places and at aother times, in much the same way in which we do it now. Before researching the matter of off-balance in the softer martial arts, I never would have thought to look for connections between modern aikido and old Shaolin. And although I'm only speculating on those connections now, the implications are - at least for me - intriguing.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Trouble with Jutsu: Just Spelling It is an Art

Welcome to the dojo.

I'm seeing a lot of Jutsu lately. From traditional Japanese "Samurai Jujutsu" to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (to the often gaudy websites of those claiming lineage in "authentic ninjutsu"), jutsu is suddenly everywhere.

I guess for me, it started in my early teens, with the ninja fad of the 1980s. Everyone who was anyone in the martial arts was suddenly all about the ninja and their shadowy art, ninjutsu. But sometimes it was spelled ninjitsu, sometimes ninjutsu, and sometimes hyphenated (nin-jitsu). It was all very confusing for a guy like me, whose spelling skills were only passable in English - and who, at the time, had little opportunity for real research into such matters.

So what's the difference? What's the correct spelling? Well, like any other American martial artist in the past 20 years, I've seen and heard every possible angle. Once - and this was recently, mind you - I got an interesting explanation from a so-called "shihan" in jujutsu (his website also called it the "Gental Art," telling me that he, an American, can spell it correctly in Japanese but not in English). He said that "jitsu" means with weapons, while "jutsu" means without. Or was it the other way around?
Of course, this is pure rubbish, and anyone claiming the title shihan in any Japanese martial art should know better than that. Further, this goofy explanation of the difference between jutsu and jitsu was one of the bases for my conclusion that this guy was a complete charlatan and was probably not worthy of a green belt in any real jujutsu program.

The real difference between jutsu and jitsu is this: THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE. It's just a quirk of language.

See, the real word in Japanese is not pronounced "jutsu" or "jitsu" at all. It looks like this: 術, and is pronounced "jts". That's it. Jts. Now, if you were going to use the English alphabet to spell out a word that has no sounded vowells, how would you do it?

In Japanese, such words aren't unusual or particularly troublesome. As there's no hiragana character for just j, the Japanese use the character for "ji", combined with "yu" to form a "ju" or "jyu" sound. Either way, the "u" or "yu" isn't pronounced - only the "j". Likewise, the "tsu" comes out like "ts", again omitting the "u".

You can see how it would get confusing. But on our end, it's really quite simple. Many English transliterations of Japanese words use the letter u to assist with spelling and to fill out the word, thus the spelling jutsu. I can only assume that the spelling jitsu came from some attempt at pronunciation of jutsu.

In the case of Bazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you probably have to factor in some quirk of the Portuguese language as well.

But either way, you're not wrong. A word whose proper spelling contains no vowells at all can't easily be misspelled, can it? At this point, it's the meaning that stumps people.

See, jutsu doesn't mean art (although its original Chinese counterpart pronounced "shu" actually does mean art). It doesn't mean technique, either. Jutsu is actually a practical skill, whose study and application have taken on art-like qualities. I would liken the idea, as I understand it at this moment, to driving a car. Some people could call it an art, while others would say no such thing. But it's definitely a well-honed skill that has taken on some aspects of art-hood.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Little Tomiki History

In response to a recent request, here’s a little bit about my primary martial art:

Tomiki Aikido is primarily a teaching method used to teach aikido from a judo perspective.

Aikido, as most martial artists know, was developed mainly from the techniques of Daito-Ryu aiki-jujutsu, in the early years of the 20th century, by Morihei Ueshiba. In the 1920s, Ueshiba was performing a demonstration of his new art, and Jigoro Kano (developer of Judo and founder of the Kodokan) was in attendance. The story goes that Kano was so impressed with Ueshiba’s new martial art that he gave his top student to Ueshiba.

Of course, some sources report this differently. Some say (and it may be entirely correct, I can’t dispute it because I wasn't there) that Kano assigned his top student to train under Ueshiba in order to gain a better understanding of Ueshiba’s art.

Either way, Kenji Tomiki, already a Menkyo Kaiden holder in Kodokan Judo, found himself training as a beginner in Aikido.
Eventually, Tomiki Sensei earned the Menkyo Kaiden in Aikido also. He was the only person ever awarded the highest available rank in both Judo and Aikido, directly from the founders of both arts. When Kano developed the modern belt ranking system, it originally only went up to 8th dan, and as Menkyo Kaiden was assumed to be the penultimate rank, all holders of Menkyo Kaiden were graded to 8th dan. So Tomiki was the first official 8th dan in both Judo and Aikido. *

At its core, his style of Aikido contained the same techniques that Ueshiba had always taught, but Tomiki approached it from a Judo background. This gave him a better understanding of the use of off-balance, body rise and fall, and weight-shifting in both arts. He developed his own unique training methods and began teaching his style of Aikido. He developed a style for use in Judo-like competitions, which is referred to mostly as Shodokan Aikido today. But continued to teach non-competition Aikido as well. It’s a bit of a misnomer to call Tomiki Aikido “competition Aikido,” although there is certainly a prominent competition component taught in many Tomiki Aikido schools. Sometimes you'll see the terms Shodokan Aikido and Tomiki Aikido used as though they refer to two separate arts - this is also incorrect. Basically it's all the same Aikido, but used differently, and thus sometimes taught from different perspectives.

In the 1970s, Tomiki Sensei sent his student Kogure Sensei to Houston, where he stayed for 6 or 7 years, training Karl Geis Sensei in the art. Geis Sensei was already an accomplished Judo player who had trained with many big names in Japan, and he took to the Tomiki style of Aikido well. Geis Sensei went on to develop his own teaching method for Tomiki Aikido, based on the non-competition, self-defense principles of the old Tomiki system. My sensei trained under Geis Sensei for more than 20 years, and in was in Geis Sensei’s Houston dojo that non-competition Tomiki Aikido first took root in the United States.

Tomiki Aikido makes extensive use of the principles of balance and off-balance, body rise and fall, and the ability of one player to shift the weight of the other. This is accomplished through the use of a number of basic physical precepts that should familiar to any Judo player: straight posture, hands in a push position, unbendable arm (not the ki trick but rather an elbow position similar to how you’d hold your arm if you were pushing a car), same hand same foot, move from your center, etc. The Tomiki Aikido stylist avoids the direct attack by stepping off the line of the attack and taking his attacker’s balance, thus creating in the attacker a need to react. He then uses that uncontrolled reaction as an opportunity to throw, pin, or otherwise defeat the attacker.

*8th dan was the highest available rank in either art at the time of Tomiki's promotion. Today, promotion beyond 8th dan is possible in both judo and aikido, but is largely considered an administrative action rather than an actual, tested grading. Tomiki Sensei left the Aikido Hombu dojo at the grade of 8th dan, and personally graded Geis Sensei to 6th dan before he (Tomiki) died in 1979. Geis Sensei was the only non-Japanese martial artist to be graded to 6th dan by Tomiki Sensei. In a world where 8th dan was the highest possible rank, to be a Westerner (a Texan, no less) and graded to 6th dan must have been huge. Many people challenged Geis Sensei in the following years, and many of his students became great martial artists in their own right.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Myth of the Colored Belt System

I’ve been doing a lot of martial arts reading lately, both from books and in the various MA-related forums online (I do not read any MA-related magazines, except for the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, and that only occasionally – this is because of what I view as questionable verification practices by periodicals such as Black Belt Magazine).

I’m noticing a pattern in what I’m reading, and I’m wondering if it’s something peculiar to the martial arts. I’ve certainly never seen this strange behavior in any other field of endeavor.
Many people who are involved in the martial arts evidently feel a need to be lied to, and further, a strong need to believe those lies, even if they know better. The MA community is awash with examples of this. The persistence of charlatans like “Ashida Kim” (only a complete idiot would ever buy into this crap) is proof enough of this phenomenon. I saw two “Ashida Kim” books on the shelf at Barnes & Noble yesterday, offering to teach the reader the secrets of “Ninja Mind Control” as if there were any such thing. I can’t believe that this lie that’s being perpetrated on the buyers of such books, in the year 2008, in one of the most sophisticated societies in the world, is simply a result of ignorance.

I believe people just want to be fooled by something. The same myths just continually pop up, and the same old people (and some new ones) just keep believing them.

This would explain politics, wouldn’t it? I mean, why else would so many scores of Americans believe the line that gets fed to them during political debates and other speeches? You can’t tell me that we, as a society, aren’t above that, from a purely intellectual perspective. But I digress.

Another example of this is the persistence of the myth of the colored belt system’s origin. We’ve all heard the story. In the old days, practitioners of this or that martial art would wear undyed clothing to the training hall, because it was less expensive than colored clothes. As their clothing became more like a uniform, they often washed their uniforms on a certain day, as specified by their teacher, but they never washed their belts. So, as the years wore on, their belts became more and more dingy, until eventually they were black.

And thus, the coveted black belt.

It’s a fun little story to tell the kiddies (and their mommies, who are shelling out the school's stay-in-business money), except that it’s an unmitigated load of crap.

The colored belt system, including the black belt, was originated solely by one man, Jigoro Kano, the refiner of Judo and founder of the Kodokan. Eventually, Kano's belt system took hold in the universities where judo was taught, and spread to other university-based systems as well (like aikido and karate). Teachers in other martial arts organizations followed suit, and eventually the colored belt system became more or less universally recognized. But it has absolutely nothing to do with dirt, or with unwashed laundry. Before the advent of the colored belt system, what’s currently thought of as a gi was commonly worn as underwear. Undergarments were customarily white, while outer garments were customarily a darker color – blue, brown, black, etc. While the obi (belt) was worn on the outside, there was generally no inner obi. So when the gi came into fashion as an outer garment in the dojo, the obi worn over it was the same one usually worn over the kimono (or hakama, if one was worn there). It is for this reason that the white gi with a darker (often black) obi was first seen in the training environment.

And while probably no one alive today knows for sure what Dr. Kano’s inspiration was for the colored belt system, we can extrapolate from common knowledge (and a little research) that he was using colors that would have been seen in his dojo already.

The reason I think this is such a silly myth is that the colored belt system originated during the early days of the Kodokan (Jigoro Kano’s original judo training hall, which today is the Kodokan International Judo Institute), and the Kodokan was founded in 1882. Now, I understand that Japan wasn’t fully modernized to Western standards in 1882, but neither was it as backward as so many modern Westerners would have us believe. I have a hard time swallowing the image of Dr. Kano’s original students in the 1880’s – university-educated martial artists, every one of them – as people who’d simply never washed their belts.

And beyond that, maybe we’re talking about samurai from 400 years ago. Again, I can’t see the retainers of some daimyo’s house, upon whose actions rest the reputation of generations of warlords, failing to maintain some standard of hygiene, such as it was at the time. But it doesn’t matter, does it? Because they didn’t use any kind of colored belt system to denote rank, or to differentiate to most experienced among their number. It just didn’t happen.

Somewhere along the line, we've become enamored with the image of the wisened old master, practicing his kata on a misty mountaintop somewhere in ancient Asia. He's wearing a sparkly-clean white gi, complete with crisply-ironed creases down his sleeves and pant legs, but his belt is worn black from decades of constant use. It's a romantic image, and has become part of the ethos taught to many soccer moms in this country.

To bad it's all false.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Keiko Fukuda - Sticking With It


In 1935, things in Germany were heating up, but the new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, was still considered by most to be nothing more than a blowhard. In Britain, Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald was about to be replaced by Neville Chamberlain. In the United States, FDR was in his third year as President. The price of an average American car was $580, a gallon of gas cost 19 cents, and the average American salary was $1,500 for the year.

The Japanese had secured military control in China’s northeastern provinces, but few Japanese concerned themselves with such things. Although the nation had been embroiled in an all-out modernization for dozens of years, kimono were still more prevalent than Western-style business attire on the streets of Tokyo, and few homes had radios on which to hear the war news.

This was the year that Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, made an exception. As a favor for an old sensei, Hachinosuke Fukuda – under whom Kano had studied Tenshin Shinyo jujutsu, he allowed the first female student to begin her judo training at the Kodokan.

This student was Hachinosuke’s granddaughter, a 21-year-old Keiko Fukuda.

I guess you could say she stuck with it.

Today, 93-year-old Keiko Fukuda is the highest-ranking woman in judo history. She's also the last surviving personal student of Dr. Kano.

In 1973, she wrote and published Born for the Mat, an instruction book intended for female judoka. In 1990, she received the Emperor of Japan’s Distinguished Cultural Award – one of far too many awards to list here.

In 2001, she became the first woman to receive a red belt (signifying 9th dan) from the US Judo Federation, which has awarded only three red belts in its history. She is also the only surviving red belt within the USJF. The Kodokan Judo Institute followed suit, awarding her the 9th dan at its 2006 Kagami Biraki (Japanese New Year) celebration. Fukuda Sensei is the only female 9th dan in Kodokan history.

Today, Keiko Fukuda still teaches twice a week in her dojo in the San Fransisco Bay area.

Folks, I can’t imagine having trained in one martial art for 72 years. When I think of my few years in the martial arts and all I’ve learned during that short time, my imagination can only scratch the surface of what Fukuda Sensei must have learned in her time on the mat. Her students describe her being able to direct them without even speaking, by making short sounds or just by her expression.

It’s clear that someone with Fukuda Sensei’s longevity has a lot to teach the rest of us about the martial arts in general, and about more intangible things like determination and perseverance.

In our aikido dojo, for example, the nanafudake displays about 30 names. This means that, out of the roughly one thousand people who’ve come into the dojo to begin training during its ten-year existence, about 30 have stayed long enough to earn shodan. Of those 30, I would estimate that about 15 are current students, and of those 15, about 8 are regulars. Given those roughly estimated numbers, my school would show something like a 99.2% attrition rate (I’m no mathematician, but you get the point).

Imagine how rare it is, given that environment, for one student to stick with his or her art for, say, 20 years. Many well-respected sensei don’t have that kind of experience. Many students start later, like I did, and others become intermittent students and wander in and out of the dojo for a few years before finally hanging it up.

In this world, there can be much more pressing concerns than our training. Wars, famines, all manner of social ills, financial concerns and family matters can pull us away from the dojo. There have been times in my short training career when it became difficult to continue, just because it was inconvenient or because I just didn’t feel like it.

Without a doubt, Keiko Fukuda Sensei has experienced all of that, and then some. But through everything, she stuck with it. She’s still on the mat today, at 93, teaching and learning. Something to think about next time you want to quit, or don’t feel like making the drive to the dojo.