Book Review – ‘The Way of Judo, a Portrait of Jigoro Kano and his Students’ John Stevens.

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A biography of the founder of Judo and what his life tells us about Japanese martial arts and modernisation.

You might ask what a book about the originator of Japanese Judo is doing appearing on a blog about Wado karate? To explain this, I don’t think it’s too bold a statement to say that Kano Jigoro was instrumental in creating the martial arts eco-culture that the founder of Wado Ryu, Otsuka Hironori, was brought up in. Kano was a moderniser and an iconoclast and so was Otsuka, although Kano was senior to Otsuka by nearly thirty years. Otsuka may have known of Kano but I doubt there was any close connection (Kano died in 1938, the same year that Otsuka founded Wado Ryu as a separate entity – Otsuka lived on until 1982). I will put forward a few observations and speculations about master Otsuka later.

The book itself.

There were so many things about John Stevens biography of Kano that surprised me. I already knew that he was the early model for Japanese modernisation and instrumental in the survival of the cultural legacy of the Old School Japanese Jujutsu, albeit packaged into a new form (how successful he was is too big a subject to go into here), but there was so much more to the man.

Here are some intriguing facts about Kano (to me anyway):

  • Kano came from the higher tiers of society, so, financially and socially he already had a leg-up the ladder. Otsuka and his good friend Konishi (1) also came from more than secure backgrounds. These advantages allowed scope for freedom and exploration, as much as Japanese society allowed at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century. Add to that a fanatical desire to dig really deeply in their chosen field and something truly special emerges with all three men.
  • Kano was a traditionalist in martial arts (jujutsu) terms, but also a moderniser who was able to get a significant number of the old school hardened jujutsu masters on-board to synthesise their teachings into modern judo… how was he able to do that?
  • Kano suffered considerable set-backs as he struggled to formulate, promote and develop Kodokan Judo, however, his tenacity seemed almost super-human. Clearly the man had charisma and amazing persuasive powers, and, in the early days, led from the front – he could walk the walk!
  • Amazingly, he looked towards western culture to find models that would work for the Japanese people. He admired the philosophical ideas behind western physical education but hated the modern concept of ‘sport’, which to him trivialised and subverted the purer objectives of the physical culture of the martial arts (ironic when you think of his legacy today). Interestingly, it was open contests that boosted the status of Kodokan judo in the early days (2). A real shock to me was that although Kano was actively involved in the Olympic movement (particularly the failed bid for the 1940 Olympic games in Tokyo) he was actually reluctant to suggest that judo should be included, for fear that the appetite for medals and glory would be the opposite of how he saw the reality of judo.
  • Stevens says that in technical judo Kano was not a fan of groundwork, but understood it as a necessity if he was to make his point. For Kano it was 70% stand-up and 30% groundwork, Stevens quotes a saying, “To learn throwing techniques well, it takes three years; to learn effective groundwork, it takes three months”. (Stevens does not give the origin of the quote).
  • It seems clear that even within his own lifetime Kano’s judo was being subverted into something he was desperate to avoid. Everything that he frowned upon in modern sporting culture was acting as a magnet to the coaches and youngsters they taught. Kano was clear in his mind what the model for judo should be and he explained it in language of high ideals, but perhaps these ideals were too abstract and contradicted where the world was actually going? Kano was swimming against the tide.
  • In his working life Kano was a model professional educator. His whole career was in education, he genuinely cared about people. As a scholar and a life-long learner he was a wonderful example of an insatiable and a genuine polymath. E.g. it is known that he wrote all his early training notes in English to keep them secret from his fellow trainees. What also surprised me was that Kano is considered the father of music education in Japanese schools, being instrumental in making music compulsory for all middle and high school students.
  • He was without a doubt a rebellious figure, in that he kicked back against Japanese conservative views on education and he resisted the militarisation and appropriation of Japanese martial arts to fuel war and expansionism. This would have surely ruffled a few feathers at the time. Some of his political contemporaries were actually assassinated for holding opinions similar to his.
  • His successes came at a price, in that he acted as a lodestone for various martial arts crazies, obsessives and prodigies (positive and negative). Too many to choose from, but to name two; Saigo Shiro and Mifune Kyuzo (3).
  • Kano died at the age of 77 on board ship on his way back to Japan. It’s just my opinion but I suspect he was just burnt out.

Otsuka Hironori and Judo.

I think it is important to explain that the terms ‘Jujutsu’ and ‘Judo’ were loose descriptions that had been interchangeable for a long time, even before Kano’s ‘ownership’ of the term as a handle for Kodokan Judo.

Regarding Otsuka Sensei; even before he reached his teens Kano’s Kodokan was becoming a major force in Tokyo and beyond, how could he fail to be influenced by it?

In 1906 Kano had opened a huge 207 mat Dojo and the standard Judo Keikogi (uniform) had been established by this time. Coincidentally, one of the earliest pictures of Otskuka Ko (as he was then named) is of him in a group photo of ‘Judo’ students at middle school wearing this new keokogi, this was 1909 and he was in his late teens.  While at school he was heavily involved in judo as it was evolving and working its way into the education system. He is also in the school records of 1909 as taking part in the school’s winter training and earmarked as one of the most promising judo students. (Apparently had some particularly strong throwing techniques).

In 1908 the government decreed that all middle school students should be doing either judo or kendo. We know from Otsuka family anecdotes that Otsuka Ko’s mother discouraged her son from kendo, and he had some background training from his mother’s uncle in old school jujutsu and on top of that Otsuka was to come under the influence and tutelage of Nakayama Tatsusaburo, the middle school’s hired coach, who clearly taught him judo and opened the door to him learning Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu which is largely recognised as being one of the base-arts of Wado Ryu.

In his book, ‘Karate Wadoryu – from Japan to the West’ Ben Pollock mentions that “There is the possibility Otsuka was practicing judo at the Kodokan at some point in the period prior to him starting his study of karate-jutsu”. Clearly this possibility is not beyond the bounds of credibility, it is known that Otsuka was well connected with some of the leading lights of the Kodokan, including Mifune.

Is there any surprise that Otsuka’s concocted curriculum he submitted to the Butokukai in 1939 to register the name and the style ‘Wado Ryu’ was padded out with techniques from the established judo canon? Look at it from this angle; a huge percentage of those who went through the Japanese middle school would have a pretty good idea of what those throws were, they weren’t unique to Wado, they were common techniques. In the same way if you asked an English schoolboy the basic mechanics of manoeuvres in football, he’d be able to tell you; it is part of the system and the way physical education is taught. This is not to take anything away from Otsuka, as it is known that his grappling skill was at a very high level.

But what intrigues me the most was not the technical base of the influence of judo and Kano on Wado, but the philosophical and organisational approach Otsuka later took. Did Kano’s example act as a beacon of influence for Otsuka?

Japan was breaking the traditionalist mould and Kano’s example may have showed Otsuka that this can be done, and that the climate was right.

As an example; Kano is said to have originated the basic idea of the belt system (although the many coloured belts is rumoured to have originated as a later development in Europe). The way we work today, our hierarchies, ladders of promotion, syllabus developments all relate to how things are done in the education system – some people say it is more closely related to military systems, but that argument becomes very ‘chicken and egg’. Remember, Kano was the educationalist with a vision for the whole of Japan and the wider world (hence his involvement with the Olympic movement and the ideas of Baron de Coubertin).

Wado, like other systems rejected the long-established certification system of the Koryu (Old School) Japanese martial arts and adopted another, modernised, system; Kyu/Dan ranking. It was workable, particularly as Dojo branches then became sub-branches, then regional branches, followed by national branches etc. At some stage, somebody must have thought this was the way to go. It has a certain convenience to it. Committees sprang up like mushrooms and seniors became ‘officials’ and then, I suppose ‘suits’ (4). The move towards factoryfication became inevitable, and in many of the larger Wado organisations continues today.

Personally, I don’t look at the Kano story as just something that belonged in its historical time, there are lessons and parallels to be drawn that are just as relevant today. John Stevens did an amazing job with the book and tried to strip away any hint of propaganda and in doing so presented Kano as a formidable figure, but with human flaws. It would be a huge loss for the example set by Kano to be buried in the history books.

Tim Shaw

1 Konishi Yasuhiro, 1893 – 1983 founder of Shindo Jinen Ryu karate, an early pioneer along with Otsuka. As with Otsuka Konishi started out as a traditional jujutsu practitioner, they had a lot in common.

2 The ‘contests were billed as ‘exchanges of techniques’ or ‘exhibition bouts’ and unashamedly pitched school against school; the aim was for Kodokan judo to come out on top, and many times they did. ‘Exchange’ training also happened in the early days of Wado, as Suzuki Tatsuo recounts in his autobiography. So, this was definitely part of the culture.

3. Saigo Shiro 1866 – 1922, was a prodigy of Kano’s judo and elevated the status of the art in early contests, but he was hot-headed and his bad behaviour forced Kano to expel him from the Kodokan.
Mifune Kyuzo 1883 – 1965, another prodigious talent, sometimes referred to as ‘the god of judo’ Mifune was only 5 foot 2 inches and weighed only 100 lb but he was unstoppable and took over the Kodokan after Kano’s death.

4. A phrase that came to suggest; those who no longer actively trained but their authority came from association with Otsuka Sensei way back when.

Amazon link

Cover photo source Amazon Link.

Technical notes from the March 2022 Holland Course.

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The notes are mostly intended for the students who attended the three-day weekend course but I will present them in a way that others may benefit. I will also steer clear of overly-complicated Japanese concepts that may take a whole blog post to themselves.

Underpinning Themes.

Some of the warm-up exercises were designed to encourage the students to actually map the lines of movement and tension throughout their body, this was done in a static (but dynamic) way, but also tracking these tensions and connections within movement, looking for an orchestrated and efficient whole-body movement.

I also wanted to encourage an attitude of ‘why are we doing this?’ to specific aspects of our training. This is something that Sugasawa Sensei has often spoken about, although Sensei has always stressed that an intellectual understanding alone is not enough; these things must be explored through training and sweat.

How to develop an integrated dynamic to your technique.

This was addressed initially through examining the non-blocking, non-punching hand, what I sometimes tongue in cheek call the ‘non-operative side’. Of course the pulling/retracting hand is not really exclusively about the movement of the hand/arm, it is actually working as a result of what is happening deep within your own body, it is an extended reflection of the orchestrated work of the pelvis, the spine and the deeper abdominal muscles, this combination of factors energises the limbs and the energy that originates in those areas ripples and spirals outwards to create what appears as effortless energy all firing off with the right timing – well, that’s the objective anyway.

Some movements are designed to challenge your relationship with your centre.

This was where we focussed on Pinan Sandan, which seems to pack so much in. Of course, it exists in all movement, Otsuka Sensei’s intentions for Junzuki and Gyakuzuki no Tsukomi are yet another more extreme example. As in Pinan Sandan, you can be extended and stretched to such a degree that you have to acknowledge how close you may be to losing your centre and easily destabilised.

A technical challenge!

How many different ways in Wado movement are we demanding of the various sections of our body to either move in contradictory directions, or to lock-up one section while allowing free movement in another? A clue…It’s all over the place.

Destabilising your opponent.

In this one I asked that we really try to think three-dimensionally (if not four-dimensionally, if we include a ‘time’ factor). We want to destabilise our opponent in ever more sophisticated ways – one-dimension is not enough for a finely-honed instrument such as Wado. We can tip, tilt, crush, nudge, we can even use gravity (amplified through our own body movement), we can also take energy from the floor; all of these are part of our toolkit (on the Saturday we did this through what can usefully be described as a ‘shunt’ into our partner’s weak line).

What do our ‘wider’ stances give us?

Side-facing cat stance is the widest stretched stance you will ever be asked to make (a major demand on the flexibility of the pelvis) with Shikodachi as a slightly lesser challenge, but why? What does it give us? Of course, with all of these things there are a number of actual ‘benefits’ but our focus was on the dynamics of opening the hips out to the maximum. Not in a static way; but instead as an empowered dynamic, the body operating like a spring whose tensions wind and unwind supported by the energisation of the entire body. It’s easy to see and feel when it’s not working as it should, but you just have to put the work in.

Of course, over the weekend we strayed into many other areas, but I wanted these to be our take-aways.

Tim Shaw

Martial Arts training and the value of finding your Tribe.

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I think everybody has heard the saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” [1] attributed to Aristotle. It is a useful phrase when applied to the accumulated value we get from our martial arts training, and particularly when we look at the way our various organisations endeavour to support us in our ambitions and travels along the Martial Way.

I want to look at this contribution from the individual martial artist’s memberships and loyalties to their organisations, as well as to the allegiances and bonds they feel towards their fellow trainees who accompany them on their journey – this I will call the ‘Tribe’.

Your Tribe (sources and references).

It is not an original idea, it’s certainly not my idea. For this I am indebted to the book, ‘The Element – How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’ by the late Sir Ken Robinson (with Lou Aronica) [2].

There are so many interesting and inspirational parts to this book, but I will just focus on just this one, as I feel it is maybe something we should make a conscious effort to appreciate and understand, and, if you are in the upper hierarchy of your martial arts organisation, it is worth taking this seriously, as it applies not just to you, but also to every one of your students no matter what their age or level.

In this book Ken Robinson makes a huge thing about the importance of ‘Tribes’ for enabling human growth through finding what he calls ‘your Element’, as in, ‘being in your Element’ and finding the true passion in your life. This could be through anything; through sports, through the arts or the sciences, but, although it is possible, you might struggle to thrive and develop in total isolation, the energy you get from being part of a Tribe of people all working towards the same thing is truly empowering.

Here are some of a huge list of benefits.

You could start with what it means to share your passions and connect with others; the common ground and the bonding has a power all of its own.

Antagonists – the grit in the oyster.

Within the Tribe you meet people who see the world as you do, they don’t have to totally agree with you, but you are in the same zone. In fact, disagreeing with you can create a useful friction and even challenge your established views, which in itself promotes growth.

Collaborators and Competitors.

Robinson says that in the Tribe you are liable to meet collaborators and competitors; a competitor isn’t an enemy, it is someone you are vying with to race towards the same goal, and as such that type of tension can energise you, and the heat of battle (competition) inspires further growth, it’s a win-win.

Also, if your competitor has a different vision, this vision can help to validate your personal goals and either justify or revise your overall views.

Inspirational models.

Tribe members can act as motivators, their acts and sacrifices can inspire you, and remember, the positive relationships don’t have to be vertical, as in looking up to your seniors; but also horizontal, seeking inspiration from your peers. Of course, it is entirely possible that your tribal inspirational models might include people who are no longer around, I include past martial arts masters and not necessarily the ones you have been lucky enough to meet.

Speaking the same language.

Being in the same tribe means that you have to engage in a common vocabulary, but you also have to develop that language to explore ideas.

Your tribe members may perhaps force you to extend your vocabulary, to deal with more complex or nuanced aspects of what you are doing – very obvious in the martial arts, as some of these concepts might be outside of your own cultural models. I can think of many times when talking with fellow martial artists that my descriptions seem to fail me, and then someone will come up with a metaphor I’d never thought of, an inspired comparison or natty aphorism which just sums it up so neatly, and, of course, I will shamelessly steal it. You couldn’t do that on your own, you have to have the sounding boards, the heated debates, or even the physical examples (because, not everything happens at the verbal level, in fact we thrive on the physicality of what we do!).

Validation.

This is something that the martial arts have the potential to do particularly well. I say ‘potential to’ because it seems to almost be taken for granted. I believe that the frameworks used, particularly in karate organisations, are a good example of how to support, validate and acknowledge the individual student’s dedication to their training.

Done properly, this happens in two ways; the first being the official recognition of achievement, an example might be, gradings, which act as a rubber stamp and are generally accepted across the wider martial arts community. In individual or group achievements we are respectful and genuine in applauding our fellow students, which adds real value and meaning to all the blood, sweat and tears and makes it all feel worthwhile.

The second way is more subtle though not lesser in value, and that is related to the softer skills, the buzz of being shoulder to shoulder, the unspoken nod from your instructor or your fellow trainees, the respectful bow, all of these send signals that validate and add value to your membership of the Tribe.

Being in the right Tribe.

Of course, it is entirely possible that you might find you are in the wrong Tribe. There might be something about it that is just doesn’t work for you. If that’s the case then a great deal of soul-searching may have to take place. I suspect that in the past this same ‘soul-searching’ for some people can take far too long; as the saying goes, ‘What a tragedy it is that you’ve spent so long getting to the top of your ladder only to find that it’s propped against the wrong wall’.

You will know that you are in the right Tribe when it ticks all the boxes; not just the above points, but also you will notice that your creativity is boosted, your life feels energised and given meaning.

The Tribe is the fertile soil of personal growth. Robinson says that “Finding your Tribe can have transformative effects on your sense of identity and purpose. This is because of three powerful tribal dynamics:

  1. Validation.
  2. Inspiration.
  3. ‘The alchemy of synergy’.”

I write this at a time when tribes are just beginning to re-emerge after the pandemic. There has never been a more apposite time to appreciate the value of your tribe – just look for the smiles the first time the whole tribe truly gets together.

Tim Shaw

[1] For anyone interested, it is a key aspect of those who support the Gestalt theory in psychology and the concept of ‘Synergy’ (definition: ‘the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects’. Oxford Languages definition).

[2] ‘The Element – How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’ by the late Sir Ken Robinson (with Lou Aronica) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Element-Finding-Passion-Changes-Everything-ebook/dp/B002XHNMVM

Shikukai – Fresh initiatives. New Approaches to Fight Training.

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Sparring workshop in Essex.

Emerging from the various lock-downs and phased restrictions, what we were really missing were opportunities for sparring, the full range, from drills to Jiyu Kumite. After all, this was what we’d all been brought up on, and, for nearly two years Covid had denied us the chances for free-engagement.

Sparring workshop in Weymouth.

Junior grades, who may have started before or even during the pandemic, had very little opportunity to experience how their techniques would fare in an unrehearsed exchange of punches and kicks.

For many of us this aspect of our training has been sorely missed, and its absence made us realise how much we’d taken it for granted.

Focussing on the positive.

However, there are signs that we may be able to leave this negativity behind us and start to emerge into the daylight.

Within Shikukai, instructors have been galvanised into action with two fresh initiatives specifically related to kumite training, developed independently and born out of the fermentation time forced on us by Covid.

The Shikukai team of instructors refused to allow training to be put into suspended animation during the various lock-downs and isolations and instead crafted new ways of continuing training (e.g. Zoom) which brought about fresh ways of looking at what we do. Which, incidentally, also fed into our current restructuring and modernising initiative within Shikukai as a whole.

Fresh ideas.

The two initiatives are up and running; one in the South West, devised by Steve and Pam Rawson, and the other in Essex, piloted by Steve Thain.

These two projects are refreshingly different in approach, which to my mind underlines the diversity available in this aspect of training. Fight training supplies opportunities for some really creative thinking; a contrast to syllabus work and the focus on minutiae associated with high technical demands.

Weymouth.

Steve and Pam’s ideas sprang out of their focussed Zoom sessions geared towards fighting drills – a regular weekly event over the last few months. It was almost inevitable that they would want to transfer this into live, face-to-face training, and an opportunity opened up in Weymouth.

A new business appeared in the town centre called ‘The Combat Lab’, a multi-disciplinary martial arts initiative/business project. Steve and Pam approached the owner and arranged dates and times for their proposed workshops, the first of which occurred in January 2022.

They planned to take full advantage of the space and the facilities. The workshop was designed with the use of equipment (bags etc.) in mind. Training was thoughtfully constructed and featured a broad range of fighting skills, including drills and take-downs.

For this first workshop Ken Bu Jyuku students were well supported by Shikukai members from Exmouth and Chippenham. With a new date set for March and a revised format creating separate space and time for women only training, followed by men’s training. Places are limited, so contact Steve and Pam if you are interested (Full details on the main Shikukai website).

Essex.

The project in Essex took on a different form. The springboard for this came from Steve Thain’s initiative to organise ‘Pop-Up’ workshops during gaps in pandemic restrictions. Although these were not exclusively focussed on fighting, they were designed to explore free-form movement. For Steve the inevitable next step was to design ‘fight-based’ versions of the same Pop-Up model.

His approach was to trawl all of the go-to fight training methods developed over the years. He drew up a list of twenty numbered practices.

The lowest numbers related to the most accessible methods; ones suitable for lower graded, least experienced students; while the higher numbers required significantly more skill and experience. Students were then given the choice of which level to work at. This instantly reduced any trepidation the least experienced may have felt.

The modes of fight training included such things as; mirroring, shoulder tapping, one attack one defends, Shiai, Ohyo Henka Dosa, and fifteen others too difficult to explain in a brief blog post.

Having participated in two of these workshops (the last being Feb. 1st) although, by its nature as a ‘pop-up’ it is only for one hour, it’s very intense and hugely enjoyable, whatever level you are at.

The next one takes place in March (date to be confirmed).

Tim Shaw

Personal Security and Society, a Different Perspective.

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On the back of the earlier blog posts about self-protection, I thought I would try and look at the bigger picture; particularly as it relates to society.

While I have no qualifications in sociology, criminology or demography I want to present some different ways of looking at things.

The main thrust of this post will be to put forward a series of models that may well clarify a few points and maybe explode a few myths. I will back this up with examples from various sources.

A few basics.

It goes without saying that the reasons for our success as a species is our ability to collaborate, communicate and work as a group to get stuff done with the minimum of friction [1].

To do this you need agreed sets of rules, which over time solidify into laws that we all have to agree to abide by if we want to live within our tribe/society.

And then there are whole swathes of unwritten social nuances which oil the wheels and involve social protocols, good manners, respectful behaviour and not giving in to the destructive, selfish aspects of our basic impulses. We rein ourselves in because we are mindful of the impact of our behaviour on those around us and how that affects our relationships and status in the group. For humans this is incredibly complex, at both the formal/legal level and the more fluid, unwritten domain.

The Framework.

In my mind’s eye I see this as a framework. For me society is like a complex cuboid mesh, of which the strands that hold it together are both our guidelines and our constraints.

Young children grow learning to gradually adopt and navigate this framework. In their very early development it is the parents who construct and manage a world for the child that balances their needs and wants (and freedom of personal expression) and steers them towards what society expects of them.

Gradually these young children become civilised and the process continues to unfold all the way through from their home life to their schooling.

They are expected to create and navigate friendships, as well as stay within the gridlines of first; nursery, then junior school, secondary school and ever onwards. All of these institutions have a secure and complicated framework, which needs to be navigated if they are to survive and thrive. It can be disastrous for a child to fail in this responsibility (for whatever reasons), if they do, they risk being unpopular, ostracised, seen as literally an ‘outsider’ (outside ‘the grid’), which, if left unchecked or unsupported, can breed bitterness and resentment, where any perceived faults are projected outwards onto the big bad world and the people who inhabit it. In its most extreme example, it can lead to events like the Columbine High School shootings of 1999. [2]

Schools as the archetype of ‘the Grid’.

From my experience schools are typical and easily observable examples of this complex gridded cube.

I have seen this first-hand; particularly over the last three years, as a career turn has taken me inside over twenty UK secondary schools, where I have been able to observe them up-close and across all levels.

The ‘framework’ in schools is so very obvious, it even exists as a physical reality – look at the way architects, past and present, design schools. It is manifest in the box-like rooms all stacked on top of each other, connected by corridors and stairwells; even the outdoor spaces tend to be designed to constrict and control; the imagery of the grid is everywhere.

In the last ten years the physical structure of schools has become even more boxed-in; often for what is seen as very good reasons, reasons of ‘safeguarding’ and ‘well-being’, but you have to wonder, has the world become so much more of a dangerous place?

In an ever-escalating arms race of ‘security’, how big is the threat? Does it warrant the explosion of things like; key-coded exterior security gates and fences (are they to keep people out, or to keep people in?); doorways between corridors having to have swipe-card entries; everyone forced to wear lanyards with ID pictures, and (I kid you not) even lock-down zones with metal shutters that grind-down on the press of a panic button, and metal-detector gateways! [3] I have seen all of these.

You have to ask yourself, is this care and kindness geared towards the well-being of children, or is it thinly disguised paranoia that further feeds into the anxiety of young people? What messages are we giving them?

Within the constraints of this tight and complex mesh we are hoping that young people will be able to experience some freedoms and some elements of self-expression, where they can carve out their own unique identity (which, in the UK, is somewhat negated by the contradiction and oddity of the enforced school uniform![4]) I am sure that self-expression happens, but only in the gaps between the gridlines.

Where does the responsibility lie?

It seems to me that headteachers and governors are engaged in a Top Trumps game of who can outdo who in the personal security/safeguarding checklist. I just don’t think they have thought it through.

Safety in the wider world.

What happens to young people when school is no longer part of their lives?

One could suppose that as they have reached adult status the grid is a more open structure, certainly compared to schools.

It might be worth considering the example of the recent red flags that have gone up in UK universities where the apparent slackening of the grid has brought about what seems to be an epidemic of sexual predators – what is the truth behind the reported stories? Why has it been proposed that undergraduates have to have ‘consent training’ etc? [5] Is this a failure of the system, or an inevitable malaise unwittingly constructed by the system itself?

On top of this you have to ask yourself, do these young people have everything they need to survive and thrive, to navigate the bigger open-mesh of society and stay out of harm’s way? Has their education and upbringing given them the necessary tools?

They seem to lurch forward into the adult world with their parent’s words of warning ringing in their ears; but the irony for parents is that a mother’s advice to her teenage daughter as to how to stay safe on a Friday night out with friends is often based on what it was like in the 1990’s, so unless she’s got a time machine, it’s not going to be very helpful. The world changes at a phenomenal rate.

Not all grids are the same.

The societal structures (the grid patterns) are not the same all over the world; yes, they deal with the same basic issues of safety and rules but, for example, the gridlines in Birmingham UK are very different from Tijuana Mexico. (Or even Sarasota Florida).

A cautionary tale about grids.

In 2011 two young British men, James Cooper 25 and James Kouzaris 24, while visiting Mr Cooper’s parents in Sarasota Florida decided to cut out on their own after an evening meal out. They were more than a little drunk, and wandered into a run-down part of Sarasota, a place called Newtown. It appears that Newtown is where the gridlines run out of road.

To cut a long story short, Cooper and Kouzaris were found dead at the side of the road. They had been shot by local boy Shawn Tyson 17, there was no sign of robbery, they both had wallets with money and phones; they just strayed into a blind spot on the grid, one which the locals of Sarasota and Newtown would have surely known about. [6]

This scenario would be unlikely to play out the same way if they were stumbling around Surbiton or Guildford at two in the morning, because they’d recognise the situation, understand their options and be able to navigate the gridlines that were available to them, while calculating the potential of threat or risks inherent to that particular scenario.

Sadly, it is unlikely that any amount of martial arts or hands-on self-defence training would have saved James Cooper and James Kouzaris.

Final word on terrorist threats.

This is a classic case of ‘head says one thing, but heart says another’, but statistically you’d have to be pretty unlucky to get caught up in a terrorist attack in the UK. Yuval Noah Harari the Israeli historian describes terrorism as ‘a puny matter’ when compared to what happens in warfare. It is essentially all spectacle and theatre designed to stoke up fear, and it does, just think about the example of the emotional and human after-effects of the Manchester bombing in 2017.

Essentially, governments and media do the terrorist’s work for them, they supply the oxygen to these combustible situations, and unintentionally become the recruiting sergeants for the next generation of terrorists through ill-thought out knee-jerk reactions. But, as they know, you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.

Read Yuval Noah Harari’s piece in the Guardian, for a good description of how this works at a rational level.

Keep safe.

Tim Shaw

[1] As individuals in the animal kingdom we make pretty lousy predators; we are not particularly strong, agile or bulky to survive on our own without the employment of weaponry, and even then we have to operate in packs to achieve any level of success.

[2] Columbine High School Shootings https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbine_High_School_massacre

[3] Most schools I have visited have ‘lock-down procedures’, some have interior door wedges with the fear of the possibility of an ‘active shooter’, and this is the UK not the USA. The UK has only ever experienced three school shootings and all of the casualties (bar 1) occurred in just one incident. Compare that to the USA, where between the year 1999 and 2012 there have been 31 school shootings.

[4] Radical educationalist professor Guy Claxton said that schools tend to be constructed on one of two models; the are either ‘monasteries’ or ‘factories’. ‘Monasteries’ have; authorities in gowns/robes with other robes/uniforms for novices and are based upon some vague notion of revelation, with a massive worship of ‘tradition’. While ‘factories’ have bells to end shifts and have the intention of turning out identical little ‘products’ and are judged by quality controllers (Ofsted, Performance management etc), they won’t admit it but they are really exam factories. I know this because for a long time I worked in a factory that was built on the ruins of a monastery.

[5] Consent training and even ‘Good Lad workshops’ in universities and colleges. See this link from the University of Cambridge https://www.breakingthesilence.cam.ac.uk/training-and-events/training-students

[6] Murder in Florida, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-17479559

Sample – Part 12, Early days in Leeds.

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1978 through to 1981. Undergraduate years at Leeds Polytechnic, studying graphic design.
Living in Headingley (and later Harehills) and taking over the running of the Leeds YMCA Wado Dojo under the authority of Suzuki Sensei’s UKKW.

Post Mansfield and my arrival in Leeds had given my karate full licence to develop in its own way – of course within the constraints of mainstream Wado and very much marching to the UKKW/Suzuki drum. In my own head I reckoned that the apprenticeship had been served.

By that time I had pretty much decided that competition karate was not going to give me what I needed. Although I did enter competitions in my early years at Leeds I became disillusioned with how things were run (e.g. Carlisle, Huddersfield, the Nationals). I had no desire to build a team to rival the top teams of the day, it just wasn’t part of my agenda (the same Leeds Dojo became famous only after my departure, after Keith Walker took over and embraced the competition world with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm).

Although I was building a Dojo, it was all geared towards ‘Project Me’. I think I must have figured that if I was going to be running the club with some authority as a twenty-year-old, I had better make sure that I could walk the walk.

Supplementary Training.

For me it was split between Dojo time and supplementary training time; and it was in this supplementary training that I became quite creative; basically, I was willing to try anything.

I started off living in student halls of residence at Beckett Park, Headingley, north of the city centre. While I was there, I gained permission to train in the weights room of the PE college, Carnegie, which was always interesting because you never knew who was going to walk through the door. I hardly saw any of the rugby set in there; the only heavy lifting they were interested in was in the Union bar. It became a bit of a joke, the piss-head rugby crowd were only ever seen in the evening, while the serious athletes were only ever seen at 6am for their morning run – always an early night for those people.

In the weights gym were specialist athletes; like the canoeists, guys with massive shoulders, yet tiny skinny legs. And throwers; lots of throwers, javelin, discus and shot; many of them trained by Wilf Paish, a small man who would drift in and out of the gym and never seemed to smile. Paish had his finest hour in the 1984 Olympics as mentor to Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread.

I initially tried to connect with the Shotokan group on the campus, but the Shotokan big cheese must have seen me as too much of an outsider and let me know that I just wasn’t welcome. He told me to go and train in a corner; as a result this was a very short-lived experience.

Always looking for a new opportunity to train, I used the gym equipment at the Leeds Playhouse when I was in the city centre, sometimes lunchtimes, sometimes early evenings. This was the ‘Multi-gym’ type equipment, but it was very manageable and I was always able to get a reasonable workout.

I even trained with the Leeds University boxing club, however, it interfered too much with my technique. I didn’t let the trainer know I’d done anything before; he liked how I used my waist, but it wasn’t to be; but it was worth a punt anyway.

On top of this I did an awful lot of running. The Headingley parkland and running track were perfect for that, and with all those PE student-types around, it just seemed to be the done-thing, although I always found the early morning runs a real chore.

Lifestyle.

I never lost the habit of walking everywhere; averaging four times a day from Headingley to the city centre site, back and forth; two miles each way. I enjoyed the walking, then, as now, it gave lots of time for thinking and it never felt like a hardship.

The few times I took the bus I always felt resentful, this was magnified by the lousy attitude of many of the bus drivers, who seemed to think that passengers were an inconvenience to their working day. They hated having to give change and were brutal on the brakes when they realised that people were precariously balanced stuffed into the aisles because the seats were all taken; a quick stamp on the brake pedal and people would tumble like skittles! I suppose it gave them some fun in a working day.

As I didn’t drive at that time, everything was on foot; I never saw the inside of a taxi, they were just too expensive.

Parties and events were just word of mouth, an address, a name, or sometimes a crudely printed ticket with the date and time on it. Pre-Internet days meant holding information and a complex map of the city in your head, and any networking seem to operate at the same telepathic level as Aboriginal ‘Song Lines’, we just ‘knew’ where people were liable to be at any point on any given weekend night; spookily accurate in its psychic predictions.

The Leeds Dojo.

Gradually I had picked up a small group of karate students who were all about the same age as me; some were college kids from various courses. This enabled me to really start to pump the official twice weekly Dojo sessions at the YMCA in the city centre.

I don’t for a minute think that we were very technical – certainly not by today’s standards. We used to joke that half of the class time was dedicated to calisthenics; a bit of an exaggeration, but not far off. After I’d left Leeds, Keith Walker had taken over the Dojo; as he’d started with me as a teenager, he very much followed the tradition I had established, and, a visitor from North Yorkshire, a female karate-ka who trained at the Settle Dojo, commented that when she went to train in Leeds (post 1982) Keith had put her through a session that was mostly boot-camp callisthenics. But, to his credit, he soon found his own way of doing things.

But, being honest, a lot of the content of the training was for me; it sounds a bit selfish but my thinking was that if the students benefitted from it then all well and good. In those early days, I set the pace, I directed the exercises and I enjoyed devising new ways to work the body. We may not have been terrifically technical martial artists but we were really fit.

Eventually, twice a week was not enough for me.

The YMCA were quite happy for us to book the training space for times when things were quiet; so early Friday evening was an additional class; about three hours of extra training. In the first part of the session it was often just me and young Keith Walker and then others turned up as the evening went on.

Saturday mornings at the YMCA.

But the most enjoyable session was the Saturday morning class.

Because nobody wanted the basement gym at the YMCA on Saturday morning, we grabbed it as an extra slot. Although, living a student lifestyle, training on a Saturday morning was a bit of a stretch. It developed into one of our most creative and free-form sessions, and I think those who took part really enjoyed the buzz.

The Saturday class was for two hours. It always started with about 45 minutes of kata, though this was a token, almost a warm up.

We then went into crazy sets of relay runs (it was a long narrow gym) punctuated with circuit training-style intervals; squats, press-ups and every exercise I could throw into the mix. By the time we’d got to the end of that we were a sweaty mess and, crucially, well warmed up for the sparring. This was the ‘light sparring’ I had ‘borrowed’ from the Wolverhampton team. It always started out in the right spirit, but the more we got into it the heavier it got, but nobody seemed to care, it was a total adrenalin rush, and, because we all trusted each other, we knew how to push each other’s boundaries; high energy, yes, but full spirited.

The bonus of the Saturday morning was that we had access to the most wonderful hot water showers after training. Rinsing off the sweat with muscles feeling like mush, the euphoria after the training was better than any massage. You could have poured me into a bucket.

On many occasions the Saturday morning training was the prelude to another bigger training session in the afternoon. We would often grab a quick lunch at the YMCA cafeteria and then catch a train from Leeds to Doncaster to train for a further two or three hours with either a Japanese Sensei or another guest instructor at the Doncaster Dojo, also allied to the UKKW.

This arrangement led to some interesting and intense Saturdays.

An ‘apex’, and not untypical weekend for us, was probably:

Friday; three hours training.
Then leave your sports bag and sweaty gi in a left luggage locker in the railways station.
Go out on a heavy night, including clubbing till about 2am.
Crawl into bed, about 3am.
Up early Saturday, collect the sports bag from the station.
Two hours of hard work in the YMCA gym in a stinky, sweaty gi; no chance to recover.
To Leeds station to catch a train to Doncaster, more training.
Back into Leeds for whatever the night offered; phew!

We didn’t congratulate ourselves that we were doing anything unique; we had nothing to compare it to; it was just what it was, we just plunged in, we had the energy to do it and youth was on our side. It is only in retrospect that I realise how bonkers it was. But, it was really about being young and pushing at any boundaries we could find.

A training diary from the time details how I would sometimes clock up twenty hours a week of training in various forms.

It is often commented on that youth is wasted on the young; I am sure that in those days we were convinced we were indestructible. I suffered relatively few injuries; a niggling lower back problem, a broken toe, broken nose, various hand injuries (thumbs wrenched back) and an unfortunate and very stupid stab injury to my thigh, to which I still have the scar, which (typical of me) I had bandaged up and trained through – because I was indestructible and would let nothing stop me, and hence the stitches wouldn’t hold and the wound opened up and now I carry a bigger and uglier scar than I needed to – fool that I am. (The course on that day was a squad training session under the then England coach Eddie Cox).

Influences and opportunities.

But what about input? Where was I getting my influences from, how was I able to develop?

So much must be credited to the initiative and enthusiasm of the Genery family who ran the Doncaster Dojo. They kept us well-informed about courses they were hosting and never failed to invite us. All of the main Japanese Sensei were invited to run courses and gradings at the Doncaster Judo club; Suzuki Sensei, Shiomitsu, Nishimura, Sugasawa, Sakagami as well as courses with England coach Eddie Cox, Charles Longdon-Hughes and world champion Jeoff Thompson. Add to that the big UKKW courses, Winter and Summer and some particularly iconic courses organised in places like Sheffield and Newcastle; there was so much happening. It is often assumed that the London scene for Wado karate was where it was all happening, but Suzuki Sensei and the other Japanese Sensei were encouraged to go all over the country and the demand was there. It must have been a good way of making a living as there was never a course that was unsupported, and that was quite something in an age that was pre-Internet. All communications took place through mail and phone calls. But, for me, living as a student in Leeds, we didn’t have a phone and had to make any vital calls through payphones, so it was all word of mouth.

As I worked on my body and predominantly my fitness level I probably undervalued the technical world. Not that I taught or practised sloppy techniques; I was very exacting in refining my own skills, but only really to the demands of the time. I had been well-tutored in the syllabus book and knew what was required to pass gradings and perform a fast and sharp kata; but there were other fish that needed frying.

Fight training.

In retrospect I enjoyed exploring creativity through fighting. Sparring was a crucible for me, as I chased ideas and explored new emphasis. I remember that at one time I got really excited about rhythm and setting up tempo patterns and then breaking them; a kind of ‘leading’, a disruptive interplay.

We tried to engage with contact work, but we were always short of equipment – I think that must have been where the boxing experiment happened.

It must be said that all of this did not happen in a vacuum. We developed some useful contacts through other martial artists, other karate styles. We met some of them through competitions; although, as I have said, our competition experiences were not always fruitful.

Other courses.

I attended most of the major courses and encouraged my students to do the same. I think I only missed the 1979 summer course, a landmark course because this was Sugasawa Sensei’s first summer course in the UK. I had seen him before at the 1978 Nationals, with moustache and long hair; but the 79 summer course changed all of that for him, as it was there that he reverted back to the shaven-headed look he’d had in Japan and has subsequently stuck with ever since.

The summer and winter courses from the Leeds days followed the same pattern as previous years; though the venue of the summer course changed to Great Yarmouth and then Torquay.

But, to return the focus to the training.

These courses were marked by their large numbers. Nowadays big courses across Wado organisations are boosted by huge contingents from abroad; this was not the case in the late 70’s and early 80’s, although the winter courses did tend to attract some Scandinavians and a few Dutch. The attendees were primarily UK-based and it was good for networking, and to train with different partners. Which in itself was a bit of a lottery; you could get some really outstanding, hardworking partners or some that were either lazy (too much wanting to talk about or analyse what we were working on) or some that were just clueless. Over the years I did partner Japanese Sensei who were there for the training; Fukazawa Hiroji was new to the Suzuki way of doing things and when I partnered him he asked me to teach him the Suzuki Ohyo Gumite, which I was happy to do. (In later years I partnered Tomiyama Keiji of Shito Ryu on a large course in Guildford; a real pleasure.). These were all great learning experiences.

Grading for 2nd Dan.

I took my 2nd Dan on the Summer Course in Great Yarmouth in 1980. There were a clutch of prospective 1st Dans, and the only ones above that were myself for 2nd Dan; one of a bunch of brothers who had emigrated to Australia for 3rd Dan, and another British emigree from Sweden who was going for 4th Dan; which made fighting all the more interesting. The most senior, the Swedish/English guy had a tough time in the fighting and the Australian gave him a real drubbing, I felt quite sorry for him, he never really got started, the Aussie was all over him like a rash. Then came the time for me to fight Mr Sweden, but he’d had all the fight knocked out of him; so, it was a bit of a non-event. Then I had to spar with the Australian… I admit it here, it was a tough fight, I went with the idea that attack was the best form of defence, I was definitely outclassed, it was almost impossible to stifle his aggression, but I felt that I held my own, I certainly didn’t disgrace myself – one of my most memorable fights.

Suzuki Sensei.

On these courses the majority of my time was under Suzuki Sensei. He insisted on taking the black belts for himself, as befitting of the senior man. Shiomitsu and Sakagami had to be content with switching the brown and green belts between themselves.

Suzuki Sensei was gruff in manner and thought nothing of kicking your leg from under you and growling at you if it wasn’t up to his measure. He also had no restraint in showing his amusement when someone screwed up. His humour had a cruel side to it. He had a favoured take-down which involved grasping your collar from the back and pulling you backwards at great speed. Tokaido gis at that time had a particular weakness; although they were expensive, they used to tear at the back of the collar, near the shoulder. I think he knew this and when he needed to demonstrate the take-down I’m sure he looked for the Tokaido label, and, sure enough, ‘rip!!’ an expensive gi top split all the way down, and he would just walk away chuckling to himself.

When Suzuki Sensei was teaching kata it was all ‘Ichi, Ni, San, Shi…’ but when Shiomitsu taught kata he would start out like that and then become impatient and say, ‘practice by yourself’. I actually found this quite useful as I could really dig into repetitions and try to get under the skin of what I was doing, with the added bonus of Japanese Sensei prowling round to correct your form and maybe field questions – although the ‘fielding of questions’ was very much a later development, Suzuki Sensei did not encourage questions.

Suzuki taught by physical example; ‘like this!’ he would say, and snap sharply into position. He was very ‘hands-on’ and demanded that you mirror his moves; he almost wanted you to ‘be him’, which was a challenge for me as we were physically quite different. I make no bones about it and stick by my theory that karate was designed by shorter guys, for shorter guys. I first realised this through experiencing Suzuki’s physicality, but it was further reinforced by having to train alongside Clive Wright and Frank Johnson. These two were physical carbon copies of each other body-wise. Quite short and light in build, closer to the Suzuki ideal. I remember training alongside Clive in Yarmouth and being puzzled as to how we were both doing the same move to the same count but he was getting to the end of the motion half a beat before I was? And then I realised what the answer was, ‘short levers’; because of my limb length being longer than Clive’s (or Frank’s) I had to cover twenty inches of distance to their twelve! No wonder I was behind!

I have often pondered this conundrum; the challenge for the taller person is to aim for the same speed as the shorter person, at the same time being aware that with the longer levers there is going to be a bigger challenge to move as an integrated whole – put simply; the ends of the limbs may have the advantage of creating a longer reach but this leads to the extreme ends of the movement being significantly divorced from the body’s central core; and it is this relationship that is integral to efficient movement in Wado.

Training methods and instruction.

On these summer and winter courses there was still the emphasis on going up and down in lines; which is a very efficient way of managing the large numbers. You would think that it was very easy to get lost in the crowd, but there were so many Japanese instructors to oversee proceedings that you always felt eyes upon you. But I am sure that these large numbers hindered the opportunity for the more bespoke coaching that is needed to progress – particularly post-Dan grade. I can’t think of any course that I went on in those years where the numbers were so few that you were able to enjoy a unique access to Japanese instruction. The only instances that came close was when Sakagami Sensei was teaching at the Doncaster Dojo; but this coaching didn’t happen in the Dojo, it happened in the changing rooms afterwards. Sakagami on his own was always friendly and talkative, though always earnest and enthusiastic, once you got him on a favoured theme. But in those changing room chats he used to get carried away and we were stuck in there for ages; so much so that the organisers seemed to be frustrated in their efforts to clear up and lock up. He just went on and on, but it was so interesting and so informative.

Tim Shaw

Featured image: Mark Harland and Tim Shaw in the Leeds YMCA basement gym, circa 1979.

You’d better hope you never have to use it – Part 2.

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“Smash the elbow”, “tear the throat out”, “snap the arm like a twig”, “gouge the eyes with your thumbs”. I have heard these things said by martial artists during classes. But I find myself asking, how do you know? and have you ever done that? Have you ever used your thumbs to gouge out somebody’s eyeballs? And on top of that, how do you know you won’t freeze like a rabbit in the headlights? Or, how do you know if you have enough resilience (or lived experience) to be able to suffer a terrible beating before you get a chance to put in that one decisive game-changing shot?

Empirical evidence versus anecdotes.

Effectiveness, can you prove it? Can it be quantified in a scientific way? Is the data available?

Every martial artist probably has a dozen stories as to why their martial arts method is effective as a fighting system and none of these incidents ever happen inside the Dojo – how could they, it’s supposed to be a safe training environment?

I have my own ‘go-to’ anecdotes, but equally I have another set of anecdotes where martial arts practitioners have come unstuck – but nobody talks about those, least of all the people who it has happened to (understandably). [1].

Anecdotes may be fun to recount but all they do is muddy the water, they are too random to qualify as evidence. And, if you look at some of these stories in the cold light of day you often have to wonder about (a) their veracity, (b) which way the odds were stacked, (c) whether elements of luck or chance were involved; but one thing is clear, they cannot really be used as definitive proof that your system works, after all, the system is the system and You are not the system.

The anecdotes may suggest that in certain circumstances your chances of coming out on top in a violent attack might be slightly higher – but they could also suggest that you might come out worse (probably because of over-confidence, or an unrealistic evaluation of your own ability).

The problem with fantasy.

Now compare that to movie fantasies of physical confrontations. I cite two examples that come to mind.

The first being Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, where Reacher takes a bunch of guys on after they offer him out from a bar ( link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hu1MtT_S3bc

The thing is, deep down, we all want it to be like that.

And then Robert Downey Jnr as Sherlock Holmes in a bare knuckles contest (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-z5139CW1I

This last one is about as extreme an example as is needed to make my point that fantasy is fantasy. (To paraphrase Mike Tyson, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get a punch in the mouth’.)

The Sherlock Holmes example is akin to treating violence like a chess game – if I plan and think several moves ahead then my plan will bring about the downfall of my opponent…. wrong. When it gets to the ‘trading punches’ stage you have already entered the world of chaos, thus ramping up the unpredictability exponentially.

It is potentially fatal to confuse Complex with Complicated [2] and the zone of chaos is indeed Complex. This is why those who are supremely skilful at navigating the Complex world have to do it without thought, artifice or calculation, they are like expert nautical mariners in a tossing sea, who work on instinct, they have an overarching understanding of Principle, their skills are not a bunch of cobbled together tricks that they have memorised hoping for that moment to happen.

I know that there are critics of the Principle angle in martial arts (particularly Wado), usually they fail to understand it and ask, what is this ‘Principle’ thing anyway? I am tempted to reply with something like the Louis Armstrong quote about the definition of jazz, “Man, if you have to ask what jazz is – you’ll never know”. (See my blog post on ‘Fast Burn, Slow Burn Martial Arts’ for a clue as to how it works). These same people remind me of the ‘Fox with no tail’ a moral story from Aesop].

When people talk about ‘functionality’, ‘functional combative skills’, this has to be about effectiveness, surely? But You can’t talk about that without some form of measure, if there is no measure then it’s all opinion and as such, we can take it or leave it. The person who makes the statement can only hope that we trust their opinion as an ‘expert’, but again, an expert based on what experience; their ability (as proven) to ‘snap someone’s arm like a twig, or gouge their eyes out’? I realise that there are people out in the martial arts world whose whole authority rests on this issue and it’s not my place to call them out, particularly as I also have no experience of ‘snapping arms’ to support any claims I make, but just apply a little logic to it.

Of course, I reckon that if I take my opponent’s elbow over my shoulder and exert a forceful two-handed yank downwards I might be able to ‘snap his elbow like a twig’, but I doubt he’s going to let that happen without a hell of a struggle (unless I am Sherlock Holmes of course). Meanwhile, he has barrelled into me, knocked me on my back and is sat on my chest raining punches into my face, and then his mates join in to kick me in the head for good measure – elementary my dear Watson.

Looking for evidence in history.

I feel I have to address this one. Anyone who looks for evidence in history is on to a sticky wicket. History is notoriously unreliable. We know this because current historical revisionist methods are revealing that many things we thought were true may not be so. For example; everyone knows that it is the victors who write the history.

If we take our history inside Japan and Okinawa and we listen to serious, open-minded researchers, we find that some of the things we took for granted may well not be true.

To give a few examples:

  • Zen Buddhism does not have the monopoly in Japanese martial arts, certainly karate is not ‘Moving Zen’.
  • The 19th century Samurai were not the apex of Japanese martial valour and skill. Set that two or three hundred years earlier and you might be about right.
  • Okinawan martial arts were not the result of a suppression imposed by Japanese Samurai; it was not that simple. Okinawan people were generally peaceful and society was well-structured, it certainly was not the Dodge City that some people like to suggest, it seems that the martial arts of Okinawa reflected this, an extreme martial arts crucible it certainly wasn’t, certainly if you compare it with what was happening in Japan between 1467 and 1615. I don’t point that out to discredit the Okinawan systems, it’s just an observation and there were exceptions, e.g. Motobu Choki, who certainly had his ‘Dodge City’ moments.

As time moves forward all we are left with is the mythologies, hardly something to judge the functional abilities of teachers who are long dead, so all we have available is guesswork, assumptions and opinions; not really scientific or objective. So, anyone who wants to hang their ideas on that particular hook would be wise to keep an open mind.

How would martial arts work in a defence situation? A proposition.

To answer this, I would speculate that there are several high-level outcomes that are possible, and none of them look anything like either the movie fantasy image, or the types of techniques that are, ‘a bunch of cobbled together tricks that have been memorised hoping for that moment to happen’ [3].

  • The highest level has to be that nothing happens, because nothing needs to happen. The world calms down and order rules the day; chaos is banished.
  • The next highest level is probably where the aggressor just seems to fall down on his own. Here are my two nearest assumptions on this (one anecdotal and the other historical – but after all, I have to pluck my examples from somewhere). The first is a story about Otsuka Sensei dealing with a man who tried to mug him for his wallet in a train station. Otsuka just dealt with the guy in the blink of an eye and when asked what he did, he replied, “I don’t know”. The other is the historical encounter between Kito-Ryu Jujutsu master Kato Ukei and a Sumo wrestler who twice decided to test the master’s Kato’s ability with surprise attacks, and both times seemed to just stumble and hit the dirt [4].
  • Anything below those two levels would probably involve one single clean technique, nothing prolonged, maybe appearing as nothing more than a muscle spasm, nothing ‘John Wick’, certainly nothing spectacular – job done.
  • Then you might plunge down the evolutionary scale and have two guys smashing each other in the face to see who gives up first.

Conclusions:

The original objectives of these two blog posts were to challenge the assumptions we seem have made about the nature of self-defence (in its broadest interpretation) and to put forward some different angles, explode a few myths and to present the idea that all that glitters is not gold.

I don’t have the answers, but then it seems, neither does anyone else. But we shouldn’t just throw our hands up in the air. Keep on with the focus on defending ourselves and refining our technique and by all means teach self-defence as a supporting disciple or on dedicated courses, it is a brilliant way for martial arts instructors to engage with the community in a positive and confidence building way; however, keep it realistic and not just fearful.

For those who claim that their approach has more ‘functionality’ I would humbly suggest that that you might want to look towards the key questions; objectively, how can you prove that? Maybe what you are asking for is a leap of faith? My view is that the data is not there and that it is just lazy logic. [5]

There are people who want to claim their authority from the ‘short game’, while I would suggest that there is another game in town; the ‘long game’. Targets really need to be aspirational and ambitious, not ducking towards the lowest common denominator, i.e. the ‘fear factor’ of the anxious urbanite. Your authority is not derived from your ability to ring the metropolitan angst bell; or to yank the chain of the frustrated metrosexual male who feels he is cut adrift and fretful about his role in contemporary society and lost in a maelstrom of surging confusion.

The bottom line is; get real and dare to think differently.

As a last word, these posts are not meant to be definitive, or to cover all aspects of self-protection. I could have included comments about how the law views self-defence, or how much mental attitude is a part of self-defence, or adrenalin, fight and flight etc, without even mentioning the number of young men in the UK who die through stab injuries. But maybe another day.

Tim Shaw

[1] One event happened fairly recently where I had bumped into a martial artist from another system, an acquaintance, in a nightclub. He’d had a drink or two and proceeded to bend my ear about how ‘the trouble with most martial artists is they have never been in a real fight, never trained for it, etc.’ And, as if the God of Irony was looking down upon him; within seconds of him waving me goodbye, he crossed paths with the wrong person and ended up as a victim, laid out and bleeding. I guess he didn’t get the chance to ‘snap the arm like a twig’.
Be careful what you wish for.

[2] See my blog post on Systems. https://wadoryu.org.uk/2020/01/29/is-your-martial-art-complicated-or-complex/

[3] These methods often assume that the opponent is going to present themselves like a bag of sand and allow you to engage in an ever-complex string of funky locks, take-downs, arm-bars etc. etc. Sherlock Holmes would definitely approve.

[4] Source: ‘Famous Budoka of Japan: Mujushin Kenjutsu and Kito-ryu’. Kono, Yoshinori, Aikido Journal 111 (1997). According to Ellis Amdur in his book ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ this is pure Principle and Movement in practice (my paraphrase).

[5] Similar to the way people talk out about ‘life after death’, i.e. how do you know? Conveniently, nobody has ever come back to tell us. Ergo; you never have to validate your claims.

Image credit: Kiyose Nakae ‘Jiu Jitsu Complete’ 1958.

You’d better hope you never have to use it – Part 1.

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An alternative view on self-defence and ‘effectiveness’. I have been thinking about this for a long time now. Every time I see this subject brought up on martial arts forums, I find myself shaking my head; where is the objective clarity? Where is the cold scalpel of logic which is needed to cut through the mythology, pointless tautology and hyperbole? In addition, why doesn’t someone call out those who are too quick to erect a whole forest of straw men; those who set up false equivalents and apply simple answers to complex questions?

Self-defence, what does it even mean?

Taken at face value it’s supposed to be our raison d’être, but we know that Japanese Budo has worked hard to raise itself above primitive pugilism, and the inclusion of firearms into the mix has brought in an element of semi-redundancy, particularly in certain societies around the world. But we still have the hope that we can take the ethical and moral high ground through the philosophies of Budo, which, in itself is not above hyperbole (try, ‘we fight so that we don’t have to fight’, I know what it means, but I suspect I am in a minority).

Real Violence.

We tell ourselves that we are training so that we can protect ourselves against physical attacks by unknown (or even known) aggressors who clearly mean us harm. Realistically, most people have fortunately never really experienced that (here in the UK, despite what the papers want to tell us, we live in quite a peaceful society [1]). Hence, what people do is carry around an image in their heads of what that violence may look like; but, based on what exactly? Mostly, I suspect it’s a mish-mash of choreographed movie violence and random CCTV footage on YouTube; it is highly unlikely it will be based on real experience.

What does real violence look like?

I don’t like doing this but unfortunately, I have to base my proposition on a degree of personal experience, mostly (but not exclusively) from my younger days.

A list of what real violence tends to be:

Random, irrational, devoid of humanity (and often bereft of conscience), chaotic, usually spontaneous, ugly, seldom prolonged (most likely, over in just a couple of seconds), all too often cowardly with any elements of restraint removed by the effects of alcohol or drugs. Not in the least bit glamorous and hardly anybody comes out of it as a hero, and certainly nobody calculates the consequences of their actions.

It is this last one I want to look at in a little more detail. (Here’s where ‘You’d better hope you never have to use it’ comes in). I’ll start with; if you make a decision to punch, kick or elbow someone in the head, you’d better be prepared to live with the consequences.

One thing that tales from news media can tell us quite graphically and accurately, is the results and the aftermath of a physical assault; whether it is initiated by the aggressor or the defender, it doesn’t matter, James Bond or Jason Bourne never have to give a thought to the ‘bad guys’ they ‘take out’ in a fist fight, and neither are we, as an audience, expected to; the plot just rolls on. But that is the fantasy.

Read this account of a 15-year-old boy attacking a man with the so-called ‘superman punch’ resulting in the man’s death https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/25/polish-man-arkadiusz-jozwik-killed-superman-punch-court-hears

Lives ruined, families traumatised and all for what?

Someone once pointed out to me that all those techniques that are most effective in so-called self-defence situations can result in life-changing injuries and will most likely cause you to end up in court.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not advocating passivity or a total abrogation of responsibility, just a balanced grown-up attitude as to whether one is prepared to go for the so-called ‘nuclear option’ or not [2].

Practice and Theory.

As regards teaching self-defence classes; there is a wonderful contradiction worth considering. Nobody in the history of martial arts has EVER argued that theory has value over practice, but maybe in terms of practical, realistic self defence it does?

It is possible that if measured on results alone the value of theoretical knowledge of personal protection may outweigh that of learning hands-on physical skills.

When I designed my own self-defence courses (outside of the Dojo environment) I always factored in a theoretical aspect; a sit down and talk and explain. This would cover such things as, threat recognition, de-escalation of aggression, awareness, specific grey areas, psychological indicators and basically heading things off before they became a problem. All of these things I have NEVER taught in the Dojo, mostly because we just don’t have the time, and I suspect I am not alone in making that admission; but how ironic, here we are as martial arts specialists and we don’t have the time to put in these very important elements. [3].

The cynical exploitation of the fear factor (Self-Defence as a business opportunity).

I get it, everybody has to make a living. But maybe we should draw the line at people who feed off the fear of others. In this we find the worst excesses of the self-defence ‘industry’. Please don’t misunderstand me, most people who teach self-defence are well-intentioned and probably do a really good job, but a red flag for me is when they press the ‘fear’ button, because they deliberately feed off the darkest nightmares of the anxious urbanites. For the worried town dwellers, the fear is real, but it may well be a product of a wider malaise, an existential crisis marked by alienation and the decline of community, as well as the cult of the ‘self’; (‘me’ rather than ‘us’).

I am convinced that there is both a male version and a female version of this fear. The female version is of course very real and is wrapped up in the complex world of the politics of the sexes and goes back thousands of years. I wouldn’t even think of beginning to understand that, it’s a real tiptoe through the minefield and seems to be getting worse rather than better.

The male version is easier to understand.

There is a profound identity crisis going on with young males; they just don’t know who they are and this often affects their views on how to respond to aggression or threats from other males [4]. Tradition and history say one thing; a view that is supported by biology; but contemporary society says that there is no need or place for antelope hunters and skinners or people wielding big heavy swords like Conan the Barbarian. I am convinced that a secret desire of most males is for the advent of the zombie apocalypse, just to give them an excuse to use that baseball bat kept near the door ‘just in case’; an adolescent male fantasy. [4]

But, to return to the idea of the ‘cynical exploitation of the fear factor’. I am convinced that some of the people who have found a niche in trading off urban anxiety have been (in part) influenced by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (you might find it mentioned in books on modern marketing). If you can convince people that their fears are justified and that their whole existence is under threat in a decaying society, and your solutions will act as an antidote, they will come flocking to your door and you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

Am I arguing against the teaching of self-defence?

The answer to the above question is a resounding ‘No’.

As far as I am concerned, when I have taught self-defence courses it made me feel that I was actually giving something back to society, and feedback received said that some of the knowledge gained actually helped people out of some sticky situations, so another feelgood factor. It is stripped back martial arts, a bit like stripped back First Aid courses, it might give someone the confidence that they need in an emergency, it might save somebody’s life. Every little helps.

The fuller argument will be fleshed out in part 2.

Tim Shaw

[1] It would be much more objective if people would at least consult the statistics.

  • Most people are murdered by someone they already know.
  • Young men are in greater danger from random stranger attacks than young women.
  • Terrorist attacks are so rare that it is inevitable that they hit the headlines and achieve their warped objectives of setting up ripples of fear through the population. As an example; In 2001, road crash deaths in the US were equal to those from a September 11 attack every 26 days.

[2] ‘The Nuclear Option’; a willingness to take things to the most extreme end of the spectrum, even if it means your own destruction. I.E. no serious world leader would ever admit to be willing to press the nuclear button; it’s just admitting to a form of suicide that embroils all the people you are responsible for into your own folly.

[3] Isn’t it odd to think that there are people in the martial arts community who consider kata a waste of time and compare it to the comical practice of ‘land swimming’, as opposed to swimming in water. Yet here we have a ‘land swimming’ example which maybe does work. Or perhaps that in itself is a false equivalent, as this isn’t really ‘land swimming’, it’s more akin to getting advice from a lifeguard about rip tides and safe swimming zones – which will possibly save your life and keep you from drowning?

[4] There is a section in a book I would recommend, ‘The Little Black Book of Violence’ by Kane and Wilder, which asks the question, ‘is it worth dying over a mobile phone?’. The answer is clearly ‘no’, but in the heat of the moment… Also, I do remember, years ago, an ad in martial arts magazines, which featured a photograph of some kind of glamour model with the headline, ‘Could you protect your girlfriend?’.

Image credit: Kiyose Nakae ‘Jiu Jitsu Complete’ 1958.

Please join us for the Winter Course 2022

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Shikukai Winter Course 2022 will be the first major face to face course that Shikukai has held post restrictions. Our vision is to create a focused, smaller, boutique course that connects us to our Wado. It will be different to the usual large courses we’ve held in the past, but with Sensei’s guidance it’s sure to be a success. 

It is important that we manage the numbers carefully this year.  Please contact us to let us know you are coming (or thinking about it) etc.  Give us your Mobile number and we will add you to a WhatsApp Group just for this event.  
 

Saturday 12th Feb 11:00 Registration / warm up   

11:30am – 3:00pm (3:00pm-3:30pm) personal practice

Sugasawa Sensei & Shikukai Senior Instructors

Danbury Sports Centre, Danbury CM3 4NQ

Sunday 13th February 11:00 Registration / warm up

11:30am – 3:00pm

Sugasawa Sensei & Shikukai Senior Instructors

Danbury Sports Centre, Danbury CM3 4NQ
Sunday 13th will also include:

  • Kyu Gradings   3:00pm – One month notice required please
  • Dan Grading     4:00pm – Formal handwritten letter to Sensei by 11th January 2022

Free parking –  Danbury Sports Centre has an upper and lower car park—————————————————————————————–

Course, Grading and registration fees 2022

  • Kyu Grading Fee £14.00 – One month notice required please
  • Dan Grading Fee £25.00 – Formal handwritten letter to Sensei by 11th January 2022

Attendance to the course must be booked for and paid in advance

Paypal https://www.paypal.me/StevenThain

2 Day Rate

  • Adult member – £50
  • Adult Non-member – £60
  • Junior (11-17yrs) member – £30
  • Junior (11-17yrs) Non- member – £40

1 Day Rate

  • Adult member £30
  • Adult Non-member £35
  • Junior (11-17yrs) member £15
  • Junior (11-17yrs) Non- member £20

——————————————————————————————-

Additional Dojo time
 

  1. Thursday 10th February. Shouwa Jyuku regular dojo session
    7:30pm -9:00pm
    Woodham Walter Primary school, The Street, Woodham Walter CM9 6RF
    Open to all.  £10
     
  2. TBC – Friday 11th February. Shouwa Jyuku Instructor led
    6:00pm – 8:00pm
    This session is TBC and very much subject to demand.


Covid.  We will be exercising an upper limit of attendance. We ask that if you aren’t double vaccinated that you carry out a covid test before arrival to the course and do not attend if you have any symptoms. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/symptoms/
Cancellation due to Covid.  If you test positive, we will refund any payments you’ve made to the course.

Social.  We won’t be organising the usual large group meal this year. We suggest people organise themselves for meals in the evenings. We will arrange a meet at a couple of central pubs at the time.

Accommodation. There are many options for accommodation in Chelmsford. Sensei will be staying at the Premier Inn Chelmsford City Hotel. CM1 1NY

Money.  We intend to be cash free this year. You will need to pre-book your place onto the course with payment made in full one month prior to the course, this will help us in planning to give the most benefit to your training.  Paypal https://www.paypal.me/StevenThain

WhatsApp. Please email your attendance and payment along with your mobile phone number, we will add you to a group for the event that will give important information out.

International students.  International students please email us for your attendance. Stansted Airport is the closest airport to us. There are regular affordable  buses that run to Chelmsford regularly. If you are having difficulty with this, please contact Steve, Tim or Natalie.

Steve. thethains41@gmail.com /  07989 257044 

Tim. timshaw499@hotmail.com /  07585 707718

Natalie. natalie.harvey9@gmail.com /  07972 790246

Facebook@chelmsfordshikukai 
www.wadoryu.org.uk
www.shikukai.com

Martial Arts, fast burn or slow burn? – A theory.

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This is something I have been thinking over for some considerable time. I believe that almost all martial arts training systems exist on a spectrum from ‘fast burn’ to ‘slow burn’.

Bear in mind that when boiled down to their absolute basic reasons for existence, all martial arts are about solving the same problem – protection/reaction against human physical aggression.

Fast Burn.

At its extreme end on the spectrum ‘fast burn’ comes out of the need for rapid effectiveness over a very short period of training time.

A good example might be the unarmed combat training at a military academy [1].

There are many advantages to the ‘fast burn’ approach. A slimmed down curriculum gives a more condensed focus on a few key techniques.

As an example of this; I once read an account of a Japanese Wado teacher who had been brought into a wartime military academy to teach karate to elite troops. Very early on he realised that it was impossible to train the troops like he’d been trained and was used to teaching, mainly because he had so little time with them before they were deployed to the battlefield or be dropped behind enemy lines. So, he trimmed his teaching down to just a handful of techniques and worked them really hard to become exceptionally good at those few things that may help them to survive a hand-to-hand encounter.

Another positive aspect of ‘fast burn’ relates to an individual’s physical peak. If you accept the idea that human physicality, (athleticism) in its rawest form rises steadily towards an apex, and then, just as steadily starts to decline, then, if the ‘fast burn’ training curriculum meshes with that rise and enhances the potential of the trainee, that has to be a good thing.

In ‘fast burn’ training, specialism can become a strength. This specialist skill-set might be in a particular zone, like ground fighting and grappling, or systems that specialise in kicking skills.

The down side.

However, over-specialisation can severely limit your ability to get yourself out of a tight spot, particularly where you have to be flexible in your options. Add to that the possibility that displaying your specialism may also reveal your weaknesses to a canny opponent.

It has to be said that a limited number of techniques whose training objectives are just based upon ‘harder’, ‘faster’, ‘stronger’ may suffer from the boredom factor, but, by definition, as ‘fast burn’ systems they may well top-out before boredom kicks in and just quit training altogether. They may well be the physical example of what the motor industry would call ‘built-in obsolescence’. [2]

Not that a martial art should be judged by its level of variety.
As a footnote; it is a known fact that in some traditional Japanese Budo systems students were charged by the number of techniques presented to them, so it was in the master’s interest to pile on a growing catalogue of techniques. I am not saying this was standard practice, but it certainly existed.

Slow Burn.

Turning my attention now to ‘slow burn’.

By definition ‘slow burn’ martial arts systems develop their efficiency over a very long time, or perhaps time as a measure is misleading? Maybe it would be better to describe the work needed to become a master of a ‘slow burn’ system as prolonged and arduous, perhaps beyond the bounds of most individuals.

For me ‘slow burn’ is defined by its complexity and sophistication and is associated with systems that have demanding levels of study, probably involving insane amounts of gruelling and boring repetitions that would test the ability (or willingness) of the average person to endure.

The positive side.

The up-side of this methodology is difficult to map as so few individuals ever get to the level of mastery and all we are left with are martial arts myths, but it would be foolish to dismiss it on these grounds alone. Most myths contain a kernel of truth and if a fraction of the myths told can be effectively proved or verified then really, there is no smoke without fire.

Looked at through the lens of modern sporting achievement, I think we can all appreciate that with the very best elite sportspeople uncanny abilities can be observed, and we know that despite the fact that many of them are blessed with unique genetic and physical disposition, an insane amount of work goes on to achieve these lofty heights (I am thinking of examples in tennis or golf, but really it applies to any top-level human endeavour – think of musicians!).

‘Slow burn’ martial arts systems may not comply with modern sports science used by elite athletes, but they were getting results any way, probably from a form of proto-sports science developed through generations of trial and error.

The ‘slow burn’ systems seem to be characterised by a reprogramming of the body in ways that require great subtlety, so subtle in fact that the practitioner struggles to comprehend the working of it even within their own bodies; it works by revelation and is holistic in nature. Mind and cognition are major components. The determination and grit that fuel the ‘fast burn’ systems are not enough to make ‘slow burn’ work, something more is needed; a reframing and reconfiguring of what we think we are doing.

Weaknesses.

The weaknesses of the ‘slow burn’ systems are pretty obvious.

Who has the time or patience to involve themselves in this level of prolonged study? It certainly doesn’t easily mesh with the demands of modern living; an awful lot of sacrifices would need to be made. It is no exaggeration to say that you would have to live your life as a kind of martial arts monk, casting aside comforts and ambitions outside of martial arts training. I often wonder how it was achieved in the historical past; I guess that beyond just living and surviving they had less distractions on their time than we do now. [3].

We know something of these systems because we can observe how, over time, the surviving examples had a tendency to morph into something altogether different; often taking on a new and reformed purpose, which of course improved their survival rate.

The examples I am thinking of have reinvented themselves as either health preserving exercise or semi-spiritual arbiters of love peace and harmony; all positive objectives in themselves and certainly not something we need less of in these current times.

I am going to duck that particular argument; it is not a rabbit hole I am keen to go down in this current discussion.

‘Slow burn’ dances with the devil when it too eagerly embraces its own mythologies; but in the absence of people who can really ‘do it’ what else have they got left? What always intrigues me is that the luminaries of the current crop of ‘slow burn’ masters are so reluctant to have their skills empirically tested. [4]

It is tempting, but it would be wrong to play these two extremes of the spectrum off against each other; I have deliberately focussed on the polar opposites, but it’s not ‘one or the other’, there are martial arts systems that are scattered along the continuum between these two extremes, and then there are others that have become lost in the weeds and suffer from a kind of identity crisis; aspiring to ‘slow burn’ mythologies while employing solely ‘fast burn’ methodologies. Can a man truly serve two masters? Or is the wisest thing to do to step back and ask some really searching questions? What is this really all about?

And Wado?

And, as this is a Wado blog, where does Wado fit in all this? I’m not so sure that the image of the line or spectrum between the two polar opposite helps us. I suppose it comes down to the vision and understanding of those who teach it – certainly there is a salutary warning illustrated by the weaknesses of both ‘Fast and Slow burn’.

Perhaps the ‘Fast Burn Slow Burn’ theory can be looked at through another lens, particularly as it relates to Wado?

For example, there is the Omote/Ura viewpoint.
To explain:
In some older forms of Japanese Budo/Bujutsu you have the ‘Omote’ aspect – ‘Omote’ suggests ‘exterior’, think of it like your shopfront. But there is also an ‘Ura’ dimension, an insider knowledge, the reverse of the shopfront, more like, ‘under the counter’, ‘what’s kept in the back room’, not for the eyes of the hoi polloi. The Ura is the refined aspect of the system.

I have heard this spoken about by certain Japanese Wado Sensei, and I have seen specific aspects of what are referred to as ‘Ura waza’, but these seem to range from the more simple hidden implications of techniques, to the seemingly rarefied, esoteric dimension; fogged by oblique references and maddening vagaries, to me they seem like pebbles dropped in a pond, hints rather than concrete actualities.

This of course begs the question; what is the real story of the current iterations of Wado as we know it? I will leave that for you to make your mind up about.

Maybe Wado is about layers?

Problems.

If we return to the original statement, “…all martial arts are about solving the same problem – protection/reaction against human physical aggression”. Ideally the success of the system should be judged by that particular measure, but clearly there is a problem with this, in that empirical data is virtually impossible to find. So how do most people create their own way of judging what is successful and efficient and what isn’t? All we are left with is opinion, which tends to be qualitative rather than quantitative. [5].

Outliers.

Let me throw this one in and risk sabotaging my own theory.

To further complicate things; a good friend of mine is a practitioner of a form of traditional Japanese Budo that that arguably and unashamedly has only one single technique in its syllabus! Yes, only one! My friend is now over 70 years old and has been practising his particular art for most of his adult life. I doubt that for one minute he would consider what he does as ‘fast burn’. I will leave you to work out what his system is, but it is no minor activity, (it is reputed to have over 500,000 practitioners worldwide!)

Tim Shaw

[1] I recently read a comment from an ex-military person who said that relying on unarmed combat in a military situation was ‘an indication that you’d f***ed up’. He said that military personnel relied on their weaponry, if you lost that you were extremely compromised. Also, he added that military personnel worked as a unit and that it is unlikely that a solo unarmed combat scenario would happen. Of course, we know that there are outliers and odd exceptions, but, as a rule… well, it’s not my opinion, it’s his.
After seeing the recent demonstration by North Korean ‘special forces’ in front of their ‘glorious leader’, basically the usual rubbish that you see from the ‘Essential Fakir Handbook’, you have to wonder who these people are kidding? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pv3L2knNodU
It’s just an opinion; not necessarily my opinion; other opinions are available.

[2] ‘Built-in Obsolescence’ Collins Dictionary definition = “the policy of deliberately limiting the life of a product in order to encourage the purchaser to replace it”.

[3] The sons and inheritors of the Tai Chi tradition of Yang Lu-ch’an (1799 – 1872) initially struggled to live up to their father’s punishing and prolonged training regime; Yang Pan-hou (1837 – 1892) tried to run away from home and his brother Yang Chien-hou (1839 – 1917) attempted suicide!
‘Tai-chi Touchstones – Yang Family Secret Transmissions’ Wile D. 1983.

[4] There was a ‘Fight Science’ documentary a few years back which looked at the claims of ‘slow burn’ martial systems and it didn’t come out well. The ‘master’ of the system was actually in very weak physical shape (largely due to smoking) although he had some well-organised physical moves and coordinated his operating system well. The truth was, he was a not the best of advocates, and for it to be truly scientific it needed many more contributors.

[5] I have another blog post planned on this theme. I fear it might ruffle a few feathers though.

In Search of the Perfect Gi.

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This has been worrying me for a while, and I am sure I am not on my own. It has become a personal crusade for me, and is currently becoming more and more urgent, as I know my favoured Gis are beyond their prime and I have zero chance of replacing them (the preferred model no longer exists).

But this in itself always presents me with a moral dilemma – I mean… does it really matter?

The white karate Keikogi (to give it it’s fuller name) is supposed to be a purely a no-frills, practical item of clothing; it’s not a fashion statement. If it is any kind of statement, it is one that is anti-ego and, like any uniform, a social leveller, as if to say, ‘hey, we’re all the same here!’, ‘check your egos at the door!’. It is also a declaration of community and belonging, which is clearly a good thing.

I know, it’s all about comfort, or durability, or any other excuse we give ourselves for paying out ever larger amounts of cash.

But we do have choices, even if we stick with the plainest white karate Gi.

For example, we have the weight of the fabric and we have, what is often referred to as the ‘cut’, ‘European cut’, Japanese cut’, I often wonder about that; are the Japanese so different in physique that they need their own ‘cut’?

With fabric weight, the kata competitors would go for the heavyweight cotton; the heavier the better; it gives the solid crack in the sleeves with razor-sharp creases and is as rigid as cardboard. Contrast that with the Kumite competitors, who seemed to go for the floppier the better, stopping short of being diaphanous, ‘freedom of movement’ was given as the excuse. I get this, as I have found that on a heavy sweaty kick-based session the Gi bottoms can bind and restrict movement.

How did this all come about? It’s probably more complicated than people think.

A little history.

Let me start with the colour thing.

Historically the white Keikogi probably came out of pure convenience. When cotton uniforms for martial arts training were first introduced in Japan there was no advantage in going to the trouble of dyeing them; they were just in their natural state. You could attach all kinds of symbolism about white being for purity of spirit etc. but that would be stretching a point.

The cut of the jacket is supposed to have originated from the heavy jacket worn by Japanese firemen called Hanten.

The longer sleeves and trouser legs developed out of necessity in the grappling world; as exposed elbows and knees were prone to mat burns. Of course, karateka were behind the curve on the design of the Keikogi. In the early 20th century the frontrunners were the Kodokan Judo people, who, incidentally, also implemented the ‘black belt’. (The idea of coloured belts for kyu grades is said to have originated in Europe).

The non-white Gi.

I remember from my early training days the idea of a black Gi was a bit of a joke, but it didn’t stop some people from the wilder fringes of ‘karotty’ from adopting them; but now, in some circles, black Gis became an unquestionable reality. Recently I listened to a martial arts podcast where a female instructor and founder of her own school justified the decision for adopting a black Gi on the grounds of limiting potential embarrassment for female Dojo members relating to their periods. I can see the sense in that. My guess is that 50% of the adult population would have never have thought of that.

Meanwhile, in Olympic Judo, their cutting-edge approach to all things sartorial seems to me to have gone a step too far.

In 1986 it was proposed the adoption of a blue Gi and a white Gi for opposing competitors, and so it has been ever since. Excuse me for being cynical but am I alone in thinking that maybe this decision was made by people with vested interests in the manufacture and sales of Judo Gis? It was done on the shaky grounds that it was to facilitate the distinction between two opponents for the sake of the judges, referees and the audience…. Really?! The poor Judoka now have to double their wardrobe if they are serious about competing. This same stunt was pulled when karate competitors had to have blue and red fighting mitts – a cheaper outlay, but I wondered whether they had considered blue and red Gis to match?

Elvis – when things got really silly.

For me, the extreme point of where reality snapped was the Gi that Elvis Presley chose to wear in 1974; it was ridiculously over-the-top! Whoever awarded Elvis a 7th Dan should have really had a quiet word in his ear about the decision to wear THAT Gi. If you are a senior grade and are considering buying (or redesigning) your Gi or belt, you need to have that picture at the back of your mind – print it off and stick it on your wardrobe now; just to restrain you from your wildest excesses! [1]

Returning to my problems.

My current favoured Gis are now slightly past their sell-by date; these are/were my Adidas Gis, but annoyingly Adidas have decided to redesign these already rather excellent Gis. The latest models are not hugely different, but they have added one feature that for me steps over a red line and as such makes them irredeemable – they have decided to have their own logo embroidered onto the jacket!

I have a real objection to the assumption by Adidas that I am content to walk around like a human billboard! If a company or brand wants me to advertise or endorse their product, they should pay me! Or at least reduce the price to reward me for the services I am doing for them!

The embroidered brand logo takes us a step further towards the complete anarchy we used to see within modern Jujutsu groups where they seem to have more badges than you’d see in the average scout troop, and twice the size!

Dear Adidas, less is more. You had it right twenty years ago!

I heard about an interesting development; an American company jumped on the ethically sourced and locally made bandwagon for Brazilian Jujutsu Gis. More expensive, but definitely made in America (to support American businesses); I like this model. If the product is intelligently designed and takes into consideration the traditional karateka then I would buy into it.

Drawstring versus elasticated waistband?

For me it’s like the difference between lace-up shoes or ones with Velcro fastenings. Personally, I don’t find it a hardship to tie a drawstring, and I have seldom had the problem of the drawstring disappearing (easily solved with a large safety pin anyway). If you do go elasticated at least it’s only something your closest friends will know about, or the people next to you in the changing rooms.

Still, if you compare the price of a new Keikogi to the price of kit and equipment people have to shell out for in other sports (golf or skiing) it still makes karate training a low-cost activity.

My Influencer pitch.

At this point I would like to issue a challenge to manufacturers of karate Gi. If you think your product is superior and meets the previously mentioned criteria (white, hard wearing, no unnecessary extras, particularly embroidered brand logos), then I will give you an honest review of your product in these blog posts. But there is a catch; you have to send me a free Gi (no import duty or other costs).

Tim Shaw

[1] Image of Elvis Presley in THAT Gi can be found at: https://www.elvis.com.au/presley/elvis-presley-and-karate.shtml

Shizentai.

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Look through most Wado syllabus books and a few text books and you are bound to see a list of stances used in Wado karate; usually with a helpful diagram showing the foot positions.

One of the most basic positions is Shizentai; a seemingly benign ‘ready’ position with the feet apart and hands hanging naturally, but in fists. It is referred to as ‘natural stance’, mostly out of convenience; but as most of us are aware, the ‘tai’ part, usually indicated ‘body’, so ‘natural body’ would be a more accurate fit. [1].

In this particular post I want to explore Shizentai beyond the idea of it being a mere foot position, or something that signifies ‘ready’ (‘yoi’). There are more dimensions to this than meets the eye.

Let me split this into two factors:

  • Firstly, the very practical, physical/martial manifestation and operational aspects.
  • Secondly, the philosophical dimension. Shizentai as an aspiration, or a state of Mind.

Practicalities.

The physical manifestation of Shizentai as a stance, posture or attitude seems to suggest a kind of neutrality; this is misleading, because neutrality implies inertia, or being fixed in a kind of no-man’s land. The posture may seem to indicate that the person is switched off, or, at worst, an embodiment of indecisiveness.

No, instead, I would suggest that this ‘neutrality’ is the void out of which all possibilities spring. It is the conduit for all potential action.

Isn’t it interesting that in Wado any obvious tensing to set up Shizentai/Yoi is frowned upon; whereas other styles seem to insist upon a form of clenching and deliberate and very visual energising, particularly of the arms? As Wado observers, if we ever see that happening our inevitable knee-jerk is to say, ‘this is not Wado’, or at least that is my instinct, others may disagree.

Similarly, in the Wado Shizentai; the face gives nothing away, the breathing is calm and natural, nothing is forced.

In addition, I would say that in striking a pose, an attitude, a posture, you are transmitting information to your opponent. But there is a flip-side to this – the attitude or posture you take can also deny the opponent valuable information. You can unsettle your opponent and mentally destabilise him (kuzushi at the mental level, before any physical contact has happened). [2]

Shizentai as a Natural State – the philosophical dimension.

I mentioned above that Shizentai, the natural body goes beyond the corporeal and becomes a high-level aspiration; something we practice and aim to achieve, even though our accumulated habits are always there to trip us up.

In the West we seem to be very hung up on the duality of Mind and Body; but Japanese thinking is much more flexible and often sees the Mind/Body as a single entity, which helps to support the idea that Shizentai is a full-on holistic state, not something segmented and shoved into categories for convenience.

This helps us to understand Shizentai as a ‘Natural State’ rather than just a ‘Natural Body(stance)’.

But what is this naturalness that we should be reaching for?

Sometimes, to pin a term down, it is useful to examine what it is not, what its opposite is. The opposite of this natural state at a human level is something that is ‘artificial’, ‘forced’, ‘affected’, or ‘disingenuous’. To be in a pure Natural State means to be true to your nature; this doesn’t mean just ‘being you’, because, in some ways we are made up of all our accumulated experiences and the consequences of our past actions, both good and bad. Instead, this is another aspect of self-perfection, a stripping away of the unnecessary add-ons and returning to your true, original nature; the type of aspiration that would chime with the objectives of the Taoists, Buddhists and Neo-Confucians.

Although at this point and to give a balanced picture I think it only fair to say that Natural Action also includes the option for inaction. Sometimes the most appropriate and natural thing is to do nothing. [3]

Naturalness as it appears in other systems.

In the early days of the formation of Judo the Japanese pioneers were really keen to hold on to their philosophical principles, which clearly originated in their antecedent systems, the Koryu. Shizentai was a key part of their practical and ethical base. [4] In Judo, at a practical level, Shizentai was the axial position from which all postures, opportunities and techniques emanated. Naturalness was a prerequisite of a kind of formless flow, a poetic and pure spontaneity that was essential for Judo at its highest level.

Within Wado?

When gathering my thought for this post I was reminded of the words of a particular Japanese Wado Sensei. It must have been about 1977 when he told us that at a grading or competition he could tell the quality and skill level of the student by the way they walked on to the performance area, before they even made a move. Now, I don’t think he was talking about the exaggerated formalised striding out you see with modern kata competitors, which again, is the complete opposite of ‘natural’ and is obviously something borrowed from gymnastics. I think what he was referring to was the micro-clues that are the product of a natural and unforced confidence and composure. For him the student’s ability just shone through, even before a punch was thrown or an active stance was taken.

This had me reflecting on the performances of the first and second grandmasters of Wado, particularly in paired kata. On film, what is noticeable is their apparent casualness when facing an opponent. Although both were filmed in their senior years, they each displayed a natural and calm composure with no need for drama. This is particularly noticeable in Tanto Dori (knife defence), where, by necessity, and, as if to emphasise the point, the hands are dropped, which for me belies the very essence of Shizentai. There is no need to turn the volume up to eleven, no stamping of the feet or huffing and puffing; certainly, it is not a crowd pleaser… it just is, as it is.

As a final thought, I would say to those who think that Shizentai has no guard. At the highest level, there is no guard, because everything is ‘guard’.

Tim Shaw

[1] The stance is sometimes called, ‘hachijidachi’, or ‘figure eight stance’, because the shape of the feet position suggests the Japanese character for the number eight, 八.

[2] Japanese swordsmanship has this woven into the practice. At its simplest form the posture can set up a kill zone, which may of may not entice the opponent into it – the problem is his, if he is forced to engage. Or even the posture can hide vital pieces of information, like the length or nature of the weapon he is about to face, making it incredibly difficult to take the correct distance; which may have potentially fatal consequences.

[3] The Chinese philosopher Mencius (372 BCE – 289 BCE) told this story, “Among the people of the state of Song there was one who, concerned lest his grain not grow, pulled on it. Wearily, he returned home, and said to his family, ‘Today I am worn out. I helped the grain to grow.’ His son rushed out and looked at it. The grain was withered”. In the farmer’s enthusiasm to enhance the growth of his crops he went beyond the bounds of Nature. Clearly his best course of action was to do nothing.

[4] See the writings of Koizumi Gunji, particularly, ‘My study of Judo: The principles and the technical fundamentals’ (1960).

Karate in the early 70’s, sample No. 2.

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I wasn’t going to do this, but with over 58000 words still to go, why not offer another teaser?

Part 2.

From my house the walk to Mansfield to the karate club was slightly under two miles, and so, initially, twice a week, I did this four-mile round trip on foot, either side of two hours sweaty training.

Thinking back on it, it always surprises me that I never considered taking the bus, even in the foulest of weather. But buses meant money and the karate class fee was fifty pence! It doesn’t sound like much but bear in mind that the average price for a pint of beer in 1974 (always a good fiscal measure) was 14 pence!

This fifty pence fee became a standing joke with my dad. He never understood what I was up to, I think he found it funny. He was of a generation who had no reference to what karate was; he just let me get on with it and watched with casual amusement when I practiced my ‘moves’ on the back yard. The only time he commented was when I came home from training once with a black eye – “How much did you pay for that?”, “Fifty pence” I replied, “Give me fifty pence and I’ll black your eye”, he said. He wasn’t a violent man; he just had a mischievous sense of humour. He then walked away chuckling to himself. Parenting in my house was very laissez faire.

Mansfield karate club was one of the earliest established full-time Dojos in the UK (founded in 1969). It had originally been an old paint warehouse. An unassuming brick-built structure, it stood on West Hill Drive about fifty yards downhill from Mansfield General Hospital. The accident and emergency department was part of the hospital and I remember a few trips there to get myself patched up, or in one case where one of my kicks had split the eyebrow of one of my sparring partners and as such, it was my responsibility to sit with him in the A&E department until he was sewn up by the doctor.

The resident instructor was one of the early pioneers of British karate, David Allsop. By the early 70’s he had established a small team of willing ‘instructors’, at that time brown belts, and had timetabled regular classes that ran six days a week. This was a well-organised set-up.

The building was two storey, with its own changing rooms and toilets; male and female, which was really unusual as it is often thought that there were very few women training in karate at that time. While it’s true that men outnumbered women, the Mansfield Dojo bucked the trend; there were some very able women who trained there, who seemed unfazed by training and fighting with the men.

The upper floor was an open space, uncluttered with a wooden floor, which was well-worn, polished by footwork, stained by sweat.

It had windows on three sides, but one aspect just overlooked a brick wall, this was the building opposite an alleyway. Another side looked over the rooftop of the Labour Club next door, and on the other wall the windows were set in a doorway that was never used; the remnants of the warehouse; apparently, an upper floor loading access that was meant to slide open, but never did. The windows in the door were too high to give a panoramic view, but I have distinct memories of being alone in the building, hammering through repetitions of kata while observing snow flurries swirling before the orange glow of sodium street lights outside.

This all sounds very romantic and atmospheric, but the reality was that it was damp and, in winter, cold  – oh so cold.

The only available heating was electric fan heaters at ceiling level, they really had zero effect; any heat they produced travelled upwards – this barely removed the chill.

The changing rooms, which for the men was tucked under the stairs, were inclined to be decidedly dank and smelled like the inside of an old fridge, a combination of the fug of sweaty shoes and festering, slightly wet, gis.  I remember struggling to wrestle myself into a damp gi top, still pungent from the previous night’s training.

In the winter the floor upstairs was cold enough to split the skin on the soles of your feet. My grandfather had put me on to a salve called Snowfire, a ‘healing balm’, it was a green tablet of greasy overpowering potency. My grandfather was a farmer and out in all weathers, it worked for him and it certainly worked for me. I believe you can still get it, but only from those small independent pharmacies.

‘The Club’ as we called it was really close to the town centre. Later on, it became a good jumping off point for the pubs of Mansfield.

As I mentioned, next door was the Labour Club, if you wanted a drink in there, on most nights you needed to sign in, or be signed in by a member, but it wasn’t always the case. The Labour Club was big enough to host concerts for minor celebrities. One night I stood outside and heard Millie Small belt out her only hit single ‘My Boy Lollipop’. Such was the club circuit at that time. Although Millie was technically a reggae singer, she sang some soul classics. The Labour Club even managed to put minor American soul singers on the bill, like Edwin Starr, whose hit ‘War’ made a big splash in 1970. (Edwin Starr settled in nearby Nottingham and died there in 2003).

At this point I think I need to describe the 16 year old ‘me’.

I had stopped growing at five foot eleven inches, I was always disappointed that I never made six foot. I was very thin, I always worried that when standing sideways I would just disappear. My chest was broad and matched my shoulders but it was oh so very shallow, I would try deep breathing exercises, but they had no effect. Physically I felt a little awkward and self-conscious. I never wore shorts, which was fortunate because in those days nobody did. In summertime I tried to tan, believing at that time it would make me look healthier; it didn’t work; I just accumulated more freckles.

Schools sports held no interest for me; it was all about cliques and teamwork. I wasn’t very good at teamwork and I despised cliques. My favoured sports at school were mostly individual activities; field sports in the summer; particularly throwing events (at which I excelled, having a fast arm), and tennis, which didn’t go down well with the rugby crowd, who joyfully told me that tennis was a ‘game for homosexuals’, a view supported by the PE teacher, Welshman and rugby goon Mr Owen; I didn’t let that put me off.

Karate gave me a physical outlet. I didn’t struggle with the exercise, and I enjoyed the learning of new skills. I found fighting initially intimidating. I caught a low kick early on, which slowed me down somewhat and made my eyes water and brought on the type of pain that is generally… indescribable. It was a first, but certainly not the last.

There was no shortage of sparring partners. Make no mistake, this was a busy Dojo, even with a high drop-out rate classes were packed; lots of young guys all wanting to fight. A class of over twenty upstairs and another equally large downstairs was not unusual.

I realised that most of the men there were significantly bulkier and stronger than me; I think that this was because they were either in heavy industry or mining, at that time I struggled to make 57 Kg. This fact came home the one year that we were forced to enter a weight category competition. Out of a big club entry I was the only lightweight on the card. This was the year that the UKKW decided to decamp its National Championships from the regular London venue of Crystal Palace to Burnley in Lancashire. The then general secretary of the UKKW was a Burnley man, and it must have seemed more economical to run the event there, but it was not without its problems.

This weight difference influenced the way I fought; in a very Darwinian way I had to adapt or suffer. I needed to create distance between myself and my opponent and worked on pressurising him so that he would move back into my kicking range.

Attempting body kicks brought me pain, with toes bent back or collisions with elbows, so I worked on my head kicks and tried all kinds of sneaky ways of slotting them in. I was very poor at foot sweeping in those days, and envied people who could do it well. In retrospect the ability to sweep would have been a useful threat to discourage an opponent who was eager to get close.

David Allsop, my instructor, was an outstanding counter-puncher; his timing was superb, but it was the courage to forestall the opponent at the moment he launched his attack that I really admired. I remember watching him battle his way through multiple opponents at Crystal Palace using this kind of ‘stop ‘em dead’ gyakuzuki, only to lose in the final to the then unstoppable Vic Charles (this was 1975).

But this was the thing; there was no structured fight training, no squad sessions, we were just expected to make it up as we went along, learn from each other. In part I am sure it came out of the idea that the basics, pair work and kata training would give you everything you needed to know, and in some magic way you would pick it up. Whoever designed the system made a big assumption about how we would make the transition, because the majority of people just couldn’t do it. I suspect that if there was any surviving film footage of those days it would show a lot of clunky blokes with serious expressions muscling through like badly constructed robots, all convinced that they were really ‘doing it’. This was why the Japanese instructors who came over were treated like gods; they were just so very well trained and many were the cream of the Japanese university system, they were the best of the best.

I do remember an effort at squad training, conducted at a Lincoln sports centre. This was organised/hosted by the then Lincoln instructor, who clearly had his take on how things should happen. Although it didn’t work out too well for him when, at the event we were preparing for, he clashed with Neiman Prince who completely outclassed him despite him trying to execute Judo techniques out of sheer desperation!

But the Japanese learning mentality is not the same as the western model. It is more suited to compliancy, which tended to be a more direct way of learning – cut the verbalisation, bypass over-intellectualisation and just get on with the job. Westerners were more inclined to ask ‘why’, which I think came as a shock to the incoming Japanese Sensei, and they didn’t have an explanation model to fall back on and were significantly hobbled by the language barrier. Nobody spoke about the mismatch between the cultures; the Japanese were too polite to, and the westerners were too much in awe to formulate their questioning in a coherent way.

Tim Shaw

Sample; Early Training.

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In my previous blog post I mentioned as an afterthought that I had written a chunky type of memoir (to exercise my brain over lock-down). This project grew and ended up being over 60000 words in length. And I joked that nobody would be interested in my obscure ramblings, but it seems I was wrong.

The document I wrote came in two flavours; one part was personal remembrance of what happened between the years 1974 to about 1982; the other part was a reflection on my experiences of how Wado evolved; at least, from my perspective. This sample is of the former flavour.

Here is a taster.

To set the scene; my training began at Sensei David Allsop’s Mansfield Dojo, in 1974, in the years just prior to the Kung-Fu boom [1].

Part 3.

What was training actually like in the early 1970’s?

It took me quite some time to get hold of a Gi, so I trained in jeans and a favoured yellow Adidas t-shirt. Nobody had ‘jogging bottoms’ and nobody wore shorts. Shorts were for football, and that was it!

A karate Gi in 1974 was a rare commodity, the Tokaido Japanese brand was the one to aim for, but they were so expensive. Cheaper Gis could be bought from Milom Company, I think they came from Manchester, but they were remarkably hard wearing. My first Gi was from a nameless company and was very light and badly made, but that was standard for the time.

In the sessions, generally, the warm-up was very callisthenic, low on stretching, high on boot-camp style sit-ups and press-ups, which were nearly always on the knuckles, no exceptions, this was an important part of your training. It made sense to us; it was explained as essential, as it forced you to align your wrist properly in a punch, and it had to be predominantly on the first two larger knuckles; instructors would sometimes check the indents left on your hands and it was very much frowned upon if the indents were in the wrong place.

Different instructors slightly customised their warm-ups.

Dave Nichols was heavily into muscle culture and as such there was a lot of arms and shoulders and heavy repetitions on squatting.

Robert ‘Sam’ Salmon was a lighter build and gave a good general warm-up that really did just prepare you for movement.

Whereas, one brown belt instructor in particular had it in his head that exercise was punishment; he enjoyed the reputation he gained from these ‘warm-ups’. He was often a stand-in instructor and when he appeared in front of the class, he must have seen how people’s faces fell in anticipation of what they were about to go through. It wasn’t rewarding, it wasn’t fulfilling, it wasn’t fun, it was just pain; you ended up standing in a puddle of your own sweat even before training began! This particular brown belt instructor operated a kind of gleeful cruelty. We had our own theories about him; we thought his sadism was a product of him getting too many knock-backs in his attempts to get Dan grade under Suzuki Sensei; incidentally, he never managed it. He eventually left – we didn’t miss him.

The Syllabus.

The bulk of the class was the basics; straight out of the little blue syllabus book with no variation. The book became the source of aspiration; you wanted to get onto the next page, to climb the ladder.

I studied it inside and out, wrote notes and memory aids on each page. I used mnemonics to remember sequences and the order of the pairs work.

Creativity and Japanese Sensei.

What is noticeable in retrospect is that any kind of ‘creativity’ in training was purely the domain of the Japanese instructors. I first experienced this on the early big residential courses. For me, this sealed the reputation of each of the Japanese Sensei, I marvelled at their freedom to create drills and combinations and they were incredibly devious in their exercise routines. The younger Japanese Sensei, fresh from the universities, delighted in showing us how physically inadequate we were – well that’s how it felt anyway. After each major course our instructors came back inspired by new warm-up exercises, not all of them healthy, or even safe.

The Mantra.

But for us, everything was done from the book and by the book. There was a level of correction and guidance going on but it was always about the ‘end position’, how you stood, the positions of your arms and much emphasis on making the correct stance. Nobody ever commented on how you moved. The mantra of ‘more speed, more power’ became a standing joke. In later years when an unsuccessful Dan grade candidate plucked up the courage to get feedback from Suzuki Sensei, the remedy was always the same, “More speed, more power”. And we took it to heart; the measure of our ability was on how fast and powerful we were.

In an early martial arts magazine there was even a cartoon drawn of Suzuki Sensei chiding Sakagami Sensei to execute “More speed, more power”!

If there was any creativity in our own training it was towards nurturing these two qualities and totally self-initiated.

Supplementary training.

For Dave Nichols it was the set of loose weights kept in the corner of the Dojo that supplemented his training. As for me – I went through a crazy period of drinking raw eggs with milk, sweetened with Horlicks powder. If I had access or the money for raw steak, I would have been chewing on that!

I had a chin-ups bar made out of an old TV aerial stretched between two trees. I also had an ex-army kit bag for a punch bag, really heavy, I would do squats with it across my shoulders; I procured a leather belt, from an old threshing machine, I wrapped it around a post and used it for striking. How much success I had is questionable.

The triad of; correct exercise; correct diet and sufficient rest and recovery was all misbalanced. Some of the exercises we were doing were just plain stupid; for example, harsh ballistic stretching, bunny-hopping and duck walking.

With diet; it was protein, protein and more protein; carbs never got a look in. And as for ‘sufficient rest and recovery’, nah, wasn’t going to happen.

It should go without saying, but our information sources were so limited; there was no Internet or YouTube tutorials. The martial arts magazines of the 1970’s were really sparse in their subject matter.

Ramping it up.

By about 1977 I had gradually I upped my training nights and doubled my classes.

In the evening there was an early class starting at 6 and then an overlapping late class which started at 7:30, and then there was time after the late class finished for some of us to get together for some more sparring.

One of the more senior grades; a total fanatic about his own training, used myself and another student as his personal sparring partners. His stamina was seemingly endless and the two of us would just tag team on him; when one of us was burnt out the other one jumped in, allowing recovery time, then rinse and repeat. It seemed to go on for hours, but I’m sure it didn’t.

As time went on, I took on more responsibilities. As a green belt I was sometimes asked to start off the late class, and then I seemed to take on more teaching. I was a little annoyed at first, because I was losing some of my training time, but I soon realised there were advantages; I could direct the training and train alongside – I was in control. I also learned so much by actually having to demonstrate and explain what we were doing, but crucially, once my role was established, I was given a key to the Dojo. This one privilege gave me space and freedom, as well as teaching me so much about personal motivation and self-directed training.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Tim Shaw

[1] The Mansfield Dojo is still there. It is probably England’s oldest established bricks and mortar Dojo, founded in 1969. David Allsop Sensei still teaches regularly at the Dojo. English Heritage or the National Trust should really slap a preservation order on the building!

Featured image: Myself, indulging in some ugly and ungainly scrapping as a green belt in 1975.

Why are there so few books on Wado karate?

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Or, the question might be; why would you want to publish a book on Wado?

I’m sure it’s not just me that’s noticed that if you want to buy a book on Shotokan karate then you are spoiled for choice; there are so many of them! Yet, if you search for books on Wado karate there are very few on offer. In this blogpost I intend to look further into this question.

Types of Wado books.

I am not going to do a critique on the books currently available; largely they occupy a very narrow category. The more recent ones seem to be plush publications that could be described as ‘coffee table books’, a credit to the amount of work put into them (God knows how many hours of editing and photographing have had to have happened to put them into production!). Slick hardbound editions, but still, following the same logic as the Ohgami books published in the 1980’s, or even the Pelham Suzuki book produced in 1967. That is, a picture book approach; step by step guide to Kihon, Kata and Kumite, with a measure of Japanese terminology and a few ‘pointers’ thrown in for good measure. But mostly, a syllabus book with pictures. [1]

I don’t say that disparagingly; where would we be without them?

I think that generally they supply a good set of references, but, in all honesty, probably offer much less than can be found on YouTube.

But why the discrepancy between Shotokan (or Goju Ryu) and Wado in terms of publications?

To shed a little light on this it might be worth going back to the root. From several sources the founder of Wado Ryu Otsuka Hironori is said to have been frustrated with his attempts at publishing books on Wado; an indirect quote from Horikawa Cheiko tells us that when Otsuka Sensei visited her husband Horikawa Kodo a renown Daito Ryu master, Otsuka said, “I’ll never write a book either” the discussion between the two masters continued, but they were in agreement that subtleties are missed and ‘techniques cannot be expressed in books or in words’ and he’s right, how can you convey that level of complexity in the pages of a book? [2]

It is my feeling that the ’catalogue of technique’ type of book, while it works for other styles, does a great disservice to Wado. It reinforces the complete opposite of what we should be aspiring to. It’s nobody’s fault, it was just a convenient medium. I am sure that some authors have already included a disclaimer.

However, it seems to play into the idea that we approach our karate like a picture book, a series of freeze-frames, akin to a flip-book, telling us that what is important is the accuracy of ‘end position’ (something I call ‘making shapes’), whereas we know that Wado is a discipline of movement; it’s not ‘A’ and ‘B’ that count, it’s what happens between ‘A’ and ‘B’ that is really important. Like fishes and water, movement is our medium.

Is it marketable?

It’s not that Japanese martial arts authors have not tried to push the envelope via the printed page, but it’s a really tall order and readers can get lost in the detail.

For me it’s quite telling that more recent sophisticated attempts have had to be published through private sources and ‘limited editions’, I am thinking of one particular well-connected author from within Wado who has been more adventurous and ambitious in his approach. But there are others, and again, they have to be published and financed privately for them ever to see the light of day. [3]

The problem is that the subject matter is so ‘niche’ as to be a complete non-starter in terms of how a publishing company might look at it, ‘How on earth is that going to sell a million copies?’ I can hear them say. It won’t, it’s not even ‘Fly Fishing’ by J. R. Hartley https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CeicexenTmU (you have to watch the video to understand the reference).

Some martial arts authors have had to avail themselves of on-line publishing, production and sales; for some this may be the way forward, but it has its limitations.

The death of the book.

Is the book as a material phenomena finished?

Did it all start with Kindle? I ask myself.

No, the writing was always on the wall (pun intended); everything is being digitised now. Books are old technology; they are expensive and they take up space (look how many digitised books can be packed onto a device!). The digital archive has expanded to astronomical heights; beyond books, a YouTube channel packed with information and demonstrations costs nothing in real terms and as such becomes available to everyone… for free! This is the democratisation of information.

The audience can become huge.

As an example, Canadian psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson had become a superstar even before he launched into authorship, just through YouTube. He explained that an academic like him could work for years on a profound and meaningful publication only to have it languish on a dusty library shelf, read by very few people; whereas he started putting his lectures on YouTube, over 447 videos, but over a very short period of time his subscribers rocketed to what is currently around 4,060,000! His individual views on YouTube have reached a staggering 258 million!

Another example is American some-time stand-up comic and occasional MMA commentator Joe Rogan who has developed a podcast which attracts a massive audience, much bigger than Peterson’s, making him one of the largest media influencers in the world, as well as supplying him with considerable wealth.

What Rogan does is just podcast interviews, but what is surprising is that they are not just short snappy soundbites, no, these interviews can go on longer than most movies, averaging two and a half hours, some as long as five hours! (And people say that the average span of attention is shrinking – apparently not!).

Peterson and Rogan are not the only ones at it. There are some very ambitious characters within the martial art world that are keen to employ the new technology, all of varying quality. But it’s a buyer’s market. Sometimes it’s wise to employ your filter.

Will this be a good thing for martial artists? Ultimately yes; technology is a tool and has uncountable modes of operation and it is changing all the time. In the hands of the right individuals with the right intentions who knows what possibilities it will open up.

Someone recently asked me if I ever thought of writing a book about Wado? When I was in my mid 30’s I did consider the idea, but it never happened, and I am glad it didn’t, because at that age, even though I had been training since I was sixteen, I actually knew nothing of any value. I am still finding out how limited my knowledge is, even after all these years [4].

Tim Shaw

[1] Recently a couple of new Wado related types of publications have appeared in print; the Wado history book and the Wado autobiography. There may be more of those to come, and they are a welcome addition to knowledge of all things Wado – which ironically seem to be better suited to the printed page.

[2] Source: ‘Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu – Conversations with Daito-ryu Masters’ Interviews conducted and edited by Stanley A. Pranin. 1996 Aiki News.

[3] For me, of one of the best books on explaining Japanese Budo to Westerners, but it had to be published privately in the Netherlands, ‘Budo – ‘Thoughts on Michi’ by Kyudo master Matsui Iwao (2006).

[4] During lock-down I did start typing out the memories of my early training (technical perspective and personal), looked back from the vantage point of age, and I managed 60000 words, and that was just covering the years 1974 to 1982; that was just eight years out of a total of forty-seven years training. But I reckon it would only be of limited (niche) interest and might attract an audience of… two, if that.
It might be long on Marcel Proust ambitions, but would be certainly short on Marcel Proust talent.

The Martial Body.

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Physical culture and martial arts have always been inseparable. Your physical properties/qualities have to aspire towards being the nearest match to the tasks you are expected to perform.

For me this throws up several questions:

So, how does that come about?

Are those physical properties a product of the training itself?

Am I perhaps talking about utilitarian strength versus strength for strength’s sake?

How strong do you have to be?

How is ‘strength’ defined within the traditional martial disciplines (is ‘strength’ even the right word, or the right measure)?

I am not going to get into the discussion about the merits of supplementary strength training; instead, I want to explore the subject through a very specific example.

Kuroda Tetsuzan Sensei.

In past posts I have made reference to Kuroda Tetsuzan Sensei, a modern day Japanese martial arts master, very much of the old school. Kuroda has an impeccable reputation amongst martial arts specialist who ‘know’. His ability is astounding.

He is the inheritor of the Shinbukan system which contains five disciplines within its broader curriculum; including the sword and its own Jujutsu system.

Kuroda has been a touchstone for me; the YouTube snippets have me totally spellbound; I have watched them so many times. Published interviews contain amazing insight and his ideas chime very closely to things I have heard in well-informed Wado circles.

This post is inspired by an extensive interview Kuroda Sensei gave in 2010 (published by Leo Tamaki ) and, to develop my theme I will make specific references to points made within the interview.

What really interested me was Kuroda Sensei’s back-story; the environment he was raised in as it related to the martial arts. Starting at the family home. In the interview Kuroda suggests that it was virtually impossible for him to avoid the all-pervading atmosphere of traditional Budo; it was as natural and essential to him as oxygen; in his domestic setting the noises of training were as much a part of his environment as birdsong.

In the interview Leo Tamaki does an excellent job of trying to pin Kuroda down to specifics about the physical side of the training, (I almost get the impression that Tamaki had tried to second guess the answers and that maybe Kuroda’s replies took him by surprise).

Kuroda’s father, grandfather and great uncle were brought up as martial artists of the old school, and, at the family home where they trained, there was only a thin partition between the living area and the small Dojo. In the interview, Kuroda Sensei made a reference to the physical qualities of these men:

“When we look at my grandfather’s body, or his brother’s we are impressed. But it is a body they have developed and acquired by training days and nights since their youngest age, using the principle of not using strength.

They did not develop it by lifting rocks, climbing mountains or carrying branches. (Laughs) It is by relentlessly practising without strength that they developed such thick arms. And this is a truly remarkable work.

Developing such a body without using strength requires unbelievable amount of training. It’s generally something developed only by intensive practice started very early in life. Being born in a martial arts masters’ house, they practised all day while students came and went. At the time, after a day of training without using strength it occurred that my grandfather could not hold his chopsticks any more and needed someone to wrap his fingers around.”

My view is that technique over strength develops its own brand of strength, a purely utilitarian strength. Picture a 19th century blacksmith who earns his daily bread by heating and hammering metal all day, and has done so since he was a boy big enough to hold a hammer, the body fashions itself throughout the craftsman’s lifetime, no artifice, no vanity. I once saw a photograph of a generation of blacksmiths, father, son and grandson, standing proudly outside of the forge, meaty forearms folded across their broad cheats, proud of their labours with probably no concern about their bodies; these were certainly not the same as the contemporary tattooed, preening metrosexuals to be found propping up the bar in your local bistro. This was functional muscle.

With Kuroda’s antecedents it wasn’t the ‘hours’ spent in the Dojo, it was the ‘years’ of day to day training that made the difference.

But it is Kuroda’s description of relaxed strength, a nuanced strength that transforms the body almost by stealth, that caught my attention. He describes his grandfather’s handling of the sword as being ‘light’, but he also tells tales of his grandfather’s ability in cutting, even with a blunt sword!

The interviewer further pursues his theme of practicing with strength, asking, “Can or should beginners then practise with strength and power?”

The answer is:

“In absolute terms, it is not really a problem that they practise like this. But by doing so, it is very difficult to evolve and progress to another practice. In an era where we have less and less time, and where we can only allocate a few hours per week or month, it is impossible to enter another dimension of practice by training like that.

This is why I teach the superior principles to my students, from the beginning. I also require them to absolutely practise without using strength. If we use strength, we are directly in a very limited work. By receiving these teachings from the beginning, it is normal to put them straight into application”.

Effectively he is trying to square the circle of people not having the time to train as people did in the old days but still needing to reach to the higher levels of attainment. The ‘strength’ issue just side-tracks the development. His attitude seems to be to introduce people to the importance of the core principles first, because at least then they can start to work it out with some element of time on their side.

He’s not against strength as such, I just think he’s very careful in his definitions, particularly about the application of strength.

Again, for me this rings bells. Thinking about my own early experiences of Wado, I am fairly sure the cart was placed before the horse, and then subsequently I had to spend an awful lot of time and effort deprogramming myself and learn to appreciate the importance of ‘principle’. To paraphrase a friend of mine, ‘We learned our karate back to front; we learned to punch and kick first and then we learned to use our body; it should have been the other way round!’ [1].

Newcomers to martial arts training, particularly men, have an image in their heads (and in their bodies) of what ‘strength’ looks and feels like. As an instructor, I have to try to unravel this fallacy, and even though they understand it in their heads it is stubbornly hard-wired into their bodies. With time and patience, it can be undone, but it takes a lot of dogged determination on the part of the instructor and the student to do it. Interestingly women do not seem so encumbered by this type of baggage; for me, this makes women easier to teach and gives them greater potential to fast-track their development.

I am certain that there is much more mileage in this area, but I think that Kuroda Sensei’s insights give us a glimpse into the past and the mindset of the Japanese martial artists of the old school.

Tim Shaw

Image of Kuroda Sensei, courtesy of; http://budoinjapantest.blogspot.com/2013/11/kuroda-tetsuzan.html

[1] He won’t mind me mentioning him, but credit for this comment goes to the irrepressible Mark Gallagher. Once met, never forgotten.

Event Report – 26th July 2021

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Report by Natalie Harvey (3rd Dan)

26th July 2021 – 2 hours

Led by Steve Thain (4th Dan)

Theme – Ohyo Henka Dousa* (OHD)

Objective – To develop center, energy, connection, flow and sensitivity whilst steadily building towards real fighting utilising the Wado techniques and application you are trying to master.

After some planning we put into action and launched our first pop up course. The concept was a simple one. Design a session with the freedom to work on an aspect of Wado that you really wanted to get into. There is no instructor, everyone trains, small groups, but the session is planned and led by one person. Our first course was planned and led by Steve Thain (4th Dan). 

Steve created a methodical structure that built up over two hours. During the session our small group of six immersed ourselves in the practice and development of OHD, and supporting practices.  We focused on the awareness of Wado principles, connecting to our centre, body centric movement allowing energy to flow freely within and beyond. Complete awareness of where we are in relation to our external world, and within ourselves internally. When trying to explain how someone should feel during OHD it is almost impossible to nail one way. Relaxed, but not all the time, be strong, but not all the time, use power and tension, but not all the time. I believe that it is all these things so long as you are self aware. If you are carrying unnecessary tension in your body, it will definitely show within this practice. I find myself continuously scanning for tension, my breath, stability on my feet and shifting position from kiru within. 

When we connect to a partner in OHD and feel their pressure, depending on how in tune they are to their body, their intent will be felt. Ideally the flow which appears to initiate from them will transfer into the other person into what Wado Practitioners would recognise to be Ten-I, and we essentially become one. Within the cycle of OHD there is no beginning nor end. We shift between Ten-Ei, to Ten-Ei, to Ten-Ei.  As the practice develops we may find ourselves naturally shifting and flowing from some or all three Ten-Ei to Ten-Tai to ten-Gi. 

The other aspect that I took away from the session was ‘Being in the moment’ and not planning ahead. As soon as it had been pointed out to me, I realised that my mind had disconnected to my own body which meant I had disconnected to the other person’s centre and essentially I was doing my own thing, badly. I think in Japanese the term Mushin (a non-reflective, but mindful state), might be a good term for this explanation. When I brought my attention back to the moment, the chaotic feeling of the interactions with my partner seemed to go. Time felt as though it had slowed enough for me to engage meaningfully. 

You don’t often get the opportunity to really get into something you love to do with like minded people chasing a common, personal and group goal . Two hours is never enough, but this is just the first Pop up of many we have planned with various theme focuses. My gut says these focused sessions will elevate all participants’ ability at an expressed rate compared to the regular training format. The regular dojo time is vital to our learning and we continue to attend regular Instructor led sessions in the usual dojo. Time will tell. For now we are enjoying the journey and have already booked our second pop up mini course for September 2021!

*Ohyo Henka Dousa 

応用変化動作 (ohyo henka dousa) 

“Applying (Practice) the variation of movements (Henkawaza) relating to the opposition’s initiations.”.

The Ten Ox Herding Pictures.

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If you have an interest in Zen and the martial arts, you may or may not have come across the allegory of ‘The Ten Ox Herding Pictures’.

I have been meaning to post on this subject for a while now, and although I am not really a committed Zen Buddhist adherent by any significant measure, I have an outsider’s interest.

Before I get into it in any detail, let me say that I don’t see this allegory as uniquely ‘Zen’, I think it has a wider application, particularly for anyone exploring the conundrum of self-realisation and self-actualisation.

The ten images tell a story of a boy, the ox-herd, and his search for the missing ox and is a metaphor of the search for the true self (the original self); in Buddhist terms, the search for Awakening and the True Reality. The Ox-herd is the smaller self, the ego, who gradually realises that the reality is actually not far away and ultimately contained within him.

History.

Although these images developed a considerable following inside Japan, they are definitely Chinese in origin (as is Zen Buddhism actually). The earliest record of this sequence of images as a metaphor date back to the 11th or 12th century in China. There are usually accompanied by poems, but I would argue that you really don’t need them. At a visual level, you fill in the blanks with your imagination – no need for words – so very ‘Zen’.

The key differences between the various versions are usually found in the last three pictures. Some versions are content to just complete the series with a blank circle, (which particularly resonates with me), but, arguably, others have a deeper story to tell, making the final picture one of a Buddha or Boddhisatva in the ‘market place’, as if to say, ‘once enlightenment is complete, return to the world, to the busiest place and just ‘be’, amongst the people’. I like that – nobody disappears up into a mountain cave; that is not the place for the sage or the enlightened one. This is a philosophy that is nearer to the Neo-Confucianists, who I believe, have a closer resonance with the martial arts that we know. [1]

A description.

A boy is out in the countryside clearly looking for something. He is sometimes shown holding a kind of tether in his fist. (The wildness of the landscape increases as the narrative develops, as if to underline the difficulty of the quest).

At first he sees the ‘traces’ of the ox (which is sometimes referred to as a bull). Whether this is tracks, or even other things bulls and oxen tend to leave behind, is not really clear.

He catches a glimpse of the untamed ox. This wild spirit shows him a ‘Way’, it’s a hint, but it gives him direction and purpose. This is the beginning of ‘Do’ or ‘Tao’.

The boy pursues the ox, taking to his task with great determination. He finally connects with the animal and manages to attach the tether to it. The hard work begins. It’s a battle between the raw energy of the ox and the willpower and determination of the boy.

The boy is unaware that he is wrestling with his own true nature and trying to bridge the gulf between his uncultured petty ego and the untainted purity of his elemental self. The Buddhists enjoy the use of metaphor to describe this pure self; they are particularly fond of the image of a lotus flower that rises in its purity from the mud of the pond, perfect and unfouled. This is the true self that resides in all of us that remains pure and clean however much with sully it our own self-inflicted contaminants; which, with discipline, can shine forth again.

This is the discipline of the Dojo and the trials of the martial way; whether you want to describe it as a form of self-transformation (internal alchemy), or the ‘forging’ process of Tanren, it is a deep emersion in the greater process of training.

The disciplining of the ox in the various versions usually seems to take a couple of pictures, as if to accentuate the battles that occur between the boy and the ox. Gradually the creature succumbs to harness and becomes placid and resigned to the process. (In some versions the ox starts out pure black in colour and by degrees changes to white).

Eventually the boy and the ox establish a harmonious union. The boy is shown riding sedately on the ox’s back, playing his flute, without a care or worry in the world. This is sometimes referred to as ‘coming home’.

In the next pictures the boy and the ox are unconcerned about each other’s presence, there is no battle any more, there is no division; they exist in the same space because there is nothing to separate them; they are one and the same; this is a state of total harmony.

The next image is often described as ‘all forgotten’. The transition is virtually complete; nothing matters. The boys is there, the ox is there, but it is as if nothing is of consequence to either of them; it is just ‘being’.

The final images plunge deeply into the unknown and the esoteric, I don’t pretend to understand them, this is ‘returning to the origin’, whether you want to call this ‘the Great Tao’ or the ‘Universal Divine’ is up to you.

As an aside; many years ago, in my college education, myself and my fellow students were introduced to a retired educationalist, I wish I could remember his name. He was a very strange individual, very calm and patient, he spoke to us as if we were his children, but not in a condescending way. Here was a man who had lived a very full life (I think he’d been in the military during WW2). He encouraged us to ask searching questions, far beyond the limited educational brief. As the discussion opened out we found ourselves questioning the meaning of existence. He talked about ‘answers’ and I asked him, ‘what happens after you find all of the ‘answers?’ He paused slightly and then said, ‘You just… disappear’.

I remember, he smiled and just left that hanging in the air. If I am reading his reply correctly, this was the final message of the ox herding pictures. Here was the blank circle, or the empty landscape.

Leonard Cohen.

This set of pictures had a further reach than most of us realised.

I don’t know how many people are aware of this but singer songwriter Leonard Cohen had a soft spot for the ox herding narrative. I think it is common knowledge that Cohen plunged deeply into the Zen lifestyle, secluding himself in monastic Zen disciplines, indulging in harsh regimes of Zazen (seated meditation).

Some of his most thoughtful and erudite poetry and lyric writing came out of that experience. What ever you think of his vocal style and singing ability there is no getting away from the fact that Cohen was a talent that maybe even eclipsed Dylan. But people seemed not to have noticed a track called ‘The Ballad of the Absent Mare’ which featured on his 1979 album, ‘Recent Songs’.

Canadian singer songwriter Jennifer Warnes recounts how Cohen came over to her house after a meditational retreat, she said, “Leonard had found some old pictures somewhere, they were called ‘The Ten Bulls’, old Japanese woodcuts symbolizing the stages of a monk’s life on the road to enlightenment. These carvings pictured a boy and a bull, the boy losing the bull, the bull hiding, the boy realizing that the bull was nearby all along. There is a struggle, and finally the boy rides the bull into his little village. ‘I thought this would make a great cowboy song,’ he joked.” [2]

Here is a sample of Cohen’s ‘cowboy song’, obviously replace ‘mare’ with ‘ox’ and it’s the same tale:

“Say a prayer for the cowboy, his mare’s run away
And he’ll walk ’til he finds her, his darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood and the roads are awash
And the bridges break up in the panic of loss

And there’s nothing to follow, there’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer, gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking his heart with their song
As the day caves in and the night is all wrong

Did he dream, was it she who went galloping past?
And bent down the fern, broke open the grass
And printed the mud with the iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet when he was the lord

And although she goes grazing a minute away
He tracks her all night, he tracks her all day
Oh, blind to her presence, except to compare
His injury here with her punishment there…”

Conclusion.

For this story/allegory to have been around for such a long time says something about its cultural power and its spiritual value. If you take any of the great or iconic stories that have stayed with humanity all the way from antiquity to the present day, their survival is an indication of what they have to teach us, as well as their resonance with the human condition; from the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ (2100 BCE) to ‘Moby Dick’, they present models and narratives that touch and inspire us.

The ox herd pictures could be seen as a compressed version of what Joseph Campbell refers to as the ‘Hero’s journey’ [3], but Campbell’s journey has 17 stages rather than 10. Campbell’s idea is so deeply engrained into western culture that we take it for granted; examples are: Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Matrix’ and even ‘Harry Potter’.

The ox herd pictures are more overtly spiritual, but given their transcendent narrative there is much there to tie in to the martial artist’s personal odyssey, after all, martial arts also aspire to a transcendence, a development of character, a personal alchemy. Let us not pretend that our martial arts journey is devoid of spirituality; by that I don’t mean the ‘Spirituality’ that is allied to organised religion; but instead, the more secular brand, associated with pondering things that are outside and beyond yourself and your whole purpose of being alive and conscious and the meaning of your existence. Buddhism sought to address these puzzles without the need to resort to Gods or supernatural deities (although certain forms of Buddhism never quite shook off the shackles of shamanism, adding things that were never part of the original message).

Of course, martial arts people tend to be very pragmatic and deep meditation on spiritual matters are not to everyone’s taste. My thinking is that while I have no desire to become a Zen Buddhist there is something to gain from exploring the wider cultural context.

But that’s my view – to you, it might just be a load of old Bull.


For those of you have an inclination towards trivia; Cat Stevens’ 1972 studio album ‘Catch Bull at Four’ is an obvious reference, which may well have flown right over the head of the average pop music fan of the 1970’s. The album cover makes it very clear.

Tim Shaw

[1] Through personal research and correspondence with experts in the field, I have come to the opinion that works related to the Japanese martial arts that have been pegged as coming from the Zen tradition are actually Neo-Confucian in origin, e.g. Takuan Soho ‘The Unfettered Mind’.

[2] Source: https://www.songfacts.com/facts/leonard-cohen/ballad-of-the-absent-mare

[3] See Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’. 1949.

If you are interested in the crossovers between far eastern traditions and philosophy and western psychology, I found that this book has some interesting sections relating to the Ox Herding Pictures; ‘Buddhism and Jungian Psychology’, J. Marvin Spiegelman and Mokusen Miyuki, 1994.

Other references and links:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Bulls

For an excellent description of the series follow this link: https://jessicadavidson.co.uk/2015/10/02/zen-ox-herding-pictures-introduction/

For the full lyrics by Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Ballad of the Absent Mare’ follow this link: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/leonardcohen/balladoftheabsentmare.html

The image featured for ‘Catch Bull at Four’ is sourced from Wikipedia with the appropriate copyright stipulations cited here: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3d/Catch_Bull_at_Four.jpg

Ox herding pictures courtesy of: https://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/mzb/oxherd.htm

Wado on Film (Anything on film!) – Part 2.

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Continued from part 1. What can we possibly gain from these ‘records’ of genius? How do we read the evidence presented to us?

What are we able to judge?

To return to the martial arts (and other arts).

Observing films on YouTube or other sources; shapes and patterns can only give us so much. It’s how we process the information that counts, but usually we cannot help but to attach our own baggage to it; this can cause its own problems.

To expand: If we look at the idea of works of art; it is said that it’s all about relationships:

  • The relationship of the artist to their subject – think of landscapes or portraits. The artist must engage and interpret their personalised understanding of the subject.
  • The relationship of the artist to their medium – this is the practical depiction of the theme and all of the technical aspects involved. This is the means by which the message is delivered.
  • The relationship with the artist through their work to their audience.

Now, extend that to master Otsuka, (whether it is on film or a demonstration in front of an audience):

  • His subject is his understanding of Japanese Budo.
  • His medium is his performance – what he chooses to show is through the prism of his selected material, be that solo or paired kata or fundamentals.
  • Then, ultimately, the connection/relationship between the ‘artefact’ as presented, and the viewer, the audience.

As with all of the above, clearly, the viewer has to be up to the task.

For a viewer in an art gallery, a Joshua Reynolds portrait from 1770 may present less of an intellectual challenge than a Jackson Pollock ‘Action Painting’ from 1948. The crisp clarity of Reynolds gives the viewer more to grasp on to than the mad, seemingly random, spatter of paint that Pollock applied to his canvases. But both have amazing value and depth (to my mind anyway).

It has been said to me on more than one occasion that those demonstrations that master Otsuka did in his later life were actually designed with a particular audience in mind; for the real aficionados, for those who really had the eyes to see what we mere mortals fail to see. They are not quite Jackson Pollock, this is perhaps where the metaphor is a little too far stretched, but sadly they still reside in an area above most of our pay grades.

To understand Otsuka (or Pollock) we would need to have considerable insight into the workings of the artist’s world combined with the ability to grasp the intangible.

With master Otsuka a good starting point would be to understand the world in which he lived, as well being prepared to ditch our western lenses, or at least be aware of how they colour our understanding of Japanese society and culture at that particular time. But even then, if we plunged headlong into that task, it would need to be supported by a huge amount of practical knowledge of Japanese Budo mechanics relevant to that particular stage in its development. You would be hard pressed to find anyone with those credentials.

The comparison with the visual artists and master Otsuka can also be exercised in this way: It is a sad fact that when we encounter an artist’s work in a gallery it is often in isolation; we seldom see the work as part of a continuum, instead it is a snapshot of their development at the particular time it was produced. There are very few examples in the art world where this development can be seen; the only one I can think of is the wonderful Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where it used to be possible to follow the artist’s development as a timeline; Van Gogh’s immature work looks clunky and uncultured, he’s finding his feet, he experiments with different styles (Japanese prints influenced, pointillism, etc) and then his work starts to blossom as it becomes more emotionally charged. What a pity he only worked for about ten years. My guess is that given more time he would have gone pure abstract, what a development that would have been!

What if?

To return to Nijinsky (from part 1) – what if a piece of film was discovered of Nijinsky dancing? What would a modern ballet dancer be able to gain; how would they judge it? Perhaps Nijinsky’s famous ‘gravity defying’ leaps would not look so impressive, in fact, compared to contemporary dancers he might look very ordinary. We will never know.

(Perhaps someone might comment that he has his hand out of position, or that he is looking in the wrong direction?)

But maybe the real power is in the myth of Nijinsky as another form of truth, which allows Nijinsky to become an inspiration, a talisman for modern dancers. [1]

For master Otsuka, as suggested above, the pity would be that his whole reputation and legacy should hang on hastily made judgements of those movies shot in later life.

But who knows; if he did have film of him performing when he was in his early 40’s (say from the mid 1930’s) perhaps he would have hated to have been judged by his movements and technique at that age? I would suggest that early 40’s would have put him at his physical prime, but not necessarily at his technical prime.

It’s a bit like the way great painters would hate to be judged by their early work. [2].

Like anything that is meant to be in a state of continual evolution, its early incarnations probably served some uses, however crude, but it’s never wise to stick around. Creatives like Otsuka weren’t going to allow the grass to grow under their feet. [3]

Anecdotes of Otsuka’s early days told by those close to him inform us that his fertile creativity was a restless reality; his mind was constantly in the Dojo. The truth of this comes from his insistence that Wado was not a finished entity, how can it ever be?

Conclusion.

I’m not saying that it is a completely pointless exercise. In writing this I am still working it out in my own head, trying to remind myself that we are still fortunate to have some form of connection to Otsuka Sensei, however tenuous, and how lucky we are to still have people around who bore witness to the great teacher, although, as we know, that will slip away from us so gradually that we will hardly notice it.

I have to remind myself that we are supposed to be part of a living tradition, a continuing stream of consciousness; a true embodiment of the physical form of what Richard Dawkins called a ‘meme’ [4]. This is why instructors take their responsibilities so seriously to ensure that Wado remains a ‘living tradition’, with emphasis on the ‘living’, not an empty husk of something that ‘used to be’. This is why I am reluctant to describe master Otsuka’s image as an ‘anchor’, because an anchor, by its very nature, impedes progress.

The best we can hope for from these ghostly moving pictures from the past is that they can be seen as some kind of inspirational touchstone. But, like the shadows in Plato’s Cave it would be a mistake to take them for the real thing [5].

Tim Shaw

[1] For anyone interested in Vaslav Nijinsky I recommend Lucy Moore’s book, ‘Nijinsky’. It tells an amazing story of an amazing man in an amazing age. Why nobody has made a movie about Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes and Nijinsky I will never know. I reckon Baz Luhrmann would do a fine job if he was ever let loose on the project.

[2] I have to acknowledge that in most competitive sporting fields the athlete is probably at his/her overall prime in their more youthful days. But, when looked at in the round, karate and other forms of Japanese Budo run to a different agenda. For me, and many others, sport karate is not the end product of what we do – it’s a by-product, an additional bonus for those who choose that path.

Look at the careers of dancers. I heard it said that dancers die twice. The first time happens when by injury or by more gradual natural debilitation they have to stop doing the one thing they love, thrive on and that their whole identity has been wrapped up in. The second time, is obvious. As this BBC article (and link to radio documentary) explains: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1fkwdll6ZscvQtHMz4HCYYr/why-do-dancers-die-twice

[3] I know that am rather too fond of making references to jazz musician Miles Davis, but I have a memory of reports of Miles refusing to play music from his iconic ‘Kind of Blue’ album in his later years; he would say, ‘Man, those days are gone’ underlining his forever onwards trajectory – just as it should be.

[4] ‘Meme’ NOT the Internet’s interpretation of the word but, like a gene. However, instead of being biological, it refers to traditions passed down through cultural ideas, practices and symbols. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme

[5] ‘Plato’s Cave’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_cave

Otsuka picture source: http://www.dojoupdate.com/wado-ryu-karate/master-hironori-otsuka/

Wado on Film (Anything on film!) – Part 1.

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On the surface it would appear that we are blessed to have so much film of the founder of Wado Ryu available to us. It is lucky that Otsuka Hironori was not camera shy and showed enough foresight to actually have himself recorded with the intention of securing the legacy of his techniques and ideas for future generations. I have heard that there is even more unseen material that has been archived away, held secure by his inheritors.

Although it is interesting that there seem to be zero examples of film of Otsuka Sensei as a younger man; while there are photographs a plenty. (Otsuka Sensei was born in 1892 and only passed away in 1982).

He appeared to hit his filmic stride in his mid-seventies. Although a while back, a tiny snippet of footage of the younger Otsuka did appear as almost an afterthought on a JKA Shotokan film. It was a bare couple of seconds, it certainly looked like him – he was demonstrating at some huge martial arts event in Japan; the year is uncertain, but I am guessing some time in the 1950’s. In this film there was an agility and celerity to his movements which is not so evident in his later years. [1]

Historically, it does seem odd that there is so little film available from those years of such a celebrated martial artist.

Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of Aikido has a film legacy that goes back to a significant and detailed movie shot in 1935 at the behest of the Asahi News company. Ueshiba was then a powerful 51-year-old, springing around like a human dynamo, it’s worth watching. [LINK]

On first viewing that particular film it left me scratching my head; initial examination told me that the techniques looked so fake. But the more I watched, there were individual moments where some strange things seemed to happen (at one point his Uke is propelled backwards like an electric shock had gone through him). At times Uke seems to attempt to second-guess him and finds himself spiralling almost out of control. Really interesting.

But for Wado, is this even important? Why does it matter? Afterall, Wado Ryu had already been launched across the world, much of which happened during Otsuka Sensei’s lifetime. Also, the first and second generation instructors were doing the best of a difficult job to channel Otsuka Sensei’s ideas.

So, what can we gain from watching flickering images of master Otsuka showing us the formalised kata or kihon? What value does it have?

I saw Otsuka Sensei in person in 1975. I watched in awe his demonstration on the floor of the National Sports Centre, Crystal Palace in London. I was only seventeen years old. I remember thinking at the time, ‘here is something very special going on in front of my eyes – I know that – but I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is’.

At that age and the particular stage of my development, I had very little to bring to the experience. I lacked the tools. Possibly the only advantage I had at that time was I was carrying no baggage, no preconceptions; maybe that is why the memory has stayed so clear in my mind [2].

Interestingly, Aikido founder master Ueshiba’s own students, in later interviews lamented that they wished they’d paid more attention to exactly what he was doing when he was demonstrating in front of them; even when he laid hands upon them, they still struggled to get it.

Can we ever hope to bridge the gap?

I think it is useful to acknowledge the problem. The reality is that we are THERE but NOT THERE; we are SEEING but not SEEING. I believe that we often lack the refined tools to understand what is really going on and what is really useful to us as developing martial artists. It comes down in part to that old ‘subjectivity’ versus ‘objectivity’ problem; can we ever be truly objective?

But it is the evanescence of the experience; it flickers and then it is gone and all we are left with is a vain attempt to grasp vapour. But isn’t that the essence of everything we do as martial artists?

To explain:

Two forms of artefact.

I read recently that in Japanese cultural circles they acknowledge that there are two forms of artefact; ones with permanence, solidity and material substance, and ones with no material substance, but both of equal value.

The first would include paintings, prints, ceramics and the creations of the iconic swordsmiths. For example, you can actually touch, hold, weigh, admire a 200 year old Mino ware ceramic bowl, or a blade made by Masamune in the early 14th century – if you are lucky enough. These are real objects made to last and to be a reflection of the artist’s search for perfection; they live on beyond the lifetime of their creator.

But the second, only loosely qualifies as an artefact as it has no material substance, or if it does it has a substance that is fleeting. This is part of the Japanese ‘Way of Art’ Geido.

There are many examples of this but the best ones are probably the Tea Ceremony (Sado) and Japanese Flower Arranging (Kado). Even the art of Japanese traditional theatre which is so culturally iconic actually leaves no lasting material artefact.

In the Tea Ceremony the art is in the process and the experience. Beloved of its practitioners is the phrase, ‘Ichi go, Ichi e’ which means ‘[this] one time, one place’.

The martial arts also leave no material permanence behind. Their longevity and survival are based upon their continued tradition (this is the meaning of ‘Ryu’ as a ‘stream’ or ‘tradition’, it seems to work better than ‘school’). The tradition manifests itself through the practitioners and their level of mastery; this is why transmission is so important. But a word of caution; the best traditions survive not in a state of atrophy, but as an evolving improving entity. It is all so very Darwinian. Species that fail to adapt to a changing environment and just keep chugging on and doing what they always do soon become extinct species.

Film (Nijinky, a case history).

Vaslav Nijinsky (1890 – 1950) was the greatest male ballet dancer of the 20th century. He was probably at his majestic peak around about 1912 as part of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. To his contemporaries Nijinsky was a God; he could do things other male dancers could only dream of; he danced on pointe and his leaps almost seemed to defy gravity. As this quote from the time tells us:

“An electric shock passed through the entire audience. Intoxicated, entranced, gasping for breath, we followed this superhuman being… the power, the featherweight lightness, the steel-like strength, the suppleness of his movements…”.

But, there was never any film made of this amazing dancer, so, all we have left are these words. Even though, at the time, movie-making was on the rise (D. W. Griffith was knocking out multiple movies in the USA in 1912 and earlier). At the time the dance establishment distrusted the new medium of moving pictures, they feared that it trivialised their art and turned it into a mere novelty; which clearly proved to be incredibly short-sighted.

If Nijinsky, arch-performer, had anything to teach the world of dance it is lost to us. Incidentally it is said that Nijinsky destroyed his mind through the discipline of his body. He ended his days in and out of asylums and mental hospitals.

We will never know how good Nijinsky was in comparison to modern dancers, or if it was all a big fuss about nothing. But then again, the very same could be said about any famous performer, sportsperson or martial artist born before the invention of moving pictures.

Other forms of recollections or records that act as witnesses.

A writer or composer leaves behind another form of record. For composers before the first sound recordings in 1860 it was in the form of published written music or score. We would assume that this would be enough to contain the genius of past musicians?

But maybe not.

Starting right at the very apex of musical genius, what about Mozart?

Well, maybe those written symphonies, operas etc. were not a faithful reflection of the great man? Certainly, there is some dispute about this. There has been a suggestion that rather like the plays of Shakespeare, all we have left are stage directions, (with Shakespeare the actors slotted in whatever words they thought were appropriate!).

We judge Mozart not only by todays orchestral/musical performances, but also by his completed score on the page, and some may see these pages as a distillation of Mozart’s genius; but perhaps Mozart’s real genius was expressed through something we would never see written down, thus, today, never performed? This was his ability to improvise and elaborate around a stripped-back musical framework. It is reported that he was able to weave his magic spontaneously. As an example, Mozart was known to only write the violin parts for a new premier performance, allowing the piano parts, which he was to play, to come straight out of his head. We have no idea how he did it, or what it might have sounded like.

More on this developing theme in the second part. What point is there to all this chasing of shadows? Are we kidding ourselves? Can we be truly objective to what we are seeing?

Part 2 coming shortly.

Tim Shaw

[1] If anyone is able to track down this piece of film, I would be grateful if they would let me know the URL. It seems to have disappeared from YouTube, or my search skills are not what they used to be.

[2] This was the same year as the IRA bomb scare, as well as Otsuka Sensei getting the back of his hand cut by his attacker’s sword.

Image of Nijinsky (detail). Nijinsky in ‘Les Orientales’ 1911. Image credit:  https://www.russianartandculture.com/god-only-knows-tate-modern/

Shikukai in Essex, Shouwa Jyuku – the challenge of returning to the Dojo.

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Shikukai in Essex is open for business. Since the middle of May we have been managing and designing an intelligent return to training.

It’s not really realistic to just bounce people straight back into a pre-Covid training regime, it needs to be handled with care and consideration, and we are doing just that.

Over the months of lock-down it gradually dawned on me exactly what the full cost of enforced inactivity was liable to be. I know that many people recognised the problem early on and set about engaging with any form of exercise that was available to them. Running and exercise apps acted as motivators to pound the pavement; anything was better than nothing.

But for some this headlong leap into road running may have been great for the heart and lungs and to burn off those indulgent calories, but the joints were ill-prepared for the amount of sudden pressure and wear and tear. The combination of lack of stretching, no real warm-downs and poor footwear soon slowed some of these runners down, or stopped them dead in their tracks. Hamstrings twanged, cruciate ligaments just gave up and knees went into revolt.

Of course, some people just waved the white flag and were content to watch the weight pile on, unaware of how long these lock-downs were liable to go on for, and assuming that their bodies would just suffer a minor physical drop-off and, after a couple of workouts… back to normal. Not so.

As the situation dragged on, the potential for physical and mental atrophy became very real. When motivation was needed anxiety and uncertainty created a kind of brain fog and the normal pressures and purposes of life morphed into something very unfamiliar.

Of course, everyone’s position was different. While for some Covid was a devastating experience, other were able to flip the world turning upside down into something they could benefit from.

The positive stuff.

One positive aspect of this was that we now had time to contemplate. I know that so much navel-gazing happened over the lock-down periods; which is not a bad thing. Normally this generates some kind of plan; but plan for what exactly? And on what time-scale?

I suspect that many people had the opportunity to recalibrate their lives, unsure of what they want, but certain about what they didn’t want. Forget about those pipe dreams of ‘learning a language’ or ‘buying a cello and turning into the next Jaqueline Du Pré, I don’t know anybody who actually did that.

Maybe, out of all that darkness and depressing TV news the human spirit was able to push beyond and reinvent itself? (This is the optimist in me speaking).

Another positive was that we were able to revaluate the importance of connections to family and friends. However, Skype/Zoom calls only went so far; a poor substitute for being face to face. People started talking about ‘hugging’, something that was hardly ever talked about or valued before, it was just taken as a given.

On top of all this, for me, it made me reframe the importance of the Dojo and training shoulder to shoulder, face to face.

It is said that you only really appreciate something after it has been taken away from you – so true.

Our own ‘return’.

When we did return to the Dojo in May; although nothing was said, smiles on faces and a palpable atmosphere of positivity spoke volumes.

After all, karate training is paradoxically something we do for ourselves, but in a group. Just look at all we gain from our training experience.

Put aside the physical benefits and examine all of those other life-affirming attributes.

For that evening, at that time, pressures melt away, you almost become someone else; but in reality, you are tapping into aspects of your persona that normally lay semi-dormant in your day-to-day life.

The Dojo can be described as a crucible or a hothouse, but there is something about being in that supercharged environment, alongside other people that makes it so special. Add to that all the benefits of being in a Flow State [See previous blog post] and it is everything that is positive and rewarding.

The first sessions back have really been about rehabilitation. I knew that the two areas to work on were; looking at what people’s physical condition was like and also how much of a slip-back had occurred in terms of technical knowledge? More of a memory thing.

In the first area, tightened muscles from so much sitting around was something to tackle. I spent longer on the warm-up and stretch and incorporated fascia and core work throughout, and I have kept that going.

I also knew that hammering up and down the Dojo in lines was going to be too much of a shock to the system; so, kihon work has been interspersed with kata.

For kata it was all about memory work and patterns. The same with paired exercises, although these were hindered by the fact that Covid regulations say that we still cannot work in pairs. We did however work body evasions against Jo; this gave some feeling of responding to a threat.

Speaking generally, there never has been a better time to get in the Dojo; if you are a new beginner, or a lapsed martial artist who has never really shaken off ‘that itch’, now is the time to take positive steps.

Even if you are just curious; come along, watch a session, talk to us. If you are of the mindset whereby you want more from your martial arts training than just making ever-faster shapes, then maybe Wado Ryu, as a form of Japanese Budo is what you are looking for.

Photo: George Krethlow-Shaw 2nd kyu working on Kushanku.

Tim Shaw

The Politics of Paired Kata Part 2.

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In this second part I will attempt push further beyond the boundaries of the standard workings of the paired kata in Wado karate. I am not expecting everyone to agree with me but please bear with me.

The Contract.

In Japanese Budo what I am calling ‘the contract’ is really important. You are measured and judged by your ability to assiduously, almost pedantically, stick to ‘the contract’.

This manifests itself beautifully, almost poetically, when it comes down to working with bladed weapons. One mistake, one ill-considered move or lack of intent and things get messy really quickly.

Consider the Tanto Dori (knife defence) paired kata of Wado Ryu. Uke has the blade, knows his role and not only sticks to the script but also delivers the blade as powerfully and accurately as he is able. Tori knows this and as a result his focus becomes hyper-acute; it has to be. He can’t move early (a clear betrayal of the contract) and to move late is potentially fatal. There is only one option; get it right!

How we got away with that in the late 20th century is a source of amazement to me – today, ‘health and safety’ would have been all over it!

But it has to be remembered that the paired kata are teaching tools. Yes, they are formalised, but as such they are the embodiment of wisdom refined over generations. I know that some may wag a judgemental finger and say, ‘but that’s not real, that’s not what would really happen!’ and of course they would be completely and spectacularly missing the point.

A Conversation.

To return to the theme of kihon gumite – if you look across the ten canonical kihon gumite and try to see them through the lens of a protracted sequential dialogue, then the wisdom and cleverness of them just leaps out at you.

Sequentially, they open up a series of overlapping conundrums and a shed-load of ‘what ifs’. I won’t go into them individually, but they offer themselves up like a puzzle box, where positives mesh with negatives in time and space. This is the ‘politics of paired kata’.

Looking at the paired kata as conversations between two protagonists; as we know, conversations come in many forms; not all of them are meaningful or even useful. Some conversations are clear in their intentions; others mask duplicity and deceit.

There are conversations (if indeed they can be called that) where one party harangues another; spouting their pet theories, looking for validation, shooting down any dissent, seeing the other party as an antagonist, not listening to counter arguments, etc. The kihon gumite version of this is where either party disregard the other; just doing their thing. It’s an empty experience for both sides, a total waste of time and energy.

High level conversations.

And then there are high quality conversations; ones where nobody is trying to score points, where opinions are speculations and not carved in stone and both parties have a common cause and listen respectfully. These are truly exploratory exchanges; all parties involved on the cusp of their knowledge, open-minded, aware and unafraid to venture into the unknown, while maintaining the solid foundations of a mindset which is matched to the task.

Within paired kata like the kihon gumite, both protagonists approach the engagement (conversation) respectfully and almost with an air of reverence. Their focus is complete and directed at all aspects of the unfolding sequence of events. They know there is a script but they don’t allow themselves to become totally straightjacketed by it. There is nuance and a battle going on inside the battle, observing keenly the micro-gestures; (whether they are aware of it or not), very much like meaningful and positive verbal exchanges.

Different styles of conversations – successful, or not so successful?

It is said that conversations are generally more successful when conducted between peers and rarely so when directed from the middle or bottom of a hierarchy upwards, as in, an under-manager upwards towards a senior manager or boss. It can be tricky because of the hierarchical positions; the underling has to approach his boss with great care for fear of stepping over the line, or seeming to criticise or undermine decisions or ideas.

But the same situation in paired kata can have a useful dynamic; because; if the junior is open and receptive, they can gain so much from working with a senior grade. Direct physical communication relating to issues like body feel, timing and cause and effect, these aspects almost bypass the intellectual and go right to the heart of the matter; tapping into that weird level of consciousness that exists as what Ushiro Kenji calls the ‘Body Brain’.

There may be more to this than we think.

The politics of paired kata could possibly have more complexity than appears at first sight.

The general understanding is that these kata are seen as sets of prescribed techniques that are linear and ruled by cause and effect, i.e. ‘In response to this attack, my response is…’. This generally fits in with how the physical world operates, or rather how we prefer it to operate; in a very predictable way, it’s comfortable for us. As an example; if someone climbs a high stepladder and drops a golf ball they can pretty much tell you to the millimetre where the ball will impact on the floor. Try the same thing with a piece of paper and, although you know it will eventually hit the floor, you can’t be sure exactly where. In a way, it is comparable to dealing with someone’s direct physical aggression, a random attack; you really don’t know how it’s going to play out. Here we can see the weakness of being bound by linear thinking.

Cause and effect; action and reaction follow a very comfortable pattern of Newtonian physics. For some schools of karate and certainly the so-called ‘Reality based Self-defence’ this is all that is needed, and the simpler the better.

But if you dig deeper, it all goes a bit Schrödinger’s Cat.

There are some tantalising conundrums in the paired kata that lean towards the same kinds of qualities and contradictions found in quantum physics and become a challenge to the Newtonian model [1].

Contradictions.

Examples of contradictions in Wado:

In the Wado paired kata these puzzles are sometimes presented to us overtly.

The second grandmaster would tease us by talking about ‘Wado mathematics’, he would say, “It works like this; in Wado it is 1 + 1 = 1”. How can that be so? Once you see it, it all makes sense, and it sets the bar really high if you want to work it at the physical level.

Another wonderful contradiction is that Tori and Uke are separate, but one. This is very ‘quantum’, the contradiction to the Newtonian form of action and reaction; in the quantum world action and reaction are one and the same, you are not waiting for things to happen, you are not waiting for feedback, you ARE the feedback, you are making your own reality. What happens between Tori and Uke is also an embodiment of a mutual resonance; there is a harmonic interplay which dissolves the convenience of thinking of these roles as separate entities.

Added to that is that the ‘attacker’ and ‘defender’ can be both at the same time! The river flows on and reality changes – like Heraclitus says, No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”.

This does away with the idea that Uke is a mere stooge, operating with dumb passivity; a punchbag for Tori to work his magic on.

This is why in Wado the oft-used platitude of ‘Karate Ni Sente Nashi’ (‘there is no first attack in karate’) becomes meaningless to us. It has uses and meaning to the Okinawan branches of karate, but in Wado it is a retrograde method. Japanese Budo has a more refined approach to cognitive reality, completely at odds with the morally ‘safe’ perspective of Okinawan pragmatism. The Okinawan moral standpoint is secure and (for them) unquestionable, but for me it is philosophically unadventurous.

The root of these contradictions is not unique to Wado. Many examples can be found in the older Japanese Budo.

Koryu practitioner and author Ellis Amdur describes the contradictions found within the Itto Ryu school of swordsmanship; specifically, the technique Kiriotoshi (dropping cut) “in which two swords cut along exactly the same path…”.

Amdur makes no bones about it, “Kiriotoshi accomplishes the seemingly impossible – apparently defying Newtonian physics. At the moment of impact, with two objects – swords – occupying the same space. One ‘passes through’ the other. This is the product of one individual who is striking with a sword meeting another who ‘is’ a sword. Literally, the sword and body are one entity.” [2].

Conclusion.

It is sad that some of the most valuable aspects of paired kata get lost in the weeds. In this case the ‘weeds’ are the positional minutiae; where this foot goes, or that hand goes – all of which are important of course, but it is a mistake to think that this is all there is to it. If your objective is doing it faster, harder and stronger, and making great shapes, then eventually you would meet your ceiling, as many do. And to assuage their deep-seated and largely subconscious worries that maybe that is all there is to it, they might feel inclined to just pile on more paired kata and kid themselves that this is progress – when all along all that’s needed is adherence to core sets of principles. It is these same sets of principles that become the fertile ground from which an unlimited range of technical options spring. Get them right and it becomes truly effortless (or so I am told).

Working with principles is like jazz musicians riffing on a theme and exploring each appropriate path of musical possibilities, always in step, even as new options unfold, beyond thought, beyond artifice; the music is almost a power outside of them.

I am tempted to appropriate a quote from the great jazz trumpet genius Miles Davis and apply it to options thrown up within paired kata; that is, It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong”.

For me, the spirit of that quote works well with the politics of paired kata.

Tim Shaw

[1] I lay no claim to being an expert in the field of physics; please don’t bombard me with harsh and incomprehensible brickbats. I am only an amateur.

[2] Ellis Amdur, ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ 2000 edition.

Featured image; Tim Shaw and Martijn Schelen working on Tanto Dori.

The Politics of Paired Kata Part 1.

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Sugasawa Sensei & Tim Shaw, Holland

In this two-part blog post I want to suggest different ways of looking at our paired kata; whether that is kihon gumite, kumite gata, ura no kumite or ohyo gata.

Decades ago, a well-known western martial artist and writer had a chance to observe Otsuka Hironori, the original grandmaster first hand. The writer was from a different martial arts background not a Wado stylist. He wrote at the time that the ‘real’ kata of Wado Ryu were the paired kata. To my mind, either he was being deliberately provocative or he only assumed everyone would look at the context of kata exclusively in solo performance and neglected to draw connections between Wado solo kata and Wado paired kata.

To him the paired kata were clearer and more accessible. It is understandable in a way; particularly when you see what solo kata is currently evolving into, through the athleticism and drama of Olympic sports karate kata.

I am fairly sure that regular readers of this blog don’t need to be reminded of the root origin of the Wado paired kata [1]. These were never intended to be just sets of shallow two-man drills; they were meant to be understood and practiced as repositories of knowledge, containing layers of information in various forms.

It is these very same forms I want to speculate on in this two-part post.

Why did I refer to it as ‘The Politics of Paired Kata’?

When I am teaching paired kata I often explain what’s going on by referring to, “the politics of kihon gumite (or kumite gata etc)”. However, for the sake of simplicity ‘kihon gumite’ is one of the most convenient examples because it often contains the more complex but overt examples of ebb and flow and interchange that will perhaps support my argument.

Bear with me on this. Put simply; it is said that whenever you get two people in a room, politics is always playing out. For anyone with a keen eye its manifestation is obvious and subtle at the same time. Formal greetings, posture, position, proximity, eye contact and possibly small-talk which may lead on to serious discussion or even disagreement are all there to be observed.

There are rules at play, it’s all ‘political’ (with a small ‘p’). Add to that social niceties, protocols and good manners; everyone plays by the rules, you have to, because these same rules oil the wheels of society. Some might say that rules constrain us, tie our hands, and maybe they can become overly stifling – for example Japanese social rules are much more regimented than western European ones are.

The expectation is that all parties agree to follow the rules.

Rules are important.
As an example:

Imagine you are going to teach someone to play chess. They ask you what the objective of the game is? Your reply, “Simple… Your job is to take my king”. To which they then reach across the table and snatch your king off the board, hold it aloft and say, “I win!” By doing such a thing they achieve the logical objective (initially outlined by you) but the complex rules of the game in its entirety facilitate an opening up of amazing mental gymnastics and seemingly endless possibilities. So it is with paired kata.

In kihon gumite you have tightly prescribed roles with attached responsibilities. That is really your starting point. You know the rules – now live up to them and doors will open…or not.

What can go wrong.

Here are two examples of the rules falling apart in Wado paired kata; one more dramatic than the other, but in their own way quite revealing.

The first one is on a grading somewhere in the East Midlands around 1976.

Two girls were taking a kyu grading in front of Suzuki Sensei. Everything went really well until it came time for the paired kata; Suzuki Sensei’s three step kata, sanbon gumite.

One of the girls (the attacker) thought the punch should have been to jodan, but the defender, for reasons known only to her, blocked low; the result was that she took a full contact punch in the face. There was a lot of blood. The girl who delivered the punch was mortified that she had inflicted such damage, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, she spluttered, clearly distressed and powerless to do anything about it.

Suzuki Sensei sat at the table initially impassive, and then he stood up and railed at the girl for apologising! “Why are you apologising?” “it’s not your fault; it’s her fault!” he yelled, gesticulating at the girl with the bleeding mouth and nose.

Eventually, the club instructor stepped in and cleared the situation up.

It’s clear, if you operate outside of the agreed rules (deliberately or accidentally) all the wheels will come off.

The second example is not so catastrophic but it didn’t make it any less significant and, in this case, annoying.

For this one, I can guess that all of us have come across it – and, for that to be true, many of us will automatically have been the perpetrators of this particular crime… (but will never own up to it).

The crime is, being guilty of delivering a lousy attack.

The first time I came across this in paired kata was during the practice of Suzuki-ha sanbon keri uke (usually the last kick). Uke, knowing his kick was going to be swept aside, would stupidly and obligingly aim off target and swing it across himself! Deliberately off-line, meaningless, counter-productive… pointless; a parody. Nobody gains anything.

There are so many forms of this criminal disregard for protocol.

A friend of mine, a very able senior Dan grade (from one of the other organisations) told me how he came across a variation of this on a major course.

During the practice of kihon gumite with another Dan grade, (who really should have known better), he had to face an attack that in reality would have never made the distance. Instead of just going through the motions and obligingly allowing this pantomime to play out, my friend just stayed where he was, and as the attack fell short, he said, “What are you doing?” It is not really a polite response, but I would challenge anyone in the same situation to have behaved differently.

All of these are examples of the contract being broken.

I will discuss ‘the contract’ and other aspects in part 2.

[1] Because of Otsuka Sensei’s background in traditional Japanese Budo (he began his Jujutsu training under the age of eight and continued all the way through his twenties) he understood the long-established teaching method of paired kata, both armed and unarmed. He knew that as a vehicle for transmission this methodology had considerable value, particularly if the intention was to impart layers of established strategy, technique and wisdom. The kata were codified reflections of refined wisdom and the purest form of Principle (Ri) and not intended to be pure embodiments of refined, spontaneous active and living ‘Ri’. As such they were classified as ‘Ji’. (reflections, exemplars, models to reveal how ‘Ri’ manifests itself).

Featured image; Tim Shaw with Sugasawa Sensei explaining kihon gumite in 2017.

Tim Shaw

Has modern movement culture got anything to offer martial artists?

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About two years ago, by complete accident, I discovered the work and philosophy of Israeli movement guru Ido Portal. I have found him a source of inspiration ever since, particularly through working on my own training during the lock-downs.

I know the concept of ‘movement culture’ has been around for a long time, but the work of Ido Portal and others has put it on a different level, with a newer definition.

Normally, human movement has been focussed on specific aims, ultimately leading towards success in such things as sports, dance or martial arts. As martial artists, working with our bodies is what we do and movement for movement’s sake would seem like a preposterous idea.

We martial artists are surely supposed to be aiming to be specialists; but here’s the news; Ido Portal hates specialists! (more of that later).

If you search YouTube for ‘Ido Portal’ the first thing you’ll find is that Ido can do things that most people can only dream of. Part gymnast, part acrobat, part dancer and… dare I say it… part martial artist. However, I suspect that not many people will get past the twirls, spins, one-armed handstand balances and lizard crawls; it is truly amazing, it’s Ido’s shopfront.

But in a way it’s all confectionary; it’s a distraction; even Ido himself admits as much; he openly dislikes the fact that this is how people view him, and how this side of his work is like catnip to exhibitionists and extroverts. He wants people to look beyond – and for martial artists this is where the really valuable stuff is.

But then for us as martial artists, this is where we encounter the second hurdle to get over.

Ido Portal and Conor McGregor.

His media output trumpets another aspect of the Ido magic. Wasn’t this the same Ido Portal who UFC fighter Conor McGregor worked with to prepare for his fight with Jose Aldo? (The one in which McGregor took the much-favoured Aldo out after only three punches had been thrown). Yes it was.

Oddly, Ido took some flak for that, but only from people who didn’t understand his ideas. The rather conservative UFC community poured scorn on Ido’s training methods and snorted disdainfully that Ido and Conor in their training had been playing, “touch butt in the park”. How wrong they were.

Look beyond the McGregor thing; listen to some well-informed detailed interviews with Ido. I can recommend the ‘London Real’ mini documentary on Ido Portal by Brian Rose called ‘Just Move’. It’s a good place to start. Also, the Coach Micah B Interview with Ido Portal ‘Touch Butt in the Park’. Micah, as a martial artist, asks a lot of the questions that intelligent martial artists would ask.

Origins and development.

As you look into his backgrounds and the beginnings of his developing ideas you will see that it really started for him within the Brazilian art of Capoeira. Ido was clearly looking to go beyond and dig deep into the study of movement. In a way he seemed to me to embrace the magic and methodology that Elon Musk brought to the examination of technology. Musk’s secret ingredient, borrowed from Scientific ideas, is called ‘First Principle Thinking’, and Ido Portal did almost the same thing, going right back to the very source of human movement. Ido Portal studied hard, both through theory and practice and travelled all over the world (If you want to look at some of his sources, you wouldn’t go far wrong reading up or watching videos about coach Christopher Sommers).

Ido’s opinions on ‘specialists’.

What is it that Ido Portal does not like about specialists? This, surely puts all martial artist in the firing line?

To him a specialist is, by definition, a physically limited individual, who within their narrowed field ends up painting themselves into a corner. They are not developing the fuller scope of what their body is capable of, they are wilfully limiting themselves and existing within their own physical echo-chamber.

The good news is that the solution comes in many flavours, and ones which we would not find wholly unpalatable.

Firstly ‘learn to fail’. It is a truism that the zone of failure is the zone of growth. Traditional Chinese martial artists make much of the phrase ‘invest in loss’, this is another branch of the main idea. Not to get too poetical about it, but to grow we must dance the line between order and chaos (credit to J. B. Peterson for that one).

Ido is mischievous in his attitude towards the specialist. The reality is that from his perspective the fully moving, exploratory approach has to either come first or, as with McGregor, become a part of the overall training regime.

Some disciplines/specialisms from Ido’s viewpoint show very specific weaknesses. For example, Yoga he says, has no hangs, no suspension and ‘held’ positions are deemed paramount to the practice; Ido thinks that this is counter-intuitive.

‘Expertise in only one area sets up an habitualised body’, from Ido’s perspective the body is designed to take strain from all directions. This is not to say that we cannot work towards efficient body movement; this is what we try and promote within Wado. We also know that there are such things as movements which create bio-mechanical weaknesses; knees and backs pay the price of injudicious movements; but we also know that we should be looking to explore our fullest ranges of movement.

Agency.

This is why Ido Portal despises the title of ‘guru’, he is not a ‘guru’. He very much believes that anyone on such a personalised quest must have agency and take responsibility for their own development. He says that nobody should hand over the keys of accountability to another person – own it!

This chimes with my own thinking. Sometimes I meet people who are able to recognise something of quality but are unwilling to put in the work, or believe that the magic only happens when Sensei is in the room; another way of abrogating the responsibility away from the individual; a ‘get out’ card.

Having said that, Ido believes that if ever you meet a real master you must seize what is offered with both hands.

Listen to the wisdom of your own body.

I know I have written about this before; specifically, in the context of the older martial artist; relating to a kinder, balanced approach to your workload; knowing when to allow your body recovery time.

Ido Portal actually suggests two negatives to be aware of. The first being this same error of injudiciously punishing your body and foolishly accumulating long-term damage.

Once, in conversation with a Japanese Wado Sensei (who no longer lives in the UK), over his pint he lamented the training methods we were put through in the 1970’s and 1980’s, “The body can’t take that amount of punishment for long, eventually it will catch up on you” he said shaking his head.

Ido Portal’s second negative is not enough movement. This is an even bigger problem, mainly because it is so insidious and difficult to guard against, it sneaks up on you and you are just not aware of it. This recent lock-down experience for many has let the devil down the chimney. It’s so easy to let atrophy set in, and the damage is done and you won’t even know it until it’s too late, and even then you will probably let the real thief off the hook and blame something else, ‘Oh, it’s my age’, ‘Oh, it’s my underlying conditions, my genetic disposition’ etc, etc, and so the list goes on. Ido really does believe that ‘motion is the only lotion’.

Basic beneficial practice that anyone can do.

Ido Portal strongly recommends two exercises that if built up over time can have surprisingly positive effects.

Firstly; just squatting on your haunches; it’s actually what we were built for and we robbed ourselves of the benefits by inventing chairs. Thirty minutes every day, and not even thirty consecutive minutes, five minutes here, five minutes there is enough. The positive effects on this will be a beneficial manipulation of the back and pelvis, as well as the knees and ankles. There are additional bonuses which impact on digestion.

The second exercise asks a little more in terms of equipment or situation, and this is just hanging from a bar; no pull-ups, just stretched out and extended. There are so many benefits including counteracting the accumulated effects of gravity on your structure. In both exercises we are actively (or passively) working around gravity.

Why failure can be a positive thing.

Although failure can sometimes be a crushing experience, there is so much to be gained from exploring the zone of failure. Often, we find that failing to do something encourages growth (as the Stoics said, it’s the attitude we chose to adopt after failure that tends to chew away at us – and it is a choice).

Ido worships at the shrine of failure.

A typical Ido Portal ‘failure’ challenge.

This involves taking a tennis ball, throwing it against a wall and trying and return it with your fist; see how many times you can knock it backwards and forwards. It’s not impossible, just challenging, and you will fail over and over again.

Eventually you will experience some success and may even get good at it, but, if you reach that point, you may as well stop, because the objective is not to get good at it; the objective is to explore that zone of challenge and failure. That one practice teaches you so much about your body; about adjustments, coordination, control, spatial awareness, footwork and a whole host of other things, and also teaching you something about yourself and your mental attitude towards challenge. It is essentially a growth experience and we as human beings should be engaging such experiences both physically and intellectually.

Conclusion.

Conor McGregor was a smart man in engaging the services of Ido Portal. Short snippets of the training practices show how eager McGregor was to take on board Ido’s ideas; commentators and opponents said that it was clear that his style of movement changed.

Ido Portal’s journey from martial arts to pure movement is an excellent exemplar of the evolution of human ideas manifested through the physical mode. This is high-brow physicality, and to my mind it is not at odds with the more sophisticated martial arts; specifically, where there is such a high demand for self-knowledge and body awareness.

Tim Shaw

Ido Portal, Image credit; London Real, Brian Rose.

Martial Artists Past and Present.

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What did the martial artists of the past have that we don’t have today?

I don’t think it is possible to give definitive answers to this question, but it’s worth asking the question anyway.

There are many amazing and literally unbelievable stories about martial arts masters from the past, and some of them not so very far distant from the current age. For example; is it true or even possible for Ueshiba Morihei founder of Aikido to willingly stand in front of a military firing squad at a distance of about seventy-five feet and, at the moment they pulled the trigger, some were swept off their feet and Ueshiba ended up miraculously standing behind them! And just to prove a point, he did it twice! Shioda Gozo, Aikido Sensei says he witnessed this. [1].

Some of the tales from the more distant history are just as amazing.

Even if we take these stories with an enormous pinch of salt, stripping away the propaganda and the myth building, surely, there’s no smoke without fire? Two percent of that kind of ability would be more than enough. They must have had something?

It has to be said that the background to these kinds of stories is presented to us in a landscape that is so very remote from our own.

I suppose a key question is; is it possible for someone in the modern age, living a 21st century lifestyle to achieve anything like the semi-miraculous skills of the likes of Ueshiba Morihei in Japan, or Yang Luchan (patriarch the Yang school of Tai Chi) in China. Logically, if such skills exist, it may well be possible to attain such abilities in the current age, but it is weighed down with an almost unsurmountable number of negatives.

Allow me to present a speculative list of advantages these historical superheroes may have had in their favour, and then run a few comparisons.

But there are some significant challenges; beginning with the task of imagining yourself in the cultural landscape of the far east maybe a hundred years ago or even further back. This is a tough call for Westerners, as we have to peel away our own cultural understandings and inhabit the mindset of people half a world away, existing on cultural accretions that sit upon thousands of years of history, but please bear with me.

First of all, I want to present you with a puzzle that would be a useful starting place:

The possibility of rapid development.

If we take Japanese Old School (Koryu) Budo as an example, and we understand that there existed a well-established stratum of advancement; traditionally acknowledged by the presentation of sequence of certificates and eventually ending with a certification scroll that acknowledged ‘Full Transmission’, i.e. mastery of the system. That in itself could be considered a grand statement with a massive responsibility sitting on the shoulders of the recipient, the expectations are enormous, surely?

But, researchers reveal that these scrolls of ‘full transmission’ were sometimes offered to individuals with only a couple of decades of practice! I refer anyone who doubts this to Ellis Amdur’s book ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’. You have to ask yourself, how is that even possible?

In the recent ‘Shu Ha Ri’ lectures (mentioned in my blog post ‘Budo and Morality’) old time Aikidoka George Ledyard, when talking about the abilities of modern Aikido people (comparable to Ueshiba) poured cold water on an argument often brought forward in Aikido circles that if you train long enough, eventually you will ‘get it’ (something I have also heard said in Wado). In the interview Ledyard clearly called bullshit on that argument; to paraphrase; he said that they’ve had Aikido in the USA for over fifty years and still nobody can do ‘it’! I am going to be careful here as to what constitutes ‘it’. I’m not talking about fireballs of Chi emanating from fingertips; just effortless mastery and control is enough.

So, what is so very different? Let me put a few conjectural musings before you, in no particular order.

Proliferation.

In Japan in the 19th and early 20th century a huge number of mostly young men studied some form of martial art (it became part of the school system). These arts had evolved into a commodity with a price. Previously the martial arts were the domain of the warrior class, now, because of the abolition of this same class, out of work warriors found a niche living teaching anyone who would pay. (A good example of this is found in the detailed ledgers of lessons taught and fees charged by Ueshiba’s Daito Ryu teacher Takeda Sokaku.)

There was an awful lot of it about.

As a snapshot of the time; in his key formative years (pre Wado) the founder of Wado Ryu Karate-Do, Otsuka Sensei is said to have extensively sampled the huge proliferation of Dojo within a small area of Tokyo.

I think it is fair to assume that within this system there must have been a highly competitive filtration mechanism at work and it must have been very rough and tumble. To illustrate this point you have to wonder why it was that Otsuka Sensei would consider making a living out of treating predominantly martial arts related injuries? (At one point, Otsuka believed that this was an area worthy of supplying him with an income, but his teaching successes ultimately changed his trajectory).

Sanctioned Practice.

While it is apparent that the weapon training aspect of traditional Japanese martial arts struggled to survive (Naginata as an art was kept alive by the skin of its teeth mainly through the stubbornness of a few single-minded female protagonists) the empty-handed specialisms were adopted and subsumed by the powerhouse of the developing culture of what was to become Kodokan Judo. Judo, of course had a USP of being a ‘safe’ competitive format (see my blogpost on ‘Sanitisation’) and a builder of character, very much in line with progressive ideas developing within Japan at that time.

Even before that happened martial arts were considered part of the culture, and the Japanese have always been big on their culture, with a high regard for the arts and crafts and a special place for the artisans, and, it could be argued that the martial arts teachers were ‘artisans’. It may not be what an aspiring Japanese mother of the early Meiji Era might want for her son, but it still had the potential to provide respect and some form of status.

Lifestyle.

Looking at ancestors, either ours in the west or the equivalent in the far east, and, taking into account their social constraints, aspirations, outlook, mobility and world view, their bandwidth was pretty limited, compared to ours.

Theoretically our particular ‘bandwidth’ is huge, or at least it should be. For us, it’s not just the Internet, it’s education and all manner of loftier aspirations (being told what we should aspire towards) all supported by modern mechanisms, the structural framework of the society we live in and how we are kept secure by infrastructures that protect us from harm and ensure we are healthy.

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work, but very recently things have become, to say the least, ‘challenging’, which in a way has highlighted some of the flaws in our current system.

Research has shown that this arguably ‘widened’ bandwidth is causing an actual shortening of our attention span, resulting in us leaping from one stimulus to another; one item of clickbait, and yet more irresistible reaffirmations on social media to boost our feeling of worth. Critics say this is actually dumbing us down and even restricting our brain power [2].

In the modern age the pressures of work leave less time to pursue other activities. In terms of martial art training in the west, anyone who trains twice a week is doing well and has probably established a good balance. Three times a week and people may say you are hardcore, any more than that and you’d probably be classed as an obsessive.

But this is so incredibly lightweight compared to someone like Shotokan Sensei Kanzawa Hirokazu who’s university training included multiple training sessions in one day! Or the Uchi-Deshi; the live-in students of Ueshiba Morihei, who not only had their daily training but were sometimes woken up in the middle of the night to be tossed around the Dojo by Ueshiba Sensei.

In historical Japan discipline and dedication were parts of the fabric of society, as were the virtues of hard graft and perfection of character through whatever it was you chose to dedicate your time, or even your life to.

Physicality.

The physicality of the early martial arts protagonists came out of a different lifestyle; even more so in rural areas, they were said to have ‘farmer’s bodies’. Ueshiba was a big believer in the physical benefits of tough labouring on the land and used it as personal training. There was definitely a culture of physical conditioning in the Edo period martial artists, photographs of Judo’s Mifune Sensei as a young man show a very impressive sculptured physique. Otsuka Sensei was said to have been keen on strengthening his grip, though his attitude to knuckle conditioning was somewhat ambiguous.

And then there is the issue of diet… A traditional old style Japanese diet has got so much going for it. It doesn’t mean that they were living in a health food utopia; for example; because of certain farming practices involving the use of human waste, internal parasites were surprisingly common. However, even with that, compared to our heavy use of sugars, processed foods and dairy products, they were by and large pretty healthy.

Longevity.

This has been a particular interest of mine. To take as an example; if you look at the lifespans of senior practitioners of the arts that use as a USP their health promoting benefits, e. g. Tai Chi with associated Chi Gung, it’s not particularly impressive. I have tried to dig into this but the statistics are a nightmare, particularly when it comes to average lifespans, mainly because of a lack of reliable information and infant mortality stats messing up the metrics.

But examined broadly, it doesn’t look great. Even with extreme outliers like the miraculous Li Ching Yuen. He was a Chinese herbalist and martial artist who it is claimed was born in 1677 and only died in 1933, making him 256 years old! Look into the supposed facts around his life and it begins to appear slightly suspicious.

On more than one occasion I have heard Japanese Wado teachers mention that practices found in other named karate systems are guaranteed to shorten your life, and a cursory look at the available evidence from those systems seem to support that idea, but even that doesn’t really tell you the full story. It has been said that some Japanese Sensei who come to the west seem to suffer from the negative effects of the western diet. Similar things are actually happening inside Japan; with the import of western food trends causing medical conditions to develop that used to be rare in Japan. Obviously, something that needs more research.

The lottery that is longevity can be skewed in your favour, if you lead a lifestyle devoid of extremes, striving for moderation in all things, then you have a better chance at living to a great age, but that of course is in competition with your genetic inheritance. Aforementioned Kanazawa Hirokazu pushed his body incredibly hard as a young man, potentially inflicting much early cellular damage to his system, yet still lived to be 88 years old. Mind you, Kanazawa adapted his training later in life to be kinder to his body, and he took up Tai Chi. But maybe his whole family line were predisposed to good health and longevity?

Speculative conclusion.

There is no definitive conclusion, only speculation.

Try as I might, I struggled to find any statistics that indicated martial arts participation in the UK, never mind about world-wide. Besides, what does that even mean? What even counts as a ‘martial art’? It would be really interesting to compare it to martial arts participation in Japan in the opening years of the 20th century.

I think it’s a fair guess to assume that the preponderance of martial arts in Japan in those early days would ensure some kind of higher waterline than in the modern world (well, at least I hope so). If we take the seemingly fast-track roadway to ‘complete mastery’ in 19th and early 20th century Japan as a truism, then that surely supports the argument – they weren’t giving Menkyo Kaiden (full transmission) away with Cornflake box tops and there had to be something going on! [3]

It’s true that they didn’t have the level of information at their fingertips in those days that we do today – but surely, it’s not the information, it’s what you do with it that counts.

In the modern era we are becoming further and further detached from the generation of masters who could actually ‘do it’, and if there are people out there who are on that level then they are side-lined by popularism. I cite as a possible example, Kuroda Tetsuzan (‘Who?’ I hear you say. It is ironic that his sparse, minimalistic Wikipedia entry speaks volumes, without saying very much at all.)

I suppose it all boils down to; who in the modern age is prepared to go beyond the mere hobbyist level and dedicate time and effort into an in-depth study of the martial art, supported of course by a Sensei who really does know their stuff?

Tim Shaw

[1] ‘Invincible Warrior’ John Stevens 1997 Shambhala Publications, pages 61 to 62. Other sources (Shioda’s biography) tell the story in more detail and mention that the marksmen were armed with pistols. At a guess, this incident was pre-war, possibly in the 1930’s. Shioda inevitably questioned Ueshiba, asking him how he did it? Ueshiba’s answer was as mysterious as the acts themselves, but he seemed to suggest that he was able to slow time down. Both times, one man was swept off his feet; the first time it was the man who Ueshiba said had initiated the first shot; the second time it was the officer who gave the command.

[2] Numerous modern commentators have railed against the ‘dumbing down’ that is happening. Google, John Taylor Gatto or Andrew Keen, but there are many other examples that perhaps don’t contain political bias.

[3] I am aware that there is a political dimension to the Menkyo Kaiden, certainly as it appears in the contemporary scene, which to me makes perfect sense.

Image: Author’s own collection.

Is Stoicism useful to martial artists?

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Apparently, sales of books about Stoicism have rocketed during the pandemic. Why would there be a surge in interest about a school of ancient philosophy which is over 2000 years old?

Maybe, because one of the specific skill-sets associated with the Stoics is dealing with adversity; which is exactly why the Stoics may well have something to offer martial artists.

It is strange how the word ‘Stoic’ is used today. When you hear of anyone described as behaving stoically, it usually suggests that they are putting up with bad experiences or bad times in an uncomplaining way, or displaying zero emotion, or perhaps indifference to pain, grief (or even happiness). This is a little misleading and over-simplistic, and on its own, not particularly useful.

For anyone who has not heard of Stoicism before, a potted history may be necessary.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy originating in ancient Greece and enthusiastically embraced by key individuals in the later Roman Empire. It was established in the 3rd century BCE by Zeno of Citium in the city of Athens. Its main themes were the search for wisdom, virtue and human perfection.

After the Greeks it was eagerly embraced in ancient Rome, first by Seneca (4BCE – 65CE) a writer, politician and philosopher who was heavily embroiled in the politics associated with emperors Claudius and Nero and miraculously escaping two death sentences. Seneca’s ‘Letters from a Stoic’ is one of my go-to reads, an amazingly modern sounding set of conversations coming out of the long-distant past.

Stoicism was then picked up by Epictetus (50CE – 135CE) an educated Greek slave who lived in Rome, but was later exiled to Greece. He left no direct writings, but had one faithful disciple, Arrian, who dutifully wrote everything down.

Perhaps one of the most famous and accessible of the Stoics was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121CE – 180CE). Anyone who has seen the movie ‘Gladiator’ may remember that Marcus Aurelius appeared in the very early part of the movie played by Richard Harris, and although he actually did die of unknown causes whilst on a military campaign at the age of 58, it was unlikely it was at the hands of his son and successor Commodus, as the movie suggests, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Marcus Aurelius was the last of the great and virtuous Roman emperors. Fortunately for us, he left behind a book, now titled, ‘Meditations’ and it is this book of Stoic wisdom that has been snapped up in the recent Covid year.

I had wondered if any modern martial artists had picked up on the Stoics? While there are a few online references, the tone very much suggested to me a misappropriation and over-simplified cherry picking; reminding me of how a particular disreputable 20th century fascist regime (who will not be mentioned) misappropriated and misunderstood the writings of Fredrich Nietzsche. 

Yes, some of the writings of the Stoics seem to suggest a kind of toughness, but Stoicism is a bigger package, involving elements of compassion and love. This perceived ‘toughness’ emanates from the Stoics’ detailed dissection of human motivation and how we should respond to the trials of just living. What is really of value, matched against what is trivial and not worthy of our attention.

It is a very pragmatic, workable philosophy. I often wonder if boxer Mike Tyson may perhaps have been influenced by the Stoics when he said, “Everyone has a plan, ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” That might have come straight out of Marcus Aurelius’’ ‘Meditations’. He would have liked that.

There are many cross-overs between Stoicism and Buddhism, as well as Confucianism. It is a strange coincidence but scholars have pointed out that all of these great thinkers sprang up at almost exactly the same time in human history, but in places with no obvious geographical or cultural connections (Persia, India, China and Greco-Roman culture). Philosopher Karl Jaspers called it the ‘Axial Age’. The cross-overs are indeed uncanny, but I can’t help thinking that civilisations reached a particular pitch in their development which supplied the right nutrients for these philosophies to grow.

There is far too much on this theme for one blog post, but I will supply one example which is relevant to martial artists.

Stoicism is often referred to by modern behavioural psychotherapists, who tend to use a very close variation of this particular pattern of Stoic thinking.

(This comes from a recent podcast interview with psychotherapist Donald Robertson, information at the foot of this post.)

The ancient origin of this go back to a mischievous commentary engaged in by Socrates (considered to be one of the root thinkers of Stoicism) and dealing with the subject of managing adversity.

One day, Socrates said that he was incredibly disappointed with the way the heroes of Greek dramas coped with adverse situations, and that they’d nearly always got it wrong. His young companion asked him, ‘how so?’. Socrates then gave four pieces of advice on how to cope with bad situations.

  1. When bad stuff happens how do you know it won’t actually turn out for the better in the long run? To explain; maybe that job you didn’t get was not really for you and the next job is really the one that will launch you into a more positive future. Or, that girlfriend that you broke up with, actually did you a favour?
  2. If it already hurts, why voluntarily add on another layer of suffering by indulging in your own misery? (He’s not against regret or even grief, but if it goes on and on, then you are into another realm altogether, in the modern age it would probably described as clinical depression). Incidentally ‘venting’ is also of limited use; again, it can become habit forming.
  3. Although to you, in that moment, it is the end of the world; but in the grand scheme of things it may well be microscopic (depending on severity of course).
  4. Anger or freaking out may give you energy, but it actually inhibits clear rational thinking, which is actually the very thing you need to make yourself useful in a crisis. If it is your habit to fire up your adrenal glands to respond ‘positively’ then you’ve got it wrong. Over time, that particular habit will kill you. Some martial artists think that the fire of anger is useful, and train to artificially ‘switch it on’, –  big mistake.

Of course, all of the above comes with a disclaimer; i.e. it depends on the situation and how extreme it is, not to put too fine a point on it, but, terminal is terminal, but even then, you still have choices. One of my heroes, Michel De Montaigne once said that the measure of a man is how he conducts himself when the ‘bucket is nearly empty’.

I recently re-read Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. He chimes clearly with the Stoics and supports their idea that even in the worst of situations, you still have choices, you still have control. You can choose how you want to view the situation and you can choose how you want to react to it; even resignation is a choice.

Now put that into a Covid scenario. What is really interesting is how people choose to respond to Covid.

What would the Stoics have made of our Covid days?

Well, for a start, it wouldn’t have been anything outside of their experience. Socrates experienced a catastrophic plague at the age of 38 while serving as an infantryman. Likewise, Marcus Aurelius had to deal with the deadly Antonine plague which started in 165 CE and finally blew itself out in 180CE, with an estimated death toll of between five and ten million, located within a relatively restricted area, all of this at a time when they had none of the tools we have. With the Antonine plague (which was probably Smallpox) there was a dramatic shift in social structure, because, like Covid, it was indiscriminate, but inevitably was the scourge of the poorer classes. Having said that, Marcus Aurelius had to rapidly promote people from the lower orders, even freeing slaves, to ensure the infrastructure was able to operate. This was a perfect opportunity for a Stoic emperor to show what he was made of. Very much the Stoic ideal of changing what you can change, and not obsessing about what you can’t.

Yes, the Stoics taught resilience and a deep examination of human affairs, take these examples from Marcus Aurelius:

“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears”. (Obviously this not necessarily about physical injury.)

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life”.

And a particular favourite of mine and one to really ponder, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”. And this from a man who knew about combat, both individual and large scale.

My view; there is much to learn from the Stoics.

Tim Shaw

Links:
Mo Gawdat podcast, talking to Donald Robertson about psychotherapy and Stoicism (says ‘Part 2’, but it’s really Part 1). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8PH-DL5AI8

Marcus Aurelius ‘Meditations’ on Amazon.

Epictetus on Amazon.

Featured image: A marble bust of Marcus Aurelius at the Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse, France. By Pierre-Selim – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954 (detail).

Budo and Morality.

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Morality in Japanese Budo tends to be plagued with confusion and contradictions; not least of which is the concept of a warrior art used to promote peace. I am fairly sure that in this blogpost I am not going to be able untangle the knots; but perhaps I can add some new perspectives on this tricky issue.

I have to admit to wanting to write something on this theme for a long time but I have always swerved away from it; probably for the very same reason that many others seem to have avoided it.

I think that the main reason that people tend to duck discussing morality and Budo is the very same reason that people don’t feel comfortable discussing morality, full stop. Nobody is happy climbing on to anything that looks like a moral pedestal and have the spotlight shine upon them and risk looking like a hypocrite.

With me it is exactly the same, in that I don’t feel qualified or worthy enough to occupy that particular pulpit.

Introducing the subject of morality is a bit like the taboo around discussing politics and religion over the dinner table; two subjects guaranteed to spoil a good evening.

In the martial arts, I cannot think of any of the Sensei I have trained under who have been inclined to, or felt comfortable, climbing on to the moral soapbox. For the same reasons listed above.
Armenian mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866 – 1949) once said, “If you want to lose your Faith, make friends with a priest”. For me, that sums it up nicely.

However, I do believe that it is possible to tiptoe through that particular minefield and remain objective about morality in Budo.

In part, the reason for me writing this now is after recently viewing a series of on-line discussions with eminent Western traditional martial artists and, although their main theme was ‘Shu Ha Ri’, they often strayed into the thorny area of morality within Budo and the development of ‘moral character’. If you have six hours spare you can follow the link below.

It is said that in traditional Japanese Budo the Morality rules are literally woven into the fabric. I use as an example the traditional divided skirt, the Hakama. This garment has seven pleats, with each one said to represent the ’Virtues’ sought within Budo, these are the guiding moral principles. Some people say there are seven, others say five, but for convenience I will stick with the seven model. These seven are:

  1. Yuki – Courage.
  2. Jin – Humanity.
  3. Gi – Justice or Righteousness.
  4. Rei – Etiquette or Courtesy.
  5. Makoto – Sincerity or Honesty.
  6. Chugi – Loyalty.
  7. Meiyo – Honour.

These are described as ‘Virtues’ rather than as components of a moral code. The word Virtue is a better fit because in the west the concept of being moral tends to lead you in a slightly different direction than the Japanese model. Being ‘moral’ in the West has too much baggage, a hint of the fluffy bunny feeling about it. Either that or it is associated with po-faced condemnatory Victorianism.

Rather, the suggestion here is a person of ‘Virtue’ or with ‘Virtues’, or, alternatively, ‘Qualities’, but these must be positive qualities.

But there are a number of things within the traditional list of Budo virtues that don’t translate well. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, because the translations, like the Kanji, are multifaceted and have to fit into a Japanese cultural and linguistic framework.

Secondly; these martial arts virtues are the product of an Edo Period mindset, or even further back. Clearly the social structures and the mental landscapes of warriors in that particular place and at that particular time are far removed from the way we live today.

Even the translation of what would seem a fairly self-explanatory concept offers up some questions.

I will address one example, not directly mentioned in the above list, but certainly connected to it. (and this is a person reflection):

From my experience, nobody under fifty years of age ever seems to use the word ‘honour’ anymore, let alone adhere deliberately to the concept. ‘honour’ only sees the light of day in the most negative of circumstances, as an example, the concept of ‘honour killings’, how did that happen?

In much the same way as, in today’s social interactions, no man is ever referred to as being a ‘gentleman’. Similarly, across the genders. I cite as an example this observation: For many years I worked as a teacher in a Catholic girls school, and it always amused me when I saw young girls being chided by female teachers for ‘un-ladylike behaviour’, what does that even mean today? I suppose you could talk about the same behaviour as being ‘undignified’, but even that word has worn a little thin these days. (I refer you to the justifications given by St. Miley of Cyrus for the contentious ‘Wrecking Ball’ video, of which I have only heard about, of course.)

I am old enough to remember when two ‘gentlemen’ shook hands over a deal it was this symbolic act and their ‘honour’ that sealed it. It all seems to have disappeared from the world of commerce and is only seen on the sports field.

Another example from the modern lexicon is the word ‘respect’, which seems to have been warped and weaponised and is permissible to function as a one-way street. This is particularly noticeable in urban slang.

But to return to the above listed Japanese Virtues.

‘Jin’ as ‘Humanity, also has a very nuanced meaning in Japan.

Yes, it does refer to the ideals of a care and consideration of other humans beyond yourself, but also ‘Jin’ is a model of humanity perfected; we all aspire to be ‘Jin’, or at least we should be. From my observation the Japanese concept of humanity is similar to Nietzsche’s model in ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’; of Man suspended on a tightrope caught between his animalistic nature and his God-like Divine potential. ‘Jin’ is that Divine Potential realised. It is Man perfectly positioned in the universe as the sole conduit between Heaven (the universe) and Earth. It is the triad of ‘Ten, Chi, Jin’.

For convenience sake, Morals, Virtues and Values can all be tied together into one bundle.

Regarding Values; there has been a relatively recent push towards looking for values shared across cultures; values for the whole of humanity. As we work towards an idealised global community this was considered a goal worth striving for. But it’s not as easy as it looks.

The dominance of Judeo-Christian culture and ideals over the last 1000 years has pretty much set the standards for what we understand as moral behaviour (and values) and has achieved a world-wide monopoly on what is acceptable and desirable. But we have to remember that Judeo-Christian culture is the new boy on the block.

Other cultures had been hammering out their moral codes for thousands of years before Judeo-Christian models appeared on the scene, and it is quite often at variance to what we would now deem acceptable. As an example; activities condoned in ancient Greece and Rome would cause shrieks of horror in modern Western society.

Further east, Chinese culture was blossoming when we in Europe were hitting each other over the head with sticks. Chuang Tzu in 200 BCE was wrestling with advanced philosophical problems of human consciousness (See, ‘The Butterfly Dream’) and the Han Chinese at the same period had advanced tax systems, hydraulics and machines with belt drives; while at the same time in Britain we were embroiled in Iron Age tribal brutality and cattle stealing, and then along came Christianity and everything was alright! (Sarcasm alert).

Morality still has an important role to play in contemporary martial arts, even though the world has moved on and the fabric of society has changed and continues to do so at a terrifying rate. The nature of martial arts study in the modern age inevitably involves people and wherever human interaction occurs we are better working towards common goals for the improvement of society. We are living examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

How about a campaign to restore the word ‘Honour’ and claim back the word ‘Respect’?

Respect to you all.

Tim Shaw

Shu Ha Ri Discussion.

Featured image: Author’s own collection.

Smoke and Mirrors.

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It is said that magic ceases to be magic once it is explained; although the late fantasy author Terry Pratchett contradicted this with, “It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works.” I think I know what he means.

At an objective and scientific level this is the difference between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’.

Martial art skills often appear to be supernatural, where the masters are in possession of abilities that seem to be out of reach for the average person in the street; this is part of the mystique, a million fantasies have been built on this idea.

However, there are times when refined and developed technique seems to confound the mind and contradict the physical world, whether it’s Bruce Lee’s one-inch punch or Aikido’s ‘unbendable arm’ (See my previous blog post ‘On Things ‘Chi’ and ‘Ki’’).

Without allowing myself to be diverted, there has been some quiet rumblings about the more subtle aspects of Wado technique and, for the cognoscenti, a suggestion perhaps that there is more going on under the hood than the recent Gendai Budo incarnations seem to imply. And, as such, I want to shine a light into an obscure oddity that may have a peripheral connection to aspects of Wado technique (as I understand them), via a tortuous route – please bear with me.

I have been sitting on this for quite some time and thought I would share it with you*. It may be nothing, it may be something. It may even be an excellent illustration of the human capacity for boundless curiosity, and what can come out of it. You can make your own mind up.

Lulu Hurst was to all intents and purposes, outwardly an unremarkable young woman, born in Polk County, Georgia USA in 1869, daughter of a Baptist preacher, but overnight, as a teenager, she became a high earning freakish phenomenon who confounded the paying public with her jaw-dropping feats.

Dubbed ‘The Georgia Wonder’ she performed impossible acts of human strength. When asked where her skills came from the slightly built Lulu said they came as a result of her being caught in an electric storm, she was a supernatural human miracle. Even the great Harry Houdini was initially puzzled as to where this phenomenal strength came from.

Lulu was able to take the weight and strength of a number of men, often through a chair or a staff, and with only a light touch displace the resisting men. She was often completely immovable, no matter how much pressure was applied. When I first heard this story it started ring bells with me; where had I come across similar phenomena?

And then I recalled stories, anecdotes of comparable abilities being demonstrated by the founder of Aikido Ueshiba Morihei. He would hold out a Jo and ask his students to try and move it – sounds easy, but try as they might they couldn’t shift it. No explanations were given, or if they were, they were shrouded in mystical obfuscation.

Over time more of these unexplainable phenomena appeared on my radar – even with the possibility of conscious or unconscious compliance it seemed that there was something there.

But Lulu retired after only two years; she’d made her money and at the tender age of sixteen she ran off and married her manager.

Years later Lulu admitted what she had really been up to; which in my mind was no less of a wonder, but certainly there was no magical ‘electrical storm’, something much more ‘grounded’ was at work.

She finally confessed it all in her autobiography. It wasn’t the product of some great revelation; she just came across it by accident.

Her first realisation was when she held a billiard cue horizontally in front of her at chest height and invited someone to push with all their might, to try and knock her over; they couldn’t! She developed it to such a degree that a whole bunch of hefty guys could push on it and STILL couldn’t dislodge her! Then she really got into showmanship, and performed the same trick standing on one leg!

From this beginning she developed a whole array of ‘tests of strength’. What is surprising though is that initially even she didn’t know how it was done.

She was smart enough to deny the supernatural and set about studying what was really going on. The level to which she was puzzled by her own ability is illustrated by the fact that her manager/husband had asked her repeatedly to teach him how to do it, but she couldn’t, because she didn’t know herself.

Finally, she did figure it out, through studying mechanics and physics. To keep it really simple the first trick, with the billiard cue, came out of her ability to read and direct the energy of the resistance and send it into… nothing, the men were not engaging with her at all.

Houdini spotted it, but it took him a while. As the master of illusion and physical manipulation himself, it was only a matter of time.

She became more adept at these forms of manipulation, and added all of this to her act.

Does this make Lulu Hurst any less remarkable? No, not in the least.

You can read her autobiography for yourself, but be warned, it’s a slog of a read, couched in the flowery language of the time. It is called, predictably and unimaginatively; ‘Lulu Hurst (The Georgia Wonder) Writes Her Autobiography’ 1897.

To reiterate; human curiosity and the ability to explore and expand beyond the realms of what is normally accepted really does know no bounds.

Tim Shaw

*The first time I ran this idea by anyone was in communication with a now disgraced famous UK karate historian back in the 1990’s. He seemed to think I was on to something.

Photo credits:
Illustration of Lulu Hurst chair act, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 26th, 1884. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/file/11051

Black and white photographs of Lulu Hurst: credit, ‘Lulu Hurst (The Georgia Wonder) Writes Her Autobiography’ 1897. Free of restrictions on copyright.

Bad Apples.

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Book Review: ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’.

I have to admit to spending an awful long time mulling over what it is with the human race that makes us such a toxic species, with our proclivity towards violence and seemingly unplumbed depths of out and out badness.

I remember being convinced that everyone one of us has the capacity for unspeakable savagery and that the veneer of civilisation is so very thin. Now my opinion has changed considerably; all down to one book, ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman.

I had read Bregman’s previous book ‘Utopia For Realists: And How We Can Get There’ and was impressed. Bregman seems to be one of those people who are prepared to not accept everything at face value AND to think outside the box. In addition to that, he will call foul if he sees it, as he did with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, (Google it!). And shaming the Davos delegates; “Almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance…and of the rich not paying their fair share” . [Link]

Bregman is great at presenting the evidence and supplying concrete examples of how things have been done differently. But in this latest book he goes further.

Humans are hard-wired to see the worst in people and societies have further hard-wired themselves to expect the worst of the whole of humanity. Bregman explains how this has all been of use to us and how it’s been cynically exploited; from; ‘original sin’ to group culpability and the fear of the outsider. But the evidence suggests that if push came to shove we are also hard-wired towards compassion and amazing acts of cooperation and generosity. We are pretty awesome!

In his book Bregman deconstructs the premise of William Golding’s novel, ‘Lord of the Flies’, and proves that in a real situation the complete opposite would happen (and it did, in 1965, when a group of schoolboys were stranded on an island for fifteen months). Bregman says that our ‘superpower is cooperation’. He also examined the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 and called it out as baloney, the same with the Stanley Milgram ‘Electric Shock’ experiment of 1961. It looks to me like not only does a whole bunch of English Lit. commentaries on ‘Lord of the Flies’ have to be re-written but also lots of psychology text books!

We’re not completely off the hook though; the concept of ‘empathy’ takes a bashing, and additional bad news is that we can’t unweave the societies we constructed; but, perhaps, by reading Bregman’s book we can at least understand how our motivations work.

A chapter titled; ‘Homo Ludens’ (Man at play) really cheered me up, as it chimed with things that occurred to me gradually over years of working with children (the open-endedness of ‘play’ I mentioned in a previous blog post, here.)

It’s not that difficult to connect Bregman’s optimism to concepts found within Japanese Budo. Recently re-reading Otsuka Hironori’s book, particularly the section, ‘Analects of the Instructor’ it was obvious to me that master Otsuka’s underpinning philosophy was founded upon peace and the bringing of peoples together. In fact, if you deconstruct the Kanji for ‘Wa’, normally understood as ‘harmony’, and take it back to its basic pictographic level you would struggle to find a better example to sum up the spirit of the ‘super power’ of cooperation, with its allusion to the collaborative and civilising mechanisms found in agrarian societies. In Dave Lowry’s book, ‘Sword and Brush: The Spirit of the Martial Arts’, there is a description of ‘Wa’ from Japanese tea ceremony devotees, Harmony (‘Wa’) is, “the capacity to get along with others, to sublimate the self for a greater cohesion within the larger social nexus”. The image for ‘Wa’ is of a pliant healthy rice sprout positioned next to the symbol for a mouth; either representing ‘feeding’ or just civil discourse and communicating, or a combination of both.

To literally restore your faith in humanity, I would thoroughly recommend that you pick up this book and reflect on the wider implications of Bregman’s observations. It could not be more apt, particularly in the times we are living and with the vague possibility of a re-think of our values and systems in a post-Covid world.

Tim Shaw

The Wisdom of the Architects.

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What architects can tell us about kata.

I think there is much to be gained from approaching a well-known subject from a completely different angle. Kata has been the backbone of everything we do within Wado karate; it’s the text book we all return to, particularly when we are working to get to the heart of our martial system. It is everything; a receptacle, a framework, a compressed and concentrated format for us to explore, move through, or dwell upon; all qualities you may find in a superior piece of architecture. And, like amazing architecture, it may be inspired by pure Principle, but it is still a man-made construction, carefully designed and thought-through and meant to last.

Both kata and architecture have form and function; though, for many people, the initial focus for both kata and architecture tends to be on the form; function has a tendency to be a secondary consideration. But really, both of these aspects should be given equal status, and there are other qualities, harder to pin down, also of major importance.

Many years ago, I was in conversation with an architecture student. I’d asked him what were considered to be the most important factors when designing a building? He replied with one word, “Flow”. This was the ability for people to move in, out and through the building.

It certainly wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but it changed my appreciation and understanding of every great building I have since visited.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is to be found in the 2014 National Geographic ‘Bird’s Nest Stadium vs The Colosseum’ documentary ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVfQdjpXa4k ) where computer simulation compares the efficiency of the evacuation process of these two great buildings, separated by nearly 2000 years. Spoiler alert – It seems that the Roman architects did rather well and certainly understood ‘flow’.

A long time back, when I was a student of design, I came across the work of the Swiss-French designer and architect known as Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965). Initially I was drawn towards his ‘Modulor’, this was a calculation model that took into consideration the proportions of the human body to work out optimum living space; which again could chime comfortably with considerations of the design of kata; but, for the sake of this comparison I find another of Le Corbusier’s insights particularly pertinent, his description of a house being “a machine for living” (1927 manifesto); it provides us with a potential paradigm shift when looking at kata.

Try this thought; ‘Wado kata is a machine for human movement’? Or, ‘Wado kata is a machine for fighting’? Of course, depending on your predilection, you could tag on any number of concepts that would work for you.

But what of the spaces, the gaps, the shifts between ‘A’ and ‘B’?

Here I could dip into a much older source; Lao Tzu ‘Tao Te Ching’ (4th century BCE).

“A jar is formed from clay,
but its usefulness lies in the empty centre.
A room is made from four walls,
but its usefulness lies in the space between.”

Le Corbusier would have found that quote resonated with his own thoughts.

Certainly, the use of open or ‘empty’ spaces in Japanese Zen-inspired art is a highly refined utilisation of not shying away from the void.

The same could be said about another architect; Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959). It is said that he was able to create buildings which upon entering filled people with an ineffable sense of awe; but not one based on pure scale. Architecture students found it difficult to pin down, until they shifted their focus from walls, ceilings, supports etc. and looked at pure space.

Wright instinctively knew how to manipulate openness, airiness and the effects these have on the deeper levels of human consciousness. I experienced this myself in a museum reconstruction of a Frank Lloyd Wright interior in New York. Just being in this room made me want to stay, to breathe it in, I was overcome with a feeling of comfort, tranquillity and many other things besides. I was being manipulated by the architect!

Would it be too far fetched to describe the hardware, the walls, ceilings, floors as Yang; while the spaces in between are the Yin?

And what of the gaps in the kata? The spaces between the structure; the pauses in between, the apparent quiescence of the ‘Yoi’ position? The punctuations, the declarations of intent found through ‘Kiai’ (with sound or without)?

Katas become our cathedrals. Each kata is an edifice, a bringing together of ideas and resources to create a focal point. The kata also give us a sense of occasion, a place for ritual and reverence, including unashamed symbolism (the overt salutations found in kata like Bassai, Kushanku etc.)

With all the great cathedrals and temples, people bring their own psychological and physiological baggage with them, and may well attempt to refine or polish their spirit within that environment, within that framework.

It might be lazy categorisation, but I see those who look at buildings and see walls, floors and ceilings, and those who see kata as punches, blocks, kicks and the ‘making of shapes’, as ‘materialists’.

But sometimes materialists need to be put back in their box, and shouldn’t be allowed to have it their own way, to hijack the debate on kata. Yes, there is a material form to kata, for isn’t ‘form’ the literal translation of ‘kata’ – and here we could get into Otsuka Sensei’s ‘kata’ v ‘igata’ debate, but I will skip that for now.

Kata needs to be a living thing, just as buildings need to come alive through their functions. The original architects of the great buildings didn’t wholly impose their will upon the people who used them, but instead, through the spaces, galleries and chambers they created they fuelled the imagination of generations to come, who were then able to reach beyond themselves and engage with the greater project of ‘being’.

Tim Shaw

“Why does every lesson feel like ‘day one’?”

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Reflections on how karate students sometimes struggle to grasp the idea that they are progressing and improving.

When you are sat on an aeroplane; comfy and strapped into your seat; alongside lots of other people who are also passively settled in their own seats; have you ever thought about the wonderful contradiction you are experiencing? There you all are, row upon row of people, not going anywhere. But just glance at the flight progress animation in the little screen in front of you (long haul of course) and think of the vastness of the planet and the distance your plane has travelled in the last hour and then tell yourself you are not going anywhere. Of course, it’s all so ridiculous and obvious and easily dismissible.

I know everything is relative; as Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. So why do karate students sometimes get the feeling that every lesson is like day one? Why is it so difficult sometimes to observe your own progress?

Of course, it is entirely possible that no progress has been made; what is it they say, “If you always do what you always do, you’ll always get what you always get”. But, as a quote, it’s a bit of a blunt instrument. It might just be that progress is so slow that it is barely perceptible, like the hands of a clock.

There was a Dojo I used to visit quite regularly in the early 1990’s which had the same membership for many years; but when opportunities came to advance came along, be it through gradings or something else, the students shrank away. Yet week after week they came back and did the same session. Oh, they would work hard and they loved what they were doing but they just stayed the same, they never improved. Whether they thought that the penny would eventually drop, or that maybe they learned by osmosis, or whether they were just keeping fit, I never knew, they just never improved.

But then there is the other type of Dojo; which also has regular membership and attendance, coming back week after week. But, maybe, lurking at the back of their minds could be some personal doubt, “Why does it feel like I am not improving? Come to think of it, why does it feel like nobody in the Dojo is improving?” Maybe they fail to see what is right under their noses. Like the passengers in the plane, they are all there together, all on the same ride, shoulder to shoulder and all moving forward as one; all developing on their journey almost in step, in unison.

But for them, the clues are there to be found. A visitor comes to the Dojo, someone who was there a year earlier and says, “I saw these same people here a year ago – wow, haven’t they improved!”

These same students find that on bigger courses they measure up well against people of the same grade, and, as such feel pride swell in their chests. They put themselves in for grading examinations and they pass! They enter competitions and they do well!

But sometimes they still doubt themselves. In the competition, they could say to themselves, “Maybe I was just lucky that day”. In the grading, “I feel that I didn’t deserve that pass, why did they let me have it? I wasn’t even on top form”, but nobody is ever on ‘top form’! Competition wins are rarely ‘life defining’ and, as for gradings, they are just endorsements and markers along the way, neither of these are ends in themselves. If your sole objective is the next belt, or winning ‘that’ competition I would seriously question why you are even doing martial arts?

Sometimes karateka slip into the trap of Imposter Syndrome, (Definition: “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.”) I wrote about this in my previous blogpost about the ‘Dunning Kruger Effect’. A crucial element of this is that sometimes the karateka doesn’t feel like she is progressing because she is no longer in the company of inept amateurs. She is in the world of people just like her, well-practiced and skilful, and also, if she is lucky, in the company of those who are better than her, which acts as an incentive and a draw to push her to excel. Experiences and environments like that keep her constantly on her toes; this is the zone of growth.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Happy travels.

Tim Shaw