karate

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.

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).

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.

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.”.

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/

“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

Can a martial art ever be taught as an algorithm?

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Currently algorithms tend to be the fall-guys for all that is wrong in the world. People always leap towards the worst possible examples, like; would you every want a computer algorithm deciding who gets medical intervention, or is refused based on a calculated outcome? To some people algorithms ARE Skynet!

But, taken in the broadest definition we use some form of algorithm in many areas of life. In a nutshell it is ‘A’ leads to ‘B’, ‘B’ leads to ‘C’ or options branching off from any of the stages and it is really useful.

I ask this question in the context of martial arts because I have noticed a growth in algorithmic-style explanations of how some martial art systems work.

I can see the appeal of algorithms; they are accessible, predictable, understandable and communicable, all excellent things for a martial arts system to aspire to – the only weakness I see in terms of martial arts is that it’s really hard to make them measurable; but that’s for another discussion.

Building an algorithmic martial arts system is what you would do if you only had a very short period of time to prepare someone. A simplified system, stripped down, discarding all the inessentials (now where have we heard that before?). Four or five techniques repeated over and over until they are excellent would do the job. There are a number of obvious downsides to this; one being that its marketability is undermined by the boredom factor and the irony is that the ‘stripped down’ system has to build in greater complexity to make it interesting (more funky takedowns, armbars, gooseneck wrist locks etc.), and it turns into the one thing it was trying hard not to be.

In a way this follows on from a previous blogpost I had written; ‘Is your martial art complicated or complex?’

There are alternative approaches, but it depends on what your aspirations are – in fact it depends on a whole raft of things, including, how much time do you have available to invest in this? Where do your priorities lie in terms of what you want out of your martial art training? What system suits you both physically and mentally? (No, they are not all the same).

Something that is close to an algorithmic approach might be akin to taking a course in CPR or First Aid. In that instance you might be motivated by the worry of how you might be able to cope if you were unfortunate to arrive on the scene of an accident; would you be able to do the right thing? Lives might be at risk.

But let’s say you really wanted to dig deeper into this area, really wanted to become actively and positively involved in the saving of lives and human physical welfare. Surely then, if you had the opportunity and the inclination to do so you would study medicine? To do so would be to plunge deeply into what lies beneath the skin; even to looking at what operates at cellular level, with all the hours of dedication and years’ work that this involves. And for that to happen (as with all complexities) you have to go backwards before you go forwards, you have to turn over everything you thought you knew. In reality, this is a description of martial arts as a ‘Way’, a non-algorithmic ‘complex’ system; this is Budo.

Why would you want to put yourself through the long painful slog of a Budo system, one that is so arduous that you feel you are moving backwards instead of forwards, one where you are actually significantly weaker, structurally confused, coordinationally muddled and intellectually perplexed; in other words, not all that dissimilar to a first year medical student. Why would you do it?

To be clear; martial arts and everything associated with it is a physical conundrum that is engaged in by humans, not robots; fighting is not mechanistic, it is organic, it is a ‘complex system’. It is like swimming in the ocean, it’s not a two metre paddling pool.

A question that is often asked; just how do you engage with martial arts as a complexity; how does it actually work? I will have to be honest here; to answer that question I feel I really don’t have the qualifications, but I might offer some pointers. There are definitely guiding concepts that act like a map to keep you on the right road. But make no bones about it; knowing the concepts only in your head is about as useful as land swimming; this has to be done by the body and in as live a situation as is possible, while still remaining within civilised constraints of course.

To explain further:

The ‘complex’ martial art system differs from the algorithmic approach the same way that the chess computer AlphaZero was from its nearest rival Stockfish 8. For Stockfish all possible chess combinations were programmed in manually, while AlphaZero only learned the rules of chess (it took a mere 4 hours), AlphaZero then played itself through a phenomenal number of games to build up its stock of possibilities. It subsequently played a challenge match against Stockfish 8 and in a 100 games it never lost a single one. AI people say this is how human intelligence works. I would argue that this is how the ‘complex’ martial artist works. In algorithmic martial arts it’s pretty clear that you have to slip between modes, a bit like changing gear, but with a ‘complex’ Budo martial arts you are always in gear, because it’s built around a fundamental integral core of Principles, this is the nucleus of what you do, everything spirals out from that point; anything else is just nuts and bolts; even the funky takedowns, the armbars and the gooseneck locks.

The bad news is that you don’t read this stuff in a book, you don’t see it on YouTube and, unless you’ve got the eyes to REALLY see what’s going on, you certainly won’t find it in a one-off seminar.

Tim Shaw

Postscript: As an afterthought, Budo, like Medicine is not solely about the visceral stuff, both disciplines are underpinned by ethical, philosophical and moral considerations (in medicine it is reflected in the Hippocratic Oath).

A different take on Martial Arts Media and History.

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Random reading during lock-down lead me back to a theme that had interested me for some time. In the past I had picked up a number of books on the history of the martial arts in the west. (I will give a list at the end of this post if anyone is interested).

What always intrigued me was the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. I was particularly interested in the civilian arts, how they were developed, how they were taught and how they were commodified.

This is a complex story but I will give a couple of examples that surprised me, and sometimes amused me.

I learned that historically the English did what the English are always prone to doing, i.e. despising the foreigners and always holding themselves up as the best. If you are interested read up on George Silver, whose book ‘Paradoxes of Defence’ written in 1599 took a swipe at the cowardly foreigners use of the rapier to stab with the pointy end instead of the slashing action of the ‘noble’ English backsword. The Italians and the French bore the brunt of Silver’s ire and he aggressively sought to make his point stick – literally. He had a hatred for immigrant Italian fencing masters, particularly Rocco Bonetti and Vincentio Saviolo. He challenged Saviolo to a duel, but Saviolo failed to turn up, which caused George Silver to crow about his superiority to anyone who would listen.

Fast forward nearly 200 years and the fencing master is still in demand. There was a market for slick Italian and French ‘masters’. Many of them taught horsemanship and, surprisingly, dancing (thus proving an observation I made in an earlier blogpost; ‘a man who can’t dance has got no business fighting’). The demand did not come from the hoi polloi, the proles – no, it came from the aristocrats, and for good practical reasoning.

From the 16th century onwards the idea of the ‘Grand Tour’ was all the rage. Wealthy young bucks were sent abroad to widen their horizons and soak in the classical antiquities around Europe and the Mediterranean. Although there was some effort made to chaperone these entitled and indulged young men (almost exclusively men) there was an expectation of expanding not just their minds but their… worldliness. This often resulted in an awful lot of bad behaviour (see, one of my particular heroes, Lord George Gordon Byron, 6th Lord Byron). Unfortunately, quite a number of these heirs came significantly unstuck. Sometimes whole fortunes were lost through gambling, or they fell under a robber’s blade or some equally dastardly misfortune.

Hence preparation for the ‘Tour’ was deemed necessary, and not just preparation of the mind, but the skills of defence, and often of fighting dirty. It was here that masters like Bonetti, Saviolo and in the 18th century the wonderful Domenico Angelo (more of him later) came in. These masters were paid well to teach sword and rapier, left-handed dagger and, intriguingly, skills like ‘cloak and lantern’; put simply, the cloak was used for defence and sometimes ensnarement, and the directed light from the lantern was used to dazzle or temporarily blind an opponent to allow the use of the sword or left-handed dagger.sword_lantern

But to return to Domenico Angelo (1717 – 1802). Angelo was sponsored by the Earl of Pembroke and later the dowager Princess of Wales; this patronage did him huge favours and boosted his reputation enormously. He was astute enough to build a business from his arts and turn it into a dynasty, three generations of Angelo’s thrived in their property in Soho Square and other premises. Angelo was an excellent example of early marketing, publishing a fencing instruction book, L’École des armes”, in 1763. He is said to have single-handedly turned the art of war into sport and health promotion; where have we heard this before?

But it is the issue of publication that intrigues me. This dissemination of martial skills through whatever means possible had been around for hundreds of years. There are medieval European fencing manuals still in existence. These are pored over by enthusiasts, researched both intellectually and physically by obsessives who enjoy nothing better than swinging two-handed blades at each other in full armour – the medieval version of Fight Club.

The manuals served a number of purposes. Expert in the field John Clements proposed eight possible motives for the creation of these books, all of which have resonance with recent discussion regarding how we access and archive martial arts material in the 21st century:

  1. To preserve the instructor’s teachings.
  2. As a private study guide for selected students.
  3. As a primer or reminder for students when not in class.
  4. To impress nobles with their knowledge as a professional instructor in order to gain patronage.
  5. At the behest of an interested sovereign or aristocratic supporter of the art.
  6. To promote themselves and teachers of the craft and acquire new students.
  7. To publicly declare their skills or dispute the teachings of other masters.
  8. As a means of acquiring a pension through recognition or appreciation of years of service and dedication.

What motivated medieval masters and swords masters right up until recent times to publish and present is pretty much the same as it is now. If we look at Japanese martial arts a similar pattern can be seen.

From the ‘patronage’ perspective I will cite a few examples:
The Yagyu dynasty of swordsmen from the 17th century, sponsored by the Tokugawa clan.
The 20th century sponsorship of Ueshiba Morihei founder of Aikido by various well-connected individuals.
Also Funakoshi Gichin, who worked hard to establish karate on mainland Japan in the 1920’s, something he could not have done without courting the right kind of sponsorship.

In the far east books and ‘master texts’ on martial arts have a long history; whether it is the ‘Bubishi’ or ‘Karate-Do Kyohan’. But they are never all-encompassing; it has to be said that it’s a virtual impossibility to give the complete body of information through the printed or written medium.

In line with the above list these publications fall into various categories; crib books, catalogues, visual cues, or in the case of Koryu Densho, transmission scrolls with opaque lists meant to be decoded only by the initiated. What surprises me, in this age of digital curation, archiving and future-proofing is that the old technology of printed paper versions have held up so remarkably well.

Some martial arts are better supplied by these various types of repositories. If your fighting method is comprised of only a handful of techniques, as can be found in some military manuals, then all you need is a few diagrams and a basic description. But if your art is more refined, with nuances and subtleties it is impossible to put these across in anything other than face to face encounters. The founder of Wado Ryu karate Otsuka Hironori is said to have expressed his frustration with trying to put his ideas into printed form. As this extract from a 1986 interview with Horikawa Chieko, widow of Daito Ryu master Horikawa Kodo tells us;

“On one occasion… an expert in Wado-ryu karate by the name of Hironori Otsuka happened to visit the dojo. He and Horikawa got on quite well. He was a wonderful person, and very strict about technique. He was talking with Horikawa and he said, “I’ll never write a book either” for example, there are many ways to put out one’s hand, but in a book all that can be conveyed is the phrase “put out your hand”, which misses all the subtleties. Both he and Horikawa agreed that techniques cannot be expressed in books or in words.”*

This is a discussion that could go on and on, and it is clear that the market place hasn’t so much become crowded as to have almost decamped altogether to the online world, where clamoring voices and slick marketing compete for our attention, almost to the point of overload.

A debate as to how this could all work out in the 21st century, with the involvement of new technology, can be found in an excellent slim publication by Matt Stait and Kai Morgan called ‘Online Martial Arts. Evolution or Extinction’. Ironically available in printed form and download from Amazon.

*Pranin, Stanley, ‘Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu’ 1996.

Recommended reading:

‘By the Sword’ Richard Cohen 2002.

‘The English Master of Arms’, J. D. Aylward, 1956.

Tim Shaw

 

Course Report – Holland March 2020.

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I suppose at some level we could all see it coming; on the eve of this recent course in Holland Covid-19 was knocking on the door of European civilisation like the Goths invasion of the Roman Empire. We weren’t to know it but this course happened just before the doors were slamming tightly shut, and who knows when they will be opened again.

Naturally we had our reservations, but as of that particular time we followed guidelines and took the safety of participants very seriously.

I honestly thought that attendance would be very low but was surprised that only a handful of people had cancelled. This meant that the Dojo was not too crowded and we had the space and the time to make sure that everyone gained individual attention and we could really dig deeply into the planned agenda.

I had thought this one through very carefully – I always plan the courses in detail, and this time I wanted to tackle some of the lesser covered themes. This was deliberately designed to be challenging, not necessarily physically, but mentally and technically.

For our first two hours on the Friday night I chose Tanto Dori (knife defence). Initially we looked at techniques that were from the standard Wado playbook. I made sure that people understood that these were densely packaged forms (kata) with layered lessons contained within each specific part of the sequence. I then moved on to lesser-seen Tanto Dori; ones which operated from the formal kneeling position; much more demanding physically, as the body manoeuvres and evasive techniques demanded absolute concentration and control to avoid being skewered.

Tanto dori.

Saturday’s class was for three hours and covered different dynamics of movement which ultimately took us into Kushanku kata. For some reason a kata that contains so much information tends to be left behind, I’m not sure why. We did not avoid the more athletic aspects of this form; in fact I encouraged people to embrace the character of the kata, with its elongated movements, low drops and demanding spins and turns.

Kushanku.

The last day, Sunday, everything was geared towards pairs practice with Kihon Gumite No. 10 as the apex technique. We explored other principles which acted as an introduction to Kihon Gumite and made links to moves found in the Pinan kata. We were fortunate to have mats available and this gave everyone a chance to experience that big over the top throw found in Kihon Gumite 10 (in a safe manner).

And so it ended, and, with a heavy heart, I had to leave my friends in Holland, not knowing when we would all get a chance to train together again. We have spoken optimistically about another course in October, but let’s see how things work out.

Huge thanks to Martijn Shelen and his team who hosted this course and to everyone who came along.

Tim Shaw

Book Review – ‘Shindo Yoshin Ryu, History and Technique.’ Tobin Threadgill and Shingo Ohgami.

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Rumours about the appearance of this book circulated a long time ago, and so finally it is here.

For me it was well worth the wait. Although it is a weighty tome I found it difficult to leave alone and so now I am on my second reading.

The organisation of the book is neatly packaged with many excellent photographs, diagrams and images. It covers historical, theoretical and technical aspects of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu and supplies very informative personal and anecdotal experiences of key figures within the Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu.

The history section immerses you into the complex world of what was to be called ‘Koryu’ Budo/Bujutsu and it easily dispels any myth, which usually come out of oversimplification. Piece by piece an image of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu starts to appear out of the miasma of Japanese lineages. Facts collide with legend, which in turn throws up further questions, some of which are unlikely ever to be answered.

It is clear that Threadgill Sensei and the late Ohgami Sensei have been involved in significant on the ground research; chasing down leads and engaging with surviving descendants of some of the main SYR players involved in this complicated saga.

Throughout the complexities, the jigsaw images of evidence, anecdote and documentation SYR appears as a system that was buffeted by change, navigating around the powerhouse that was late 19th century, early 20th century Judo, which lured traditional Jujutsuka into a world of Randori and contest and away from their fuller curriculum. It also describes the ascent and descent of various SYR branches which echoed much of what was happening to the traditional martial arts of Japan in the Meiji to Showa periods of Japanese history.

Does this book have relevance to students of Wado karate?

It depends where you are on your journey in Wado. For history buffs like me it was like catnip. I couldn’t get enough. But also, although SYR and Wado are as different as cats and dogs their connection cannot be ignored and as such, a surprisingly large section was devoted to the founder of Wado Ryu, Otsuka Hironori.

I was impressed with the author’s approach to the potentially thorny issue of Otsuka Hironori’s role in all of this. This was dealt with in an even-handed and factual way with Otsuka Sensei reputation intact, perhaps even boosted. Throughout the book the authors acknowledge the huge contribution Otsuka Sensei had made to the survival of SYR, without really being aware of it. The irony of course being that at the age of 30 Otsuka Sensei left SYR behind to synthesise his accumulated Budo experiences into the formulation an entirely new entity, Wado Ryu Jujutsu Kempo. Thus, for a long time, SYR became a footnote in Wado history – but not any more.

It is clear that Wado enthusiasts were drawn by curiosity to the surviving SYR and this curiosity extended sufficiently to cause some of them to beat a path to the door of Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu Kaicho Tobin Threadgill Sensei – his recent seminars in Europe attest to that.

In the technical section of the book, although deliberately and understandably incomplete, it is possible to see common strategies and common nomenclature. Within the body of this section it is possible to read between the lines and gain glimpses of Otsuka Sensei’s technical base and the underlying strategies of Wado Ryu. My conversations and experiences of people within TSYR have certainly informed my reading of this text, reinforcing my view that when Wado was formed the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater.

Who knows, perhaps there is more to come from the pen of Threadgill Sensei. I certainly hope so.

I have it on good authority that the late Ohgami Sensei was able to see advance productions of this book and greatly approved of the completion of this joint project before his passing. Although I only met him once I know that he will be greatly missed.

Tim Shaw

What Master Otsuka Saw (Probably).

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A presumptuous title, I know, but bear with me, I have a theory.

I have often wondered how Otsuka Hironori the founder of Wado Ryu thought. I wished I had been able to climb into his head, navigate all those very Japanese nuances that are so alien to the world I live in and see as he saw; a bit like in the movie ‘Being John Malkovich’. But more importantly and specifically to see what he saw when he was dealing with an opponent.

I am fairly convinced he didn’t see what we would see in the same circumstances, the mindset was probably very different.

This is all guesswork and speculation on my part but to perhaps support my claim, let me backtrack to a comment made by a very well-known Japanese Wado Sensei.

I was present when this particular Sensei made a very casual off-the-cuff comment about Otsuka Sensei – so quick and matter-of-fact it was easy to miss. It was in a conversation generally about movement; I can’t remember the exact words but my understanding was this; he said that Otsuka Sensei’s ‘zone’ was ‘movement’ – he (Otsuka Sensei) could work with ‘movement’, but inertia held no interest for him, it was no challenge. That was it; an almost throwaway comment.

I held on to this and thought about it for a long time, and out of this rumination I would put this theory forward:

It is highly possible that Otsuka Sensei was acutely tuned to zones of motion and energy; like vectors and forces governed by Intent and energised by Intent; an Intent that for him was readable.

For him it is possible that the encounter was made up of lines of motion which, in a calculated way, he chose to engage and mesh with. These involved arcs of energy that extended along lines limited by the physiology of the human frame (a refined understanding of distance and timing), but also he was able to engage with that frame in itself, not just its emanations and extensions. He saw it as Macro and Micro, as large or small scale tensions and weaknesses and he was able to have a dialogue with it, and all of this was happening at a visceral level.

The computations normally associated with reasoning and calculation would have just gotten in the way – no, this was another thing entirely; this was the ‘other’ brain at work, body orientated, woven into the fibre of his being, much more spontaneous, coming out of a cultured and trained body. And there is the catch… it would be a great thing to have the ability to ‘see’ those lines, energies and vectors, but ‘seeing’ on its own has no meaningful advantage; it becomes a self-limiting intellectual exercise; an academic dead-end. No, the body (your body) has to be trained to be refined in movement, otherwise the necessary engagement/connection is not going to happen; or, it happens in your head first and your body is too late to respond! The key to unlocking this is there, it always has been there; but unfortunately too often it is hobbled by formalism, or that perennial obsession of just making shapes.

It’s a lifetime’s work, and, even with the best will in the world, probably unobtainable. But why let that put you off?

Tim Shaw

Appraising Kata.

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Re. Wado Kata performances on YouTube or forums, be they competition honed kata or personal kata movies. Comments are invited, but I really don’t understand what people want these comments to say?
Competition kata is… a performance, practiced to comply with a set of criteria so that one kata can be compared to another and clearly people look at examples of the kata online and match it off against their own personal expectations.

No kata is ‘perfect’, but if we notice flaws in the kata through the imperfect medium of video what kinds of flaws are we looking for?

Some people get all hung up on ‘a foot position there’ and ‘hand position elsewhere’ yet fail to see the bigger picture. I guess people will disagree with me here, but surely the bigger picture is the method of actually moving – and I don’t mean how fast or strong a technique is delivered; that would be a bonus – if the techniques are performed with the refined principles of Wado AND have celerity, energy and intent, yes that is probably going to be a damn good kata.

Surely we have come a long way from ‘harder, faster stronger’? Wado is a complex system – by that I mean ‘complex’ not complicated; there is a difference. One move, like Junzuki, can contain many complexities, while 36 kumite gata can become complicated – but not insurmountably so.

For me the curse of kata appraisal is what I call the ‘picture book approach’. In that some people judge the kata in a kind of ‘freeze frame’ of the end position of any individual move, taking that frozen image and judging it just by its shape. This method of judgement is really low on the evolutionary ladder. Since the 1960’s Wado has evolved significantly and students and instructors have access to a far greater level of understanding than they had fifty years ago, except of course for those areas where people have clearly opted for a policy of arrested development.

Then there is Observer Bias:
“Observer bias is the tendency to see what we expect to see, or what we want to see. When a researcher studies a certain group, they usually come to an experiment with prior knowledge and subjective feelings about the group being studied.”

People see what they want to see, because they are uncomfortable with anything that interrupts or contradicts their current world view – it’s human nature. Thus, when we feel a need to say whether this approach to kata is superior to that approach, maybe it’s just an expression of our own bias; we focus on those things that either comply with our world view, or don’t.

Judging by comments of forums regarding Wado kata, it also tends to bring about a worrying tendency towards tribalism. I fully understand this, and I am sure that at times I have also felt the knee-jerk inclination towards my own tribal instincts, but I try my best to keep these in check. However, as long as we recognise this for what it is, without the need to call it out, then it will hopefully wither on the vine and conversations will remain civilised and polite.

Then there comes the argument; is there such a thing as a bad kata? I would say; yes there is.

Some say that as long as they stay within a particular bandwidth that represents an acceptable understanding of Wado then that’s fine. But that’s just a fudge – exactly how wide is this bandwidth?

Is the bandwidth just about shapes? From my understanding Otsuka Sensei established some very sound guidelines and sent his best students out into the world with the responsibility to pass on these essential guidelines and although it may have been part of it, shape-making was not the main priority on the list.

Tim Shaw

Wado in the Netherlands.

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A shout out to one of the nicest Dojos I have ever had the privilege to teach and train in.

Kenkokai Dojo in the Netherlands is situated 14 miles south of Amsterdam and 6 miles outside of Hilversum. It is the personal project and newly formed business of Martijn Schelen, who is an instructor both with Shikukai and the Dutch organisation the KBN.

When I first visited there in May of this year what struck me was the amount of care that had been taken to create the right feel. Martijn explained to me that he was particularly careful to utilise aspects of traditional Dojo design supported by ideas of Fusui, which is the Japanese version of Feng Shui, where the orientation of the Dojo is in harmony with directions and elements. To my mind this created a positive vibe that worked within the space. Inevitably the Kamidana was the main focus of the room, Martijn had designed this in a way that was personal to him and it remained tasteful and not overblown, as sometimes can be the case when people just try too hard. ‘Less is more’ was probably not a quote of Japanese origin, but it should have been.

The Dojo space is perfect in size for manageable classes. What was noticeable this time round was that I never had to raise my voice; the acoustics were ideal. The air circulated freely and sunlight was able to spill across the Dojo floor. Really, unless you were in some ancient revered location in Kyoto, you couldn’t get a more photogenic set-up (I hope the photos will prove my point for me).

This was the second time Martijn had invited me over for a course in this particular Dojo; I had been over before either on my own or assisting Sugasawa Sensei, but this was organised differently; numbers were limited to 20, which was ideal, as it meant I could work easily with everyone in the room and we could really get into things. What was really enjoyable was that it allowed information to flow in both directions; I learned so much from the lines of questioning; obviously people felt comfortable asking questions and exploring different possibilities. There were three sessions organised over the weekend and we were able to build upon the previous themes and look at Henka waza exploring many of the varied possibilities found within Wado (well, at least that was my intention). Another attribute that dawned on me over the weekend – I noticed lots of smiles…. it goes without saying that this has to be a positive thing in training.

The course was not confined to the Dutch; Wadoka had shown up from the Czech Republic, Belgium and the UK which gave a real international flavour.

Of course the weekend wasn’t all work and no play. Saturday evening out in Hilversum, perfect for good food and good company.

If anyone reading this finds themselves in this part of the world contact Martijn and drop in for training. It’s not just about the location and the Dojo, Martijn is genuinely one of the most knowledgeable Wado instructors you will ever come across and one of the nicest people in the world of Wado.

Warm down with dimmed lights.

Instructor Martijn Schelen in his home Dojo.

Karate classes:
Monday, 16:00 – 17:00 children, 19:30 – 21:00 adults.
Wednesday, 16:00 – 17:00 children, 18:00 – 19:00 teenagers, 19:30 – 21:30 seniors.
Saturday, 8:30 – 10:00 karate, all groups.

Martijn also runs classes in, Do-In Yoga, Critical Alignment Yoga, Corestability and medical fitness

Days and times are Monday 16.00 – 21.00, Wednesday 16.00 – 21.30 and Saturday 8.30 – 11.00

Dojo address: Vogelkersberg 5E, 3755 BN Eemnes

Email:  info@kenkokai.nl

Phone number +31641977773

How do you know if you are using too much strength in your Wado?

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Mudana Chikara is one of the watchword maxims used in Wado circles.

It’s one of a set of three, all described as ‘illnesses’, things to steer clear of if you want to remain on the right track. Mudana Chikara loosely means, ‘Do not use (too much) strength (to do the job)’, it is a key concept of Wado.

It is supposed to signpost the rule of economical movement, the embodiment of no waste, no fuss, no huffing and puffing and no tension.

It is so easy to describe what it is not but harder to pin down what it is – particularly if it is personal to your own technique.

Let me deal with the ‘tension’ thing first.
In between movements you are supposed to develop a feeling of live neutrality. I say ‘live’ because neutrality can easily slip into inertia, and an inert position is a dead position. An exaggerated example would be to say that you need to be in a position where you are deploying enough strength/energy to hold your posture, no more, no less. If your arm is stretched out (as in Tsuki) and someone rests their hand on the back of your hand, your hand should just gently drop under the extra weight; that’s enough.

Correct muscle management in movement is absolutely vital to efficiency. Often in our efforts to employ more power we actually end up sabotaging our objective with inefficient use of the muscles. Antagonistic muscles kick in and ruin the physical potential by actually working against what we want to achieve; I tend to describe it as like driving with your foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time.

Wado instructors are very insistent on good muscle management; energy should be deployed appropriately and muscles should be fired off in the right order. Things can go wrong when the energy is generated from the wrong place and muscles work in isolated groups rather than a coordinated whole.

Energy should be turned on instantly, and then, just as abruptly, turned off; there should be no tensioned build-up and certainly energy should not be held on to. It is the ‘holding on to energy’ that causes an inability flow from movement to movement, or situation to situation, the energy becomes atrophied or stagnated. It is this ‘stagnation’ that can be fatal in a live situation.

But how do we know that we are using too much strength? Self-diagnosis is a really difficult thing; something might feel good but is it right? (Is it appropriate?). Clearly your Sensei can flag up if you are using too much strength, but only you can do the work on it.

My teaching experience tells me that this can often be a ‘guy thing’, women don’t tend to suffer as much from tension in their technique; guys tend to feel obliged to give their technique that extra thump; they have a model of strength in their heads and aspire to reach it, however unrealistic it may be. It is not something that can be reduced by degrees; the best approach is to soften it right back to zero and then build it up incrementally – but that takes a lot of time and some serious re-programming.

I suppose it comes down to energy investment. Some styles actually aim for over-kill, but really you have to calculate if all that investment is really necessary – can you afford it?

That is the thing about Wado, no frills, no artistic flourishes, all purely pragmatic and stripped to the bone.

Tim Shaw

Different ways of looking at building skills.

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As a follow on to my 10,000 hours post
in which I looked at the amount of time and effort needed to build a high level of expertise, I came across an article which set out an interesting addition to the debate; something I hadn’t really thought about.

The article was headed, ‘Generalise, don’t specialise: why focusing too narrowly is bad for us’ and was a condensed version of a larger work by David Epstein.

Epstein set up two very different examples by giving the back story of two of this century’s most stellar sportsmen; Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Essentially this was the story of ‘push’ and ‘pull’.

Tiger Woods was famously hothoused by his ambitious father; while Roger Federer, as a youngster, was given the freedom to access all kinds of sports and generally ball-based activities.

Woods was an example of hyperspecialisation, he was ‘pushed’ while Federer was risking what’s sometimes categorised being a ‘late developer’ and frowned upon by the establishments in whose interests it is to keep this mythology alive – for, as the article shows, it is a myth that a single focus specialisation is the only way to achieve success. Hence Federer was ‘pulled’ by the opportunities and enjoyment of tennis.

Epstein was able to draw upon multiple examples where athletes bounced from one sport to another before crucially moving into their specialised field. Federer was able to draw upon a broad base of physical skills to enhance his approach to tennis; his mother was a tennis coach and she found herself having to resist the urge to check his unorthodox approach to specific techniques and problems found within a tennis match; he was liberated from ‘textbook tennis’ and as such was allowed to flourish. Federer’s mother was worried that her son was becoming too obsessed with tennis. I couldn’t imagine that Tiger’s father Earl would have thought such a thing about his son.

Specialisation has a number of negative aspects, Epstein said, “I came across more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range – and that there are benefits to doing so. I discovered research showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident (a dangerous combination).”

Epstein’s conclusions were that although the generalised approach appears slower it has a greater shelf life than the specialising approach.

To give the other slant to this argument – very much drawing on the ‘mastery takes 10,000 hours of practice’ – read Matthew Syed’s book ‘Bounce’. Or read this neat summary by Paul Arnold, here.

As a postscript (and returning this back to being about martial arts) I wouldn’t be in a rush to go running around randomly ‘cross-training’ with other sports or other martial arts, particularly if you are at a point where you have clearly decided what your life’s focus will be.

I always think about a story of two men prospecting for gold. One just runs around digging lots of little shallow holes hoping to strike it lucky; the other does his research, locates his prime spot and invests time and money and digs one shaft really deep.

As I am a big fan of metaphors and also enjoy when the essence of one metaphor contradicts or reinforces another. On this theme, and to maybe complicate things, I would add one more; a quote from Thomas Merton.

“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall”.

*Recommended reading: ‘Range – why generalists triumph in a specialized world’, David Epstein.

Tim Shaw

Know the depths of your own ignorance.

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In Ushiro Kenji’s book, ‘Karate and Ki – The Origin of Ki – The Depth of Thought’, he mentions that when your sensei asks you if you understand, you should always be wary of answering it with an emphatic “Yes”. A better answer may be, “Yes, but only to my current level of understanding”. How can you really state that you are fully in the picture of what your Sensei is trying to communicate? It all becomes relative to your current point of development, and (if we are being realistic) we are all existing on a continuum of expanding knowledge – or we should be.

This is nothing new. Socrates (469 – 399 BCE) had worked it out (and was despised by some of his contemporaries for this). Here is a quote from the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [online], “[The] awareness of one’s own absence of knowledge is what is known as Socratic ignorance, …  Socratic ignorance is sometimes called simple ignorance, to be distinguished from the double ignorance of the citizens with whom Socrates spoke.  Simple ignorance is being aware of one’s own ignorance, whereas double ignorance is not being aware of one’s ignorance while thinking that one knows.”

In my last job I spent many years advising teenagers about to depart for university, and one thing I used to say to them was that one of the worst insults that could ever be thrown at them was for someone to describe them as ‘ignorant’; I also included shallow as well, but ignorance was the most heinous of crimes.

An obvious part of this is to be aware of the lenses you are looking through (check out, ‘observer bias’ and the closely related ‘cognitive dissonance’). Martial artists seem particularly prone to this. We see this when someone has a pet theory, or a favourite concept and feels a need to carve it in stone. Once it’s gone that far down the line there’s really no going back, and even in the light of new evidence which contradicts or turns over the pet theory they are stuck with it and it can become a millstone around their neck.

The error is in not acknowledging your own ignorance; feeling you should set yourself up as the authority in all things.

We are not very good at understanding the limits of our own knowledge. We make an assumption that in all areas of life we are existing on the cutting edge of what is possible –  that may be true but we still encounter stuff that is either imperfect, or goes wrong, or breaks down; be that in systems, societies or technology. Deep down we know there is the possibility of improvement and advancement, but that’s always for tomorrow.

Take medical science as an example. Someone recently said to me that there’s never been a better time to be ill. Now, I take issue with that in more than one way; the obvious one being that really there is no ‘better’ time to be ill at all! Another point is that this comment was probably the same one used by an 18th century surgeon when he was just about to saw someone’s leg off without anaesthetic.

I suppose it is the arrogance within humanity that arrives at these rather bizarre conclusions. Perhaps in a way it is a kind of comfort blanket; maybe we are hiding from a much more sobering reality? Sometime in the future will some social historians be looking back at us and marvelling at how primitive and naïve we were? Or perhaps this is already happening within our own lifetime? Maybe my generation has been the first to witness such a dramatic rate of change and advancement. It’s a fact; compared to previous centuries the rate of change has speeded up phenomenally. One factor alone sums it up nicely – the Internet. I think we can talk confidently about ‘Pre-Internet’ and ‘Post-Internet’.

However, human skill development at a physical level does not increase at the same high speed that technological development can. Athletes can still shave a hundredth of a second off a 100 metre sprint, but it can take years to achieve this comparatively tiny gain. In fact any significant human skill still takes hours of dedicated practice to achieve. A 21st century aspiring pianist still has to put the same amount of hours in that an 18th century one did. Of course we are smarter about how we organise the learning process, this is sometimes supported by technology but the body still has to do the work. Our attitude towards human physical achievement and ambition has changed over the last 100 years. Take the example of Roger Bannister’s breaking of the 4 minute mile; critics at the time claimed that Bannister had cheated because he trained for the event! Their attitude of course was that Bannister should have done it based upon his own innate undeveloped physical attributes; his God given talent.

The acknowledgment of ignorance is inevitably a positive thing; it’s the acceptance that there is a whole big world out there, a boundless uncharted territory which is loaded with amazing possibilities.

Tim Shaw

Craft and Craftsmanship.

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It goes without saying Martial Arts can easily be categorised as a human skill (a Craft). It’s a trained activity directed at solving specific problems. Problem solving can be achieved to different levels depending on the competence of the person addressing the problem. It could even be argued that problem solving is binary – either you solve the problem or you don’t. But problem solving is not necessarily an ‘end-stop’ activity, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Following this ideas that martial arts art are crafts, I would like to explore this further to see if anything can be gained by shifting our perspective and pushing the boundaries and looking at what a ‘craft’ actually is.

Sociologist Richard Sennett has a specific interest in Craft and Craftsmanship. For him ‘Craft’ is just doing the job, probably the same as everyone else, just to get it out of the way; a basic necessity. But ‘Craftsmanship’ is the task done in an expert, masterly fashion (Like the famous story of the master butcher in The Chuang Tzu). But the craftsman’s response to the problems/challenges he faces is not just a mechanical one; it changes according to the situation, and, whether it is master butcher, musician, painter or martial artist, the challenge is fluid, and as such adjustments are made on the spot and new ways of doing the same thing evolve. The craftsman doesn’t ‘master’ his art, because his mastery is ever-moving….or it should be. The skills of the master craftsman becomes a linear on-going project, not an end-stop.

Sennett says that craftsmanship at a basic level involves identifying a problem, then solving that problem; but that it shouldn’t end there. The solving of an individual problem often leads on to new problems that the craftsman may not have known existed prior to engaging with that particular individual problem. A combination of his intellect, his curiosity and his evolving level of mastery leads him towards tackling that next unforeseen problem and the process goes on.

In his research Sennett interviewed ex-Microsoft engineers who lamented the closed system of Microsoft, but lauded the open creative possibilities of Linux – for him this was an example of craftsmanship in progress. I am reminded of the comparison between the old style chess programs and the latest AlphaZero chess program. With the old style programs the moves had to be inputted by human hand; with AlphaZero the only input was the rules of the game; the computer then was free to play millions of games against itself to work out an amazing number of possibilities that just multiplied and multiplied.

It is not a huge leap to apply this way of thinking to Wado. Utilising the skills we develop in a free-flowing scenario engages with many problem solving opportunities that unfold in rapid succession. If we do it well it is all over very quickly, or, if we are working against a very skilled opponent the engagements may be more complicated, for example using an interplay of creating or seizing initiatives (‘Sen’).  But to do this your toolkit (your core principles) must have a solid grounding otherwise you might have the ideas in your head but not necessarily the trained physicality to carry them out, and certainly not in the split second often needed.

If we really want to develop our craftsmanship we have to look for the opportunities that are created beyond the basic level of simple problem solving, but without losing the immediacy and economy that underpins Wado. I know that sounds like a contradiction but it is possible to be complex in your simplicity; it’s just a matter of perspective.

Tim Shaw

The Monkey Trap.

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This one has been around for a long time, but it’s a very useful model and can be used in many ways.

The Monkey Trap is supposed to be a real thing, a real trap used by primitive tribes to outsmart monkeys. Traditionally the trap features a narrow necked jar which is either tethered to the ground or weighted down. Scattered around the jar are treats the monkey would like but there are more inside. The monkey reaches inside the jar, closes its fist around one of the treats and, with a closed fist it cannot extract its hand past the neck. The monkey is stuck, because of its unwillingness to relinquish its grip on the treat – its own stubbornness, greed and narrow thinking trap it in position. The story was used by Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’ to describe the French’s unwillingness to discard their loot on the retreat from Moscow. Robert M. Pirsig made use of the same story in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’. There’s even an episode of the Simpsons where Homer thinks he can reach inside a vending machine to steal a can of drink, the fire brigade have to free him but a fireman points out to him that all he had to do was let go of the can and his hand would slide out.

Therapists are attracted to this neat little story; it’s a literal example of the pitfalls of not ‘letting go’.

I can think of a number of ways it relates to training. In a way it’s another example of the necessity of ‘emptying your cup’, but, to me, it’s a much more interesting model.

I can see it relating to the problem solving involved in fighting, about the unwillingness to depart from set formulas to solve the problems your opponent is presenting you with. I also see a warning to those of us who have many years behind us in training. I know it’s easy for senior instructors to rest on their laurels and start to believe their own propaganda and particularly to trade upon their association with the stars in the Wado firmament (the ones still with us and the ones departed) but this can have a detrimental effect. In these cases it is possible to get stuck with your hand inside the jar, by being unwilling to let go of perceived status attached to such associations. It’s a matter of judging what’s important to you. By hanging on to such shiny baubles as a form of comfort you miss the opportunity to engage with the wider world and in particular to follow the path of development that got you to where you are in the first place. A monkey stuck in a jar, or a case of wilful arrested development? You decide.

Tim Shaw

Combinations.

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Renraku Waza, Renzoku Waza, Renketsu Dosa, whatever we decide to call them Combination Techniques seem to feature on nearly every Wado syllabus.

In my early training I was as guilty as everyone else in treating combinations as a test of memory (as well as speed and power). But there are other ways to look at them. I would urge Wado practitioners to examine them more closely. Is there perhaps something inherent in their design that has more to give us?

At first sight as we advance through the grades the sets of combinations just seem to get more complex with more techniques strung together. Yes, they were physically demanding and you got a great workout and many of the strings of techniques programmed the body well for attacking combinations used within conventional free fighting. It was a good way of reviewing your available range of techniques, but it was impossible for it to be all-encompassing. Hand strikes seemed particularly limited. In the early UK syllabus created in the 1960’s and still used by many organisations, there were only three main strikes used in combinations, as well as only three kicks (albeit deployed to different levels) and there were no explicit blocking or covering techniques, they may have been there in some small way but they weren’t really highlighted. Admittedly, since then organisations have become more creative, either by adding more techniques or completely deconstructing combinations, with varying levels of success.

The lower level combinations give good foundations on how to utilise moving in a formalised fighting guard and how to operate the mechanics of particular movements while being in that guard. But if combinations have been designed well they add another vital component that is often overlooked – transition.

Combinations looked at as a test of ‘transition’ gives a whole new perspective. When you fight you are in transition all of the time; you can either do that well, or you can do it badly. When you do it well it allows for snap changes dictated by the ever fluid physical challenges in combat scenarios and puts you a great position to deliver the necessary payload. An image that comes to mind is of the great French tennis player Jean Rene Lacoste (1904 – 1996), it is no accident that the Crocodile is used as the Lacoste logo, Lacoste’s ability to ‘snap back’ from nowhere when returning the ball was the embodiment of the ferocity of the Crocodile’s movement. For the fighter this type of tenacity and flexibility is a terrific skill to aspire towards. Look within combinations; examine what positions you find yourself in, what techniques demand the most commitment in stance and posture? Where do you feel dangerously close to over-extension and then you find yourself having to move from one extreme to another?

Some combination strings seem to create relatively easy transitions from one attack to another; while these have some value I think they are red herrings; examples being ones where the hip extension from one technique automatically and comfortably flows from that technique to another. But these are not the ones I am referring to.

Within the combinations in the Shikukai Karate-Do International it is no accident that there are numerous examples of these transitional challenges. If instructors are devising their own teaching combinations I would heavily recommend looking at what transitional challenges you are including.

Tim Shaw

Autopilot.

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‘Never rely on autopilot, it will always let you down’. In kata training I am always saying this to students; particularly when preparing for grading of competition.

Autopilot in kata is just switching your brain off and letting your body take over and rattling through the moves at top speed. Most of the time you will get through the kata okay, but at what cost? Mindful practice is infinitely more valuable. But all too often autopilot will stall or glitch and then all the wheels will come off. The more kata you know the more it is liable to happen. Many of you will know what can go wrong part way in to Kushanku kata… everything was going well then suddenly you have missed out four shuto uke and slipped into Pinan Yondan!

That is one type of autopilot error. The other one affects the more senior experienced karateka. This is the one where you let your body take over assuming that all the moves are spot-on perfect, even at full throttle! It may not be the case. If you do that be wary of what audience you are putting it in front of. A knowledgeable audience will see all your weaknesses. If you are a senior Dan grade always give the same scrutiny to your own techniques that you give to your students; don’t assume you are getting it right.

There is another aspect that connects with the physical understanding and performance of kata and that is the question; is it possible to depart from the kata while still staying with the kata? Sounds like a contradiction but it’s not; it all depends on how you use the kata. It is possible to go so far into the kata that you come out the other side. The second grandmaster of Wado Ryu gave some methods of departing from the kata while still holding on to its integrity. He had two methods of free-forming within the kata, but to do this demanded supreme confidence and knowledge of the character of the kata. It reminded me of something I had heard which was common to the creative Arts (visual and performing), the concept was; ‘Once you know the rules inside out and every which way, then you are allowed to break them’. This is the same with painters as it is with musicians. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis famously said, “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”. This example from jazz fits really well with the second grandmaster’s approach to aspects of kata.

Tim Shaw

Hierarchies.

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This is not about politics (though it may start out like that).

It used to be said that if a man is not a Socialist when he is seventeen then he has no heart, if he is still a Socialist when he is fifty he has no head. This does not mean that you are supposed to swerve from left to right as you mature, personally I don’t subscribe to the tribalism of ‘left’ and ‘right’ anymore, they are both two cheeks of the same backside.

Socialists abhor hierarchies, while at the same time feeling it is necessary to utilise them (contradiction?).

Humans by their very nature have a desire to set up hierarchies, even where they do not exist.
Imagine a man who could balance ping pong balls on his nose; would he be content to be the only person who could do that? I doubt it; instead he would present it as a challenge to other jugglers and balancers, who would, inevitably, be able to repeat the trick thus rendering his ‘achievement’ as mediocre. So he then manages to balance two balls on his nose, one on top of the other; seemingly impossible and sets himself up as King of the Ping Pong Ball Balancers! A hierarchy is created – out of nothing. I suppose a good question would be; would ping pong ball balancing put food on the table? There lies another discussion.

In all hierarchies there are winners and losers and people in between and there is supposed to be mobility; not like the old feudal pyramid, more like a ladder.

The people on top give you something to aspire to – unless you are hopelessly stuck on the bottom and then you either resign yourself to failure and give up, or you become a festering ball of resentment, which is not healthy.

These people on the very top are there for a reason. To briefly examine that, it might be worth making a quick reference to French and Raven’s six bases of power. This was formulated in 1959 by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven.

  • Base 1. Legitimate power (or inherited power) – the person in charge has the right to be there.
  • Base 2. Reward – You are rewarded by letting that person assume the position.
  • Base 3. Expert – That person is the most skilled, so they should be on top.
  • Base 4. Referent – the person is seen as the most appealing option because of their worthiness.
  • Base 5. Coercive – The fear of punishment keeps this person on top.
  • Base 6. Informational – (added later and very apt to today) The person on top controls the information that people need to get stuff done.

Every boss I have ever met considers that ‘Base 3’ is why they are there, with a liberal dose of ‘Base 4’ of course.

Everything you have ever done and gained a feeling of positive achievement from existed within a hierarchy, and that of course includes martial arts training. If the hierarchy is working well you have confidence in the system because opportunities arise from engaging in it, you reap the rewards of your own efforts.

Ambitious people tend to form their own hierarchies and strive to become king of their own tiny little hill, and we see that in the martial arts all the time – everyone wants to King of the Ping Pong Ball Balancers.

Tim Shaw

Order and Chaos – Why it Matters for Martial Artists.

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I have recently been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s ’12 Rules for Life’ and I have watched a few of his lectures online. Peterson is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and has some quite interesting things to say. His views on Order and Chaos chimed with something that had been going through my head for a long time.

Way back when I was a university student I attended a lecture on ‘Apollo and Dionysus’ that got me thinking. As you may know Dionysus (Bacchus) was the god of wine, darkness and of wild hedonism and chaos, a real fun guy. While Apollo was the god of reason, order, light, a total bore; the ‘Captain America’ of superhero gods. The logic of this was creating models of duality; virtually the same as the Taoist Yin and Yang, which is a simple circular motif of two halves, one black, one white separated by a curving line.

For the purpose of explanation ‘Order’ and ‘Chaos’ are the most useful terms.

The realm of Order is everything we know; where rules are followed, structures are in place, it is comfort and to some degree also complacency (but more of that later). Whereas Chaos is unpredictability, it is the gaps between the laws that protect us; it is what happens when things break down, small scale and large scale, ultimately expressing complete anarchy.

I witnessed a minor version of chaos recently on a Tube train in London late at night. The majority of the passengers were abiding in the world of order, following social protocols, but a small noisy part of drunken people came into the carriage, not following the rules; nothing significant happened but to me they were like illogical, fuzzy minor condensed version of chaos, anything could have happened, the potential was there, just by the presence of chaos.

Peterson says that it is healthy to not just acknowledge chaos but also to engage with it. The complacency that comes with order ultimately would just result in you staying in your room. Progress comes from stepping out into the world and moving away from your comfort zone and putting yourself in more unpredictable positions (chaos).

Look at what we do in martial arts training.
In a very simplistic way we discipline ourselves through the most orderly, regimented environments imaginable, we convince ourselves we are training for chaos, and, in a way we are, but not necessarily in the way we think. Violence is an extreme embodiment of chaos and should not be taken lightly, but it is a complex issue full of wild variables. Just think of one of the worst scenarios; multiple attackers, unfamiliar environment, motivations unclear, limited light, all parties befuddled or fuelled by alcohol – it’s a mess. But this is an extreme.

Let’s go back into the Dojo; here are some examples of engaging with chaos that lead you towards more positive outcomes.

It starts out very simply, where you pressure-test your training in more manageable ways.
In a formal setting there is scope for tiptoeing into the chaos zone; e.g. if you work kihon gumite but the Torime doesn’t know what the second attack is; you could gamble, but it’s better to see if you can resolve the problem through your conditioned training.

Every time you take part in sparring; there are rules but essentially you are engaging with controlled chaos.
In my Dojo we have been working for a long time now on devising new ways of pressure-testing our reactions to attacks, creating opportunities to really work our conditioned responses, one method we use is called Ohyo Henka Dousa, a method of continual engagement  with an attacker’s intent.

To go back to the Yin Yang symbol, Peterson says that the curving line between the two areas is a line that we should tiptoe along, occasionally deliberately allowing our foot to stray into the zone of chaos and very much acknowledging that it is part of our lives – something that can be used for good.

Tim Shaw

Waza o Nusumu.

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‘Waza o Nusumu’ is a phrase I’d heard and read about some time ago; essentially it means ‘stealing technique’. It relates to an old style aspect of direct transmission of knowledge from Sensei to student. We know that verbal transmission or just telling students how techniques and principles work is not an efficient method of passing high levels of skill and knowledge on to future generations. We also know there are other models; for example in old style Budo teachers passed information to their students by having them ‘feel’ their technique, but even that is a flawed method.  How do we know if the student is really getting to the core of the technique, or is just mimicking the exterior feel of what they thought was going on?

Waza o Nusumu sounds subversive or even dishonest, but really the teacher is in cahoots with the student; he wants to present the technique to the student, perhaps in an oblique way, a hint here, a hint there, or even a quick demonstration to see if they have the ability to grasp it.

I am reminded of a Wado Sensei I know who wanted to explain Okuriashi foot movement to a junior student and so had a £5 note on the floor with a piece of cotton attached and told him if he could put his foot on it he could have it; every time the student tried to put his foot on it (with Okuriashi movement) the note was snatched away.

It also makes me think of Fagin in the musical ‘Oliver’, the scene where he encourages Oliver to steal the handkerchief dangling out of his pocket.


Image credit Columbia Pictures.

As mentioned earlier, all of this can fall apart if the student only grasps a part of the picture. It is entirely possible for the student to make the assumption that they’ve ‘got it’ when they haven’t, probably because they’ve projected an understanding on to it that is immature or underdeveloped; this is where the importance of ‘emptying your cup’ comes in.

Another side of this is that the student has really work at it to decode what they have ‘stolen’. There is significant value in this; partially because understanding with your head only is never enough, this is part of making the technique or principle your own. If you are to truly value it and ‘own’ it it has to come from your own sweat.

Tim Shaw

Feedback (part 2).

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What information is your body giving you? Are you truly your own best critic?

When we are desperately trying to improve our technique we tend to rely on instruction and then practice augmented by helpful feedback, usually from our Sensei.

But perhaps there are other ways to gain even better quality feedback and perhaps ‘feedback’ is not as simple as it first appears.

If we were to just look at it from the area of kata performance; if you are fortunate enough to have mirrors in your training space (as we do at Shikukai Chelmsford) then reviewing your technique in a mirror can be really helpful. But there are some down sides. One is that I am certain when we use the mirror we do a lot of self-editing, we choose to see what we want to see; viewpoint angle etc.

The other down-side is that we externalise the kata, instead of internalising it. When referring to a mirror we are projecting ourselves and observing the projection; this creates a tiny but significant reality gap. It is possible that in reviewing the information we get from the mirror we get useful information about our external form (our ability to make shapes, or our speed – or lack of speed.) but we lose sight of our internal connections, such as our lines of tension, connectivity and relays. We shift our focus away from the inner feel of what we are doing at the expense of a particular kind of visual aesthetic.

You can test this for yourself: take a small section of a kata, perform the section once normally (observe yourself in a mirror if you like) then do the same section with your eyes closed. If you are in tune with your body you will find the difference quite shocking.

Another product of this ‘externalising’ in kata worth examining is how easy it is to rely on visual external cues to keep you on track throughout the performance; usually this is about orientation. I will give an example from Pinan Nidan: if I tell myself that near the beginning of the kata is a run of three Jodan Nagashi Uke and near the end a similar run of three techniques but this time Junzuki AND that on the first run of three I am always going towards the Kamidana, but on the second run of three I will be heading in the direction of the Dojo door, I come to rely almost entirely on these landmarks for orientation, thus I have gone too deeply into externalising my kata; it happens in a landscape instead of in my body. Where this can seriously mess you up is if you have to perform in a high pressure environment (e.g. contest, grading or demonstration) your familiar ‘landscape’ that you relied heavily upon has disappeared, only to be replaced by a very different, often much harsher landscape, one frequently inhabited by a much more critical audience. A partial antidote to this is to always try and face different directions in your home Dojo; but really this is just a sticking plaster.

Another quirky odd anomaly I have discovered when working in a Dojo with mirrors is that during sparring I sometimes find myself using the mirror to gain an almost split-screen stereoscopic view of what my opponent is up to, tiny visual clues coming from a different viewpoint, but it’s dangerous splitting your attention like that and on more than one occasion I have been caught out, so much so that I now try and stay with my back to the mirror when fighting.

Another visual feedback method is video. This can be helpful in kata and individual kihon. In kihon try filming two students side by side to compare their technical differences or similarities. If you have the set-up you could film techniques from above (flaws in Nagashizuki show up particularly well).

There are some subtle and profound issues surrounding this idea of ‘internalising’ ‘externalising’, some of it to do with the origin of movement and the direction (and state) of the mind, but short blog posts like this are perhaps not the place for exploring these issues – the real place for exploring them is in your body.

Tim Shaw

Feedback (Part 1).

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It’s very obvious that people always appreciate having the opportunity to offer their opinion; particularly when it is something they really care about. So with that in mind I decided to consult with our regular students at Shikukai Chelmsford through the medium of a questionnaire.

I must admit, I was curious as to how this can be done through new technology. So initially I not only set about designing my questions but also researching the available platforms.

I had heard about Survey Monkey and assumed that this was going to be the one to use, however, after signing up and learning about all the whistles and bells and putting my questions in to the template I hit a major hurdle at question 10…. Something that wasn’t clear from the outset; i.e. that this so-called ‘free’ service was only free if you didn’t go beyond 10 questions, after that they wanted £35 a month, (sneaky eh!). So, frustrated and ever so slightly miffed I had to abandon the smiley happy world of Survey Monkey.

More research lead me towards Google Forms, this was totally free and in lots of ways was even better than Survey Monkey.

The idea of a questionnaire has many advantages, particularly when it is anonymous (I made sure that this was the case as it would allow people to give candid and honest responses). Without wanting to use too much jargon I would also say that Dojo members are also stakeholders; it’s in everyone’s interest that all needs are being addressed; in a successful Dojo the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

I think we are very fortunate at Shikukai Chelmsford that the social make-up and personalities all mesh neatly together, largely because we have a common goal and it is in our interests to perpetuate that particular dynamic – although I must say that this is the same for Shikukai as an organisation across all Dojos. However it does not mean that we have everything right; so the best thing is to consult the members.

The range of questions went from organisational issues; times, number of sessions, costs, etc, to venue and facilities; then on to training content, and even looking at fairness and equality. The links to the questionnaires came through to members via email and through Facebook, which was very slick. I must say, the design template also looked incredibly neat and professional.  The results came in steadily and were really helpful in getting a snapshot of where we currently are. The culmination of all this is that I will share the results with the students and this in itself will promote more dialogue and then work with them to address any issues.

Brilliant!

Tim Shaw

Sticking Points.

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More technical stuff.

Because you have to start somewhere, all of us use form as a framework to hang our stuff on. By form I mean, end position, making a shape, a posture, an attitude usually based around a stance, that kind of thing. This becomes our go-to teaching/learning aid. My argument is that we fixate far too much on that aspect of our training. Yes, it’s really important and can’t be by-passed, but to some it becomes an end in itself. It becomes a crucial moment of fixation working a bit like the full stop at the end of a sentence. Of course this is reinforced by a picture book mentality; where that end posture is used to judge quality, as you used to find in karate books that show kata, kihon or kumite. I have written before about the idea that some people think that the posture alone is enough to judge how good a person’s technique is – well, usually that and how much ‘bang’ they can give it. I find this really difficult to accept; surely we have moved on from this rather low branch in our evolutionary development?

Fixation points can be very dangerous; and habitually programming them into your nervous system is not what you should be doing as a martial artist. When the mind becomes fixated energy and intention stagnate and become momentarily stuck.

Don’t confuse this with pauses – I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but ‘pauses’ can be used as part of the necessity to manipulate the tempo and rhythm of an encounter, e.g. to create a vacuum to allow your opponent to fall into (another blog post perhaps).

Look for things that ‘happen’ on the way to something else. By that I mean; for example, watch an expert in motion and try and identify when the engagement first happens. If it’s of a high quality it will cause an effect on the other party; it may even cause his mind to fixate; a crude example would be an initial shin kick, or a distracting inner sweep; but it may well be something much more subtle and it won’t always happen on initial contact.

I can think of some very interesting manoeuvres in Wado where the atemi-waza occurs seemingly between moves. By this I mean, many of us too easily buy into the idea that a technique (be it hit or block) happens at the moment your ‘stance’ arrives; it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a time-line between moves, and that time-line has opportunities that relate to how your body is positioned in relationship to your opponent; it might be angle, it might be distance, or a combination of both, but you have an opportunity to do your stuff while on your way to your primary objective. All of this is the opposite of ‘fixation’. A mind frozen or fixated on a block or strike dies at that point; the engine has stalled and there’s nothing left but to throw away crucial time, slip into neutral and turn the ignition key again.

During sparring try and take a tally of how many times opportunities occurred and yet you were unable to capitalise on them. Often this reveals a number of weaknesses; one example being an overreaction to the threat of your opponent’s technique, but another is when you become fixated on what you are going to do, or have just done. Against a poor opponent you will get away with it, but against someone good your frozen nano-second will supply an excellent window of opportunity for your opponent.

And there’s another thing; don’t wait for the opponent to supply you with the big window of opportunity, slot into the smaller windows; be like a key in a lock.

Tim Shaw

The Dunning Kruger Effect.

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“When incompetent people are too incompetent to realise they are incompetent”, is only part of the story of the Dunning Kruger Effect. There is a lesson here for all martial artists (as well as anyone involved in any areas of the development of skill/knowledge).

The Dunning Kruger Effect is a graph or timeline explaining our perception of our own competence.

The Effect was first described in 2000 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University. At the extreme left of the graph is a statistical pinnacle, this describes the supreme level of confidence that a person with very little skill tends to have. The timeline then turns into a cliff face and as the true nature of the specific skill reveals itself and the level of confidence plummets. Then comes a long pit of despair; followed by a gentle rise towards a modest level of confidence.

I wouldn’t presume to ask anyone to try and locate their own position on the Dunning Kruger graph line; that would be a wonderfully ironic contradiction, particularly if they are near the beginning of the graph line. As martial artists given enough time we may be able to look over our shoulder at our younger selves and remember our own ‘cliff face’ moment, but all I would say is, be thankful for it, and be thankful that you had enough fortitude to soldier on.

I am not naïve enough to think that the Dunning Kruger Effect is liable to be as neat a curve as the diagram suggests; but taken in general it is liable to follow that path.

But what about the ‘modest level of confidence’ at the end of the graph line? This is another part of the story; Dunning and Kruger also revealed that when people do develop their skills to a high level they are also inclined to score low in confidence, because they believe that those around them may also possess similar skills. This stands to reason in some ways because if your world is populated by people of a similar advanced technical background then you are likely to be only making comparisons with people like yourself.

The ‘modest level of confidence’ may sound like taking a position of being overly modest or humble but it also may be a symptom of what is known as Imposter Syndrome. Although not classified as a mental disorder ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is a frame of mind whereby a person feels that their success is fraudulent, or that they’ve just been lucky. An author once said, “I have written eleven books, but each time I think ‘Uh oh, they are going to find out now; I’ve run a game on everyone and they are going to find me out’”, the author was Maya Angelou.

There is a basic checklist for Impostor Syndrome; it is;

  • If you exhibit signs of being a perfectionist.
  • If you find yourself overworking.
  • If you have a tendency to undermine your own achievements.
  • If you have an unreasonable fear of failure.
  • If you are inclined to discount any praise you receive from others.

I suppose for senior martial artists there is another negative tendency, best summed up by a T-Shirt slogan I once saw for elderly bikers, “The older I get, the faster I was”. For martial artists one of  the symptoms of this unacknowledged condition is the illusion that your belt is weirdly getting shorter day by day!

Tim Shaw

Cultural Appropriation.

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Recently there has been a significant amount of media chatter about ‘Cultural Appropriation’.

Susan Scafidi defines the negative aspect of cultural appropriation as, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

It’s interesting to look at how might be applied to Western-based Budoka. Firstly I’m not so sure that the standard bearers for traditional Budo inside Japan worry too much about having their cultural practices and icons ‘appropriated’ by enthusiastic Westerners. Robert Twigger in his 1997 book ‘Angry White Pyjamas’ said in a specific and telling quote, “Sara thought martial arts were pretty silly. To a trendy young Japanese, aikido was about as sexy as Morris Dancing”. I suppose that the more archaic and, dare I say it, ‘traditional’ a Japanese martial arts the westerners tries to immerse themselves into the more bizarre it must look to the outsider.

A friend of mine is a long established practitioner of Kyudo; a while ago he invited me to his Dojo. I must have looked upon it as creature landing from another planet; even though I desperately sought common ground I struggled to relate to the ritual and obsession around what in actual fact was a martial art that was based around just one simple action; firing an arrow at a target. Of course I realise there was far more to it than that, and he was able to explain to me the cultural significance and deeply personal struggle that all serious practitioners have to come to terms with. But the ritual observances and the setting up of the Shinto shrine, all of which seemed to take up half of the session, left me wondering exactly what was going on? Was I perhaps witnessing a more exotic version of what the Sealed Knot get up to every major summer Bank holiday? Or was this something else?

The opening quote hinted at an ownership issue; I get that, and I also understand that in the hands of the truly ignorant cultural icons can be misunderstood, misrepresented or even abused. They may even evolve into ‘Cargo Cults’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult ). I’m pretty sure this happens in the martial arts, it’s all over YouTube, but I think most people can see that and just find it a bit….sad. But hey.

But here’s a thing. Let me explain this through the lens of Japanese Art, just to show that Cultural Appropriation is not a one way street.

Pre the arrival of western cultural artifacts to Japan the Japanese printmakers and painters had no concern with western ideas of space and depth in visual compositions. I have at home an original woodblock print by Japanese artist Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748) of an Ox under willows, there is only the vaguest nod towards anything that might relate to foreground, background or middle distance; it’s all based upon a very formulaic and decorative methodology. When the later artists were exposed to western art the game changed, Hiroshige, Hokusai etc. embraced the ideas of perspective and distance and in Hokusai’s case he created visual puns, e.g the swamping of the mighty Fuji by the great wave!

But, when Japanese artifacts arrived in Paris wrapped in throw-away Japanese prints, Post-Impressionists became fascinated by the visual conceits  and ‘appropriated’ their methods for themselves – oh the irony!

tachibana_morikuni1

‘Oxen’ by Tachibana Morikuni (1679 – 1748)

Tim Shaw