Physical culture and martial arts have always been inseparable. Your physical properties/qualities have to aspire towards being the nearest match to the tasks you are expected to perform.
For me this throws up several questions:
So, how does that come about?
Are those physical properties a product of the training itself?
Am I perhaps talking about utilitarian strength versus strength for strength’s sake?
How strong do you have to be?
How is ‘strength’ defined within the traditional martial disciplines (is ‘strength’ even the right word, or the right measure)?
I am not going to get into the discussion about the merits of supplementary strength training; instead, I want to explore the subject through a very specific example.
Kuroda Tetsuzan Sensei.
In past posts I have made reference to Kuroda Tetsuzan Sensei, a modern day Japanese martial arts master, very much of the old school. Kuroda has an impeccable reputation amongst martial arts specialist who ‘know’. His ability is astounding.
He is the inheritor of the Shinbukan system which contains five disciplines within its broader curriculum; including the sword and its own Jujutsu system.
Kuroda has been a touchstone for me; the YouTube snippets have me totally spellbound; I have watched them so many times. Published interviews contain amazing insight and his ideas chime very closely to things I have heard in well-informed Wado circles.
This post is inspired by an extensive interview Kuroda Sensei gave in 2010 (published by Leo Tamaki ) and, to develop my theme I will make specific references to points made within the interview.
What really interested me was Kuroda Sensei’s back-story; the environment he was raised in as it related to the martial arts. Starting at the family home. In the interview Kuroda suggests that it was virtually impossible for him to avoid the all-pervading atmosphere of traditional Budo; it was as natural and essential to him as oxygen; in his domestic setting the noises of training were as much a part of his environment as birdsong.
In the interview Leo Tamaki does an excellent job of trying to pin Kuroda down to specifics about the physical side of the training, (I almost get the impression that Tamaki had tried to second guess the answers and that maybe Kuroda’s replies took him by surprise).
Kuroda’s father, grandfather and great uncle were brought up as martial artists of the old school, and, at the family home where they trained, there was only a thin partition between the living area and the small Dojo. In the interview, Kuroda Sensei made a reference to the physical qualities of these men:
“When we look at my grandfather’s body, or his brother’s we are impressed. But it is a body they have developed and acquired by training days and nights since their youngest age, using the principle of not using strength.
They did not develop it by lifting rocks, climbing mountains or carrying branches. (Laughs) It is by relentlessly practising without strength that they developed such thick arms. And this is a truly remarkable work.
Developing such a body without using strength requires unbelievable amount of training. It’s generally something developed only by intensive practice started very early in life. Being born in a martial arts masters’ house, they practised all day while students came and went. At the time, after a day of training without using strength it occurred that my grandfather could not hold his chopsticks any more and needed someone to wrap his fingers around.”
My view is that technique over strength develops its own brand of strength, a purely utilitarian strength. Picture a 19th century blacksmith who earns his daily bread by heating and hammering metal all day, and has done so since he was a boy big enough to hold a hammer, the body fashions itself throughout the craftsman’s lifetime, no artifice, no vanity. I once saw a photograph of a generation of blacksmiths, father, son and grandson, standing proudly outside of the forge, meaty forearms folded across their broad cheats, proud of their labours with probably no concern about their bodies; these were certainly not the same as the contemporary tattooed, preening metrosexuals to be found propping up the bar in your local bistro. This was functional muscle.
With Kuroda’s antecedents it wasn’t the ‘hours’ spent in the Dojo, it was the ‘years’ of day to day training that made the difference.
But it is Kuroda’s description of relaxed strength, a nuanced strength that transforms the body almost by stealth, that caught my attention. He describes his grandfather’s handling of the sword as being ‘light’, but he also tells tales of his grandfather’s ability in cutting, even with a blunt sword!
The interviewer further pursues his theme of practicing with strength, asking, “Can or should beginners then practise with strength and power?”
The answer is:
“In absolute terms, it is not really a problem that they practise like this. But by doing so, it is very difficult to evolve and progress to another practice. In an era where we have less and less time, and where we can only allocate a few hours per week or month, it is impossible to enter another dimension of practice by training like that.
This is why I teach the superior principles to my students, from the beginning. I also require them to absolutely practise without using strength. If we use strength, we are directly in a very limited work. By receiving these teachings from the beginning, it is normal to put them straight into application”.
Effectively he is trying to square the circle of people not having the time to train as people did in the old days but still needing to reach to the higher levels of attainment. The ‘strength’ issue just side-tracks the development. His attitude seems to be to introduce people to the importance of the core principles first, because at least then they can start to work it out with some element of time on their side.
He’s not against strength as such, I just think he’s very careful in his definitions, particularly about the application of strength.
Again, for me this rings bells. Thinking about my own early experiences of Wado, I am fairly sure the cart was placed before the horse, and then subsequently I had to spend an awful lot of time and effort deprogramming myself and learn to appreciate the importance of ‘principle’. To paraphrase a friend of mine, ‘We learned our karate back to front; we learned to punch and kick first and then we learned to use our body; it should have been the other way round!’ .
Newcomers to martial arts training, particularly men, have an image in their heads (and in their bodies) of what ‘strength’ looks and feels like. As an instructor, I have to try to unravel this fallacy, and even though they understand it in their heads it is stubbornly hard-wired into their bodies. With time and patience, it can be undone, but it takes a lot of dogged determination on the part of the instructor and the student to do it. Interestingly women do not seem so encumbered by this type of baggage; for me, this makes women easier to teach and gives them greater potential to fast-track their development.
I am certain that there is much more mileage in this area, but I think that Kuroda Sensei’s insights give us a glimpse into the past and the mindset of the Japanese martial artists of the old school.
Image of Kuroda Sensei, courtesy of; http://budoinjapantest.blogspot.com/2013/11/kuroda-tetsuzan.html
 He won’t mind me mentioning him, but credit for this comment goes to the irrepressible Mark Gallagher. Once met, never forgotten.