Skip to content

Sempai vs Sensei

In the eyes of many people in many martial arts, a black belt means the ability or authority to teach. That seems logical; being black belt means you have a certain level of knowledge in a martial art, and you can’t teach what you don’t know, right? But, with the exception of Brazilian Jujitsu and the Filipino Martial Arts, people can be black belts (or equivalent) yet have little or no teaching ability. They could even be skilled practitioners of the art, that does not mean they are able to transmit to others the skills they themselves have acquired.

A conversation with one of my students helped me put into words something I had difficulty explaining before. This student was commenting about some people teaching, and said “They are more like sempai than sensei”. And with that everything fell into place.

Let me explain the Japanese terms first.

Sempai (先輩) is what you call the senior students in class. They have been around a while, they know what is going on, and they can give you pointers on what you need to do in order to get better, or to suck less. Their general job is to assist the sensei in running the class, whether in admin, management or helping juniors along by coaching in techniques.

Sensei (先生) is the term for teacher. It literally means “one who is born before”. Like the Chinese equivalent of Shifu (师父) it carries the idea of one who takes responsibility for the student. That, by the way, is why the Chinese hesitate to use the term Shifu on young people. The title literally means “teacher-father” and that is kind of weird to use on those who have not yet made their mark on the world or accumulated enough life experience yet. How effective can a young guy be at fathering anyone?

The difference between the two

The Sempai knows the syllabus. The Sensei looks at the student and thinks in terms of what the student needs, not just what the Sensei wants to teach. Don Roley, in one of his blog posts, described sensei who suggest (in the typical Japanese fashion) that a foreign student study practices such as the tea ceremony to deepen their understanding of the culture behind the martial art they are training in.

In other words, Sensei think big picture. That takes maturity, experience and a broad base of learning. Sempai, on the other hand, can get away with just following a sensei, or the official syllabus of their martial art organization or the like.

How the two types think

Take for example, a student who is thinking of extending his polytechnic course by half a year so that his modules will be more spread out, his studies will be less heavy and he can spend more time turning up for classes and self-training. Sempai may just think “yeah, this kid ought to be as dedicated to this martial art as I am!”, never mind that the Sempai are working adults with enough money to finance their own life decisions, while the student is still just a schooling kid and his parents are paying for his expenses. A Sensei, on the other hand, thinks about whether the student’s parents can afford to pay for half a year more of studies, and whether that family can afford to have that student entering the workforce half a year later than originally planned. And whether the growth in martial arts skill will pay off in the long run for that student.

Or a student may mention wishing to quit a decently paying job and replacing it with teaching martial arts instead. Sempai might tell him “It’s easy, you just need to have X number of students, paying $Y per month and that is a decent living right there! We can even let you get some experience in teaching first, by teaching at our classes”. A Sensei, on the other hand, will talk to that student about how feasible it is to find X number of students paying $Y per session, describe what stage of the business cycle a particular art is at in the country, and point out how successful martial arts schools actually meet overheads and pay their teachers. That way the student can intelligently decide if that is the kind of path he/she actually ought to take if the family is counting on him/her being a breadwinner.

Yes, I wasn’t kidding about the broad base of knowledge bit.

Sempai can look at pressure-testing, think it is a great idea, and go pedal to the floor on students who aren’t ready. Their logic? “Hey, it was great, it was beneficial for me, I learned so much from it. Let’s make everyone go through it!” Sensei look at each student and try to gauge the readiness of the student. And they are always calibrating the pressure levels for every student individually, so that the student may freak out but will not melt down.

Both sempai and sensei know how to game the system of the martial arts organization they are in. Sempai will think in terms of what they can get away with and what they can achieve. Sensei will think in terms of what is in the best interests of all parties concerned, the students, the organization, and even the martial art as a whole.

Sensei is a heavy responsibility

Because being a Sensei is a burden, and teaching is an entirely different matter from just training in a martial art and getting better at it, I cannot tell black belts that they ought to teach. Helping their teacher cover a class or two while the teacher is on holiday or unwell is fine, but taking on a long term commitment to teach is very different. And if your teacher has not taught you how to teach, you will have to spend time learning how to. A very different ball game entirely.

And depending your own innate talent and your life experiences, you may be at best Sempai as a teacher, not Sensei. That can’t really be helped, but just bear in mind your limitations. Work closely with people you know to be Sensei at heart, and you will find that you cause less problems than if you assume a dan-rank means you know how to teach or what to do.

Don Roley wrote this:

I hear people say that teaching helps your improvement but I firmly believe that it is a lie we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better about our lack of progress. Maybe I can vocalize the dynamics of something better since I have been teaching, but one of my teachers was quite vocal that true understanding of budo comes from the body and not the thought process. Learning is a sort of osmosis that you pick up through long hours of practice, the practice as described above. It is not thinking about it, being able to say how you do things- it is about doing it so that you no longer know how you are doing it anymore than a centipede can describe how he keeps his feet in order while walking.  Having a little old Asian man shake his head sadly and tell you to do something differently is thousands of times better than showing someone how to do it. (emphasis mine)

Don Roley described in that blog post what kind of practice leads to results. If you don’t have enough of that kind of practice, teaching others is not going to help you improve in anything else other than talking. And if I wanted to do talking rather than Budo I would have joined Toastmasters instead.

Conclusion

So this is an explanation of the big picture behind teaching. It is not specific to the Bujinkan per se, and can be applied to many other arts and fields of study too. If you are meant to be a teacher, this will help you know what you are getting yourself into. And if you are a student (aren’t we all supposed to be students?) this will help you look at the people who instruct you, understand the role they can play in your life and be able to respond to them accordingly.

Ok, enough talk from me for now. See you at training!

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore

Advertisements

The Weight of the Black Belt

So we now have yet another Singaporean black belt in the Bujinkan. As one of the first handful of Singaporean black belts in the Bujinkan (shodan at the earlier part of 2004), and the only one of that group who has continued training up till now, I have the duty of making sure you understand the honour and responsibility that you have been given.

Generally, people start off black belt at shodan (初段). The majority of us Singaporeans can decipher the kanji; we know it means “beginning degree”. You have achieved a milestone understanding of the art, in the eyes of your sensei. And that means you are a representative and a reflection of:

1) your sensei, who decided you have achieved that level of ability; and

2) the Bujinkan, the organization in whose name your sensei has awarded you the black belt.

In other words, your skills and ability is a reflection of your sensei’s teaching ability and judgment. As I said before in another blog post

“How well you can pick up the material you are shown is a reflection of your teacher’s ability. If your teacher has promoted you to 4th dan and you move worse than a green belt with only one year of Bujinkan training, you ought to ask yourself if you need a better teacher.”

My sensei’s grading criteria were simple; would he be embarrassed to present Student X as a Nth dan to Soke and the Japanese Shihan? If you move poorly (for example, you move with the left limb when taught to move with the right, or you regularly smash your knees into the mat when doing a backroll), your teacher has either:

1) crappy skills – therefore unable to show a good example;

2) lousy teaching ability – therefore unable to transmit proper movement to you;

3) poor judgment – thinking you are good when you aren’t; OR

4) all of the above

You also represent the Bujinkan to the community at large. People from other arts will look at you and make up their minds on the value of Hatsumi Soke’s art based on YOUR skill level. They might cut you some slack if you are just a white belt or green belt, but once you get to black belt, that’s a different matter.

The survival & flourishing of this art rests on the quality of our black belts.

In the early days of the art many people from other arts joined the Bujinkan because the black belts we had then showed that we had something superior to or more complete than whatever they had. We had long-time practitioners and instructors of well-established arts switching over. We had military professionals and combat veterans galore. People will real life combat experience, or whose lives depended on martial ability, saw value in what was taught.

You can impress noobs easily, skilled practitioners of other arts are not so gullible. Once they see you move or their arms contact yours they know if you have ability or only just talk. Any art can be praised to the high heavens through books and writing, people who can talk up a storm are a dime a dozen. The talented and the serious students know to look beyond the claims of the art and will not bother with ninjutsu if our black belts represent this art poorly.

In what ways can the art be represented poorly?

1) the black belts lack honour

In the guidelines of participation in the Bujinkan, Hatsumi Soke said “Only those able to exercise true patience, self-control, and dedication shall be allowed to participate.” That does not mean we all have to be perfect. We all have our own personality quirks and flaws. I am a saint only in my own eyes; my colleagues and family may tell you a different story. But a black belt means this person’s sensei is willing to stake the reputation of the Bujinkan on him or her being a person of honour.

As I said before

Because the main training system we use in the Bujinkan is the Tori-Uke system, which means we train in scripted situations and responses, honour is very important. It is essential that all the people involved have good reason to trust each other to follow the script. Anyone who significantly deviates from the script might seriously injure the other. And when the scripted technique is inherently dangerous (neck cranks or instantly damaging versions of onikudaki or mushadori) the person being demo-ed on needs to know that he/she is safe because it won’t be done at full speed or force.

2) the black belts have little ability in the basic techniques of the art.

We cannot accept boxers who cannot do jab-cross-hook; we cannot accept judoka who do not know osoto gake and seoi nage; likewise we cannot accept our black belts being lousy at sanshin no kata and the kihon happo. A Bujinkan black belt should be as good at kihon happo as a boxer is at jab-cross-hook or a judoka at osoto gake and seoi nage.

3) the black belts do not follow the principles of the art.

There are martial arts around that are built solely on the core principles of being stronger, faster and harder. If that is your cup of tea, good for you. Hatsumi Soke’s art, however, is meant to be even more than that.

The ninja’s taijutsu engages the motion of the entire body to generate the power of the strike. By combining the natural release of the breath with the expansive movement of the body from a base at the natural centre of gravity, power is a product of the entire body in relaxed yet vibrant motion. – Masaaki Hatsumi, Ninjutsu – History and Tradition, Unique Publications Inc., 1981

The entire body is used in a coordinated fashion, and the movement is relaxed but set upon a firm, balanced, base. In other words, if stronger, faster and harder is the only way you can make your techniques work, you are NOT following the principles of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu. And therefore not a good reflection of the Bujinkan.

Consequences

So if our black belts are poor, people with discernment will not bother to learn from the Bujinkan. They know that if a black belt is lousy, they will not get good instruction from either that black belt or from that black belt’s sensei, no matter how high the sensei’s dan rank is or how skilled the sensei is. They know how important a good teacher is, and will rather learn other martial arts instead of learning from a lousy teacher.

The Bujinkan will then be left with noobs, cosplayers or LARPers, people for whom it is just a pastime, not a worthwhile lifetime pursuit. The quality of the next generation of practitioners will go down, because not everyone in those groups of people want actual, genuine, real Budo. Eventually this art will be reduced to a social club of people with delusions of grandeur happily holding hands with each other, & good at little else other than talking about how deadly they really are.

Hatsumi Soke’s art deserves better than that.

But if you represent the Bujinkan well, you will win the respect of the martial arts community at large. You don’t have to be an expert in everything, or to be stronger, faster and harder than everyone else. You just have to be good enough at what you are supposed to be good at, and don’t talk crap about things you don’t really know or understand.

In Singapore, I had instant credibility in the eyes of skilled martial artists once they knew I was a Bujinkan black belt. People respected my black belt simply because there weren’t enough incompetent black belts around in Singapore to ruin the reputation of the Bujinkan here yet.

As far as I know, I have done my best to not bring shame to the Bujinkan, both as a practitioner and as a teacher. You hold a black belt now? Then I now pass to you both the gift of a good reputation and the responsibility of upholding it for the sake of the Bujinkan. Show by your behavior how much you think this art deserves,


Junjie
俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore
Black Belt since 2004

Damion Ellis – Bujinkan Poser

Generally, Bujinkan practitioners who have been around for a while say that rank is meaningless. Unfortunately, there are people who make it even more meaningless than that. One such person is Damion Ellis, who has gamed the system and slipped through the cracks, and thus gotten himself a Dai-Shihan rank in the Bujinkan.

Below is the text of the Facebook Note from Dale Seago, the man keeping track of the matter. For a commentary on such behavior, check out this blog post from Don Roley.

The Facebook Note itself:

______

The Judan who wasn’t there

On Sunday I was informed of this thread:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/168565660012520/permalink/593873344148414/

I sent the link via PM to Damion Ellis, as I thought he might want to say something about it, and according to Facebook he saw it about an hour later. But he never responded. In fact, three days later he still is not responding to messages from me, his instructor Chris Cowan, or Michael Simien (even though he was on Facebook again this morning), and Chris’s phone calls to him just go to voicemail and are unanswered.

To summarize things, I did not meet Damion to the best of my recollection until he moved up here from Southern California. However, back around the end of the ‘80s he was teaching what he was advertising as Bujinkan classes down there, claiming a black belt rank – godan, if memory serves – from Stephen K. Hayes. Some folks down there for whom I was doing occasional seminars told me about it and I had them go check out his classes. When it was apparent that he had no connection with the Bujinkan and was doing something different, I sent him a “cease and desist” letter indicating there could be legal action if he did not comply, which apparently he did.

After that he got into legitimate Bujinkan training with Ron Blackwood in July of 2007, and held a 7th kyu rank at the point where he moved north to the San Francisco Bay Area. He began training with Chris Cowan, who was promoted to Jugodan last year. In 2014 he went to Japan with Chris, and passed the godan test. In 2015 he went back, and (in light of the years he’d allegedly been training) Chris offered to recommend him for a more suitable rank. He actually gave him a signed letter for 10th dan as an option, but according to Chris they talked about it and settled on 8th dan as the most appropriate.

It now appears that Ellis took that Judan recommendation letter and turned it in, and also forged recommendation letters from Michael Simien (who was originally my student and was Chris’s teacher, and who never recommended Ellis) and David Fetterman (who does not even know Ellis). It *IS* conclusive that the letters from Simien and Fetterman are forged.

I’m not sure why this is coming to light now, a year and a half later, but it seems likely the promotion paperwork was misplaced and just recently found, and Mark Lithgow and Phil Legare were asked by Soke to check things out. If that’s the case then Ellis probably was not actually promoted to judan at all – though he claimed to have been. There’s a photo posted on Chris Cowan’s page showing Chris and a couple of others with their shiny new menkyo, and Ellis is standing there with them. The caption also congratulates Ellis (who is the only one not holding a menkyo) on his Judan promotion. According to Chris, Ellis said he received his package from Japan before everyone else’s arrived. . .and apparently no one has actually seen the Judan menkyo.

I would love to later be able to tell everyone “Oops, sorry, Ellis has an explanation for everything and we were mistaken”. But right now – especially since he has totally “gone dark” and isn’t communicating with anyone about this – that doesn’t seem likely.

EDIT/UPDATE, THU, 03 NOV 16:

Not looking good. He has submitted an explanation to a Dai-shihan in Japan, which basically boils down to meeting a mysterious Fairy Godfather with no last name at the Hub pub in Kashiwa, who granted his wish for recommendation letters.

Yes, really.

(EDIT: The individual has been identified and has confirmed that Damion Ellis did ask him for a promotion recommendation letter, but he says he refused because he had only met Ellis, not trained with him, so could not evaluate him.)

I can now confirm from that same Dai-shihan that, as I speculated in my original note above, no judan menkyo has actually been issued to Ellis by Hombu, he only claimed to Chris Cowan that he’d received it.

EDIT/UPDATE TUE, 25 APR 17: I checked in January of this year to see what the status was and was told, “The Admin put a big red X on his recommendation letter with a note regarding fraud and taped it on his record in the book he is in. Bottom line he is not getting promoted. If he tries to again later the admin will see the note in his record and again question it.”

That was regarding the 10th dan Ellis had claimed to have received, and the red X was in his godan book as that was the last legitimate rank he had held. Since then he has returned this month to Japan and been promoted to 15th dan. Soke may have done that without checking; in any case, I am informed that he has now been made aware of this.

EDIT/UPDATE SAT, 03 JUN 17: Well, well, something else for Soke to consider. Amazing what can sometimes still be found from the pre-internet age: Some documents from December 1990, back when Ellis was 23 and claiming to be a Bujinkan godan (as well as falsely claiming to be a California peace officer) have just turned up. They include the “cease and desist” stuff I mentioned above, along with a signed and notarized statement essentially saying he would go, and sin no more.

EDIT/UPDATE WED, 06 DEC 17:

On the recommendation of a Dai-Shihan in Japan, I was going to summarize everything to date and send it in a letter to Soke with pertinent supplemental documentation in a letter so that he would have everything in a single file. I was told that it was unlikely Soke would revoke his rank as he basically “just doesn’t do that”; but he would essentially be “persona non grata”: Not welcome in Japan training, and his students if any would be non-promotable. However, that may have just become unnecessary due to the new direction in the Bujinkan’s administrative procedures which were announced a few days ago:

http://takaseigi.com/falling-leaves/

This is about administrative communication flow, but once fully implemented Ellis may need to develop a relationship with a Dai-Shihan. Since the instructors in the areas where he has trained are now aware of his history and he’s burned his bridges with them, he’s going to have to look elsewhere. So I want to be sure all this remains on record in case he does find someone, so that informed decisions can be made by any Dai-Shihan dealing with him.

EDIT/UPDATE, 09 DEC 17 Here is a copy of the pertinent correspondence from 1990:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1OHfX0M77FfTE5TLXBhdHVvVVU/view?usp=sharing

EDIT/UPDATE, 20 MAR 18

Well, no need to develop a relationship (as I mentioned above) with a Dai Shihan if you can get the piece of paper saying you ARE one. Ellis showed up in Japan, at Soke’s class Friday night, and got Darren Horvath to recommend him for Dai Shihan. After I apprised him of Ellis’ background, Darren asked Soke on Sunday to please talk to Phillip Legare before going ahead with the award; but apparently he told Darren not to worry, that the title is really useless to Ellis because everyone knows his reputation. He went ahead and gave him the certificate at the beginning of today’s class. I know I shouldn’t speculate, but the idea may have been something like “You want it that badly? Here, have one, and see if it makes anyone take you more seriously”. Or perhaps it’s more to benefit everyone else: Asgard wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a place if Loki weren’t there. At any rate, it’s done.

 

Training in Japan – Getting Ready

I just came across this blog post recently

https://kumablog.org/2016/07/23/teach-them-correctly-please/

A couple of thoughts I found interesting

1) ready to train in Japan

As I wrote before in another blog post, training at the Honbu Dojo in Japan isn’t necessary or suitable for everyone. I said:

“No point going all the way to Japan to seek out instruction in Gikan Ryu or Kumogakure Ryu, or trying to go beyond the densho kata, when you haven’t even mastered the shoden kata from Gyokko, Koto and Shinden Fudo Ryu yet.”

It looks like Arnaud and I have some agreement in our ideas. He said:

“Because there were so few students, I trained with a young Shōdan. He was totally lost because he’s didn’t know the basic waza from the Gyokko Ryû. Even though I think that anyone should come here to train with Sōke and the Shihan, if you don’t know your basic forms, maybe it would be better to not come to Japan!”

This brings up the question: at what point is a student ready to fully benefit from a trip to Japan? I’ll get back to that in a moment.

2) What are basics?

Arnaud wrote about training with a black belt who was out of his depth at the Hombu Dojo. He said:

“I asked him why his level was so bad? He answered: “we do only basics”.

If it were true, he would have been good enough to train with, but that wasn’t the case. He didn’t know the Bujinkan basics at all. I don’t blame him, but his teacher. know that his teacher is Jûgodan, but I don’t know who he trained with, but he has to reconsider his teaching abilities. He let him go to Japan without the fundamental keys to survive here.”

So what are basics? Some people think the basics only refer to the Sanshin no Kata and the Kihon Happo. This is a very Chinese way of thinking, that by training a few simple movements and techniques one is ready for pretty much anything. In the old days it was embodied by people like Guo YunShen (郭云深) who was known for 半步崩拳打天下 (“using the half-step crushing fist on everything under the skies”). In the modern context, Bruce Lee expressed this mindset most clearly when he said, “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times”.

The problem with that mindset? When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The core teaching of Bujinkan Taijutsu is henka, the ability to adapt and change based on the situation and our goals. The very talented people can do that easily; they learn one or two versions of a technique and are able to from there extrapolate many workable variations. But such people are extremely rare. I know for sure I am not one of them, and amongst my students I haven’t seen any yet. Most people get the ability by training in many variations of a technique and looking out for what remains the same in the midst of change (i.e. principles).

And instead of hunting all over the place for variations on the basics or trying to create our own, we should try to hunt for the henka in the kata from the Bujinkan ryuha. Just looking at the various ways Omote Gyaku comes out in Gyokko Ryu and Koto Ryu is enough to keep me busy for a while.

Ready for Japan Training

Actually, the easiest way to look at the matter is this: What do the Shihan teach at the Hombu Dojo anyway? Hombu lessons, depending on the choice of the teaching Shihan, usually are on:

1) principles – distancing, angles and such, expressed in basic techniques (Kihon Happo, Osoto Gake, and such)

2) Ryuha Kata – material from the 9 (or 6) schools of the Bujinkan I know that there are many, many kata from the Bujinkan ryuha, and it can take a long time to get your students good at them. A good guide we can use to prepare a student for training at Hombu is Jin Ryaku No Maki. The kata there are arranged by theme instead of by the ryuha they originate from. This helps reduce the amount of overlap a student would have to sort through if they were taught the kata directly from the ryuha.

3) Weapons – katana, bo, naginata and the like. I also include Muto Dori in this category too. The student doesn’t need to know all the muto dori kata of Gyokko, Koto, Takagi Yoshin and Togakure Ryu, but at least some. My preference is to teach the muto dori kata from the third level of Gyokko Ryu. That is a good enough primer to the topic if you really have to cut a few corners here and there.

When a student has had enough exposure to these three main areas of study, he or she is able to make sense of what is going on in the Hombu lessons.

Conclusion:

Training at Hombu Dojo is the expression of this truth: the Bujinkan is a huge community. Being part of this community has its benefits and responsibilities also. When we prepare our students properly for training in Japan, we prepare them to take up their roles and responsibilities in this international community also. As the sensei of our respective dojo, it’s our responsibility to prepare them for that rite of passage. If we won’t do it, who will?

 

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore

Haibu Yori – Teaching

You can teach martial arts for a variety of reasons. You can teach them as personal development, for sports and competition, for historical and cultural study (art for art’s sake) or for self-defense. I generally teach Bujinkan Taijutsu as art for art’s sake, not self-defense. When people grasp the universal principles of good movement, they can, with a few hints here and there, apply those principles in many situations, including self-defense. As long as there is no urgency to develop ability within a short time frame, that is my preferred way to teach.

But once you teach Haibu Yori (背部より), things are different. This group of kata are more oriented towards self-defense than battlefield combat or use in a sports-type competition. Since that is the case, there are more considerations to look into when teaching these kata. I just taught these kata a few Thursdays back.

Sakketsu (殺締)

Teiken (蹄拳)

Yubi Kudaki (指砕)

During the lesson, yes, I gave a lot of pointers about getting the techniques correct. Off the top of my head: bear-hugs can be for either holding you in place for other opponents to attack, or they can be used to wrestle you to the ground for a group stomping. The Full Nelson is a neck crank attack, usually from people strong enough to make it count. I taught you the best angle I know to position your elbows to release the pressure on your neck, but it is so much easier to escape if you start moving before the crank is fully locked on. The rear collar grab in a self-defense situation means you need to check who is grabbing you first. The last thing you want to do is go ballistic on your future mother-in-law when she is just trying to pull you back from stepping on the family cat, for example.

Big Picture – To Teach Effectively

I am usually careful when teaching my material, but with haibu yori I am even more careful. These kata involve the element of surprise, and can therefore trigger overreactions. Sakketsu and Teiken involve head strikes to the rear, stomping on shins and feet of the grabber to set up the main escape move. If a student panics with those moves the training partner can be injured.

For kata to be usable, for the student to acquire skill in executing the ideal movement shown, the student needs to drill them enough reps, and with resistance, but at the correct pacing. First the student has to get the basic movement correct. For example, in Sakketsu the first move, moving the hips back to create space, has to be done with a firm snap, not muscling into position. If the student does not get this movement correct, there is not much point adding resistance. If you add resistance before the student is ready, he/she very quickly gets into the habit of using brute force to muscle out of a firm grab. When the student finds that he/she cannot muscle out of a firm grab, the student usually resorts to cheap shots (grabbing the groin, etc) and such to escape. In theory that sounds suitable for self-defense; but what if the student encounters a determined opponent and is caught by surprise? If the student’s first instinct is to try muscling out, then by the time the student realizes that it has failed the opponent could have already wrestled the student to ground, or the rest of the attackers have already moved into place. Kind of late for the cheap shots then.

Once the basic movement is in place, then more resistance has to be gradually added so that the student develops the habit of using correct movement, based on firm structure and coordinated limb usage, even under stress. The training partner has to carefully pace the resistance; too much at one shot and the student loses the presence of mind to use good taijutsu.

In other words, I need to strike a balance between:

  1. just enough stress to enable you to function under panic and the adrenaline dump; but
  2. not bringing a student into blind, frenzied thrashing because he/she was in fear for his/her life in training. I have to bring you to the edge, but not push you off the cliff. Once you open that can of worms too quickly, all kinds of problems come out.

What I fear is some instructor blindly copying ideas from reality-based self-defense training, without understanding ALL the elements that they put into place to keep things under control. It is easy to see only that the professionals add scenario role play, resistance and other elements to add pressure to the training, but miss other important details, such as the pacing and other safeguards they put in. Remember, the organizers and the facilitators are afraid of trainees going bonkers during the classes and bringing a lawsuit against them after that. We don’t want to discover the hard way that things can go horribly wrong when we add in stuff others do without fully understanding it.

Conclusion

My lessons have shifted away from solely getting techniques correct to dealing with problems and situations. That is when we start to discover that the real world is more complicated than we think.

The kata give us a framework to study. They are only a framework, but if you have taught Budo (or music, language or anything like that, for that matter), you will soon realize that it is pretty much impossible to teach any complicated topic without one. Hatsumi Soke has been talking a lot about moving beyond the kata; but to understand what he means you need to know who he is talking to. He is talking to the senior foreign practitioners who have been training with him for decades. They know the kata a lot better than most of us do. They are capable of moving beyond the kata, I am not, at least not yet. Check with me again on this in another decade or two. In the meantime, see you at training!

 

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore

Togakure Ryu – Lessons from Kata

I was just teaching Kata Ude Tonso No Kata, from Togakure Ryu (demonstrated in the video at 0:24 onwards)

And the topic of the kata’s unusual beginning came up. Yes, the first three of the Tonso no Kata from Togakure Ryu start off with these three weird, dance-like, shuffle steps. Yes, it is weird. Yes, no one fights like that in real life. What then is the point of starting off the kata in that way?

Firstly, the people who train the kata in that way are not incorrect. This is how the kata is taught by Hatsumi Soke AND his Japanese Shihan. Any Bujinkan instructor who insinuates that this is incorrect is implying he understands Togakure Ryu more than Hatsumi does. Such people should just leave the Bujinkan and set up their own organizations. You cannot have it both ways; you cannot claim authority to teach Togakure Ryu from the Bujinkan organization and yet claim to know Togakure Ryu better than the head and founder of the organization. If Hatsumi thinks you understand Togakure Ryu at least as well as he does, he’d have issued you Menkyo Kaiden (License of Full Transmission) by now. If he hasn’t done so yet, maybe you still have some more learning to do. And if you disagree with that, you can just leave and set up your own group where you can do and claim whatever you wish.

Next, we need to remember that the ryuha not only transmit actual techniques for combat, they also transmit how to teach lessons to the next generation. And that means, within the densho kata are embedded the necessary elements for the next generation of practitioners to grasp the combat paradigm Togakure Ryu wants to inculcate. Based on my low level of understanding, here are three of the lessons embedded within the three shuffle steps.

1) Rhythm of three

This is the most basic and simplistic mind hack ever. Do a movement twice to establish a rhythm in the opponent’s mind, and on your third move you break that rhythm. The opponent usually will have a brief mental lag, and that is when your third move has a better chance of success than if you were to do that move at the very beginning. Boxers use that mind hack with the elemental jab-jab-cross combo, and there are many other examples from the realm of combat sports.

And those who sneer at me talking about combat sports, such as boxing, are welcome to try their luck against a boxer who has trained at least half the time they have spent in Bujinkan training. If they have never experienced having the rhythm of three actively used against them, the only one laughing will be their dentist, raking in loads of money trying to fix their broken teeth.

The three shuffle steps allow the kicks or strikes the best chance to succeed. This rhythm of three is something I have yet to come across in the kata from the other Bujinkan ryuha, and so I was thrilled when I understood what this was for!

2) Basics of Taijutsu

There are two types of force most basic to grappling and wrestling: push and pull. When untrained people try to pull, they usually plant their feet in place and tug frantically with their arms. The dance-like shuffle steps of the Togakure Ryu Tonso no Kata teaches us to pull using our entire body in movement, not just the arms. In fact, when properly done, Uke does not move the arms at all, only the legs and feet.

3) Basics of Ukemi

In the kata, Tori shuffles along in rhythm with Uke. In real life, Tori is stumbling, staggering, frantically trying to regain balance while being dragged away. Normal human instinct when being pulled: to dig in one’s heels and pull back (with only arm strength). The better, more intelligent response is to step forward to dissipate some of the pulling force; but yet not too much (or else you would step into the opponent’s next attack and end up funding your dentist’s downpayment on his second condominium purchase). The three shuffle steps of Tori train us in how to regain our balance in such a situation.

And such a situation is VERY applicable even in this day and age. Women and children are still being kidnapped and abducted. When out of nowhere an arm appears, grabs, and starts dragging the intended victim towards a nearby van, that is when knowing how to react intelligently to a superior pulling force will make all the difference.

Foundational Truth

Normal human instinct does not serve us when under genuine danger. If totally untrained, we will struggle ineffectually against such threats. Hatsumi Soke recently redefined “Muto Dori” as “to capture without fighting”. It sounds too woo-hoo, but it isn’t, if you understand that to fight is to struggle, to match strength versus strength to determine which side is stronger. True martial arts is about going beyond the need for such struggle, to intelligently generate and apply force where the opponent is not able to receive, disperse or otherwise handle.

Yes, it is THAT simple. But it is not easy, in fact, very difficult, because we are fighting against our own instincts and impulses. For example, the sui no kata movement of moving offline at a 45 degree angle while blocking or deflecting the opponent’s attack requires years and years of training to inculcate. Moving with kamae and taijutsu (maintaining body structure and coordination) is so counter-intuitive that any martial art that does not emphasize those two elements can easily get their students to a basic level of fighting ability, fast. Of course, the trade off is that you replace using kamae and taijutsu with using, muscular strength, speed, aggression and cheap tricks.

Conclusion:

I can see three important lessons from the shuffle steps, and I am not even an expert on Togakure Ryu. How much more can we learn from those kata if they are taught by a good teacher? But the important point I want to make: I could figure out all this so far because I did not try to change the kata to fit my impressions of what proper training ought to be. Instead, I chose to preserve it and hope that eventually I or the students I have taught will figure out what the odd parts of the kata are for.

And that is what I urge upon any other Bujinkan instructors reading this post. Ask your sensei, ask your sensei’s sensei, check with people who train in Japan or ask the Shihan yourself if you ever train in Japan at Hombu Dojo. But don’t change the kata to fit your own limited understanding. As Someya-Sensei said during my Japan training trip, “These techniques have been passed down for a thousand years, it is not for YOU to change them…”

And if your students ask you about parts of the kata that you do not understand, it is perfectly fine to tell them honestly that you don’t really know. Don’t try making up some really funky tales for the sake of impressing your students. In the long run you’d be happier being real with those you train with!

 

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore

Class Notes 21 Dec 2017

Onikudaki

Remember the line you want to form with your forearm or stick. That makes the directions of the force applied very much clearer. If you end up struggling to complete this lock, odds are that you did not get the line of force correct.

How do we get the line of force correct? One way is to keep doing the onikudaki stretch on yourself. That way you know how you want your recipient to feel when you are using onikudaki.

onikudaki stretch

Torite drill

From omote shuto – receive with jodan uke, and apply onikudaki as your partner draws his arm back to a doko no kamae. Follow his arm back to move away from his other arm. Maintain the line of force even while moving (now that’s onikudaki in the REAL world).

Against a modern knife stab/slash combo

When you know the second slash is coming, drop your weight down and maintain arm contact with the knife hand. Notice how this then hands you the onikudaki on a silver platter, nicely wrapped up as a Christmas present?

Onikudaki (Takagi Yoshin Ryu) – take note of the options available from stepping different angles. 1st step is back 45 degrees, then you step in to bring your back foot next to the front foot and capture the arm. From that point on, moving yourself 90 degrees to the line of his arm gives you different results from moving back 45 degrees the other way.

For more Hibari-like results, drop straight down. Just be careful on your way up. And try this in class only on experienced practitioners, they are better able to take ukemi for this.

Kata ho (Kukishin Ryu)

If all you know and train in is onikudaki in its basic form, you may not be able to recognize ideal opportunities to use it. Many students then end up hunting for the lock/capture. This means their minds are caught up with trying to do a technique rather than watching to see what the opponent is doing. That is when technique for technique’s sake can kill you.

The torite drill, the modern knife attack combo and this kata from Kukishin Ryu teaches us to recognize opportunities to use onikudaki. Our mind learns to recognize the context when onikudaki is an appropriate technique, instead of hunting all over the place for it.

Onikudaki escapes

When you draw a circle with Uke’s elbow, Uke may try to drastically turn his elbow the opposite direction. Follow that change and use either te makura or ganseki nage, depending on his arm position and your angle and distance to Uke.

If Uke uses the pat-twist escape or just squirms off your line of force, continue turning your hips in the direction of the onikudaki, and change the arm positions to do musha dori instead.

Onikudaki works by drawing a circle with the elbow while keeping the hand up high. If Uke moves his hand down, follow it down and use the arm bar of setsu yaki (from Shinden Fudo Ryu).

Conclusion

When you understand the hand & elbow positions for a successful onikudaki, you know how to escape onikudaki by intelligently changing your hand or elbow positions.

When uke levels up by knowing how tp escape onikudaki, tori likewise levels up by learning how to flow into other appropriate techniques. When you know how to go from onikudaki to other techniques & how other techniques can flow to onikudaki, that is the beginning of being able to transcend technique. That is the beginning of using kyojitsu tenkan ho.

It is one thing to talk about the theory in class or demo the movements, it is quite another to see pretty much everyone in the class get what I mean and show it in their movement. If we keep progressing at this rate we will soon be able to study the kata of the Bujinkan ryuha in and of themselves. Currently I use the kata to teach certain points, but when we study the kata the way they are meant to be learned, there is a different transmission that takes place, and you receive different insights and understanding. But all in good time.

See you at training!

Junjie 俊傑
(Shunketsu)
Bujinkan Ninjutsu
Singapore