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What is Taijutsu Skill?

June 26, 2010

That is a very pressing issue in the Bujinkan. Because we have a pretty laissez faire grading system, this makes the entire process of measuring a practitioner’s skill very subjective.

How do people react to it? There are generally three responses from people who stay in the Bujinkan:

  1. Life is subjective anyway, the martial arts even more so. Stop whining and grow up!
  2. I don’t like this grading system, but I like other aspects of the art, so I endure this aspect.
  3. I don’t have to put up with this. I’m responsible for MY dojo, so when in MY dojo we use a clear, objective syllabus and grading system.

One group that has taken setting clear and objective standards very seriously is the Israeli Bujinkan group. From the very beginning, they had belt ranks and the requirements for those ranks were very clearly spelt out. The founder of Bujinkan Israel, Doron Navon, was a Judo practitioner. And Judo as an art is very systematically taught and clearly graded, resulting in consistent standards amongst the practitioners. Navon carried the same attitude over to the training group Hatsumi Soke authorised him to lead.

I know of other Bujinkan practitioners who mock the Israeli practitioners as being off on their own path and not following the direction Hatsumi Soke is heading now. They say that their system only creates exam-savvy people who only know how to pass exams and not grasp the essence of a subject (like the typical Singaporean!).

My response? I don’t want to fight any Bujinkan shodan (1st Dan) from Israel. He would most probably hand me my rear-end on a platter! Those guys have what I consider the essence of taijutsu skill – dependable ability. When push comes to shove, they can use what they have been taught. And that is what I want for myself and those I teach.

1) Dependable ability within the Bujinkan context means being able to use what Hatsumi Soke has set as the Bujinkan syllabus.

For example, a 4th Dan practitioner of Hapkido will have dependable ability in Hapkido techniques, and if he turns up for a Bujinkan class may be able to use those techniques and prevail against a Bujinkan black belt, but that does not mean the Hapkido guy deserves a black belt in Bujinkan Taijutsu. Yes, there will be some techniques that overlap between the two styles, but the Hapkido practitioner should be graded on his mastery and use of what is in the Bujinkan syllabus. If his skill in Hapkido allows him to learn Bujinkan techniques faster, then he will be promoted faster in the Bujinkan.

The same applies to a practitioner of Judo or Aikido or any other art who seeks to train in the Bujinkan. There will be techniques or ideas that overlap, but the practitioner should be able to do things the Bujinkan way if he wants to be considered skilled in Bujinkan taijutsu. Let’s not have any more people doing Bujinkan-flavored Hapkido or Bujinkan-flavored kickboxing or stuff like that!

2) Dependable ability also means that the practitioner is able to apply the techniques and principles in a wide range of situations.

It’s relatively easy to do Omote Gyaku against a lapel grab in class. Slightly more challenging to do it against a punch. Even more difficult to apply it against a grab and punch attempt. Doing it against a long-range, I-can-see-it-coming-from-miles-away knife stab to the guts is quite alright, doing it close range against a slasher who knows what he’s doing is a different matter entirely. And all that is before we start considering the issue of using Bujinkan basic techniques in groundfighting…

Now take this mindset and apply it to every one of the techniques in the Sanshin no Kata and the Kihon Happo, drill it a thousand times on both sides for each variation and you’ll have enough material to keep you occupied for a few years or so.  And that is before we start adding in the weapons!

So if we want to say someone is a skilled Bujinkan practitioner, he needs to be able to apply the techniques of the Bujinkan (as listed in the Tenchijin Ryaku no Maki) in a variety of different settings. And I said apply, not necessarily name the techniques. In my class I am the only practitioner anal-retentive enough to remember names of techniques and sometimes even which of the Ryu-ha a technique or combination comes from. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I am good at applying them!

3) Dependable ability comes from training, and only from training.

Justyn Olby (my sensei) has said on a number of occasions “Learning techniques is the worst way to learn a martial art, but it is the only way…” The idea is that a technique is limited, so much can go wrong in applying it, so if you are fixated on trying to get a technique textbook-perfect in a fight you are going to be confused and caught off-guard when things go wrong – as they certainly will!

And yet as a practitioner perseveres in learning the techniques, something magical happens. The process is like that of a child learning to write. He or she starts with mindlessly copying how to form the letters of the alphabet and within a few years the child is able to write to express his or her ideas. How did the child make the quantum leap from mindless rote to genuine self-expression? I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but that doesn’t stop me from making good use of it and providing a good environment for that to happen.

It’s also like how I see music. I started off learning music by rote and mindless drilling, how did I get to the point where I can choose my notes almost instinctively to get the effect I want? How did that enlightenment take place? I can’t say for certain, but I do know that if I give a student the same environment I had when learning music, this student most likely will undergo the same transformation.

Likewise for taijutsu skill. Somehow or other, the student gets the ability to adapt a Ka no Kata from dealing with only one punch to dealing with two punches, and with only a subtle change in distance necessary. Somehow or other, the student is able to change the angles of his Ganseki Nage to fit in the other person’s height, build and what he’s doing. Somehow or other, even his mis-applied Ura Gyaku still works well and ends up with the textbook-perfect result.

And this “somehow or other” comes only through constant, relentless training.

OK, I think that is enough musing on skill, it’s time to actually practice to acquire the skill itself! Let’s see, how am I supposed to set up a waki gatame again? I know it’s not a Bujinkan technique, but it’s a good way to recover if I mess up my O-gyaku somehow…


From → bujinkan

  1. Wasn’t Judo also the sport that *started* the belt system?

    My take on dependable ability is this: it does not rest on whether a person has been graded, but rather on whether a person has tried out his stuff on many different people. When you do the latter, the mind subconsciously draws the essence of the movements into relief, thereby enabling you to do things right. And if you do things *truly* right, they should work all the time.

    I disagree with Justyn’s statement on technique being the only way, incidentally! Good CIMA practice is strongly rooted in kihon which are not technique-based. But perhaps he meant that technique is the only way in Taijutsu.

    • If I am not wrong, Justyn would call anything that can be defined, demo-ed and taught with a clear step-1-step-2-step-3 as technique.

      And as for grading, well, in an ideal world it SHOULD reflect dependable ability. The grades won’t directly confer skill (though I think the added confidence when I got shodan helped me do more than I thought I could), but should reflect it. Or at least correlate to some degree…

  2. That’s just the thing. The largest part of CIMA skill is not technique by this definition. It’s instead conditioning of a funky sort (e.g., transforming the tendons and bone marrow) or principles (which underlie but are not techniques).

    Grading is a problematic thing. I happen to know a thing or two about psychometrics (the measurement of mental faculties), and martial arts grading must involve some of that. The problem here is that such measurement works great for populations but not so well for individuals. In the martial arts, they are also difficult because context makes a huge difference.

  3. Well, that means that CIMA stuff can be stapled onto the training regime of anyone who likes a challenge, am I right? I hope so! 🙂

    I shouldn’t talk too much about grading, since I have been graded only in one art, but I’d say that grading in fine distinctions (yellow, green-tip, blue belt) would be more for organizing lessons than for measuring skill, while grading in large chunks (1st dan, 2nd dan, etc) would be slightly better for reflecting skill. Just my opinion…

  4. Parts of it, yes, but once you have certain foundations in place, the usual ways of doing things become inefficient, warranting a full shift to neijiaquan.

    At the same time, Taijutsu certainly does have something to offer a CIMA person, so it’s not like a full replacement in either direction would be called for, I think.

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