Wednesday, April 18, 2018


Old Butokuden in Kyoto. Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2015

I started training in the university judo dojo in Western Michigan University’s Oakland Gymnasium.  But I was really looking for tai chi. Now don’t laugh too hard, but from what I could find in Kalamazoo Michigan at that time, I thought judo was the most similar to tai chi. Back then there was no internet and no YouTube, so most of the information I was relying on was bad martial arts movies and descriptions from books. I didn’t have the first glimmer of understanding what I was getting into.

Judo was offered as a physical education course at the university. I showed up for the first class not really knowing what to expect. The classes were taught by Earl Bland and Robert Noble. It was a university physical education class, so it was filled with young, healthy students, most of whom didn’t know any more about what they were getting into than I did. I don’t remember much of that first day except that I bought a judogi and after class talked my friend Frank into coming to class because the teacher said everyone was welcome, whether they were paying for the class or not (I’m pretty sure the university administration would have had a stroke if they’d found out the teacher was inviting people to attend without paying for the class!).

I was more comfortable in the dojo than anywhere else on campus. It had been a dance room decades before and had mirrors along one wall. The mats were ethafoam sheets with a green canvas cover stretched over the top, with two competition areas marked out on it. You could always spot our people at tournaments because our dogi had a green tint from doing groundwork on the green mat cover. I took my first steps on the budo path there and I am still friends with many of the people I trained with at that time.

The atmosphere was relaxed and light. We learned how to fall down safely, and learned to call the act ukemi. We learned how to throw each other, how to do the arm locks, strangles and pins of judo. We had a great time, and we kept showing up for the classes for years after that first semester. That dojo was my favorite place on campus and I spent more time there than anywhere else except perhaps the cafeteria. Every semester a new crop of beginners would show up for the first class, and Frank, Sam, and other friends that I made stuck around.  We became the seniors in the university club. I hadn’t taken up judo looking for a competitive sport, but for the first time in my life I found one I enjoyed immensely, even if I was no better than average.

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When I moved Japan a few years later, I discovered a lot more of the variety that dojo can come in. I trained with the local high school judo club in the high school dojo, and I joined a nearby adult dojo that trained in an old gymnasium. The high school dojo is pretty typical for Japan. When I was introduced, the entryway had a bunch of faucets and under each one was pot of barley tea, chilling for after keiko. The dojo was a lot larger than the one in college was, but only half of it was covered in tatami, the traditional style mats for judo. The other half of the room was a smooth, wooden floor filled with people in kendo armor swinging bamboo swords and screaming. There were at least four kendoka on the floor for every judoka on the mats. The judo club was small, about eight kids, but they trained five or six times a week, and most had been doing judo longer than my four years. I learned a lot from them.

The old gymnasium, where the adult group met, was all that remained of an old elementary school. The school was long gone, but the gymnasium was serving as a community gym. People used it for kendo and volleyball and other things.  On Sunday evenings a group used it for judo. This was a few train stops from my apartment and the closest group of adults doing judo. That the gym was an old elementary school gym meant that it wasn’t heated in the winter or air conditioned in the brutally hot, humid Japanese summers. The mats were old-style tatami with canvas over it. Over time, the tatami had become compressed and compacted until it had only slightly more give than the wooden gym floor we put it out on each week. It was remarkable how fast my ukemi improved when I started getting thrown on this. At the end of practice, we didn’t do a cool down.  Instead, we picked up all the mats and stacked them behind the stage at one end of the gym.

It was the antithesis of a modern dojo, and was totally lacking in comforts and conveniences. No showers, no locker rooms, no changing spaces. Even the toilets were in a separate building. It was a great place to train though. Everyone was there for the judo. When I first moved to Japan it was the only place I felt truly, 100% comfortable. I spoke very little Japanese, but my judo was pretty fluent, and I knew most of the cultural cues around the dojo. I was certainly lowest-ranked student in the room, but I was welcome and comfortable and they worked me over hard every week.

Sunday night practice started with a class for the kids, and was followed by an adult practice for all of us who had made it to adulthood and still wanted to get thrown around. After bowing in and warming up, all the adults would line up on one side of the dojo, and the senior high students who stuck around to train with the adults would line up facing us.  We lined up by rank, so I started out on the far end of the mat. Every week we would start with uchikomi practice (throwing practice without actually throwing) and the junior side would rotate around the mat so they trained with many different partners. After a break we lined up again for randori. This time both lines rotated so we ended up training with both junior and senior people. After that, it was open randori time.  Anyone could ask anyone else to do some light fighting. Of course, the younger guys idea of “light” was different enough from what the seniors in the dojo thought of as light to make some of the practice interesting indeed.

Eventually that old gym lost its roof in a typhoon and had to be torn down.  We moved to training in an old dojo attached to a Hachiman shrine for a few months before we settled in the very new, very lovely community center. I still practice there when I go to Japan.  It's a beautiful new building, and a pleasure to practice in, but it just doesn't have the atmosphere of the old school gymnasium. The people are the same though, so the feeling on the mat during practice is much the same, with the added bonus that my feet don’t go numb in the winter during keiko.

Dojo can be anywhere, literally. I’ve trained in parking lots and backyards and on the grounds of shrines and temples and churches. Maybe the most interesting location for dojo is Hotani Sensei’s jodo dojo in Osaka. It’s on top of an office building. Not the top floor, but a separate building that sits on the roof of the office building and is strapped down to prevent it blowing away in a typhoon.
There are a few dojo that stand out as iconic. There is a wonderful dojo attached to Kashima Shrine that I have had the honor and pleasure to visit on a number of occasions.

Then there is the grandfather of dojo, the Butokuden in Kyoto. It was built in 1895, and the builders seem to have wanted to create the most impressive dojo possible.  They succeeded. The columns supporting the roof are massive, and the whole building has been polished and worn with use to a lovely patina that feels neither old nor tired, but alive with the energy of the people who have trained there.

That is the essence of a dojo. It’s not the place. It’s the people training and studying there. For me, dojo space is sacred. A dojo is a place for putting aside my ego and everything I think I know so that I can learn and grow and polish what I am. It’s often said that “you should leave your ego with your shoes” when you enter a dojo, and in good dojo, everyone does. A dojo is a place to study the Way. Whether the Way is Buddhist, Neo-Confucian, Taoist, a mixture of all of these, or something else is up to the students who study there. The important thing is that we are all there to learn and grow.

I have fond memories of many dojo. There was the one above a fish monger’s warehouse. Another in an old side building. Hotani Sensei’s on that roof in Osaka, and Iseki Sensei’s on the ground floor of his home. I can’t count the number of school dojos I’ve trained in, nor the number of gymnasiums I’ve been in for tournaments. The Kodokan in Tokyo has a gorgeous and thoroughly modern dojo on the 7th story of its massive building. Then there was the parking lot in back of Hashimoto Sensei’s house where we would practice and try to avoid sliding too much on the loose gravel scattered across the asphalt.

What I remember most about all of these dojo is training with the other students. At every dojo I’ve been to I’ve been welcomed warmly. It is the people who make each dojo special. Each has honored me by letting me join them and train with them. We’re all there to learn and grow, and we’re all there because we want to be. This makes any dojo a wonderful place to be. The physical location is a distant second to the gathering of people who are there to train and grow. That always makes space sacred. Even old gymnasiums and parking lots.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What is "Real Budo"?

What we do in the dojo needs to be real. It’s budo, not sport or athletics or some kind of game. We are practicing the serious art of controlled violence. This an art where mistakes have consequences. As Ellis Amdur points out so well in his essay The Real Importance Of Reishiki In Koryu, even the little things are critical. Even in arts that don’t seem to have any direct application in the 21st century such as naginata or kenjutsu have to be treated as real or the true value and lessons that the art has to teach are lost. What does it mean though, for budo to be “real”?

For budo to remain real, and not devolve into rhythmic gymnastics, a mindless dance or a meaningless competition, we have to remember what it is we are training ourselves for; at the most basic level, real budo training treats life seriously.

Proper keiko constantly reminds you how serious it is, even in the little things. All  those nit-picky little requirements about how a bokken or other weapon is handled, about never stepping over weapons and how you interact with everyone in the dojo all reflect that seriousness. Weapons, whether they are shinken (live blades) or wooden practice pieces, are treated with full regard for the damage they can do. Wooden practice weapons are handled just like the real thing, because you don’t want to have sloppy or careless habits when handling the real thing.

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Live blades are merciless. They don’t forgive mistakes anymore than a firearm does. For all the care I take, I’ve still cut myself a couple of times. Those were just shallow cuts that reminded me what I do is very serious, even when we’re not actively doing kata. Those nitpicky teachers insisting that there is only one proper way to handle your weapons and that even wooden swords should always be treated like they are live are not being pedantic. They know how much damage the weapons can do and do not want you to learn the hard way.

Humans are liable to distraction and hurry. If we always do something the same way, it becomes an unconscious habit and the way we do things even when we are distracted. If you start out with a bokken or iaito and always handle it like a shinken, then you will handle the shinken properly when your teacher hands it to you. When I started iai, I did so with an iaito.   A couple of years later we had a new student join the dojo who didn’t have his own iaito yet. While he was waiting for his iaito to arrive, Takada Sensei walked over to me one day, undid his sageo, took his shinken out of his obi, handed it to me and said “Give your iaito to him and you practice with this until his iaito arrives.” Sensei didn’t give me any special instruction about how to handle his shinken, he just handed it to me and went on teaching the new student. Sensei was confident that I had absorbed the lessons about proper weapons handling from training correctly with the iaito.

Takada Sensei was confident that his teaching had prepared me to handle a shinken without giving me any additional warnings. The kata teaching method works well. I handled Sensei’s shinken the same way I handled my iaito and didn’t have any issues with it. The proper technique was ingrained to the point of unconscious competence and came forth from my hands naturally and easily.

Even when it is not shinken shobu, budo must be treated with the seriousness of a shinken. We train seriously with wood and bamboo weapons so that when the moment comes and we find ourselves holding the real thing, when it’s not kata but life, the right things happen without conscious effort. The little things are the big things.

Reishiki, the etiquette that starts and ends each practice and regulates behavior during practice, is filled with little lessons that turn out to be big lessons. Paying attention to these details is the first step in keeping budo from degenerating into a pleasantly distracting sport. All those details that your teacher spends time on aren’t decorations of the important stuff that is practiced. They are important in their own right. Treating your teachers, your training partners, juniors, seniors, properly is filled with lessons for how you deal with real life.

Treating people with genuine respect and honor is an elemental lesson of real budo. This isn’t the casual respect of sport. This is serious. Look at the bow between training partners in arts like Shinto Muso Ryu and Tendo Ryu. In these arts the bow is respectful not only of the partner, but also of the partner’s ability and potential as an adversary. Training partners bow to each other, but they never give up their ability to move or take their attention from their partner.

Not paying attention is not  just another way of not showing respect. It also creates the first opening in you. This may not seem as real or important as the actual techniques, but if you’re not giving proper attention to people, you won’t be ready for any sort of attack.

Showing respect is a way of showing to those around you that you take them, and what you are doing, seriously. Budo deals with some of the most serious subjects; conflict, how we live and how we can die. I don’t think it gets any more serious than this. But if you only treat your budo as serious when you’re doing the techniques, you’re missing the most important lessons. Yes, those techniques are serious, but how you handle life is at least as important as how you handle your sword.

In budo, we learn how to handle weapons, how to handle conflict, how to treat others, and how to handle ourselves. If we’re not treating those things with respect, our budo isn’t real.  Weapons handling and dealing with conflict (including, of course, “fighting”) are obvious components of budo. How we treat others and how we handle ourselves may not be so obvious. How we deal with these lessons is what makes the difference between real budo and play budo.

It’s the little things that make budo real, as in bowing to our partner with sincere respect and not just because some old custom says we have to. How many conflicts and fights could be avoided if only people treated others with sincere respect? Fights happen not because people disagree, but because of how they disagree; often because people are, or think they are, being disrespected. This makes learning how to treat people with respect one of the most important things we learn in the dojo. Sincere respect is a powerful technique for preventing disagreements from escalating into violent fights where you have to use the techniques you’ve been sweating over at practice. Most people would prefer to not find out if their technique is up to the challenge if they don’t have to.

Real budo focuses on the little things, technical or otherwise. Learning to focus on the little things includes watching what’s going on around you and being aware of what people are doing and feeling. Is Sensei heading for the broom closet after practice? Show you respect him and the dojo. Get there before he does. If you see a new student struggling with the etiquette or proper dojo behavior, don’t wait for Sensei to show them. Talk with them before or after class and help them figure it out. Show respect for the new student and for what Sensei expects from everyone in the dojo.

Real budo isn’t just being aware of the spacing between you and your training partner, or understanding the timing for an effective counterattack. Real budo is being aware of what makes the dojo a good place to be, and helping to make it so without being asked or encouraged. Real budo is being aware of the feelings and needs of those around you, and responding appropriately. What better way to defuse conflict before it can start than being aware of rising tension and dispelling it while it is still only tension in the air?

It’s a paradox of budo. Arts that teach the most effective ways destroy life are immersed in teaching how to create better lives. This is the heart that beats at the core of real budo. Not brutal techniques of violence, but the subtle art of living.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Discipline and the Martial Arts in Japan

Martial arts and self-discipline are nearly synonymous in modern American culture. The benefits of developed self-discipline are heavily touted in advertisements for many martial arts, from karate to judo to Brazilian jujutsu to kung fu and Taekwondo. Popular images of ranks of martial artists performing technique after technique in perfect unison; “Senseis” who bark commands and students who leap to comply.

This is the image of discipline in U.S. martial arts, and if you travel to Japan, you’ll easily find more examples of this sort. Gendai budo culture was forged in the first half of the 20th century in the heat of Japanese nationalist fervor that saw the martial arts as a means of instilling “samurai values” into the masses of Japan. Modern budo that were systematized during this period often are run in a strict, formal manner. This is most clearly seen in karate and kendo dojo, especially in school dojo. These arts were molded to the service of the military culture of the day, and so they adopted many practices that are suitable for large numbers of people to train together.

Pre-modern budo, or koryu budo, in Japan weren’t designed or intended for training large numbers of people at the same time. They were, and are, about individual transmission, teacher to student.  As such, they don’t really lend themselves to large group instruction, and so the military tended to ignore the classical budo.

But there is one crucial difference between US budo practice and practice in Japan: Regardless of whether the art is classical or modern, students in Japan are expected to have self-discipline before they start. I can’t imagine anyone trying to get their child into a koryu budo so they could learn discipline.  It’s even more difficult to imagine any koryu budo teacher accepting a student in those circumstances.

In modern budo as well, Japanese students are expected to arrive with self-control. Teachers of modern and classical budo in Japan expect to be teaching their art, and helping their students forge themselves, not working on developing the basic self-control and focus students need to get through class. Learning self-control and focus starts at home in Japan, and it starts early. Children are encouraged from an early age to sit with a stillness that seems unnatural to an American. Behaving well in any public situation, whether it is riding the train, sitting in class at school, or practicing a sport, a martial art or a hobby, is emphasized and socially enforced from from the age of 3 or 4. It’s not that parents enforce good public behavior, but that society does it.

Japanese groups are self-regulating. School children are allowed to regulate their own social interactions, and they can be harsh. Kids who don’t play well soon find themselves ostracized and alone. Peer pressure isn’t just a thing in Japanese society.  It’s the only thing, and children learn to behave in public very quickly without much interference from adults. Teachers don’t usually need to enforce discipline, and from what I’ve seen they really don’t know how enforce it when it is needed.
Japanese society is quite ruthless about excluding anyone who can’t follow the norms of good behavior. There are stories of seeing children being allowed to fight or quarrel among themselves over toys or some such, and later, when the observer returns, he discovers the child who had been aggressive and pushy is ignored and alone while the rest of the children play together.

Even when students start budo at an early age, there is an expectation of self-control. The judo dojo in Omihachiman always had a few toddlers just out of diapers running around in dogi. The toddlers were gently encouraged to copy the older children, but if they went off script and sat in Sensei’s lap, that was greeted with an indulgent smile. By the time they were about 4 years old, they were capable of taking part in class, sitting at attention when called for without anyone having to yell or make a fuss. They learned self-discipline within the culture of the dojo and society at large.

In Japan, by the time most people start a martial art, usually in a junior or senior high school club, they are expected to have self-discipline already. Anyone without it won’t last. It won’t become an issue the sensei has to deal with. Their fellow students won’t put up with them. Japanese groups won’t tolerate undisciplined members. For self-discipline, it doesn’t matter whether the budo is old or new in Japan. Students are expected to enter the gate with self-discipline.

Discipline in the traditional dojo is modeled by the members, not dictated by the teacher. All that is required of a new student is that she sincerely work to learn the proper etiquette and behavior. I’ve been in dojo in Japan long enough to have been through the process myself and to have seen new Japanese students enter the dojo and learn.

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New students in Japan don’t come into the dojo with arrogance, or even an air of confidence. New students are expected to enter the gate with sincere humility and a sincere desire to learn. As long as the student is sincerely working at learning the way things are done in the dojo they won’t have problems and mistakes will be forgiven and gently corrected. One thing you will NEVER hear from a new student or guest is “In my dojo we do it this way.” If you’re in a dojo, you’re there to learn, not show what you know or how you’ve done it somewhere else.

This applies not just among Japanese children ostracizing kids who won’t play well, but also to large, socially awkward non-Japanese as well. I’m surprised at how generously I was tolerated as I blundered around the judo dojo when I first moved to Japan. I think I was regarded much as one of the toddlers in dogi running around the dojo were regarded; I was too lacking in proper learning and development to know how to behave.

By the time I moved to Japan, I’d been doing Judo for 4 years, so I’d sort of learned the basics of good dojo behavior. But in the years I spent in Japan I absorbed much more. I learned to really appreciate the simple respect and expectation of self-discipline that was embodied by everyone in the dojo.
Arriving in Japan fresh out of college and quite full of what I thought I knew, I made more mistakes than I can bear to remember in these sorts of things. I lacked the awareness of what everyone else was doing and what they would think of me that is an essential part of learning and entering the dojo as humbly as students in Japan should. The patience which my teachers and fellow students showed me as I slowly learned humility and emptied my cup amazes me still.

If dojo in Japan enforced discipline in the harsh way movies often imagine I would have been beaten into silence any number of times for my cocky, heedless behavior when I first arrived in Japan. I was greeted with calm patience instead. I did eventually learn to sincerely try to see what was going on around me, but it took longer than I care to admit.

The big, bearded gaijin was treated with much the same sort of indulgence as a toddler when I first showed up at the dojo.  I knew the some of the basics of dojo behavior, like when to bow, but I was completely lacking in the finer points of good behavior, of good self-discipline. I didn’t know how to properly receive an answer to a question or a particular point of instruction. I remember Hikoso Sensei teaching me about footsweeps one day. I had asked something about the timing, and Sensei carefully showed it to me once. Then he turned to someone else.  I was disappointed because he hadn’t gone into the details and spent time working with me until I “got it.”  What I didn’t understand then was the expectation between teacher and student that the teacher would show it, and then the student would go off on their own and work on the particular point rigorously by herself. The teacher or coach doesn’t expect to stand there making endless small corrections.  The student is expected to woodshed the point until she understands it deeply and fully.

My endless questions about things that I could have figured out for myself with enough work on my own were handled with what I realize now was a touch of disappointment that I was 23 years old and still so immature. I’m lucky I didn’t find koryu budo until I’d been in Japan for several years.  By then I had started to absorb some of the Japanese ideas about personal dedication and effort. I learned that if I asked a question about maki otoshi in jodo one week, I’d  better show that I was listening to the answer by putting in a few hours of polishing the technique before the next practice so Sensei could see that I was paying attention. Japanese children learn to apply themselves in that way very early from their parents. If a child is taking piano lessons or shodo class or karate, she is expected to be as dedicated in her practice away from the teacher as she is when the teacher is standing next to her.

The common image of the Japanese sensei yelling and berating their students isn’t false, but it’s not as common as the mythology would have it, and it’s missing the necessary context.. A Sensei doesn’t start yelling and berating students until she feels the students are dedicated to the practice already. Most of my teachers in Japan have not been fond of yelling.  They just don’t give you any energy if they think you won’t do anything with it. Whatever you do is “good” because they don’t want to waste time on you. When the teacher starts paying attention to you and tearing apart your technique you know you’re doing something right.

I do have one or two who like yelling. The funny thing is they never yell at new students. They seem to base their attention on who they feel is the most dedicated, and one sure way to show dedication is travel six thousand miles to train with them. Then you really get some attention. It can be disconcerting and downright frightening to have a senior teacher yelling at you with this kind of intensity. He expects you to have the self-control and dedication to knuckle down and do what he’s demanding.  If you don’t already have it, you’re not going to survive in the dojo. Those who don’t have it tend to leave at the end of the night and not come back.

The English idea that discipline is, as the Cambridge Dictionary defines it “training that makes people more willing to obey or more able to control themselves, often in the form of rules, and punishments if these are broken, or the behaviour produced by this training”. In Western society, discipline is something imposed from outside to train   Discipline is assumed in budo in Japan, whether it’s koryu or gendai. It’s just there when the student enters the dojo, or they aren’t welcome. The situation in the USA is vastly different. Society doesn’t assume children can have discipline. There is no real expectation that everyone will learn to follow the group and behave accordingly. This puts a different requirement on budo teachers in America if we want students.  We have to be ready to impose a certain amount of discipline from the outside because we can’t automatically assume that our students come with it built-in.  What’s thought of as “teaching discipline” in the US just doesn’t exist in Japan.  Japanese students learn that sort of self-control and develop the ability and maturity to apply themselves with dedication very early. Martial arts teachers don’t have to teach that; they expect discipline to be there before the student knocks at the gate.