Public Relations Ninjas

Breaking news:

Last ninja: ‘Be able to kill your students’

“The teachings of Grand Master Masaaki Hatsumi echo through my head as he entreats me to attack a blackbelted disciple with a practice sword. ‘Always be able to kill your students,’ he says.”

I just love the headline. I also always wonder how one gets these kind of PR puff pieces. I guess the Bujinkan is large enough and well known enough to be able to attract attention. As such pieces go, it’s pretty well written and doesn’t distort too many facts.

It’s also really interesting that they wrote up a description of the 5th dan test; it’s my understanding that this test is a really big deal so I would have thought all the details would be more secret. “Twice the staff cracks on White’s head before he slumps out of the way on his third try — enough to satisfy the master.”


Respecting Live Swords

I’ve been thinking a lot about live swords today…that is, sharp Japanese katana…razor sharp.

In the past, I’ve seen heard a number of arguments on training with live swords, also known as shinken. Generally, a small number of folks think live blades are important for training, while the majority of practitioners think that such a position is irresponsible and insane.

We use live swords in our school.

Generally, we use them for solo practice, especially iai (sword drawing) forms. We almost always use bokken (wooden swords) for drills with a partner. Although, on very rare occasions, we do use real swords for such drills among the more experienced students–in which case we all move very, very carefully.

And that is the key to the argument in favor of live blades: it forces you to be aware and to treat the weapon with respect. If you are training to fight with a sword, you need to practice with a sword, and know how it behaves and what it can do.

Put crudely–arrogantly–‘if you play with toys you will learn to use them as toys.’

It has been said that where kendo is about improving yourself, kenjutsu is about killing. We students of kenjtsu are learning first to avoid death and second to kill. No matter how anachronistic the art, or how graceful we try to make it, in the end we need to be honest with ourselves. This is an art of life and death. In every moment of our practice, we must be serious and mindful.

We practice with live swords so that we will not be harmed by them–yet another paradox of the traditional martial arts.

From the other point of view, the argument against live swords is simple. It’s dangerous. Stupidly dangerous. It is irresponsible to place students at risk, and there is enormous liability if they get hurt. Most Japanese sword arts do not let students anywhere near a live blade for many years, if at all.

Of course, kendo is almost defined by its safety equipment (bamboo swords and armor), so one would not expect them to use live blades. Indeed, they take the opposite approach of developing life-and-death mindfulness by being safe enough that kendoka can spar at full speed with full intention.

Most iaido practitioners use an unsharpened iaito instead of a live sword for safety reasons. Although, I often wonder (with pure speculation) if the switch in many styles away from shinken had less to do with safety than with post-WWII restrictions on swords and martial arts. Advanced practitioners will often use shinken, but only after years of practice.

Now, I’m not trying to claim that practicing with a dangerous weapon is superior to other types of training. It is easy to let juvenile machismo lead one down that path. Not everybody practices swords arts for the same reason, not everybody is the same kind of student.

I, for one, am a lifelong klutz.

One can mull all these arguments, but in the end, I practice with a real sword because my teacher tells me that is how I should practice and because that is how he learned. Sometimes it feels terrifying–the first time I swung a live naginata, fear and awareness coursed through me. Sometimes it feels like stupidity. Sometimes it just feels like everyday life. And that, perhaps, is the worst reaction.

In fact, on this particular day I’m not feeling very good about the way I train and the mindfulness behind it. I have stopped fearing my sword. I have become too comfortable in my practice. I have stopped respecting the fact that my sword is a tool of mortal peril.

Thus, yesterday, while practicing a quick-draw I had not tried in months, I stabbed myself in the hand.

The cut was deep–deep enough that I’m lucky no tendons were severed.

I was trying to remember the subtleties of the draw while not paying attention to performing them. I was supposed to stab the imaginary opponent behind me, but I didn’t keep my left hand down, so it met the sword’s tip at full speed.

In the end, it has all turned out okay. I’ve got a bunch of stitches and need to keep my hand on light duty for a week or two. All that will remain is an angry scar and embarrassing questions about how I got it.

But for today, I’m thinking hard about swords–what they mean to me and why I practice.

I’m know that next time I pick up my sword it will be with a sense of fear: not respect, but fear of the dog that bit me. Once the fear fades, I hope that a mature respect will return in its place. I hope that for the future I will stay focused and mindful. I hope that every time I pick up my sword, I will stare at the scar on my hand and remember–remember that martial arts is the struggle of life and death–and I’m my own enemy.

Cardboard Tube Samurai

Penny Arcade is an online comic strip that normally sticks with jokes about video games, random vulgarity, or characters stabbing each other in the eye.

Every once in a while, however, they put “Gabe” in a period setting, give him a cardboard tube as a sword and have him kill evil henchmen. Today the “Cardboard Samurai” here.

Some past comics:

March 2003, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

July 2003

January 2004

July 2004, Part 2

Martial Arts Ads – 1985

I always thought the whole point of being a ninja was the fact nobody knew you were a ninja. I mean, telling people you’re a ninja kind of takes away that element of surprise.

I do think it would be cool to learn the power of Invisibility though.

My Japanese Art Collection: Doshin

A few months ago I purchased the below print from an E-bay auction. I bought it solely because the print depicts doshin (police officers), even though the seller had no information regarding who the artist was, when it was printed, or the story it relates to.

So far I know this much; there is no artist signature or publishers seal anywhere on the print, not even a watermark. It also appears that this print was part of a bound book, since there are holes along one side of it. The print also lacks a certain attention to detail, making me believe it is fairly modern piece of work.

Other than that I have not been able to find anything else. Hopefully, someone out there who sees this will be able to tell me more. Any help will be appreciated.

Looking Back – Don Angier Seminar 1994

With the upcoming Yanagi Ryu seminar on April 29th/April 30th 2006, I find myself reminiscing about the first time I met Mr. Angier.

That day was April 16th 1994. It was a day that would change a lot of things for me, especially in regards to how I teach, and the direction I would take my school from that period on. You could say it was a turning point in my martial-arts career.

When my teacher left to return to Japan in 1989, he left a void. I no longer had a teacher, nor was I sure what to call what I had been doing for all those years. My teacher had no name, no style label, for what he taught.

All I knew was that it was Japanese, and that we used swords, spears, naginata, various other polearms, jutte, tessen, tanto, jo, and lots of empty-hand techniques that focused on vital point strikes and joint locking techniques. I also knew from his stories that this was not karate or aikido, two arts he had little respect for.

I also knew it was related to the Samurai, (low ranking samurai) though my teacher always downplayed that connection.

The problem for me was that in 1989 there were few if any Japanese-style martial arts being taught in the San Francisco Bay Area other than judo, aikido, kendo, and jujutsu. If there was an iaido school, I wasn’t aware of it. And although I heard rumors of a school that taught naginata, I could never find it. (Remember the Internet wasn’t what it is today in 1989.)

So there I was without a teacher or a clue what to look for. My search began.

For the next two years I investigated numerous schools throughout my area. I tried karate schools, aikido schools, kenpo schools, various styles of jujutsu, and a few Chinese systems.

I approached each with an open mind, but I knew what I was looking for, and didn’t want to settle for anything less. The longest I lasted in any of the schools was four months. Long enough to form a legitimate opinion whether the school was what I was looking for, and could meet my expectations.

To say that after a few years I became discouraged is in an understatement. Not just because I couldn’t find another teacher like my old one, but also because all these schools taught so differently. The training was nowhere near what I was used to.

In many schools no contact was ever made between students when doing techniques. In others all we did was sparring. Then there were schools where the uke would fall before you ever even did anything, and worse yet the uke couldn’t even attack realistically.

Then of course there were those styles (mainly the Chinese ones) where everything was so foreign to what I had done all my martial-arts life. They were interesting, and gave me a new perspective on how the body can be used, but they still weren’t what I was searching for.

Lastly, few if any (except the Chinese ones) did weaponry, besides the staff and various assorted Okinawan weaponry. Few, if any, had ever heard of, or knew how to use the jutte, yari or tessen. And don’t even get me started on what I thought of the sword work many of these schools passed off as traditional.

After searching for a school for several years my mind started to play tricks on me. No one taught the way my teacher had, nor did anyone teach the things he taught.

Sure, the aikido and jujutsu schools taught similar things. But there were still some major differences between the execution of the techniques, and the intention behind what they taught. Some were too sporty, others to spiritual. In many cases they just simply lacked realism.

There was the additional fact that in several of these schools my abilities were better than the instructors. I’m not saying these instructors didn’t have things to offer, or that my skills were superior, but it was clear I had more experience and many more hours of training than many of these guys who were now teaching me. That was very frustrating.

Yes, I know that when you start at a new school, you are suppose to start with an “empty cup” and a willingness to learn their way. But doing things you know are simply wrong, and you can prove are wrong within a few seconds is hard to do. It went against everything I had been trained to do. Keeping my mouth shut, and going with the flow, especially when something is wrong is not my strong point. Ask anyone who knows me.

Of course I tried to be a good boy, and do what I was told, but the more I relinquished my old ways the more I started to dislike the martial arts. There was even a point I almost stopped completely.

I’m very sad to say this, and I apologize to my teacher forever feeling this way, but I actually reached a point where I started to question what I had learned in the past. I started to think I had wasted my time, and what I learned wasn’t real. After all, everyone else did things so differently. How could they all be wrong?

Fortunately, these doubts were all about to change.

Now, I have no idea how I obtained the seminar flier for Don Angier’s seminar in Concord, California, and I can’t remember why I decided to attend it. At that point in my life I had never heard of Mr. Angier, or Yanagi Ryu.

I arrived on the morning of April 16th having no idea what to expect. All I knew was that Mr. Angier was the inheritor of a traditional Japanese system of martial arts, and that according to the flier his knowledge of the history, rituals, and secret teachings of traditional Japanese martial arts was “unparalleled in or out of Japan.”

Interesting enough billing to make me go, but I had still had reservations about whether anyone could live up to such hype. Of course I went in hoping for the best.

I’ll never forget my first impression of Mr. Angier as he greeted me coming out of the changing room. He was short, stocky, and walked with a limp. He was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, and looked less like a martial artists than just about anyone I had ever met, though I learned early in my life never to judge a book by its cover.

While outward appearances rarely have anything to do with skill, what I remember most was that Mr. Angier was also very friendly and unassuming–another trait that immediately separated him from many instructors I had met at seminars, or in schools with well known head instructors.

The truth was that while Mr. Angier was the guest instructor, and people had come to see him, he still made it a point to greet everyone, and in my case to learn a little about my background.

Like I said, I didn’t know Mr. Angier or his history, so I’m sure he must have found my story of how I got involved in the martial arts quite amusing. After all, there are several parallels to our stories. Of course he didn’t say anything at the time, and I wouldn’t discover these commonalities until years later.

Now I’m not saying that my teacher and Mr. Angier have the same abilities–technically or in their methodology of teaching–or even do the exact same style of martial art. That wouldn’t be true. However, watching Mr. Angier that day I couldn’t help but think of my teacher, and the fact I had finally found someone who did things that were so closely related.

After all these years of searching I had finally found someone who could put a name to what I had learned, and remove all doubts about what my teacher had taught me. What I learned from my teacher was real, and there were others practicing the same things. I wasn’t wrong and my teacher wasn’t wrong–we were just different than the other schools in my area.

It would be an understatement to say I learned a lot during the two days of training with Mr. I learned years’ worth of information, some of which I’m still working on today. However, the techniques he taught were just the icing on the cake for me.

The real value to me was all the concepts, ideas, and scientific principles Mr. Angier shared so openly and freely. Many of which I knew already, but he managed to put into a different context. Or should I say, reminded me of things I hadn’t explored in a long time, or had taken for granted.

Another important thing Mr. Angier did for me that weekend was renewing my desire to further investigate my art. He reminded me to value what my teacher had taught, and put aside my self-imposed desire to find a new school and start over.

Basically, he instilled in me a belief that I should practice and explore what I had already been exposed to, as well as search for the intricacies within the techniques I already knew.

Lastly and most importantly of them all Mr. Angier instilled the ideal to “be true to my art and myself.” This is something I had clearly wandered away from trying to cater to so many other people, and their opinions.

My first seminar with Mr. Angier was a major steeping stone towards the direction I now take when practicing and teaching others. It had such an impact on me I’ve made it a point to train with Mr. Angier whenever he is in my area. I’ve also made it a point to encourage all of my students to attend.

I never go to Mr. Angier’s seminars to learn techniques, and with some of the techniques he teaches I have a strong belief he has no real intention of anyone actually learning them. I think his goal is deeper, and his true intentions are to get martial art practitioners to “think” differently about what they do, how they do it, and why things have to be done a certain way. I truly think his goal is to inspire those who attend to search for the science behind techniques, and why things work so they can grow as martial artists and reach a level thy didn’t think possible beforehand.

So if I don’t go to Don Angier seminars for the techniques, why do I go? I go to a Don Angier seminar to be reminded of my past training, and to have my objectives as a martial artists renewed and invigorated. I go there for the explanations on how techniques work, and the martial science he shares. I go there to explore things I never thought of before, or to have theories of mine confirmed or contradicted.

I even go there to be “yelled” at when Mr. Angier corrects me over and over again for not being relaxed enough, or for using too much power. And yes, he corrects me a lot.

Most importantly of all, I go there to educate myself, mentally and physically–mostly mentally–so I can be the best martial artist I can be. The best teacher I can be.

I may never have Mr. Angier’s skill, or possess his knowledge about samurai history and traditions, but each year he pushes me to better than the year before. For that, and for helping me see the value of what my teacher gave to me, I am forever grateful.