Tameshigiri, also know as ‘test cutting’ is not as large of a part of our art as it is for some others. But a few times a year we get some straw mats and slice them with swords. It’s a useful training tool to point out weaknesses in your form; when you fail to cut the mat it’s obvious that you did something wrong. It is also fun on a very visceral level.

Last night we cut for the first time since October. It was clear that I am badly out of practice, but never mind that. I also took some pictures, and while most of them look terrible, I really liked how this one turned out, artistically speaking:


Thoughts on Iaido by Nakamura Taizaburo

Go read the article “Thoughts on Iaido”by Nakamura Taizaburo with Guy H. Power & Takako Funaya

Nakamura Taizaburo founded Nakamura-ryu, an iai/batto sword style, in reaction to what he saw as weaknesses in classical iaido. This article is a meditation on those weaknesses and the experiences that caused Nakamura to think differently about iai.

In general, I agree with most of his observations. I very strongly agree with him on points #4, #5, #9, and especially #19; however, we do #12 and #14 in our style and I would argue for them. But really, the reason I want to comment on this article is the insight it gives into how and why styles changed during and following the WWII period. It is useful for understanding both those styles that changed to accommodate new ideas gained in war, and those that moved backwards in a reactionary way out of disgust.

I am most struck by his talk of swordsmen who “experienced actual battlefield sword techniques” during the wars of the 20th Century (paragraphs 5-7).

Now, Koryu Iaido dogma claims that Koryu arts are pure because they were created and tested by warring samurai. Thus, current practitioners are unfit to alter swords arts because they have not been in real sword fights. However, this article makes it clear that for certain men, Japanese militarization gave them a combat opportunity to re-test and then alter their arts.

In some ways this sounds good for the martial arts, in other ways it is deeply, deeply disturbing. Nakamura discusses exchanging ideas with Takayama Masayoshi, a war criminal who was sentenced to twenty five years “[b]ecause of his sword testing in China.” As footnote #4 explains, the euphemism “sword testing” translates to “killing 10 Chinese prisoners of war with his sword.”

That image–a dedicated martial artist killing prisoners to perfect his technique–is a haunting one. It is perfectly understandable that many teachers refused to keep the lessons from the War and “reverted to old-school sword techniques.” In fact, I think I now understand why many lineages of iaido discourage tameshigiri (test-cutting).

But yet…as horrible as the Japanese war crimes were, were the samurai of old any better? Or do they just seem safe and pure because of the distance of history? Swords are designed for killing. We may play at creative-anachronism, but the real truth is messy and tinged with evil.

The artistic flourishes that Nakamura complains about do still need to be addressed; pretending that nobody learned to kill with swords in China does not change that. Thus we end up and a morally confusing place. I think this is why most students of the Japanese sword ignore the effects of WWII on their arts and say they are learning the “life giving sword” rather than practicing ways to kill people.

Jigen Ryu and Cadences

I came across this video of Jigen Ryu a while ago. It looks (and sounds) strikingly different from most sword arts. They seem to go as fast and hard as is possible to strike terror into the hearts of men. This style is from Kagoshima: the south edge of Japan where the samurai remained most untamed by the government in the Edo Period and where the “Last Samurai” made their final stand in 1877. In other words, these guys have a history of ferocity.


* * *

I’ve been trying to feel the rhythyms in sword work a lot more recently. It seems to be most natural to fall into a steady beat of give and take with your opponent. Of coruse, you really don’t want to find yourself ‘taking’. I often find that we fall into this in partner drills; the defender will move simultaneously with the attacker as if they are dancing. This only works because the defender knows which block to use in advance. By following along with the attacker’s rhythym, the defender loses initiative and is playing the attackers game.

In our style, the cadence should be more syncopated…it seems best to wait a fraction of a beat for the opponent to commit to a movement and then move off rhythm to interrupt the opponents timing. There is, to my limited understanding at least, a certain aiki nature in what our timing should be; when done right it jams up the other guy and keeps him off balance.

Anyway, the reason I’m thinking about this now is that it occurs to me that the Jigen-Ryu stylists seem to take an opposite approach to timing. They are controlling the rhythym of the fight by dominating the timing. It looks to me like they are trying to go so fast and hard that the opponent will die like a deer in the headlights. It’s not very subtle, but I can imagine a few hundred guys running into battle like this would be quite a sight.

To summarize what I’m musing on, it seems to me that where we would break timing by by going a half-beat behind the opponent, they would do it by going a half-beat before the opponent. I am, of course, totally unqualified to comment on Jigen Ryu. It’s not what I study (nor wish to), but the contrast is useful for thinking about my own practice (and let’s keep in mind that I’m writing for my own benefit rather than your education anyway).



“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains.
The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

–William Arthur Ward

One of the most frustrating aspects of teaching is student attendance. Or maybe I should say lack of attendance.

I run a very small school. In the last two years, I think the average student population has been six. This means that when students don’t show up for class on a regular basis it’s pretty obvious.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that all of my students are adults and that as adults they have busy lives. On any given day I can quickly think of a 100 reasons why one could miss class. I also fully understand that most of the people I end up teaching are overly educated, are over achievers, and/or have careers that consume a lot of their time (by necessity or choice).

I also know that some commute long distances: I have one student in particular who has to drive one and a half hours each way in order to train with me. In his case, I understand why I don’t see him as often as others, nor do I expect him to come more often than he does. I myself can’t think of too many instructors that I would travel that far to train with either.

However, whether my students’ reasons for not attending class are valid or not, I would love to discover someway of motivating my students to make more of an effort to attend class on a regular basis. I mean, it’s in their best interest to come as often as possible, since they wont make any progress if they don’t.

Clearly, what I teach is not easy to learn and often requires meticulous attention to detail. I realize that students often leave class feeling frustrated, or feel as if they haven’t learned anything. Although they may show some grasp of the material, (at least at a conceptual level), I know they feel that trying to perform certain techniques to my level of expectation (or even their level) is overwhelming.

I also have realized I’m not the type of instructor who highly praises my students, though I will correct their mistakes to death. It’s not that I don’t respect their efforts, or accomplishments; from experience I’ve learned that praising students to often sometimes has the reverse effect. Instead of trying harder they think they have accomplished something and don’t try as hard to improve anymore.

Truly there is nothing worse than watching a student who thinks that he or she knows something when they really don’t. I see that at seminars all the time.

While I try to be balanced and offer as much encouragement as I can, the truth is that the only way a student will learn anything is by practicing. Repetition, repetition, and more repetition is the only way to learn. It’s a long tedious road with no short cuts. It is the true “master” that learns to overcome the feeling of tedium, and strive for perfection.

This of course leads back to attending class on a regular basis.

While it is true that one can practice on their own, practicing by one’s self never can and never will replace attending class. In fact bad habits, wrong movements, and forgetting pieces are much more likely to occur when practicing alone since there is no one there to correct mistakes as they are made and repeated.

I’ve said this a thousand times to hundreds of people: learn things right the first time, since unlearning things is 100 times harder. That’s just how the mind works.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that no matter what I say, or how often I try to motivate my students to come on a regular basis it just doesn’t work. They either come or they don’t. I, for one, don’t understand this mentality, since that’s not how I am, and when I commit to something, or set a goal, I give it my all.

Unlike many schools that call students or send motivational postcards to encourage people to come to class, I refuse to do these practices. I figure it’s up to the individual to want to do this. They decided to join the school, they pay me monthly with their hard earned money. If they came to class because they felt forced or pressured I know they wouldn’t learn much since they would not be fully focused. I for one would eventually feel resentful and quit if I felt pressured to do something.

Though I always initially ask for a commitment of two classes a week from every new student, and do threaten that I drop students who don’t attend that often, I rarely enforce this policy. Maybe I should, but the only real result would be even a smaller student population.

That of course wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing since every student I’ve had past and present knows that in my heart I would rather teach two or three really serious students than a roomful of hobbyists.

To be perfectly honest, I would rather have people quit my school than sporadically attend class. There have been several times when I forced a student to make a decision about whether they would remain at my school or not.

I know dealing with the issue of poor attendance is not unique to my school, and by now it shouldn’t bother me as much as it does. Its just part of dealing with the various people and personalities one meets in this line of business.

However, one day I hope to find a way to learn to inspire my students such that they look forward to coming to class so that this would no longer be an issue.

Until that time all I can tell my students is what their attendance means to me.

I forget who said it, but there is a quote that basically says one cannot be a teacher without students. I know for me that when I have a big class, I teach better and I’m more motivated. I am motivated to share more, and be the best teacher I can be.

I enjoy the energy a roomful of students brings to a class and the exchange of information each person contributes. That’s what made me ultimately decided to become a teacher in the first place.

Sure being in charge, “being the center of attention,” helps with my self-esteem. But I truly enjoy teaching. I like watching students improve, seeing the expressions on their faces when they finally comprehend what I’m asking them to do, and sharing in their achievement when they finally accomplish a goal. That’s truly exhilarating.

I also enjoy the camaraderie I form with my students, and what I learn from each of them. There is no doubt that several students, both past and present, have influenced/impacted my teaching style and/or personal life.

These are my reasons why I look forward to my students attending class on a regular basis, however I also want them there because it’s in their best interest. I sincerely want people to learn what I’m teaching.

One of my favorite quotes states;
“This one step – choosing a goal and sticking to it – changes everything.”
Scott Reed

I would like my students (current and prospective) to think about this, and encourage them to remember why they joined my school in the first place, and the goals they set for themselves.

A Brief School History Part 1 – The First Seven

Like I’ve said many times before, when I was younger I never had any intention of operating my own martial arts school. Running a school just kind of started on its own, basically due to an Internet chat I had almost thirteen years ago.

Basically, I was on some chat forum in the old “Prodigy,” when someone asked if they knew a place where they could learn some self-defense. At that time of course I wasn’t teaching, so I almost didn’t say anything. But something about his story regarding his necessity to learn, and his sincere request to learn some basic self-defense techniques prompted me to write back.

This person turned out to be Julian Ibanez, who I guess is technically the very first student I ever formally taught. If nothing else he is basically the one who started the ball rolling, and if I hadn’t been teaching him, I doubt I would have ever taught the others who came after him.

I don’t think I was teaching Julian for more than three weeks when he asked if he could bring his friend Rudy to class. At the time I didn’t think much about his request, and figured it was better for me if he used his friend as a punching bag instead of me.

All of a sudden I now had two students.

Several weeks passed, and one day while training Julian and his friend a lady passing on the street stooped and inquired if I would be interested in teaching her teenage son.

Now I had never thought about training any kids other than my own, but after talking with her for a while, and finding out why she wanted me to teach her son, I agreed to give her son a chance.

Her son turned out to be Gonzalo Padilla, who would train at my school for the next 4 to 5 years. Long after Julian and his friend quit.

Shortly after I started teaching Gonzalo, more parents approached me about teaching their kids, and within a month I was teaching Erika, Carolina and Ana Almanza, their cousin Zayda Bermudez, and Lily and Carolina Blanco. “THE FIRST SEVEN.”

Gonzalo Padilla
Erika Almanza
Carolina Almanza
Ana Alamanza
Zayda Bermudez
Lily Blanco
Carolina Blanco

I consider these seven students my first real students, and the reason there is a school today. Through their hard work and determination, and the fact they wouldn’t quit no matter what hell I put them through during those first two months, I became a martial arts teacher.

Of course these seven were just the start and within another month I had a total of 21 students.

Like I said, the idea of teaching kids wasn’t something I had planned on. To be honest I never thought any of these kids would last more than a few weeks. The truth is that initially I tried my very best to get them to quit by making each class as hard as I could.

However, no matter what I did or what I asked them to do, these seven tried their best and never complained. They never gave than less than 100% effort.

To be honest, in many ways they reminded me of when I first started and how eager I was to learn. The reminded me how I had never wanted class to end, no matter how worn out and sore my body had been, no matter what my teacher had asked me to do.

To say these kids trained hard would be an understatement. Since it was summer and they didn’t have regular school, classes started at 12:00. While they were supposed to end at 2:00, classes often went to 8:00 or later with no breaks. Furthermore, this schedule was daily–by their choice–and lasted from late June to the beginning of school in September. I figure that in their first two and a half months they trained more than most students do in half a year.

Of course, once school started I figured their interest would stop, but it didn’t. In fact they asked for more, and we continued to have daily classes that lasted about 3 to 4 hours each.

By this point, I was spending more time teaching than I was at my real job as a private investigator. Fortunately my work schedule was very flexible and the two jobs didn’t interfere with each other, which was a good thing since I didn’t make any of the first twenty students pay for classes.

That might sound like I’m a lousy businessman, but that was the promise I made to these kids, most of whom had families that lacked the financial resources to pay for extracurricular activities for their kids.

While I didn’t ask for money, I did have certain expectations. First of all, each student had to buy his or her own equipment. They also had to maintain good grades at school (“C” or higher), stay away from the local gangs, and attend class regularly. The would be suspended for any breach of this agreement.

During the next four years my core of seven basically remained the same. While others came and went, it was the first seven students who made me strive to make the school better. They made me strive to make myself a better instructor.

Over the years we shared birthdays, holidays, family outings, teenage traumas, and all other aspects of life. We were like a family, and I really cared for them.

It was really great was to see the positive change I made in some of these kids lives, especially those that were considered “at risk.” Watching these kids mature, graduate, and discover that they had the potential to achieve anything they set their minds to made all those long days of teaching worth while.

I will not and can not take all the credit for their accomplishments, and their increase in self-esteem. But I know I played a part, just as they played a part in my life. They truly enriched my life, and made me a better person. They definitely made me a better teacher, since I really didn’t know what I was doing those first few years.

None of these kids train with me any longer, nor have any trained with me in years. When each one left it hurt; to this day I still miss them. However, their memory, how they helped build the school, the good times we shared, and their legacy will live on.

Photo Sampler

We’ve always had a bit of a shortage of photographs on our website. We’ve really wanted to have professional quality pictures but have never made the time to do it right. Perfectionism is a bit of a problem, but on the other hand one is judged by what is on one’s website.

However, it feels like on a blog, more casual training photos are acceptable. Gary took a bunch of photos of Glen and I on Monday night, and I’m sticking a few of the action shots here. We’ll probably put up some more later with descriptions and break-downs of techniques.

The Garage

A Jo Takeaway

Another Jo Takeaway

Jutte vs Sword

Another Jutte Throw

Side-Kick Defence

A Sword Drill

Sword vs. Sword Throw

Tripping with a Yari

A Brief Social History of Japanese Martial Arts

I’ve been pretty frustrated by most histories of Japanese martial arts that I’ve seen. There are two main concerns I have: They often only look at the development and lineage of styles and schools rather than the interplay between martial arts and society. They are rarely written by historians, but instead by martial artists who bring in the biases and dogma that the arts they practice give them.

Rather than following the descent of styles, I’m interested in what caused feudal job skills to evolve into the often stylized and spiritual disciplines we know today. Most histories avoid the questions that I think are most important. I especially feel that writers gloss over the warping of the martial arts during early 20th Century militarism, and the reactionary changes that happened to arts in the post-war period. There seems to be a central dogma among martial artists that styles remain unchanged from their conception over the centuries as long as their lineages are unbroken.

Of course, I’m no historian myself. I am not referencing primary sources and I have my own set of biases. I might be misinterpreting facts, or even have some facts wrong. My theses will certainly change in the future as I learn and understand more.

I wanted to write up this sketch of history to help organize my own thoughts and to lay a foundation for other essays. At the least, I hope it causes some readers to think about things a little differently. I will be happy to discuss any polite disagreements; I may even revise this if you convince me I’m wrong.

* * *

I’m dividing this history in to four periods punctuated by three major
historical pivots:

Late Medieval (Muromachi / Sengoku Period)
   Final Pacification of Japan and End of Medieval Warfare (1615)
Pre-Modern (Edo Period)
   Abolishment of the Samurai and Modernization of Society (1868)
Early Modern (Meiji through WWII)
   Defeat of Japan in WWII and Occupation by United States (1945)
[Post-]Modern (1945-Present)

* * *

Late Medieval (Muromachi / Sengoku Period)

Martial arts in Japan extend back before the dawn of history, of course. However, records of the arts dissolve into legend before about 500 years ago. The late medieval “Warring States” Period (~1467-1603) is where the clear trail starts.

In this time, samurai were professional soldiers; martial arts were their primary career skills. Styles and schools were less organized and more to the point than in the Edo Period. A martial artist learned whatever and where ever he could to find what worked best for him. The individual and his clan were more important than they would be in later Japanese culture; a samurai’s skill brought honor to himself and to his house more so than to his martial school or his lord.

Schools were centered not around tradition and curriculum but around the personal teachings of talented fighters–“sword saints” as it were. Good martial artists survived and passed on their techniques. The need for battlefield effectiveness kept the arts honest.

This was the last period when martial arts were truly alive. Most current Japanese martial arts trace their lineage and inspiration back to this period.

* * *

Pre-Modern (Edo Period)

During the Edo period (1603-1868), a quarter millennium of peace reigned and the Tokugawa Shogunate reformed Japan into an autocracy with a feudal patina. The last medieval battle was in 1603; the generations of samurai after this were “warriors” who never knew war. Most samurai became white collar workers who carried swords as identifiers of rank rather than tools of trade.

But still, the martial arts were part of a samurai’s education. Each clan would send their kids to the local dojo to learn the basics of fighting. However, for most of the 2 million or so samurai men, the martial arts were not central to their lives. Without battle, the practice of arts became rote and lifeless over the centuries. Authorities tried to fight this trend. They formalized concepts of bushido–the way of the warrior–to inspire the men to embrace their warrior culture. Many schools changed their curriculums to put energy back into practice: introducing more self-perfection, spiritual discipline or increased sparring to get students to engage. Many schools also focused more on dueling techniques, like quick sword draws, rather than armored battlefield techniques to stay relevant.

On the other hand, a minority of samurai still trained to a professional level. Those in martial occupations–military commander, castle guards, police (doshin and yoriki), ronin working as bodyguards or thugs, etc.–still needed some form of the arts as life skills. Some families kept pride in military prowess as part of their identity and heritage, training their children from a young age and practicing throughout their lives. Of course, the families who ran martial arts schools put a special emphasis on retaining and refining their arts.

In this time, many samurai had the benefit of leisure time; serious martial artists were able to refine their arts to a level of subtlety and elegance that was not practical in the medieval period. The Edo Period was when martial arts flowered from skills to arts.

* * *

Early Modern (Meiji through WWII)

When the Meiji Restoration came in the late 19th Century, the samurai class was abolished and society embraced Western-style modernization. Military power was no long embodied in the trained elite with medieval weapons. Massed peasant conscripts with modern guns became the true martial force. While some former samurai became police or officers in the military, for most martial arts were now anachronisms.

Styles died as the feudal clan structure disappeared and fewer students wanted to learn. In many cases, schools disappeared as they folded their skills into new (gendai) arts like kendo and judo, preserving the martial arts but loosing their individuality. These new arts, along with imports like karate, became part of the national culture and drew practitioners from all classes of society. Eventually, kendo and judo were taught to all school children.

Some schools, now called the Koryu, were strong enough in students and stubborn enough in tradition to maintain their integrity. They kept training as they had in the Edo Period. In other cases, individual families kept their heritage alive and kept forcing their children to learn.

As Japan militarized, martial arts and the precepts of samurai bushido were co-opted to brainwash soldiers. Many influential martial artists joined ultra-right-wing groups like the “Black Dragon Society.” Officers during the “Rape of Nanking” proved their martial spirit by competing to see who could behead the most Chinese with swords. The spirit of bushido was going to drive Japan to glorious victory over all of Asia with no mercy.

There were also many martial artists who were disgusted by this neo-bushido, although it was difficult to go against the government. Jigoro Kano, for example, fought to keep the government from bending his judo to their means. Some just kept their heads down and stayed out of politics. Some fled the country.

* * *

[Post-]Modern (1945-Present)

But then the tide of World War II turned against Japan. Martial artists died in battles or in bombing raids, taking their styles to the grave. Many saw their children die on the field, leaving them no inheritors. Some were sick of violence and hung up their swords in the name of peace. Others retired in disgust, feeling betrayed and humiliated by defeat. The perverted bushido of militarization had failed.

Soon the American led reconstruction government banned all martial arts as part of their attempt to pacify Japan. The remaining teachers retired or went underground. As the ban was eased, many arts adapted so that they could continue to practice; they presented themselves as sports or spiritual practices rather than military arts. Some of these changes stuck in the long term, others did not.

Between the government discouraging martial aspects, some teachers trying to purge the stain of pre-war excesses, and the increasing distance between modern culture and samurai culture, many arts became noticeably softer, more spiritual, or sportier. In other cases, many older arts have stubbornly stuck to their traditions and tried to change as little as possible.

The social changes wreaked by World War II and its aftermath are still working themselves out–both in martial arts and culture as a whole. People are starting to look to the past again now and want to recover what was lost; it is an open question as to what they can find.

* * *

Appendix: Japanese Martial arts in the West:

There have been three main vectors of martial arts being introduced to the West:

Japanese martial artists came to the United States as either economic or political migrants during the pre-war period and subsequent reconstruction. Many of these teachers only taught their families or other members the Japanese community for the first generation, others taught publicly. As the older path, some of these arts have adapted quite a bit to Western ways. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a prime example, as are many of the arts that have come through Hawaii.

American soldiers, other Western workers, and their families stationed in Japan during the post-war period studied martial arts while overseas and continued to practice and teach when they returned to the West. This is how Japanese martial arts first became common in America, especially arts like Karate, Judo and Aikido.

In more recent decades, Westerners have traveled to Japan specifically to study Japanese culture and martial arts. Often these students are seeking deeper or more “pure” knowledge of arts they already study. In other cases, they are seeking out Koryu or other arts unavailable to them at home. This generation of teachers seems to be on the rise now.

Another vector worth mentioning is Japanese who have come to the West over the years specifically to teach and evangelize martial arts. There have been fewer of these, but some have been quite influential.

* * *

About the only general history of Japanese martial arts I’ve read that I can recommend is Armed Martial Arts of Japan by G. Cameron Hurst III. Many martial artists have written negative reviews to a degree that I think is encouraging. It shows that Hurst, whether his theories are right or wrong, is cutting through the dogma.

For the history of a specific art from an insider’s perspective, Legacies of the Sword by Karl Friday is worth reading.

Most other books I’ve read suffer from contain little insight beyond lists of styles and lineages and/or are written by amateur historians with too little objectivity.