Fiddler Crab

As an add-on to to Gary’s recent post about his bear mon, a few words about a design I made for myself.

A bear is the right totem for Gary on many levels, and has been all his life. But I had to think long and hard to discover which motif was me. Yet, in the end it was obvious that the fiddler crab is the only choice. This is not because crabs are a traditional motif in Japanese art and mon design, representing what I wish to say about myself. It is because my left hand is much larger than my right hand.

I don’t actually have any need for a mon, but I thought it might be useful to have a crab logo to use as an icon on websites or anywhere that asks for a photo. And I do like the style of simple black-on-white or white-on-black silhouette design. So at one point when I had too much time on my hands I ginned something up. I’m claiming it’s not a mon because I put it in a square instead of a circle.

While I have no talent for drawing, I was able to put this together using GIMP (a program similar to Photoshop). I started with an actual photo of a fiddler crab, then rotated and manipulated it until it looked vaguely like what I wanted. Then I carefully traced parts of the photo and saved those traces as their own images. I then took the the left half of the crab’s body, mirrored it to get a symmetric crab, then stuck the big claw back on top. I couldn’t figure out how to include the little claw in a satisfactory way until an artistic friend of mine suggested drawing it in using negative space. This adds depth to the drawing while consciously breaking with any traditional artistic style.

I’m really happy with the result, and it has worked well as an icon for me. I highly recommend this technique of tracing within photo editing software if you want to create a mon-like silhouette and don’t have a real artist to draw for you.

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My Personal Mon (Japanese Family Heraldic Symbol)

For years I’ve used the below mon to represent Yachigusa Ryu Aiki Bugei. This has never has been my personal mon. It is a tribute to my teacher, and relates to the name “Yachigusa,” which translates to eight-thousands reeds (or grasses).

I am fond of this mon, and have used it for years to represent the school. However, I’ve never felt it was my own.

I not of Japanese heritage, so there is no way I could have inherited a family mon in a traditional manner. My teacher didn’t formally adopt me into the family, or ever give me permission to use his–which is okay since it’s been so long now that I don’t really remember what it looked like any way. I’m sure, however, that it was esoteric. And given my teachers propensity to be obscure his past, it was likely a design that he adopted later in life rather than being inherited from his father. While being allowed to wear his mon would have been very meaningful, I wasn’t destined to do so. That’s life.

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Although my ancestors on my mother’s side have their own European heraldry/coat of arms, given my attraction to all things Japanese I’ve always desired my own personal mon. I can’t really explain why, or even fully rationalize it, but it’s just something I’ve wanted.
Of course not just any mon would do. I wanted a mon that represents me, and is symbolic of who I am, where I’ve come from, and where I’m going: a mon that tells a story. I wished to have something I could pass down to my children.

I had a design in mind, but since I’m artistically challenged I could never draw on–or at least not one that I would ever want to show in public. Try as I might, creating my mon, or even finding someone who could create it for me, just didn’t seem to happen.

That all changed in 2005 (maybe 2006) when an art student by the name of Piya Wannachaiwong, started training at my school.

Never being one to pass on an opportunity to use a student’s talents, I discussed my desire for a mon with Piya, who told me that it would be no problem to create. He even seemed genuinely interested in such a project. He accomplished it very quickly in fact, along with another logo I sometimes use on school documents/advertisements.


School Logo

The fact that Piya completed my mon quickly was great. But more importantly, he was able to draw my mon the exactly the way I described it to him.

My concept was simple:

  • First of all, I wanted a bear as the focal point. My teacher always referred to me as the “stubborn bear.” A bear also happens to be my Indian totem (I’m part Choctaw).
  • Secondly, I wanted to incorporate reeds, as a sign of respect to my teacher. However, I wanted the bear to be breaking out of the reeds, symbolizing my individualism and growth as a person and martial artist.
  • Lastly, I didn’t want the mon to be 100% Japanese. I wanted it to be traditional in appearance, but with a certain amount of “western” flair to it.

This was the result:

The bear perhaps looks more aggressive than stubborn, but it still conveys the message that nothing will stop it. The way it’s parting the reeds, yet still relying on them for stability, was just as I had imagined it should be. Without question I was very happy with the way it came out.

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Alas, things don’t always work out as planned. The mon was completed, and I had permission from the artist to use the art work in any manner I desired, but I never was able to use the bear mon. There’s a simple reason for that: the image was lost.

Originally, when Piya completed this art work for me, he only gave me a draft copy of it. All I possessed was an 8 1/2 by 11 inch pencil sketch. The plan was that I would get a finalized picture later. Unfortunately, this never happened and Piya did not remain at my school much longer.
Of course, I should have still had the draft copy. But, strangely enough, it disappeared never to be found again. I can’t explain how that happened, but it did. Since I discovered the loss after Piya left the school, I had no way of contacting him to get another one. I just had to accept the fact that the mon was lost. I was sure I would have to wait until I found another opportunity to have somebody draw a mon for me, which might never have happened.

Fast forward to November, 2010. I was idly search on the Internet. I’m not even sure what I was searching for, but it wasn’t anything related to the school. Imagine my surprise when I saw my bear mon. There it was just as I remembered it. After all these years I had stumbled into it. Talk about dumb luck.

At first I wondered what it was doing there, since I had never scanned it, or had a digitized copy. Who was using it? Where did they get it, and what were they using it for?

Then I realized the image was posted on Piya’s personal blog, that he set up to showcase his work. I immediately wrote him an email regarding the image, explaining how I had lost it, and asking him if I could still use it. He graciously said yes.

That was a good day.

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When I met Piya he was an art student. Now it appears he a successful, employed illustrator at Amscan, the largest party supply company in the world. He has also freelanced for game companies, churches and any other company which might appreciate his services.

I guess I can say I knew him when.

I always promised Piya that I would give him the recognition for the art work he did for me and the school, and though it’s years later than it should be, I hope this blog entry does just that.
Thanks Piya.

School Info Update

As previously mentioned, Glen Hunt is now the San Francisco Dojo-Cho, and Gary Moro is teaching classes in Antioch, CA.

We’ve updated our contact information to reflect this:

For information about Yachigusa Aiki Bugei in general or classes in Antioch, California contact Gary Moro at 925-206-4079 or at yachigusaryu@aol.com.

For information about classes in San Francisco contact Glen Hunt at 415-401-5901 or at reverse_blade@sbcglobal.net

Information about Yachigusa Ryu Aiki Bugei can also be located on Facebook.

Finesse Vs. Force

Finesse – 1. adroitness (display physical or mental skill), refinement and delicacy of performance, execution, or artisanship, dexterity / nimbleness. 2. The ability to handle delicate and difficult situations skillfully 3.Cunning; skill; artfulness; craft

Force – 1. Strength; energy; vigor; power 2. the intensity of power; impetus (physics – a force that causes the motion of an object to overcome resistance and maintain its velocity) 3a. physical power or strength exerted against a person or thing. 3b. the use of physical power to overcome or restrain a person; physical coercion; violence

“More Force! More Force!,” I yelled at the new student, who clearly missed the sarcasm in my tone. The other students in class just smiled, most likely recalling the times they had been the recipients of this verbal outburst. They of course knew what I meant.

Perplexed, the new student tried the technique again with more force. The result was even worse than before. Over and over again, with ever increasing force he tried to make the technique work, but to no avail.

Frustrated, and completely agitated with his poor performance, the new student finally stopped and asked me if I would show him the technique again. “Finally,” I thought, he is ready to learn.

After signaling the class to come to attention, I demonstrated the technique several times. Each time I did the technique I did it slowly and deliberately just to illustrate my point. A point I had been waiting over 20 minutes to make.

When I was done I turned to the new student and asked him if he was able to see the difference between what I had just done, and what he had been doing. Still baffled by his earlier failure, he looked at me with a blank stare. I gave him a look of encouragement and waited.

Then all of a sudden his eyes opened, and the look on his face said “I got it.”

“So what was the difference?,” I inquired. “You didn’t use any force,” he replied. Eureka!, he understood. He can be taught. The class nodded in approval, most of them most likely recalling the day they made this same realization.

After his response the class was instructed to start practicing again. This time the new student tried his best not to use any force when attempting to complete the technique. He still didn’t do the technique correctly, but at least each attempt had better results than before. Now he was finally learning the proper body mechanics that make techniques work with minimal effort.

I would love to say that this was an isolated incident, or happens rarely, but it’s clearly not. In fact it happens all too often, even with the most seasoned martial arts practitioner.

If you don’t believe me just take any martial artist and teach him a technique that isn’t in their comfort zone, or just different enough from what they already do that they have to think about it. Chances are, as their ability to execute the technique diminishes the more and more force and power will be used to complete the task.

It’s the old “brawn over brain” syndrome. In my school we call that cheating, since our techniques are designed to be executed with precision and minimal effort. Or as I like to say: FINESSE VERSUS FORCE.

Here’s a simple illustration of the point I’m trying to make: My wife and I took our dog Taiko to one of the local reservoirs so he could swim. However, in order to get him to swim Taiko needs some encouragement, like chasing the biggest stick we can find: the bigger the better.

At first, our game of fetch went well. But as soon as Taiko tired of swimming, he tried to leave the swimming area so he could enjoy some quality stick chewing time. One problem though: how would he get the stick past the opening in the fence that surrounds the reservoir? That opening is clearly smaller than the stick.

Well Taiko is a dog, and I’m sure he didn’t give it much thought. He just ran towards the fence, stick in mouth, at full speed. Slam! Taiko was stopped in his tracks.

Without hesitation, and in a rush to escape the reservoir area before I could recapture the stick and throw it again, Taiko picked up the stick and tried to push the stick past the fence. It didn’t work.

Taiko tried again. The stick still wouldn’t budge.

A few minutes of ferocious growling and barking at the stick (quite amusing actually) and Taiko tried again. The result was the same.

Undeterred, Taiko tried again, and again, and again: more barking, more growling, more pushing.

However, try as he might the stick would not pass through the opening; and as frustration set in he resorted to more and more force.

Taiko spent over ten minutes attempting to push the stick past the opening in the fence with all the effort he could muster.

Frustrated that his strength and most intimidating barking and growling had had no effect on the stick, Taiko tried a new approach. He jumped over the stick and proceeded to try and pull it past the opening in the fence.

It was a great change in strategy, but unfortunately he still was relying on brute strength only. Needless to say, try as hard as he may, Taiko was still not successful.

Knowing Taiko I doubt he would have ever given up. But after 30 minutes of watching this spectacle I intervened. Yes, the situation was humorous for passer-byes, but I can only stand so much barking and growling before it gives me a headache. The show had to end.

As I gave Taiko the stick, my wife made the comment that the dog must be crazy. “He’s not crazy,” I answered, “he’s just not thinking.”

“Well do you really think Taiko ‘thinks’ about what he is doing?”

“No,” I answered, “but in many ways he’s acting like a lot of my students do when they can’t get a technique to work properly; they resort to using force.”

“Your student’s act like dogs?,” she said in a tone designed to make me feel ashamed of comparing the two.

“No” I answered, “not like dogs. I mean that sometimes instead of thinking things through, or trying a different approach, they rely on force, which gets them nowhere, just like Taiko. They keep hitting a fence (or a ‘wall’) they can’t pass.

“They forget that sometimes when things don’t work, you have to stop, and try something you haven’t tried before, not just repeat the same mistake over and over again with more and more force.”

“Just because you can possibly force your way to success on occasion, doesn’t mean you did things right, or in the best possible manner. I mean, look at Taiko, he may have gotten some good exercise pushing and pulling the stick, but he didn’t accomplish anything, especially his goal.”

Tired of my excessive explanation, my wife shrugged her shoulders and switched her attention to our son. As she walked away, I thought to myself that this was a wonderful example for the blog. An hour later, I am typing away.

This is not the first time Taiko has faced this particular fence opening, nor is this the biggest stick we’ve used to play fetch. However, this was the first time Taiko couldn’t get the stick past the opening in the fence. Unlike other times, Taiko didn’t think things through-at least as much as a dog ever thinks things through-or try another method.

Normally after a couple of attempts at pushing/pulling with no success, Taiko stops and employs a new strategy; Taiko uses finesse. Finesse, in this example, is the simple turning of his head, which puts the stick in a vertical position which allows it to pass easily through the opening in the fence.

Yes, this little refinement in Taiko’s approach to the problem, this simple execution of the proper body mechanics (turning his head), makes all the difference in the world. This simple movement negates the need for any force or power at all.

While I’m sure that Taiko’s action of turning his head at precisely the right moment is most probably more due to luck than critical thinking, dog’s do have the ability to learn behaviors through trial and error.

Coincidently, so do people. That is of course if they can get past the point of approaching things in only one manner, which often places them in a loop of progressive failure and frustration.

So what’s my point.

Simply put, brute force is never the optimal way to use ones one’s body to execute a physical task. The optimal way is to use proper body mechanics in a skillful precision oriented manner. FINESSE!

* This was originally the way this blog entry was going to end. That is until my son Nikolas read it and asked a few questions I’m sure others may have.

“But dad, when I wrestle I use force all the time,” my son Nikolas stated after reading the above. “You can’t be a successful fighter without using force,” he asserted.

Nikolas, (in green and black), San Ramon Valley High School Wrestling Team

“Sure, a certain degree of force (power) must be used in order to be effective, but that force should be produce by the proper execution of form, the force should not be the major catalyst that makes the technique work,” I responded. “In other words, one should never rely on only force.”

“But dad, what ‘s the difference?” he inquired.

“Nick, that’s the real question, and the answer is what separates the true master from the practitioner. It’s all about skill and the mastery over one’s self, economy of motion. It’s about learning that force, or should I say more force than is necessary, is rarely needed when one can rely on finesse.”

Clearly, my answer wasn’t enough.

“Okay Nick, forget about fighting. Think about weight lifting. Weight lifting requires lots of force (power), however if proper form, (that’s the finesse), isn’t used it restricts how much weight one can actually lift, how many reps can be achieved, and can even lead to an injury.

I then showed him the below picture, and asked him how many people he thought could do the same lift.

Arthur Saxon, the “Iron-Master” (1878 – 080621) was
the world’s strongest man at the turn of the 19th century.
Barbell – 335lbs / Kettlebell – 110lbs.

“Just imagine how much technique is required to do this,” I said. “It’s not just brute strength alone. That’s the difference. Knowing the proper body mechanics, and applying them systematically is why such feats are possible.”

Practice with the Spirit of a Child

The other afternoon, while we are in the neighborhood, I took my 2 1/2 year old son to visit the dojo and burn some energy off. I didn’t think it would be that exciting for him until I tried to explain the place to him in terms he’d understand.

“This is a special school where we learn to roll on the ground, and, uh, push each other over, and hit things with sticks.”

Sounds pretty good to a toddler, when you put it like that. He spent the next half hour alternately squirming around on the mats, trying to knock me over from where I was sitting, and running in circles while hitting the floor with a rattan stick.

I’m not sure what this says about grown-ups doing martial arts, but at least I can bond over our shared enjoyment of whacking things with sticks.