Book Review: “Hidden in Plain Sight”

Title: Hidden In Plain Sight Tracing the Roots of Usehiba Morihei’s Power
Author: Ellis Amdur
ISBN #: 978-0-9823762-0-1
Year: 2009

At one point in my life I had over 500 martial arts related books in my personal library. They covered every style imaginable, and many were in languages I couldn’t read. I would say that 85% weren’t worth the paper they were printed on–and that’s being gracious.

For the most part, these books were written by people–usually martial arts instructors–who are not professional writers or scholars. Just being an experienced teacher does not necessarily make someone an authority on their art, and it certainly does not guarantee that one is capable of explaining their style clearly. Writing is hard.

Many of these books perpetuated myths and misconceptions. A lot of the information in them could easily be disproved with a little research. Worse yet, the books often were filled with techniques that weren’t viable as presented.

In fact, the majority of these books contained nothing but disjointed sequences of photographs and drawings with “chop-socky” explanations of techniques. There was nothing in these that one could–or should–actually learn from. I suppose that they had some use as a reference for students of that particular style who already knew the techniques.

In my opinion, almost all martial arts books are interesting for the “hobbyist,” but have no value for someone really trying to research the (factual) history of an art, delve into the theories of “martial science” or improve their skills past a basic level. Sure, they may contain some worthwhile tidbit from time to time, but overall they aren’t worth the time it takes to read them.

But, every now and then, you run into a book that has valuable content and is written by someone who is both very knowledgeable and has the ability to communicate clearly. “Hidden in Plain Sight” is one of those books.

I’ll start my review with the following two comments: it is not an easy read, and trying to summarize the book with any brevity is impossible. Anyone looking for a “how to” book to improve their Aikido/Aiki skills will be disappointed–sort of. But in some ways, that is the point. He is not providing any information that the real serious martial artist hasn’t contemplated; he is just reaffirming what they should already know that there has to be more to training than just being taught techniques.

At its most basic, this book is an examination of the development of Ueshiba Morihei’s Aikido and how he developed his level of skill–skill that his contemporaries considered outstanding, or even superhuman.

But it’s more than that. It’s also a book about the culture and history of Japanese Budo and the Aiki arts. How training was done in the past, what teachers of the past put themselves through to achieve their level of skill, and how that knowledge was propagated.

The theme of the book is about how many of these methods are overlooked or not understood today, though they are “hidden in plain sight.”

What I appreciate about Mr. Amdur’s work is that he avoids the all-too-common reliance on the mystical nature of martial arts, opting to focus on more of the tangible scientific development and application that make them viable.

I consider this book to be a must-read for any serious practitioner of the martial arts.

On a more personal note, this book has made me go back and reexamine the way in which my teacher taught me (see previously posted essay titled “Training Via Osmosis”). As I said in that essay, I now believe there was a lot more method to the seeming madness of how I was trained.

For this alone, Mr. Amdur’s book was invaluable to me.


Day One

I arrived at my teacher’s home right after school, excited about this opportunity to learn martial arts. I was finally going to learn all those wonderful things I had seen in the movie “You Only Live Twice.” Little did I know how wrong I was.

On my arrival, I was told to complete my homework before we could begin, which I hastily did. I was then shown where I could change clothes, and where I was required to wait until the class began.

Soon after, my teacher’s daughter entered the room and started showing me the proper etiquette I would be required to know if I was going to continue training with her father. Bor-r-r-ing!

That’s not why I was here. I was here to learn to fight with swords and flip bad guys over my shoulder, just like in the movie (keep in mind I was eleven years old with no real knowledge about the martial arts or Japanese culture).

Okay: bow like this; sit like that; don’t do this; keep quiet and do as your told. Got It! Can we please start now? No. When will this girl ever stop talking? What do you mean I did it wrong? I did it just like you said I was supposed to. Really, I have to do it again? All these thoughts ran through my head. I certainly never said them out loud, but I’m sure my body language and facial expressions told her exactly how I was feeling.

Finally, after what seemed like an endless amount of wasted time, the order came that class was starting. I rushed into the garage, eager for my first lesson.

The Interview

After we bowed in and did some breathing/meditation exercises, sensei Yachigusa called me to the front of the class, where I sat and waited. I can not quite describe his look, as he looked me over, but it sure was not one that made me feel welcomed. I remember feeling quite nervous as he scanned me.

After a few minutes, he “growled” something in Japanese; within a few seconds his daughter brought him a teapot and two cups. One cup was placed in front of him, and the other in front of me. My teacher then poured some tea into my cup, and made a gesture to drink.

This was the first time I had ever had green tea, and I didn’t like it. It was so bitter that all I could do was to take a sip before placing the cup back on the floor. Once again he gestured to drink it, and following his lead I gulped it down.
He then poured me another cupful, though I’m positive he knew I didn’t like the taste. I swallowed it anyway.

“What’s your name again?” my teacher asked. “Gary,” I said. “Gary?” he said with a very heavy Japanese accent. “Yes sir,” I replied, not even sure whether he had actually said my name at all; I could barely understand him.

“You train hard, yes?” he inquired. “Yes sir,” I responded. There was silence, as he scanned me over again as if trying to determine if I meant what I said.

“You behave, yes?’ he asked. “Yes sir, ” I replied, thinking he meant I would behave in class. What he was really asking is if I was a troublemaker, if I was “good boy” or not.

“Your parents let you train?” he asked. “Yes sir,” I lied. The truth is my mother had no clue what I was up to. She just thought I was visiting a friend. Looking back, chances are she would have let me do it since she was very supportive of my interests, but at the time I didn’t want to take the chance she would say no.

By this point I started feeling fidgety, and was sweating because of the hot tea. Also, my legs were also cramping up because I wasn’t used to kneeling in seiza (formal sitting posture).

I’m sure he was aware of my discomfort, but he poured me another cup of tea and continued his inquiry.

“You like jujutsu?” he asked. I remained silent since I didn’t know what “jujutsu” meant. Figuring that any answer was better than none I blurted out, “I like judo,” remembering that was one of the arts demonstrated in the movie “You Only Live Twice. “NO JU….DO here, just jujutsu” he responded. There was that word again. What was he talking about?

He poured me another cup of tea.

Then he took a different approach. “You like (pointing at the sword behind him),” he asked. “Yes sir,” I answered, “very much.” “Honto” he remarked (he may have actually said, wakarimasu (I understand), but honto (really) is what I think he meant).

“So, you like to fight?” he asked. “No sir I don’t,” I replied, which was the truth. I had only been in one fight during my entire life to that point.

More silence as he scanned me again. “You train hard, yes?” he asked again. “Yes sir,” I responded now hoping this would end the interview so I could get up and move my legs, which were now in agony.

“Good, let’s get started. Move over there,” he said as he nudged me towards the direction I was suppose to go.

Lesson 1

Wobbling to the backyard of his home, I followed him to a pile of firewood. He pointed to one piece, gesturing me to pick it up. He then pointed to a table, gesturing me to put the wood on it. I had no idea why I was doing this, but I did exactly what I was told. Little did I know that “Loggy”–the name I would eventually give to that piece of wood–would become a major element of my early years of training.

After the log was placed on the table he covered it with a folded towel, and then out of nowhere he punched the log with his fist. His movement surprised the hell out of me, as did his kiai (battle cry).

“You do,” I was told. I just stared blankly. “Hit it!” he commanded. I hit the log. Ouch, that really hurt.

“Again” he commanded. “Again?” I thought, can’t he see my hand hurts.

“Hit it now,” he command, clearly already losing patience with this kid he didn’t even really want to teach. Startled by his tone I hit the log. But I hit it too slowly and without enough power.

“NO!” he yelled, as he forcibly grabbed my hand and struck it against the log. Now I was really in pain.

“Again” he commanded; and though my hand was hurting I hit the log as hard as I could muster. I did it over and over again, until he told me to stop. I had never felt pain like this ever before. And if it hadn’t been for the towel, my knuckles would have been a bloody mess that day.

Without even giving me a hint that he thought that I had done a good job, or even that I had at least tried my best, we were off to the next exercise.

This time I was shown a pile of sand, and instructed to move the pile from where it was to the other side of the garden. Okay, no problem, this would be easy. I grabbed the shovel and bucket next to the pile and started shoveling sand.

“NO!!!!!” he yelled. “Not like that, like this.” He then proceed to pick up two handfuls of sand, walk to the other side of the yard, and drop it. “Do it,” he commanded. And I did.

Needless to say, my hands were already so sore form hitting the log that grabbing handfuls of sand was very hard. It didn’t take long before my hands were cramped up so badly that I could barely keep a handful in them. But I didn’t stop, even when he wasn’t watching.

Handful after handful, I did this exercise for over a half a hour.

“Yame” (stop), he ordered. He then inspected my hands, muttering, “no good, no good,” as he pointed to the two lower fingers of my fist, which were bruised. That was my first correction regarding technique, though in truth, I didn’t have a clue what he meant.

After a short water break, class continued.

The next thing I was taught was a sequence of transitions I can only describe as a kata (solo form). It had nothing to do with fighting. There were no block, punches or kicks, but it was simple to see it would improve balance and strengthen the legs.

No explanation was given about what the movements were for, nor were the movements broken down. It was simply a case of monkey see, monkey do. I have to say, it was pretty impressive to see my sensei, a man already in his 70’s, do this form over and over, apparently without any effort. He made it look easy, and I remember telling myself that if he could do it so could I.

Little did I know that day, but these movements would form the core of actual techniques later on.  Basically, the first six movements were:

  1. From standing upright: move right leg to the right; exhale and squat; exhale again and hold squat; ichi, ni, san, shi,…ju (count to ten); inhale, rise to starting position.
  2. Move right leg back (long stance); do lunge; return to staring position.
  3. Move right leg to the right; exhale, drop down do side lunge; hold lunge; inhale, rise and return to starting position.
  4. Extend right foot forward; exhale, drop butt almost to the ground; hold position; inhale, rise and return to staring position.
  5. Do seiza (formal sitting); rise to kneel, stepping off line; return to seiza; rise to starting position.
  6. Do seiza; rotate body off center line (my students know this movement as a kneeling evasion); return to starting position; repeat to left.

Being youthful, and pretty flexible none of these movements were beyond my ability to imitate, except for number four. I’m not saying they were easy, or I did them right, or that I never lost my balance and fell, but I felt pretty successful with my performance when we were done one hour later.

I have no idea what my teacher thought though. There were never any words of encouragement, and all the corrections were physical: a tug here, a pull there, a kick to widen the legs, and so on. But whatever he thought it didn’t matter at the moment.

By this point, over one and a half hours had passed. My hands were killing me, and the muscles in my legs were exhausted. Part of me was ready to quit and go home. I was also upset that we hadn’t done anything related to what I had seen in the movie, which was why I was there. When would we start doing that, I wondered? But it would be years before that would happen.

I wanted to ask questions, lots of questions; but remembering his daughter’s instructions, I did not.

The final phase of training for that first day was my introduction to ukemi, (receiving techniques, see Training via Osmosis). This wasn’t the ukemi most martial artists are familiar with, where one learns to fall. It was mostly just me serving as a punching bag.

Without receiving any warnings about what was about to happen, instructions on how to fall, or even how to indicate that I was in pain, I was told to punch my teacher’s son as hard as could.

But wait, he was my friend. There was no way I could hit him for real. My first punch was some lame attempt, that stopped short of ever touching him.

SMACK! Out of nowhere my teacher struck my arm. “No,” he snapped, “punch hard.” So I did.

Now I have no idea what my teacher’s son did to me, since it had happened so fast. All I knew was that I was on the ground. I was in pain. Now everything hurt.

“Punch again” he commanded, as I picked myself up from the floor. Against my better judgment I did, though a lot more cautiously. SMACK! My teacher hit me again. “No,” he yelled, “real punch.”

So I punched. Over and over again. The results were always the same. I ended up on the floor without really knowing how I had gotten there.

Of course, the more I was tossed around the more I became frustrated. Soon I was losing my temper. Now I really did want to hit my friend, just to get even. But as I hard as I tried, I only nicked him once, and even that wasn’t enough to stop him from throwing me to the ground over and over again.

Certainly, my teacher witnessed me losing my temper, but he never intervened. He remained expressionless, only breaking his silence to order me to punch again.

“Yamate,” my teacher finally yelled–a word that had no meaning to me at the time. “Class is over.”

Thank God I thought. It had been over two hours of hell.

We lined up, did a few more breathing exercises, and then bowed. Then, just at like the beginning of class, he gestured me to come forward and take a seat. Even before my butt hit the floor, his daughter arrived with another teapot. “Please, not more tea,” I thought to myself.

But it wasn’t tea. Instead it was something with an terrible odor I could not describe. “YUCK! I’m going to have to drink that now?” I said to myself, “No way.”

Fortunately, this foul-smelling liquid wasn’t for drinking. Within a few minutes, he was rubbing it all over my hands. The coolness of the liquid felt great, but the rubbing was almost unbearable. He didn’t seem to care.

“You like class?” he asked me. I didn’t know how to answer him; I was conflicted. I was physically and mentally worn out, and clearly had been pushed past my limit. Yet, part of me still wanted to learn. I was stubborn and did not want to be a quitter, so I answered, “yes sir.”

Once again there was silence, as he scanned me, not quite sure if he should believe me or not. “You’re sure?,” he asked. “Yes sir,” I responded, still trying to convince myself that I meant it.

“Good. Tomorrow you start real training” he said.

What!? Real training? What do you call what we did today?

After Class

As I rode the bus home, and my muscles started to stiffen, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. It certainly was not what I had expected, and I hadn’t been taught anything even remotely similar to what I had seen in the movie.

More importantly, I could not stop thinking about what he could have meant when he said “real training” would start tomorrow. Things had felt pretty real today. My mind was a whirlwind of thoughts, and I debated the pros and cons of attending another class.

Clearly, I felt that my first class, which was over two hours long hadn’t taught me anything. What’s the use in hitting a log and carrying sand? And that silly kata, what was the point? Worse yet, I was still really angry about getting beaten up by his son. And then there was the pain, that wasn’t enjoyable either.

Surely, there were more reasons to quit, than go back.

Looking back, I have no idea why I returned the next day; but I did. As I tell everyone now, I was just a dumb kid, who didn’t know anything about martial arts, and assumed this was how everybody did it. If they could, I could.

Furthermore, I had told sensei Yachigusa I would be there, and I wasn’t a liar (well, except for the part about my mother allowing me to train).

So I did return. And I returned the day after, and the next, and for next ten and a half years, until my sensei left San Francisco to go home to Japan.

This year will be 40th anniversary of that first day.

Training Via Osmosis

Currently I am re-reading a book titled “Hidden In Plain Sight,” by Ellis Amdur. It’s a book about the roots of Morihei Ueshiba’s power, that covers a lot of the history of Daito Ryu and Ueshiba’s development of Aikido.

It’s a very interesting book, written by a true scholar. Although many of the names and martial styles are unfamiliar to me, it has been very informative. The book has, without a doubt, made me see Aikido–at least Aikido as Ueshiba taught it–in a different light.

However, that’s not what I’m here to write about.

In chapter four, “Aikido Is Three Peaches,: Mr Amdur writes:

“A considerable amount of skill, however, can be acquired by the innately talented simply by osmosis. The act of taking ukemi from a teacher who really puts the student through his paces will teach the student some of the body skills without him knowing, really, that he has reworked his body structure. For example, if tested physically with more and more severity, one begins to “instinctively” learn ways of breathing best suited to taking a blow or a fall. This learning by osmosis is further enhanced when one attempts to throw or counter that teacher. Without explicit instructions, one will not learn all or even most of the skills that are possible for a human being to acquire – but one can learn enough to stand out within not only the aikido world, but even in the larger world of martial arts.”

Unlike the common translation of the word ukemi, which most people use to describe falling techniques, Mr. Amdur uses ukemi more literally to refer to a concept of “receiving body.”

Per Mr. Amdur: “Properly understood, ukemi is the mastery of force – the act of absorbing and redirecting energy, and even adding one’s own power and sending it back to the attacker.”

His assertion, and I agree with it, is that ukemi is not just about falling. It’s about learning to “FEEL.”

Learning to “feel,” and using those feelings constructively was something I wasn’t taught. Or at least I wasn’t taught explicitly. But perhaps the ways I made various discoveries related to self-preservation were a direct result of the how my early training was conducted. I took a lot, I mean a lot, of ukemi–ukemi that I was in no way, shape or form prepared or trained to take.

Before reading Mr. Amdur’s book I had always just accepted the fact that I had been the victim of a half-crazed Japanese man who had it in for me. Now I have to consider an alternative possibility; perhaps he was actually looking out for my best interest, and taught me in the best manner he knew how.

In either case, the end result was the same: he forced me to learn things on my own by taking ukemi. By Osmosis!

Lesson 1 – Pain Avoidance

Anyone who has ever read, or listened to, stories about the way I was taught will be aware that for my first three years of training, I was little more than a punching bag for my teacher’s son. I routinely had the crap beaten out of me.

Training was often harsh. While I like to believe that my teacher had no real intention to permanently injure me, I frequently went home with bruises, welts, abrasions, cuts, and sprains. It was a good day was when I only felt exhausted.

Complicating matters, my mother who had no knowledge about the martial arts, and if she had have seen these injuries she would have made me quit. I can still remember wearing a sweater on one of the hottest days of the year just so my mother count not see the welt marks all over my arms. “No mom I’m not hot,” I boldly protested while I quickly became drenched in my own sweat.

Since I didn’t want to be forced to quit, I had to hide my injuries. This meant that I rarely if ever received any professional medical treatment. Occasionally, I could blame these injuries on sports I was involved in. But in most cases, I either treated my injuries on my own, accepted the occasional first aid my teacher offered (usually some stinky liquid that was rubbed on, some foul tasting concoction, or moxa), or learned to ignore and work through the pain.

I guess what doesn’t kill you, does makes you stronger. Although, you do pay for it as you get older.

While it might seem like “lesson one” was to develop a high tolerance for pain, the real lesson that I learned–at least eventually–was how to reduce the amount of pain I was receiving.

Rather than enduring, I learned to evade, avoid, blend with, ride, or redirect the incoming force: ultimately dissipating that force such that most of the energy didn’t impact me and was at least paritally redirected towards my opponent.

Admittedly, training could still be painful. But the rate at which I was injured greatly declined.
In fairness to my instructor, he did eventually teach me techniques that involved evading, redirecting, and blending. But most of the lessons of how to actually apply such skills were self taught out of necessity during those first few years.

His intention, at least initially was clearly to leave me alone to figure things out, myself. Techniques were often done to me without any prior warning about what was going to happen. I had no time to formulate a plan for what I could do in response, or to prepare myself to fall in a certain way. I was simply told how to attack, and before I knew what was happening, I would find myself put in some painful joint lock, and/or on the ground. Often, things happened so fast, that I could not even sense how techniques were being applied to me; I knew the end result, but not the means.

Lesson 2 – Taking Falls

Another thing I had to teach myself was how to fall. Unlike most dojos, where throws and projections are a dominant element of the beginning curriculum, I was never taught Ukemi Waza (falling techniques). My teacher didn’t show me, or anyone else.

I had to teach myself how to fall, out of necessity, and for self-preservation. It was a skill I picked up very quickly, by trial and error, often without giving it much conscious thought. Granted, my falls might not have looked pretty, but they were functional.

After reading Mr. Amdur’s book, and thinking about what he wrote, I can see that not being taught how to fall was very beneficial for me. It forced me to learn to “feel” techniques and how they were being applied. It eventually taught me how to respond in a manner that not only reduced a technique’s harm, but also allowed me to counter it with little effort.

One thing I learned quite quickly, and became very good at, was to instinctively shift my center, or alter my body to counter techniques. Nowadays, I have to make a conscious effort to stop doing this when I am practicing with others, especially if I am the uke (receiver of a technique) or am working with people who do not know me well.

Of course, my teacher’s son was also aware of these methods. Often we would find ourselves in a game of counter-versus-counter-versus-counter, before we could finish the technique we were supposed to be practicing. Basically, we were sparring.

But this was sparring in a way that was acceptable to my teacher. He often encouraged such behavior, because he knew it improved our overall ability to use such techniques in the real world.

Of course, such training ingrained a habit that others often find annoying: I will not fall unless I really have to. When receiving a technique, I will not project, hurl, leap, and/or launch myself–unless my training partner makes me.

Acting too cooperatively and “faking” a fall was something my teacher would not tolerate. If he even had the slightest inkling that we were behaving in such a manner, there would be hell to pay.

“Baka da!* You make it work, or you learn how to make it work. But don’t fake it, ” he would yell (well, that’s the family-friendly version; and the real version would be accompanied by some swipes from his cane or whatever else he happened to be close at hand).

Lesson 3 – Relaxation

Have you ever heard the expression “Tension Kills?” Well it’s more than just an old saying.
Early in my training, when I knew I was about to get pummeled by some technique my teacher’s son was about to perform on me, I would become very rigid. Since I knew it was going to hurt, I would become tense. My body would lock up. Because

I wasn’t pliable and relaxed, I had to absorb the full brunt of the force.
My teacher constantly yelled at me for being “stiff,” too flat-footed, or as he said, too “heavy.” At the time, I thought “heavy” meant I was fat. I was confused since I knew I wasn’t fat; clearly whatever he was trying to teach me was lost in translation.

As time went by, I finally understood that “heavy” meant I was being stiff and rigid. I was being my own worst enemy; I wasn’t allowing myself the ability to move freely and adapt to the situation. I wasn’t relaxed.

Unfortunately, by the time I finally understand what “heavy” meant, I had already started learning how to relax on my own. I taught myself how to become pliable, how to just accept what was about to happen and “go with the flow.”

Learning to remain relaxed was probably the greatest breakthrough I made in my martial arts training in that period. It drastically changed both how I received techniques and how I applied them.

This lesson marked a transition point, where I went from glorified punching bag to actual student. And it only took mr three years of abuse.

Lesson 4 – Every Action Equals A Reaction

What I really love about aiki arts are the subtleties . They are also something I have hated, and which often frustrated me to no end–especially when trying to teach aiki.

Often these subtleties arise because many aiki techniques have to be done in a specific, systematic order in order to work. Just the slight shift of the head at a wrong moment, an imperceptible twisting at the wrong angle, or even improper breathing can ruin the effectiveness of a technique. Sometimes a tiny shift will have drastic results.

In the art of aiki, every action has a reaction.

Conceptually, this is not hard to understand. But putting the concept into practice is another thing. Simply put, in order to perform correct aiki against an opponent, one must first master their own body.

Mastering the subtleties of one’s own body is often referred to as the “internal” part of martial arts. By being fully in control of the body, and using it in an integrated manner with no extraneous movements, one generates extraordinary power, speed, and efficiency. It is not about feeling “comfortable,” it’s about doing things correctly.

By learning to “feel” the techniques that were being applied to me, I learned what actions caused which reactions. These lessons were burned into muscle memory rather than conscious thought. No longer did I think about what I was doing; I just did it.

The funny thing, is that teaching has forced me to reverse this process so that I can better explain and demonstrate the things I am teaching. And, yes, having to stop and think about things has affected my ability to execute them like I used to.

In reexamining things, maybe I’m doing a disservice to my students by trying to explain in too much detail. Perhaps I should be more like my teacher and force them to figure it out on their own. We’ll see.

That said, one of my mantras in school is, ” Stop thinking so much! Just do it.” Unfortunately, this lesson goes over the heads of most students, who can’t or won’t ever comprehend what I’m talking about.

Lesson 5 – Point Of Reference

This is closely related to lesson four; “point of reference” describes the manner in which I learned to apply “actions equal reactions.” Understanding action equals reaction is meaningless if you can’t apply it–apply it instantaneously, without conscious thought.

Personally, the way I process information–whether it be physical movement, verbal instructions, or things I read–is by firmly establishing both a starting point and the objective. How I get from point A to point B can vary.

When it comes to physical movement, establishing a starting point is normally very easy. Reaching the objective is the hard point. There are often translation problems from my mental intention to my body’s physical expression of it. The body is not always capable of, or coordinated enough for moving in the intended way. Too often, you end up either omitting steps or adding extra movements, without ever being aware of it. This brings us back to the subtleties of aiki.

The simplest example I can use to describe “point of reference” comes from when when I took Karate. In the beginning, I had a very hard time learning the kata–their solo forms. I was simply terrible at it. I understood the overall point of learning the kata, but unless individual movements and sequences were broken down with the purposes explained in detail, I found it hard to visualize what I was doing. That made remembering the sequence of movements very hard for me.

Thus, to learn the Karate kata, I had to create various points of reference to remind myself that I was blocking this or that attack, and then using such-and-such defense.

Practicing solo kata does not give the kind instant feedback I was accustomed to having. Since you’re not applying any of the movements to an actual living, breathing opponent, there is no way to check that your movements are correct and viable. There’s nothing to “feel,” except your own actions.

This is not meant to be derogatory, or to suggest that the bunkai (applications) in kata are not effective. It’s just that the way karate practitioners approach their objectives is different both from how I was trained and how my mind processes information.

In fact, my teacher did teach kata. We just did them in reverse. Instead of learning the solo portion first, we started by learning how to apply the movements. After we had understood that, then we would practice the movements on our own.

For me personally, that was a better approach, because I didn’t have to imagine what I was trying to accomplish; I knew my objective. My points of reference where clear: I had to do this in order to achieve that.

As I explain it to my students, forms are sequential movements, that have to be done in a specific order: A, B, C, D, E, F, etc. Leave out one step or alter the sequence, and you are not doing the form. You may get the application to work, often by being forceful, but you still did it wrong.

Lesson 6 – Breathing

The last thing I learned from ukemi was how to breathe properly. This is an ability I don’t think my teacher could have fully taught me, given the language barrier between us. Breathing from the hara (abdomen) has little meaning to a 13-year-old. My teacher could poke my tanden (a spot below the navel considered the center of power) as much as he wanted, I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t feel it.

Of course, learning to breathe properly has a lot to do with relaxation, and learning to “feel.” All these elements seem to always work in conjunction with each other, which can’t be a coincidence.

Unfortunately, I can’t even begin to explain how I breathe in relation to my fighting skills, or how I use “breath” in my techniques. Nor can I explain how I figured it out. It seems like my body learned it on its own through a lot of trial and error.

Undoubtedly, training at the beach (which we did often) assisted my need for proper breath control. My teacher liked to pin us face down in the water, and hold us there until we surfaced, gasping for air. The more one thrashed, the longer they were held. As you can imagine, the first thing we had to learn was to relax and not panic.

Holding one’s breath underwater, even for a few seconds, can seem like an eternity–especially when you’re not prepared for it and are being held there against your will.

Though torturous, my teacher wasn’t drowning us without purpose. There was a lesson to be learned, though it took a while to figure it out. And, no, the lesson was not to stay away from the water when he was around–although that was good advice; it was how to breathe properly.

I learned how to inhale such that an optimal amount of oxygen was taken in, and then how to release that breath as needed–or, in the case of being held under water, how to hold it in and use the air for as long as possible (which is also useful to know when countering choking attacks).

I wish I could elaborate more, but I really cannot describe what I do better.  It has become completely reflexive.

One instructor told me, some years ago, that one should never inhale when doing a technique; it should be done in one breath. He also stated that the samurai would often watch for their opponent to inhale and attack them at that very instant. That was how important proper breath control was.

Unfortunately, he would not go into detail on how to breathe properly. He basically said, “figure it out on your own.”

That statement may not have been the response I was hoping for, but it might be the proper one. Maybe learning to breathe correctly needs to be self-taught, at least to some degree. An instructor can give insights into methodologies, ways to picture what you are trying to accomplish, and even corrections, but in the end the practitioner has to put the pieces of the puzzle together themselves. It’s not easy but it is doable.

However, it’s not possible to learn without combining the other lessons that I’ve discussed.

* * *

As I said at the beginning of this essay, when I started training it was harsh. For most of my adult life, I have been under the assumption that my teacher didn’t like me, and was just trying to get rid of me during the first few years.

I have always wondered why I was taught in this manner, so brutally compared to how other martial artist I have come to know were taught. I’ve even questioned whether what I endured those first few years really qualifies as training, or if it was just hazing.

But maybe there was a lot more method to my teachers “madness” than I ever realized.
Perhaps, instead of just verbally filling my head with theory and principles, things I wouldn’t have understood at the time, he made me learn them first hand. He forced me to use, and develop senses I didn’t even realize I had. He brought out the latent abilities that I needed to avoid being seriously hurt, made me overcome fears in a productive manner, and got me to trust my intuition.

He forced to me to re-work my body, to retrain how my body moved. I learned to mentally prepare myself for a confrontation, and to use instinct rather than conscious thought both defensively and offensively.

He didn’t “give” me my martial skills, he made me take them, and make them my own.

In conversations we had later, when I was an adult, he claimed to have taught us in the same manner that he was taught. Maybe that was how things were done before the commercialization of the martial arts. I don’t have enough knowledge of traditional arts and their training methods to give a definitive answer about that. But if you know me, you know what answer I’m leaning towards.

Traditional or not, I don’t know that how I learned was the best method. It certainly was not a path most people would undertake by choice. I was just dumb kid who didn’t know any better.

But looking back from where I am now, I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing.

* * *

* I’ve heard that “baka da” can be translated in many ways.
The word “Baka” can mean jerk, dolt, imbecile, fool (foolish), stupid, worthless, absurd, ridiculous, and/or idiotic. Any of these worlds might describe how my teacher felt when I did things wrong. All of them probably applied when I did things wrong repeatedly after receiving corrections.

The translation I’m going with is; “What you did was stupid.” Although the word “absurd” would fit his personality better than “stupid.”

Of course I guess he could have also said, Baka yamero yo, which I believe translates to “don’t be such an idiot.” This phrase seems to be more appropriate, but given the nuances of the Japanese language may have other connotations that made the phrase inappropriate to use.

I like Baka Janai, myself, which means: “are you stupid or what?” But I think that’s more slang.

Jujutsu: the “Gentle” Art?

When I started training, my teacher did not use a specific name for the style of martial art he was teaching. But anything we did without weapons, if he gave it a label, he would call jujutsu.

At the time, my teacher could have called whatever we were doing anything he wanted; I would not have cared.  As an 11 year old boy in the 70’s, I had no clue about different martial styles. I hadn’t even seen a Kung Fu movie yet.

All I knew was that my teacher was Japanese, and that the techniques I was learning looked like stuff I had seen in The James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice.” That’s all that mattered to me.

It is hard to imagine now, in the era of the Internet, but in the early 1970’s it was extremely difficult to find any information about martial arts styles, history, or techniques. It was even harder to find information about jujutsu.

This was especially true for me:  an 11 year old boy with a mother who not only had no clue what the martial arts were, but mostly likely would have thought them too violent to let me train in or learn about (much of my early training was done secretly, with my mother believing I was spending time at a friend’s house, which was partially true).

Unlike the proliferation of schools nowadays, even finding a martial art school in San Francisco in the 70’s was tough. I don’t even remember knowing anyone who studied martial arts at the time, Excepting the boxing school a few blocks from my house, I didn’t know any martial art schools near where I lived—and believe me I was trying hard to look.

Even the local bookstore, which I went to often, didn’t have a martial arts section, and rarely carried anything on the topic.  When they did have something, it was usually some pocket-sized book written by Bruce Tegner, or a reprint of an older self-defense manual with cheesy hand drawn pictures. It was pretty worthless stuff–no offense to Mr. Tegner.  Though I do give him credit for writing a book on vital point striking, which was my first English-language resource for these methods.

* * *

I wasn’t even able to find a copy of Black Belt Magazine, until the late 70’s when Grandmaster Brendan Lai (of Seven Star Praying Mantis Kung Fu), opened his martial arts supply store on Mission Street. This store was only five blocks from my house, and it soon became my hub for martial arts related materials.

I do not know how much of my spare pocket money I spent there, but there always seemed to more books than I could afford.  I was often kicked out of the store for spending too much time reading a book or magazine instead of making a purchase.

If he had known that many years later I would open my own martial arts school almost next door to his store, perhaps he would have been more accommodating. Maybe he also would have accepted my request to train in his style–but that’s another story.

As excellent a resource as Brendan Lai’s Martial Arts Supply Store was, he focused on books and equipment for Chinese systems.  He rarely had books on other styles. Furthermore, many of the books he carried were written in Chinese and were of little value to me except for the pictures.

Still, I did manage to find many interesting books about Chinese arts covering topics such as Chin-Na (techniques of catching and locking), Shuai Jiao (wrestling), and Chinese broadsword.  These styles, if I may dare to say so, appeared to have similar fundamentals to what I was learning; although I never would have said that to my teacher—heaven forbid.

While Chinese topics clearly dominated the inventory, every now and then a book about Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, or even Ninjas would appear on the shelves. These were a welcome change, and offered me some insights to other arts and training methods.

Unfortunately, they were still not what I was searching for. I wanted books about Jujutsu, and it seemed like those did not exist.  It was frustrating. If I could find books on all these other arts, why couldn’t I find what I was searching for. It had to exist, didn’t it? Was Jujutsu even a real art?

* * *

I was further frustrated and perplexed when I was still unsuccessful in my goal during my rare trips to Japantown, a place where one would assume books on Japanese martial arts would be readily available.  I was able to find more texts about Aikido, Karate, Kendo, Kenjutsu, Samurai History, and even Ninjutsu in Japantown, but still nothing specifically about jujutsu.

In fairness to the Kinokuniya Bookstore, when I went to Japantown with my teacher, I rarely had an opportunity to search for books.  We usually went either to watch Japanese movies or so my teacher could meet up with friends.  In either case, my teacher expected me to sit quietly, eat whatever food was provided, and be his errand boy when he needed something.

Many readers may wonder why my12-year-old self didn’t just ask my teacher more questions. That would of course have been the reasonable thing to do.

In the early years of my training my teacher rarely spoke to me.  He was more intent on figuring out how to make me quit than on teaching me.  On the rare occasions when my teacher did speak to me, it was very hard to understand him.  His English was poor and he had a heavy accent–which would drastically vary depending on his desire to communicate with me.

No matter how little I was able to comprehend him, I didn’t dare ask him to repeat himself. That would just frustrate him, often leading to a needlessly hard training session.  On the other side, I’m not sure how much my teacher understood when I talked to him either; he would often just look at me with a blank stare or frown and walk away.

Needless to say our exchanges weren’t very in-depth, or informative. In fact, I’m sure I frustrated the hell out of him by often saying “yes sir” after he had explained something, and then doing something completely different than what he had expected of me.

The result was that even from my teacher, I was not able to get any information about Jujutsu.

* * *

Now ,I’ve never been known for giving up when I set my mind to do something.  I bugged my local librarian for over two years about this topic.  The, finally, two books about Jujutsu appeared at our local branch. Yeah!!!

Both books were small paperback texts, sloppily printed on brittle brown paper, with awful hand drawn pictures.  Yet, though poorly produced, having them in my hands was like finding gold to me at that time.  Even to this day, I remember how excited I was to find them, and how I couldn’t wait to read the books cover to cover.

And then, in the fist paragraph of the first page of the first book, got the shock of my life.  The book said that “Jujutsu” can be translated as “The Gentle Art”.

“Gentle Art!” I had been training for over two years and there was nothing gentle about it.  In fact, it hurt a lot: my joints were twisted and torqued; I was choked; I was thrown to the ground–and all the while I was being kicked, kneed, elbowed, and punched.

There had to be some mistake. I could not imagine that Samurai would have done a “gentle art.”  They were warriors, great fighting men who would throw themselves on their own sword to save their honor. What would be the use to learning something “gentle,” when it came to fighting on the battlefield.

I was quite plainly flustered.  But still, eager to learn, I checked the books out, and read them cover to cover–repeatedly.

In the end, these books were not very informative; but they were about Jujutsu and that’s all that mattered. They proved that Jujutsu was real, and the techniques were often similar enough to what I was doing that I could relate to them.

In a few, rare cases, they helped me understand some piece of the puzzle I had been unable to get from my teacher, whether by his omission or our inability to communicate fully.

I also carefully studied the hand drawn diagrams.  Looking back, this was really a waste of time.  As you can see by the pictured examples, essential steps needed to make them work were left out.

* * *

They say that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.  Armed with my new-found books, there was a part of me that really wanted to show them to my teacher and ask stupid questions like “when do I get to learn this?” or, worse yet, “why do they do it that way and we do it another way?”

More importantly there was that nagging question why Jujutsu was called a “Gentle Art.”

Fortunately, common sense prevailed–by which I mean that my sense of fear won out.  I did not tell my teacher about my discovery or ask him any questions related to the books; it just wasn’t worth the risk. I knew my place in the school, and that at any time I could be told to never come back. I had seen such things enough times to know how moody my teacher could be, and that he wouldn’t give anyone a second chance.

I certainly hoped my teacher would never find out about the books.  But it would not make this a particularly interesting story if he had not.  Nor would it be believable that a thirteen year old could keep a secret, and fully fight the urge to ask questions.

I cannot remember why I took the books to class, or what led up to my teacher finding them.  Chances are that he saw them while I was doing my homework–this was required before we were allowed to train and was often done at his house.  I carried these books in my backpack everywhere I went for several weeks, and would read and reread them on my long bus ride home.

However it happened, it happened.  I mostly remember the embarrassment of being caught with them and the fear of what was going to happen next.

To my surprise, and totally out of character for him, my teacher was not upset at all.  He was actually sort of amused.  To say I was dumbfounded would be an understatement.  I had prepared for the worst, and it didn’t come.

Anxious to know why I wasn’t facing the hailstorm I had anticipated, I watched my teacher flip through the pages of the books several times with a smirk on his face.  After several minutes, which seemed an eternity, he handed the books back and told me that they were not worth the paper they were printed on.

Looking at the books today, I have to agree, though both have a place on my bookshelf.  But, at the time, these books meant a lot to me.  How could they be so worthless?  Did he not realize how hard it was for me to find them? I had to know why.

His answer was short and simple: “In time you will understand.”

What?  That’s no answer, or at least not enough of one for a 13 year old.  I needed to know more.

There was nothing but silence.

“Sensei, may I ask one last question?” I inquired in the most respectful tone I could muster, thinking I had now overstepped my bounds. Time seemed to stand still.

After what seemed forever, my teacher gave a nod of approval.  I finally asked him the one burning question I had had since I first opened the books. “Sensei, why do they call Jujutsu a ‘Gentle Art’ when it hurts so much?”

I think that was the first time I ever saw my teacher smile–at least at me–and the first time we had a real conversation. It was certainly the first time he invited me to eat dinner with his family, and it marked an important milestone in our teacher-student relationship.

* * *

I wish I could say that I remember our conversation word for word, but the truth is that I do not.  I do remember that it gave me my first real insights into the concepts and principles of Jujutsu.  The gist of that discussion is something I try and instill on every new student who enters my school.

The lesson that day was simple.  Jujutsu is a “gentle art.”  It is a very gentle art.  However, that gentleness is for the practitioner, not the person receiving the technique.

Traditional Jujutsu is all about obtaining maximum results with minimal effort or force. It’s about yielding to ones’ opponent, and redirecting their force to gain the advantage. Jujutsu is about being pliant.

The “gentleness” comes from learning to flow and blend with one’s opponent so precisely that the techniques seem to work without any effort.

Put another way, your movements are so gentle that they are imperceptible; they cause a reaction that your opponent can’t become aware of, or counter, until it’s too late.

Then again, as Harry Lord, the author of “Lighting Ju-Jitsu” stated, “as for Ju-Jitsu being a ‘gentle art,’ you can mark that down to the diabolical Japanese humor.”

Information Officer / Editor

Sometimes when I post things on the Blog or Facebook, I really do wonder if anyone reads them. But, the fact is I enjoy writing; it relaxes me. More importantly, writing is a way to examine thoughts, feelings, rants, conceptual ideas, etc that float around in my mind–sometimes it can truly be a mess up there.

Recently I posted a promotion certificate for one of my students on Facebook. Unlike most promotions in the martial arts this one had nothing to do with belts and/or ranks. I simply announced that this individual, Grover Reece, was now the school’s official “Information Officer.” I also made a footnote at the end of the announcement that Spencer Burns would continue being the editor of the blog.

Well, it’s been less than a week since the announcement was made and I’ve already received two inquires about why I need both an “Information Officer,” and an “Editor.” Not that I need to justify/explain anything to anyone, here are the answers.

Information Officer

This was a position I created in the school when I first started teaching. I have a very specific way I want the school to be presented to the public, and it has always been very hard for me to trust others to do the job to my expectations.

Unfortunately, in the past mistakes have been made by others, even those with the best of intentions. I’ve paid for some of these mistakes, by having to face a barrage of negative inflammatory emails and forum posts. Such is life in the age of the Internet.

Back to topic…

Since Grover joined the school, he has taken it upon himself to promote the school in many different ways. No one asked him to, that’s just the sort of person he is. He feels we have something worthwhile to share, and wants others to know that.

During his efforts, he has quickly discovered how hard it is to generate interest among the masses. It’s time consuming, frustrating, and often unrewarding. It’s something that can really break one’s motivation. So far, though he may be flustered, he seems willing to still try.

Now, I’m not saying everything he has done was done in a manner that I would do it. Grover has a lot to learn. A lot. And it’s not easy.

I’m stubborn, very protective of the school, and normally want things done my way. I created the school, and I am ultimately held accountable for any information pertaining to it. This means that Grover has to learn to produce a product that reflects more of the image I’ve tried to create.

This is no easy task, since I no longer teach him directly (he trains with my Shidoshi-ho, Glen Hunt, in San Francisco). This is very evident if you look at the things he has posted, and the way he has promoted the school to date. It’s not bad, just different.

So what are the information officer’s duties?

  1. He is responsible for any printed, photographed, videotaped information that leaves the school.
  2. He is responsible for any advertisement related to the school, both in form and content.
  3. He is responsible for maintaining and updating databases.
  4. He is responsible for promoting/advertising any school events.
  5. He is responsible for examining and discovering new ways to market the school, in the most economical way possible.
  6. He is responsible for answering any inquires about the school that are not directed towards Glen Hunt, Spencer Burns, or myself.
  7. He is responsible for gathering release and wavier forms at hosted events, as well as collecting and distributing any money collected.
  8. Here is the fun one: he is responsible for periodically checking the Internet to see if anything is being written in regards to the school. However, he is not required to address such information, nor should he unless instructed to do so.
  9. He is responsible for maintaining, categorizing, and updating any historical information related to the school.

There are of course other things, but those are the main ones.

While I could continue to do all of these things myself, the honest truth is I’m getting tired of it. It’s simply exhausting and in many ways I’m out of ideas.

I’m hoping that by relinquishing some of these things, I will see Grover brings in some fresh perspectives, and maybe some more modern ways to attract students.

All I can say is – Good Luck Grover.


I write like I talk. I often ramble, get side tracked, and find it hard to get to my point
More often than I would like to admit, I find it hard to express myself clearly or succinctly when I write. I guess my mind doesn’t work that way.

Mix in a dose of bad grammar, run on sentences, misspelled words, and typos, and you have an end product that just isn’t very presentable. More importantly, I write what I feel, often not considering the consequences. One day I must learn to be more tactful.

My editor, Spencer Burns, cleans all these faults up. At least, he does as much as he can without rewriting the whole thing. He makes sure that I appeared to have some actual writing skills, that what I present is factual, and that I use some decorum with addressing things I dislike or those that attack me.

Trust me he has made sure I haven’t put my foot to deeply in my mouth, or made too a big an ass of myself on several occasions.

Though I may not say it often enough, I really appreciate that he does this.

I appreciate his work because I can often imagine his look of frustration when he sees the files I send him. Especially the long photo filled essays that could be written/organized in a much more coherent manner.

Furthermore, Spencer is my editor because his computer/Internet skills are vastly superior to mine, resulting in a much more professional end product.

Lastly, he is my editor for no other reason than that the blog was his idea.