In Memory of Anthony Mirakian Sensei

Two weeks ago Anthony Mirakian sensei passed away. After he died it occurred to me that he has been a near-constant presence in my practice almost from the beginning, and I have been at a loss for what to say. For those of you that read this blog you will know that the relationships that develop through our practice are more important to me than who is tougher or who is higher rank. We are people first, martial artists second. But one of the good things about our practice is that it can bring people together. For me, Mirakian sensei was one of those people. The details of his personal history I’ll leave to others, his direct students perhaps. For me, this is not hagiography but a way to say good bye.

Anthony Mirakain Sensei, Okinawa, late 1950s

I first met Mirakian sensei in 1987. I went to his dojo in Watertown with Kimo Wall sensei. They had known each other since the 1960s. That visit was the start of a relationship that lasted until Mirakian sensei passed away. While he was never my teacher, over the time I knew him he taught me a great deal about our Goju Ryu, how to train, and how to comport myself as a martial artist. He had been in Watertown since 1960, like the rock of Gibraltar as he put it. I passed in and out of the area over the next 5 years or so, and for some reason he kept intersecting with my training.

I visited his dojo in the spring of 1990. A few months later, in August, I was in Okinawa, down from my new home in Amami Oshima visiting Matayoshi sensei for the weekend. While walking down Kokusai Dori I looked across the street and to my surprise I saw faces I recognized- Mirakian sensei and a few of his students. We talked and had lunch and I got to hear a few more of his wonderful stories from training in the 50s. His happiness at being back in Okinawa, deep respect for his teacher, and the attitude of the group of students he brought all made an impression on me; it was one of those moments when you learn something that might not sink in for a while.

Mirakian sensei and students, upstairs in Heiwa dori, 1990

It turns out though that it is a small big world. A few weeks later I went to Sakai Ryugo sensei’s dojo in Kagoshima for the first time. While being shown around the dojo I saw a photo from 1958 or so. In it Sakai sensei was standing next to someone I thought I recognized. Sakai said, “that is Anthony Mirakian, an American. We trained with Toguchi sensei together.” “I know him,” I replied. “I was in his dojo a few months ago, and just saw him in Okinawa.” There was shocked silence. Sakai had fond memories of him, but had not seen him in over 30 years. Eventually I put the two in contact and they exchanged greetings. They were both happy about it after so long.

Mirakian sensei with Yagi Meitoku sensei and other Goju practitioners on a trip to Tokyo, Beppu, and around Japan in the late 1950s.

Sakai Ryugo sensei and Yagi sensei on the same trip.

But that is part of the practice. You develop relationships that have strength because you share something- effort, sweat, blood, time, all these, and more. They stay with you. When I got back to the states a few years later I saw Mirakian sensei again. I assisted Kimo sensei in a kobudo seminar at his dojo and afterwards we had a meal. I updated him on Sakai sensei and his family and he shared some great stories of Sakai in the 50s, when they both were young. It was a fun day, and I was glad for the break in what was at the time a grueling grad school schedule. But to my surprise it was not to be a one-off. After I left Mirakian sensei and Kimo sensei arranged for me to come to Mirakian’s dojo regularly and teach kobudo to any of his students that were interested.

To say I was nervous is an understatement. Mirakian sensei’s dojo had been there since before I was born. Kimo sensei referred to him as his sempai, and I got a careful lecture about how to comport myself in his dojo. I also got a lecture from Mirakian sensei about how he had never allowed anyone not from Meibukan to teach anything other than a seminar in his dojo. So yes, I was nervous. For the first few months Mirakian sensei sat there and watched every training. We would share some stories afterwards, which was always interesting, and he was very complimentary of my teaching. But a few months in we started pair work. That night he started telling me some stories of Taira Shinken- how he had trained with him a little but passed on the opportunity to learn kobudo from him because he wanted to focus on his Meibukan Goju Ryu. (Years later my friend Mario would be horrified by this story!) But then he turned to me and asked if he could join us for paired work. I was shocked, and my nervousness hit new heights. But what sunk in that night, and the nights following, was that he was serious. In his dojo, well and truly my senior, he asked and would have accepted a well-reasoned no as an answer. He had made his decision about me teaching after watching a while and part of his ethos was trust- the teacher is in charge of his class. That was just how it was. A lesson in both humility and martial ethics that again took me a while to grasp. But the next part was the best. He got out on the floor and spent most of the time we were doing paired work asking for corrections and smiling. He was just enjoying the act of training. Forty years in and it was fun for him. That lesson sank in immediately, and it is one I keep with me.

Over the next few years we occasionally spent time outside the dojo together. In some ways I think he saw a kindred spirit in me- someone working to walk a path he was much further down. I remember his wife telling my wife that she was also a “karate widow” and them both laughing at our incessant karate talk. He shared some things he had picked up along the way- options for movements in sepai he learned from Yagi sensei, a version of sanseru he learned from Kyoda Juhatsu- and in return listened to my stories and enjoyed a little kobudo practice. I also remember a long terrible evening that was supposed to include old video of Higa Seiko he thought he had but instead devolved into a 3 hour diatribe about Peter Urban. We are all human… But through it all his passion for his art remained obvious, and infectious. A lesson in constancy, and in joy.

At a dinner for Mirakian sensei’s birthday.

I didn’t talk to Mirakian sensei for a while after the kobudo sessions stopped, but it seems inevitable we would spend some more time in the dojo together. In 2007 Liu sifu started coming back to the states and he wanted to see Mirakian sensei again (he had visited the dojo with us in 1997). I helped set up a seminar at the Meibukan dojo in 2009. The next year after the seminar Mirakian sensei asked me if I would be willing to teach in his dojo again, to work with his students on the Feeding Crane. I said yes, and that has turned into a relationship I continue to value.

Over the years Mirakian sensei shared many stories of training in Okinawa. He also shared photos, and one thing I kept noticing in them was who was sitting or training together. Yagi, Toguchi, Higa, and their students, sharing sweat and beer, travel and training. And more, photos of him with Uechi, Shorin, and kobudo masters, all hanging out together and sharing. That spirit seems to be lost on Okinawa today, and certainly seems rare here. The different groups tend to stick to themselves, and sometimes even put each other down. I feel perhaps their founders would be disappointed. Of course karate is about the training, but we are people first. What type of karate-ka treats another human being with disdain? That is not karate, karate begins and ends with courtesy.

Me with Mirakian sensei and two of his senior students, Hing Poon Chan sensei and Paul Zarzour sensei.

That was another lesson Mirakian sensei helped teach me. By sharing his space, inviting me to run classes and train together with his students, he was demonstrating that open spirit. He saw benefit in our groups training together, and in learning something new. To be honest I am honored he saw something in me he was willing to trust his students to. He could just as easily have sat back and said “hey, I have been here since 1960. I know what I am teaching and I don’t need to disrupt the Meibukan I have dedicated my life to with a young teacher of a different art.” And he would have been right, he didn’t need to. But he saw a benefit in opening up his dojo to us. I know I have benefited greatly from the time there and from training with his students, a dedicated and generous group and a credit to their teacher. People that I am proud to call friends, students, and training partners. I would like to hope everyone else who shares our training has gained from it as well.

After a Feeding Crane seminar in Mirakian sensei’s dojo, 2011.

And that is the most important lesson Mirakian sensei shared with me. Community. A few years ago his dojo celebrated his 50th anniversary of teaching in Watertown. Fifty years. Looking around the room I saw faces I was familiar with, some from as far back as 1987. Mirakain sensei had active students who started training in the 60s. Highly skilled students who display an unusual level of loyalty and friendship along with their skill. I don’t know how one would measure a teacher, but someone that can bring together a community like that and have it last that long has done something right. To add to that a continued openness, even after five decades, is even more impressive.

This post is a little long, but for those of you who knew Mirakian sensei you will understand why I think that is fitting. It is sad to see him go. I will miss Mirakian sensei, his stories, and his willingness to share what he knew. I considered him a friend, and I will simply miss that friendship. But I also hope to keep the spirit he showed in asking us to train together alive. Our shared practice is important to me, for a host of reasons. It is part of an older approach to the Okinawan martial arts, and while not everything older is better this part certainly is. Meibukan, Kodokan, Goju Ryu, Kobudo, Feeding Crane, it does not really matter, as my friend showed me. Training and helping each other improve does. The martial arts are for self-preservation, for keeping one alive. And when is a human being more alive than when growing and sharing with friends?

Snow Days

Living in New England, winter weather can sometimes create disruptions in schedule. The last couple of weeks we have been hit by a record amount of snow and this has cancelled some of our regular training. But while it is a bummer to miss training together, it is also an opportunity. Of course it can be an opportunity to skip training all together and catch up on other things, spend some time at home, and relax, but of course that is not what I am talking about. One of the best things about our practice is that it does not require a lot of space, or a lot of equipment. A snow day is a good time to train at home alone. Figure out what you can do without the dojo, and without other people to help you along. You are in charge of your training anyway, so don’t not train just because the dojo is closed for the day.

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When I was a bit younger on occasion we went out and trained in the snow. I will always remember the pink footprints from doing sanchin in the snow and getting little cuts on my feet from the thin layer of ice on top. Good memory, probably not the smartest training ever. But while you don’t need to head outside to train on a snow day you should take the opportunity and run your own training. If you are not doing that regularly, you are not really training our arts anyway!

If You Can’t Say Something Nice….

I have seen a fair number of demonstrations over the years, and afterwards there is the inevitable de-brief. Most of the time this consists of a minute examination of exactly what the group in question has done wrong. Poor mechanics, sloppy organization, no contact, unrealistic application, poor conditioning, lousy tactics, bad posture, improper grammar, the list seems endless. Often these criticisms are valid. I have seen people teaching exercises that were so bio-mechanically incorrect I wanted to run into their class and cry out for everyone to stop before they damaged themselves. I have seen kata done so poorly I wanted to cry, and I have been told to do things visiting a class that were so absurd I have simply refused. So after seeing or experiencing these things it seems the conversation is inevitable: “how can they do that?!?”, “why do the students stay?”, “doesn’t the teacher know any better?”. All accompanied by a gratifying sense that while we may be making some mistakes at least we are doing better than….

But while this is pretty common it is also something I try to limit in myself. A number of years ago I went to a demo with two friends. The groups were all pretty bad- bad mechanics, a hilarious lecture on how to stay out of the center of mass attacks followed by the lecturer demonstrating by jumping right between two attackers, and a number of groups who got stage fright and lost track of their presentations. Most of the participants were pretty young, but one group had an older (probably early 40s) member who gamely followed along with the rest of his dojo. During the after-demo conversations, while we took the various demos apart one of my training partners said something along the lines of: well, that older fellow was doing well. He remained un-flustered when his group got lost, worked hard, and showed that someone in their 40s can train with college kids.

Out of what was admittedly a sea of pretty bad practices he had found something good to say and in the years since I have tried to take that lesson to heart. It is sometimes hard, but most of the time you can find something good in just about anyone’s practice. They get a good workout, the dojo has a safe and welcoming atmosphere, specific elements of their movement or application are unusual and interesting, there is almost always something.

Finding those good things and noticing them is important. On a practical level you are far better off training yourself to see what a potential opponent does well than what they do poorly; it’s what they do well you need to worry about. But more importantly, what you pay attention to is an indication of who you are. Are your arts teaching you respect for other human beings or are they teaching you to be critical and dismissive? Do you spend your time figuring out ways you are better than everyone around you, or are you comfortable with yourself and more interested in what others are doing well, what you can learn from them? Can you simply be happy for someone else doing something they enjoy, or do you have to degrade any part of it that you do not think is the “right” way to practice?

I’m not suggesting that all practice methods are equal, they are not. I’m not suggesting anything everyone does is just wonderful; sometimes it sucks. But I am suggesting that constant denigration of other peoples’ practice Is both unnecessary and often subtly self-destructive.  So next time you see a demo try to see the good side of what people are doing before criticizing them. It feels different, gives you a different perspective on what you are seeing. It opens up alternative areas of examination and can limit the self-importance that often comes with criticism. It can make watching or trying out someone else’s practice a much more enriching experience. And since karate begins and ends with politeness, shouldn’t we pay attention to what our mothers told us and if we can’t say something nice….

Research?

I know this is a pet peeve of mine, but I am very tired of hearing about people’s “research” into the Okinawan martial arts. Research is about taking an existing body of knowledge and adding to or improving it. It starts with a question, not an answer. But most of what is called “research” is bunk, and much of it is very obviously political, espousing the author’s teacher (or the author) as the “true master” of one system or another or their training methods as the “best” approach. If you can’t speak and read at least Japanese, though preferably Chinese and Uchinaguchi as well, then you are not doing research on the Okinawan martial arts. If nothing else you can’t access the huge volume of extant material in Japanese on the arts. If you do not have extensive background in the culture and history of the area outside of the martial arts then you don’t have appropriate context to do research. If you don’t understand modern research methods for conducting and examining oral history, for example, you are just reporting gossip, not doing research. No matter how well-meaning or high-ranked the source is, or how “logical” and well thought through the conclusions are, research requires cross-checking information, looking at it in the light of various social, political, and personal perspectives and biases, and then re-assessing it.

That is not to say that many different approaches are not valuable. Passing on information from one’s teachers is valuable and informative. Describing your, or your system’s, training methods is also useful and interesting. But on its own none of it has the proper methodology, background, or rigor to be considered research. Perhaps it is just a question of terminology, but I think it is important to be clear about what one is doing. Call things what they are- opinion, gossip, experimentation, description, all of these are valuable contributions (yes, even gossip, if it is from the right people!) to any body of knowledge. Without them things stagnate. But doing research into the Okinawan arts without proper training is like researching bluegrass without being able to speak English, not understanding how bluegrass relates to other musical styles, not understanding general Western musical theory, not understanding the history of the region and the immigrants that came there and brought their music with them, not living there and experiencing the music and culture in its native environment, and not having a solid background in, say, ethnomusicology so you don’t repeat work that has already been done and don’t make simple methodological mistakes that some training could avoid.

This is, I admit, a lot to ask. Having the background to do peer-accepted research in most social sciences, anthropology for example, takes upwards of 5-10 years of full time study, including learning multiple languages, years of background study, and doing targeted fieldwork. For something like the martial arts that would be on top of time training. But that is what it takes in, say, modern dance, to be considered a real researcher. Why should the martial arts ask any less of themselves? Isn’t the idea of 文武両道 (bun-bu ryodo- the way of study and martial practice) exactly this, putting as much effort into your academic study as your martial study? Aren’t we supposed to be about pushing ourselves, being honest with ourselves, and not accepting second best? The easy stuff has been done. Simple histories, descriptions of styles, and so on are a dime a dozen. The arts deserve more.

In particular we need work that leaves behind self-aggrandizement and political agenda. It should ask questions and let the work find the answers instead of starting with them and working backwards. But if you do want to espouse a particular idea, say that your teacher is the “true” heir of the system even though there are other claimants, then prove it.  Your research needs to examine your teacher’s claim in light of appropriate social mores, requires multiple sources for collaboration, must take into account different claims and demonstrate why they are inferior (if they actually are), and must examine the stake your teacher and his students have in this claim and how that may have affected it. Information should be gathered in source languages and examined using appropriate methods. It should also be well written and well organized, with proper citations. Finally it would need to be peer-reviewed, by people who are not in your lineage, for accuracy and bias. Then it could be considered research, and perhaps even be accurate. If there was more work like this about the Okinawan martial arts then this research might help us all move the arts forward. And if more started with questions instead of answers we might actually be keeping to the ideal of 文武両道. That would be a step forward.

Schedule Changes

As of January 1st, 2015, there will be two changes to our training schedule.

1) Weeknight karate and kobudo will now go from 7-9 PM.

2) Starting in January our Feeding Crane training will shift to every Tuesday night. It is a welcome change! Feeding Crane classes will be taught alternately by Fred sifu and Mike Larimore sifu, and of course we will be training together with Mirakian sensei’s students in Watertown. 411-Sakai sensei dojo-bunkai 10

These should be some good changes for 2015. Looking forward to another great year of training here at Kodokan Boston!

Why do we have ranks?

What purpose does rank serve? This is not a rhetorical question, I would really like an answer that makes sense. So far I don’t have one. Rank is so deeply imbedded in the culture of the Okinawan martial arts (interestingly enough even more so in the West than in Okinawa, but that is another topic) that it is impossible for many people to conceive of the arts without it. But remember, rank in Okinawa is a pretty new thing. Funakoshi awarded his first dan rankings in 1924 and those were probably the first in any karate system. It took a while, really until after the war, before they became common in Okinawa. So they are not very old. And in all seriousness, what purpose do they serve?

Some people say that they help in teaching, letting the instructor know where the student is supposed to be. To that I reply that if your teacher does not know where you are at, go somewhere else, they are not paying attention. And if classes are so large such a system is needed you are not learning real karate anyway.

I have heard that they give people motivation for learning. OK. That may be good, for kids. But not for adults. In my opinion one of the main points of karate training is self motivation, and self discipline. If you have those you don’t need an external measure to keep going. Indeed, striving for such an external measure runs contrary to the ideals of the art.

But they are really really popular. People invest a lot of themselves in their rank. So much so that some people lie about it, switch teachers just to get rank, and do a variety of other things that say that the rank is somehow the real goal. They display it, insist on being referred to using it, and often seem to think that it says something about their personal attributes and ability, even outside the dojo.

But does it? Rank in one dojo seems to be unrelated to rank in another, at least in terms of ability. Certainly there is no universal measure of what any rank means. What about an out of shape former yudansha who has not trained in 10 years? Is his higher rank a measure of his greater ability compared to someone who has been training regularly the last 5 years? If rank is a measure of skill shouldn’t it be tested periodically and then shouldn’t people who have slipped in skill lose rank? If that is not the case (and I have never seen that done) then it is not a measure of skill. If it is a measure of time training couldn’t we just skip the idea of testing and give people a new rank every x years? That would make more sense anyway. I have literally seen a black belt get hit by a lower rank and say “you can’t hit me, I’m a black belt”. Really? Your rank now means more than the reality of training?

So rank doesn’t help with teaching, is not a real indicator of skill, and is not universal. I still can’t see the point. It seems to breed ego, and can hold people back, letting them think their rank defines what they can do along with what they should be able to do. I can’t think of any way rank makes things better, and honestly we would probably be better off without it. I have trained in arts that do not have a ranking system, or have a much simpler one (instructor and student, for example). In many ways they are clearer training environments. The only measure of status is skill, which can only be demonstrated on the floor. The teacher is the teacher because he or she can both do and teach, and because they have earned the student’s respect, not because they have more stripes on their belt, or a cool title, or some other nonsense. That makes more sense to me. It strips away a layer of obfuscation and puts it out there- what can you do, not what rank are you.

Isn’t that more important anyway?

The Heart of the Matter

It was a great 10 days training with Liu sifu. The weekend seminar went well, and the private and evening class trainings were also good- plenty of sweat, new (and old) things to work on, and of course getting to spend some time with a friend and teacher. As usual everyone helped make the visit go off well. Thank you to everyone who turned out to train with us, and to everyone who helped make the event go so well. Special thanks to Corey Tedrow and Jim Baab for helping make Sifu’s stay comfortable, to Mirakian sensei for hosting the seminar in his dojo, and of course to Liu sifu for coming this far to work with us. It has been good as always to see him and I’ll miss him between now and his next visit (or mine there, depending on which happens first) but I am glad he is headed home to spend some much needed time with his family after a long trip.

廣心館

But while the visit was great and it is always good to see a friend and teacher I am really looking forward to a very special event tonight. Tonight is….. regular training at our dojo! Special events and visits like this are a wonderful part of what comes with pursuit of an art like ours. They help us correct our practice, give us things to work on, and can both introduce new ideas and give a different perspective on what we are already doing. They also give us a chance to spend some time with friends from far away- from Taiwan for sifu, but from a variety of places for our other kung’fu brothers and sisters. This too is a wonderful benefit of martial practice. But while the special events are great, and time with one’s teachers absolutely necessary for improvement in any martial art, the meat of it, the day in and day out sweat, pain, and joy of practice, happens here at home. In the dojo or in the backyard, basement, or park, this is where it happens. I am really looking forward to seeing dojo mates and students and just practicing. That’s the real stuff!