I just had another great weekend at the annual Okinawa Kobudo Doushi Renseikai gasshuku. Training was really good, Stolsmark sensei did his usual excellent job teaching and leading the group, and it was fun to see and train with a group of dedicated and just plain nice people, friends and fellow kobudo-ka. It also made me think about how much things have changed in the kobudo “world”. I started training kobudo in 1986 and got lucky in having an excellent teacher. In those days good kobudo instruction was rare. I remember seeing groups doing bo or sai and being confused by the clear lack of understanding of how the weapon worked. I don’t mean differences in style or flavor, I mean a real lack of understanding of how to even hold a weapon in a way that was safe and would keep it in your hand if you hit anything.
Indeed, back in the 80s while there were certainly people doing kobudo, there was little kobudo being done. Sure some teachers had some experience, a few had a lot and in addition to Kimo sensei there were certainly some good people out there. But in general kobudo was not that popular, and the average understanding and skill level, even among “instructors” was really low, at least in the kobudo I saw. I believe this was mostly due to people simply not having exposure to good instruction; they didn’t have the opportunity. But these days, I see something different. When Gakiya Yoshiaki sensei founded the Okinawa Kobudo Doushi Rensei Kai in 2002, he also started coming to the states annually. On those first trips I remember still seeing the vast majority of people on the floor having a really hard time with the basics of moving the weapon, and of carrying their bodies in a way that would facilitate using it. But that is more than a few years ago now. (Which I will admit comes as a bit of a surprise at times!)
Under Gakiya sensei, and after he stopped teaching and Neil Stolsmark sensei took on leadership of the OKDR under Stolsmark sensei, I have seen a real change in the group. Where once most people were struggling with the basics and the elementary kata now there is a large group of people who are working with a lot of the system, training hard and bringing on their own students. Where once paired work was primarily paired basics done with a little trepidation now it ranges from beginners to seniors working all parts of the system with energy, creativity, and attention to detail. It is, in so many ways, a completely different group.
This change has, I think, been mirrored in the larger martial arts community in North America. Perhaps it just needed time, as people (to be fair, like me) who were juniors in the 80s, got their time in. But do I see much more good kobudo than I would have thought possible 30 years ago. Ryukyu Kobudo, Matayoshi Kobudo, the kobudo of various specific instructors or karate styles, there is just more of it, and better quality. To me, it is a really welcome change.
Why has this happened? Well, kobudo has certainly become more popular. Nakasone san, the owner of Shureido, remarked to me last January that all of a sudden he simply can’t keep up with orders of kobudo equipment. There are a lot more people interested for all sorts of reasons. But, to my mind more importantly, I also see a lot more quality instruction. People that were coming up under the few good instructors here in the 80s have keep learning and teaching. Other people have gone and spend years or decades in Okinawa and are now teaching here. They have shown people what kobudo can be- not karate with a bo but a deep and difficult art (as well as a ton of fun). They have also maintained or deepened their ties to their roots, technical and social, maintaining contact with the teachers and seniors of the kobudo in Okinawa, helping it grow and maintaining standards. I believe that inspires people. While a few seminars or (gasp!) a book or video may have once sufficed in community with no real examples to emulate, now there are many more teachers with years or decades in their systems under their teachers and they are demonstrating the value of that depth of experience.
And that is what I saw this last weekend at the OKDR gasshuku. Stolsmark sensei has done a fantastic job moving the group forward. Leadership like that is hard to find. Where once I saw a room full of people excited but struggling to start their kobudo journey, this last weekend I saw a room full of excited, interested practitioners. People who would probably have stood out as “masters” 30 years ago due to their knowledge alone. How many people did I see easily demonstrate paired work with a nunti in 1988? Not too darn many, but I did see a dozen or so this weekend do so without seeming to think it was a very big deal. And most importantly, it wasn’t. It was just part of training, a step on the journey.
I am glad I can be part of a group of people so interested in and dedicated to an art that I love. It is fun just to spend a weekend training kobudo together. It is also really wonderful to see that where once there was a room full of beginners now there is a room full of people at all stages of the practice, experienced to new. Gakiya sensei told me once he hoped one day he could see a whole room full of OKDR members do Shinbaru no sai and guwa and eku, and, and… together. We did that this weekend. Seeing that growth, and knowing I have had a small part to play in it happening, is a fine feeling indeed. Makes me excited about what happens next.