Why do we so commonly have images of our teachers (and their teachers…) as supernaturally skilled? Thinking about my last post and some of the feedback I got led me to think some more about the images I have of my teachers, the stories I have told about them, and, amusingly enough, of some of the stories (sometimes heard second or third hand) my students have told about me. When I think of Kimo, Sakai, Gakiya, Miyagi, Liu, Nagata, or a number of my other teachers or seniors one of the things I consistently remember is the feeling of being completely outclassed. I think many martial artists have similar experiences. Why is that? It certainly supports that trope I discussed in my last post. But in thinking about it, I realized something: we often create these images early in our relationships with people. And when you first walk through the door of a dojo you don’t know anything. You are completely outclassed. In a way that you should not be, at least if the teacher is good, even a couple of years later. But these images are sticky. They maintain. I think that is one reason why we have this trope to begin with. We are struck by how far outclassed we are when we enter the dojo, at a time when we have no training in that art and are looking for something. It is an impressionable moment. Of course we remember our teachers as amazing!

And to add to that, our perception of age changes. I clearly remember being completely outclassed by an old man when I was 18 and starting training. It was like something out of a movie! I came to the dojo from competitive rowing and not being able to keep up with such an old man seemed impossible. Looking back though, that “old man” was in his early 40s. Not so old, though he sure seemed it to my teenage self. And that man was training every day, and had been for decades. So again, the image was formed based on a moment in time. One informed by the perspective of a teenager who had no martial arts training at all. But it was an impressionable moment. And it stuck.

I think a lot of stories of our teachers come from these moments. Starting training, being young, being in an impressionable place. Paying attention to when and how we developed them seems a good idea to me. It might make you reassess these images. For me, doing this has led to a deeper appreciation of the teachers I have had, of how they welcomed me and helped me grow. And of how they demonstrated their ability and knowledge in a way that inspired and drew me in, instead of beat me down. And now, when I remember those of my teachers who have passed, I see them in a more human way. Sure, when we met they could do impossible things. But instead of standing on a pillar and looking down they showed me where the ladder was, and how climbing it wasn’t impossible, just a lot of good hard work. And then they gave me a hand up the first steps.


So I have been thinking about teachers lately. My own of course, and my role as a teacher. And that has led me to thinking about the images we hold of the martial arts teacher. When you think of a sensei, a sifu, a martial arts teacher, who comes to mind? Pai Mei? Master Po? Mister Miyagi? Or, as a kind of amalgamation of martial arts tropes, Yoda? While the image may vary, it is usually a frail looking old man who can demonstrate amazing skills and easily defeat any comers, including any of his students. It is a classic trope, really, perhaps as firmly rooted in the culture of the martial arts as anything. And like so many tropes, it is mostly BS, defying biology, logic, and at least my experience.

Fiction I am

Of course, it does have an element of truth to it, that’s how these things start. If you want knowledge, go to those who have it. People who have been training for decades learn things. They develop skills that neophytes simply cannot have. And maintaining your training can maintain phenomenal athletic abilities even as people age- I remember Matayoshi sensei teasing me in the early 90’s about being able to jump higher than I could in one technique. A well trained 68 year old can do things a 28 year old can’t, especially if the 68 year old gets to choose the points of comparison.

But that misses the point. Yoda simply does not exist. No one is undefeatable, at any age. Everyone is just human and as we get older our bodies change, we can’t stop that. And, given that reality, the trope of the incredibly skilled master easily able to handle any challenger creates an unreasonable and counter productive model for people teaching martial arts. It sets up an expectation that the teacher be near super-human, and worse, that he or she can never be surpassed. If it is an image that the teacher feels a need to live up to it can lead to some extremely dysfunctional things, including holding students back, teaching poorly, and creating mystic “powers” or “secret knowledge”. And the same goes for the students: if they need their teacher to live up to that super human image it can create real problems, including giving up one’s own autonomy, or denying the realities of practice.

One problem with legends and myths is that we know we can’t match them. It’s a dead end. If the master is undefeatable, and I know I can be defeated, then I can never be the master. No one can, and on some level I know that as well. That can feel pretty demoralizing. I love stories about the old masters and the superhuman things they could do. But really? Defeating tigers and fighting off dozens of armed men? It’s fun, not fact. And thinking of it as fact, believing it, both sets an impossible standard and prevents people from seeing the reality of their teachers, and of their own training. If the teacher is doing (or claiming) something you know is impossible then you know that the system is, somehow, rigged to create that result. You have a choice then: buy into the system, or leave it. And this doesn’t have to be levitation or no-touch knockouts, it can just be a guy who stands in front of a class and says he can’t be hit, and then sets up a whole set of rules that makes that the case.

When you are running a class, or a dojo, you have a lot of control over what material is covered and how it is approached. Insecurity, or image, or simply habit, can lead to teachers not allowing students to challenge them (“you don’t hit sensei!”), or to running classes that play to the teacher’s strengths. For example, I am better at controlling pressure weapon to weapon than most of my students, so if we spend a lot of time on training that emphasizes that I will usually come off as “better”. If you run classes try it. You can run a class in which you are always “winning” simply by setting the rules of the drills, doing drills that play to your strengths, changing things and keeping the class catching up, and setting rules for the dojo, like limiting contact or open oppositional training. In particular setting up a training structure that emphasizes drills with specific outcomes, and maintaining an atmosphere of authority, where the sensei/instructor is the only source of knowledge and cannot be questioned, play to an image of the teacher being unbeatable pretty well.

Students may do this too. Falling when they are “supposed” to, letting the teacher get in shots they wouldn’t let in from another student, accepting information or instruction that may be questionable. They may not even know they are doing it, particularly if the rules, as I said above, support the authority of the teacher over the experience of training. If they play to the image. And if they have been conditioned to do it, on purpose or not, well….

I think this drives people away from traditional martial arts. It is clear these teachers are not super human, even the great ones. And while some folks might want the story bad enough to push down the inner voice telling them something isn’t right, more will simply walk away. Stories are great, but needing to buy into a teacher that can do things that are impossible, needing to aid and abet that story as you invest more and more into it, needing to believe something that some part of you knows isn’t true, can be exhausting. And a complete waste of energy.

Of course the image of the teacher as the main arbiter of knowledge may be important for a number of reasons. On a practical level, your students need to trust you for you to teach them. If they don’t, they won’t listen and won’t learn and every class will be a constant struggle for authority. So on one level establishing and maintaining that authority is important. But that is where this trope can become rather insidious. It can push the teacher (or the students…) to go past that needed level of respect, one that incidentally should be earned not assigned, and instead work to develop and maintain a myth. It can help create environments where the teacher (or the structure of the group, or the other students) limit and control the student, keeping them down instead of helping them grow. All to make sure the teacher stays unsurpassed. But everyone gets surpassed eventually….

A good teacher should be able to maintain authority without always needing to be “the best”. Indeed, a good teacher should be pushing his or her students to excel, not keeping them in their shadow. The teacher should also be showing students where they think their own skills are lacking and how they are working on them, so they can be an honest role model. But that heroic image is often there in the background, for both teacher and student. Breaking away from it can feel like letting the side down, like you are not the martial artist you should be, and for your students like they don’t have the teacher they could. I know from experience, both as a student and as a teacher, that students like to have a teacher that exemplifies some of the tropes, these myths. It can be inspirational, and cool; part of the experience. But in the end, myths are not real and perpetuating some of them can be damaging. How then can we situate ourselves in this context?

First off, recognize it. No one is that good. Everyone can be beat. If it seems impossible it probably is. So if you want a teacher that is super-human, re-assess. You will never find one, though you can probably find one who claims he is. (The same goes for a teacher that is a perfect human being, or can bring perfect wisdom to your life outside your training, but that is a different story.) You can, however, find a good teacher, perhaps with exceptional skills, who can help guide you in your training. So stop looking for a hero or a guru and look for a good teacher instead.

This is one area where competitive arts have an advantage. They are used to this issue and have some simple and well tried solutions. First, if the teacher is a competitor the group can see how well they do, both in a public venue and in competitive training in the dojo. Everyone understands that different people can do different things, and that everyone gets beat sometimes. While one can certainly be a dangerous opponent well past middle age, there is a reason many sports have a “masters” class for competition, and you don’t see many 60 year olds out there fighting at the highest levels of open competition. Speed, endurance, and ability to recover from injury all decline as we age. Training can offset a lot of this, but not all, and that is normal. But what does that mean for a teacher?

Experience and training hold valuable knowledge and passing it on is essential to the transmission of the art. Someone with 20 or 30 or more years of training will have skills and knowledge his or her juniors will not. And you need those physical skills to transmit them. In a sporting environment there is a pretty clear understanding of the difference between specific skills and overall competitive ability. The main role of a teacher or coach is teaching, passing on those higher level skills, focusing on the students and the dojo, not on competing themselves. The coach doesn’t have to be able to beat all the competitors, he or she has to be able to coach them.

What the heck is wrong with you? Of course I can be beaten. Me being beaten is just a finger pointing at the moon.

And this returns us to the trope we started with. It implies that the best practitioner is by default the best teacher. That you should find the best fighter or master and learn from them. After all, they are undefeatable, right? Getting students by winning competitions or having a rep for being an amazing artist is a pretty common way of doing things. Just look at all the trophies, ranks, or awards you see in many dojo. They denote status as practitioners. But pay attention! They denote the teacher’s ability, their successes and status. But it might make sense to look at the students’ successes instead.

Teaching, training, and fighting are different skills. I’ve met a number of great martial artists who simply could not teach. They would have their students do the same drills they did, they would try their best, but they didn’t know how to help others learn. And while “waza wo nusumu” is essential to learning, without a good teacher it is pretty darn hard to progress, and near impossible to see your own failings and how to correct them. Sure, knowing how to succeed yourself might be helpful, but you don’t need to be the best overall practitioner to be a good teacher. To help a student progress you mainly need to know how to teach them.

Look at it this way: would Mike Tyson’s coach have beat him in the ring? Unlikely. But that coach was invaluable. I doubt any high level competitive athlete could run his or her own training program and be successful. Classical martial arts are no different. You need someone who can analyze what you are doing, understand what you need to change to improve, and develop a training program that gets those results. That is a completely different skillset to being a good fighter or martial artist yourself. That doesn’t mean there isn’t overlap, it just means that to be a good sensei, a teacher, you have to be able to teach, not just train. And you have to put in the time to learn those skills, as they don’t come from osmosis or through training. Or by being good at the art.

So instead of looking for a teacher that can defeat all comers, a silly quest anyway, one might be better off looking for a teacher whose students are consistently good at the art. If the teacher is focused on maintaining his or her status or image then they have incentives for not pushing their students to exceed them. They also have less incentive for learning how to really teach. If they see their role as a mentor as important however they may have taken the time and effort to learn how to teach, as well as taken the time to understand their own goals and their role and how that affects their practice and instruction. They may have taught themselves to understand and manage the tropes we are talking about, and their consequences. Don’t get me wrong. A martial arts teacher who is not still training and trying to learn and grow isn’t going to cut it, at least in my opinion. And a teacher better have some skills. But that image of the old, preternaturally skilled and undefeatable teacher isn’t doing anyone any favors. If you find a teacher who has been teaching for 20 or 30 years, again I’d suggest looking at his or her students. If none of them are as good or better than the teacher in any aspect of the art, if it were me I’d go elsewhere. They may be an amazing practitioner, and they may be doing their best, or they may be holding their students back, but either way they are not teaching well. And what are you there for? To sit in a room watching an amazing practitioner, or to get some guidance in how to become one?

How to Zoom With Your Sensei

I was talking to a friend a few months ago, about teaching through the pandemic. One thing that came up was how many people had been doing Zoom sessions. I understand why. We have not been able to gather in person as we normally would and Zoom has acted as a substitute. It has helped some dojo stay open and give their students the best experience they could in a difficult time. I have even heard some talk about how it was better, allowing more access to teachers and material without the need for travel, and at lower cost. Sure, it doesn’t allow for contact, or physical corrections, or breaking off into smaller groups or pairs to work on something, but it does enable certain types of training, primarily solo or form work, and a certain type of instruction, primarily lecture and demonstration. We realized we could balance the up and down sides, particularly as a stop gap during a pandemic. Some good some bad, but probably better than nothing. But the thing we kept returning to was that it just wasn’t as much fun.

Fun, that is, for us. From what I’ve heard students have mixed experience with the format. Some don’t like it, some love it. But regardless, the upsides seem to be primarily for the students, particularly those who are newer to the material. I’ve done a couple of Zoom classes, as requests and to see what I thought of the format. And yup, it was nice to see the students, as best I could in little boxes on the screen, taking in some of the material and having a good time. But indeed it just wasn’t as much fun.

What do I mean by fun? Well, I didn’t enjoy it as much, or feel I could actually teach. I couldn’t really see who was getting it and who wasn’t. I couldn’t read the room well enough to improvise, to add, remove, or change material to get the lessons across. I couldn’t touch people to correct them, offer appropriate pressure to help them better understand. I missed seeing the lightbulbs switching on as a shift in the class helped someone suddenly get what we were doing. And of course there was no partner work. It felt incomplete, because our art is interactive and without contact none of the movement has any meaning. Teaching itself is interactive. I can certainly talk (just ask my students) but in general there is a blurry line between training and teaching. I felt like I was lecturing to the group instead of trying to figure out how to meet each person where they were and working with them to move forward. And I missed the casual social interactions involved in a normal class, even a seminar or workshop class. Learning a little about the participants, benefiting from their experience, sharing a story that popped up because of a question, or getting another perspective on what we were doing that would make me think about my practice. Learning. Building relationships.

So yeah, not as fun. But so what? What does it matter if the teacher is having fun? We are used to thinking of teachers a certain way. Their role is to aid and assist, to inform and to help us grow. (Looking at how we treat school teachers, it seems credit for a selfless “giving” spirit is far more important than respect for a difficult profession or providing a good salary and working conditions.) Teachers give. The relationship is one way. And yes, most people who teach do so because they love it, because they want to share their art and want to see others succeed. Most also feel a responsibility to pass on what they have been given, to keep the art alive and growing. I certainly see all this in the people I know who teach martial arts. But that conversation about zoom classes make me think about what we should expect teachers to get out of teaching, and what students should perhaps be thinking of in regards to their role.

Why should a teacher teach you anything? Especially in a volunteer activity like the martial arts? Well, one reason is that you have paid for class and shown up. Ok, that is a reasonable expectation. But from there? And what if the teacher isn’t getting paid? I wonder how many students think about what they are giving to their teachers in return for what they are receiving. How does your participation help the teacher? The dojo? The art? What have you done to encourage the teacher to be there, to share hard won knowledge and experience with you? What brings them back time and again?

I think these are important questions for any student. Just think about it. You have no “right” to knowledge or instruction, no matter how much you want it. If your teacher isn’t getting anything out of it, maybe they will reassess. They might stop teaching. Maybe they will come to teach out of habit and not bother to figure out how to pass the hard stuff on. Maybe they will come to train, not worry so much about teaching, not worry if you can get what they are doing or not. Maybe they’ll focus on faces through the door instead of quality instruction. Maybe they won’t try to figure out how to work with you so you can keep growing and just let you get what you can. How many people keep doing something they don’t see any benefit to? Your teachers’ efforts are helping you to learn and grow. What are your efforts doing for them? For the rest of the group? For the art? Are you showing them why they should keep trying?

One way to look at this is transactional- what are you giving in return for access and instruction? Have you paid your dues, put in your time? But another way is relational. Is the relationship a two way street? If the teacher just gives, the power in the relationship is one way- the teacher has it all and the student is simply a receiver. But that is pretty juvenile. If you are both adults the student should be able to meet the teacher part way, provide something that adds value to the teacher, to the relationship, and to the group. This may be simple: funds for the dojo, a thoughtful gift, taking care of chores and such, helping find other interested students, engaging, working, and showing the teacher how valuable what is being passed on is to them. It may be more complex- adding knowledge from other sources (academic, medical, other training), doing web design or management, teaching classes, making connections and opening doors for new opportunities, working to become a training partner for the teacher so you can help them keep improving. (This last is, in my opinion, particularly cogent- without strong and challenging training partners the teacher’s skills get rusty and they stop growing.) But regardless of what it is, it is important. You may not know it, but what you are contributing is one reason the opportunity to train, to learn, exists.

I am not suggesting the student has more responsibility than the teacher. In a traditional Japanese sempai-kohai relationship the larger responsibility lies with the sempai (and a sensei is simply a sempai of another stripe). But the kohai has an equally important role to play. Just as your teacher is working to figure out how he or she can best meet you where you are and help you grow, you are supposed to be working on your own to figure out how you can help your teacher (and the group you are both a part of) grow and become more of what they want to be. To be an equal part of the relationship. And, honestly, that is hard to do over Zoom. And not nearly as much fun.

Attributes, Techniques, and Skills

One thing I think is essential in training is understanding what each part of your practice is for. What is the goal? Being vague here doesn’t help. For example, doing 1000 punches in shiko dachi to “make you more powerful” is fine, but it might be helpful to define exactly what “more powerful” means. Better able to stay in shiko dachi? It will do that. Better able to hit hard? It might do that, but probably won’t. Better lactate tolerance? Probably better ways to do that. Stronger legs? Ok but again there are better ways to do that. Increased mental endurance. Sure. You get the point. Being clear about what your goals are and how you define them is essential. When I look at elements of my training I tend to put them into one of three categories, based on what their primary goal is: Attributes, Techniques, and Skills. 

Attributes are intrinsic elements of the practitioner. They might include speed, aerobic endurance, physical strength, flexibility, ability to generate martial power (fajiang or atifa), ability to take a hit/body conditioning, fundamental mechanics, use of peripheral vision, and so on. They may also include understanding of the principles of the system (theory), knowledge of where to hit and how things like joints work, and other non-physical attributes like fudoshin. These attributes can often be trained alone, as solo drills. They help form the “engine” as it were, or the martial body-mind appropriate for the art you practice. Training like calisthenics, basic movements, bag or makiwara work, hojo undo, paired conditioning drills, meditation, reading and other study, and so on are some methods for developing your attributes.

Techniques are exactly that. Specific martial applications. For example a kote gaeshi, or seio nage. This category would also include things like tenshin, interactive blocks and strikes, ukemi, throws, kansetsu or shime waza, or how to resist, absorb, or apply specific pressures. Training technique usually requires a partner, as the point is learning how to do specific things with an opponent. Some aspects of technique can also be trained in solo kata or on a bag, training dummy or with other training tools. Drills like any sort of pre-set bunkai, uchikomi, yakusoku kumite, various “lock flow” drills, many types of kakie, and so on are primarily technique training.

Skills are the means by which attributes are used to apply techniques. These are things like understanding timing, controlling space, and taking and maintaining the opponent’s balance, hitting with power on target on a resisting opponent while moving. Things like being aggressive (in intent, not emotionally), controlling fear, zanshin, ability to observe, and so on are also skills. For example, being strong and able to do a perfect kataguruma isn’t helpful unless you can take a resistant opponent, protect yourself from their attacks, feel openings and options, and get them and you in a position where you can use that strength to apply the kataguruma. Training skills requires a partner, someone who also understands what you are doing in training and why. You have to know what skills you are working on and what aspects of the training methods you are using are the “fiction” that allows you to train that skill, or set of skills, safely but thoroughly. Training methods like some forms of pushing hands practice/kakie or sensitivity training, many forms of randori, and other free or semi-free practice are often skill training. Pre-set two person work can also be skill training if it is designed and done that way (harder than it sounds and somewhat rare in the Okinawan arts).

Of course there is overlap between these categories, and many training methods will cover more than just one. The important thing, I believe, is understanding your goals, and then understanding how what you are training helps you meet them. If you don’t really understand what your practices are supposed to do, you can’t monitor and adjust when you are doing them incorrectly. For example, if  you think the purpose of a bunkai is to teach you to do a certain technique but don’t know what skills it is reinforcing you might not notice if you are starting out of range, not attacking into range, or waiting with your arms out for  your partner to apply the technique. These might actually be OK ways to train, if you understand what is happening and why- for example it is silly to try to learn a throw with a partner who is always resisting you- but if you don’t clearly know why you are doing what you are doing it might just feel fast and strong and be reinforcing mistakes. And you may not be balancing with other methods that correct for these issues.

Creating a balance between these three categories is essential. You can’t use your skills if you are too weak, or don’t understand why they work. Your strength will be overwhelmed if you don’t have a good mastery of technique (just watch a good grappler dominate a physically strong beginner). Your speed and techniques will be useless if your opponent is constantly keeping you off balance, physically or mentally, or if you don’t have the engine or technical vocabulary to put them into effect. In my opinion one reason Kano’s students did so well against classical jujutsu players is that he took the excellent attribute and technique training from the classical systems and added a better approach to controlled skill development. Sure, his guys probably lost something in the process, perhaps a toolbox that included the more damaging techniques, but since they were working in an environment where killing or maiming the opponent was a negative result, this didn’t matter. And the skills developed worked. (It definitely helped that many of his guys also already had a strong background in classical jujutsu, a case of adding to not instead of…)

It is easy to focus too much on one category of training. You might like it more. It might be easier. It might be more fun. And for an instructor, you might want to work on your weaknesses, not realizing your students need more focus on other things, or just have something you are into. In my experience attribute and technique training are usually the biggest emphasis in most “traditional” dojo. Physical training (calesthenics, weight training, hojo or junbi undo, etc.), basics, kata, pre-set bunkai and various things of this sort. They are easier to control and generate clearer results. What results? Fitness, some basic skills, and memorization of the curriculum. But an over emphasis on attributes can also lead to demanding training that results in possibly strong/fit people with mediocre mechanics or limited skills. Since physical attributes can cover for some of this, people training might not even notice. An over focus on technique on the other hand can easily result in people in poor shape or unable to take a hit doing lots of forms and “cool” applications like throws, striking combinations, or joint locks, often against unresisting usually out of range opponents. Plus, of course, having a curriculum down. Feels cool but lacks meat, as it were.

Skill training is a little harder to measure sometimes. You have to be clear what you are measuring before you start, create a metric as it were. Competition can create a way to judge who in that environment is developing, depending on how it is done. However in competitive environments I often see an emphasis on specific attributes and very specific skills, the ones most pertinent to that particular brand of competition. (I also see selection for those attributes, instead of skill development, but that is a different discussion.) Attributes can often make up for technique and skill- if you are strong and fast enough that throw is likely to work even if you are not quite lined up properly. They also are essential- if you don’t have the necessary endurance you will lose. At the same time certain specific skills are really useful in specific environments but can be detrimental in others (think about the overextension and lack of ability to take a hit often seen in point fighting; that would get you crushed if your opponent could grapple). An overemphasis on skills is like coming out to spar or roll but not spending time training techniques or working out- you might get good at what you know but may not know why, probably have a pretty limited repertoire, may not know what to do against someone with equal skill, and might lack the engine to get things to work. And over focus on skills can lead to my favorite martial trap, the technique of no technique- being able to move easily through a lot of somewhat fuzzy applications but not really knowing why they work, and not knowing when to stop and finish. It is like an OODA loop stuck in D.

Everyone has their problems. My training needs work, constantly. There are lots of way to break down your practice, and if you are paying attention it is likely you will have to constantly re-adjust to work on whatever you have been lacking lately. I have found that in doing so having a better sense of what I am training when I am training, what the precise result of that practice is, is one way to keep myself on track. This is very different to a subject list. That might be there as well, but doing xx kata or bunkai doesn’t, by itself, tell me anything about what attributes, techniques, or skills doing that is developing (if any). And in the end it is being able to use the system that is important, not just if you have it memorized, so it seems important to me to know just what it is I’m doing with my time.


In Matayoshi kobudo we have a weapon called tinbe. It is a sword and shield combination- a medium sized round shield “worn” on the forearm and a short single bladed sword or large knife. The term tinbe refers to the shield. It is usually written in katakana, テンベイー, which often indicates a foreign language origin for a word, but it is also written using these characters: 籐牌. These are the same characters used for tengpai, the southern Chinese shield it is identical to.[i] Even though it has the same name, it is very different in form and use to the other Okinawan tinbe, which is a smaller oval center grip shield or buckler (often represented by a turtle shell) used with a short spear called a rochin.

In our tradition it is very clear that this is not a native Okinawan weapon but something Matayoshi Shinko learned in Fuchow from Kingai Roshi: Matayoshi Shinpo called it 中国南派少林拳の 籐牌術 (Chugoku Nanba(n) Shorin Ken no Tinbe Jutsu) or Chinese Southern Shaolin Tinbe techniques. This isn’t surprising; identical short sword and rattan shield combinations are common in Fujianese and other southern Chinese arts. Matayoshi Shinpo would on occasion demonstrate the weapon with a sword resembling a butterfly sword (hudiedao) or shield sword (paidao) as used in southern China with the tengpai by local militia and government soldiers, as well as in various martial arts, from at least the Qing, and more likely the Ming, period on.[ii]

Matayoshi sensei and Chinen Kenyu sensei with an old style tinbe.

Most people familiar with the tinbe in Matayoshi kobudo think of the shield as a circular metal shield, around 22” in diameter. But those metal shields are not the original version. Matayoshi sensei described that to me as a larger rattan shield with a leather cover. In the liner notes to the video the dojo released in the 90’s it was described as bring made of the woven bark of the binrou (a betel nut palm) tree or bamboo, coated with oil, and with leather stretched over it. A version like this used to be in the dojo and I believe is now in the museum at the karate kaikan.[iii]

The metal ones that were used in the Kodokan were made in the early 1970’s. They were made because getting the traditional version was difficult at the time. Those also got damaged doing pair work and needed to be replaced periodically, which was both inconvenient and could get expensive.[iv] The metal ones were durable (the original ones are still being used, around 50 years later) and were made locally.

Guangzhou militia, from around 1855.

When they were built however, certain compromises had to be made. Perhaps most importantly they are smaller than the shield they are based on. Traditional southern Chinese tengpai are between 70cm and 1 meter (27-39”) in diameter, with the 70-80cm range being the most common. That is considerably larger than the metal ones. Kimo Wall and Sakai Ryugo both told me about Matayoshi sensei in the 60’s using a shield large enough to crouch and hide nearly his entire body behind. He would duck walk with it, while hidden, a technique seen in a number of southern Chinese sword and shield routines. He would also hide behind it and attack from various angles.

Militia soldiers, from around 1900.

But making a, say, 35” diameter shield out of metal results in a really heavy implement, hard to use and too heavy for many of the system’s techniques. It would also have been hard to make. While recently many tinbe are made from the larger woks available in the markets in Naha there are other options now that were not available in the 70’s. For example about 20 years ago I made one about 25” in diameter using an aircraft aluminum blank from a Society For Creative Anachronism armorer and these days there are even synthetic options that take impact well. But at the time local craftsmen were the only resource so even though they were custom made there were limited options for material and construction. Different materials result in different properties and balancing the properties of the shield- weight, durability, cost, and available materials- resulted in what over time became the standard tinbe.

But the metal construction does indeed result in some different properties. It is smaller, so doing something like concealing your body behind it isn’t possible. It is metal, so certain techniques, like punching with the edge, are more effective, while others, like pressing and then attacking with a blade right through the shield instead of around it, are impossible. While these changes are relatively minor they do affect use. In an attempt to better understand the weapon I have made a number of experiments over the years. Over 25 years ago I tried a rattan shield meant for Wushu. It was around 26” in diameter and much lighter than the metal ones. That weight and size change led to some differences in how I did our techniques. Because it wasn’t very heavily built it got beat up pretty quickly (and had been expensive) so I stopped doing pair work with it, but it was fun, and interesting, to use. After a while I settled into using a lighter, larger shield sometimes for kata and sticking with a roughly 25″ diameter metal one for pair work.

Not that long ago however I decided to do some more experimenting, in the hope of getting to something a little closer to the shield our techniques had been built around. I had been working tinbe a lot with a couple of my students. I’ve been lucky enough to have some really interesting exposure to our tinbe practice. The basic form we do was, as far as I have been able to find out, made in the post-war years by Matayoshi Shinpo, from techniques passed down by his father. It is pretty well known.[v] There are, however, a number of variations I have been taught for it over the years. Not huge changes, but different jumps, rolls, footwork and cutting patterns in various places in the kata, as well as a technique for throwing the paidao. (I also have a little exposure to what I’m told is a pre-Kodokan tinbe form, but if I ever get more on that I’ll update this.) Anyway, we had been spending some time working these variations and applications for them along with the kata and pair work we usually do and the process got me thinking about the shield again.

I did some looking on-line and not surprisingly there were options available there hadn’t been the last time I looked. I found custom size rattan shields available here. Bruce was great to work with on sizing and such and the shields are well made. I got a really big one first, 1 meter diameter. It seemed a little large, even for me at 6’2″, for our techniques. I then got one around 85cm (34”) diameter and it felt good.[vi] The tighter weave in this rattan compared to the wushu one, along with the size, made it a bit heavier but more durable and still much lighter than the metal ones. Honestly, this by itself would have probably been a good result, but I was interested in going a little further with the project.

I took a close look at my notes, and at how rattan shields were treated and cared for traditionally. Matayoshi sensei had said, and written, the shield was coated with “abura/油” which translates as oil, though no specific oil. Chinese shields were often soaked in tung oil, and while I didn’t want to buy enough of that to set up a pan and soak the shield I did give it a couple of heavy coats of tung oil.

Then I got some leather at a local shop, which early in the pandemic wound up being a bit of an adventure by itself. I have never worked with leather before so some training or experience, as well as a more appropriate set of tools, might have resulted in a better finish, but I did my best. I stretched it over the shield and glued it down with a leather adhesive.

I then did some rough stitching to hold the inside edge down and take out some of the buckling and trimmed off the excess. I glued the remaining edge to the inside and then went back with a double thickness of linen thread to stitch the edge down again, more tightly and evenly. Getting the needle through the multiple layers of leather was entertaining. My notes said the leather was stretched over the frame, which implied a fairly lightweight and soft leather. It might be interesting to try something heavier and harder, like a saddle or shoe leather, but for now this is what I felt was closest to the descriptions I have and the shield I used in the Kodokan in the 90s.

Finally, I painted the leather. It came out pretty well, and so far has been a lot of fun to train with. It is about as heavy as one of the metal shields, but is half again as big in diameter and moves a bit differently. I can’t really hide my whole body behind it but a lot more of my movement is concealed, especially if I am crouching, and it being slightly lighter makes it a bit faster as well. Impact is also absorbed a bit differently by the more flexible rattan and leather surface.

Anyway, it was a fun project and I am looking forward to continuing to train with it. And if I do it again, I’ll have to do a Tiger shield, complete with uniform. No t-shirts here, those guys knew how to suit up…

[i] I have heard various different terms for the sword, sometimes from the same person, including Matayoshi sensei. They have included seiryuto (dragon tail sword), to (sword), nata (often translates to machete but a real nata has no point and a single bevel edge), rochin (a carry over from Ryukyu kobudo and incorrect according to Matayoshi sensei), wakizashi (curved short sword), kodachi (small sword, which is how it was written in the Kodokan video liner notes from the 90s) and beito (This was once from Matayoshi sensei when I asked about it. I noted it but unfortunately didn’t follow up. Bei could be a transliteration of pai, like tin bei for teng pai, and dao is sword 刀, “to” in Japanese).

[ii] It is a slightly different conversation, but the use of a machete with the tinbe is also likely a more recent adaptation. Getting paidao, or hudeidao, on Okinawa was difficult before the advent of the internet. Given the machete’s availability it is an easy, inexpensive, and fairly decent substitute. While I can’t be 100% sure what Kingai Roshi used, given the standard use in Fujian in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Matayoshi sensei’s use of a paidao, it is a pretty safe guess that it was a short single bladed sword with a D guard and upturned rear quillion.

[iii] Interestingly enough, while southern shields are coiled rattan and usually not covered with anything, in northern China, where neither rattan or betel palm grow, they sometimes used wicker or bamboo shields covered with leather. This version seems to be something of a hybrid.

[iv] One of the “origin” stories of the shield is that it was a farmer’s hat that was used as a shield. Romantic but given the weapon’s documented use in China for centuries highly unlikely. This may however have come from the fact that in the 60’s rattan shields were not available on Okinawa. I have been told that they sometimes used cheap cane hats as a substitute. They fell apart quickly, even doing kata, but they cost pennies, so it didn’t matter.

[v] It is also pretty simple, especially in comparison to many southern Chinese forms, but that is a different conversation.

[vi] I could also have started from scratch and made the shield, like this gentleman did. Pretty impressive.

Rock Stars?

The martial arts are an art, like music. That comparison is, I must admit, an old saw. The similarities in practice, development, expression, etc. between various arts- martial arts, music, dance, cooking- have been talked about so much they can get a little tired. But I’d like to suggest one aspect of that similarity that hasn’t been looked at very much: the roles of the performer and the participant.

These days we are used to thinking of music as performance art, something you watch or listen to. For most people it is not really something you do, especially once you are an adult. In thinking about musicians we focus on the big names, the ones on stage, the ones with lots of fans, the ones who write the hits, the ones who win awards and play the songs that are “the soundtrack of our lives”. They are “real musicians”. They are somehow different from us. You might get into their music but you are not going to be doing the same thing. But that is new, really new. For most of history lots of adults played or sang some. They participated in making music with the family and the community. They didn’t go to shows or buy recordings or think about music as something to watch or just listen to, in large part because these things were often not even options. Music, with the exception of certain forms of entertainment for the elite, was theirs to do; it was defined primarily by participation. Only a very few wrote or were masters or teachers and that was fine. The goal, if there even was one, was that most folks could enjoy and be competent, and maintain the traditions of their community. Simply participate. But these days the goal for many people is to become the performer- the rock star, the master. If you can’t go that route, you “don’t have it”, and many people see that as failure and stop. Or stop once they leave college or start working and “leave behind childish things”. It seems normal now, but it is an essential redefinition of what music is, and of what the role of the performer is.

I see the same thing in the martial arts. Everyone wants to be “the master”, “the teacher”, “the champion”. The person other people look up to as the pinnacle of the art. It often seems like that is the only path that matters, really the only one that exists- if you are not trying to get to the top or become a teacher you are not really training. In some ways teacher and senior have become synonymous. To me it shows. Shooting for that target, for the role of master or performer, leads to a very different approach. It is not that communal. It is not that participatory. It doesn’t focus on group interactions or the reasons you might play (train) that do not involve you getting external accolades. It ignores core values of most folk arts: community, participation, and tradition. It also totally changes the role of the art in the community. Instead of having a functional, daily role- maintain traditions, be fun, keep you in shape, install basic personal protection skills, bring members together- it becomes a place for hierarchy, material or social success, competition and individual achievement.

Most folk arts, and I would locate traditional martial arts there for sure, would not be a major source of fame or fortune. If nothing else they would be too locally bound. Most people involved would not ever think they were going to “be the best”, to teach, to add something new to the art, or become famous through it. They were not going to become the hero and they wouldn’t have thought to blog about their involvement or thoughts on the art… That doesn’t mean they would not be striving for ability, or that there wouldn’t be competition or success, or that there would be no money involved, it means that those things were part of a larger picture. It means that people would be training, or playing music, or dancing, as a regular part of their lives and communities, along side many others. But today it seems that the ideals of success and achievement that are central to much of our culture are the main images, the stories, that people carry to their practice. I don’t know if that is good or bad, but it is a real change of focus. Of intent…


One of the enduring activities of Western kobudo ka is the quest for the “origins” of the various weapons used in our kobudo. Somehow the simplest answers are not good enough. That they were meant as weapons and probably not developed locally seems somehow too boring, I guess. That identical weapons are documented in China, Japan, or elsewhere (depending on the weapon) before they were documented in Okinawa is not evidence enough. Nor is the clear historical connection between the upper and noble classes, not the peasantry, and the martial arts. Instead elaborate origin stories of local development by the peasantry have been created. Admittedly, there are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which that many of the most prominent kobudo teachers of the mid-late 20th century were fervent nativists, invested in promoting and elevating their native culture, and they promoted unique native origins for virtually everything. Some of these origin stories likely come from a simple historic process- the post Meiji movement of the former landed gentry into the countryside. Without their prior wealth they retained their knowledge but had less access to the tools of their trade, as it were. So more easily available items filled in. And voila, a generation or two later, these items and these “peasants” are the origin of the arts, and the implements used in them. Other origin stories are a bit harder to parse, but that doesn’t make them any more “true”, no matter how appealing they seem, or how invested people are in them. If you want to research the history of our arts you have to look past stories told by your teacher, common knowledge, or, that decidedly dangerous creature “common sense”.

Often, it doesn’t take much looking to debunk some of these myths. I’d like to take a quick look at one here, the tekko.[i] Supposedly they are horse shoes or stirrups that have been weaponized by locals. But if you look a little closer, that simply doesn’t track. Various fist load weapons were common in Japanese koryu and Chinese arts for centuries. It would be surprising indeed for the Okinawan warrior class to have somehow missed out on the idea completely.

And a little non-martial historical knowledge is useful here as well. First, iron horseshoes appear to have been introduced to Japan by Europeans, perhaps as late as the 19th century, and were most likely unknown on Okinawa before that. And second, if you know anything about horses, or have just seen a few westerns or King Arthur movies, you know what a stirrup looks like. The tekko looks pretty similar I have to say. Connecting the two seems logical. Common sense. Except that you might not actually know what a stirrup, or abumi, looks like. Here is a drawing describing an Okinawan tribute trip to Edo in 1790, from the Ryukyujin Gyosoki:

Note the stirrups on the horse. They look like this:

This style of stirrup was standard from the 1200s on, and Western style stirrups were not introduced until the late 19th century.[ii] So, what does this tell us about the origin stories that one hears? Well, it tells us that if the tekko is an old weapon, pre late 19th/early 20th century, it cannot have been developed from a stirrup or horseshoe. And conversely, if it comes from a Western style stirrup or horseshoe it is a 20th century development.

One of the issues with research into folk arts like our kobudo is that it is actually a pretty involved process. Knowledge of history, language, culture, and so on is necessary not to fall into simple “common sense” mistakes like this. It is cool to have a local and “ancient” origin for the things we do. But cool, or supporting the culture our arts developed in, doesn’t make things true. We have clear evidence of similar weapons being used in neighboring cultures for centuries. We have no documented use on Okinawa before the 20th century (that I know of). We have no iron or western style horseshoes or stirrups on Okinawa before the Meiji period. Finally, the kata that are done with them are all mid to late 20th century creations. What does all this say? Well, I have heard a theory that the tekko were developed by practicing martial artists between WWI and WWII, taking things like the trench knife as a model (and the Japanese certainly had exposure to things like this in that period), but interesting though it is there is no conclusive evidence for this either.

Unless new evidence comes to light using actual concrete information seems the best practice, as opposed to taking admittedly appealing legends at face value or making assumptions based on limited understanding. Based on existing information, it is far less romantic, but much more likely that the tekko were either a: imported to Okinawa at some point, not developed locally; b: added to existing arts in the 20th century, inspired by exposure to things like the trench knife; or c: a part of local arts for some amount of time and developed as a weapon, not from a local tool or other implement, by the existing warrior class, not the peasantry. It is highly likely that the current usage is no older than the late 19th or 20th century. That isn’t as satisfying, or as cool, and leaves no answer to the question “where did the tekko come from”, but the problem there might be more with the question than the answer.

[i] In our art they are considered an ancillary weapon. Some lineages don’t have a kata, some do variations on Kakazu no tekko, designed by Matayoshi Shinko’s student Kakazu Mitsuo, and others do dojo kata. Matayoshi sensei, Kimo sensei, and Gakiya sensei taught me techniques for the weapon and suggested Seisan was a good kata for practicing them. I wound up making a dojo kata for them, and later Ishiki sensei taught me Kakazu no tekko. In Ryukyu Kobudo they do Maezato no tekko, designed by Taira Shinken, and there are other kata on Okinawa. All are of recent provenance.

[ii] See Friday, Karl. Samurai Warefare and the State In Early Medieval Japan. Psychology Press, 2004.

Small Weapons

The Christmas season has long passed, so this post is possibly a little out of date, at least if you are looking for present ideas. But over or not the season did make me think about giving and receiving and the gifts that I have been lucky enough to have come to me. Recently I wound up going through a lot of my kit. Around the same time I also made a bunch of chizikunbo, strung a couple of pair of partially made san bon nunchiyaku, made a pair of nunchiyaku from some broken pairs, did some repair work on a couple of tinbe, and started a couple of kuramon bo. As I was finishing the chizikunbo, I set a few pair aside as gifts. I’ve given a number over the years and many of my teachers and friends have been nice enough to say they really enjoy getting something they can both use and that I made for them. Putting them in with the rest of my gear, I noticed how many of the small weapons I had were in turn gifts. It seems folks who practice weapon arts, particularly if they make some of their own gear, love giving them as presents.

I have been making some of my weapons for many years. Until recently there wasn’t a decent source for some of our weapons, like sansetsukon (Shureido are excellent for our shorter form and for pair work, hard on the rotator cuff for the longer form.) as well as various hand loads, nagagama, tinbe and wooden seiryuto/paidao, among others. Some, like suruchin and kuramonbo are still pretty much unavailable. I can make weapons to the weight and size I want and out of material that will have the feel and properties I want, all of which actually makes a difference in training. While you should be able to use any version of a weapon if you need to, the techniques and mechanics function best with the weapon- weight, length, balance, etc.- that they were designed for. Indeed, changing the weapon can in turn change the techniques. Making them is a good lesson in understanding their properties. It also requires a decent understanding of them to get started, to know what you are aiming for. A number of my seniors and teachers, and my friends who train, also make their own gear. I’m sure the reasons are the same, and I will admit it is nice to work with a weapon you have designed and built, at least if it came out right. You know what it can and can’t do, how it will respond, and why. And making them can be fun.

It is also rather nice to work with a weapon someone else has made for you. They are often good weapons, and even better they sometimes come with stories. Looking over some of the gifts I have been given brought me back a bit, to when they were given. The people who gave them to me are friends, teachers, and fellow travelers. People I have been lucky and honored to know. And they’ve got stories. I think they say something, so I’ll share a few here.

1 These chizikunbo were Kimo sensei’s. A student of his was selling them for a while. Really well made, and the size and shape were worked out with sensei. He and I were training in the living room of an apartment I used to have. When I went to go dig mine out from under my bed he handed me these, which he had in his jacket pocket, and went to his bag by the couch and grabbed another pair. When were done he told me to keep them. The next day we had a great time doing a seminar with them. That weekend sometimes seems like yesterday instead of nearly three decades ago.

Kohama, Amami Oshima.

2 This set of sanbon nunchiyaku was made by Yoshimura Hiroshi sensei. He is my friend Mario McKenna’s teacher, the senior student of the late Minowa Katsuhiko sensei. He lives on Amami Oshima. I have stopped by to say hello and train a little on a number of my visits back to the island. He is a fantastic Ryukyu Kobudo and Uechi Ryu teacher, and I always leave with some new insights. He is also really kind and open minded. A senior teacher sharing openly with a younger practitioner of a different art is somewhat unusual, and great to experience. I remember him taking me out to his shed after training in his yard some with the sansetsukon. It was his workshop, with nunchiyaku, tonfa, and other weapons in process. His yard looks out over Naze harbor and the scene and the kind gift remind me of so many of the good things about Amami,

3 It is important to me to remember that so much of what I know in the arts has come from friends and training partners. This pair of chizikunbo was made by my friend David Nauss. He was a training partner for many years, an excellent karate and kobudo practitioner. He is also an excellent carpenter, and has taught me much of what I know about woodworking. In the early 90’s Kimo sensei spent some time doing chizikunbo with us. We didn’t have weapons to practice with but before our next training David went out, got stock, made a few pair, and gave them to us so we could keep working with them immediately. That next night it was just David, Mike Piscitello, and me in the dojo. We spent two hours jamming, grinding, and poking each other with them. We left with dime sized bruises all over, which lasted for days. I can still clearly hear the laughter, punctuated by groans and cries of pain, from that evening and the memory always makes me smile.

4 This suruchin was made for me by Yamashiro Kenichi sensei. I hadn’t seen him for a long time.  We had chatted on the phone the day before about what we might do. When he found I didn’t have one with me he drilled the rocks and after he took me for a lovely soba lunch we stopped to get some cord and he finished it in his garage/workshop. After showing me some of the tinbe, tekko, and other things he had made we spend the day training. It was a fun afternoon- catching tree limbs and fence posts and hitting targets with the suruchin, working with the kuramon bo, throwing dirt with the guwa in his field. It ended with going through a bunch of kata in his dojo and then having a fantastic yaki niku dinner with his family. He had supervised my ni dan test with Matayoshi sensei in 1995, and we talked about training and reminisced about that and so much else and it was just a great day.

5 These ticchu were made by Yoshimura Hiroshi sensei. He gave them to me on a different visit to Amami, around 2011 I think. I had given him a pair of chizikunbo and we spent a really fun hour talking shop and comparing techniques for the two hand loads, and chatting about woodworking- he is an excellent craftsman. Sunset over the mountains, looking down on Naze harbor and the hills, was beautiful and he and his wife were so welcoming. I can’t help but think how lucky my friend Mario is to have such a nice and knowledgeable teacher.

6 These ticchu were given to me by Mario McKenna sensei. It was the late 90’s and we hadn’t seen each other for a while. We kept up a pretty lively discussion about training, among other things, on line and on the phone and we had been talking about training with handloads- chizikunbo, tekko, ticchu, and so on. I commented that I had never actually used a ticchu and he thought it would come pretty easily. I wasn’t so sure and we went on to other topics. A few days later they showed up in the mail, with a note suggesting I try them out. They were made by either Minowa sensei I believe, and he had had them for a while. They were a very generous gift, and are fun to work with.

7 This mugei nunchiyaku was given to me by Kimo sensei. Again we were doing a seminar, again he had some that were made by another student, most of which he sold at the seminar. This was back in the 90s. He had been using and demoing with this type of weapon for years, and I think he first introduced it outside Okinawa. Indeed, in Okinawa I never saw a pair used until about 20 years ago and I can’t help but wonder if students coming from the US or Europe and perhaps influenced by Kimo sensei inspired teachers there to do more with them. They do fall in with the quest for the “origins” of the Okinawan weapons that seems important to many Western practitioners, and the romantic “farm implements” genesis story. In any case, I helped him with the seminar and again he told me to keep the pair I was using at the end of the day. They often remind me of how much he knew about the arts, and how he was instrumental in introducing so many things here in the US. 

8 These mugei nunchiyaku were made by Yamashiro Kenichi sensei. We were doing some variations on the standard nunchiyaku kata. I mentioned doing variations with the mugei and san bon nunchiyaku and he took out a couple of pair and we did a few techniques. They are certainly harder to use, though the variant techniques are not that complex. When we were done he gave them to me, which was rather nice of him. He has made a kata specifically for the mugei, and while I have never done it it looks pretty cool. One of the things I really like about Yamashiro sensei’s technique and approach is his breadth in the art. He has a vast store of knowledge and taken together with his excellent technique and deep understanding, his teaching in concert with Okinawan folk dance and music, his participation in and coaching for local competition, his understanding of his art in the context of Okinawan culture, his making his own weapons and other gear, his passing on what he was taught, and his developing his own take on the art and own kata, it points to a way of engaging with the practice that is far deeper than a quest for some “ancient secrets” or a better way to fight.

9 This kodachi was given to me by Shirasaka Kouichi san. He is a senior member of the Jigen Ryu. When I trained in the old dojo in the early 90’s he was one of my teachers. He is also an excellent chef, and ran a sushi restaurant called Satsuma for many years. I had my induction into the ryu in his restaurant, along with a few other new students. We had dinner, and got walked through the responsibilities of a mon-te, what was expected of us, and what training might be like. I was a little out of my depth I think, even though it sounds way more formal than it was. I may have been the first foreigner in the dojo, I am not sure, but I don’t remember any hesitation by anyone; I was welcomed and taught and still wish I had had time there to do more than brush the surface. Almost 20 years later, 2008 I think, I visited the dojo and after training we had dinner at his restaurant again, along with my wife and an old friend. It was a delicious meal. We talked about old times, had some shochu, and did some kata in front of the restaurant. As we were leaving he took this kodachi out of an umbrella stand behind the counter and gave it to me. He had had it for years and years and kept it there so he could practice when he was at work. It is hand made and while it doesn’t give me any additional knowledge or skill it does bring some nice memories and is a good reminder of how lucky I have been with opportunities and teachers.

Yong Chun. She is holding a shuttle and the loom is behind her. .

10 These “crane’s kiss” were a gift from Liu Chang’I sifu. Look closely at the tips. The wood has a metal rod inserted into it; the tip is therefore a sharp metal point and can cut like knife. He had these made in Taiwan as a present. They have a special significance to me, as they demonstrate the changes that relationships can make in someone’s practice, as well as a little bit of influence I may have had on my teacher’s art. They are not “old” weapons in Feeding Crane, he added them. He would be happy to tell you that he got the idea from two places. The first was seeing Kimo sensei and me doing some work with the chizikunbo. I remember the afternoon. He was fascinated. In general he has no time for archaic weapons- they have no immediate function and he doesn’t see the point, except as entertainment. But he thought these were pretty cool. On his next visit he asked me more about them and we played some and I gave him a pair. His only issue with them was that he thought the tips should be sharper, to do more damage. Not long after that he visited Yong Chun village in China, where the crane arts come from. There is a statue of the founder there, Fang Qiniang. She is pictured holding in one hand what is probably, given the loom pictured behind her and the cultural significance, a silk shuttle. He saw her holding the implement, immediately made a connection and decided he would take that inspiration and include it as a weapon in his practice. He did some experimenting and after a few tries with different sizes and tips came away with a larger, sharper, and deadlier weapon. It can’t be used like a chizikunbo but it suits his personality and art perfectly, and the anthropologist in me, as well as the friend and student, loves it.

11 To come full circle, these are actual silk shuttles. They were given to me by the Nishi family. I trained with Nishi Ketsudo sensei when I was living in Amami Oshima in the early 90’s. (I also met Minowa and Yoshimura sensei then, but didn’t know them well.) He started training as a student of Sakai Ryugo. His wife’s family has been involved in the Amami silk business- weaving silk, designing and making kimono, yukata, and other things from it, and selling it- for generations. Her work is beautiful. One evening during a visit in 1995 we had dinner outside their home, where I was staying. After dinner some people took turns getting up to do kata, or local dance, or sing Amami songs. We had been talking about silk, and there were some tools on a bench just inside, among them some shuttles. I picked them up and used them to do a kata, I think it was seisan, extemporaneously modified to suit them. Everyone thought it was cool. When I was leaving the island a few days later Mrs. Nishi gave me these as a good bye present. It is hard to describe the generosity and welcome that family had shown to me when I was first living in a foreign country as a young man. While I don’t train with them much they mean a lot to me.

These shuttles, like many of these other gifts, remind me of the way we weave our lives, and how so many of those threads are gifts that we are given simply through the kindness of others. Sure, we do the weaving, decide on the pattern and the shape. But that cloth would be plain indeed without these threads, the things that are gifted to us. Things like friendship, knowledge, instruction, and an occasional small wooden weapon made by hand and given freely. These threads tie us, to tradition, and to change. They tie us to friendship, and effort, sometimes to confusion or conflict, maybe to inspiration, and to each other. They give our cloth some of its texture and heft. And hopefully, as time passes, we can gift of our own. If we are lucky, and attentive, and dedicated, we can add something more than a kindly given tool to the cloth of those around us.


As I mentioned a while back, I very rarely post anything on actual technique. I don’t think that this format is a good way to approach it. There is a saying in some Chinese arts: the teacher puts the art in the student with his hands. It is only through tactile communication that a martial art can actually be taught. Video or audio, spoken or written, no other source is able to transmit the practical details of any martial art. That doesn’t mean however that other media are never useful. If nothing else, they give folks a place to share thoughts and thought experiments. This is one of those.

In our Goju Ryu, as well as other Okinawan arts, there is a technique often referred to as sukui uke, usually translated as scooping block. (Terminology is an issue in karate. The same term is also used for a low sweeping block, often used against a kick, and probably other things…) It is an open hand technique, rising from low to high, palm first. In the classical Goju kata it is almost always accompanied by the other hand moving from high to low, palm or wrist first, both hands moving at the same time and the body square to the front, most often with a step forward with the rising hand side. Like this:

I would draw a distinction between a sukui uke, with a vertical rise, and a kake uke (or high ura uke) with the back of the wrist or hand, like this:

The hand position is the same but in the latter the hand moves into and then out from the center line, almost like a standard chudan uke. The point is not the hand position but the way it moves.

In the Goju kata, depending on the teacher, the sukui uke is in saifa, sesan, kururunfa, suparinpe, and possibly seiunchin. (Depending on the teacher again, the same spot in kata may be a sukui uke or a kake/ura uke.)

I remember Oshiro Yuzuru sensei of the Shodokan, a student of Higa Seiko’s who recently passed away, checking my basics and remarking that it was really important to have a good sukui uke. He said it was “an essential part of Goju Ryu”. (Mine needed work…) But in general people’s applications for it are absurd. Many start with a punch attack and end looking something like this:

Intercepting an attack with the palm of your hand and lifting it upwards? Seems unlikely. I what is probably a response to this improbability people then create other applications using it to deflect or hook attacks. But if it is supposed to be an angled deflection across the center line, like a nagashi uke, it certainly doesn’t move like that in kata. And if you are hooking the block to deflect or trap an attack to the outside like a kake or ura uke it is no longer a sukui uke. And it isn’t accompanied by an angled or side body shift away from the block in any of the kata (saifa even moves sideways towards it) so it isn’t that you evade and lift. So if you are lifting, how can it be an essential part of anything, except getting yourself hit?

I posted a while back about using a mawashi geri in the clinch. This is similar. At punching or dueling range this technique is really hard to use. I bet that is one reason it is often switched for a kake or ura uke- they can be used against an incoming punch or push. But training habits have rendered the sukui uke, an “essential” technique, not only useless, but also rather mysterious.

By training applications of the kata movements primarily against ballistic attacks starting from out of contact range you get a very different set of options than you do working from contact. As I said in the earlier post, one major similarity between Goju and many southern Chinese systems is the tight range at which they work. And by maintaining that range in training, for example from a pushing hands type platform, an array of standing grappling techniques in the kata become much more obvious.

So, from a punch or push coming from outside contact range the sukui uke is either rather silly or has to be re-engineered to be useful. But from a clinch or similar two handed contact position it gets a lot more useful as is. For example, start from a two handed neutral position (the “attacker’s” right forearm under the defender’s left, the attacker’s left forearm on top of the defender’s right) like this:

Keeping it simple, from this position do a 2 handed sukui uke movement- the sukui uke is done with the right hand: it stays under the elbow or upper arm and lifts; the left hand stays on top of the other arm and pulls in and down at the elbow. Like most of the Goju kata versions, at the same time you can step forward with the right foot, making sure the left foot remains rooted. Like this:

So instead of an improbable upward catch of a ballistic attack or a variant of a kake or ura uke, the sukui uke as done in kata acts to uproot and control the opponent. There are other applications (an arm break is one of my favorites) but the idea of splitting and uprooting, essentially using float, sink, spit, and swallow together in this technique, is much clearer at contact range. If you do this kind of training, it starts to look a lot more like an “essential” technique.

Standing and Moving

We have been training on pretty uneven ground the last few weeks. Well, ground might be a bit of misnomer; we have been training on 3-6” of compressed snow and ice. It makes for some pretty interesting footwork at times. It also, at least for me, has been drawing attention to that footwork, and to our stances. We were talking about this at the end of training Saturday. The conditions can necessitate adapting your stances- height, width, etc.. They can also affect your footwork- how fast and far you move and how you transfer your weight when doing so. For example, a couple of Wednesdays ago I wound up doing turns very slowly, as the snow we were training in was wet and thick, but with a frozen surface. That meant it was a little slick when you didn’t break through but when you did the mush underneath essentially grabbed your foot. A fast turn, particularly if one of your feet slipped and the other was grabbed by the snow, could easily have resulted in a bad knee or ankle injury. So I had to adapt. But doing so made me focus on what those adaptations were, and how I could adapt for conditions and still be able to do what I intended, to move like I was trying to. To better understand, actually, what those positions, and more importantly the movements between them, are for.

You see, I often see people talking about “adapting their stances” when they don’t need to. Or, to be more precise, when what they really mean is that they want to make them easier. When the condition is them, not their surroundings.That is a shame, as the basic body positions and the methods for moving between them are the first building blocks of a system. They enable you to get where you need to be and do what you need to do when you get there, for how that system is designed. Changing them can fundamentally change what the system is capable of.

We train in a classical system. This can mean a lot of things, but one thing it does mean is that there are prescribed ways of positioning your body (stances) and methods for moving between them. Stances are a difficult thing to learn, however, and to teach. People seem to think they are only present in formal Asian arts but there are stances in boxing or MMA, they just don’t look exactly like stances in karate or kobudo. Certainly people training these methods are taught how to carry their weight, to position themselves to use their bodies properly, and how to move. That is what stances and footwork are, nothing more.

Toguchi Seikichi in Neko Ashi Dachi. He, like the seniors in the Shodokan and Ryushinkai, told me that in this stance you needed to get low, but it was essential your shoulders stayed over your hips. Breaking that alignment breaks the stance. You might be able to do something else with it , but not what was intended. If you look here, you will notice that he is essentially maintaining a sanchin frame in his neko ashi. The photo was taken by Anthony Mirakian in the 1950s.

It is easy to judge a stance on how it appears. Not often useful, but easy. There are external measures of stance. When they are poorly taught they are sometimes described like: “put your back foot twelve inches from your front foot”. The measurements are based on something universal, like inches or centimeters, and stances can be judged by their conforming to that measure. Shape is another method of judging stance- how it looks relative to other versions of the stance. But that is not very useful either. Different body types may give different shapes even when they are “correct”. Stances are primarily internal.

And judging a stance is easy, if you know what it is supposed to do. If you understand its purpose, you can judge, by look and by feel, how the person’s weight is distributed, what the various levels of tension are in different muscle groups, how the spine is aligned with the stance, where the feet are relative to the legs and core, and so on. Each of these things will be slightly different person to person in the same stance, based primarily on their body- size, proportions, strength, etc.. Certain relative measures can be useful- things like “the toes of your back foot line up with the heel of your front foot”- but even they don’t always work for every body type. The real measure is how the stance functions. Does it allow for easy movement? Does it enable generation and absorption of power in the desired direction(s)? Is it balanced? Does it protect the body as desired? If these things are checked you find that each person’s body necessitates slight adjustments in stance. And if someone has an issue they are working with- bad knee, fused vertebrae, etc.- that adaptation is even more essential.

That does not mean each person can just stand and move how they want. The goal is to shape your body to the system, not change the system. So if your legs or back gets tired or you can’t go low enough to comfortably get in the position that allows you to do x, then do more leg or core work to build yourself up. Be able to do the system. It also means you need to understand what you are checking when you are teaching and practicing your footwork. You need to build your body so it can conform to the system’s practice and build your understanding of the system so that you can know what you are doing with that body. Then you might have a chance of getting your stances “correct”.

So yes, understand your stances and you can change them if you need to. At least if you understand them both physically and mentally. If you can do what the stance is meant to do then you have a decent chance of changing it in a way that still allows you do what you need to do. If you can’t, then there is little chance that under adverse conditions you are going to be able to do what those stances and forms of movement are requiring of you. And when you are training, or fighting, in calf deep sticky snow you will really be stuck.