Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On ranking and colored belts

A bit ago I thought of connecting something that reflects how I view ranking and colored belts in most cases, not all, but most. I had high efficiency low flow toilets installed and the old "If it's yellow, let it mellow, if it's brown, flush it down." from the 1970's water shortages popped up as I talked to the plumber.

This fits with a few alterations, how I think an instructor should view ranking. Of course, this post makes the assumption that the instructor cares about the student actually learning, not just testing to pay ranking fees, paying dues, and becoming another drone going by rote on the dojo floor.

So, with that in mind,
If it's yellow, let it mellow
If it's brown, smash it down
If it's black, it don't know jack
If it's red, seek professional medical assistance

Guess I should explain this now, since I'm sure some of you reading this are offended by my comparing your fine students to human biological waste materials.

If it's yellow...
A yellow belt is still a new student, what can they really know yet? Not that they don't try, or want to be better, but they still need time to get the basics of how to keep their keikogi in place, figure out how to keep their obi tied, time to figure out which is their left foot and right foot, time to figure out what those funny words mean. In short, time to let things develop. So you keep their environment very specifically confined, you let it age up a bit and keep their exposure to the same basics. Just like the urine in a toilet darkens and develops a character as more is added, when more of the basic skills are added to a student, they start to develop a character and depth as well. What that character is and will be, is an instructors job to define and cultivate.

If its brown...
This is where the "mat-rat" that over eager brown belt, anxious to prove themselves, often makes an instructor want to pull their hair out. Most young brown belts tend to think their feces are not odoriferous. I can recall being one of those. In my case, I was getting revenge on the adults who thought it was fun to beat on that new 12-13 year old kid in class that was me. By the time I was 16-17, lots of people didn't like training with me, mostly because those were the ones who no longer could throw me around so easily to get their jollies. But it made me a pain to deal with for others too.

And as is appropriate, I got smashed. Difference is, I liked it. Bernie Lau, Andy Dale, and Doug Tsuboi, were the ones who had the most good influence on me here and were the reason I liked it. Their pushing was done with encouragement with a good attitude, encouraging me to seek to be better and to push myself to go past what I thought I could do and figure out how things connected. Plus their working with me helped take the edge off me so my practice with others was safer. Unless you tried to trash me, then I would do my damned best to give it right back, regardless of skill or rank of the person.

A couple other seniors at Washington Aiki Kai would push and toss me around, but there was a distinct abusive, demeaning attitude on their part. You can tell the difference between a smug son of a bitch who is abusive and hides it behind a smarmy politeness and someone who pushes you but encourages with sincerely good intentions. Those smug son of bitches were the one's who would then say I had a "bad attitude" and stay away from practicing with me when I toughened up enough to stand up to them. Of course, they would never acknowledge their part in creating that behavior. What is unusual or maybe not, is off the mat they were decent nice people. But on the mat, something would change.

What creates the brown belt issues I typically see and experienced myself are those smug sons of bitches, a lack of instructor oversight, (Made worse when those smug sons of bitches are the instructors.) and the importance placed in most dojo to get a black belt. In most dojo, this push for ranking is a big deal. Too big a deal I think.

Usually, especially in students who are younger, the brown belt is eager to make that transition to black belt. An instructor's job in my opinion is 2 parts for these students. First to prepare the brown belts with a mindset to learn more by thinking on their own, not just wait to be taught. Second is to use their abilities to teach, persuade, push, etc... to prepare a brown belt for the additional responsibilities a black belt is supposed start to consider as part of their rank and responsibilities that go with the rank. Those responsibilities only increase as you get more rank and teach in my opinion.

I was lucky enough to have some good role models to balance out the lousy ones, and this is where good instructors make all the difference.

So, to develop a good candidate for yudansha, this usually takes the form of extra practice, including some harder physical training (smashing again!). Demanding more of the student mentally to challenge their knowledge. Having the student teach basics and lead warm ups while supervised to develop basic teaching skills. Done correctly by the instructor, who really should be a role model, not a smug son of a bitch waddling around in a hakama, the brown belt gets the right idea of what is expected as a yudansha.

If it's black...
Of course, a junior black belt thinks they know it all. Their feces are not odoriferous, but finely scented like a Yankee Candle shop. To a good instructor, they are still a junior student and of course, don't know as much as they believe. Like a yellow belt, a junior yudansha needs to mellow, but the mellowing process is slightly different at each rank if the instructor knows what they are doing.

I consider brown belts and junior black belts to be the same thing really. One is just a bit more aged up if you have done your job as an instructor properly. And this is where your patience as an instructor will be called into use. Brown and junior black belts, quirks and all, are something you tolerate, because if you have done your job as an instructor correctly, they will outgrow the quirks and become responsible for spreading your teachings.

If it's red...
This is more of a joke add on, but it is still valid. Often times, people push too hard to keep training when injured, rather than rest and let things heal. If we take the point of view this is a lifetime study as everyone says it is, taking a week or three off to let a sprain or badly bruised whatever heal isn't a big deal.

Serious injuries, like the ones leaking red stuff on the mats, of course will be more apparent and treated. But sprains and bruises are still injuries, they should be checked over, and allowed to heal before a student gets back on the mat. Likewise, colds and flu, fungal infections, other contagious diseases, need to be out of the dojo until the student is no longer contagious. Part of this is an instructor's job, to check students and see if they should be on the mat, or off the mat, or told to sit out for a bit, or on the way to the ER.

Now, since I don't award colored belts or yudansha ranks, just instructor and senior instructor rankings, some of you are probably going to say "What's the point of this post?"

Well, aside from allowing me to have a laugh at the silliness of what I see in most concerns about rank and colored belts, it is something many of you reading might want to consider as compost for thought about your own efforts teaching and how to view ranking if you are using colored belts.

Rank and colored obi are only as important as you make those things. Not happy with the skill level of your yellow with 2 stripes-green-orange-blue-pink with polka dots-purple-red-brown-black belts? You say they don't measure up well to your peer's students? Whose fault is that, the students or the idiot who gave them the rank?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Welcome back Kotter!! I mean, Muromoto

Wayne Muromoto, for anyone who does Japanese martial arts and is over the age of 30, is probably a familiar name. If he isn't, he should be. Wayne published one of my favorite out of print magazines, Furyu. This was a journal of Japanese martial arts, koryu, gendai, and outgrowths of those arts like Goshin budo. You can look up Wayne's background yourself.

Now, he is back doing a blog. http://classicbudoka.wordpress.com/

I'm happy to see him writing again and I hope you find his writing worth the time to read. Of course, if you are reading my blog, I think you may need to upgrade you reading skills before reading his blog. You know, little things like polysyllabic words and language beyond the 8th grade level I use in my blog.

Welcome back Wayne!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What’s in a name?

■ イチョウ- 銀杏 the ginkgo tree

■ ぎんなん - 銀杏 the edible ginkgo 'nut'

■ ぎんきょう- 銀杏 (nonstandard reading)

Confusion for people in Ichou, err, Icho Ryu. I’ve had someone again ask me about the name Bernie chose for his art. So, I thought I'd throw up something I had written a while ago to explain this.

Forget any notions of the Lau family crest or any of that garbage that a few people put up on their now down websites. Ain’t true.

So, where did the Icho - Ichou come from?
Well, gather round children, there is a history of language lesson to be found in the name. First, there is a convoluted aspect to the use of Icho or Ichou (romaji). The correct Kanji for Ichou are really not pronounced that way. The correct pronunciation of the two Kanji is really “Gin” meaning silver, and “an” meaning apricot. Together, they mean silver apricot. This refers to the color and shape of the fruit of the Ginkgo tree.

The origins of this are vague. The original Chinese characters (hanzi) are thought to be “ya” and “jiao”-“chiao” and meant “Ducks foot”. This refers to the shape of the tree’s leaves. OK, makes sense so far. Some where along the way, the Chinese began to use “Yin” and “Xing” which are the same Chinese hanzi as the Japanese kanji “gin” and “an”- which is also sometimes pronounced as “kyou”, meaning silver apricot, referring to the tree’s fruit. Still make sense?

Some time later, the Chinese began to use “bai” and “gou” referring to “White” and “Fruit”. Again, this is descriptive of the fruit of the tree. So, we now have Ya+ Jiao/Chiao, Yin+Xing, and “Bai+Gou” all referring to the same thing. Confused yet?

Then how did these come to be pronounced as “Icho - Ichou”?
One theory is the pronunciation is a corruption of the Southern Chinese (Cantonese) pronunciation of the characters, which is Ichao or Ichau. Another theory, the use of the Chinese characters – kanji -“Gin” and “an-kyou” retained the Chinese characters pronunciation of Ya + Jiao for some reason. This pronunciation seems to have eventually evolved into Icho or Ichou. No one knows why.

OK, with me still? Now, this is all theory and supposition. No one actually can pin this name down accurately. No one is sure where the Ichou really came from in terms of Japanese use. Even the Chinese use of the terms Ya Jiao, Bai Gou, and Yin Xing are muddled together by the Chinese in everyday use. I personally tend to think it’s a corruption of the Cantonese pronunciation.

In Japanese, the context is key to the usage. Icho or Ichou (depending on the romaji use) refers to the tree, ginnan refers to the fruit, and they both use the same kanji. The context determines the pronunciation for the kanji. “That is a beautiful Ichou Tree” and “I’m cooking tofu with some herbs, including some gin-nan, for dinner.” Does that make sense to you? This illustrates context, and why you can’t pin down exact translations using Romaji alone. Context is extremely important in determining the correct kanji and meaning.

So where did Gingko come from?
Which brings us up to the current day use. No one is sure where name ginkgo came from. Some theorize it’s a variant of the kanji pronunciation “kyou” for the kanji “an”- (Gin+kyou). Blame for this is usually laid on Kaempfer, who gave it the Latin name of gingko. And no one knows why he did or how it came about since it’s not a commonly used variant. Another theory is it was a simple mistake in writing and became the common use. But theories I’ve read on the Hepburn Romaji used at the time giving rise to the English name of gingko coming from Gin+kyou doesn’t fit in terms of historical time frames. So, once again, we really don’t know for sure.

So, what we have left to us is Bernie picked a name with a linguistically convoluted history, to name his martial art theories and practices. And it was simply because he liked ginkgo trees. See the Icho Ryu mon for proof. See the ginkgo leaves?

He used the Japanese pronunciation “Icho” to frame it in what he thought was the proper Japanese context. This makes for some convoluted looks when telling some Japanese visitors, and Japanese language teachers, that you study Icho Ryu, since they can’t figure out the context. As several friends who speak Japanese fluently tell me, “Well, it is what it is, isn’t it? Not like Japanese language and culture isn’t full of quirks anyway.”

My personal interpretation when Bernie announced he was going to be calling his teachings Icho Ryu, I asked him if he was naming it after his Doberman Pinscher, named Icho. Even back then I was a smart ass.

Bottom line, it’s perfectly fitting to have a convoluted name and kanji use for Icho Ryu. Like what we practice, it’s often hard to explain.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

KOGA VS LAU Hilo Hawaii, June 2009

Bernie Lau and Robert Koga finally met each other. FYI, Robert Koga was perhaps the first person to teach tactical defense from an aikido training perspective. Like Koga, Bernie left aikido to develop his own take on Defensive Tactics based upon aiki arts as well. Bernie sent me a recap of his take on the seminar. Text in parentheses and italics are my insertions to clarify something Bernie didn’t explain since it’s something I knew about, or just a snide comment of my own. Photos are courtesy of Carrie Yonemori.
(Teaching aikido to police officers isn’t the same thing for those of you upset over this comment and who are thinking of emailing me about your own sensei teaching police. The topics are related, yes, but are different in purpose and intent.)
Left to Right, Robert Koga, Dennis Quiocho -Hilo PD Defensive Tactics Instructor, Bernie Lau.

I went to the Hilo Rec Center where Robert Koga was doing a seminar sponsored by the Hilo Seishinkai Aikido dojo. I joined in, met Koga, and the first thing he said was; "I've been hearing so much about you over all these years, I finally get to meet you". I said "Likewise". Strange, but Koga never met Wally Jay or any of those guys we got to know, and he was right in the LA area all those years.

Bob Koga is a very nice guy, friendly, clean cut, professional, 84 years old, good physical condition and mental health. Gives me something to shoot for. Koga's techniques and what he talks about are very much like our stuff. No bullshitting, some stuff works, some stuff don't, simple as that. He also hit on those "useless techniques" done in aikido training. "The real world isn't like that" were his words. Koga brought up the "fact" that most (or many) "aikido" techniques "look great in a demo" but won't ever work in a real situation. Went on to say that the better your uke can take a break fall, the better you look -duh ! As for the knife take aways taught in aikido- "Yeah right!” Koga also mentioned that there is no "one" technique that will work 100 % of the time.

(Part of what I see with what Bernie writes above is the distinction over teaching techniques versus readily practical techniques. The typical martial arts instructor can’t tell the difference all too often.)

Koga really didn't teach much cop type stuff to the "aikido" gathering, talked a good bit of the time. After all, they're not cops and wouldn't understand or need all that's involved in arrest and control techniques. He talked about common sense stuff. “Don't want to get into fights? Stay out of bars. Don't wear martial arts type shirts that say, ‘I'm bad and I can kick your ass’ etc.” He talked about de-escalation versus escalation of potential conflicts.

Techniques demonstrated to the aikido folks in attendance were basics, - grab wrist - removing/s hand with no effort, (wipe table, scratch hair, etc) same-same stuff that we of Lau Ryu, Oops, make that "Icho Ryu" do as basics.

Koga did demonstrate an interesting same-side grab to shirt. Uke grabs your shirt, your right side with his left hand, you bring your right hand up and snake it between his arm and his body. Your right hand continues down between his body snaking toward his lower spine area as you move in towards his rear, right foot leading, your left hand comes up under his chin and presses forward as your right hand pushes into uke's spine to take away his center. It should feel effortless, etc. kind of like Don's “magic” stuff. (Bernie is referring to Don Angier here)

One very important thing I observed him use. My all time favorite, the infamous "finger flick” Koga didn't say a word about it, he just used the flick once as a distraction, I saw it, I understood, and that one movement of his hand made a huge impression on me as far as Koga's understanding about "stuff that actually works". I observed it and thought to myself, “All-right, this guy knows stuff and has made it work.” I'm certain that no one else in the aikido audience registered the technique, but I did.

BTW, I did techniques with several Hilo area aikido instructors, I wore them out; the Muay Thai training has really helped my endurance come back big time. Twenty – thirty continuous techniques - I was still bouncing back, smiling, sweating and going for more. I was smiling because I could see that I was quickly wearing my partners down. Most of them said, "OK thanks, I need to take a break". I am so thankful for my past training and my new positive attitude from training actively and living back in Hawaii!

(Bernie has been doing Muay Thai with a local group - Spirit of the White Robe- training 2-3 times per week. His brief description of training: Each MT training session, we probably do over 400 of those Thai boxing shin kicks against pads. I have to stop and catch my breath for a moment but I don’t stop and drop out like people half my age do. I was sore and tired the next day for the first couple months, but nothing too bad. A few ibuprofen and I’m fine. Now, I just get minor aches that come from a good workout.)

Later on in the seminar I went around to practice with (not teach!) other beginners, guys and gals, and allowed them to throw me continuously, they were thrilled and I enjoyed it. At one point, I was training with a ten year old Japanese girl as my training partner and allowed her to keep throwing me; I was doing the techniques on my knees, suwari-waza fashion, since she was so small. We were doing kote-gaeshi, I modified the technique showing her to use my thumb as leverage as her hands were too tiny to apply the technique on me. Koga noticed this, came over, smiled and totally agreed with the modification. She was good and was having one hell of a good time. She never tired and neither did I. I noticed some of the aikido instructors watching me as they stood around and chatted instead of training.
I sat in seiza throughout some of Koga's long lectures, not one of the aikido instructors there are able to even sit in seiza properly for more than a few minutes. Old training habits never die, it sticks with you. Remember sitting for so long in seiza during testing?!

Koga was down to earth, didn't bullshit about the mystical power of "Golden Showers", but Koga did mention that he never really got to understand this "KI" stuff, and Tohei was one of his teachers! Strange, or perhaps, Koga was a bit more enlightened about the "real world". I forgot, how many arrests did Tohei make during his lifetime? Did Tohei really "grapple", outside of that "Rendezvous With Adventure". Tohei grappling - my all time favorite!

All in all, I like where Koga was coming from. It would have been interesting to hook up with him years ago. However; I no longer feel that need to find and connect with anyone out there for myself. I know what I know. I can make it work "most of the time". If not I can always get into my other mode, "Fucking Nasty Bernie ryu".

As for his "Police Weaponless Control" stuff, I didn't see much of it as it was an "aikido" gathering so I can't comment on that. I'm pretty certain a lot of his stuff is similar to ours. Our stuff is probably less complicated, and less of it. As you know, you don't really need much stuff to take some asshole down and cuff him. However, if you're selling DVDs and books, well, that's another story all together, as you know from experience.

Bottom line, I liked and agreed with all that Koga had to say. "No Bullshit Ryu". He is a very down to earth guy, easy to talk to, likes the lime light (like someone I know) ha-ha. (Bernie is referring to himself here.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Round Trip that only took 53 years

I got an email and a snail mail from Bernie Lau the other day. He’s retired back to Hawaii to work on his book and to find some sanity and peace after spending a lot of energy on family matters. Now, at 67 years old, he’s gone full circle to home. Like a homing pigeon that got swept away by a storm, it took him a while to get there.

Bernie started aikido in 1955 by getting thrown by Koichi Tohei on Hapuna Beach. And yes, we are referring to the Koichi Tohei who first spread aikido as the Aikikai’s chief instructor and whom later founded the Ki Society.

As an aside, if you ever get to the West Side of the big island north of Kona, stop and visit Hapuna Beach. It’s one of Bernie’s favorites and one of mine as well. Here are Bernie’s words about what happened that day:

It was a beautiful hot summer day at Hapuna, one of the best beaches on the Big Island. I was walking along the beach when I saw a group of Japanese folks doing what seemed to be Martial Arts. What they were doing seemed interesting so I stopped to watch.

The man at the center of attention noticed me and invited me to come up and throw a punch at him. "Come, you try hit me please. " were his very words. So I stepped up, stood right in front of him and threw a punch towards his face. Next thing I knew I was flipped onto my butt and ended up on the warm sand looking up at this individual who still had a smile on his face. This guy was totally at ease, totally relaxed, totally confident. And like I said, had this most pleasant smile on his face.

Helping me up, this individual said, " You try one more time please. " So, OK - this time I focused on his chest and threw a faster punch. However, when my right fist arrived to where his chest had been, there was absolutely nothing there and I again ended up on my butt.

"Darn" I thought, "How the heck does he do that?" The half dozen or so Japanese folks there were all laughing at me. Not however in a disrespectful manner, the group’s energy was totally non-threatening. Everyone seemed relaxed, happy, and friendly.

Standing up, I brushed the warm sand off my butt. The man with a smile then came up to me and introduced himself. " My name Koichi Tohei. I from Japan. What I do is Aikido." He continued, "Aikido non fighting art, is good for defend but good also for develop mind and body. Where you live?"

"Hilo", I responded, "I live in Hilo Town on the other side of the Island."

Tohei then said "Ahhh, very good, next week I teach Hilo Town. You come my class. I teach you Aikido. Will be very good for you. You come please? OK, you come my class?"

I answered that I would, and was given the date, time and location of Mr. Tohei's Aikido class - scheduled for the following week in Hilo Town. Turns out Mr. Tohei was teaching at a Japanese Teahouse located on the grounds of Queen Liliuokalani Gardens near Hilo Bay.

I shook hands with Mr. Tohei, made a slight bow of respect, said " Thank you very much. " I then continued my walk along Hapuna Beach.
I won’t give away any more of Bernie’s story here, you will have to buy his book when it’s published, hopefully sometime early next year. I knew most of the stories already, but to see it all in one place is cool. Not just aikido and the acrimony behind the outward harmony, but the dark black lurking behind the cop in blue, Bernie’s time undercover as a Narc, and the effect that job can have on a person.

For anyone who is interested in the WahMee incident, Bernie has some good material on that too. Then there is living down the block from Aaron and Elmer Dixon, the Seattle Black Panther leaders, and I should shut up now.

A bit of pimping for Bernie here, if you are interested in being informed as to the book release, please email me or send an email to John@johnspiers.com and we will make sure you are notified. So, for anyone interested, here’s a few "then and now" pictures of Bernie.

Then - In his early days in the navy, and as a teenager getting a taste of sankyo applied by Tohei in his first class referred to above.

Now-On a visit to the TNBBC, showing his shodan certificate presented to him by Uyeshiba and contemplating the idea of having another beer.

But this blog is about how he has now gone full circle. He’s gone from Hilo and his early days in aikido, to developing his own methodology to teach martial arts / tactical defense developed from his martial arts and practical experiences on the streets as a Seattle cop. And now, to being back living in Kona, just down the road from his first encounter with Tohei at Hapuna beach. Bernie is an occasional guest teacher at Meyer Goo’s dojo as well and manages to give those "young kids" studying with Meyer a good hard run for their money still.

Meyer Goo, for those who don't know of him, was a student of Bucksam Kong in Hung Gar kung fu and an early yudansha in the Hawaii Aikikai. Meyer also taught in the early days of the NY Aikikai while working at the Brooklyn Navy yard. Back in 1960’s Honolulu, Meyer was Bernie’s mentor and looked out for the "haole" kid

Recently, on a visit back to Hilo to visit friends and students, he went back to see the Reed’s Bay, Coconut Grove area, and the tea house at Queen Liliuokalani Gardens where he started in his first formal classes in Aikido, and it all came back together.

As Bernie told me in his email:
"Here in Hilo, walking around it all, it seems that I am in fact coming full circle from where I first grew up. Reed’s bay area still looks as it did some sixty years ago, not much has changed. It’s where I first went into the ocean, and hung out with my friends as I grew up. This was my place to go when home life was too much to deal with for me. It's still an exotic but funky place. I feel very much at home and at peace there, the energy is all good.

The Tea House at the Liliuokalani Gardens is where I met Tohei for class that night back in 1955 - and where I started my Aikido journey. Coconut Island back then had no bridge - the Tsunami of 1946 had taken the bridge out. I remember an old Japanese man in a row boat who would row us out to Coconut Island for a total of five cents. Around 1957, I worked as a bus boy after school and on weekends at the Naniloa Hotel, right there next to Coconut Island. So, I’m back to where I enjoyed myself and found happiness as a child and as a teenager some sixty years ago - to now - as a senior citizen - looking for inner peace and happiness - and a place to call home, which is back where it all started."

The point of this blog is sometimes what we seek in budo is really back where we started. Not just in techniques and what we miss in learning those physical techniques the first time around, but also in the human elements and what we let get in the way on that journey, be it relationships with people or our preconceived notions of what we wish things to be.

Bernie, despite being someplace far away, shares something of himself with me- and now vicariously, you - and jars my thoughts to something important to the study of martial arts, be they koryu or gendai, or goshin budo, and our personal growth via that study.

We seek to gain knowledge with study, but most of us lack the wisdom to use that knowledge in our lives. Wisdom is a sharp edged and pointy object, it’s very seldom comforting since it reveals our own weaknesses when applied to ourselves and cuts painfully to our cores as we so often seek comfort rather than the pain of growth.

So, go back to your roots of training, and think about what you missed the first, second, third, forth, fifth, etc. time through on different levels of interaction. Not just in the physical technique, but in how you interact with that supposed knowledge beyond technical performance. If it doesn’t cause you to pause and think, or face something about yourself, you ain’t doing it right.
Mad at your sensei? Or maybe you can’t figure out something you are being taught?

OK, maybe sensei is a jerk sometimes. Maybe sensei can’t frame what he’s teaching you any clearer. Did you ever stop to consider what you might be missing may be due to your lack of applying it to yourself and working at it more? And could it be that because you are mad or frustrated you are letting what you want to believe interfere with what is really happening?

Of course, if you are like the majority of people I’ve met in martial arts, none of the last three paragraphs above this matter. Reality is, none of us can do this all the time, but we should be trying to if you talk about spiritual practice or personal growth via budo at all.

As a final note, here is an image of the Cow Palace (where the Hilo Aiki-Kai had it’s dojo space in those early years) following the 1960 tsunami which destroyed much of downtown Hilo. Sadly, despite the best efforts of the local researchers back in Hilo, there were no pictures to be found in their files of the Cow Palace before the tsunami. If any of you know any of the old aikidoka from those days who might have any photos of the cow palace interior or exterior, contact the Lyman Museum and pass on a copy to them: http://www.lymanmuseum.org/

Monday, September 22, 2008

Gone but not forgotten..

I’ve promised I would blog on some of the good guys I’ve met too, and just hadn’t done it. Now, I’m correcting that oversight.

Dave Harris, one of the great but mostly unknown of martial artists I know, died on September 9, 2008. Dave was a great influence on my attitude towards learning and along with several others, pushed and coaxed the stubborn punk attitude kid who is now writing this to look beyond the obvious. That was over 20 years ago.

Though I didn’t have a lot of time with Dave, and didn’t get the approach he used to teach for a long time, at least not enough to apply it to myself, I did finally start to get it and it changed how I learn. Dave was very much more of an influence on me than I realized. It’s only now when I sat down and think about it after his death, that I see how much it tied to what others, such as Bernie Lau and Don Angier taught me, only from Dave’s own perspective and play oriented approach.

Dave’s approach echoed that of my teachers, but Dave’s presentation didn’t get through my thick skull until much later. He was always so loose and ready with a joke, I missed far more than I absorbed. In those days, I needed someone to push and bully me a bit, and I regret I didn’t get more time with Dave and was too immature to absorb much back then. This is one of my favorite pictures of Dave, the casual dress and low key appearance hid a brilliant mind, talents, and remarkable skill.

Dave was a good but hard man to know. But for those students who put in the time and work with Dave, he was as Andy Dale called him, "Dumbledore". He was truly a master who delighted in learning and sharing his craft.

At Dave’s informal memorial, students and colleagues from his martial arts classes and his classes as a College teacher in art and ceramics, gathered to share their stories and memories. Students from 20 to 30 years ago came in on short notice including from Hawaii. All had roughly the same experience with Dave as I did. Being made to feel like a complete dork, only to have Dave’s good humored and open attitude bring your curiosity out and overcome any embarrassment at being trashed so effortlessly.

Dave was very much an inquisitive mind, he was forever looking for new ways to absorb and to teach. He was a very strong behind the scene influence on numerous students in the Pacific NW. That I believe, is the job of a good teacher, to give the student the basics needed to grow and learn on their own. But all too often, the student remains oblivious to the depth of impact of the teacher upon them until later. Dave, we will all miss you.

Another friend with over 40 years in judo, Mark Feigenbaum, passed away last spring, but I hadn’t heard from him since just before he passed and his family would not have known to contact any of his friends across the country. He had lost his eyesight, had a few other health problems rising, and didn’t respond to calls. He had indicated he was somewhat embarrassed by his condition, and I thought he was just choosing to stay low and out of sight. We had gone for long periods with out contact before, but this time felt different. I discovered his cell phone was no longer in service, and trying to find a new contact number for him, I found instead his obituary.

I had gone through his mother’s illness and death with him a few years ago. In email and phone calls, he shared much of what he considered important, his concern for his mother, his love of music of all kinds, playing the trumpet, his pets and animals of any sort, martial arts, but in particular Judo. Mark taught kids for years in community centers and YMCA for nothing but the joy of sharing his judo and learning more about his chosen art. In March 2008, about a month before his death, Mark told me about his contact with a judoka at the London Budokwai and was very enthused about learning more about the Go no kata and the Nage Ura no Kata.

There is a great article on judo as Mark experienced it in his early years in the November 2000 EJMAS Journal of Combative Sport. http://ejmas.com/jcs/jcsframe.htm I had sent him a picture of my wife, Amy, my dog Mochi, and I to him last year. He told me it was on his computer as wallpaper and on his wall. He said, Amy looks fantastic, Mochi’s a real looker, and your hairline is receding." Later, in another email towards the end of his life, he said about the picture "I can’t see it clearly, but I like knowing my friends are smiling at me."

The last thing he sent me was a large assortment of music he loved in his life and wanted to share it with me. Now I understand why he sent it, it was his way of saying this was important to me, and I want to share it with you, and maybe that was as close as he could come to saying goodbye outright.
I was going to post a good picture of Mark, but don't really have any. Instead, I'm posting a picture of the fun Mark, it's quite appropriate, a bunch of grown men acting like kids. That's Mark in the front, with the glasses and white cap. Hey Tomato, (as he called himself) Save some of that bottle of Scotch for me and the guys. We will see you before too long.

Jerry Dalien was a strange guy. But, one of the strange guys there should be more of. An old time judoka student of Iwakiri Sensei, Jerry was a big man, and by the time I met him, ill with complications from diabetes. That didn’t stop him from getting on the mat and still doing some pretty damn impressive judo, despite his legs not always working well. I don't have any pictures of Jerry, sorry.

When he passed in late 2001 over 400 people from across the country turned up for his funeral service. Joe Svinth and I went to his service. We listened to stories about Jerry helping out his students with cash and his personal credit cards to help pay moving expenses or to get through tough times. Numerous adults who studied with Jerry as children over 30 years ago, made the trip across the country just to say their farewells. My favorite was Jerry trying to reenlist in the army following 9/11 and his disappointment at the Army not being able to find use for a 60+ year old man in a wheelchair with advanced diabetes.

As we sat there, Joe leaned over to me and said as close as I can remember: "I don’t even know 400 people. And I know you don’t know 400 people who would cross the street to spit on you much less come from across the country to your funeral to say nice things." And then Joe laughed. But it was true. Think about that, a man who was such a positive impact on so many people, they pack up their family to fly across the country just to say goodbye to a man they hadn’t seen in 20 to 30 years. The same thing happened with old students at Dave Harris’s memorial.
I include that bit above because it’s a nice addition to the next bit on Dalien. In an article on Pacific NW Judo history Joe wrote, he included comments from Iwakiri Ryoichi Sensei, made to Jerry Dalien just prior to Iwakiri’s death.

"Jigoro Kano told me once that I must be strong in mind and body always, and help others in life. I appreciate all you peoples who come and see me. I am old now and peoples have no time for them. Mr. Yamashita, Mr. Bush, Mr. Demorest, and you Mr. Dalien are fine students of Kano’s judo. Mr. Uchida, he is important man in Judo – you tell him good-bye for me. I am not important persons, I have done nothing great, I have no schooling. You please make any honor for me, just judo. Okay? I do not have long time left to live anymore, but want you to keep my judo, please? Okay? "

I think Jerry, Mark and Dave tried to live up to the sentiment of this comment from Iwakiri. Mark was always helpful to people, on and off the mat, and he taught judo as a passion in his life. Jerry did too. Dave was always helpful and cheerful to his students, even when his own life was harsh., He had retired to care for his wife Geri, who had developed Alzheimer disease. Yet one would never know from his conduct he was hurting inside since he and was always ready with a joke and smile and to share what he knew.

When I was dumped on by Bernie to take over Icho Ryu, one of my influences was Fujiko Tamura Gardner, who is the sister of Vince and Mas Tamura, also students of Iwakiri Sensei. Small world, but as I’ve been told, "good people attract good people and foster that behavior."
I don’t know that I do that so well, but one of the things I tell students is "Work to be good at your martial art. Failing that, work to be known as a bunch of good guys to train with and hang out with." Excuse the bad English and grammar. That’s about as good a legacy as anyone can ask in budo in my opinion.
I doubt I’ll ever be as well regarded as these men, (I’m far too antisocial and grumpy) but I’ll try to instill some of the attitude of Dave, Mark, and Jerry in my teachings and hope it sticks.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Random thoughts about abuse

Not too long ago, I was watching a black belt test at a local cult, err, I mean highly regarded martial arts school here in Seattle. The only reason I was there was to support a friend’s wife, who was taking her test for black belt at the place. While I was there, I put in some eye-drops for my contact lenses. I then turned to another friend who was there and offered him the bottle, asking him if he wanted some bleach for his eyes to try and remove what we had just watched.

And I’m not joking about needing bleach to remove what I had just watched. When you have a woman who just had an acute subdural hematoma drained 1-ONE- week before the test, on the mat getting hit in the face and being taken down for grappling, you are not talking "Eating bitter". You are talking outright abuse. And that subdural hematoma was a result of getting hit in the head in class.

For those of you who are not aware of what a subdural hematoma is, a fast overly simple explanation is this is a large traumatic injury (bruising) where blood and fluids gather between the outer layer of the brain membrane and the inner membranes. This creates pressure on the brain. Enough pressure, guess what happens?To be on the mat taking a test that involves falling, getting hit, and grappling one week after this operation to drain the hematoma is not just foolish on part of the student, it is criminal neglect on the part of the instructor in my opinion.

The test was more a test of endurance for those testing, running through the entire curriculum of the school for each rank level. I only watched 3 hours of the test, but I saw more swaggering aggressive egos, passive-aggressive and abusive behavior concentrated in one location than I have seen in years.My friend’s wife only got a broken nose in no facial contact sparring. Gee, how did that happen? Yet, over the years of abuse she and others took at this place - I can’t bring myself to call it a dojo - it was claimed that these things were OK "Because we love each other."

Upon that I have to call "Bullshit!" Just because someone hugs you and says "I love you" after purposely injuring you doesn’t make it all right. I don’t care who you are, that right there isn’t funny. This situation is a description of an abuse cycle. From numerous students and former students, there is a steady consistent stream of stories of abuse and injuries to students. As well as fights between the instructor and the on again - off again girlfriend (who is a senior black belt in the school) serious enough to warrant hospital visits for broken bones, concussions, and other varying injuries.

My friend’s wife has finally left the school, by the way, so at least she has managed to break the chain of abuse for herself.

Oh, did I forget to mention the above mentioned instructor consistently tries to get most of the female students to have sex?

I’m relieved for the students who have left and broken free of this cycle. But for your consideration, here area a couple similar situations with greater or lessor degrees of abuse.In a school up north of Seattle, the instructor has a good lineage, was the head of his region for the organization he belonged to in another country. A friend still trains there.

Broken bones and other injuries, some pretty serious, are common in the dojo. I usually see blood on keiko gi when I’ve visited. I can live with hard training and injuries are part of that. But when you have people training with broken ribs, and are expected to stand still and then take additional kicks and punches to those broken ribs just to show spirit, that crosses the line into physical abuse. This training is said to be "traditional" in Japan by the instructor, who trained in Japan for all of a month. More like a bunch of sadistic bastards beat him up, so he does it to his own students.

I can also think of another group with a head sensei who does lots of the right thing organizationally. He doesn’t charge excessive fees, but does run it as a business for a living. I don’t disagree with the business side. But his personal conduct is a bit out of line. Asking students in women’s dressing room if they want to "massage sensei" goes past the line of acceptable behavior. His fondness for alcohol is well known; he is known to drink his lunch at some seminars, and his students try and cover that up from others for him.

A good story involves this sensei’s wife slamming her elbow into his ribs as she was walking by, enabling a young female student to duck away from "sensei" and his drunken attentions.

And this repeated behavior is pretty common knowledge, but is dismissed by seniors in his group as "no big deal." I normally wouldn’t care except for the hypocrisy of this mans behavior as opposed to what he teaches. He goes on about character and budo, but doesn’t apply it to himself.

At one of the seminars I attended years ago, this sensei was already in the bag at a potluck dinner. He was calling out "Boy" repeatedly and it finally dawns on me, he was calling out to me. This was apparent since I noticed everyone else in the room staring at me. When I realized it was me that was "Boy", I asked, "Yes sensei?" and he told me, "Boy, get me beer." I of course politely replied "You can get your own f-----g beer."

Now, in recognition of his rank and senior status, should I have gotten him a beer? Yeah, maybe so. Now if he had been a total ass all the time and said the same thing, I probably would have gotten him a beer and ignored his comment since his jackass behavior would at least have been consistent. Still rude, but it would have honestly reflected his character.

But to have spent time hearing him preach about the dignity and spirit of budo beginning and ending with courtesy earlier that day and an hour before at the potluck, I realized the man was only talking about one way courtesy to him. So, no beer for him from "boy".

But I’m not part of these groups and have no real place to say anything except to observe from afar and state "That’s a bit screwed up."But what’s the common theme to all this? A fine old-fashioned recipe for abuse. One shake of abuse, followed with a pinch of affection, praise, reward, a bit more abuse, followed by more affection, praise, rewards to make up, and pretty soon, students are catering to the instructor’s ego and emotional wants in a roiling pot of dysfunction.

When this dysfunctional recipe is done, you have a steaming pile of crap with the instructor at the top of the pile as chief turd. This is really no different than someone covering up for, enabling, and staying in a bad relationship with a drug abuser or alcoholic in some respects.

It usually makes no sense at all to one observing the situation from outside the group. And these are not stupid people I am discussing here; the people I have met from these groups are often people who have done well in their chosen careers with good families. Yet they were blind to the ways they had been used and abused for many years. They say it’s not abuse, using variously, love and discipline, as the most common excuses for the continued relationships.

Recently, there it seems like there have been more incidents of abuse and what I consider predatory behavior in both localized incidents and in several national organizations in various martial arts groups. At least, they are more publicized but it doesn’t seem to stop the conduct and people in their organizations still try to protect these abusers.These are individuals, not an organization, which commit these acts. The acts are sometimes criminal, sometimes moral or ethical violations not in violation of the law in their country. This topic goes across the board in not just martial arts groups, but in all levels of society really. The usual pattern I see is these people use their power in an organization to perpetuate their actions.

Me, I think we can approach this several ways.

1) Tolerate the behavior and act surprised publicly when someone gets abused. This is the most common thing I’ve seen.

2) Accept it can happen, try to watch for it, and try not to be part of the problem. Work to influence those in your group and don’t tolerate the behavior in your group.

3) Don’t belong to organizations that tolerate the behavior.

4) Quit preaching moral and ethical values that are not held by the people in the group and for those in the group, make your leaders live up to their words. Which is really just another way of saying both 2 &3.

But then it’s hard to get money and energy out of people looking to martial arts with dreams of being a master or discovering themselves, or the ideal of being a better person via the secrets found in martial training.

Try telling potential students "This is just physical training based upon martial training methods of civilian or military origins from (insert country origin here). Any betterment of you as a person comes from the simple hard work that goes into your training and the values of personal responsibility you learn from that work, as well as the responsibilities you have to the group."

See how many want to hang around for more than a short time with that marketing pitch.

This is exactly why I don’t like teaching publicly. False expectations of students who make paying the rent easy and suddenly it’s easy to cater to the wants of students without even realizing it since they pay the rent, gas, food, etc. I'm not saying it can't be done, I'm saying most sensei don't want to work that hard or set an example for their students with hard work themselves.

So the final point is:Regardless of the set up in a dojo, kwoon, dojang, etc.…the social structures and teaching methodologies which allows a teacher of martial arts to commit these acts needs to be better scrutinized by the group itself. Checks need to be in place to prevent an individual or individuals from developing the mentality that they are above responsibility to students and respect goes both ways.

My questions to you, the reader of my blog, is first, Haven’t you got anything better to do than read this? Second, is do you find yourself or others in your group regularly making excuses for your teacher(s) for their behavior and abuse - emotional, psychological, physical injuries, sexual misconduct, of others in the group?

If you are one of those making excuses, I would encourage you and other students in your group to think about what kind of people you choose to associate with as teachers and peers in your martial arts training.

And no, I don’t have any easy answers, far smarter people than me have been trying to explain and prevent this crap for decades. But this is why I filter hard on whom I let in the dojo and what I will tolerate in the dojo, so I don’t have these problems.