I recently finished the book “The 47th Samurai“, by Stephen Hunter. One of the main driving forces of the book is a seemingly simple yet utterly misunderstood word: “Samurai”. Young men throughout the book cling to this idea of Samurai and are driven by it, distorted by it, and blinded by it.
For generations the notion of Samurai has shaped Japanese culture and now affects every culture around the world. The power of it has only increased as Anime and Chanbara films grow in influence. These days it is impossible to avoid Bushido, Ninja, and Samurai (and the slew of individuals claiming mastery over each).
Concepts like Bushido have been subject to centuries of nuance and development that are so subtle that practitioners spending a lifetime trying to grasp them still cannot truly put the entire philosophy into words. The greatest poets and writers have only been able to give us the essence of it.
Samurai, even during their glorious Sengoku Period, were complex creatures that were prone to as much obsession and compulsion as they were to honorable sacrifice and courage.
Modern day individuals cannot and should not be Ninja or Samurai and they should not strictly follow the code of Bushido. The reason why is because assassination and suicide are not parts of our modern culture. Nor are the rights of Kirisute Gomen, Seppuku, or Jo Uchi. Furthermore the right to kill peasants/criminals in order to test the sharpness of a blade, or to eliminate an enemy’s family through political intrigue, are seen as uncouth acts at best.
It is critical to remember that when invoking the name of Samurai or Bushido you invoke everything that comes with it, not just the parts that sound good in platitude.
Honor It Instead
Honor the Koryu arts by training in them diligently and absorbing the best of what they have to offer. Recognize the truth of the matter – that you are an individual who is bettering him/herself through ancient philosophy and applying those parts of it to your life that improve your health, happiness, and skill set. Embracing “the essence” of the art is a far more worthwhile goal than trying to join a long extinct class.
To train in the Koryu arts is to seek a better understanding of Budo. To study the way of Samurai/Bushido/Ninjutsu is to understand what it is and what it is not. If you say “I follow the way of the Samurai”, understand what you’re saying. It’s not just a couple of quotes about personal strength and courage.
Honor the old ways by avoiding fake titles, self embellishment, and delusion.
Kendo is a dynamic sport. When watching, it’s hard to take your eyes off of the lightning bolt sword strikes or the faces of the competitors as they pierce each other with intensity. If you’ve never seen a kendo match (or even if you have), check out the following video for a great example:
The zanshin of a good kendo match is always very high. It is a fine balance between keeping energies and emotions perfectly in check while still transmitting full spirit into your opponent in the hopes of intimidating or disrupting him/her.
However, even with all of that going on, the real core fundamental that every great kendo player requires, the engine that powers each thunder clap movement, is Okuri Ashi.
When first learning kendo one of my biggest problems was that I had already been a karate and kobudo student for about a decade. That means certain stancing and body movements were very ingrained into me. This was compounded by the fact that I had studied karate in my formative years and thus had it as part of my developed “self”.
As opposed to karate where most stances are optimally used to involve the whole body (especially the hips) in a variety of techniques and to weight the body down when appropriate, most of kendo’s footwork is light and crisp. Shizen tai is a very popular term in kendo and means “natural body”. Okuri ashi takes a shizen tai upright body and manipulates the footwork to allow for extremely quick forward and backward movement with minimal “dead spaces” in between each movement.
The execution of Okuri Ashi is as such:
The feet start about shoulder width apart, the ball of the left foot lining up across from the right heel. The right foot moves first, sliding forward about a half pace. The left foot then slides up to meet it, the heel lifting just a bit off the floor. Exactly how much lift you are instructed to get during this movement will vary from school to school.
Okuri ashi can be used with smooth, half pace strides to cover distance or it can be abbreviated to possess extremely short motions (while still maintaining that sliding characteristic). The benefit of moving like this is that your weight is underside almost at all times. This allows you to make quick directional changes and leap into attacks at the moment you feel them appear.
When Okuri ashi is done in multiple successions, it takes on a slight hopping quality even though the body and feet never leave the ground. To understand what I mean, observe this video of a basic drill known as Kirikaeshi:
You might take note that when moving forward the lead right foot moves first, and when moving backward the rear left foot moves first. During Okuri ashi they do not switch.
It can take years to make this motion feel natural, but it’s worth the effort. Okuri ashi has a lot to teach about keeping body weight centered and available for explosive movement. Give it a shot sometime, and don’t worry if you feel a bit awkward at first.
This is a continuation from Part 1 of the interview with Patrick McCarthy. McCarthy Sensei is ranked 8th Dan and is a well known author as well as the developer of Koryu Uchinadi.
PM: The Bubishi has been one of Tuttle’s best-selling martial arts titles in the past and I think my publisher got wind of the fact that I was planning to produce a Bubishi Companion text. Hence, asked if I would consider revising my original work. Anyway, that’s what my attorney told me. Based upon this, I produced the revised edition, and was very pleased with the final outcome; FYI, the Bubishi Companion text is still in the works.
MA: Speaking of the Bubishi, what roll do you see hakutsuru (white crane) and the Fujian Province playing in the development of ti (early karate)? Which hakutsuru kata on Okinawa are generally considered the most genuine? [Note: Hakutsuru is one of the major subjects discussed in the Bubishi]
PM: Genuine is a relevant term! Like lineage and culture, genuine doesn’t necessarily mean functional. I’ve witnessed a lot of “genuine” Japanese and Okinawans who came from impeccable lineages and couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag! I call such folks, “re-enactors,” not totally unlike the Medieval Re-enactors Groups; most, not all, pay remarkable attention to various cultural details, and have the best uniforms, etc. The only one thing lacking is their functional fighting skills.
As a style Hakutsuru (i.e., Yongchun Crane), played an important role as one of the precursor methods from which several Okinawan lineages trace their origins. As a kata (e.g., Sokon’s Hakutsuru, etc.) however, I think far too much fuss has been made over its form with out understanding its function. Much of what I’ve seen being promoted as “authentic,” falls far from being functional. Those traditions established in and around the Matsuyama Park district of Naha’s Kume Village (i.e. Wai Xinxian, Iwah, Aragaki Seisho, Kojo Taitei, Xie Zhongxiang, Higaonna Kanryo, Maezato Ranpo, Matsuda Tokusaburo, Nakaima Norisato, Sakiyama Kitoku, and Wu Xianhui, etc.) and that of Uechi Kambun appear to come down from this lineage.
One of the difficulties in tracing exact lineage is the different cosmetic appearance of the style. An example of how styles, which come from the same progenitor source, change is found in detachment, the passing of time, confusion and the arrival of rule-bound practices, which emphasized form over function.
MA: Your travels took you not only to your main areas of study (Okinawa and Japan) but also to Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and China. What were you hoping to find during these excursions?
PM: Similarities, differences and contextual premises, in order to corroborate my theories and bring more meaning to what I was studying.
MA: Could you share an anecdote from those times of an experience that you found to be particularly enlightening or humorous?
PM: In November of 1990 I traveled from my home in Japan to Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China. The local martial arts association was hosting an international competition, preceded by a week long symposium with many of its most senior masters. Amid the several foreign countries partaking in the martial arts festival was a Japanese delegation with members from various fighting arts. One evening in the banquet hall after dinner, several of the groups were enjoying, “a few drinks,” and exchanging stories. In a rather lively conversation, “alleging that the Japanese misunderstood the original fighting arts of Shaolin,” one of the Chinese delegates come out with something like, “…for example, jujutsu is an application-based practice but without our old solo routines (kata), and yet karate has preserved our old routines but still don’t understand their application!”
The comment was greeted with a roaring silence, until one gentleman from the Japanese delegation responded with, “are you suggesting that each of these arts is a smaller part of a larger whole, and incomplete in itself?” As the Chinese gentleman skulled the last of his jiu (Jiu= liquor), he proudly blurted out, “Karate and jujutsu both trace their roots back here to our Fujian-based Shaolin practice, therefore, wouldn’t you all just be better off studying our original art?”
Historically, I think the intoxicated Chinese gentleman was referring to Fujian-based Shaolin arts as the progenitor to which karate kata traces its roots, and Chen Yuan-Pin (aka Chin Gempin/1587-1674) as the Fujian-based martial artist said to have influenced the development of Jujutsu by his mid-17th century visit to Edo (Tokyo) and subsequent interaction with the Samurai class (i.e., Fukuno Hichiroemon, Isogai Jirozaemon, and Miura Yojiemon, who later influence the establishment of Fukunoryu/Ryoi Shinto Ryu, Miuraryu Yawara and Kito Ryu Jujutsu).
What happened next between a couple of emotionally charged martial artists at the table was, for me, nowhere near as important as the BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) I experienced that evening. Learning that Fujian-based quanfa served as the progenitor from which came both karate kata (form) and jujutsu oyo (function) it stood to reason that the contextual premises and underlying principles which shaped this original art should also apply to any and all derivatives, including today’s practices. Furthermore, being able to prove such a thing would surely help resolve the terrible ambiguity shrouding insight to the contextual premises and application practices of kata as understood in modern karate.
This not only formed the basis from which my obsession with studying the original Fujian-based quanfa practices unfolded, but also revealed a crucial link between form (karate kata), function (jujutsu oyo), and their shared Shaolin heritage.
MA: I’d like to take a closer look at some of your main instructors. Sugino Sensei was an extremely well respected budoka, and subject of the article “The Last Swordsman”. What was training with Sugino Sensei like? Did he provide any unique glimpses into the world of Japanese Koryu?
PM: Sugino Sensei was a delightful person and it was a wonderful opportunity to be one of his direct students. In spite of also having trained Muso Shinden Eishin Ryu and ZNKR Iai under Izawa Takehiko most of my formal Koryu training was experienced under his tutelage. Like all Koryu, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu uses identifiable attack scenarios and timeless prescribed application practices to effectively negotiate them. I could tell you many wonderful stories about this fascinating teacher but it is understanding this premise that Grandmaster strengthened my understanding of kata.
MA: Did Inoue Sensei discuss his Ninjutsu connections frequently, and did you get a chance to experience those methods during your kobudo training with him?
PM: On many occasions Sendai discussed training under Fujita Seiko, Shiyoda Gozo, Taira Shinken and Konishi Yasuhiro, and what a collective impact it had upon his learning. I used to meet Sendai early every Tuesday afternoon before regular training at the Shibuya dojo to serve him tea, and listen to him talk about his history. From time to time he would lead us through various Ninjutsu-based practices, including shuriken and tactical application of pressure points.
MA: More importantly…any regrets about wearing leopard print pants in your kickboxing match at Tokyo Korakuen??
PM: Not at all … only wish I was bold enough to wear the Leopard mask that came with them ; – )
MA: These days you are touring quite frequently to help improve people’s understanding of Uchinadi and karate in general. Where have those travels taken you, and where might people contact you if they are interested in such a seminar?
PM: I like to think of KU as a system of application practices which can fit easily under the foundation of any karate style, and radically improve the overall curriculum, without adversely effecting its cosmetic appearance.
I’ve been invited to teach KU TPAD’s all over the world ranging from North & South America, Russia, the UK, and the EU, to Africa, Japan, China, SE Asia, New Zealand and Australia. For anyone interested, I can be contacted c/o firstname.lastname@example.org but cannot always respond immediately. Alternatively, it’s best to contact our American Shibucho, Sensei Darrin Johnson c/o email@example.com.
MA: Many thanks McCarthy Sensei for your participation in this interview and for your tireless efforts to help reveal and preserve the true nature of traditional martial arts!