Monday, March 19, 2007

Provability, and other questions

My co-worker, Keith, is a big guy like myself, but unlike me, he's mostly muscle. And, he knows how to fight. He works out at a gym here in Tokyo, doing mixed martial arts. His background is in karate, wrestling, boxing, judo ... you name it; he trains in the gym where pro Pride and K1 fighters Takada and Sakuraba trained, up until a few months ago. I gather that his practice sessions are pretty intense, too.

Today Keith told me that, as of this weekend, he is now the Japan Heavyweight Amateur Shootfighting champion. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy! But still, I don't want to make him mad. I feel as though he could take me apart seven ways before I could even beg him to stop.

Which brings me to my point. I was telling him the other day about iaido and jodo, and how we often have "arguments" about what works and what doesn't; people spend a lot of time talking about "if he does this, then you just do this" and "don't stand this way because you can't do that" and "in my style, we do it this way because." Keith smiled a knowing smile and said, "I used to listen to those people, and really think about what they were saying, but nowadays, I just tell 'em, 'Try it on me and we'll see whether it works or not.'"

I envy him having such an efficient "bullshit detector." He does martial arts that are provable in real application: "Oh, you'd slap an arm lock on me, would you? Not so easy when I'm raining blows in your face..."

I'm not really interested in fighting people, but for some reason, my mind does often drift back to the persistent question of "combat effectiveness" and what place it has in iaido. We have inherited a number of styles; nobody knows exactly how old they are, or how much they resemble what was being done 400 years ago, but it's fairly safe to say the answer is "not a whole lot". So, how much made it through? How much of what we are learning is (to use an extremely vague and slippery word) "real"? We know that Oe Masamichi used a sword in battle, and he died less than 100 years ago.

To dwell on this point a little more: we have inherited this knowledge, and we have to presume, from people who know more about "real fighting" than we do now. Is it our responsibility to maintain it, and pass it on exactly as we learned it? Some would argue, vehemently, that this is exactly our duty -- our only duty. But should we transmit it without understanding it fully? (Ever read "A Canticle for Leibowitz"?) Or should we devote our energy to analyzing it and trying to understand it more deeply? What if that means we uncover some inconsistency, some weakness, or some flaw? Do we change the technique to match our understanding, or do we automatically tell ourselves "My teacher is infallible, so this just reveals my flawed, incomplete understanding, so ... back to the drawing board!"?

And furthermore, what does it matter? I feel as though it must matter to some extent, otherwise, we might as well practice however we damn well feel like, which in my case, would be from a chair, with a beer in one hand and a chicken wing in the other. But no, we are supposed to be sword fighting, and when we draw the sword, it is supposed to be for a reason; but this just raises the next question: what reason?

I think the frustrating thing about these questions, for me at least, is that no matter how much I think about them, I never seem to make any headway. I always come back to the same old questions. Hundreds of philosophers over the centuries have devoted countless hours pondering the nature of reality, or what it is to be human, and for my money, none of them has come close to finding a satisfactory answer. I feel as though these are the same kinds of questions - ill-posed from the get-go, and basically unanswerable. So ... Gimme a beer and some chicken wings and let's change the subject. Maybe I should have gotten into MMA.


Friday, March 09, 2007

More Coincidences

Well, this isn't so much a coincidence as just blind, dumb luck. I was doing some research about swordsmiths in Tokyo and it turns out that I live very close to Yoshihara Yoshindo, Yoshihara Shoji, Sato Yoshiaki, and Oda Kuzan. Well, close is a matter of perspective; let's say a 15 minute bike ride. Takano Yukimitsu is also not very far away. Since I have no way of contacting any of them through "proper channels", I may just see if I can do the "clueless gaijin" thing and swing by their workshops and perhaps corner them for a chat. They may have a storefront nearby, which would be a lot less awkward. The point is, I believe some of these guys offer workshops where you can make a tanto over the course of a weekend. I have always wanted to try the same kind of thing in Ontario at the Summer Sword School, but for one reason or another haven't been around, or haven't had money, or haven't had time, etc. etc. I'm only in Tokyo for another month, so it's quite likely that I won't be able to, but if I can ... wheeeee!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Double Super-Mega Post

Part 1: 19th International Budo Seminar in Katsuura

Flying into Tokyo on February 4th, I happened to get a copy of the Japan Times from the stewardess. I noticed an ad inside the front page about the Budokan seminar, which I went to in 2001 and 2002, but for some reason, remembered as being held in the fall. Anyway, it was good luck since I had absolutely no idea it was on again. The deadline for application was a couple days later, and I managed to get my money and application in on time.

It was held this past weekend in Katsuura, a couple hours from Tokyo. I had to work Friday morning (but took Friday afternoon off without pay) so I got to Katsuura about 3:30, which was well into the start of the first seminar on the development of kenjutsu. The seminar was by a Professor Uozomi, who is a (the?) leading authority on Miyamoto Musashi and Edo-period martial arts. He talked a bit about the difficulty of understanding Musashi's writings. For example, many translations don't comment on Musashi's phrase (I may be getting this wrong...) "Makura wo osae" which is literally translated as "Holding down the pillow". Obviously, this is a rather cryptic reference, but what does it mean? It refers to having such an unassailable kamae and outward appearance that you can keep your opponent at bay, suppressing his very urge to attack you. I don't know if there is some archaic metaphor at work there, or strange turn of speech, but if you think of it in almost literal terms, it does evoke the idea of smothering someone with a pillow ... the only problem, I suppose, is that "makura" might also refer to the little wooden benches Japanese people used to rest their heads on. (shrug)

Anyway, interesting lecture. After that, another good lecture on Zen and Budo, and the influence Zen had on the martial arts of the Edo period. Kind of an interesting tie-in, as it talked more about how martial arts developed and shifted their emphasis during that period.

After the lecture, it was cool to catch up with people I hadn't seen in a long time, (Trevor, Alex, Ted, Brent, Bruce, Greg, Anna...) and to meet some new people (Serge, Gunli, Dave)... We had a welcome banquet, and after dinner, some really keen folks took off to the gym and had some free practice. The rule is that you can't practice if you've been drinking (I had) so I gawked a little bit. Of course, the kendo nuts were at it full tilt. Some guys were doing iaido off in the far corner; they were also doing a koryu style I didn't recognize, which turned out to be Tamiya Ryu. Very interesting looking kata! I talked to them quite a bit over the weekend and, time allowing, I will visit their dojo over in Yokohama (?) and meet their teacher. Very cool guys too: one Englishman and one Icelander. (Am I making that word up?)

People who play kendo are crazy.

Accommodations at the Budokan training center are dormitory-style, and we were four Canadians in one room. (I think they bunked people according to nationality.) All my roommates were cool guys, as well: Paul, a karateka from BC; James, a judoka from Ontario; and Steven, a kendoka from Alberta. I was worried that I was going to snore all night, so I took the precaution of buying everybody earplugs at the 100 Yen store, but I don't think they were necessary. The cool Katsuura air was good for my nostrils, somehow.

The next day we had more lectures, this time about the attraction of Budo (two sensei shared their personal experiences, and it was really very inspiring, for me at least) and after that, a scientific presentation about the effects of Inverse Abdominal Breathing (which is what you do in Zen, I gather) on brainwave activity. Kind of cool. I think it's good to scientifically test claims made by Zen and other arts, where possible... the (not surprising) result is that IAB increases your "calm" brainwaves and decreases your "sleepy" brainwaves. I think.

After that, we saw some demonstrations by the Sensei. This is always a highlight, and so I took a load of pictures...

Why I don't do Kyudo: people get to see your bare shoulders.

"Not the face, not the face!"

"Not the face! Not the face!"

Kendo kata ... (couldn't think of anything funny)

And suddenly, there was mat.

Sumo is probably the toughest martial art in the world.
You don't get this flexible laying around eating bonbons, trust me.

Then it was off to "Experience a New Budo". I did Kyudo the last couple times I came, so I thought I would see if I could remember anything. My first couple shots were lousy, but I hit the bullseye on two shots, which felt wonderful. (I know, I know, it's not about hitting the bullseye... whatever! As it happened, I also had perfect form and reached a state of complete no-mind, so there!) I had a bit of a problem with my release, so I was practicing the draw, and then I figured, what the heck, I'll try a release (with no arrow, of course)... thwack! The string hit my wrist and cut the skin quite painfully, giving me a nice raised welt to boot. Sensei immediately said, "Don't ever release a bow without an arrow!" At first I thought that might be because it will tend to cut into your wrist, but then I figured out that it is probably very bad for the bow -- without the mass of the arrow there, the bow must snap back dangerously fast. Not good. Anyway, Kyudo was really fun and the teachers were also excellent.

Next up was "Practical Training" which is where you (the experienced budoka) practice your art with a high-ranking teacher. In previous years, Kaneda Sensei was available for iaido training, but this year, there was nobody, so I thought we would practice on our own. Unfortunately, this wasn't allowed, and so I went off and tried Jukendo a little bit. It was really fun, so I decided I would try it again the next day, too.

At dinner, I had a nice talk with a bunch of people about all kinds of stuff... everything from fairly serious conversations about martial arts, to an absolutely hilarious (and unprintable) discussion of buttons we'd love to see (and some we hope never to find) on those high-tech "Washlet" toilets. Use your imagination; we kind of imagined the conversation might go something like, "Hey man, do you mind if I use your toilet?" "Not at all, but you'll have to sign this waiver first..."

I did a bit of iai after dinner with Dave and Gunli, and then came back for beers. I stayed up a bit late (midnight or so?) but nothing outrageous. The next day, Sunday, we again shipped off to the lecture hall and talked about the future of martial arts. The issue basically boiled down to two things (which may or may not be essentially at odds with each other): the preservation of martial arts in Japan, and the promotion of martial arts internationally. At some point, the conversation got around to the issue of competition, and how it is bad for Budo. A very stern Kendo teacher, Fukumoto Sensei, took the microphone and brought everyone down a peg or two with the very memorable statement: "People often ask me, 'Sensei, how many times a week to you practice?' What a stupid question! The question should be, 'How many times a day?' That's the level I'm at! Anything less than that and it's not budo, it's just playing around! And competition is just another part of practice. It's how you test yourself and see what you need to do to improve. All this talk about using budo to make a better society is just silly. You practice budo because of what it does for YOU!" Something to think about, certainly. Some people clapped when he said that, but I just felt ashamed at how little I've been practicing.

In the afternoon, I did Jukendo again (they wear even more armour than kendo players!) and after that, Naginata. Naginata seems to have a lot in common with jodo, at least superficially. One thing that sticks out is the symmetry of both jodo and naginata - in both arts, you switch hands and attack from either side. As a physical activity, (and for your coordination) I think that's probably better than kendo where you are always right-side-forward. But anyway, even with jodo, it was tough. It's really nice to feel like a beginner again, though... (which is something entirely different than thinking, "I've been doing this for fifteen years, so why do I still suck at this movement?")

Sunday night was the farewell reception. I stuck around just long enough to eat, and then headed back to Katsuura station. (I had to work on Monday.) It meant that I missed the Monday morning Kobudo practice, which was Negishi-ryu shurikenjutsu. I really wanted to try that, but alas, no dice.

So, for anybody I met in Katsuura who might be reading this: it was great seeing you and training with you; good luck with your practice and stay in touch. If I forgot to mention anybody, it's just because I'm incredibly absent-minded and I apologize.

Part 2: Unbelievable Coincidences

It is a small, small world. The first example I have is of the "that's odd" variety. My fellow teacher at APU, Karen, was over in my apartment looking for a book to borrow. She took one book at random of my shelf (written in Japanese by Alex Bennett) and exclaimed, "Hey! I met this guy last week in Kyoto when I was there sightseeing! He was in a bar and we stopped and chatted a little bit! You know this guy?" Very, very strange ... two friends of mine run into each other totally at random, and the event very nearly went unnoticed except that she happened to find his picture on a book on my bookshelf. Six degrees of separation and all that ... these kinds of events are probably happening every single day but we're not aware of them.

The next example I have is waaaaaaay more interesting, in my opinion. Jeff Kiyooka is employed by the same company as me. He's from Vancouver, and came over to Japan on the JET program the same year as me, but ended up in a different part of the country. We met at our first training seminar in 2004, and I remembered his name (because it's the same as mine.) We met again the next semester, and again a third time. I even ran into him again (or heard his voice, anyway) as we were coincidentally interviewing for the same job. Anyway, he came into the office today, and we were joking about how we always seem to be coincidentally running into each other. We went out for lunch, and I asked him where his family was originally from in Japan. He replied, "My great-grandmother came to Canada from Kochi". My interest level went up a notch. (If you do iaido, you know why.) I've met people from Kochi before, and of course, they usually know nothing about iaido, and that's where it stops. But for no particular reason, I asked, "Where in Kochi?" and he said Tosa. My interest level went up a bit more. Now, the next question shows the value of asking stupid questions... you know, when you meet somebody from New York and tell them you're from Canada, and they ask, "Oh, do you know Bob Smith?" and you think, "What a stupid question!" That kind of stupid question. So anyway, I asked him, "What was your great-grandmother's maiden name?" He replies, "Oe." My interest level went up about 10 levels. "Do you know anything about that side of the family, by any chance?" He said, "Not much, but her father was a swordsman or something..." Interest level is through the roof now. I pressed him for more details, and he said, "Well, I've never seen it, but apparently there's a statue of him or something... I guess he was like, a sword teacher in Tosa..." So I proceed to tell him about Oe Masamichi, the 17th headmaster of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, and how there are people all over the world who have Oe Sensei's picture hanging in their dojo or on their websites... He wasn't sure, but thought it might be the same person. After lunch, I immediately whipped up some pictures of Oe Sensei from the web, and he took one look and said, "Yeah, that's my great-great-grandfather."

Oe Sensei around age 50?

...age 60 or so...

Oe Masamichi later in life

Small friggin' world. As much as I don't believe in "fate" ... maybe this is a sign that I should get Jeff to start iaido. It couldn't hurt, right? Might score me some points with the old guy in the afterlife...

Anyway, it coincides remarkably well with some wondering I've been doing lately about the children/grandchildren/great-grandchildren of budo masters. Do their descendents know what their ancestors were up to? Or does it become some vague story about uncle so-and-so who did some kind of martial art or something? And, for example, is Oe Sensei's sword still in the family as an heirloom? Was it lost during the war? Did it end up in Canada somewhere? I think it's quite common that sons go in the opposite direction as their father, so perhaps the sword got sold, or lost... What about Nakayama Hakudo's famously long sword? That was only 50 or so years ago, so somebody must know where it is...

And now I'm wondering if Nobel-prize winning author Oe Kenzaburo (himself from Shikoku) could possibly be related to Jeff (and Masamichi Sensei) too ... any resemblance there?

Razor-sharp mind, this guy.