A Martial Arts of Submission

‘Sheathing the sword without hurting anyone is the future of Aikido’ – Shoji Nishio.

‘Help your partner live and thrive’ – Seishiro Endo.

‘What use is it to just copy my technique?’ – Morihei Ueshiba, O-Sensei.


Where does martial arts practice start for practitioners of the second decade of the twenty first century? Does it begin in fear – the fear of death, the fear of being out of control, the fear of powerlessness? Does it begin in wonder – wonder at the brilliance of screen legends like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan, wonder at the apparently miraculous power of the martial artist who performs seemingly unnatural feats of blended grace and brutality? Does it begin even by chance – the chance which makes the curious bystander pick Jujutsu class instead of aerobics at the gym, the chance which allows the evening jogger to stop in a Karate class while out on a run, the chance which introduces a friend of a friend to a teacher? All of these and many more are ways in which students can be introduced to the martial arts, I only pick such examples because I know of them in my own life and amongst my friends and acquaintances. I do not believe any of these are enough to count as starting points for the practice of martial arts proper, that is: a grasping of what it means to be a martial arts practitioner and what the martial arts themselves represent. Anyone can come into class and doggedly repeat movements and there is certainly skill and value to this (I have even said before that I take great pleasure in watching kata [forms] championships in Karate because of the uncanny precision and dexterity of the performances, and who doesn’t marvel at the obscene feats of control the Shaolin monks can bring to bear on themselves?). Nevertheless, doggedness and dogma do not the martial artist make. It is easy to hop on the mat and rattle off copy-paste techniques, but in doing so, one may never access the essence of martial arts itself. In what follows, I wish to demonstrate that, far from the desire for a perfect self-defence (fear), the allure and grandeur of the miracle-working sage master (wonder), or the joyous happenstance of turning up and having a great time (chance), what makes martial arts practice what it is, what defines the practice as technically, philosophically, and practically coherent and sound, is a martial arts which begins with what I shall call submission.

It should be noted that in previous work, I have discussed and advocated the idea of a forgiving martial arts, one which is based upon the idea of forgiveness as irrevocable power and unlimited mercy. This was an idea espoused by the late Shoji Nishio, who was known to have held dan ranks in not only Aikido, but Iaido, Karate, and Judo as well, and in my formulation, encouraged a forgiving martial arts (yurusu budo) which held the potential for the practitioner to strike down their opponent at any time, yet always refrained from doing so. I no longer find this formulation of martial arts adequate. While I believe that this concept may yet be useful in the martial arts, I wish to move away from it for the inconsistencies it produces between the technical, philosophic, and practical sides of the martial arts, which I will begin to explain my view on in due course. Unlike sport or fitness (which is not to say that sports and other forms of exercise cannot also be practised in a martial way or be just as valuable), martial arts are concerned with ‘do’ – the notoriously difficult-to-translate-effectively suffix which usually denotes ‘the way’. The use of this term (Ju-do, Aiki-do, Karate-do, Ken-do, Bu-do) as opposed to the older jutsu (Ju-jutsu, Aiki-Jutsu, Ken-jutsu, Bu-jutsu) denotes the transformation of martial artistry from pure technique and use of technique in combat (jutsu) to the development and cultivation of lifestyle. Many martial arts were reorganised and renamed into ‘do’ rather than ‘jutsu’ structures in the period after the second-world-war in order to reflect the peace-oriented attitude of the time and to move away from the conservative and militaristic connotations the old martial arts schools had held, and in some cases even openly endorsed. In this way, it is my understanding that to practice the martial arts must be more than the idle, or even the meticulous or fervent learning of movements for fighting and killing; it should just as much be the investigation of the purpose of those movements, the circumstances of their proper use, and the place of those skills in their historical context. As a side note, it is easy to see how these attributes can apply to any physical activity, or any activity at all, which is why I say sports or fitness can be practised in a martial way – it is really only for want of a better term that I use ‘martial’ to denote this style of practice; I do not actually believe that sports or fitness are separate from the realm of the ‘martial’ insomuch as I believe that there is a difference between the quality of practice (of anything) as martially sincere and as only barely engaged.

It will not have escaped notice, either, that I have drawn only on Japanese or Japan-related martial arts in my discussion so far. I do not wish this to exist as a commentary only on the Japanese martial arts, and I equally do not wish to express the idea that the Japanese arts hold any kind of supremacy or priority over martial arts of other denominations, only that my personal history and experience is limited to those arts and it would be remiss of me to discuss other arts without proper investigation or authority. I do believe, however, that the principles under discussion apply to all martial arts and perhaps to all disciplines in general, with martial arts, particularly those of Japan, simply being my best lens through which to view them.

I should also take this opportunity to make clear some terminology I have been using. My use is not indicative of any wider use or standard but simply the way I am choosing to express myself given the lack of common nomenclature across the arts. I have spoken of the technical, philosophical, and practical aspects of the martial arts:

The technical refers to the study of the ideal and perfect form of any given movement. The practice of the technical is necessarily somewhat separate from its application in combat; it is the learning of technique, of the ‘how to’, in a safe environment where learning and experimentation are possible with some reduction of the risk of real injury.

The philosophical refers to the underlying ethical principles of the martial art at hand and how they are reflected in the technical and practical elements of the art. The practice of the philosophical is perhaps the most neglected of the practices of the martial arts. Most practitioners indeed never sit down to read about or write about the purpose or significance of what they study, or question the efficacy of the teachings handed down to them. The difficulty with the philosophical is that martial arts classes are not lectures, teaching is rarely in the form of oral discussion or debate, and rightly speaking, the technical aspects of the art are much better communicated through experiencing technique and exploring it rather than reading about or speaking about it. This leaves the philosophical element of martial arts as a more or less individual pursuit, unless the practitioner is blessed with like-minded friends, and thus this aspect ends up developing often in a vacuum and without the guidance of teachers or fora for the sharing of ideas. Nevertheless, it is a vital component to proper martial arts, to my mind, and the martial artist who never discusses or questions their technical and practical elements in conversation with others will be forever impoverished in their development.

The practical refers to the use of the technical in the emergence of an unscripted and unpredicted event calling for martial intervention. Few martial artists in history (if any) are able to translate the elements of their technical practice completely unchanged into the messy environment of unanticipated violence. There is therefore a disjunct between the technical (the ideal form) and the practical (how it manifests in combat). Battles bastardise forms, and make clumsy the smooth and practised machinery of technique. The practice of the practical is the exposure of the artist to a situation of genuine vulnerability where, unlike in technical practice, the risk of harm is pressing and urgent.

In the martial arts, the link between the practical and the technical is usually considered, I believe, to be the overwhelming majority of training. Indeed, most of the martial artist’s career can very well be spent reducing the separation between the two aspects; transforming your ‘O-goshi’ hip throw into nameless instinct, turning the ‘Tekki shodan’ form from awkward sideways shuffling into instantaneous solidity under pressure, realising your complex and laborious attempts at the wrist-lock ‘nikyo’ as a functional and immediate response to danger. This is the business of everyday training. The continuous examination, critique and re-evaluation of the student’s habits and movements in order to unpick and restitch them together, weaving the threads of technique into the tapestry of living.

The next most explored link is typically the one between the technical and the philosophical. Practitioners who attain a certain level of technical prowess, or who find themselves particularly invested in the minutiae of technique itself are those who most commonly investigate the implications of their techniques in a wider social, moral, ethical, or sometimes theological context. This will be familiar in the evolution of the teacher to the sage, a phenomenon common in older masters of almost any style of martial arts. Ueshiba O-sensei, Aikido’s founder, indeed became extremely esoteric and waxed lyrical about the Shinto gods constantly in his later career. Karate masters such as Kenji Ushiro have undergone ‘ki’ turns in later work, re-examining their techniques through the lens of intentional energy. Sensei such as Hirokazu Kanazawa focus their martial arts teaching on their global social impact and doing good for the Karate community around the world. Plenty of practitioners who begin the more philosophical exploration of martial arts also become founders of their own schools, usually because of decisive splits between their own beliefs about the art they practice and the beliefs of their teachers and governing institutions. This exploration of the logic which undergirds the techniques and methods that any given style chooses to teach is what really constitutes the link between the philosophical and technical aspects of martial arts. Whether these lines of questioning add up to cause division or union in the arts is a matter of individual taste and interpretation, but the process remains constant as a thorough investigation and interrogation of both the performed technical minutiae and the rhetorical justifications of the art as a whole.

The link which is least explored, to my mind, is the one which exists between the practical and the philosophical. While it is common to examine how technique can be practically used, it is not common to examine how the philosophy of martial arts is practically used. While it is common to look at how technique, the ideal form, embodies the philosophy, it is uncommon to look at how the uglier manifestations of technique and its effects in practicable situations embody the philosophy. Even amongst those with a great deal of martial arts pedigree, I feel there is little detailed scrutiny of how martial arts philosophy holds up or breaks down in the discordant event of hostilities. There is plenty of exploration of philosophy and practicality in what I call ‘ideal conditions’ (one on one, against an enemy who is presumed to be a similarly rational agent) or in ‘fantasised conditions’ (two on twenty, specifically with the odds stacked against the martial artists to demonstrate a particular point) and precious little else. Unfortunately, I run an unfair argument here: it is actually a sheer impossibility to begin with to examine the conjunction between philosophy and practicality without actually going and picking fights, and if the martial artist is picking fights to begin with, she is already influencing the conditions of the event, thus undermining the neutrality of their exploration to begin with. My critique here is not aimed against speculation about how to apply martial arts philosophy in trying situations in the first place, but rather designed to criticise the narrowness and repetitiveness of the speculation and experiments that exists currently. It is vitally important to speculate on how martial arts philosophy stands up outside of neat and tidy outcomes and ideal techniques, and there is nothing wrong with doing so, but it needs to go further than the tired-to-the-point-of-comatose question; ‘what if the guy is bigger than you?’.

Given then, that the idea of martial arts itself, as we have discussed, connotes the commitment to a ‘-do­’, a way, a coherent technique, philosophy, and practical application, my undertaking here will be as follows: I will look at my former interest in the idea of yurusu budo (forgiving martial arts) and demonstrate how it cannot sustain a suitable coherence between technique, practice, and philosophy. I will then look at how I have come to the idea of ‘submission’ as a productive alternative, building on the work of Nishio and Endo amongst others along with my own experience in various schools of martial arts. It will then become necessary to consider how ‘submission’ as the starting point of martial arts can manifest a coherent technique, philosophy, and practice and in addition, to consider how counterarguments may be put or problems arise from within this model itself. Finally, throughout this process I hope to speculate on how this principle can engage a martial arts that is no longer an isolated or separate realm from the concerns of contemporary society. In many ways, the martial arts act as escapism, as a power fantasy for the disenchanted to find themselves through, or as an environment where friends can be made and cares forgotten, in some cases, a field specifically encouraging an esoteric detachment from wordly concerns, or a way for human beings to believe themselves somehow exterior to – or worse – superior to other human beings. If martial arts is concerned with a ‘way’, that is, a ‘way of living’ then it must engage with the entirety of the lives of its practitioners and cannot seclude itself within the hallowed halls of the dojo or end when you bow off the mat. Just as the warriors of the sword and staff once fell to the shame of irrelevance in the face of the musket and Gatling gun, martial arts in contemporary society is itself, becoming irrelevant in the face of the more sensational and more dynamic combat sports like MMA (Mixed-Martial-Arts), yet even MMA is hardly a cultural phenomenon, barely touching the lives of massive proportions of society and dwarfed by the more well-developed sports industries. If the age of the warrior died with the birth of the gun, martial artistry has been slowly withering and receding from worldwide life ever since (aside from sporadic revitalisations in line with phenomenal personalities like Bruce Lee, The Karate Kid, and the more recent Ip Man movies which sparked a brief yet passionate renaissance for Chinese arts like Wing Chun). Martial arts needs to adapt itself too to the contemporary imagination and contemporary life. In order to avoid falling to irrelevance it requires a paradigm shift. I am not suggesting that my efforts here will define that shift, but I hope that they can perhaps offer something which may stimulate, if only through their refutation, the building of something new within this most dignified of traditions.






Attitude; Known Aliases: Form, Style, Spirit, Intent, Artistry, Reality

In the 2010 film The New Karate Kid, Jackie Chan takes on the spiritual role of Mr. Miyagi as he trains the young Jayden Smith in the martial arts. Mysterious, reserved, terse, in some ways even ascetic, and deliberately unhelpful, Jackie puts his student through a dogged and unrepentantly eccentric training regime. After a long period of lessons which involve Jayden doing nothing but taking off, dropping, hanging up, taking down, and putting back on his jacket, the young student is at the point of despair. Having taken up the study of Kung Fu in order to overcome his fears and protect himself from a gang of school bullies led by an especially belligerent martial artist (Zhenwei Wang), Jayden is looking for an art he can use in real combat, a fighting system that will teach him how to fight back against his enemies. Jayden makes to leave Jackie’s tutelage, disillusioned and frustrated, but Jackie stops him. In the sequence that follows, Jackie (in a somewhat contrived manner) demonstrates to Jayden how the movements he has been learning are actually the heart of his martial arts. He tells Jayden that “Kung Fu lives in everything we do; in how we put on a jacket, how we take off a jacket, and how we treat people”. It is no coincidence that earlier in his training, Jackie informs Jayden that “there’s something missing… Attitude”.

* * *

It is common for one of our teaching staff at Exeter Aikido to remind students who are struggling or labouring hard with their technique that “you’re forgetting to smile”. I remember during my earlier days at the club furiously resisting the desire to smile whenever this happened. I had my pride and such a suggestion undermined my dignity and was embarrassing besides. Anyway, martial arts was serious business, to be treated with respect and imperious stiff-upper-lipped-ness at all times. To smile on the mat would practically be a disgrace to the very essence of martial arts. Around the mat I went, from partner to partner, stony eyed and resolute, refusing to learn Aikido every step of the way.

* * *

In the Karate class I was part of in my younger days, we were informed every day we went to class that ‘spirit’ was the most important part of training. Indeed, the dojo kun of Karate emphasises this, ostensibly with every verse (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dojo_kun)! Most of the kids failed to understand really what this meant, and most of the adults were trying their best to regulate the (their own) kids. The essence of this particularity of our school, I fear, passed over more or less everyone’s heads. I, for one, was convinced that it meant bowing sharply, holding low and rigid stances, loud kiai, and exerting complete effort into every movement of every kata as if I were fighting my most hated enemies. I scowled my way through many a class believing this to be most ardent truth, secretly looking down on anyone who didn’t uphold these sacred standards of martial arts conduct.

* * *

Mr. Peter Brown, headmaster of Kyushinkan Aikido dojo, is known in the UKA (United Kingdom Aikikai) for his particularly dynamic and powerful movements which he has inherited from the illustrious teaching heritage of the late masters Kazuo Chiba and Bill Smith. These days, he can be found preparing for his hip operation by training with such esteemed teachers as Christian Tissier of France and Toshiharu Sawada of Nagoya (and I wish him the best of luck with the op!). I recall once he told a story while teaching uchi-kaiten-nage. He said that during a class with Chiba long ago, Chiba had stopped the class to point out a mistake his students were making. He said words to the effect of: “don’t take tiny mincing steps like you’re geisha! Aikido is a martial art, complete your movements in a single stride!”. Sensei Brown to this day opens uchi-kaiten-nage with a single, rapid, spiralling turn which has enormous torque and a deep long entrance (which is very difficult to take sincere non-preemptive ukemi for, I’ll add!). Like Jackie Chan, Sensei Brown sometimes also tells his students that what they are missing is Attitude, though not in such uncertain and damning terms as his late master Chiba…

* * *

In contemporary martial arts schools which teach mixed styles of martial arts, self defence classes and fitness and function just as much as gyms as dojo, it is common to see posters and banners bearing training mantra and slogans lining the walls and ceilings. I have known students of such schools to push themselves exceptionally hard and as a result become extraordinarily physically fit and intimidating as well as technically skilled. I have also known such practitioners to have uncommon dedication and commitment to their schools, the long hours single mindedly sweating and drilling and grinding forging a viciously strong bond between the student and their parent organisation. Here is a striking example of how attitude has a vast transformative power to the martial artist (and to anyone else for that matter, but we’ll stick to martial artists here). Particularly in this type of martial arts school (and I am making sweeping generalisations here which are by no means absolutely true and should not be taken as such) students don’t start out as the hardcore aficionados or the idealists seeking a legendary master who may be more common in “traditional” martial arts schools or schools which teach a single style. Students here tend to be the type who had only a passing (sometimes literally, “I was passing by”) interest in martial arts itself and became dedicated later.This is due entirely to the depth of the spirit that such schools as these are able to foster. By not being invested in a single martial art or beholden to the trappings and traditions of an older ‘classical’ system, such schools are able to attract a wide audience and give them a relatively recognisable ground from which to start their training. The ‘blood, sweat and tears’ ethos which resembles the regimes of sportspeople, professional trainers and even relatively casual gym-goers works well here to transform the layperson into a capable martial artist through the sheer diligence and grit of hard work. That’s the actualisation of spirit; straightforward, direct, what could be simpler? It really is a matter of ‘those who believe shall receive’.

* * *

There is another thing that our aforementioned Exeter teacher who advises us to smile does: he poses. What I mean by this is that he will go to great lengths (sometimes purposefully exaggerating to the point of slightly absurd) to emphasize the posture your body should take during a technique and he will happily demonstrate these postures repeatedly for you should you so request it. Throughout this process, he will also crack jokes, make puns, and smile, chuckle, and on the whole be extremely expressive. Despite (or perhaps because of) this seemingly lighthearted and relaxed approach, his Aikido is precise and keen and his posture is exceedingly stable yet fluid and flexible. On (eventually) learning to loosen up in class, I found that my body did just that; it loosened up. My shoulders stopped aching, my stance became less wooden and stick-in-the-mud clumsy, and I started feeling my own centre, as if all the knotted fury in my muscles from before had prevented me from actually connecting my limbs together through my centre of gravity. Approaching training openly lets my body be open, which is the very technical and philosophical point of Aikido. Smiling and enjoying training lets my body relax, which, as anyone in Aikido knows, is a touchstone to learning Aikido at all. Being free and expressive makes our aforementioned teacher’s Aikido equally free and expressive. Attitude is the form you take. Very directly, the emotional load you bring transforms into the movements you make. Style is substantial, intention begets actualisation. Just as any seasoned sportsperson will tell you that confidence can make or break a match and that the elusive groove of “good form” will come and go as unpredictably as your own mood, so it is here that the very thing that makes a martial artist’s work ‘art’ at all is the style with which they perform it. It is common for schools of martial arts to tell students that ‘martial arts is not about being stylish, it’s about technique’ and they are right in the sense that a Bruce Lee flying kick to the head looks great on screen but isn’t exactly what we should be training all the time. However, style and the aesthetics of martial arts isn’t something that can be discarded so easily; ‘being stylish’ isn’t secondary to technique – it is technique.

* * *

There is an (in)famous demonstration (which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqOlHLp0TcA) in the Yoshinkan school of Aikido. The story behind it goes (and I have not been able to verify this, but such as my sources are, I believe it is largely reliable with some embellishment) that during the 2008 All Japan Yoshinkan demo, the new head of house set his demonstration to music. Whether he believed that this was a better way to encourage interest in the art for new students or a better marketing ploy for the sponsors attending the event is unknown. What is believed is that Takeno-sensei, who had been very close to the former head of Yoshinkan, the late Gozo Shioda, did not like this. Feeling that this particular style of demonstration was a disservice to the martiality of Yoshinkan Aikido and displayed a weak, populist, and undignified attitude towards the art in general, he proceeded to a roughly 3 minute demonstration in which he repeatedly smashed his uke into the ground on the back of their heads and necks. The uke were (thankfully) very skilled and sincere and as such, able to take the punishment without any serious injuries. There are obvious occasions, nonetheless where they appear visibly and quite badly hurt. Their ukemi becomes rapidly slow and wooden within just two or three techniques, you can see their knees shaking and them panting for breath and struggling to return to their feet. I expect Takeno was unrepentant about this; not because he doesn’t care for his uke, but because what he wished to communicate about Yoshinkan Aikido was absolutely clear from this demonstration. With unwavering conviction he made his intent known. There was no need to voice his disapproval of the new head’s demo, it was completely evident from the precise and pitiless fury etched into Takeno’s form that day what he thought of setting Aikido to music.

* * *

In an old Aikido Journal issue there is an article by William Gleason (now 7th dan) on his time training with the late great Seigo Yamaguchi-sensei. In this article he describes how, ‘Sometimes he [Yamaguchi] would throw Takeda Sensei very hard and then walk away as if to say, ” No big deal after all.” This was difficult to accept for someone who was already known as a high level teacher, yet later Takeda Sensei would say, “Yamaguchi Sensei is a man of great spiritual fortitude.”’
(Full article here: http://blog.aikidojournal.com/2012/05/16/my-experience-with-seigo-yamaguchi-sensei-by-william-gleason/).
I cannot pretend to be anywhere near as accomplished as Takeda-sensei, but I am familiar with the stinging pain and humbling feeling of being thrown hard out of my own technique. I do most certainly feel like ‘no big deal’.

* * *

The late Kazuo Chiba-sensei is often talked about in tones of fear and awe. Indeed, the picture that Peter Brown-sensei paints of Chiba is a man of iron-hard commitment and resolve, utterly devoted to the cultivation of Aikido. The book The Swordmaster’s Apprentice by Edward Burke details further how studying with Chiba meant being prepared to take ukemi which involved regularly being punched in the face for mistakes, having your hands and wrists and forearms continually stinging from bokken and jo strikes, and living in an atmosphere of constant alertness to Chiba’s irascible temperament. Burke tells how, through forging in such a hot fire, he felt his body develop not only an entirely new style of Aikido, but also his alertness, emotional sensitivity and philosophical outlook change. Indeed, the subtitle to the book (‘Or how a Broken Nose, a Shaman, and a Little Light Dusting May Point the Way to Enlightenment’) suggests that Burke felt that the extremes of his uchi-deshi (in-house-student) experience, under the constant pressure of examination by Chiba, led him to significant lifestyle changes. His astonishment and perhaps even wonder is obvious then, when he records Chiba later in the book saying ‘I am not usually angry, I just pretend to be’.

* * *

Seishiro Endo-sensei, when asked about his Aikido and freedom, said words to the effect of: ‘There is no freedom just like that. When we think of freedom usually as “being free of” something, but that is not freedom at all. Only within form, within working through, testing and refining ourselves and eventually, after a long time, mastering form, only then do we become free:- that is keiko (training)’. In this way, all martial arts is self expression. What I mean by this is that the idea of mastering the form is not subservience to it and simple meticulous operation of it. To begin with, a rich and deep understanding of the form does not mean a robotic recitation of prescribed movements, it means a fusion of the form and your own body. When Endo says mastering form he doesn’t mean becoming encyclopaedic; he means becoming creative, that is: having the technical ability to string the units of basic forms together to create art. Like a musician, performance is more than simply knowing how to play the instrument. Like a chess player, the game isn’t about know how each piece moves. Like a poet, beautiful writing isn’t to do with knowing just what words mean and how a sonnet’s rhyming structure exists. All these art forms are creative because the artist is expressing themselves through the form, but only having mastered the form can such expression occur. This is why I have said that Attitude is your form, that style, intention and ‘spirit’ are indeed the really real heart of martial arts. Even the most basic novice can tell that training angrily makes their movements different to training happily or sadly or apathetically, lazily, or intensely or flamboyantly. Though they may interpret this as emotion ‘getting in the way’ of technique, it really is the case that the technique is simply expressing the artist’s feeling – just not in the way she wants it to. This is why masters like Chiba, Yamaguchi, and Takeno have all been known to have vicious and terrifying moments where their Aikido expresses an awesomely sharp anger, yet at the same time have also known to be extraordinarily genial and pleasant, both on and off the mat. Particularly Yamaguchi’s Aikido was revered as wonderfully light to the touch and subtle, a trait inherited by Endo, who perhaps epitomises the idea of feeling-as-form and form-as-freedom. What is Endo’s Aikido without the mild and almost self-deprecating smile he cracks now and then? What is, for example, Christian Tissier’s Aikido without the neat and crisp panache with which he delivers his teaching? Gozo Shioda was known to devastate uke as badly as Takeno but with a rough and rogueish grin. Even the humourless downturned corners of Steven Seagal’s beard are reflective of his martial arts. As Jackie Chan rightly puts it, Martial Arts does live in everything we do, but the reverse is equal too:- everything else we do also makes our martial arts. Attitude is not simply the idea that you come to training honest, sincere, focused, and committed, it is the very thing that changes martial arts from the dogged recitation of movements to something creative and artistic at all. Without form, there is no freedom, without style, there is no substance.

This one has been rather long, but also has been brewing for some time. I hope I have not made it difficult for my readers in this instance! Thankyou very much for reading and all feedback is welcome.
My thanks to: Exeter Aikido,
Kyushinkan dojo,
Exeter University Jujutsu




When my teacher at Exeter Aikido sent me a message one evening telling me I should come to training the next day because I was due for grading, I assumed he meant that he meant I would be grading in the near future and the session would be an important preparatory class. I recall a slight sense of unreality coming over me when our headteacher came to class and it became clear that I was the only person on the mat who wasn’t teaching staff. He asked me what I’d like to warm up with and I said I’d like to do some Jo disarming techniques since I’m quite poor at these in general (the change in the distance and timing with the damn thing is perplexing!). Also, since there aren’t any Jo-disarming techniques (usually) included in our grading syllabus, the fact that we continued doing them for roughly half an hour left me in a slightly relieved limbo – “oh, well maybe I’m not grading and it’s just a coincidence that so few have turned up to class today”. Then we all lined up and bowed in for my grading. The first technique was suwariwaza Ikkyo. My uke came at me so fast and strongly on the first shot that he almost had me in Ikkyo myself before I could correct my balance. It did not really start well…

Today I am writing about testing. When I was young (let’s say seven or eight, since I can kinda remember which school I was in when I thought this, but not what age I was) I developed the notion that the point of exams was to test a student’s use of the abilities they learnt in class in situations which came as random applications of those principles. Basically I thought that a maths exam was testing if you could use maths if asked on the spot without any prior warning. I also used this as a justification for doing no revision or preparation whatsoever. If I prepared for the exam that would spoil the whole point of it, so my young self told everyone who tried to make him study. Of course, now I am aware that most forms of standardised testing and examination are for the purposes of quantifying human beings into useful numerical scales of productivity, or collecting marks of approval in order to progress in a more or less (depending on how cynical you are) machinic society which runs on tick-box multi-choice logic. Testing in such an arena is so thoroughly standardised that from GCSE to university degree, that there is almost no point at which a student is advised to learn something interesting for its own sake as opposed to for some future goal, which reduces learning for the entire duration to little more than drilling, with an almost military efficiency, the things which make up the test which will be at the end. This is not to say that there aren’t people who learn things which fascinate them beyond a syllabus, or teachers who may, as individuals, inspire students to seek beyond just passing the next grade, but at no point does education as an institution (in my experience) encourage this. It therefore becomes the case that testing itself is never so much a matter of being exposed to something which might be unexpected, random, threatening, or indeed, truly testing, as a matter of seeing with how much diligence a student has prepared for something they knew was inevitable. Especially with, for example, five or so years’ worth of past paper questions available online for not only your own exam board but all the various boards in the country, it really does become a matter of how much time you were willing to invest in cramming down your information. At the end of the process, if a student has failed, it’s not because they were tested and didn’t overcome the challenge, but because they chose not to prepare adequately for the test in the first place (or worse, were left unprepared by poor teaching). A pass is business as usual. This is how the logic of examination currently operates, at least as far as I have seen it.

What my young self believed a test was, and indeed believed it should be is nowhere to be seen in this formulation. As David Hayter huskily intones in MGS4: “when the battlefield is under total control, war becomes routine”. Thus when the entire institution of education and examination becomes an enormous controlled environment, it is not the case that passing or failing (from the point of view of the institution) is something to be celebrated or mourned, but simply part of the plan. The grade needs a 40th percentile to separate students who pass from students who fail after all, no matter the circumstances. And even worse, the more money a student pays, the less they expect to be able to fail at all. Thus at university level it becomes expected from the start that teachers should prepare students to pass their exams, which therefore test nothing at all, except the compatibility of the test itself with the materials given to prepare with beforehand. When a student is expecting to be taught how to pass an examination she knows is coming, then there’s nothing to examine except the paradox that teaching spends all its time telling you, as closely as possible, exactly how you will be tested, what you will be tested on, and how to produce the correct answers, yet still calls this a test.

This is not to say that tests aren’t hard for individuals, however. Indeed, this institution, to my mind makes the environment of examination more traumatic, despite being less of a test. For in the case that education and examination are a fully controlled and standardised environment, failure is more heavily punished than success is ever rewarded. The successful simply move on to take the next test. Those who fail, or achieve less according to the systems of examination in place, are excluded from certain pathways forever (see medical schools no longer taking A-level retake results for university courses for example). As such, the examination battlefield becomes a desperate scramble for the individual to learn how most efficiently to produce tick after tick after tick on their paper, hence the immense pressure placed on teachers by students to not so much teach, but produce a passing grade at the end of the class. In short, the student is driven by fear of failure and being left behind, not by any desire to learn or accrue knowledge at all (though I reiterate that there may be many individuals who do very much love learning, this is not what the institution of education itself encourages).

Hence, when in martial arts I hear anyone at all say anything about “training for the next belt” I just kinda want to slap them. Noone in a martial arts class (or anywhere else for that matter) should be “training for the next belt”. A different dye in the cotton and nylon you tie around your waist is not a mark of martial skill. Martial skill is a mark of martial skill, and truly martial situations only arise when the student is tested beyond their limits. Yes, martial arts is for everyone, and anyone at all should be able to learn to become an excellent martial artist, but that does not mean that they should have a long list of techniques, forms, and movements they can read out and do in a controlled environment. It means that under threat of attack to themselves or someone else, in a situation which arises unexpectedly and suddenly, and which may threaten their life, the martial artist should be able to apply the skills and principles they have learnt. That is what it means to be tested. We do not train looking only as far ahead as the syllabus dictates. We train, and learn, firstly because we love what we’re learning, and secondly so that when the completely unanticipated does happen, our skills will not fail us. Gradings which are recitations of movements which the student has rehearsed vigorously and systematically for are not wholly a bad thing by any means. They are extremely good ways of levelling up beginners and instilling basic coordination and movement necessary to begin martial arts. They’re also extremely fun in the right mindset. But they are not tests in the sense I have been using the word here.

When, after the surprise grading I was given by my Aikido teachers, our headteacher told me “you struggled, but it is meant to be a test”, I felt something resonate very strongly in me with what I have been talking about here. Our headteacher, in gradings, is known to ask for a syllabus technique (“katatedori iriminage”) and then immediately after you’ve attempted it say something like “no, the other katatedori iriminage”. This can continue until you have performed all the katatedori iriminage you know, after which he may happily pick an uke, demonstrate a variation you’ve never seen before, and say “that one”. Then expect you to pull it off at full speed with a committed attack. Our gradings also include a section where the student is free to demonstrate 8 techniques of their own choosing. In this particular grading, I am certain I ended up performing at least sixteen, though honestly I lost count pretty soon after 8, which, I think is quite understandable given that I still had dan-grade uke attacking me while I had to come up with something new. I more or less had to mind-blank and hope my body could do the rest on its own. All this may seem quite unfair, in fact, it may seem like it’s impossible to pass such a grading. That all depends on what you consider a fair test, however. If, as discussed above, a “fair” test is one which is under a controlled environment, which the student is thoroughly prepared for, and which they believe, by all rights, they should pass, then of course, this is a thoroughly unfair test. If, however, it is your stance that a test should be something which really tests the student’s ability to apply their skills, then this is exactly what a test should be. A pass isn’t that you perform everything flawlessly (though of course if you did under such conditions, you probably would pass). A pass is that the student, under extreme pressure doesn’t buckle, and is able to demonstrate that the principles of what they’ve learnt are deep rooted and can be relied upon. Even if the grading ends up a messy, unrehearsed, and ad hoc application of whatever can be patched together at the time, that is exactly the point. I could watch all Japan champions perform Karate kata all day and find it beautiful and admire the diligence of their preparation. But in training, I’d rather encounter something every day which makes me question my technique and my ability, which makes me work on something different and new, which is more than one step closer to a new certificate, but instead makes me feel like a drop in the ocean of something much more vast I have to figure out.

Once again, this is not to say that standardised testing is unilaterally wrong. In schools and in martial arts, and everywhere else, it has a place. Systematised learning is an excellent way of developing basic skills with a great deal of efficiency (hence the renown of the heavily structured Yoshinkan Aikido, for example). And of course, you can’t expect every single class to be the radically unanticipated situations which really push the student, since if that were so it’d be awfully hard to learn anything at all. Standardised testing is also an excellent way of measuring students against other students, if, as a teaching institution, you wish to know where best to deliver your attention and which students are just fine learning for themselves. However, the lazy bureaucracy of controlled testing structures should never, to my mind, become the focus of training or learning in general. I think there is much more for human beings to do with themselves when learning than spend their lives aspiring towards the next meaningless accolade. It is in the character of being tested and testing oneself to push beyond the limits of what is expected and planned that this potential can be accessed.


To anyone who has read me before, thankyou for reading again. Sorry for the long silence. I was, contrary to what the above might suggest, thoroughly enjoying my own higher education and martial arts training (though not without difficulty). In any case, I hope you have enjoyed reading. All feedback is welcome and thanks again!

My thanks to Exeter Aikido : http://www.exeteraikido.co.uk/ https://www.facebook.com/exeteraikido?fref=ts
Exeter University Jujutsu: https://www.facebook.com/groups/196427517092370/

Also, here’s a lovely video from Exeter Aikido:

Atemi – 当て身

The blog has been flatlining. My bad. Basically, Masters level research requires more time than I had anticipated, and I still don’t know if the reports I submitted will be marked favourably by my tutors or not. Well, I enjoyed writing them and learnt much from the exercise so that’s a good thing but the blog has been suffering in the meantime, so here I am to write a bit more, this time about the word “Atemi” which is used often in Aikido to refer to a strike.

The reason I include the kanji is to try to tease out more the nuance of the term, if indeed that is at all possible in translation. My own Japanese is very limited and though I have a friend to consult with who I consider to be practically fluent, there may be numerous errors in my translation (and I may even intentionally bastardise translation in order to make more novel interpretations of the term) so please bear with me on that count.

So “Atemi” or 当て身. The first kanji comes from “ataru” 当たる which is most commonly used “to strike”. Simple enough. But further to this, it is my understanding that this particular term can also be translated as “to be struck”. It could be argued that this is a simple alteration in context, that the meanings shift to the appropriate register as necessary, but I do not wish to follow this line of thought. Instead I would like to probe what happens in meaning when the two meanings are conflated. If 当たる is both to strike and be struck simultaneously, what interpretations of 当て身 can that lead to?

One interpretation could be that to strike is at the same time to be struck, that an intent to inflict injury is to cause the self harm. It’s not too much of a stretch to see how this might apply to the idea that Aikido philosophically is about non-conflict and non-resistance. But I feel that the rhetoric of martial arts as self-improvement rather than desire to harm is a somewhat hackneyed and ultimately uninteresting approach, given that it appears in multiplicity across many different (some would argue all) martial arts, hence I will not pursue that angle any further either.

What I am more interested in is how the idea that to strike is itself to be struck tends towards an aesthetic of equilibrium, of equivalence. If each strike produces in its very own being a return strike which cancels out the original then what is the final result of 当たる? It is not, in this case, to demonstrate the futility of striking in the first place, as that tends back towards the aforementioned rhetoric of non-conflict, but to illustrate the very corporeal sensation of striking and of making contact. The return strike I characterise not as a retaliation but as feedback, the physical feedback one receives during an impact. Those involved in contact-based martial arts should be familiar with the sensation I describe, that of the weight of one’s own strike rebounding, the weight of the struck body impacting on my striking limb. When I hit my partner, my opponent, my punching bag, the weight, shape, size, balance, centre of gravity, texture, hardness, in short, the whole physicality of that target strikes back. My target’s physicality is registered through my body as I strike it, that is how I mean to interpret “ataru” 当たる as both striking and being struck. It is through this reading that another meaning of the term can be expressed: ataru – to be in contact.

When I strike and receive physical feedback from my target which relays to me the entirety of that target’s physicality, that description only remains so long as I maintain a link with the target, so long as I can continue receiving the haptic signals from their body. This requires contact, hence 当たる is not just a moment of striking, but a moment in which a striker and a struck body are connected, are put into contact, at which point it is irrelevant who struck whom. Each body receives a physical, haptic feedback from the other and in the sense of striking each other, become both striker and struck at the same time. The two are brought to an equivalence, they are put in contact with one another.

This may sound especially resonant to those familiar with the vast swathe of Aikido talk out there. Indeed, “contact” is a very common term in Aikido, but the nuance I am trying to bring to it here is that it is not simply a matter of physical touch, but a state in which the two bodies in contact are open and responsive to one another, a state in which the two bodies are able to be receptive to each others’ balance, movement, tension, position, etc. It is a state which Endo Seishiro might describe as “atari” 当たり, which here I choose to interpret in the sense in which it is used in fishing: a successful bite. That is, the bodies are connected inseparably like a fish on a line. There is a tension, a balance of forces between the two which must be constant and responsive like the craft of a fisherman reeling in his catch. In short, there must be “Aiki”, a non-resistive play of forces which together make up 当たる as contact.

But this is only half of the equation. The second part of “Atemi” 当て身, “mi” 身 we have not yet looked at. 身 is simply translated as “body”. In that sense “Atemi” becomes “a strike on the body” or “contact with the body”. This is quite a fruitful interpretation given that it is in line with our reading of “ataru”. In addition, this way of characterising the term also includes the idea of “Atemi” as a potentially lethal strike, such that if the term were used imaginatively to refer to an armoured foe, a strike directly on their unprotected flesh would qualify as one of precise, focused, violent intent. However, I consider this reading a somewhat bastardised one, which is not to say that it is invalid, but only that it somewhat skirts a nuance of 身 as I understand it.

Here I must credit my Japanese-speaking friend who informs me that the nuance of 身 is such that it refers not so much necessarily to a physical body as “the self”. Once again pursuing the reading strategy of conflating the two meanings, I thus understand 身 as the fully embodied “self”, the entirety of a corporeal identity.

I find that this nuance much better suits the interpretation of “Atemi” I am gesturing towards. For “Atemi” to my mind should be a strike which contains damaging and sometimes lethal potential but most importantly should affect the entirety of your partner’s body and intent, either through pain or reflexive response to the strike itself. This kind of strike serves as an opening motion to creating contact, which is the most important point to be developed and the very heart of Atemi.

So anyway, that’s one of my ways of interpreting Atemi and one which I find most useful in applying strikes of that sort. Please forgive me the bastard translation, though one could argue that there is no translation which is not in some form bastardisation, that’s another discussion entirely.

Thanks for reading!

More Than One Aikido

From what I have written before, it might seem like I have always learnt and pursued one Aikido, and to an extent this is true, but it is also true that I have studied at more than one school. While Exeter Aikido is where I spend most of the year as a student, I am also a seasonal visitor to the Kyushinkan Aikido dojo in Leicester. The only reason I have not written about them previously is because I did not have permission, but now that I do have permission, I have a chance to write about both Aikido schools I’ve studied under, so that’s what I’m going to do today.

But first, something that’s common to all Aikido, indeed to all martial arts, in my opinion. I believe that in the purely technical aspect, all Aikido is for killing. If this were not the case, I do not think Aikido could call itself a martial art in the first place. This most likely sounds somewhat odd given Aikido’s association with peace and harmony, being called the gentle martial art, and Aikido’s highest aim of neutralising any attack without harming the attacker.

So why do I believe this? There are plenty of reasons, but I’ll start with another name for Aikido, one favoured by the late great Nishio Shihan. Nishio called Aikido the Forgiving martial art (or Yurusu Budo which I do not know the kanji for) which, to my mind has a slightly different nuance to “the gentle martial art”. Why does Nishio use the term forgiving instead of gentle? To forgive is usually used to just mean “to let something slide” or “to let something go”, that kind of thing, but what does it really mean? To forgive is to withhold punishment which could be exacted otherwise. It is to give permission for a wrongdoer to continue existing when the forgiver could, and in some interpretations simply has the right to erase/destroy that existence. If you’re talking in terms of divinity and God(s), forgiveness is usually meant to suggest, the deity in question spares the life or soul of one who has sinned or broken their covenants when the deity in question has the absolute right to punish that wrongdoing. That is forgiveness; to hold the absolute power and right to destroy yet choose not to use it.

Therefore, it is my understanding that Nishio’s nuance in calling Aikido “forgiving” was to insert this meaning into the technique and philosophy of Aikido. That is, at the highest level the Aikidoka should at any time and at will absolutely be able to end the life of their attacker and furthermore, the Aikidoka should always choose not to do so. This is why I said that the purely technical aspect of Aikido is for killing. All techniques should have the character of creating an exploitable opening which can result in the uke’s immediate death. The moral aspect of Aikido is such that training partners elect not to murder each other on the mat, and human beings choose not to murder each other if they happen to be in a situation where combat is unavoidable.

To look at it another way, the highest point of Aikido is to be able to choose to neutralise your attacker while doing no harm to them and allowing no harm to come to yourself. If you can’t both kill, maim and harmlessly neutralise then it’s not a choice. If your only capability is to neutralise then very well, you may subdue attackers forever, but there’s no reason for their attacks to ever cease, since they know they’ll be fine no matter what they do. The threat of grave injury or death should always hang over the neutralised, they should feel it, that they’ve survived by the choice of the martial artist alone, and that that privilege could be revoked on a whim. That’s what Aikido at the highest level is, to my mind.

As a side note, I believe that this is also the highest level of all martial arts. Since, if a martial art is a system of movement which teaches the student principles which allows them to defend themselves against any possible attack (within reason, no unarmed person can reasonably defend themselves from a grenade in their pocket, or an unmanned drone missile, or a knife in the back from someone they simply don’t see or hear or smell coming), then a martial art should therefore familiarise the student with every possible method of killing as well as every method of defending. Only once the student has mastered all of the above will their martial arts be complete, hence, at the highest level all martial arts should aspire to this form, where life and death is a matter of moral choice and a technical given. I feel that those methods of attack and defence just happen to boil down to just one or two movements and principles which expose the body to injury and disrupt its balance which can and should be found in the basics of all martial arts, and attack and defence at that point don’t really distinguish themselves from each other. But that’s kindof by the by.

So if this is the highest level of all martial arts, why are all methods not the same? Well, I would say it’s like telling someone who knows no geography, who doesn’t know even the shape of the planet, and who has never seen a map, to go to the imperial palace in Tokyo. Even if you’ve heard “Tokyo” is the destination, you’ve no idea what or where that is or what direction to travel in to get there. So you ask around. You ask someone in London and they might say, “take a direct flight from Heathrow airport”. Ask someone in Roppongi or Akihabara and they’ll tell you to get a taxi or hop on the train or something. If the person you asked in Roppongi told you to take a flight from Heathrow, it’d be an absurd suggestion. So the student has to figure out where they are and not everyone starts standing in the same place, even if the destination that everyone’s looking for is the same. There are lots of different routes, some intersect (if you’re going to Tokyo from Osaka, you’ll probably end up going part of the way with people also from Kyoto and Nagoya) and some never do (a plane flying to Tokyo from Hong Kong has no reason to ever fly the same route as one from Washington D. C.). So each martial art is like that. A different route is all. Some suit different people based on where they were standing to start with. Finding a teacher is like finding a map or a signpost to where you’re going. It might even be like finding someone who’s willing to accompany you the whole way if you’re lucky.

And now I can go back to Aikido, and specifically my two schools, Exeter and Kyushinkan, which are, as I described above, two different routes. I would describe Exeter Aikido as fully Omote Aikido, and Kyushinkan as fully Ura Aikido. Omote and Ura aren’t really well understood terms even within the martial arts as I see it and they tend to be more just a naming convention. But generally in Aikido, Ura techniques involve a spin or a rotation and Omote techniques are direct and “to the point”. In this context I’ll characterise Omote techniques in Aikido as “filling space” and Ura techniques as “giving space” (though that doesn’t necessarily reflect how the terms are used in Japanese or in any school, it’s just how I’m using them here.) Therefore, I feel that Exeter’s Aikido is most characterised by the entering movement as tori (the executor of the technique) moves forward to fill the uke’s (the receiver) space and unbalance them. Kyushinkan, on the other hand, is most characterised by the offer, that is the free space which tori invites the uke to attack, the perceived opening which leads the uke’s movement and the tori can then exploit to produce imbalance. An Omote technique is like running a steamroller over the tube of toothpaste. The toothpaste slowly gets completely squeezed out of the tube because it has nowhere else to go. An Ura technique is like putting a vacuum pump on the end of the same tube of toothpaste. The toothpaste gets sucked out because there is a vacuum, an empty space, and it rushes to fill that space. That’s the idea I’m pushing at.

So in Exeter the tori is always moving, always searching for gaps in the uke’s balance, a weakness to exploit, a pivot point around which uke’s centre can be disrupted and uprooted. Of course, ideally, that unbalancing movement is completed in a single step, all of uke’s balance is completely taken and the technique is complete. This is similar to Bruce Lee’s “be like water” where the rushing flow of liquid fills up all the fissures and crevices in a rock face and can eventually split it open. It’s that kind of feeling. Generally, taking ukemi there feels like a constantly mounting pressure as I have less and less space to move, less and less space to attack, and eventually my own impetus to attack means I cannot take any course but to fall or flip or break. The technique leaves no other space for me as uke to move into. It’s a bit like being cut in half, a feeling which one of our highest ranked ladies often invokes, the balance of my body going one way, my supporting limbs going the other way.

On the other hand, at Kyushinkan tori often begins in stillness. With a katate-dori (wrist grasping) technique the offer doesn’t differ much from at Exeter in that it must be clear and produce a reaction in uke. But something like shomen-uchi (front strike) attack is a bit different, in that where in Exeter, tori might immediately enter to unbalance uke, at Kyushinkan tori once again waits and offers. That is, tori offers their face to be hit by uke, and presents uke with the opportunity to come into tori’s space. the Kyushinkan headteacher is particularly good at this. He bobs his head forward in a way which is immensely inviting and makes wanting to hit him almost irresistible (which may not be a good thing in every situation but in this contexts is great). Of course by the time I’ve attempted to strike him he’s already moved and I have to chase him which leads me to another vacuum and so on. As uke it feels like not so much orbiting something or being sucked towards something as spontaneously faceplanting the floor. I did in fact, take ukemi on my face from ikkyo the other week. Mat-burn isn’t so pleasant on the cheeks, let me say that. It’s that kind of accidental “oops” and splat, which is a bit different to the Exeter feeling which is more like starting a sentence and immediately being cut off. You get time to say “I-” and then it’s tori’s turn to speak and they don’t stop til you hit the ground. At Kyushinkan the sentence runs faster than you can say it. You think you’re leading the conversation but really, tori has the hymn sheet and the conductor’s stick. The more you try to out-talk them the quicker you play into their hands. That’s probably why I hit the ground so fast, it’s cuz I go in fast.

At the end of course, they’re both two sides of the same coin and they both become what I call “binary Aikido”, which feels neither Omote nor Ura to uke in the end. It just feels ‘on’ or ‘off’ hence ‘binary’. I haven’t felt this that often from techniques, and I don’t think I’ve ever done it, but it is quite eerie when it does happen. You get that cold sweat that’s mainly fear and bewilderment, and you get pain. The cold sweat comes in the “off” step where you don’t get any response from tori, which is bewildering since you were certain you hit something, or should have hit something, and initially terrifying because it’s like stepping into thin air when you were sure there was another step on the staircase. The pain comes in the “on” step, because your body has no time to prepare for the technique engaging. There’s no tell, no wind up, no cocking or chambering step and no signal or telegraph to respond to. It just happens. The degree of pain is all down to tori’s choice and in truth, there might be no pain at all. But usually you run into an atemi (strike) or are thrown so abruptly you hit the ground without having time to process how you got there or, with locking techniques, you just experience a very sharp compulsion to drop to your knees and tap out (or flip should the lock call for it). Actually, it’s very exciting to experience too, it’s not just terrifying and painful. It’s like finally realising where exactly Tokyo is in relation to where you were standing (to bear out the directional metaphor). In simpler terms, it’s like going to a concert and being inspired to take up an instrument. Suddenly you know what you’re aiming for and you want to be able to do that, to do better than that, to be the person who other people aim at. That’s the kind of feeling you get from a really perfect technique too. At least on the safety of the training mat. If it’s elsewhere well, you might be dead.

So there’s some stuff about Aikido and whatnot. This week happens to be the UKA summer school, which I’m not attending this year, so all the Kyushinkan guys have gone off to train there so there’s no training for me. I went last year and the year before but I won’t talk about that now. Another time perhaps :D.

Anyway cheers for reading. My thanks to Exeter Aikido (https://www.facebook.com/exeteraikido) and Kyushinkan dojo (http://www.kyushinkan.com/) for giving me permission to write about them.



Guts, Konjo, Spirit

The idea of ‘fighting spirit’ is common to much more than martial arts. In most sports there’s an idea of ‘grit’ or perseverance. I’ve heard it said that military basic training is designed to push the body and mind beyond its limits, to produce toughness and resolve. If you’ve seen the Simon Pegg movie Run Fat Boy, Run (or actually run marathons) then you are familiar with the idea that long distance runners hit what’s called “the wall” at some point, and must push through the physical and mental exhaustion with force of will. Aside from these more physical exercises, there are plenty of other disciplines which require a high degree of commitment, precision and dedication in order to become proficient. I reckon it’s just as rigorous an exercise to write a good novel as it is to complete any of the above mentioned challenges. So, because it’s a cool and wide ranging thing, I’ll write a little about having guts and resolve, or as those in Japanese martial arts might say Spirit or Konjo (which I believe translates more or less directly as “guts” in the “gutsy” sense [not the viscera sense, I think]).

At Exeter Aikido we have an exercise known as taninzu-dori or just ‘taninzu’ is what we usually refer to it as. I don’t know the kanji so I can’t actually tell you what it translates as, but the form is basically a multi-man attack with the catch that the tori, the one who is being attacked is limited in the techniques they can use. Or rather, they can use almost no techniques whatsoever and effectively cannot use their hands to parry, block, or halt the motion of an attacker. The point is that the Aikido practitioner has to learn to move amongst three, four, or five attackers who will increase the speed and ferocity of their attacks proportional to the practitioner’s ability. Once basic movement between attackers is ok, then the practitioner should begin to move to positions where he or she can use attackers to block each others’ lines of movement and from there continue to use attackers as shields against each other. Ideally, the Aikido practitioner can continue to move indefinitely without getting struck, but usually, if you can make it three or four (quite slow) attacks without getting hit, then you’re doing pretty well. When you get hit in the chest three or four times in a row (and usually because your attackers are choosing not to hit you in the face) then it gets immensely frustrating. The exercise refuses to allow the practitioner time to recuperate. After being hit, there is no “stop, wait, let me focus”. You are constantly under the cosh and if you can’t weather being hit without breaking your composure then you will be hit again, and again, and again. For the first year or so of trying this thing, taninzu just made me mad because I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t sense any improvement, and I couldn’t figure out what I was learning from it. Of course, what I was really learning from my leaden attempts to lunge out of the way of attacks and having fists plough into my ribs was Konjo and the kind of focus that comes with the resolve to continue moving no matter what. Quite honestly, despite knowing it was good for me, this lesson was an absolutely unpleasant experience.

To those who know me as a gamer, it is common knowledge that I am a fan of the videogame Dark Souls. If nothing else, this game is about guts and perseverance. Like taninzu-dori, the game is designed to deal unrelenting punishment to the player who makes mistakes. If the player refuses to learn the game mechanics through observing enemy movements and correcting mistakes, it is very likely that they will never complete the game. There were plenty of moments when I played through the game first time when I felt that I would never be able to beat a boss, clear an area, or escape a trap. If I may be somewhat melodramatic, I think I felt as close to despair as is possible in a videogame. The game demands and trains the player to persevere. Through the infuriating and indeed, sometimes tedious grind of running through a part of the game for hours on end, just to progress to a boss you cannot yet beat, with equipment which you do not know is adequate or not, the game teaches commitment, dedication, and discipline through the very simple method that if the player has none of these traits, they will never advance. Sure, it might be ‘just a game’, but that makes it no less trivial a pursuit if you intend to pursue it fully. And if you do, I think you learn just as much about mental strength as anywhere else.

In the dojo-kun or training-hall code of Shotokan Karate, there is a verse which reads “doryoku no seishin wo yashinau koto”, which I believe roughly translates as “to foster the spirit of hard work” [or sometimes the more fancy but perhaps a little less accurate; to foster the spirit of endeavour]. This part of the code captures one of the key tenets of karate practice as I knew it, and that is the ultimately dull practice of the same kata or forms over and over and over and over and over again. Certainly Karate as I experienced it was composed primarily of the repetition of movements without any instruction whatsoever except the count: ichi, ni, san, shi! It was left up to the practitioner to extract meaning, to extract learning from the movements, which is a stretch that perhaps does translate better as “endeavour”, rather than “hard work”. The value in this training style is that it forces the student to learn their own body through rigorously examining their movements by repetition before any of the techniques can be at all effective. In this way, Shotokan Karate teases out the spirit of Konjo through, of all things, boredom avoidance. It never forces you to persevere or push through with guts. You can happily just do the movements lazily, or if you’re bored, quit. But in order to gain from the training, however, the discipline that one must learn is the discipline to simply do terribly repetitive and at times esoteric to the point of inexplicable exercises which is certainly a good skill and a good piece of spirit to learn I think.

I used to play chess in school. I believe when I was fourteen or fifteen, I played one of my friends a lot. He and I were roughly even in terms of matches won and matches lost, but I think that overall he was (and probably still is) the superior chess player. Towards the end of that school year, he and I happened to be drawn to play a match to effectively decide the rankings for our school year. Towards the end of the game, he was ahead by a couple of pieces and I felt that based on our skill levels alone, I would not be able to outplay him unless he made some sort of grave error. So instead of taking him on head on, I played an exceptionally boring and defensive game. The resolve or ‘guts’ I think I had to use there were not the kind of guts which let you push through something physically or stretch my stamina to its limit, but rather I had to be resolved that in a contest of pure skill, I would be at a complete disadvantage and therefore have the discipline to null any sense of pride I had in my style of play and shamelessly try to bore him out of the match. In the end I stalled him long enough that the match timed out and the judge decided that our match would be called a draw which would, according to the points system in this particular tournament, place me higher in the rankings than him and make me officially the ‘best’ chess player in my school year, a title I was somewhat proud of at the time. I’m sure he resented me robbing him of the small accolade which I thoroughly didn’t deserve.

Once, I tried to write a novel. For three or four weeks, I think it was, I wrote a thousand or so words every day. The story was an imagining of what divinity may have been like before the war in heaven. There are plenty of well known texts about what happens after that (Paradise Lost, all of the bible, etc.) but I thought it’d be cool to imagine how it was before Lucifer led the army of traitor angels against God, was defeated and cast out of heaven. I very much enjoyed writing it, but damn, writing every day was harder than I had ever anticipated. Plenty of times I just didn’t want to. Major props to people who manage to write a whole novel at any point because it takes more resolve than I reckon I ever managed to muster. I never finished the story. In the end, I had three or four characters who I thought were really interesting, but not a very well written story to link them together. Besides that, the other characters were kinda drab and I just petered out eventually. That’s more a story about a failure of guts than anything else.

In a class while we were practising a technique known as katate-dori iriminage, or the entering throw from same-side wrist grasp, the head of our school at Exeter Aikido came over to my partner and I and invited us to attack him. He threw us both two or three times each and I recall being struck in the mouth (it is a common thing, I find, when taking sincere and non-preemptive ukemi against sincere and committed atemi). I expected his demonstration to end there, but he invited us to attack again; “keep going, I’m enjoying this”. He continued to throw us for a number of minutes. The physical challenge of continuing to get up and attack while exhausted took a fair degree of guts, but even moreso was overcoming the fear factor. Certainly for the first year and a half or so of training at Exeter I was afraid to take falls for our head. Not because I did not trust his technique or his conscience, but because I did not trust myself to keep up with and respond to his various unbalancing strikes and checks. I still find taking ukemi for him intimidating because I have to commit to my attack wholly to have a chance of responding to his movements without premeditating my fall, but at the same time committing puts my safety entirely in his hands. That kind of resolve is the resolve to trust another person with what is effectively the potential to severely injure or kill you and also to trust your own judgement and your own abilities. It takes a good deal of guts, I reckon, to overcome the sweaty-palm fear that makes you want to hesitate or keep lying on the ground after being thrown and get up and throw your safety to the wind and attack again.

When I was 15, I was in the Leicestershire Under 15 county cricket squad. In our winter training sessions, we occasionally were made to run the bleep test. For those unfamiliar, a bleep test is basically a very long set of short runs of increasing speed. You have a set distance, I believe roughly 20 metres, which you have to run before the cassette tape makes its next ‘bleep’, hence the name of the test. I seem to recall that there are ten runs at each bleep interval before the interval shortens, at which point you’ll be told you’re at “level 2” or “level 3” or whatever. The point is to make it to as high a level as you can. Of course, the only way you can get yourself any rest is to beat the bleep, but then you run the risk of getting a stitch from changing your pace too rapidly, so it’s meant to be better to try to match the bleep as closely as possible, if you can consider non-stop running of constantly increasing speed “better” than anything. Anyway, in this particular session, we were running the bleep test, but for whatever reason, everyone was just on poor form. Maybe it was because it was a particularly cold day and our muscles were seizing up, or perhaps we’d all just had a lazy off season and were unfit. Whatever the reason, most people were out before level 9, which is pretty poor, considering that you need to run a 13 to make the academy squad which all of us with professional aspirations were aiming at. I remember touching down behind the 20 metre mark at 10.3 and turning to go for the next sprint and thinking that my lungs would give out and that I should just give up. It’d be nothing to me to just sit down and take it easy like most of the rest of the squad were doing. I’d already outdone most of them anyway. But then I saw out to my left my friend Tom Wells, a lovely chap well liked for his pleasant manner and well respected for his all around fitness and strength and not inconsiderable technical skills. When I saw him begin to pull away from me, I can’t explain why, but I absolutely did not want to lose to him. I believe I was told afterwards that I looked somewhat possessed on the last two turns of that bleep test and I remember very clearly raising my fist and striking myself at least twice in the stomach to give myself an extra burst of adrenalin. I did indeed manage to beat Tom on that occasion, I think I made it to 10.6 after he pulled up at 10.5 then promptly packed it in from exhaustion. I’m not sure if this really counts as guts, spirit, and resolve so much as manic competitive spirit and a mildly psychotic desire to prove myself to the selection panel and coaching staff at the time, but either way, I thought it was a decent story to drop in there.

Once, I tried to tell a girl I had feelings for her. On the monday of that week I chickened out. The day after I had an even better chance to speak to her alone and I chickened out again. On the wednesday evening I managed to go ahead and say what was on my mind, but holy crap that shit’s terrifying. Ain’t no volume of physical and/or psychological training that’s ever gonna make that easy. Or maybe I just don’t talk to girls enough? Either way, she didn’t in the end say whether she requited my feelings or not (which I assumed meant she didn’t, because I was pretty sure she didn’t beforehand anyway) but she did say words to the effect that she thought well of me for telling her straight up to her face even though I knew it was a bit of a lost cause. If by some chance she ever reads this then I hope she doesn’t mind my paraphrasing her. So much for guts eh?

So the moral of the story is, there are a ton of things which require resolve, discipline, commitment and perseverance, which I have broadly put under the term “guts”. I think it is good to do all of these things. If it takes guts, I think it’s probably a worthwhile pursuit for that reason alone. And much as people in the martial arts and people of an academic bent like to harp on about technical precision and beautiful form and the minimalistic elegance of Aikido like good poetic imagecrafting, there’s a lot to be said for straightforward fighting spirit.

Anyway, thanks for reading~