New Schedule and Location for 2016

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Koshiki Compare & Contrast

At the end of December I am going to have the privilege and opportunity to play with the Windsong folks again!  Nick and I will be sort of co-leading an exploration of Koshiki no kata.  Check out the following vids - The first one is the flavor I'm going to be working with and the second is a prime example of something very much like what (I think) Nick is going to be teaching.  Should make for some good compare&contrast...




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The randori mindset

Judo has several different modes in which we practice, including...

  • Uchikomi - tori (thrower) and uke (faller) are defined and tori sets up an agreed-upon technique over and over again.  The goal is to get many repetitions, so there is no throwing - just repeated offbalance and turn-in.
  • Nagekomi - 2 partners take turns throwing.  I throw, you throw, and repeat.
  • Shiai - each participant tries to be tori and wants the other guy to be the uke.  This is a very natural mindset for a lot of people.  The tough part is being able to switch in an instant from "I want to be Tori" mode to "I've got to be Uke" mode when you've been had.
  • Randori - 2  partners each simultaneously wants to 1) practice his throws as tori, and 2) practice his falls as uke.

Randori seems to be the toughest mindset for a lot of people.  You have to maintain and optimize two mutually exclusive goals -

  • you want to get as many throws as you can (i.e. you want to be tori)
  • you want to take as many good falls as you can (i.e. you want to be uke)
If you go into randori looking for tori opportunities, you can have trouble suddenly making the switch when the other guy gets a surprising throw.  But if you go into randori looking exclusively for opportunities to take a fall, you end up taking a dive for the other guy when he didn't really throw you.  One condition is scary/dangerous and the other is dishonest.

Notice - nowhere in there did I say that anyone's goal is to stop the other guy from throwing you.  That is absolutely not your goal in randori.  If you are trying to stop the other guy from throwing then you are refusing to work in either role (tori or uke), so you are not doing randori.

How do you teach people to keep those two goals running all the time in randori without slipping into either role exclusively?



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First seven of Yon Kata


Here is another very nice demo of the first 7 techniques of Yon Kata, which we will be working on at Starkville next month.  Of particular interest (to me, at least) are the two gedan techniques, in which Eddy gets a great lift at the end and splatters poor Adrian nicely.


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Yon kata at Starkville in November

This is a rendition by some of our buddies across the pond of what I'm going to be talking about at Starkville next month.  Koryu Dai Yon - also known in some groups (IIRC) as the Nage-no-Kata of Tomiki aikido.  Much of it is familiar because it is basically an "advanced" wrist releases kata, but there is enough there to occupy most of us for some years.
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I'm looking forward to visiting this old friend named Yon for the next month or so...


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Tomiki's murky past


I posed the question the other day, just because I was curious...
When Tomiki went to study with Ueshiba (in 1926), did he take some ukes with him to practice with, or did Ueshiba already have a bunch of other students for Tomiki to practice with, or do you suppose Tomiki actually got to throw Morihei around a lot?  I was curious because you don't hear much about the folks that were practicing aikido that far back.
Well, during my searching, I found this old video of Ueshiba throwing some guys around.  It says it is 1930, but it was probably closer to 1935 - in any case, It's the oldest Ueshiba film I've seen, and the one closest to Tomiki's time.  Some of the ukes mentioned on the video include Tsutomu Yukawa and Shigemi Yonekawa.  Someone also responded (but I haven't checked the reference) that Rinjiro Shirata mentions Tomiki in his book.
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Anyway, Tomiki remains a murky sort of mystery.  We have a bunch of his writings and we can touch people who touched Tomiki, but we don't have any film of him doing judo (except for goshinjutsu - no kumijudo), and we have little or no info about his time with Morihei.  There is, however, this great old pic of Tomiki and Morihei lounging around on the porch in matching bathrobes :-)
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It seems odd to me, and sad, that someone as prominent and as recent as Tomiki sensei can be so thoroughly obscured by time.


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Kisshomaru shihonage


Looking for something else, I came across this 1957 video of Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the Founder's son, doing a demonstration of some very nice aikido.  The first three minutes are shihonage - watch how nicely Doshu synchs with uke's ups and downs!  You can really start to see it at about 1:30.
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It almost looks like he is throwing uke up in the air and turning under him as uke becomes weightless.  Profoundly nice.  Something to work on for a year or ten...
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Also of interest, look how much the preparatory exercises he does for the first few seconds look like Tomiki's old taiso videos.


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Don't make your own job harder

A natural corollary to all this "Be gentle with uke" stuff I've been writing the last few days is...
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If you are doing something that makes uke frightened or uncomfortable
Then he will naturally resist,
Therefore, you are making your own job harder.
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So STOP.  You'd probably be better off doing nothing at all than doing something to make the other guy fight against you more desperately.
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Ueshiba said not to do aiki that everyone can see, instead do INVISIBLE AIKI!
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(...because if they  can see it and they know it is directed against them, it will make them spazz out and fight harder.)



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Learning judo kata for shodan

This weekend I'm going to be working with some of the Unionites on kata in preparation for shodan.  It is going to be either Goshin Jutsu or Nage no Kata - I'm not sure which because there was some clamoring for both of them. Traditionally, folks do Nagenokata for shodan, but I don't mind them substituting Goshin Jutsu if that is more up their alley.
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Anyway, switching from an uchikomi/randori/shiai training mode to a more co-operative kata mode just before shodan freaks a lot of people out.  So here are some hints that might soothe some of the Union judo beasts before I get up there...
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Much of the frustration with learning kata comes from our desire to look like the World Champion or the 10th dan that we see on the example video.   We think that in order to say we have “learned” the kata, we have to be able to do it like the old dead guys.  This is dumb, because…
  • The folks you see on the videos have done those kata FOR YEARS longer than you.  When you have done the kata as long as them, maybe you will have a basis for comparing your kata to theirs.
  • Why should a shodan’s kata have to look like the World Champion’s kata in order for him to be good enough for shodan?
  • Believe it or not, you are a different person with a different body and different upbringing living in a different society with different needs than the Japanese 10th dan that you saw on the 1950’s B&W video.  Your kata will teach you different things than it taught them because your NEEDS are different.

So, what should our kata be like in order to be good judo and good kata (or good enough for shodan)?
  • For one thing,  you do not have to know the whole kata at shodan. Traditionally in the Kodokan, the first 3 of 5 sets (9 techniques) of Nagenokata were considered sufficient for shodan. So don't fret over the sacrifices.
  • The kata is a form, or format - like an outline of ideas to demonstrate.  For shodan, you are to demonstrate three specific hand throws in a certain order, three specific foot throws, and three more specific hip throws.  The kata has to be recognisable - you can’t just do any nine things in whatever order you like.  This is because there is, embedded within the format and order and technique selection, some ideas about strategy.  These strategic hints can become garbled if you rearrange or replace the techniques.
  • The kata, as you demonstrate should be a reasonable vehicle for self-improvement.  The folks watching the kata should be able to agree that this is a set of exercises that you can use to improve your skills.  It should give you ideas about which techniques or groups of techniques you are better at and which ones could be improved upon.
  • The kata should be a reasonable vehicle for mutual-benefit.  Both tori and uke should be able to learn and improve using this exercise.  Uke is an active participant rather than a throwing dummy.  Even the audience should be able to gain something from watching you do this exercise.
  • The techniques of the kata should illustrate the ideal of maximally efficient use of the power you have.  If this thing is to be required at shodan (relative beginner level) then it should not take extraordinary power or skill that you have not had time to develop.  This means that a small woman (with a couple of years of training) should be capable of expressing and demonstrating the ideas in this kata just as well as a 200 pound male (with a couple of years of training).

Within this framework, There is a lot of leeway for you to express the kata your way, as only you can.  There are some gray areas for you to work through with your sensei...

  • Do you have to do all techniques on both sides or can you do the kata one-sided? Or might you even have one partner demonstrate a technique and then switch roles and the other partner demonstrates the same technique (like I-Do-You-Do)?
  • How close to the standard form (like the iron cross kataguruma) do you have to be?
  • How rigorous do you have to be on the Japanese cultural elements of the thing (like all the crazy crawling around on katame no kata?


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Patrick Parker
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Untying knotty judo and aikido

For most knots, you cannot untie them by pulling on the free ends.  In fact pulling against the knot creates greater internal friction and allows the knot to bind tighter.  So how do you untie a knot?
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You untie a knot by pushing the ends together, creating so much internal slack that the knot just comes apart.  You untie a knot by relaxing it.
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So, applying this as an analogy for judo, if you have a knotty problem with your judo, can you resolve it by struggling against it?  No, you'll make it tighter.  But if you go with it and create relaxation instead of tension associated with the knot, it will work itself out.
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Can't get the hang of forward airfalls?  Don't do MORE of the thing you can't handle, relax and practice things that build up toward that airfall using skills that are easy for you.
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Can't figure out an escape in newaza?  Don't do MORE reps against tougher partners, relax and do more reps with a relaxed, loose, compliant partner and gradually, gradually build up toward a tougher partner.
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Can't get uke to fall like you want him to?  Stop trying to force him down and try to figure out how to work with him to get him to the ground comfortably and safely (which meets your goals too).


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Whispering - not breaking

As tough, sporty, martial arts folks, we have a natural inclination to push through discomfort or fear.  You often hear advice like, "Suck it up, Buttercup!"  and "No Pain, No Gain," and "Pain is weakness leaving the body."   It makes immediate intuitive sense that martial arts should be uncomfortable or frightening, and we think that we'll never make it very far in these deadly martial activities unless we suppress the fear and pain we feel.  Sometimes we feel that if it isn't frightening and uncomfortable it must not be very effective.
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When I was a beginner in judo just starting to learn ukemi, I was in a college club populated mostly by fairly athletic young adult males.  This population (including myself) is mostly dummies.  My approach to ukemi was to bull through and "Suck it up, Buttercup," because obviously, "no pain, no gain..." and all that.  I couldn't figure out why ukemi became more painful and more frustrating every single time I went to practice, and I couldn't figure out why the straight-ahead charging approach to ukemi wasn't working so good.
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It never occurred to me at the time that the gentleness and efficiency ideals of judo could also  apply to the learning of judo - and that those ideals should particularly apply to learning ukemi.  I was approaching learning judo like breaking a horse back in the bad old days (I was the horse being broken).  It took me a long time - many years) to figure out that learning judo could be approached like doing judo - that is, with gentle flexibility - like whispering a horse.
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We talk a nice talk about "Self-Improvement" and "Maximum Efficiency with Minimum Effort" and "Mutual Benefit," and then we grab uke and push and pull and twist and throw and crush and force him to submit. You even hear the nice talk every so often about ukemi being "the receiving of judo knowledge through your body," but then we grab uke up and bust his ass on the mat and grind on him and everyone wonders why uke is not "self-improving" and why he is not receiving the "efficiency" and "mutual benefit" ideals that we're always talking about.
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I think it is super-important - vitally critical - if we are going to attempt to improve upon the arts of aikido and judo as we pass them on to our students that we re-consider some things, namely..

  • What should ukemi be like?  Should it be severe?  Could it be gentle?  Might it even be supportive or protective? 
  • Can we approach the teaching of judo like the old dead guys said we should approach the performance of ideal judo?  That is, with gentle, flexible efficiency and an eye toward self-improvement and mutual benefit.



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Beginning and ending kihon

There is this practice seen mostly in pre-war aikido guys, like Tomiki and Shioda, and their students - the practice of measuring ma-ai by crossing handblades prior to practicing a technique.  This practice is not seen as much (at least in this form) in post-war aikido folks, and I have not seen video of Osensei doing this, but Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba talks some in his videos about the idea of precisely setting up each practice condition.
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I suspect that the practice of measuring ma-ai is currently in disfavor because of some misuses or misunderstandings related to it, like the zombie attack.  But it is a valuable training tool, when used properly.  This sort of practice is valuable for improving kamae, ma-ai, metsuke, and zanshin
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How we were taught to begin techniques - prior to practicing a kihon (basic form) technique,

  • Uke and tori stand in front of each other in a proper stance (kamae) - whatever that is according to their teacher Tomiki-students and Shioda-students prefer different basic kamae. 
  • Uke and tori extend their lead arms, nearly straight, with fingers touching or hands slightly crossed. This defines the basic operational distance for kihon (ma-ai).
  • Then both partners lower their arms and look at each other for a moment.  This allows both partners to get used to judging ma-ai distance visually instead of by measuring.
  • When tori is ready for the attack, he establishes the visual connection (metsuke).  Different folks will tell you to do this eye-control differently, but we were told for tori to watch uke's center while measuring and when ready for the attack, make eye contact and maintain it.
  • Then uke attacks.

How we were taught to end kihon - 

  • Uke falls.
  • Tori follows uke into a lock or pin (unless the throw is a projection)
  • Whenever possible, tori lands uke either face-down or side-lying facing away from tori
  • Tori places a knee and two hands on uke, chocking him and keeping him under control.
  • Tori maintains as straight a posture as possible and looks around for more attackers.
  • Uke submits
  • Tori backs out of ma-ai moving toward uke's head instead of his feet.
  • Uke turns to face tori, gets his feet between him and tori, and gets up moving away from tori.
Again, this applies primarily to kihon (basic forms) of techniques.  You will want to get some variation on these beginnings and endings, and perhaps even drop it from most of your practice once you've done it for a while.  But I think if you implement these scripts for beginning and ending kihon, you will get  some additional practice at kamae, ma-ai, metsuke, and zanshin.


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Get some jo in your aikido

I read it somewhere - not sure where - that the old jodo guys said that it was relatively unimportant to correct students on the things that go on in the middle of the kata.  He was saying that the really important thing to get right was the beginning and end of the kata.
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This jives to a large degree with what little teaching I've had from SMR jojutsu guys - they were very peculiar about the beginnings and the ends, and they seemed perhaps slightly less interested in the in-between actions than I was.
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They were emphasizing principle over tactics - the intangibles - ma-ai, kamae, metsuke, zanshin.  By paying close attention to the beginning and to the end of the encounter you get reinforcement in these intangibles.
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You see this same sort of attention to beginnings and ends in some of the pre-war aikido folks (like Tomiki and Shioda), and perhaps a little less in some of the post-war guys, though I have heard Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba speak on his videos about the importance of precision in setting up the conditions before each technique.
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In experienced jo guys there is a psychological (or dare I say, "psychic") pressure between them, as if there were terabytes of interaction being beamed back and forth between their eyes.  Because of the extreme consequences (jo or sword embedded in skull), neither partner dares break that line-of-sight communication until they see how it all works out.  I have found as an observer, it is easy to get drawn into and lost in that psychic communication between two good partners.  Often I have to make a concerted effort to watch their feet instead of their faces, or I won't know what happened after they are through with a kata.  
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There is value in carrying this type of practice with you when doing aikido taijutsu - (improvement of ma-ai, kamae, metsuke, and zanshin) but there is also potentially stupid tangents (e.g. the zombie attack, the no-touch ki masters), so beware the stupidity, but be aware of the potential value to your practice.



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The hammer and the nail

Sometimes (not as often as you think) you are the hammer, and sometimes (much more often) you are the nail.
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I tell all my students that ukemi is the most important self-defense aspect of the arts that we do for several  reasons...

  • Unless you are paid to be the hammer (i.e. police, military...) then you will trip, slip, stumble, and/or fall many more times in your life than you will get into violent interpersonal situations.
  • Without constant ukemi, aikido tends to devolve into an ephemeral, cerebral game and judo tends to devolve into bad aikido.
  • Ukemi is the most physical, most exercising part of judo.  It is good for your body (within sane limits) to hit the ground and have to rise back to standing over and over again.
  • Ukemi is the aspect of the art with the most psychological leverage for personal change.  When you practice for a while you accumulate a huge number of instances in your memory when you made a mistake and then immediately hit the ground.  Feedback is dramatic and immediate.  Pretty soon you start to develop as an important core of your personality, "If I screw around I'm going to hit the ground and have to drag myself back up again."
  • When there is no contact and no ukemi, we tend to descend into our own fantasies, but when actual energy passes between partners - that is, enough actual energy to overwhelm someone and knock them to the ground - the art remains based in reality.

Anyway, I've said most of that before here and there in this blog and in my classes.  What I might not have said as often is ...
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It is foolish to underestimate or dismiss another person who you KNOW has taken 50-100 falls a day, 100 days per year for some years and who is still doing it!  Sure you may not prefer to practice the way they do - maybe you're a judo guy and don't like the aikido stuff, or maybe you're a karate guy and think that you've honed yourself to the point that you could beat any judoka to the punch (as it were).  Maybe you have imbibed too much of your sensei's kool-aid about having the ultimate martial art.
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But for goodness' sake, when you look at another guy, who you know has interacted violently with the planet for some time now, do not let yourself fall back into that old, ignorant reflex of talking smack about how wimpy he is...
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That guy has been hit with a Class-M planet thousands of times and has gotten back up thousands of times, so he must have some potential.



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Trial by fire

Back in the day (as I understand it) it used to be common for competition to be an integral part of ranking in judo.  I'm not talking about the points system, where you accumulate points toward your next rank by competing, etc...  I'm talking about getting a bunch of folks together who want to advance to the next level and having a shiai amongst them and then promoting those who place in the competition.  Sort of a trial-by-fire thing.
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For example, the following is from the British Judo Association's website...
To attain a Dan grade, a judoka can enter an examination against other judoka of the same grade and, by demonstrating superiority over a cross-section of judoka at the same level, can win promotion to the next rank. Wins against judoka of the same grade or above in certain competitions may also count towards promotion. In this way, promotion through the Dan grades becomes increasingly difficult, since for each new grade the players will be of a higher standard. Judoka must also complete a competitive skills assessment that becomes progressively more demanding as they move through the Dan grades...
This is not necessarily the only way to rank, but it seems to be considered a standard.
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I don't think this is a bad idea.  In fact, this is a pretty good way to do quality control on your dan structure.  There are some potential glitches though.
  • Making rank by combat the standard and making it harder to advance technically (without combat) might make it more difficult to build a cadre of excellent teachers.
  • When you have a small number of candidates for a high-rank shiai, you have to pull from a larger area.  In a smaller country or organization, where are you going to get enough 5th dan candidates (for instance) to have a good pool of competitors for a 4th-to-5th dan promotion tournament?  ...especially if you are going to divide the competitor pool into weight categories...  Drawing aspirants from all across a nation can make for onerous travel and burdensome expense.
Don't get me wrong.  I think it's a good idea to make aspirants to higher rank demonstrate under pressure, skill commensurate with that rank, but there needs to be some flexibility built into the system for excellent non-competitive judoka.  What about the kata experts?  What about the goshin jutsu experts?  What about the amazing teachers?  
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You want room in your art for folks with different ideas of what the art really is.



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The REAL reason for terminal rank

Why is it that in judo, 10th degree black belt is the highest rank attainable?
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I have no way to find out, but I suspect (pure conjecture) that it has to do with the expected time-in-grade for each rank.  As I understand it, the time-in-grade in years for each rank is equal  to the rank. So it takes 2 years to get to nidan and 3 more years to sandan and 6 years to rokudan, etc...
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So, assuming that the practitioner is an adult (mid-20's) when they get their shodan, it will take about 54 years to get to 10th dan.  That would put the practitioner near 80 years old (like Karl Geis).  Another 11 years for 11th dan would put him in his early 90's (like Helio Gracie), and another 12 would put the practitioner near 105 (like Keiko Fukuda).
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Now we have certainly improved life expectancy over the years, and we like to think that with good fitness and healthy habits, more people have the potential to reach those advanced ages, but there is still an effective cap on maximum age - and that glass ceiling is around 115-120 years.
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The old dead guys that came up with the ranking system didn't just pull the 10th dan out of a hat and say, "That'll be the highest rank."  It's just that not many folks live healthy active lives capable of practicing and/or teaching judo into their 90s and 100s.  
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This guess of mine also sort of makes the story make more sense about the Judo powers-that-be awarding Dr. Kano 12th dan as the founder to put him "beyond the rank system."  It's not that the number 12 is magical, it is just nearly inconceivable that someone could live and practice and teach judo for another 23 years after getting a 10th dan.


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Terminal rank

Over the years, a lot of folks have recognized that the modern colored belt kyu-dan thing that Kano-san came up with was an imperfect thing.  I think even Kano realized during his lifetime that there were problems with it, but instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, he kept the rank system and emphasized the positives and de-emphasized the negatives.
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Also, over the years, people have suggested tweaks to make the advancement system more stable or equitable.  One of these potential adjustments is the idea of Terminal Rank.
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Terminal rank is the idea that not just everyone has the potential to rise to the highest rank levels.  Folks that tout terminal rank as a solution have some pretty good arguments...

  • Just because someone manages to practice judo long enough to get lots of time-in-grade doesn't mean they should be promoted to the highest of ranks.
  • Regardless of how hard they try, some people will not be able to obtain skill commensurate with the highest ranks in judo.
  • The highest ranks are considered teaching ranks and some practitioners never teach.
  • They don't want to de-value the highest ranks by turning them into a "participation award" like we see in youth soccer or tee-ball.
  • Extraordinary ranks should only be given to people with extraordinary skill and service to the art.
Those all sound pretty reasonable to me, but the terminal rank idea also has a couple of major glitches...
  • What is going to be the terminal rank for most folks?  With average attendance and time-in-grade and average effort and potential, do you throttle back on their ranking at shodan or is it sandan or is it godan?  Wherever you place the cutoff, it is arbitrary.
  • Wherever you set the terminal rank, what are you going to do with all the people in the organization that are already beyond that rank?
As a buddy of mine pointed out a while back, most of the folks advocating loudly for terminal rank are folks that are already beyond that rank.  Nobody wants to put that hurdle in the way of their own advancement.  So that buddy's response to the guy that said terminal rank should be godan... "What do you think YOUR terminal rank should be?"




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Judo rank vs. karate rank

When I was digging through Wikipedia for information for that last post about karate ranks I noticed an interesting thing.
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When you read through any of the articles on the famous big-name judo guys, almost all of them contain pretty extensive detail about when they received each of their ranks.  for instance, 
After 15 months of training, Mifune achieved the rank of shodan ('beginning dan,' indicating 1st dan ranking) in Kodokan judo,[2] and after the remarkably short time of four more months, nidan (2nd dan).[2] Through timing and speed, Mifune quickly gained a reputation, and was never defeated at the annual Red and White Kodokan tournament.[2] By 1912, he was ranked rokudan (6th dan) and an instructor.[2] He was already being called the 'God of Judo.'
and...
Tomiki was one of the early students of the founder of aikido Morihei Ueshiba, beginning in 1926, and also of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo.[2] In 1928 he obtained 5th dan in judo and in the following year he represented Miyagi Prefecture in the first judo tournament held in front of the Emperor—this tournament became the All Japan Tournament the following year. From 1936 till the end of the second world war he lived in Manchukuo (Manchuria) where he taught aikibudo (an early name for aikido) to the Kanton army and the Imperial Household Agency. In 1938 he became an assistant professor at Kenkoku University in Manchukuo. He went on to be awarded the first 8th dan in aikido (1940) and an 8th dan in judo (1978).
But when you look at the articles about the big-name karate guys (Shimabuku, Egami, Harada, Itosu, etc...), trying to find info about their ranks, it's mostly absent...  There could be several reasons for this relative lack of info...

  • Maybe it took a while for the karate guys to adopt Kano's kyu-dan belt rank system.
  • Maybe karate was at that time more of a rural thing and they weren't as interested as the cosmopolitan judo guys in record-keeping.
  • Maybe this was just a curious oversight on the part of the Karate authors at Wikipedia.
Or maybe this suggests a real difference between judo folks and karate folks in how they think about the rank thing.





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Jump-ranking (sorta) in karate

While we are on the subject of ranking, there is an interesting story about the history of Isshin-ryu karate-do.  I don't know where it falls on the spectrum from absolute truth to apocrypha to pure B.S. but I've heard this piece of 'history' from several sources over the years.
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The story goes that Shimabuku trained a bunch of American GIs during wartime and having earned shodan or nidan they left Okinawa and brought Isshin-ryu to the United States (that much is mostly fact I think).  Some years later, it seems, his students organized a trip to see and train with Shimabuku, and the Master, knowing that these were all dedicated students that he might never see again, issued them certificates for each rank up to Roku-dan (6th degree black belt) with the understanding that they were not to claim those ranks until they had proper time-in-grade and practice.
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Effectively, Shimabuku promoted his inner circle - the folks that would become the Isshin-ryu demi-gods from shodan to rokudan.
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Again, I don't know how much of this tale is true, and I don't intend this to scandalize the Isshin-ryu folks.  Shoot, the most skilled karateka I've ever met and laid hands on are Isshin-ryu folks.  I just thought the story was interesting while we were talking about ranks and jump promotions.


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Batsugan!

In the judo world every so often someone will get a promotion based solely on their performance at an event like a tournament (or more rarely a seminar or camp).  This sort of field-promotion is called batsugan.  In fact, maybe I shouldn't say, "every so often," because it seems like it is not that uncommon at all.  I rarely attend tournaments any more, but back in the day it seemed like it was pretty common - we would go to the larger regional tournaments and some grizzly old dude in a candy-striped belt would come up to someone's sensei and tell them that their student was obviously under-ranked and inform them that they were being ranked-up effectively immediately (be sure to send your rank fees in to the national organization when you get home Monday).
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Batsugan promotions tend to happen more often at lower-ranks, which makes sense - there is less difference between a green belt and a brown belt than there is between a 2nd dan and a 3rd dan.  But it does also happen at higher ranks. The highest-ranked batsugan promotion I ever heard of was at a USJA training seminar in the late 1990's, when a guy that had been a shodan for about a year was abruptly promoted to sandan because of his extraordinary performance as the main instructor's kata uke.
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So, what do I think of batsugan as a practice?  It is a traditional practice that high-ranking people engage in sometimes, so it has historical precedent and social validity, but I think it is generally unwise.  Rank is about a lot of things, but one of the most primary of things represented by the rank is the relationship between the sensei and the student.  Anyone can win or lose on any given day at a judo tournament, so basing a promotion on a shiai performance (or even a several-day seminar) is shaky.  That's why, when batsugan promotions happen, sometimes everyone watching nods their head and agrees, "yeah, that's probably a good promotion," and in other cases everyone stands around biting their tongues to avoid saying anything.
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Batsugan is one of those things that can happen and can be valid, but I don't think that it is the sort of thing that should happen any more often than occasionally.



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Private York becomes Sergeant York

There are precedents stretching back through military history of people honorably circumventing the typical rank promotion system.  One of these is the practice of Field Appointment or Field Promotion.  A memorable example of what I'm talking about is Alvin York.
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A lot of people have seen the movie, but if you haven't, the 1-sentence spoiler is, "Country boy goes to serve in WW-I and becomes a national hero by capturing a bunch of Germans almost single-handedly."  There is a lot more to the history surrounding those events - interesting stuff that is worth reading - but the aspect of this that I wanted to examine today is Mr. York's rapid advancement in rank and honor.
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At the time of the action that made him famous, York was a "newly promoted Corporal," (that means no time-in-grade) and afterward, per Wikipedia, "York was promptly promoted to Sergeant, and a few months later, following a thorough investigation, he was awarded the Medal of Honor."  This set off a virtual firestorm of promotion, resulting in York being awarded "nearly 50 decorations, including...

Medal of Honor
Distinguished Service Cross
World War I Victory Medal
American Campaign Medal
Légion d'Honneur (France)
Croix de Guerre with Palm (France)
Croce di Guerra al Merito (Italy)
Montenegrin War Medal (Montenegro)

Not bad for a guy who, 2 years earlier had been an alcoholic brawler in the backwoods of Tennessee.  York's story is remarkable, and you should read up on it.
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My point for today is, it is not unheard-of for a young man, through personal merit and through meritorious action, without proper seniority or time in grade, to change the course of his destiny to the point that he circumvents the normal course of promotion or advancement.
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There is a normal progression of rank advancement, but it is necessarily flexible.


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Rank inflation

Inflation (per the dictionary) - a general increase in prices and fall in the purchasing value of money.

So, by extension, rank inflation could be defined as a generalized increase in the cost/effort required to advance in rank, accompanied by a reduction in the value of each successive rank.  Or, in redneck speak, "Paying more and getting less." or maybe, "Paying a premium price for a lemon."
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I began to write this article on rank inflation and all of a sudden had a sense of deja vu.  I did a search and sure enough - I'd already written this very article 5 years ago!  We now have proof that I am YEARS ahead of my time!
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From the previous article...

...imagine a conversation like this...
"How long did it take you to get your black belt?"
"Oh, My teacher was rough on us. It took us 2 years!"
"Well, it took us 3 years."
"I heard that fella over there makes his students practice 4 years to get their black belts!
They must be really tough!"
Everyone then thinks to himself, "I guess I'd better make my students practice 5 years so we can be the toughest."
Pretty soon it takes 20 years to get shodan! How many people have heard folks bragging on internet forums, "It took me 12 years to get my shodan!" This is like making everyone suffer for someone else's great performance just so folks won't think your martial art is too easy. This is ridiculous when you consider that...
Standards are necessarily minimal standards. You don't see medical or engineering (or any) schools making each class have to be 50% better than the previous class just in order to graduate. If you did, soon there would be no graduates.
I bet it's pretty easy to imagine that conversation - because you've probably heard it or something very close a zillion times (like someone bragging "I've been a Nidan for 25 years!") .  It seems to be part of our competitive nature - we want to be the toughest, and we want to be able to brag about how when we were kids we had to walk 20 miles to school every morning, through the snow, uphill, BOTH WAYS!


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Meaning of kyu ranks

I've heard it said that any martial arts teacher in the world who is worth a damn could teach a newbie everything that the instructor knows about self-defense within the space of 6-8 months.
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Coming up through the ranks, our teachers were always insistent that we had to teach the best, most useful things first, and we had to teach so as to keep those fundamental self-defense skills constantly honed. 
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So, the following represent some general guidelines about how I (and some of the groups I circulate in) do kyu ranks...


  • Gokyu (yellow belt) is about mobility and survival.  At this level we teach sfe, reflexive ukemi skills (particularly emphasizing standing backward breakfall and forward rolling breakfall.)  We also emphasize taisabaki (footwork and body management).
  • Yonkyu (green belt) is about the external jutsu of the system - learning to do a handful (3-5) of the most common, most pragmatic, most robust techniques.  Techniques that are quick to learn, easy to remember under stress, and that tend to work in street clothes and street situations.  Techniques that tend to work well for smaller females against larger males.  Yonkyu is the teeth of the system.  Examples of Yonkyu material would include wrist releases and atemi and low-risk, low-commitment footsweeps followed by dropping a knee on the attacker's ribs.
  • Sankyu (3rd Brown belt) is still about the external jutsu, but now we focus on learning a handful (3-5) of consequences or responses or combinations or variations that tend to spring naturally and commonly from the Yonkyu material.  Sankyu fills in most of the rest of the practical goshin jutsu of the system.  If one were to quit at this point, the instructor could be fairly assured of the student's chances of surviving most bad incidents on the street.
  • Nikyu (2nd Brown belt) and Ikkyu (1st Brown Belt) are about further rounding out the basic knowldege of the student, making sure they know how to practice in a productive and safe way, and how to acid-test things (randori).  Often there are fewer techniques and more time-in-grade at these levels so that the student has more time to marinate in the strategy underlying the system.  In some schools there are no additional technical requirements between Ikkyu and Shodan so that the ikkyu can concentrate even more resources on intangibles like movement and strategy rather than tactics and techniques.

Incidentally, how much material is necessary for the Shodan?  Probably not as much as you think.  Back in the day in Japan (1950's Kodokan for instance), one could get a shodan in 12-18 months, and my teachers assure me that the standard shodan material was Kyo #1-3 of the Gokyonowaza (that is, 24 techniques).  Nowadays people want to brag that they make their shodans master all 40 techniques of the Gokyo or more).  I think this sort of thing comes from a misunderstanding of the real significance (or insignificance) of Shodan, and I think it results in greater rank inflation.
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Wait, what does "rank inflation" even mean?  Stay Tuned, Dear Constant Reader.


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Rank Schmank!

I'm pretty tired of the subject of rank in martial arts, but since everyone around me seems so interested in it lately, and since people keep asking me what I think of this and that, I made a bet with myself that I could do a month's worth of posts on the topic of rank in the martial arts.
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Stay Tuned, Dear Constant Reader - First up is guideposts for lower ranks.


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Today I Injured a Kid

(Another excellent guest post from Andre Goran...)

It’s only the second time my partner got seriously hurt in randori since I took up judo, and the first time in years, since I was a brown belt or earlier. It surprised me because I think of myself as a very safe opponent, but that wasn’t the case tonight. I did not do anything illegal or intentionally mean but I knew better. As the senpai, the responsibility to keep training safe was mostly with me, so of course I feel terrible. But feeling terrible isn’t going to help anything, so I’m trying to learn. 
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My opponent is a very skilled guy. He has crazy 18-year-old strength and speed, and the few techniques he specializes in he can take from almost any position. His uchikomi has such snap and power that he knocks the wind out of you with every fit, and he can survive a fall. He isn’t a jerk, and he knows how to tone it down and work safely with beginners. However, he is very competitive when he works with higher ranks. 
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I don’t prefer playing rough, but if that’s what someone wants, I give it to them , so when I met this fellow and got slammed hard every time I came in light and slow, I decided to meet him at his level of play. That was a mistake, because...
  • I outweigh him.
  • I had no reason to think he had particularly good ukemi, and
  • He was already bringing so much energy to the equation that adding anything more was neither safe nor necessary. 
When he threw those explosive hip throws his weight was rooted, his whole body was applying maximum force in one direction (which is really unstable, see aikido), and he was determined to finish the technique no matter what. I knew this after the first time he threw me, or at least I had felt enough that I should have known it. I also knew after the first time I threw him that, while his ukemi was ok, he never gave in and accepted a throw, but fought for his life until he was millimeters above the mat.
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But I didn’t want to get slammed again damn it, I wanted to get some throwing practice too, and if he was going to snuff all my techniques with speed and power then I would have to do something about it. 
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Stupid stupid stupid. 
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The result was that he came in for a dynamic harai, I was partially pulled off balance but attempted tani otoshi anyway, he tried to spin to his stomach to avoid a back landing (why, oh why ever do this randori!), and we landed in a big messy pile. Since my weight was off my feet, I was fine. He fell trying to hold up both of us, and somewhere in the process his knee got wrenched, bad. He went to the emergency room, and I went to go figure out how I just let that happen. 
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I’m still working out what I need to change in my practice to be a safer partner, but this I know...
  • Many people can survive big throws, but it’s much harder to survive messy throws. If there is resistance, energy, and power going on in randori, only throw from stable dominant positions which ensure you can control the throw all the way to the ground. Assume your opponent will do anything they can to make their own fall worse and account for it.
  • Fall for your partner. If you are healthy and able to take falls, take all that you are sincerely offered. Once your balance has been partially broken, the safest thing is to find your way to the mat and start fresh. Two people both on the edge of balance struggling to stay on their feet is just too risky.
  • Since you cannot simultaneously fight a throw and go with it, fighting and losing means no chance to adapt and pull out good ukemi. This is obvious, but often forgotten.
  • Watch yourself for any flicker of ego or pride. If you see it, go soft as a noodle and offer no resistance whatsoever. If someone younger and lower rank ends up thinking they kicked your ass, it does you no harm at all. There is nothing to lose by that.
  • It’s ok to tell people to lighten up if you’re not comfortable with the level of play. Not only is it ok, it’s obligatory. Even if the person going too hard is smaller, lower ranked, less skilled, a person you should be able to “handle”, you must insist on a level of play that feels right. If they won’t lighten up, decline to continue working. Not doing so is irresponsible




Andre Goran is an enthusiastic martial arts nerd. He has studied Tracy lineage Kenpo, Judo, and Shodokan Aikido, and holds the rank of shodan in the latter two with Kaze Uta Budokai, as well as shodan in judo with the USJI. He currently lives in Philadelphia, where he trains at Osagame Martial arts under Ray Huxen Sensei and Alma Qualli Sensei.




More from Andre...



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