I’ve lived in Japan for a few years now, and I’ve gotten to see and experience a lot of really cool things. I’ve practiced zazen at five hundred year old temples in Kyoto, admired Picasso ceramics at the Hakone Open-Air Museum, picked tea in the hills around Mt. Fuji, made my own Cup Noodle at the Nissin Instant Ramen Museum, gotten drunk with transsexual hostesses in Yokohama, had my feet massaged by an anime character in Tokyo, and fallen in love (and back out) all over the damn place.
However, there’s still a lot of places I haven’t had a chance to visit. Until very recently, Okinawa was one of those places. But then my girlfriend and I took a long weekend to visit a friend who moved to Ginowan earlier this year.
Okinawa is pretty interesting. It may well be the most Americanized place in Japan due the heavy influence of American GIs based there. Martial artists know it as the birthplace of Japanese Karate, and in Taido, we think of Okinawa as the birthplace of Seiken Shukukine. It’s also kind of the Japanese version of Jamaica – a popular vacation spot for tourists who want to hang out on the beach, sweat their asses off, and drink the famous (though totally unimpressive) beer.
Okinawa also has Taido, and most students know of Yuetsu Tanaka. When he’s not busy doing AIDS research, Tanaka Sensei teaches Taido a few times a week at the Naha municipal martial arts hall. Since this was just a short trip, I didn’t get a chance to visit Tanaka Sensei. Luckily, there is now a second Taido club on Okinawa.
The Ryuku University Taido Club is still a baby, but in just three years has grown to include over twenty members. I met a couple Ryudai members recently at the Tottori training camp, and they were really cool kids. The club was founded by my friend Anton Mikami, who began practicing Taido under Saito Sensei in Hirosaki. When he moved to Okinawa for college, Anton saw an opportunity to grow Taido and founded the Ryudai Taidobu.
I first met Anton in Leiden, Netherlands at the 2006 International Friendship Games and European Taido Championships. We got into a good deal of trouble together then, and got together again at the last Shakaijin Taikai. I told him that I had been planning to visit Okinawa soon, and he invited me to drop by the club. So I did.
When I showed up at 11am on Saturday morning, the club members had already been practicing for over two hours. The All-Japan university Taido championships are coming up really soon, so everyone was in full-on competition-prep mode.
This is the first year that the club has any female black belts, so two girls asked me for some jissen advice. I’m not a jissen expert, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the overall level of women’s jissen in Japan is much lower than that of the men. There are a lot of reasons for this, and it’s beyond my influence to drastically alter the way Japanese women think or practice. However, if we look at jissen simply as a game, we can identify within the rule structure two major points that prevent them from being able to score points: maai and gentai.
We began doing some work with maai – distance for defense and attack. If techniques are initiated either too near to or too far from the target, they are ineffective. Working from the outside, I showed them how to use ninoashi to close the distance between unsoku and attack. Then we looked at the more common problem, which is getting stuck too close to attack. After introducing a couple of general strategies, I drilled them on stepping away and returning directly with techniques.
As for gentai, I think the biggest problem is a lack of confidence. Japanese women tend to wait to be told what to do, especially in group settings. In jissen, they have a difficult time being aggressive. This leads to an interesting problem: after an exchange of techniques, both competitors will usually stop where they are and wait to see if the judges will give them some instruction. They’ll kind of just sit there and look at the judge as if asking “Was that a point? Now what do we do?” The judges usually won’t give points without a clear break in the action (whether or not this is actually a hit is another story entirely). The best way to create such a break is by making gentai.
We did a few drills focussing on returning to kamae quickly and decisively after throwing techniques. I told them that if they even get close to hitting, to use a loud kiai and return to kamae as confidently as possible. It’s true that if you look as if you believe you hit your opponent, the judges will be more inclined to believe it themselves, and everyone I’ve ever seen that consistently performs well in jissen competition uses this tactic.
After half an hour or so, neither of them were moving any better, but they were looking better. Then it was time to work with the men.
Among the male team members, there’s a pretty wide variety of levels and physical types, so we couldn’t work too much on any specific strategies. Anton is over six feet tall (extremely rare in Japan – but he’s half Dutch), so what works for him certainly wouldn’t work for most of his teammates. So I wanted to focus on applying something that I think of as a universal principle: freedom is a necessary condition for creativity.
Taido is about moving creatively to attack and defend. And we have to respond to our opponents’ movements in the process. Being creative relies on having the actual physical ability to go where we need to go in the moment. This means building up a base of movements, and in Taido, we use sen, un, hen, nen, and ten. Everyone learns to execute these techniques, but the hard part is learning to transition smoothly between them.
In order to achieve this, I began by teaching them a couple of yoga poses. We didn’t put on tights or worship crystals or anything, but we did put our bodies in a few strange positions. After laying this foundation, I asked them to work on finding transitions from one pose to the next. We practiced a few of the more interesting of these transitions. Then I showed them how to use the same movements to move between techniques. The actual practice is a little difficult to describe in words, but it’s basically a way to isolate a couple of positions (that are similar to techniques) and find the best way to go from one to the next. When the transition gets smooth, it can be applied to the actual techniques.
I’m not going to say that I changed anybody’s life, but I think I was able to give everyone at Ryudai a few more options and a little more confidence than they had when I arrived.
After a couple of hours, we were all hungry, and the Judo club was wanting to use the dojo. We called it a day and headed to a nearby restaurant that is apparently somewhat famous (but in Japan, that doesn’t mean much). I ate Okinawa soba, which is a hot noodle soup with lots of pork.
Then It was time to leave. We all said goodbye, and went our separate ways, but I’m pretty sure I’ll see most of them again before long.
So now I’ve checked Okinawa off the long list of places I haven’t been. I hope to go back as soon as possible – there’s a lot to explore, and a weekend just isn’t adequate. On my next trip, I’ll probably visit some of the other Ryuku islands too.