2006 Asia Pacific Games

that this was one hell of a good trip. it was packed full of practice and play, and there wasn’t a lot of down-time to spend digesting all that was going on. my memory of certain events may be slightly inaccurate, but i want to give you the gist of this year’s meet. a lot of good things went down, and a lot of good things will come from having more of this kind of event in the future.

Ok, so first off, I want to say that this was one hell of a good trip. It was packed full of practice and play, and there wasn’t a lot of down-time to spend digesting all that was going on. My memory of certain events may be slightly inaccurate, but I want to give you the gist of this year’s meet. A lot of good things went down, and a lot of good things will come from having more of this kind of event in the future.

Of course, there is always a good bit of the “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” feeling on a trip like this, but even while censoring portions of the debauchery, I hope this report may convince more people to take an interest in international Taido-related events, or at least think about attending the next Asia Pacific Games.

The Tourney

Though the Tokyo International Uni team went down a day early for some shopping, most of us from Japan arrived on a Friday morning in Sydney. We got checked in at the hotel, and then it was time to go set up for the tournament.

I’m not going to post the event results here, because the Aussie Taido group has their own website that includes such info. I do want to write a few words about is this: competitors don’t have to be opponents.

The thing that made this tournament great was that everyone was there to support the other players. There was a wide range of experience and belt levels among competitors from several countries and dojos. However, on the courts and off, everyone was in the mood to offer friendly advice and cheer the events in progress. It was really cool when we were all doing our final practices before the “Taido no Hokei” event (in which we each created our own original routines), and everyone was trading ideas and helping each other make last-second alterations and improvements.

Speaking of the Taido no Hokei event, it was the first time that general competitors have been able to compete with a creative form. Previously, there was a creative division at the instructors’ competition (the hanshi, kyoshi, renshi tourney every January), but this year’s APG had students with less than a year of Taido training thinking and attempting to create their own forms. It was very interesting to see what they came up with, but in the end, the awards went to the three highest-ranked players. Unfortunately, idol no hokei was not presented (“idol” is what the Japanese call sexy female models).

The other events were fun and exciting too. I think everyone was just happy to get a chance to play with new and different people. Even though there were only about 30-something competitors, the event went on for about seven hours of really great cooperative competition.

The Training

Days two and three were devoted to training. After all, it’s not everyday that the Australian Taido team (let alone those of us who live in Japan) have access to two members of the hanshikai to learn from and ask questions of. It was also great that we had Alvar around to translate what they were saying. Talking about body-mechanics and energy flow in a foreign language is not an easy task, and Alvar’s facilitation helped many more people get much more out of this training than could have been the case.

Day One

Saturday morning began with a shinsa for seven members of Australian Taido. Saito and Shima tested these students for a couple of hours with Alvar assisting. I didn’t get to see this, but I hear that Fredrik’s tensei is too fast…

While all that was going down, I was in the other room, helping Masaki go through some movement and balance games and drills with everyone. Masaki is a fitness trainer and really funny, so everyone enjoyed her ideas on ways to move the body for Taido. Of course, I’ve been thinking about ways to train this stuff lately myself, so it was good seeing her ideas on it, and getting to chat with her about it later.

We did some pushing and pulling games with partners, and added in some Taido movements as well. We worked on jumps and turns and other movements to build coordination. After that, we partnered up again and built increasingly longer combinations of continuous techniques, trying to avoid interrupting the flow. Then we ate some lunch.

In the afternoon session, everyone got together to see what Saito and Shima had to share with us. First, we worked on seimei no hokei. As it turned out, only a very few of us actually knew the hokei, so Shima proceeded to give instruction on the basics of seimei for the first hour or so. As always, even those of us who have done the hokei for years were able to get something out of the practice.

After that, we partnered off and began to go through the doko5kai. Although we ran out of time, we got through most of the applications of the doko5kai for sentai and a bit of untai. Here again, many students had not been exposed to this kind of thing in actual practice, so it was very beneficial to everyone.

Then we had a question/answer session. After all the seimei practice, the first question that came up was “what is ki?” it was almost funny, because Alvar and I had actually been discussing on the airplane how to explain ki in English without sounding as if we were in a kung fu movie. He had a hell of a time trying to translate what Shima and Saito were saying into intelligible English, but he did a much better job than I would have. I think most people were satisfied with the explanations given, even if it’s still a very difficult concept to grok. Saito led us through some physical practice to help everyone wrap their minds around the “mystical energy force.”

Shima finished with a discussion of Taido’s taiki, doko, and seigyo as well as some applications of using Taido ideas in everyday life. He talked about efficiency, productivity, and systematic development. He also talked a little about self-sufficiency and the importance of building evolving Taido out of the existing theoretical groundwork. During the break, there was also talk of the importance of “updating” this theoretical foundation to incorporate the last forty years’ worth of scientific and sociological change.

As the day of training neared its close, Fredrik and Louise took the final hour to discuss the Taido no Hokei event. Those of us who won medals were asked to explain our ideas, and we all got to discuss and ask/answer questions about everyone’s routines. It was the end of the day, so we kept everything light and informal, which lent to the atmosphere of sharing.

We also had a chance to see Masaki’s “in (feminine)” version of chisei no hokei, which won the instructors’ tourney last January. I won’t go into this too much here, but I will be learning her version of this form and eventually teaching it alongside the standard version.

Day Two

In the morning, Saito and Shima took Alvar and the rainbow belts and practiced… I don’t know. I once again assisted and translated for Masaki with the browns and blacks.

We started off by moving continually through the five techniques, creating free combinations of sen, un, hen, nen, and ten. The idea was to move the body without trying to apply a specific technique. For example, after spinning, we were to simply get airborne. Then as we fell, we were to change the body-axis as we neared the ground. That change was to be followed by a twist which would lead to a tumble. The purpose of the exercise was to incorporate strikes when appropriate as we moved freely.

We then used this same feeling in a few jissen games, one of which involved an umbrella. Then we did some 2 vs 5 jissen such that one of the two protects the other. Finally, some practices with a single player defending against several attackers. Losers did push-ups. I did lots of hangetsu push-ups.

For the afternoon session, Alvar took a couple of representatives from each team and worked on some basic breathing exercises and “ki” stuff, attempting to make it as “user-friendly” as possible. He also talked with them about the basics of breathing for hokei and how to train hokei correctly. The idea was that they would take notes and share this information with their teams later.

I was either assumed to already know this stuff, or they didn’t want me to find out, because I was asked to translate for Shima and Saito for the main group. We went over continuous combinations similarly to what we had practiced with Masaki, this time with the emphasis on moving in 3-space and developing new movements from that basis.

Then we worked on avoiding attacks. Shima discussed the six geometric directions from which we could receive an attack and discussed applications to each of them. We practiced solo, in pairs, in groups, and against a broom, doing lots of fukuteki and jumping.

The last training session was conducted by Fredrik and Louise. Fredrik started off by saying “You are all doing unsoku wrong.” He didn’t mean it to sound so bad though. His point was that, after watching the tournament from a judge’s perspective, he didn’t feel that enough people were really thinking about how to use unsoku. Instead, he suggested that most people do unsoku in jissen because they know they are supposed to. The training was primarily about purpose-driven unsoku and how to apply footwork more effectively in jissen.

Essentially, the idea is that kamae is defensively stronger than any technique. According to doctrine, the kamae has no weaknesses, while each technique has one. Therefore, if we want to be safe while we close the distance gap to the opponent, it’s better to do so in kamae. Fredrik told us that most of the techniques attempted in the tournament did not score because the players were attempting to close distances with techniques and getting thwarted when their opponents didn’t do as expected. He was right.

The solution, he told us, is to use our unsoku to get “inside” the opponent. He then went on to describe the forward pressure strategy and drill us on some unsoku that we can use to bully for advantage. Other uses of unsoku included leading the opponent into an attack.

We also worked on removing the gaps between rengi. The example was a sweep followed by a kind of gedan senjogeri/hangetsuate. Basically, if you sweep, and the other guy jumps, you have no reason to continue to sweep. The best course of action is to immediately transition to the next technique. From the other side, when you jump, it’s better to jump into or onto the opponent’s position than to jump in place and attempt to counter.

We talked along these lines about timing a bit and then discussed the fact that most “tricks” are simple a matter of timing, usually accompanied by a change of direction.

And then, it was all over. Shima and Saito gave their last remarks, and we all went back to the hotel to clean up.

The Party

 

After all the official events were out of the way, we could all get down to the real reason we had traveled to Sydney in the first place – the party. Nick fired up the grill and cooked all kinds of steak for us, and everyone got to try some “skippy” as well. Gifts were given; beer and wine flowed; bottles were broken; some people laughed; some people cried; some people got naked; some people threw up; and someone had to be taken home in a shopping cart.

I had promised earlier in the day to demonstrate some special black belt drinking techniques to a few of the Australian students, and they called me out. I showed them my personal favorite application of one-handed cartwheels. Then suddenly Ohashi and Sakamoto were there, and we gave a full-blown demo to the crowd. We especially stressed the importance of practicing seimei no hokei drunk such that one can eventually feel the beer moving from jo-tanden to chu-tanden to ge-tanden… and back again.

We gave some special musical presentations that got mixed reviews, but in the end, all was forgiven by a nice chorus of “I Love Taido,” the new three-chord, three-word anthem of our generation. Then we sang the real Taido song – or at least tried to follow along with the tune.

I’m going to stop short of detailing the slight personal drama (I swear I had no idea they were dating…), threats of cop-calling, pranks gone slightly awry, roof-climbing, and toilet-papering, but I think you get the idea. It was a hell of an evening that very few people are going to forget anytime soon. Well, at least not those of us who managed to avoid blacking out…

The Playing

We spent the next two days sightseeing. We saw kangaroos and koalas, some incredible views, and some interestingly-(semi-)dressed locals. We went to the beach (twice!). We taught the Japanese kids how to play billiards. We ate chicken and drank beer. We did too much stuff to mention, but we took plenty of photos, so you can check out the Aussie Taido site and see for yourself.

Sayonara Sydney

The last night in the hotel, Ohashi had this idea to make a thank you video for the Aussie team from all of us. We organized everyone together in our room and got comments from everyone before joining together to sing “We love Australia” to the same tune we had sung “We love Taido” at the party. In the morning we added the last couple of people who had the nerve to be sleeping at 2am when we decided to film the main group. Just before sitting down to write this, I got an email form Dave saying how cool the whole thing turned out. Mission accomplished.

Then it was time for all of us to go. Well most of us. The Tokyo International Uni team stayed an extra day, and Ohashi is staying for about a month, but a little more than half of the Japanese contingent left together Tuesday evening. We all gathered on the lawn in front of the hotel and hugged and exchanged contact info. Nobody was too cool to laugh and say thank you. There was a lot of good feeling going around, and there was a general sense that we wanted it to last as long as possible. I have a feeling we’ll all be seeing more of each other.

At the airport, I realized I only had fifteen dollars left with which to buy souvenirs for my friends and coworkers. The urge for a sandwich and a beer won out, and I came home with only my uniform, clothes, and a heavy chunk of glass.

Back-Room Talk

It was interesting being “the American” at this event, even though I am officially a member of Japan Taido at the moment. Alvar is the general secretary of of the World Taido Federation and Shima and Saito are two of the eight members of the hanshikai, which acts as the technical directorship of Taido. Right now, they are trying to work out some misunderstandings and build a stronger world organization. I’m about as international as it gets, so they asked my opinions on a few matters.

I don’t want to dish any dirt, so I won’t go into details here. Shima and Saito are long-time friends with Uchida, so there is no problem there. Although I did find myself feeling as if I had to defend my teacher and his ideas of Taido to certain people at a couple of points during the weekend, I think it’s best to simply say that Japan Taido wants to have good relations with American Taido. They want to get everyone (including America) learning from each other in both directions and helping to make Taido a truly global, evolving art. That is why they (and I) traveled to Australia for this event.

“I’ll Be Back”

Personally, I got some good advice from Saito about things I need to improve in my Taido. He also told me to go ahead and take my renshi certification this summer so I will have international instructor recognition. I told him about some of my ideas and plans for expanding Taido operations in America through more university clubs, and he told me that he would help me out if I ever needed assistance from Japan.

In the end, I got a lot out of being able to hang with Shima and Saito, both. They gave me some great comments on Taido – technical and philosophical – that I know I can put to good use. It was also cool getting to chat with Alvar without the mediation of email. Being a foreigner permanently in Japan, he has a unique way of seeing things. He is also a hardcore student for Taido theory and actively interested in figuring out how to teach it outside of the Japanese culture-bubble.

Besides all that, it was fun. The Australian team has a great attitude, and they really made the whole event enjoyable for all of us. Without all the work that they each put into showing us around and being friendly, this could have been just another tourney/camp from which we all returned home basically unchanged. That wasn’t the case here. This was one of the better Taido events I’ve been able to attend – and this is coming from someone who is usually on the organizing side of things.

The theme here was friendship – and that’s the biggest thing we all got out of this event. Friendship between all of the countries where Taido is practiced – between the players first, then between the schools, then between the associations, then we can all join Pinky and the Brain in an effort to take over the world. Whatever our personal goals for our own Taido practice may be, we can accomplish all of them through the support of the friends we make in practice and participation in events like this.

I think everyone of us who participated made new friends, learned new things, and made new commitments to practice better Taido. That’s a successful weekend, and I know several of us will be back next year.

Two Original Hokei

In light of the recent hokei assignment I gave the Tech Taido black belt candidates, I decided to post some notes on a couple of hokei that I have created. Though neither one would fulfill the requirements I set forth in the assignment (because they were designed for reasons to be outlined below), their presentation may prove beneficial to the candidates as an example of the kinds of thinking that may be useful in the creation of a new hokei.

Hen/Hen no Hokei (“double weird”)

Sometime around 2000ish, I got to the point that I had become competent in performing every hokei in the American curriculum, and a couple of others that only a very few older instructors had ever seen. While I could have continued to practice them forever, continually discovering greater depth, our organization was in a very expansive mood at the time, in terms of technique. I thought some creative hokei interpretations would be a good idea.

I decided to make newer versions of each of the -tai hokei. I chose to begin with hentai no hokei because hengi are archetypical of Taido, and because the routine appears to be very closed to interpretation in its original form. In Japanese, “hen” means changing, strange, or weird, among other things. Since I was changing hentai no hokei, I decided to call it hen-hen, or double-weird, hokei.

I’ll begin by describing the moves for the current incarnation of hen-hen. Here’s an outline:

The routine begins from gedan kamae and faces left in the usual fashion. However, I use jodangamae instead of chudan here.

part 1:

(from hidari jodan) senjo-ebigeri (without touching the kicking foot to the ground in between), ushiro nukite (fudodachi), stand up, repeat on other side

part 2:

face front in hidari chudan, untai keri tsuki, gyaku shajogeri, ushiro sentai gyakujogeri, kiai, return to kamae, untai keri tsuki, gyaku dogarami, untai keri tsuki, turn and morote nukite, step left to hidari jodan

part 3:

sentai no tsuki, gyaku shajogeri, kaeshi ejizuki, gyaku ebigeri, step forward to kamae, step forward again, repeat on other side

part 4:

(from migi morote gedan) bakuchu moroashigeri, fukuteki

part 5:

step up to 45 degree angle (hidari chudan), keri moroashigeri, turn and repeat on other side, kiai, return to genten

Since this is based on a hokei you all know, I think you can get the gist of what I’m doing here. It should be apparent that I haven’t really changed the “flavor” of the hokei at all. If anything, i’ve increased the things that make hentai no hokei so interesting (to me, that is) in the first place: more changing directing, more hengi, more complexity. I’ve also gotten rid of the non-hengi for the first kiai, which has always bothered me (yes, it’s still technically sengi, but the actual strike is hengeri…). In general, I think my hen-hen hokei is very much like the original, only more so.

So why bother, if it’s going to be so similar? Well, for starters, I didn’t want the hokei to be unrecognizable. It’s still hentai no hokei – just a different version. The original hokei is great practice, and I love it. I just wanted to see how I could “max-out” the framework that the hokei provides. Have I done a good job? Well, that depends on what you think Taido should look like.

I’m sure some folks would think the use of jodan kamae is erroneous. However, I’ve always liked using jodan with sentai and hentai movements, and since the hokei has techniques working in opposite directions, it seemed like a natural fit. Some folks might wish for more unshin, since the original hokei only has one chance to earn extra points in competition, but i’m not very competition-oriented, so it’s not much concern to me. I think hentai no hokei is about changing – changing the body axis, changing direction, changing level (height), changing kamae for various uses, etc. The notion of change is central to my version of the hokei.

I feel that the outline above is pretty self-explanatory. Since the “point” of the hokei is unchanged, I won’t give much in the way of analysis of this routine. However, please note that the techniques do “flow”. There is nothing arbitrary or non-functional. The principles employed are the same as the original hokei. The techniques are (almost entirely) hentai. The routine does what it sets out to do by sticking to its theme and providing a useful practice of hengi at a higher level than the original version.

Now let’s look at my most recent creation:

2006 Asia-Pacific Games “Taido no Hokei”

Later this week, I will travel to Sydney to participate in the second annual Asia-Pacific meet. This year’s competition event includes a category called “Taido no hokei”. Briefly, the rules indicate that the player must create an individually unique hokei, based on a standard enbusen pattern used in the existing -tai hokei. The hokei should make use of each of the five sotai movements and contain some interesting/difficult techniques. It also has to be symmetrical. That about sums up the stipulations.

Lately, I’ve been spending most of my training time on the -sei hokei series, which are designed to practice go no sen application as opposed to the sen no sen of the -tai and -in hokei. This distinction primarily means that the -sei hokei use techniques, and are practiced in an attitude, conducive to application in a defense situation. For example, the -tai hokei (sen no sen) consist of straight-line techniques deployed offensively against one opponent at a time (usually). In the -sei hokei (go no sen), the performer defends against several attacks (sometimes by multiple assailants) in various directions. The -sei hokei use less kicking, no unshin, and more-complex unsoku than the -tai hokei, as well as lots of elbows, punches, and grabs.

I’ll get more into this difference in a future article, but the point is that I really am enjoying the go no sen feel of the -sei hokei, so I decided that I would attempt to bring more go no sen timing into my “Taido no hokei”, despite the fact that it has to follow the basic form of a -tai hokei.

Here’s an outline:

Firstly, I should say that I am basing this on the movement pattern seen in untai and sentai no hokei. However, I have made a couple of tweaks. For instance, from the initial gedan kamae, I turn to the left by spinning about the front foot, clockwise, so that I arrive in migi chudan, one step westward (assuming the front to be north) of the standard opening step. This is to set up the idea from the beginning that I am facing two separate opponents simultaneously attacking from opposite sides. Other alterations to the pattern should be apparent as I proceed.

part 1:

(from migi chudan) sentai shajogeri, renzoku nentai ejizuki, gyakuzuki, ushiro gyaku dogarami, tobi 3dangeri and morote nukite (hidari ejidachi), make hidari chudan in place, repeat on other side (migi ejidachi, rear foot on genten), spin counter-clockwise about rear foot to face front (hidari chudan)

part 2:

untai keri tsuki, turn and morote nukite, bakuchugeri, turn to north, zenten junzuki (migi ejidachi), kiai, left leg steps west to hidari chudan

part 3:

ka-soku sentai jun-hangetsuate (at 90 degrees), return by reversing the step in gyakusentai fashion, gen-soku, look to rear (east), ushiro nukite (migi ryunendachi), senjo-ebi-moroashigeri, return facing east, shotebarai, sentai kinteki enpi, kaeshi sentai gyakujoate (eastward), nage kuzushi (hidari ejidachi, facing west), turn in place to migi chudan, repeat on other side (migi ejidachi, facing east, right foot on kidosen), left leg steps north to migi chudan (facing genten)

part 4:

untai keri tsuki, turn and morote nukite, bakuchugeri, turn to south, zenten junzuki (hidari ejidachi), right leg pulls 135 degrees clockwise to hidari chudan to northwest

part 5:

untai oshikuzushi, step-in ryunen enpi, uraken, turn 180 degrees to northwest, torite, assist with right hand, left leg steps along the same line in front of the body to fudodachi, migi ushiro enpi with arm-break across left shoulder, left leg steps back to torite position, drop-enpi, left leg steps in front of body to genten, right leg spins 90 degress clockwise, repeat other side, kiai, return to genten, have a beer, go to bed

Parts of this are going to be difficult to understand in writing, and that’s ok. I may post some video someday, but I’m hoping to avoid turning this site into a media-heavy affair with too many stimulating visuals. In the meantime, use your imagination and try to figure out for yourself what these techniques are, and how they are being used. The discussion below may be helpful in this respect.

How did I meet the requirements?
Well, I followed the pattern symmetrically, and I used every sotai at least twice. What’s more, I tried to use each of the five techniques together in combination. In terms of interesting (or perhaps even new) techniques, I have a few combinations that I have never seen elsewhere. The shajo renzoku nenzuki is all mine. The senjo-moroashigeri is the advanced level of the senjo-ebi I use in the hen/hen hokei. Tobi 3dangeri was suggested as a possible point-winner, so I felt I should throw it in. I think I have met the requirements very well and even pushed beyond my knowledge of the expectations.

How did I exhibit go no sen?
This is a more interesting question. During each combination (save the kiai portions), I have two opponents attacking form opposite sides. The combinations deal with each opponent without neglecting the threat of being struck from behind. For each opponent, there is a defensive move, a time-buying move, and a finishing move. I’ve also included a good number of throws, joint attacks, and close-in striking. I’ll let you stretch your imagination a bit by figuring out the bunkai (though I may teach this routine and its applications to black belts someday). The main thing is that I think it’s pretty obvious that I am defending against multiple attackers in this routine. And that’s what I had hoped to accomplish.

The only thing I wish I could have done differently is to make use of more tengi techniques (not just in the “up and down” parts) or some better-integrated close/joint work. The tengi and close-in parts are kind of separate from the sen-un-hen-nen parts, which are very integrated. I would have liked it if I could have found a way to make everything fit a little more tightly together, and I may be able to do so in a future incarnation of this routine. As it stands now though, I had to cut out about half of the techniques I really wanted to include because my original draft would have killed me on endurance (it took about six minutes to do a mental walk-through). I traded the opportunity to create the “ultimate” hokei to end up with a performable hokei that includes plenty of flash while holding on to its purpose.

The End

So that’s the end of my notes on these two hokei. I think they show different sides of hokei creation in response to different requirements. One was designed as an update of an existing hokei, and one was designed for competition as an omnibus collection of interesting combinations exemplifying go no sen.

While neither of these would be acceptable for the hokei assignment as given, they could be interesting source material for students (or anyone) hoping to build their own routines. In addition, this article may be helpful in deciding how to structure the essay portion of the hokei assignment (though the descriptions would be unnecessary).

I hope this demonstrates that the contents of a hokei or routine are designed to be functional practice for combination techniques. While it’s always nice if a routine looks badass, this is meaningless if the techniques don’t fit together with some overall purpose. The two hokei outlined above are both pretty good examples of these points.

I have created several other hokei over the past five or six years (not to mention the ones I made up as a child – but I was more interested in tenkai in those days). In addition to “updates” of all the -tai hokei (including both versions of untai) as well as ten and nen -in, I have done several combined-sotai routines: sen-un, un-hen, sen-nen, and ten-hen. I’ve also played with the -sei and -mei hokei along the same lines, but I haven’t finalized any practice that I feel really meets the standards of being called a “hokei”.

This kind of tinkering with preset routines doesn’t have to be limited to hokei. In america, we practice a lot of shorter routines for various techniques. I am currently working on making new versions of all of these too, at both easier and more difficult levels. The idea is that students can learn simple routines early on, and then increase the complexity and difficulty with variations on the theme as they progress. For example, I have a variation on the simple 8-step chudan kamae turning drill for each belt level. Black belts find themselves losing balance and tripping over their feet when they practice my advanced sentai routine.

Perhaps some really forward-thinking students may be interested in the idea of altering existing hokei and routines as a means of creating incrementally progressive drills of gradually increasing difficulty to improve capabilities in some or other theme of movement. And if not, i’ll get around to writing an article about it someday before too long…

Belt/Rank Meaning

Ok. So if you know me at all, or have read many of the things I’ve written, you know that one of my serious gripes about Asian martial arts (and their western copies) is the custom of “ranking” or awarding level-markers to practitioners. I’m not going to spend too much space in this article discussing the carrot-on-a-stick principle, the love of rankings as a japanese cultural phenomenon, or my opinions about the mental health of those who place too much importance on what belt they wear. I do plan to discuss a particular philosophy of meaning as it applies to martial arts ranks.

Before I get on a roll here, I would like to direct your attention to this belt-related article at 24fc.

Let me also point out that the irony of me downplaying the importance of belt rank in an article I have written about that very subject does not escape me (and for the record, I have yet to make any claims to mental health on this web site). I think belt ranks have exactly the meaning and importance that we ascribe to them. I tend to take a semiotic view of meaning and a transactional view of value, so don’t expect for a second that this article is going to try and analyze the concept of ranking in some sort of rational vacuum.

Martial arts are founded in competition – they are about combat (internal and external). Anyone who tries to tell you differently is trying to get you to enroll your child in his McDojo. Competitiveness is pervasive in the martial arts world. The kinds of people who do this sort of thing (develop and test their physical abilities against opposing parties) are competitive by nature, though some may deny it. I used to believe that I was not competitive, but I have since realized that I was merely fooling myself. I am competitive – just not when it comes to fighting ability or belt rank.

I can jump and shout all day long that belts are not a big deal, but the fact is very clear that a great many martial artists care a great deal about the issues surrounding belts and rankings. Thus, belt rank is an issue of great importance, by definition.

So belt rank is important. There is no denying it. It may not be very important to you, or you may not want anybody to know how important it really is to you, but it is important, and understanding this does matter to you. With that out of the way, we can turn to what belt ranks actually mean. This will be a much more difficult exploration.

Belt Equivalence Concepts

One popular notion of the meanings of various belts is the idea that the rank of shodan is akin to a bachelor’s degree from a university. The argument goes that the four years of traditional post-secondary education are thought of as preparation for entering the workforce. This is supposed to be roughly equivalent to the idea that a shodan will have basically learned the technical curriculum of a martial art.

I have also seen the comparison stretched to suggest that higher degrees of black belt may be likened to graduate studies. I can only hope that this is intended as a joke. Though I have yet to participate in any graduate-level studies in university, I know a lot of extremely “educated” people, and I do not consider my relatively high rank in Taido to be any kind of match-up to that level.

Though martial art grading syllabi often require “research” or some kind of “thesis,” close examination reveals that the actual requirements are very light. For shodan and 2dan, the world-standard Taido examination requires the applicant to answer 5 fill-in-the-blank questions. For 3dan, the requirement is a 3 to 5 page paper on the topic of “Taido.” I wrote five page papers on more specific topics in high school. Yet, this “academic requirement” is one justification for exalting higher belt ranks.

I would suggest that, if one were truly serious about drawing a comparison between martial arts education and standard western academia, the analogy receive a thorough overhaul. I say that reaching shodan does not require anywhere near the amount of work or learning we expect of college graduates. I would place shodan as a high school graduate.

We could look at it this way:

White belt is like kindergarten. You learn the rules. You get indoctrinated into the group. You figure out what is expected. You move around a little bit, but you still can’t really read or work with numbers too well.

Purple belt would be the primary school of martial art education. You learn the basics and simple combinations. You build vocabulary. You gain core competencies and study skills.

Green belt is junior high. Here you start to have a little more autonomy in your training, but more is expected of you. There is more sense of competition among classmates. Classes are harder. Tests are harder. You realize that it is very possible to fail your next grading.

In high school, you have to demonstrate that you have learned all the stuff the school system has told you to learn. Brown belts must do the same if they wish to reach black belt level. Upon graduation, many students get jobs at the video store. Upon reaching shodan, many martial artists cease to practice.

I’ll suggest that shodan is like freshman year of college in that students have to learn how to teach themselves. Perhaps 2dan and 3dan could be seen to represent the remaining three university years, such that reaching 4dan would equal a college degree (in a very figurative sense). If actual research were presented, I would have no problem calling 5dan a master’s and 7dan a doctorate in that martial art.

Actually, scratch that

Looking back over those last few paragraphs, I still believe the comparison to be really, really limp. An academic education requires codified and objective standards to be met. Furthermore, grades are awarded. Graduating high school with a 2.0 average does not guarantee admission to college. Graduating college with a BA in comparative religion will not do much to land a steady job (nor will a PhD in astrophysics, in case you were curious).

In the martial arts, a black belt is a black belt. We don’t qualify black belts based on their grades at the time of promotion (though perhaps we should). Would it be ridiculous to suggest that a 2dan with a 4.0 outranks a 4dan that barely passed his last exam with a D? Maybe it would, but we could easily see a student failing to reach brown belt because he couldn’t pass punching.

Another thing we don’t do is specify someone as a 3dan in sparring or a shodan in basics. Martial art belt ranks are supposed to be comprehensive (though they seldom are) in the scope of expertise they signify. I often hear martial artists talking about their senior instructors in terms of being good at one aspect but not another. Why don’t we just go ahead and specify the rank to a particular skill? My guess is because it would destroy the hierarchy our egos demand.

For the above reasons, I have to say the analogy to any real educational system (designed by trained educators and tested by objective third-parties such as prospective employers) is seriously lacking. However, I wouldn’t mind using a system that made use of letter grades, subject concentrations, objective standards, and verifiable research. Under such a system, my transcript might look something like this:

  • Date passed 4dan: 10/2004
  • Cumulative Grade Point Average: 3.3
  • Major course of study: Education, with concentration in Taido Theory
  • Minor course of study: Hokei

Of course, this transcript doesn’t show that I barely passed my sparring requirement, still can’t do shajogeri worth a damn, have a knack for pissing off my instructor, was the founder and head instructor of my own Taido club, and have participated in several “study abroad” programs. Nor does it include a list of publications or shit-lists I’ve landed in, but I don’t think it’s anything to worry about – somehow, I doubt if the majority of the Taido community is going to go for this system.

What is involved?

I feel we should attempt to relate the meaning of each level to the kinds of things we expect of people at those levels, or possibly to the kinds of things we expect of people prior to achieving that level. This means we will look at what students do at a particular belt rank. As one of my poetry professors once told me: adjectives describe reality; verbs define it.

Shu, Ha, Ri

The traditional Japanese view of the educational process works through three stages:

  • Obey (shu) – beginner-level.
  • Adapt (ha) – advanced-student level.
  • Break (ri) – mastery.

Shu, ha, and ri are said to mean obedience, divergence, and transcendence, respectively. A more accurate translation would be: follow, break, separate. For an in-depth discussion of shu, ha, and ri, see (once again) 24fc.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a student begins by doing as the instructor says to do. Eventually, he knows enough to make small adjustments for his own purposes. He goes from copying to adapting. Beyond a certain level, the student will have have learned all he is capable of learning from someone else, and he will have to teach himself. At this point, the student leaves his instructor and goes off to learn the lessons that will make him a master in his own right.

“Shu, ha, and ri” sounds nice and poetic. It would be great if things actually worked that way. After spending three years as a school teacher in Japan and as a member of a Japanese Taido dojo, let me give you a better description of the process:

obey, copy, obey, copy…

it goes on like that for a very long time. Eventually, a small percentage of students get to a point where they may: think, and try something new. The student will then: seek approval from his instructors. If they do approve, he will continue to obey. If they do not, the student has the option to: leave. Whichever path the student takes at this point, there is a good likelihood that he will then: teach, either as a representative of his own teacher (whom he will continue to obey), or as the leader of a new organization. In either case, he will expect his own students to obey and copy him.

Traditional Western Approach

In the west, we have a different terms for this process: indoctrination, memorization, practice, application, which would be roughly equivalent to the school analogy I gave above (primary, junior, secondary, university). I mention it again only for the purpose of comparison to the shu, ha, ri idea. Though focussing on what the student actually does at each level this time around, I still don’t see this way of looking at belt ranks as holding much water unless some very concrete changes are made to the way we administer gradings.

The Meaning of Meaning (or, what meaning means to me)

To come back to my earlier statement about value being transactional, my belief is that personal meaning of an object is tied to what one does to acquire that object. If one would willingly trade $10,000 for a Rolex, that watch means $10,000 to that person. If one believes that having a Rolex will allow him to sleep with beautiful women and impress other men, that watch means sex and power. The important questions surrounding meaning are:

  1. What would you do to acquire the thing?
  2. How do you expect to benefit by acquisition of the thing?

These two vital questions are just as true for objects (or situations) that we do not believe we are capable of acquiring, as well as those we have long-since acquired. With regard to belt ranking, we could sum it up by asking:

What are the requirements, responsibilities, and privileges associated with this level?

Looking at these factors scientifically would perhaps allow us greater understanding of why so many martial artists get their proverbial panties in a wad over belts. (Un?)fortunately for us, such subjective questions are outside the realm of science. The best we can hope to do is keep these subjective factors in mind when we think about belt rank issues, realizing that objective comparisons are not going to be attainable.

This is Not a Competition

So, let’s all get over ourselves. Martial arts are inherently individual sports. There is a social aspect to being a member of a dojo, but the actual practice is personal. In order to get the most out of our practice, I believe that we all need to spend less time comparing ourselves to others and a lot more time exploring our own experiences. Competition is an inherent part of that process, but the overall goal is not competitive in and of itself.

Instead of all this focus on requirements, responsibilities, and privileges (ranking and what they mean to us), we could all benefit from viewing our practice as a gateway to greater self-awareness and actualization. The irony is that, as we improve ourselves and our abilities form the inside out, we meet all of the external signifiers naturally and effortlessly. We also find greater joy in what we do. Finding this peace makes it difficult to be concerned with what other people say and do.

Looking at things this way, I suggest that ,if we’re not going to be rigorous about it, let’s just drop the belts. There’s nothing to be afraid of. People can still tell who’s good and who knows what he or she is talking about. Bullshit stinks in any form, but people will always know the genuine article when they see it. Talented martial artists and skillful teachers needn’t fear a lack of credential. Only the charlatans have anything to lose by relinquishing their fancy uniforms, titles, and stripy belts.

As instructors, the only thing we really have to lose is our integrity.

Hokei Assignment

This year will mark the completion of ten continuous years of operation for the Taido club at Georgia Tech. We are the first group to have successfully administered a Taido program in the United States outside of the honbu dojo. We are also the only non-commercial Taido practice group in the country. This year, we will promote our first three black belts, as announced here.

Over the years, black belt tests in American Taido have come to be little more than a formality that occurs after a few years of training. While we aren’t suggesting that the physical black belt test is all that big a deal, Bryan and I have long thought that it should be the final step in a process of black belt candidacy that is at least somewhat transformative to the student. This process should require growth and demonstration of competence in the core areas of Taido practice and philosophy.

Since we see our club as an extended experiment in Taido practice and teaching, we decided long ago that when the time came for our students to test for shodan, we would do things a little differently than they are usually done. Bryan and I have been working for over a year now on a new method of testing students for black belt. I will be gradually releasing the details of our test process on this website as the students work towards their physical examination (date, TBA).

Upon learning of their candidacy for shodan, the three students were informed that they would be required to create a new and unique Taido hokei and write a paper defending it. Here are the guidelines I sent them in an e-mail earlier today:

Your Hokei

Create your own hokei based on the following criteria:

  1. Base your hokei on any one or two (no more) of Taido’s sotai (sen, un, hen, nen, ten). You may use other techniques, but focus on one or two types of movement.
  2. You may use a standard enbusen (layout) from an existing hokei or create a new one.
  3. Performance must last between 2 and 3 minutes in duration.
  4. Your hokei must fit in the space of a standard Taido court.
  5. You must return to genten.
  6. The use of new or interesting technique combinations is desirable.
  7. All strikes must have a clearly targeted opponent.
  8. You must prescribe breathing methods for your hokei.
  9. Your hokei must show understanding of the 10 hokei performance guidelines (ex. You need to have slow parts as well as fast, relaxed parts as well as tense).
  10. Your hokei must also demonstrate your understanding of the doko 5 kai for the sotai you chose.

Your Paper

You must also prepare a paper explaining the thinking that informs your hokei design. here the the paper guidelines:

  1. Successful papers will explain the decisions involved in creating a new routine and how you went about making them in a manner that demonstrates your understanding of Taido.
  2. You should be able to explain: how many opponents you are facing; why you chose certain techniques and combinations; why you breathe when and how you do; and any other pertinent information.
  3. Please do not describe your routine, we will see it for ourselves when you perform it.
  4. Papers will be as long as they need to be to explain the routine. A more straight-forward routine will require less explanation than one that uses a lot of complicated combinations.
  5. Please spell-check and try to follow grammatical conventions.
  6. Be consistent in your spelling of japanese words – it’s OK to be incorrect because you don’t speak Japanese, but please choose one spelling per word and stick with it.
  7. Format your paper in a manner that lends itself to easy evaluation. For example, eight pages about a routine built on hengi will make it difficult to reference your second ebigeri. Use section headings and typographic cues to direct navigation of your paper.
  8. Papers will be submitted to andy and bryan via e-mail in a word format no later than two weeks prior to your physical examination.
  9. Papers, along with our comments, will be posted on the website no later than one week prior to your physical examination.

Your creativity and ability to defend your decisions are the primary evaluation points for this assignment. Have fun.

What is (My) Taido?

I see Taido as a system of principles which prescribe creativity in movement and thought. In my practice, I focus on health, mobility, and personal development through the exploration of creative movement. And I also hit people.

Freedom is a necessary precondition to creativity. In terms of motion, you are limited in your potential performance (your creativity) by your mobility and strength (your freedom to manipulate your body). Taido will increase your agility, strength, and endurance, as well as contributing to your overall health. Taido can be an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. Despite its sophistication, students of all ages, skill levels, and cultural origins, including those with physical and mental disabilities, can learn Taido.

Taido is based on five types of movement: rotation about a vertical axis, vertical displacement, axial tilt, rotation about a tilted axis, and vertical displacement with rotation about one or more axes. These five movements are deployed through two locomotive methods that act as a framework for strategic development. Combined with various hand or foot strikes, throws, and joint manipulations, the five movements and two methods create an infinite variety of possible techniques. These techniques are practiced in formal chains (hokei) and partnered drills (kobo) that progress in a logical manner from basic mobility to complex combative application (jissen).

I don’t believe that Taido can be practiced as a traditional art – it is a radical art. When Seiken Shukumine synthesized Taido, he intended to take the martial arts out of the two-dimensional world of karate and into the multidimensional universe of Einstein. In fact, he referred to Taido as the “three dimensional art of defense” (though I would argue that it serves us better to think in terms of four dimensions). He hoped to release the full potential of human motion for application to martial science. The result is an athletic style of near-gymnastic combat. Watching Taido, one can easily see how it differs from “traditional” karate.

Since Taido was founded in the spirit of evolution, we are all responsible for continuing to evolve the art to greater levels of sophistication and usefulness. This is as true for Taido theory as it is for technique – meaning: I am not pushing any dogma in any aspect of Taido. I don’t believe in canonizing a technical curriculum nor allowing training methods to stagnate. Taido is about changing with science and society and making its practitioners successful in coping with those changes as well.

Taido is for people who want to evolve and develop as humans. This means realizing our full creative potential in all aspects of our lives. Taido can improve your performance in everything you do, and it all begins with learning how to move.

Note: The first few comments below refer an older version of this post. I have retained them because the discussion clarifies some points that may not be clear otherwise.