February 22nd is Ninja Cat Day in Japan. The onomatopoeia of a cat’s meow in Japanese is nyan nyan. The Japanese love their homophones and thus nyan nyan become ni ni and the first syllable in the word ninja (忍者).
The kanji for nin is 忍 which means patience or self-restraint which are huge concepts in budo. The other kanji 者 is ja or sha which means person.
One of the major differences between beginners and experts is impulse control. Impulse control is nothing more than being able to control one’s self in any situation. Self-restraint is then the mark of a true master.
Happy Ninja Cat Day!
For For 20 years during the Sengoku period, Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin fought a series of hard fought battles. It was during this time that each cultivated a deep respect for one another. When Takeda Shingen died suddenly on the battlefield, Uesugi Kenshin supposedly wept and said, “I have lost my greatest rival, there will never be a greater hero.” Our adversaries can be our greatest teachers. As a training partner, it is our duty to bring out the best in our partners. We owe it to them to give them a good hard practice. That doesn’t mean be a jerk. It means to push them to become better. If we are too easy they become too complacent and soft. If we are too hard they become bitter and contemptuous. Pushing them to their heights in a positive and productive way enables them to reach their true potential. It is a great honor to be a part of that process. Be a positive force for change so that as C.S. Lewis stated, “All of hell rejoices that I am out of the fight” because I help make others better.
I recently saw this video made in Japan where three Olympic fencers took on 50 untrained or barely trained fencers on a Japanese variety show. The video was made for a TV so it wasn’t that serious but I was amazed at how poorly the Olympic fencers performed. Not only did they show a low level of skill, but they also showed that since it is a sport there was no group strategy.
At first as the 50 converged on them, the Olympians fled to the stairs. I thought, “Ahh, this is correct.” Furuya Sensei taught us that to fight one person is the same as hundred and to strive for high ground (which I am sure was gleaned from Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings strategy). Going to the stairs would have provided them a natural barrier for three of the four sides of attack and they would only have to face opponents from only one direction and, most crucially, only one at a time. This strategy would have allowed them to use their skill to win the battle.
As you can see from the video they abandoned the strategy of working together and using the stairs. Those three Olympic fencers would have been overwhelmed and killed in a matter of minutes if it were are real fight. They would have been picked apart as the odds stacked up against them because each Olympian could be surrounded by as many as 16 people at any given time who would be attacking from all sides. Also, did you see by how many times the untrained fighters just poked them in the arms and back as they ran by? This method is called “Death by a thousand cuts” in knife fighting where small non-lethal wounds add up to a tremendous amount of blood loss and eventually take their toll on the fighter as the battle rages on.
It is interesting, as things become more “modern” or sporty they can sometimes lose their martial sense. As martial artists, we can look at this video and take heart to make sure that we practice our arts as martial arts and not just something we do for exercise.
Are real warriors sensitive?
One might think that people engaged in the military arts would not or could not be sensitive by the shear nature of their business.
I would argue that a warrior or martial artist at their highest is and has to be sensitive.
Sensitivity is commonly, and erroneously, thought of as vulnerability and vulnerability is death. At first glance, this is true, but only to warriors of the lowest levels.
To be a great warrior one needs the ability to be able read their opponents in a split second. This “read” has to be done with the sub-conscious mind because it happens so fast that one only realizes that it is happening when they are already moving. This sub-conscious action requires a master’s amount of training. It is so fast and without conscious thought that most begin to call it “intuitive” movement.
To develop this intuitive movement requires that one venture to a place within themselves seldom seen by the outside world but only after the physical art has been mastered. It is the place where we hide all of our secrets and fears which we call our “weaknesses.” To be able to defeat a foe greater than ourselves we must venture deep within ourselves and confront these dark places. The most well-known movie scene illustrating this was in the Empire Strikes Back when Luke ventures into the Dark Cave of Evil where he strikes down Vader only to reveal himself which suggests he is his own worst enemy. When we become aware our weaknesses and deal with them then they become the source of our true inner strength.
We then use this sensitivity, which is rooted in the awareness of our own weaknesses, to find the weaknesses in our own opponents. Looking for the weakness in Japanese it is called “Benki no naki dokoro” which means Benkei’s weak spot (Musashibo Benki was a legendary warrior in 12th century in Japan).
Can we be strong and sensitive? Sure, true strength is found at the juncture of what we can do physically and where we are mentally. To gain true victory is what O Sensei calls Masakatsu Agatsu or the true victory is the one gained over one’s self.
Does a real warrior cry? I would argue that they do, but not for the same reasons that we might think.
I wish you good luck today and a happy Friday the 13th! Today is supposed to be bad luck so I send you this Maneki Neko in hopes that it bring you good luck.
The Maneki Neko or “Beckoning Cat” is a symbol of good luck in Japan. The waving cat is everywhere in Japan, but did you know one of its origins is samurai related? Here is one famous story about the samurai origin of the Maneki Neko.
In 1615 during the Edo period there was a temple in Tokyo called Gotokuji that had fallen on hard times. The priest there loved cats and, although poor, he saved his meals to feed this stray cat. As the cat ate, he would say, “Please bring me good luck and prosperity.” The story goes that the famous samurai Naotaka Ii who was the feudal lord of Hikone happened to be walking by the temple on his way home from falconry one afternoon. As he looked over at the temple gates, he noticed that the stray cat seemed to be beckoning him to come in. Naotaka became curious and entered the temple just as a severe thunderstorm passed over soaking the entire area with heavy rain. The famous samurai from Hikone spent the rest of the afternoon drinking tea and listening to the priest’s sermon on Sanzeinga no ho (三世因果) or the reasoning for the past, present and future. Grateful to the cat for keeping him dry Naotaka Ii donated a large sum of money to re-build the temple and designated it the official temple of his clan.
I wish you the best of luck today.
When I was a student, we had to announce ourselves whenever we entered or left the dojo. We had to say, “Good morning Sensei it’s David” or “Good night Sensei, thank you. This is David” every time or we got a scolding from Furuya Sensei the next time we came. Sensei used to say, “Only a dorobo (thief) enters without announcing themselves.” This stems from the Japanese proverb, “When you see a stranger regard him as a thief!”
This idea of announcing oneself or one’s intention can still be seen in Japanese society today. When a person comes home, they say, “tadaima” or I’m home. When we see someone you know in the morning one is supposed to say, “Ohayogozaimasu” or Good morning. When a student visits a dojo, they are supposed to bring a letter of introduction from their teacher that states the student’s rank, how long they have been training, something about their character and a request to allow them to train.
This insular idea comes from the “village” mentality that the Japanese had that dates back hundreds of thousands years. If you were from their village then a Japanese person would bend over backwards to help you, but if you were an “outsider” then they would be very suspicious of you.
From a martial arts perspective, this distrust of outsiders came because of the practice of dojo yaburi (道場破り) or dojo challenges, but some call it dojo storming. Dojo yaburi is when a person comes to the dojo to challenge one of the students or the teacher. Supposedly, if one could beat the teacher then they would take over the school and the students. Resources and students were scarce and so this was a frequent occurrence.
This idea of regarding a stranger as a thief is one that still exists today. One of the main differences between Japanese and Western people is that Japanese people don’t talk to people they don’t know and they especially don’t idly chit-chat with strangers. This closed-offness is something that confounded Western businessman in the 1980s as they tried to infiltrate the Japanese economy. Usually, no introduction meant no business. One needed to have an “in” in order to start a business relationship.
There is even a famous Zen story closely associated to this idea of strangers and thieves:
One evening, Zen Master Shichiri Kojun was reciting sutras as a thief with a sharp sword entered, demanding that he give him money.
Shichiri told him: “Do not disturb me. You can find the money in that drawer.” Then he resumed his recitation.
The thief found the money and began to leave when Shichiri said, “Don’t take it all. I need some to pay taxes with tomorrow.”
The intruder gathered up most of the money and started to leave. Shichiri then said, “You should thank a person when you receive a gift.” The man thanked him and ran off.
A few days afterwards the thief was caught and confessed to his crimes. When Shichiri was called as a witness he said: “This man is no thief, at least as far as I am concerned. I gave him money and he thanked me for it.”
After he had finished his prison term, the thief became Shichiri’s disciple.
In Japan, whenever you enter someplace you are supposed to state your intention and one does this by how one announces themselves. Students have to greet their teachers and show they are ready to learn and this is done with the first greeting. Customers always air on the side of politeness so they usually say, “Sumimasen” or excuse me prior to asking for something.
The bluebird and the cherry blossom are the universal symbols that Spring has arrived. In Japan, the arrival of Spring brings with it the opportunity for renewal and hope of prosperity.
The two motifs are a favorite among the warrior class. Both symbols have a certain sense of balance to them in regards to life.
Bluebirds symbolize happiness but their songs also represents perseverance in darker times. I am sure a samurai in the heat of battle who had the awareness to hear the song of the Bluebird would think that it was a good omen and that their song might give him the strength to carry on. It is said that the Bluebird carries the sky on its back and with it eternal happiness.
If Japan had a national flower, it could easily be the sakura or cherry blossom. The Cherry blossoms usually only blooms for one to two weeks from the first blossom called kaika (開花) and full bloom called mankai (満開). After mankai is reached the blossoms begin to fall off the branches. There are five petals of the sakura flower and thus it said to represent human beings. Therefore the falling of the cherry blossoms off the branch are reminiscent of a head being chopped off or life being lost. The cherry blossom falls off the branch at the peak of its beauty and just as men are cut down on the battlefield in their primes. The cherry blossom reminds us that there is no tomorrow and that we must live our lives well.
Spring has arrived! Rejoice, get out, find happiness for there is no tomorrow. Oh and come to class if you can.
In the earliest part of Spring in Japan the snow sometimes lingers as the cherry blossoms or sakura begin to blossom. It is kind of a strange but pleasant paradox when you have the leftover bitter cold and snow of Winter along side the fragrance of the blooming cherry blossoms of Spring. This occurrence has been a constant theme over time for many artists and poets in Japan.
This same paradox exists among humans. We are all beautiful despite the coldness and bitterness that we have faced and triumphed over. The question is, “Can we let our beauty shine despite being covered by snow and surrounded by cold?”
This is the same question that martial artists face too. When we are surrounded or up against seemingly insurmountable odds, “Can we still maintain our composure?”
Training teaches us to be this paradox of beauty in spite of the circumstance. Our paradox is actually the opposite whereas we have the ability to do great harm, but instead exercise restraint and show the true beauty of man by acting with kindness, compassion and forgiveness.
In Spring, the seasons start over. The cold demanding Winter is starting to fade and give way to the possibilities of Spring. With a peek of light and a hint of warmth, Spring brings us renewal. I hope that you have a wonderful Spring.
Life is a never ending cycle of falling down, healing and getting back up. In Aikido we call that taking ukemi. As these scrapes, bumps and bruises heal, we have the tendency to try and hide them as if this damage some how defines us in a negative way. These battle scars do more than define who we are – they makes us into who we become. If we try and hide them, then we tend to take that negative path in life. If we display them for all too see then we can use them as fodder to make us stronger.
It is natural, I suppose, to want to hide one’s flaws and only project one’s accolades or strengths. In chado or Japanese tea ceremony it is the exact opposite. One’s flaws are seen as the things which makes us human and this can be clearly seen when a tea bowl is broken. Rather than throw it away, it is sent out to be repaired. The bowl is painstakingly put back together with a sort of gold glue called kintsugi (金継ぐ) or gold patch. However, the bowl isn’t repaired back to “new” where one wouldn’t even be able to see where the original damage was, but in some sense made better by the repair. This repair, therefore, enhances its beauty.
In Aikido, we fall down and we get back up – it is part of the training. The trials and tribulations of life’s journey do add up, but they make us who we are – the person we have become. We can either get back up and use it to make us stronger or hide them and make ourselves weaker. We are all infinitely stronger than we think. How do I know that? Well, you are still here, right?
Below is a nice video explaining kintsugi in further detail.