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Even Monkeys And Kappa

October, 2019,

“Even monkeys fall out of trees” is a familiar Japanese proverb. One related in sentiment yet less well-known is that kappa can be swept downstream.

by Dave Lowry

Kappa are curious beasts of Japanese mythology. With the body of a human and the shell and beak of a turtle, they live — legend has it — in streams and rivers. Kappa attack people, particularly children, the stories go, and disembowel them in a particularly gruesome fashion.

You can envision the origin of such creatures: to serve as a deterrent to children who are tempted to go swimming or wading. The proverb about kappa being taken downstream, like the one about the monkey, is a reminder that even something that lives in streams can, on occasion, be swept away by the current — just like those monkeys that live and play in trees all day long can sometimes take a tumble.

These proverbs can be heard in the Japanese dojo when a skilled exponent makes a mistake. I have been fortunate over the years to see a great many such mistakes made by individuals who were skilled. In fact, I probably remember those mistakes more vividly than any spectacular, flawless execution of karate and other budo.

I once saw a kendo match between two swordsmen at the height of their skills. They were young enough to be physically awesome and old enough to have absorbed the finer points of the art. They were close in ability and spirit. Neither seemed to be able to gain any advantage.

Then one kendoka dropped his bamboo shinai. No excuse, no explanation. Kendo teaches one to have a relaxed grip; only wannabe samurai clutch weapons tightly. In this case, though, the grip was too relaxed. The shinai clattered to the floor.

Before it hit, the empty-handed kendoka had already reacted. He lept toward his opponent, grabbed his wrists and delivered a foot sweep that sent the man to the floor before the shinai had stopped bouncing.

It is astonishing — and inspiring — how quickly the kendoka reacted to his own mistake. There was not even a second of hesitation. It was almost as if he dropped his weapon deliberately. He did not. Kendo rules vary; there is generally no way a point can be scored just by throwing one’s opponent. There was nothing strategic to be gained for the kendoka. He later said he was aware, even as he moved in for the throw, that he would not get any advantage. Indeed, he was disqualified for the action.

“It was instinctive,” the kendoka said later. “I attacked without thinking about it.”

He lost the match, but through the mistake of dropping his shinai, the kendoka demonstrated the fighting spirit that characterizes true budo.

Another time, I saw an aikido teacher named Miyazaki make a “mistake” that likely saved a student from serious injury.

In general, I rate aikido demonstrations by one standard. The senior or teacher comes out on the mat and demonstrates a succession of techniques, throwing his opponent, sometimes several opponents, again and again. I don’t watch the techniques; I watch the body placement. A good aikidoka will, in between techniques, constantly be moving forward, taking possession of the space. He controls space. Less-talented exponents will usually back up, “setting up” for the next technique. They are not aware of the concept of controlling the space around them. 

Sometimes, of course, it’s impossible in a small space not to have to readjust one’s position. Even so, it is the opponents who should be forced to back up, not the person demonstrating the art. So I was impressed to watch Miyazaki-san constantly driving his opponents in the demonstration, keeping them off-balance and staying in control. One delivered a strong punch; Miyazaki pivoted, took the opponent’s wrist and moved right into a position that would result in a very large throw. Then he saw that, being near the edge of the mat, the throw would put his opponent in a dangerous spot that entailed falling half on and half off the mat.

Instead of throwing, Miyazaki pivoted once again, leading his opponent. The opponent, though, was not the sort of docile “throwing dummy” one sees all too often in aikido. He reorganized as he moved, came around and drove another punch right into Miyazaki’s midsection. Miyazaki tensed as he took the punch. The sound it made could be heard by all watching.

Miyazaki was able to continue, shifting again and effecting a pinning technique. He finished the demonstration. Everyone had seen him get hit. How many had noticed the hit had come because Miyazaki put the safety of his opponent before his ego? It was a mistake, yes, but it was one that taught me a lot.

You may have seen a demonstration involving the Okinawan bo in which the staff, manipulated quickly, actually breaks. This can look dramatic. It sometimes happens because the practitioner is wielding the bo incorrectly, putting stress on it in a way that doesn’t efficiently take advantage of the weapon’s capability. Other times, it is because of carelessness on the part of the practitioner, who should be aware of the condition of his weapon before using it.

Sometimes, though, it just breaks. That happened to an Okinawan karateka I once saw at a large public demonstration. He was halfway through the kata, moving brilliantly with crisp, focused power. And the staff splintered. Right in his hands. Without missing a single beat, he stopped, keeping perfect balance and concentration while holding the two pieces in his hands. He stepped forward, returning to where he’d begun the kata. He paused, bowed slowly and walked off.

“Did he do that deliberately?” someone beside me asked. No. He made it look that way, however.

Monkeys fall from trees. Kappa get swept downstream. When they’re good, they make it look deliberate. 

Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name into the search box.

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