An American Who Went to Japan and Discovered Himself
Ellis Amdur has a lot to say about the martial arts. The author of numerous internet essays, books, novels and even a dozen psychology manuals on how to deal with violence, he isn't shy about sharing his opinions, either. But unlike the majority of people who pontificate on martial arts, Amdur is someone you should definitely listen to.
A mental-health professional specializing in crisis intervention and a consultant for law-enforcement agencies, Amdur is one of the few Westerners who hold certificates of full mastery from two Japanese koryu systems. He's also one of the most iconoclastic martial artists you'll find, as comfortable banging away in a boxing gym as he is practicing traditional sword forms in a classical dojo or working on Chinese internal-strength exercises.
Amdur, 68, began practicing kung fu while in college. Later, looking for a new kung fu school in New York City, he stumbled on an aikido dojo. All he knew about aikido came from an ad he'd seen in the back of a comic book, which claimed the art developed mystical energy. But Amdur found something there, in the Japanese martial arts, that resonated with him.
"There's a particular aesthetic in Japanese martial arts compared to other arts," he said. "It has a kind of austerity in the way you move and hold yourself that appealed to me.
"He began training regularly in aikido. After graduating from Yale in 1976 with a degree in psychology, Amdur dreaded the idea of additional study to become a therapist, so he decided to spend a couple of years in Japan to further his aikido practice. The two-year trip ended up lasting more than a decade.
Before Amdur left, his teacher Terry Dobson suggested he look up the legendary apostle of classical Japanese martial arts — Donn F. Draeger — when he got to Japan. Amdur scoffed at the idea. Having read a couple of Draeger's books, he said he wasn't interested in those who wrote about martial arts. Instead, he wanted to meet people who actually could do something.
"Then when I finally met Donn, he was built like a Greek god and could do full squats with 500 pounds even in his 50s," Amdur recalled. He became friendly with Draeger — but never too friendly.
There's a touch of rebelliousness in Amdur, which always has led him to go against the grain. Thus, it's perhaps unsurprising that while numerous young Western martial artists living in Japan back then became part of Draeger's inner circle, relying on the older man for advice and entrees into various dojo, Amdur made a conscious decision to fend for himself.
"I associated with Donn but also tried to keep my distance," Amdur said. "I knew if I was with Donn, I'd immediately have one foot in the door with many instructors. But I left everything behind to come to this foreign country, so why would I want to get comfortable like that?"
Amdur found his own way. After several months in Japan, he decided he wanted to explore the koryu arts, those systems that developed before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Although there used to be hundreds of individual koryu styles, only a few dozen are still practiced, often by a handful of students.
Amdur's introduction to the koryu arts came from another overseas American, a man named Meik Skoss. Skoss, who practiced several koryu arts, briefly shared an apartment with Amdur and one day mentioned that he'd found a nearby gym where a couple of old styles were taught. On separate days, the gymnasium hosted classes in yagyu shinkage-ryu swordsmanship and araki-ryu torite-kogusoku, a system that specialized in grappling with various weapons.
Having heard of yagyu shinkage-ryu, renowned because it was the style taught to the Tokugawa shoguns who once ruled the country, Amdur was determined to learn the system. But when he dropped by the gym, it happened to be on a day when the araki-ryu class was being held.
"I wanted to do yagyu shinkage-ryu because it looked so elegant," he said. "I'd seen pictures of araki-ryu in one of Draeger's books, and it looked rough and unsophisticated in comparison. Araki-ryu was the one thing I didn't want to do. But I thought it would be cool just to see it."
Showing up at the gym as a towering 6-foot-6-inch foreigner in tattered jeans and hair down past his shoulders, Amdur caused a minor commotion. A tough-looking Japanese man a few years his senior stepped outside and asked what he wanted. When Amdur said he'd like to watch the class, the man told him to get lost. But then he suddenly asked Amdur if he wanted to train in koryu and whether he knew Draeger.
"I didn't know Donn at the time but tried to say I knew of him," Amdur said. "But my Japanese was so bad [that] what I ended up saying was, 'Donn Draeger is my aunt.'"
For reasons unknown, the man let Amdur in and allowed him to watch the class. When it was over, he told Amdur he could come back to train the next week.
"Much later on, he told me that he didn't like Americans but that I looked like a pretty strange American to him. He said, 'I am a pretty strange Japanese, so I thought this might be interesting,'" Amdur recalled.
Amdur's teacher — he prefers not to identify him by name because the man is retired and wishes to stay away from the spotlight — has been described by Skoss as one of the most interesting koryu instructors in modern Japan.
"He was a pretty hardcore guy," Skoss said when asked about the teacher. "Besides araki-ryu, I think he had a background in judo, kendo and boxing. He quit participating in all the public koryu demonstrations because he felt most of the other guys there were a bunch of wankers who couldn't fight.
"He also wasn't wedded to koryu as an unchangeable tradition. Over the years, he and Ellis went through the whole araki-ryu curriculum and tested it all by beating on each other with weapons. They realized a lot of things that had been added over the years just didn't work. So they cut them out, which was his right as head of the system. And if anyone gave him a hard time over that, he'd offer to go test things out with them!"
Although Amdur accepted the offer to begin training in araki-ryu, he immediately regretted the decision. He'd gone to the gym, determined to train in yagyu shinkage-ryu, and instead came away committed to a style he wasn't interested in. But in retrospect, he said he definitely made the right choice. He compared yagyu shinkage-ryu to a polished gem whereas araki-ryu is like a rough piece of granite. Amdur said he identifies more with the plain granite.
The training often was brutal as Amdur and his fellow students would pad up and then have at it, sometimes fighting full contact with heavy wooden weapons. After a few years, he was the only student left in the dojo. Everyone else had quit.
He now recognizes that between his own enjoyment of living on the edge and his teacher's hardcore vision of martial arts, his life was gradually being pulled in a not-altogether-healthy direction. What stopped him from veering too far down a potentially violent and destructive path was an introduction to his second koryu art called toda-ha buko-ryu and its headmistress Nitta Suzuyo.
Amdur had married while in Japan and wanted to practice a martial art with his wife. He didn't believe that araki-ryu would be appropriate for her, so they decided on buko-ryu, a style that focused on the naginata, the traditional weapon most associated with women in Japan.
He said training with Suzuyo provided a calming influence in his life. She reminded him of his own mother, a woman of both strength and morality.
But training in two koryu arts was daunting. Although he's now a licensed instructor in both arts, he refuses to teach both of them to the same person, believing that most people can't properly devote themselves to two such arts.
Of course, Amdur never took his own advice; he not only trained in both styles but also added modern fighting arts to his repertoire. He continued doing aikido for several more years but eventually noticed that whenever he made things difficult for his instructor in freestyle practice, the instructor would instinctively revert to a judo throw rather than an aikido technique. Amdur reasoned that he'd be better off studying judo.
He began training with the judo team at the high school where he was teaching English, which hosted the top scholastic squad in the country. He also enrolled at Tokyo's leading muay Thai gym to improve his striking skills. And when he discovered some of the kicks used in araki-ryu were more effective when done muay Thai style, he and his teacher didn't hesitate to change them.
However, Amdur is adamant that any changes he makes within a koryu system must fall within a particular cultural context. Even if someone could make a double-edged katana that was somehow more effective than the classic single-edged sword, he said he'd have no interest in using it because it never existed on a Japanese battlefield.
"But if we're grappling with a weapon and you show me a better way to pin someone, I'm going to do that since it will fit into the context," he said.
While Amdur is willing to make certain changes within araki-ryu, he's less willing to do this with toda-ha buko-ryu. That's because he acknowledges that araki-ryu is a style in which change has always been an inherent part of the system. Originally practiced by warriors who straddled the border between low-ranking samurai and peasants, araki-ryu never had a hereditary headmaster as other systems did. Instead, once someone was certified as a master, the person was expected to move on and spread his own version of the style in a different region — which has led to vast differences in the various araki-ryu branches.
This is precisely what Amdur's instructor expected of him when he certified Amdur as the only other master of his branch of the art.
But the American was content to stay where he was in Japan, teaching English and translating technical manuals while spending six to eight hours a day training in martial arts. Finally, his araki-ryu teacher said, "You're wasting your life here. You're training for power, but how do you use that power? I don't care if you become a policeman or a terrorist, but if you're not using your power, you're not a man."
Amdur took the advice to heart. "I realized martial arts by itself wasn't anything," he said. "It's an activity that should contribute to something. I wanted to use my power in a way to contribute to society."
He delved into phenomenology, a branch of psychology with a heavy philosophical influence, and it appealed to him. The idea of sitting in a room doing counseling all day still didn't interest him, but he'd heard about the field of crisis intervention, in which counselors went to the homes of people in violent states and tried to get them to a less aggressive place. He made the decision to come back to America and return to psychology with a plan to specialize in crisis intervention. It was an area where he frequently found unusual uses for his martial arts.
"One time, I was asked to do a visit to the home of a man with schizophrenia whose mother was missing," he recalled. "He'd previously bitten the nose off a policeman, so I went to see him with two law-enforcement officers. This guy with huge arms opens the door, baring his teeth at me. Now, the final teaching of the toda-ha buko-ryu is that in all matters, you should be polite and bow. I didn't see any point to that when I learned it, but when I saw this guy, I sensed his combination of terror and rage, and without even knowing I did it, I bowed to him half an inch."
Amdur's display psychologically disarmed the man to such a degree that he and the officers were able to ascertain that the mother was in no danger and then exit the scene without incident.
Amdur went on to develop tactical de-escalation programs to help various professionals cope with hostile situations. Among the more important points of such assignments, he said, is understanding the difference between dealing with people who are angry and those who are enraged. Angry people still want to communicate, so if you can let them know that you understand them, you may be able to lower their level of anger.
But when someone is enraged, he said, you can't just de-escalate. You have to use verbal commands to gain control. He recommended giving a single command like "Step back!" and not confusing the issue by adding anything extra, such as "Step back or else!"
Amdur's unique combination of psychological and martial insights has found its way into a number of unexpected areas. He's teamed up with Don Gulla, the founder of a police-combatives program called Arrestling, to teach a mix of tactical de-escalation and physical methods for law-enforcement officers. As part of a Department of Defense project, he co-wrote a work for soldiers on managing communications with people in hostile environments and has trained numerous people in his unique brand of martial arts.
Chhi'mèd Künzang, a member of the Dog Brothers stick-fighting organization who's learned elements of araki-ryu from Amdur, recalled one lesson Amdur gave on the subject of using a sword against a spear. Later, at a Dog Brothers gathering, Künzang had the opportunity to put the teaching into practice by using a wooden sword against a fellow fighter who was employing a Chinese-style training spear. He discovered that some of Amdur's techniques transferred quite well to the wild world of armed combat.
"With the Dog Brothers, you're doing something combative, but there's sort of an implicit rule set that you try not to permanently hurt anyone," Künzang said. "Then there are the styles that developed for pure combat which use techniques that are too lethal for competitive fighting. Usually, those worlds are disjointed. To find that overlap between them, the way I have with Ellis, is very rare."
As long as there have been martial arts, there has existed a tension between the traditional and the modern, between those who care about aesthetics and those who care only about what works in a fight.
"There's a case to be made for each," Amdur said. "But for me, I don't want to just do either of those. I want both. It's like calibrating a sail with shifting winds, though: If you find you're off-center, you have to be able to adjust."
To learn more about Ellis Amdur and koryu,visit kogenbudo.org.
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