Japanese Martial Arts

How to Use the Combat Concepts of Legendary Swordsman Miyamoto Musashi in 21st Century Self-Defense

Ask a martial artist who’s up on his history to name the greatest warrior of all time, and chances are he’ll say Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary Japanese swordsman who cut down 60 men with his blade. No doubt there have been many other fighting men — both before and after Musashi’s day (1584-1645) — who killed more enemies, but undocumented knowledge seldom outlives those who possess it. What makes Musashi special is that he accumulated an incredible amount of experience and committed his wisdom to paper in the form of a timeless classic titled Go Rin No Sho. We know it as The Book of Five Rings.

On cursory examination, the text appears to be a simple work designed to educate young swordsmen. Yet it embodies a plethora of between-the-lines observations and advice that will enthrall anyone who reads it with a warrior’s eye. Its prose captures an old warrior’s perceptions of the world around him and conveys the lessons the master deemed essential for a young warrior’s survival. It’s important to remember that when Musashi put pen to paper, he was very old. He knew that for him, there would be no more battles and, therefore, no need to hold anything back in an effort to keep enemies from learning secret fighting methods and using them against him.

Much of the content of The Book of Five Rings is specific to combat in old Japan, yet Musashi has plenty to teach 21st-century martial artists. We may carry a tactical folder and a Glock instead of a wakizashi and a katana, but fighting is fighting regardless of the year, and much of Musashi’s wisdom still applies.

His text is divided into five parts: Ground, Water, Fire, Wind and Void. A full discussion of their modern applications is beyond the scope of this article, so I’ll focus on the most poignant lessons.

Ground

“Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest and the deepest things as if they were a straight road mapped out on the ground,” Musashi wrote. His meaning is clear: Success in combat requires planning.

A lesson frequently learned early in a martial artist’s training is that those who are destined to win do so by first studying and then fighting. Those who are destined to lose tend to fight first and then study why they lost. Although no one can accurately predict the outcome of every battle and prepare specifically for it, you can certainly stack the deck in your favor.

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You must develop a realistic understanding of your skills and capabilities. Study the dynamics of conflict until you possess a basic understanding of how combat unfolds. It’s crucial to approach this with a 21st-century focus since modern-day assailants don’t always use weapons that existed in ancient Japan.

Musashi compared the way of the warrior to the way of the carpenter. The carpenter plans everything with great specificity, and you, as a martial artist, should do the same — both inside and outside the dojo. You may know exactly how you would spar with a classmate who likes to lead with a roundhouse kick, but do you have a plan in the event of a home-invasion robbery? How about a car jacking or mugging? Being prepared means you’ll never be a deer in the headlights, frozen by the savagery of the world. Leave nothing to chance.

Water

In the second section of his treatise, Musashi wrote: “Water adopts the shape of its receptacle. It is sometimes a trickle and sometimes a wild sea. Water has a clear blue color. By the clarity, things of [my] school are shown in this book.”

One of the most difficult attributes to develop is adaptability. A wise martial artist uses techniques and tactics that fit the circumstances of the fight. His goal is to hit his adversary, not necessarily to execute his favorite technique. Knowing which kick or punch to throw as a fight begins — and being able to change course at a moment’s notice — is essential.

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The ability to become a tactical chameleon requires exposure to different fighting styles. Witness the generally poor showings made by one-dimensional fighters who enter MMA competitions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In that kind of limited-rules environment, the fighter that triumphs is the one who has trained in every conceivable method, from ground grappling to kickboxing and all ranges in between.

Musashi’s moral: Study everything, keep what is useful and do not limit yourself to any one system.

Fire

“This book is about fighting,” Musashi wrote. “The spirit of

Samurai Training Philosophy: Be Thorough in the Disciplined Practice of Martial Arts

Excerpt from Budoshoshinshu: The Warrior's Primer of Daidoji Yuzan.Editor’s Note: The following text is an adapted excerpt from the samurai training philosophy e-book Budoshoshinshu: The Warrior’s Primer of Daidoji Yuzan, translated by William Scott Wilson (who also translated the samurai training philosophy e-book Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors.) Budoshoshinshu: The Warrior’s Primer of Daidoji Yuzan is a collection of 56 essays promoting the ideals of the samurai class, which were fading from favor during the author’s lifetime (1639-1730).

It is essential for men who would be warriors, even if they are of low rank, to select a respected instructor of military affairs, receive instructions in the martial arts, and to come to a deep and detailed understanding of even the secret principles of military strategy.


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Although it may be thought by some people that the study of military principles is unsuitable for a warrior of low rank, this is a great misunderstanding caused by a lack of inquiry. The reason is that, in both past and present, among the men who were looked to as territorial or provincial leaders or received fame as great generals, there were any number who rose from obscurity and isolation to do great things. This being so, there could be warriors from this time forth as well who could come up in the world from low ranks and become generals.

Thus, it is desirable that even a warrior of low rank be given the knowledge and virtues of one of high rank. If a man will take a liking to and enter military studies, he will develop both wisdom and ability. By these means, a man who is clever from the beginning will become increasingly so.

There will also be a good effect for the man born a bit thick-witted, for if only he will study the martial arts for many years he will not be so slow after all.

If this is so, there would appear to be nothing that surpasses the martial arts in the studies of a warrior.

However, when a man abuses or practices amiss in the martial arts, he will be arrogant about the extent of his own ability, look down upon those around him, speak nothing but unreasonable and high-sounding theories, leading unpracticed youths astray and injuring their casts of mind.

Although such people speak words that seem just and correct on the surface, their innermost feelings are largely covetous, and their real intentions founded on measuring what will be profitable for them and what will not. Thus, their character gradually grows worse, and later they lose all sense of what it means to be a warrior. This is an error that comes from going only halfway in the discipline and practice of martial studies.


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At any rate, if one is to study military matters, it is essential that in his practice he should not stop halfway, but by all means at one point or another, go as far as the secret principles of the martial arts, at last returning to his former “foolishness” where he will have serenity of mind.

It would be extremely regrettable, however, for those of us who do study, to pass our days in going only halfway in military investigations, letting the deepest principles of the martial arts slip through our grasp and becoming confused in our own halfwayness, and finally leading not only ourselves but even others astray in an unavoidable sequence.

What was stated here as “returning to foolishness” means something like one’s state of mind while he has not yet studied the Way of the Military. Generally, phrases circulated like “miso smelling too much like miso” and “a martial artist that reeks too much of the martial arts” come from old times and carry the meaning of “intolerable.”

These words are for the understanding of those intending to be warriors.

Related Martial Arts Books, E-Books,
DVDs and Video Downloads

Advanced Samurai Swordsmanship

Budoshoshinshu: The Warrior’s Primer of Daidoji Yuzan

Ideals of the Samurai: Writings of Japanese Warriors

Shito-Ryu Karate Trailblazer: Fumio Demura

Shito-ryu karate legend Fumio Demura, as photographed for Black Belt magazine.Ask the average karate practitioner to name the main styles of Japan, and chances are he’ll rattle off shotokan, goju-ryu and wado-ryu with no trouble. But unless he’s really up on his art, there’s a good chance that he’ll stumble over the name of the fourth major style, snap his fingers and ask quizzically, “What’s the name of that other one, again?”

That other style is shito-ryu, and any karate student’s puzzlement about it is somewhat understandable.  Shito-ryu is relatively unknown outside Japan, even though it’s perhaps the most interesting of all the Japanese systems. Shito-ryu is really a combination of several styles. For instance, it adopts the quick, strong moves of shotokan and blends them with the slow, heavy breathing aspects of goju-ryu. Another noteworthy feature of shito-ryu is the emphasis that some of its instructors place on making their students proficient in kobudo (traditional weaponry), including the bo, sai, naginata and nunchaku.


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Probably the biggest reason shito-ryu is still relatively unknown is that until quite recently, few attempts were made to export the style. Certainly, its practitioners haven’t been nearly as aggressive in sending sensei to other countries as have the followers of shotokan.

The results of this stay-at-home policy are apparent: Few martial artists know it abroad, and the other Japanese styles dominate the foreign field. In the United States, shotokan is the most widespread. In Europe, wado-ryu is very strong. Meanwhile, goju-ryu is well-known — in good measure because of the worldwide publicity given to two of its most prominent, and flamboyant, practitioners: the longhaired Gogen “The Cat” Yamaguchi and the barrel-chested Mas Oyama.

In the United States, there’s only one shito-ryu instructor. That’s surprising in view of the fact that America has more karate players by far than any other country outside the Orient, and there’s such a profusion of styles taught here. (Estimates of the number of U.S. karateka run as high as 50,000.)

A few years ago, we were discussing this point in Black Belt’s offices with Fumio Demura, a muscular fifth dan who’s shito-ryu’s sole representative in the United States. Although little-known abroad, he’s one of the more recognized karateka in Japan. He won the All Japan Karate Championship in 1961 and serves as his style’s representative in Tokyo, where he operates five dojo. He’s also much in demand to give demonstrations with the bo, sai and other weapons because of his advanced skill.

“I think the big reason why foreigners know so little about shito is that the style is most prominent in the western area of Japan, a good distance away from Tokyo,” Fumio Demura said. “Foreigners who come to Japan tend to concentrate in Tokyo, where they are not exposed to the style. In Tokyo, it’s the shotokan and goju styles that are strong, and it’s these styles that visitors usually pick up.”

Fumio Demura got to the United States almost by accident. Running true to shito-ryu form, he’d been content to stay in Japan and build up his style in the Tokyo area. But he was temporarily sidetracked by a persuasive American karateka who coaxed the reluctant Fumio Demura to cross the Pacific and introduce shito-ryu in the United States.

The American responsible for Fumio Demura’s odyssey to the New World is Dan Ivan, a jack-of-all-trades of the martial arts who operates several dojo in Southern California. Dan Ivan holds a first-degree black belt in karate, kendo, judo and aikido. He learned the arts in Japan, having spent half a dozen years there. Dan Ivan accompanied Fumio Demura to our offices and explained how he happened to run into the man who’s now head instructor at his schools.

“I had gone to Japan last year to look for another instructor for my dojo,” he said. “My black belt is in shotokan karate, so naturally I was looking for a shotokan man. But everywhere I went, people kept talking about Demura. Finally, when I got to meet him, I was impressed right from the start. I was especially impressed by his fine attitude. I have met some karate men who were excellent technicians but whose attitude left much to be desired.

“But you take Fumio, now, he has a fine outlook. For instance, when a student who’s had some previous karate training comes to the dojo, Demura always asks them what they learned first in karate. Usually, they tell him that they learned stances or exercises or techniques. Then Fumio tells them that the first thing they learn in his dojo is good manners. I consider myself quite fortunate to have gotten Fumio to come to this country to teach in

Japanese Martial Arts Expert Dave Lowry: Do You Need to Go to Japan for Serious Karate Training?

Japanese Martial Arts Expert Dave Lowry: Do You Need to Go to Japan for Serious Karate Training?As a serious karateka, do you need to travel to Japan? Do you need to go to the homeland of budo to gain the perspective necessary to understand your art?

No.

Yes.

Maybe.

No, you don’t need to travel to Japan to train — not in terms of technical training. The notion that you do is decades out of date.

True, there was a time when the technical level of karate in Japan was much higher than in the United States. Those days are gone. American-born karate teachers have mastered the technical skills of their art and polished their teaching skills in an extraordinary way since I took up karate in the late 1960s. There are some remarkably good sensei here. That’s not to say they’re common, however. (In my opinion, nine out of 10 karate “teachers” are not really that and have no business trying to teach an art they don’t understand.) Great karate sensei are hard to find, but they are here, and you can learn the technical aspects of karate from them. So in that sense, no, you don’t need to go to Japan to polish your karate.


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You’ll notice that in the above paragraph, I used the word “technical” several times. If you want to learn karate’s physical technique, yes, you can be taught it here. If you want to learn the spiritual aspects of karate, I would say, with some reservations, maybe you can learn that here. Maybe.

There are sensei in this country who have some grasp of the spiritual dimensions of karate and budo. Their numbers are few. If one in 10 karate teachers is really a teacher in a technical sense, then one in 1,000 has a real understanding of karate as a spiritual path.

Few American sensei speak or read Japanese with any fluency. Few have any in-depth familiarity with Japanese spiritual and aesthetic concepts. While their mastery of technique is sometimes quite high, their understanding of budo’s spiritual dimensions is often poor. Or nonexistent. In many cases, it’s compromised by having read too many silly books about Zen or samurai philosophy and by superimposing their own ideas on top of that.

It’s very important, while we’re in the realm of “maybe,” to note that a trip to Japan for karate training is not a guarantee you’ll be exposed to the spiritual realities of the art. There are plenty of Japanese sensei who are clueless about these. There are karate frauds and sadistic brutes in Japan. There are karate teachers there who indulge in all sorts of goofy, pseudo-Oriental philosophies that sound exotic and profound but that are mostly nonsense with no legitimate historical connection to karate or budo — just like there are in the States. Your chances of being correctly taught the spiritual dimensions of karate are better in Japan, true. But just like in America, if this is your goal, the answer to the question of whether you’ll get it in Japan is maybe.

As for the “yes” answer … there are some facets of karate you can learn only in Japan. They’re not technical or necessarily spiritual; they’re cultural.

Karate developed in Okinawa and evolved as a budo in mainland Japan. The cultures of those places played as much of a role in karate as, for example, Christianity has played in the art and culture of Western civilization. Japanese culture cannot be removed from karate, not if it’s to remain real karate. That’s not to say one must be Japanese to practice or understand it. However, one must have some understanding of and appreciation for Japanese culture to acquire a broad and mature understanding of karate as a complete art and way.


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If your goal in the dojo is to develop the physical aspects of karate, fine. Go to a nearby school and challenge yourself. But if you want to grasp karate as a do, as an all-encompassing way, sooner or later you must go to where it became that.

The lessons of karate to be learned in Japan are not all or perhaps even mostly taught in the dojo there. They’re learned as you interact with a culture that’s markedly different from yours.

It’s learning that form and formality are not dead, not merely rote behavior but a way of teaching a perception that leads to an entirely different way of dealing with the world than you may be used to.

It’s being exposed to a culture in which …

Way of the Ninja: Strategies for a Better Life Today

Centuries ago, the art of ninjutsu was born into a world enveloped in war. That one fact makes it vastly different from styles like aikido and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which were founded during peacetime. Because of its violent childhood, ninjutsu matured into a system that focused on fighting methods that worked on the battlefield, behind enemy lines and against multiple attackers. The art grew to encompass principles for psychological self-defense that enabled its adherents to live out their lives on their own terms, free from fear.

Those same principles are now used by military personnel around the world — even though they probably don’t know where the teachings came from. Because we all face adversity — granted, it may not be as severe as that experienced by a black-clad warrior 500 years ago or an Army Ranger today — ninja wisdom is just as valuable in the 21st century as it ever was.

You cannot control your environment, but you can control yourself.

At the foundation of ninjutsu lies the basic understanding that you have little to no control over your attackers. Whether they’re physical, psychological or emotional sources of stress, to waste time fretting, panicking or denying the truth of the circumstances is to invite frustration. Or failure.


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The inhabitants of the ninja villages in Japan’s Iga province were attacked almost daily. Instead of wallowing in their misery, they prepped themselves to function in fearful or stressful environments. Accounts abound of training sessions in which students ran through dark forests while their partners waited for an opportunity to effect a surprise attack. By mastering their breathing, their senses and their awareness, they were able to function. What’s more, they learned how to remain relaxed under stress.

These days, sources of stress take on many forms. Daily challenges may not become real psychological or emotional threats until they start to snowball. “It’s not an expensive car repair,” you might say. “It’s just that I need the car to pick up my cousin at the airport tomorrow. It wouldn’t be a big deal, but with my reduced hours at work …”

Just like the ninja of old, we can’t control our environment, but we can control ourselves. Remember to keep breathing, smile and never lose your 360 degrees of awareness. You’ve no doubt read countless articles that explain the concept of “tunnel vision.” Frustration, fear and anger can narrow your awareness to the origin of those emotions (your attacker). As a result, you’re exposed to the possibility of multiple assailants.

This principle applies psychologically, too. Spend your time frustrated or angry over your circumstances, and you’re liable to miss out on opportunities that are dangling just outside your peripheral vision. Opportunity is present in every stressful situation. Recall how persecution and warfare helped transform the ninja not only into survivors but also into legends.

There’s something to be learned from everything.

The ninja referred to this principle as shikin harimitsu daikomyo, which roughly translates as “every moment holds the potential for enlightenment.” The ninja’s enemies enjoyed superiority in numbers, weapons and supplies. The ninja, however, realized there was one thing their enemies could not take away: their ability to learn something new from each encounter. This principle was embraced and eventually woven into the fabric of ninjutsu.


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The beauty of historical ninjutsu is that training and living were the same. The only thing that separated failure from lesson learned was the mindset of the person involved. They strived to take something new from each encounter and apply it during their next one. They never allowed their egos to get in the way of revisiting that vital first stage of learning.

Thomas Edison outlined this principle well: “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work.”

Conditioning yourself will help you succeed in stressful environments.

The third principle is one that separates martial artists from sports competitors, and it lies at the heart of ninjutsu. Bruce Lee reminded us that the best training for the event is the event. Separating excellent training from mediocre training can be challenging because we normally can’t participate in the event we’re training for. As explained above, however, the ninja were able to combine the actual event with their training, and they worked out a system for learning from each attack.

A complete martial art trains you to remain comfortable in stressful or dangerous environments. To do this, it must push …

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