Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Ancient arts, modern world – are they fit for purpose?

This blog no doubt will upset the die-hard traditional practitioners but the content of the blog does have a serious point to it and that point is do old bugei martial arts systems have real practical use in a modern world?

Arguments on this very issue have raged for many years now and the internet forums for the martial arts are a blaze with arguments on who and what is the best way to deal with physical violence. I am going to avoid the subject of weapons; the reason for not discussing the weapon arts comes mainly down to the fact that the majority of mature adults know that it is illegal both to carry and use weapons in public, that said there are a few idiots out there that think they are the exception to the rule.

To continue the blog I’d like to use an issue that is always hotly debated amongst martial artist and instructors alike: joint locking. Now we’re not going to use a particular martial art in general as an example as there are far too many to discuss from all cultures, not just Japanese. I have met instructors who are adamant that effective joint locking will work with the use of good evasive foot work and control of the aggressor rendering the attacker immovable and in great pain.

Having been on the receiving end of many a sankyo and nikkyo both in ju jutsu and aikido I can agree with the claim of effective pain, however I would like to mention that these techniques were performed in the dojo under controlled conditions, with the ever present thought of the insurance policy in the back of your mind if the technique is performed wrong or too brutally and the fact that as an uke I am allowing the technique to be applied freely so tori can study the technique.

As a former doorman I have never gotten a joint locking technique applied to control an unruly customer; there are a few reasons for this: one, we usually worked as a team or group to deal with violence and two, the environment is totally different from a clean respectful dojo with an insurance policy. Outside the dojo there are no rules and the average aggressive person that is pissed off through drink, drugs, you spilt my pint and you’re trying to get off with my bird will not be compliant or respectful to you; also keep in mind that we are discussing controlling one person here and not multiples.

Over the last six years I have been invited to teach on many courses and on all these courses we have always taught simple and direct techniques in a controlled, aggressive manner. These techniques range from elbows, head butting, knees and one of my favourite techniques, biting but to be totally honest this would only be used in the extreme.

Now I am not condoning violence as something to be proud of or that these techniques are an answer to all threats of violence; believe me, I have been on the receiving end of a good kicking so nobody is infallible.

All situations are different and have unique problems that have to be dealt with at the time but I like the techniques I have used in the past; I would use them again in the future, such as pre emptive striking, closing the distance using atemi waza and then control the aggressor if it is needed using joint locking.

In this modern day and age I believe that the only real use of joint locking outside of the martial arts should be by law enforcement, prison guards and the military etc. The reason I state this is because they usually work as a unit and not a singular person when trying to subdue and control an aggressor; how many times have we seen half a dozen police officers trying to control someone to get the cuffs on? Now this comes down to the law and rules of engagement they are bound by; even so I have witnessed quite a number of police officers used to finally control an aggressive drunk when a good old fashioned right hook or elbow would have solved the issue much quicker. Many say the police have their hands tied and I agree having read the police manual on the use of force to detain a person, in my opinion it all comes down to covering backsides and insurance.

It is not my intention to use this blog to promote our particular way of training or use of technique, nor do I claim that what we do is the be-all-and-end-all in the self protection world. Indeed there are many more experienced people out there than I and deal with these issues on a daily basis in a variety of employment situations. That said, I have stood in line and learnt from these people and I personally agree with their methods and approach, many would not.

I was motivated to write this blog having read the statements and articles by Sensei Taran McCarnum and Sensei Dave Thatcher. I will admit to only knowing them through the martial arts community but their honesty and candour was something I was immediately drawn to, further more I also agree with them on the issue of the amount of total rubbish being taught as safe practical defensive techniques in a combative situation.

Thanks to YouTube every man and his dog wants to be on the big screen to strut his stuff and make his claim on what is effective to deal with violence and let’s be honest there is some total crap out there; everything from rape prevention to gun stripping an opponent. There are a lot of issues usually not discussed on these videos such as terrain, emotional state, environment, one or more aggressors, weapon involvement, drink, drugs and adrenaline etc. Also none of us are psychic so no-one can predict how any given situation will turn out and no amount of training will solve that but it does give you an edge providing it is practical and hopefully effective.

On recent courses up and down the country I have witnessed absolutely abysmal training standards and techniques been taught to deal with violence; this training came across as a corporate product guaranteed to work one hundred percent of the time, all the bells, whistles, badges, certificate of attendance and more gold on a black belt than black. The instructor was extremely confident in his verbal delivery skills and motivating the group but the content taught was in my opinion total rubbish and not a true reflection of what I have in the past witnessed on many occasions.

Teaching gun disarmament to a society that does not use guns personally on a daily basis and the fact that the average person is not desensitised to firearms is both dangerous and fool hardy; even I could not tell you how I would react to a gun shoved in my face, then again I am no body special either. The knife work was impractical and the attacks were slow and controlled from the attacker; real knife attacks are fast, aggressive and in some case not seen until you have been stabbed. This course was a classic case of a classical martial art being used to sell a product and give false confidence to those that attended. No doubt the instructor knew his art inside out but was using it in a foolhardy way.

For the most part if I attend a course and think a particular technique is total rubbish I just don’t take it on board; I have met some really arrogant instructors laying down the law on the rights and wrongs of effective self protection and why they are right and the rest of the world is wrong.

I have had the privileged to have trained with what I consider instructors at the forefront in dealing in effective training methods, not just techniques but training the body and the brain to deal with violence. The one thing that stands out with all these instructors is the practicality of technique in the given situation; simple techniques delivered in a brutal manner if warranted. The guys have been at the hard edge of what most of us will never have to see or deal with and personally I agree with their methods.

Complicated techniques such as joint locking may have their place on the ancient battlefields for the use of stopping a samurai drawing sword but I personally have never had my wrist, elbow etc. grabbed in a fight and I am certainly not going to ask a person to grab my wrist just to try out a technique when I can drive an elbow to your face or stick in a good head butt.

At the end of the day all of us will do what we want to do with regards to training and practising our chosen martial arts or modern training systems. However it is my wish that “you” having read this blog at the very least question yourself, your training and methods of training.  There are large groups of people training that do not spar hard so how can they know if they can take a punch? Not to mention those that train only in a pure art but never train to use it effectively or adapt it for fighting.

Quality effective training or disillusioned week in week out rubbish sold to you as a product? Only you can make the choice, I hope it’s the right one.

To find out more about Evasive Self-Defence Combat System visit http://www.esdcs.org or e-mail John Barrass at: john@kurinami.wanadoo.co.uk

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Cutting Edge...

It’s a well know fact that just about everybody within the martial arts community around the globe can distinguish between most of the more common empty hand arts or systems. I, as most people who know me well will know, have been involved with the martial arts since childhood and now teach my own progressive combat system. In addition to empty hand training I also student the Japanese sword arts; I say student as I believe one never stops learning or refining ones knowledge of the weapon arts, their history and the techniques within the art or any other martial art for that matter.

Lately I have been extremely fortunate to have been invited to teach the Japanese sword around schools and dojos in the UK. This has been of tremendous benefit in helping to spread the weapon arts and also the added benefit of meeting some top class instructors and students who have now become friends.

That said, it does surprise me somewhat how many senior grade instructors there are who cannot distinguish between the Japanese sword styles and there uses. With this issue in mind I have drafted a small but hopefully useful explanation of each individual art and its purpose. One should be very aware however that there are unique and sometimes very subtle differences between each school (ryu ha) 学校方法 and these subtle differences can have a dramatic impact on the art and the use of the sword. Other differences can include the syllabus and purpose; for instance we shall use kenjutsu as an example. Some kenjutsu schools will only dedicate themselves to the use of the sword however other schools will study such topics as senjo kumiuchi (battlefield wrestling/fighting techniques) or hojo jutsu (rope tying/restraint techniques) or the use of both. Other schools will study the spear (yumi ) or the halberd (naginata 鉾槍).

Here follows a basic description of the main sword arts and their uses. I hope they prove useful but please note that they are basic descriptions only; further and deeper examining of the sword styles is encouraged to improve your knowledge:


Iaido is one of the Japanese traditional budo concerned with drawing the blade and cutting in the same motion. (Budo means martial arts or military arts in Japan). A typical form consists of the draw and cut, a finishing cut, cleaning the blade and returning it to the scabbard, all without looking away from the imaginary opponent.

Most practice is solo, eventually with shin-ken (a real blade). In contrast with Kendo, Iaido is performed without protective coverings of any kind. Students must strive to achieve power, precision and perfection in their form. Along the way they learn balance, grace, and control both of the body and the mind.

Iaido dealt more with everyday situations rather than those on the battlefield. The term "Iai" is taken from the Japanese phrase: "Tsune ni ite, kyu ni awasu". The meaning of this is, whatever we may be doing or wherever we may be, we must always be prepared from any eventually.

The techniques themselves dealt with many situations such as a sudden attack by several opponents, a surprise attack while bowing to someone, an enemy lying in wait behind a sliding door or an attack in a darkened room. The permutations (suppositions) were countless.


Iaijutsu is an ancient sword art that predates the more common iaido and focuses on the art of drawing and using the sword. Although the terms are very ambiguous generally speaking many use the term iaijutsu to speak of a more combative form of iaido, whilst kenjutsu focuses on the actual use of the sword rather than the drawing and re-sheathing. The origins of iaijutsu are unclear, some credit its creation to Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu who founded the Muso Shinden-ryu school of swordsmanship, however others argue that Iizasa Choisai Ienao devised a system that we would now recognise as iaijutsu almost 100 years before.

Iaijutsu skills were not designed to be used on the battlefield but rather existed to allow samurai to defend themselves in day to day life, hence the focus on drawing the sword very quickly and disabling your opponent should the situation arise. This also explains why many iaijutsu and iaido kata are practised from sitting and kneeling positions as well as from general, everyday standing up.


Kenjutsu is a military art form which was created in Japan in the 15th century. It was primarily designed to prepare samurai, as well as ordinary soldiers for combat on the battlefield. The main emphasis of kenjutsu centres on the practice of swordsmanship. But in some styles the practice of other battlefield-related weapons is also an integral part of their martial study. At the simplest level, it can be viewed as a collection of combat techniques for various weapons, most notably the sword. At a more complex level, it can be considered the study of the strategy large-scale and small, offensive as well as defensive.

The study of Kenjutsu is purely the study of the sword art and it’s developed through practice. Any person can swing a sword but to study the sword you must develop the mental and spiritual aspects of the art as well as the physical.

Shin-Ku-I (Body, Mouth, Mind) or more accurately Action, Word, and Thought is how the Samurai were evaluated. What make the difference between a student and a swordsman is Ken Shin Ichi Nyo, or Sword and mind as one. One must train as if the sword was a part of them; if it is looked at as a separate entity you will never develop the skill to master the art.

The sequence of training in Kenjutsu is as follows:

Kihon O Manabu :- Emphasize the basics

Kaisu O Kasaneru :- Development through repetition

Jiga Ni Tsuite :- Controlling your ego

Dai - Kyo - Soku - Kei :- Big - Strong - Fast - Light

Saigo Made Einoku Suru :- persist to the end – never give up. This is true for both the practice of the art and the attitude in combat.

Yudan Nashi :- Never off guard.

The motto of the Samurai was "Shinu Kikai O Motomo", "Looking for the opportunity to die".

This was not a defeatist attitude. The Samurai held life in great esteem and were very selective on what "cause" they would lay their life on the line for. It is easy to kill a man when you yourself are willing to die.

In terms of learning to fight with a sword, kenjutsu has a more complete curriculum. Kendo of necessity limits the range of techniques and targets. Kendoka generally use shinai, which allow techniques which do not work with real swords. Kenjutsu practitioners do not usually use shinai in training, preferring to use bokken (wooden swords) or katana (steel swords) in order to preserve the cutting techniques of real sword fighting. Kenjutsu training largely consists of practicing cutting technique and performing partner kata. For safety reasons, free-sparring is seldom practised with bokken or katana.

It was natural for the samurais to practice every day with their sword. To the samurai the sword was their foremost weapon and privilege - other groups in the society was forbidden to bear swords. Furthermore the practice with the sword was much more than preparing for battle. Around the Japanese sword grew a whole philosophy. It has many names, as ken, katana, tachi, and To.


Kendo which translates literally to 'The Way of the Sword', is a contemporary Japanese martial art that evolved from the traditions of the samurai, the warrior class of ancient Japan, based upon sword fencing techniques developed over centuries of combat. Like many Japanese martial arts, the philosophical foundations of Kendo revolve around the precepts of Zen Buddhism, and the guiding belief that enlightenment and heightened awareness, flow from the ability to focus and calm the mind. Following in the footsteps of the samurai, modern practitioners of Kendo, or 'Kendoka', as they are called, strive not only to master the physical techniques of the Japanese sword, but, also, the mental and spiritual aspects as well.

Although Kendo’s roots lie with the ancient samurai, the art has evolved over the centuries, adapting as societal conditions changed, to its present form where competition between practitioners involves not life and death combat with razor sharp blades, but controlled matches governed by strict rules of conduct, and non-lethal instruments. This difference in focus, distinguishes Kendo from 'Kenjutsu', which is also a Japanese sword art deriving from traditional fencing. Unlike Kendo, whose techniques are updated for practice as a non-lethal aesthetic, Kenjutsu’s primary focus is combat and warfare, and as such, closely parallels the actual lethal techniques employed by the samurai on the field of battle.

In place of the katana, the traditional sword of the samurai, modern Kendoka use shinai, an implement constructed of four bamboo staves bound together at specific junctures with leather bands. This non-lethal weapon, along with the use of body armour, or 'bogu', as it is referred to in Kendo, enable Kendoka to engage in fencing contests without the fear of death or serious bodily injury. The bogu is modelled after the traditional armour of the samurai, which unlike the cumbersome metal armour of European knights, was lightweight and designed for optimal movement and flexibility.

Kendo practice traditionally takes place in a training hall or, 'dojo'. Organization of a dojo is hierarchical, with the master at the top, and beginning students at the bottom. As in the other Japanese martial arts, the belt or 'kyu' system is employed, with the highest rank or 'Dan' being the black belt. Students train in Kendo through the practice of 'kata', a series of formal exercises passed down through time that replicate the movements and techniques required in traditional combat. In addition to learning and practicing the different kata, Kendoka also engage in informal matches known as 'keiko' or 'kumite' which are moderated by senior members of the dojo, and test the practitioner’s live combat ability.

A challenging and rigorous martial art, Kendo distinguishes itself from other forms of martial endeavour primarily due to its intense involvement with observing the etiquette and form of established traditions. While other martial arts primarily focus on the physical performance of the practitioner, Kendo is concerned equally with the mental and spiritual development of the individual as well. Through the mastery of traditional kata and the experience of kumite, Kendoka strive to achieve the same sense of transcendence and discipline exemplified by the samurai, Japan’s original swordsmen.

Batto Jutsu

Battojutsu is a form of traditional Japanese swordsmanship. Literally translated as "sword drawing techniques", battojutsu is defined as rapidly drawing the sword from its scabbard while performing a simultaneous cut or strike, all in one continuous motion. Such skills were essential to the classical warriors of feudal Japan, better known as the samurai who trained to use their swords with blinding speed from nearly every conceivable situation. These techniques are referred to as iai (drawing the sword from a seated or kneeling position), tachiai (drawing the sword from an upright position such as standing, walking, and running). 

The initial actions involved with batto include nukitsuke (the simultaneous draw and strike); which may be followed with furikaburi (bringing the blade around); and a killing blow such as kirioroshi (cutting downward). Follow-up actions include some form of chiburi (removing the blood from the blade); and noto (re-sheathing the blade).

To find out more about Evasive Self-Defence Combat System visit http://www.esdcs.org or e-mail John Barrass at: john@kurinami.wanadoo.co.uk

Friday, 2 March 2012

Black Belt Value

A guest post from Grant McMaster...

The goal of the black belt has become a greatly inflated ideal in the western mindset, and sadly is rarely a true reflection of an individual’s ability or understanding of the martial arts.

Historically the belt system was part implemented by Dr. Jigoro Kano, the Japanese founder of Judo and a well respected educator of his time.Some sources indicate that the belt system was simply limited to white and black belts with a black belt being awarded to a competing student, or more precisely to a student who was capable of receiving technique.
This belt implied that the student was sufficiently developed and trained as uke to withstand and respond appropriately to a technique applied by his instructor. It did not indicate that the student was ready to begin instruction and certainly didn’t indicate that the student was a master.

Within present day Japan the tradition of students wearing a white belt until they reach Shodan continues in many places, although some progressive schools have adopted brown belts to indicate their higher kyu grade students.
Within Japanese Martial history the belt system was predated by a system of written licences or ‘Densho’. These Four licences Shoden Menkyo, Chuden Menkyo, Okuden Menkyo and finally Menkyo Kaiden were hand written by the Soke of a ryu or school and clearly indicated a student’s ability, personal standard and rights within his school and style.

This practice was rendered largely obsolete at the turn of the 19th century as the massive variations between the separate ryu rendered the licences as unreliable as a form of standardised rating.
This was largely due to the enduring legacy of secrecy within Japanese martial arts evident during this period of history.

Although the Menkyo system remains in use in Japan and is used by clubs outside of Japan it is largely unrecognised except by a hard core of martial arts experts/enthusiasts or those with an interest in Japanese history.
The modern belt system was further expanded to include different colours for the kyu grades, and also for the dan grades after 4th or 5th dan, whereupon the Yudansha or ranked student would wear some combination of red or white upon his belt.
This system of grade indication is now widely entrenched in the martial arts world, but whilst it appears to indicate a uniform level of ability, in fact it does not.

The grade of Shodan or first degree black belt can now only be seen as an indication of knowledge within a schools technical syllabus. This subjective value causes a great deal of confusion both to the layman and to established martial arts students.

To explain this it is necessary to understand that there are vast differences between the many martial arts that arise out of historical origins, modern interpretations and the body of knowledge within the styles.
A good example of this is the time that is takes to reach Shodan within two markedly different systems, for example sport based Taekwondo and traditional Ju Jutsu.

Ju Jutsu is a system of unarmed combat that is adaptable to body type and ability and has evolved from the martial practices of the Samurai; it may be traced back roughly 800 years in its earliest form.

To gain a Shodan in Ju Jutsu may take a novice student as long as 10 years, or longer due to the large number of complex techniques required and manner in which they are required to be executed, it may also take less time depending on the time and effort put into training and practise. Further to this there are often no Kata or preset forms in traditional Ju Jutsu although some modern schools implement Kata for weapons training.
Taekwondo is a modern sport art which was heavily influenced by the Japanese Karate styles during Japan’s occupation of Korea in the first half of the 1900’s, whilst several techniques may be traced to some Chinese and early native Korean martial traditions, it is a far simpler art aimed at the sports arena.

It is possible for a novice student to gain a Black belt in Taekwondo in as little as 2 years with no prior training although the normal duration of training would generally be longer.There is even evidence of this period being markedly shorter if the student has prior experience or shows significant aptitude for the style.
This speed of grade acquisition is possible in Taekwondo as the style is comprised of many Kata, and its essential core techniques are restricted to striking and kicking variations.
This division between levels of attainment and the volume of learning between styles lies at the heart of the issue of the ‘Black Belt’ value argument.

The unfortunate appearance of commercial schools which hand out a black belt to students who pay their fees and attend regularly, regardless of their technical ability or knowledge further complicates the universal standard of a Black Belt.
The current methods of establishing the ability level of martial arts Yudansha (Black belt) tend to be limited to association based standards. Adaptability of technique, teaching ability, experience and overall aptitude is impossible to quantify without a general consensus among martial artists as to what constitutes a ‘Black Belt’.
The establishment within associations of ‘Masters Forums’, generally comprised of Instructors of Yondan (4th Dan) or above helps to maintain a standard within that Association, but only if the forum members are from different and contrasting styles.
In conclusion, there is no clear comparison across the various styles amongst the Yudansha or black belted grades, and it is unlikely that there will ever be an accepted standard between contrasting purist styles.

It may take 20 years for a student to master a single style, and many martial arts practitioners tend to mix styles once they have achieved a certain level of competence. Essentially the colour of the belt he wears is unimportant; the truest indicator of a practitioner’s knowledge and competence may lie in his ability to replicate any technique from his syllabus perfectly and adaptively, for himself and for his students.

Sensei Grant McMaster
Shoshin Ju Jitsu

To find out more about Evasive Self-Defence Combat System visit http://www.esdcs.org or e-mail John Barrass at: john@kurinami.wanadoo.co.uk