Disclaimer and Stuff

Firstly I would like to say that all of the material contained within this blog is of my own opinion and any inaccuracies in technical content or other's personal quotations are completely my own.

Secondly I would like to thank everyone in advance where I have used photos of you or photos you have taken. I have quite a library of digital photos and virtually no record of who took them so I hope you will take this general thanks as adequate gratitude. If there are any photos of you or taken by you that you would like removed please let me know.

Thirdly, some articles have been published on my dojo website if you would like to read them in an easier format

Total Pageviews

7th dans achieved. Come and visit Ryoshinkan Iaido and Jodo Dojo Website at www.ryoshinkan.org

Thursday 8 July 2021

The Appropriation of Japanese Language in Japanese Budo (Outside of Japan)

Hasn't it been an interesting year for us budoka? The lockdown situation hasn't exactly been a good leveller for everyone. Some people have been able to train in their own homes and gardens, some have been limited by space and the need to do other things at home separate to smashing light fittings with their swords (like feed their families, educate their children, move their cats off of their laptops). Thankfully, the availability of technologies such as Zoom has made it easier for us to come together, especially with those who live in other countries and who we only get to meet a few times every year, and train, discuss and generally chew the fat with Budo in mind. It has certainly been different, I won't say better or worse, it has certainly stretched our limits somewhat.

This has also brought many of us to become somewhat inward-looking through the use of social media and the like. Thanks to our friends in the Netherlands, the Q&A sessions with Louis Vitalis Sensei have helped to shine a light in places that dojo conversations never really visit. Additionally, Patrick Suen's excellent podcast "Inside Look" has also linked the world with people in Budo and their experiences which continue to inspire even for old farts like me. Personally my Budo training became even more active through the Lockdown Keiko sessions organised by Kim Croes and Tea Pihlaja, again allowing us to train with people that we usually rarely see. These sessions also gave me a chance to simply train without having to teach, observe or even be aware of others.

To prevent myself from becoming completely insane though, I started running online Japanese language courses through a Facebook and Zoom group called Andy's Nihongo Corner. I can't speak for the success of it, you will have to ask the victims members of the group but I have been really impressed and grateful for the effort and dedication that many in the group have put in. For them, I hope this course is useful and interesting, for me it has massively improved my own Japanese grammar and vocabulary. More importantly though it has been educating to observe how people learn.

Returning to social media though, my immersion in teaching Japanese over the last year has slightly sensitised my attention to the use of Japanese in Budo and particularly when referred to in social media. I am not about to start a diatribe of complaints over people using Japanese as if I held the patent on it; I also throw Japanese words around in Budo circles but I would like to point out a few things that might be interesting to budoka concerning the use of this language...

Appropriation 101 

 A few years back I spent a very enjoyable couple of weeks traveling and training in Japan with Al Colebourn, Lukasz Machura and Adam Kitkowski. During a day of doing tourist stuff in Kyoto at one point we jumped into a taxi as our next destination was easier to get to by taxi than by bus. Being the only person who spoke a reasonable amount of Japanese, I jumped into the front seat. 
"To Meiji Shrine please!" I confidently instructed. 
The taxi driver looked at me for a moment and replied "I think you mean Heian Shrine, right?" 
I then realised that I had just asked the driver to take us from Kyoto to Tokyo (a 460km journey that probably would have cost more than actually buying the taxi). 
"Ah, yes, Heian Shrine please...oops" 
As we were driving through Kyoto's traffic, I overheard the three guys in the back quietly chatting about iaido. I heard them muttering words like "nukitsuke", "chiburi", "okuriashi"...these words cut through the background noise as the guys were being extra careful to pronounce them. I turned around, stared at them for a second and said "You guys sound like fucking lunatics!"

They laughed...nervously.
I'm not sure exactly why I said that but I think the point was that the majority of Budo terminology is made up of completely normal everyday words, or at least pieces of them. Their assembly into compound words produces some slightly rare expressions but no more than, say, "doorstop" or "steam iron". To a Japanese person who doesn't train in Budo, a conversation filled with these words must surely sound...a little weird. That's not to say that Japanese people don't use loan words from other languages. Make a mistake during a volleyball match and you will hear "do-n maindo" ("don't mind", i.e. don't worry). Not being particularly into competitive sports I won't bore you with other examples but you can be sure that there are thousands.

Anyway, I'm not berating anyone for using this terminology, it's great that people take the time and effort to learn some of the language that our Budo was developed in. My point is that these are generally not particularly Budo-specific words, they are just words. The issue that I want to raise into awareness is that it is very easy for us to assign "special powers" to these words...almost as if saying them, "makes" them...as if it pulls their meaning into a manifestation into the physical universe....a bit like a...spell.

I am also guilty of having done this before. However, having seen it being done on social media (a lot!) I have started to develop a nervous tic whenever I see this act of "Powerword Japanese" spell-casting. This has become more often in the last year or so as many of us have had to spend more of our time in front of computers when we would otherwise probably be at the dojo and keeping ourselves out of mischief.

Allow me to share the mundane qualities of many of our Iaido and Jodo words:
  • Nukitsuke - Draw and apply
  • Kirioroshi - Cut down
  • Chiburi - Blood swing
  • Noto - Put the sword away
  • Metsuke - Fixing the eyes on something
  • Zanshin - Remaining awareness
  • Mae - Forwards, before
  • Ushiro - Backwards, behind
  • Morotezuki - Both handed thrust
  • Ganmenate - Punch in the cakehole (or something like this)
  • Nukiuchi - Shiiiiiiiiit!
  • Seme - Attack (literally, this is all it means, no magic beams of The Force, no extension of ki/chi/prana/banana)

The new tangible benefit that I now realise that I would like to gain through the Japanese courses is a general higher awareness of the mundanity of the Budo lexicon. I hope as a population of budoka we can moderate our amazement when someone uses Japanese terminology. What I want to advise is, just because we don't fully understand the meaning of a word/phrase, it doesn't make it mysterious.

As an example, let's look at the word "Fumikomi". Type this word into Google, in Romaji, and the first page is filled with links to Kendo and Karate websites (interestingly one of the first articles is written by Geoff Salmon Sensei who urges "Don't be obsessed with fumikomi"). Type in the Japanese characters 踏み込み, and while the video links are to Kendo pages, the majority of the site links are simply to Japanese dictionary websites which explain three principle meanings of "fumikomi":

1. The act of fumikomu (I'll explain this shortly)
2. A place to take off your footwear at the entrance.
3. A type of Kabuki dance.

To understand what the act of fumikomu is, let's have a look at it's characters:
踏む fumu: to step on, to tread on, to set foot on, to experience, to follow, to estimate, to rhyme
込む komu: to be crowded, to be packed, to go into, to put into, to do intently, to continue in the same state

Combining these characters into a compound verb (which can occasionally change the aggregate meaning of the two root verbs) you get: 踏み込む: to step into, to break into, to raid, to come to grips with, to get to the core of,

In my experience of studying, translating and teaching in Budo, my non-specific interpretation of fumikomi while keeping a Budo context is simply the act of stepping towards your opponent (for example, to bring you into attacking distance) in contrast with, say, stepping back or to the side. I realise that the word has been adopted in Kendo to represent the stamping action when making a strike but I would simply want to make it clear that this is not the general meaning of this word. 

 ...and this is where the trouble starts of course, by attaching special meanings to these words we start to believe that what we are saying represents specific actions or concepts in Budo. It does not, for example, mean specifically to "stamp the foot".

Technically speaking, this is fumikomi:

As I previously said, I am also guilty of throwing around Japanese terms as if the mere utterance was enough to infer wisdom and experience...but I am hoping this time is coming to an end. 

There are many other appropriated words and phrases bandied around in Budo, let's have a closer look at some of them: 


First point of caution, be wary of just using the English version of Wiki/Google to search for meanings. There are extremely good translating apps which will translate a Japanese article, written in Japanese by a Japanese person. Shuhari is a great example of this, on the English Wiki it immediately announces that it is a "martial arts concept". The Japanese Wiki though describes it as "the teacher-student relationship or the process of apprenticeship in traditional Japanese arts such as Chado, Budo etc." 

The next point of caution is realising that this is one education and learning model among many. It is not special or rare, it has simply been utilised in the Budo world. There are similar Western learning philosophies that came up with similar ideas without any kind of East to West transfer of wisdom (e.g. the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition). Some of these models, especially when adapted by modern sports science, are probably more useful and rewarding than constantly referring to this simple three-step process.

Let me be clear, I'm not saying that we shouldn't be referring to Shuhari, I'm not saying it's poor or bad or inadequate, I'm just saying that simply mentioning "shuhari" does not invoke some mystical power that accelerates the student to mastery. There is a different word for that and that word is "training".


What a wonderful time in the noughties we had with throwing this one around. If you listen to Louis Sensei's Q&A you will hear a number of times "this word was never used when we took our 7th dans". And quite right too. Simply throwing in a technical term into Budo almost guarantees it a long life and constant worship. Speak to someone like Peter West Sensei (a professional musician) about the literal meaning of "modulation" (merihari's actual meaning) and you will be surprised as to the functional, mandanity of the term. I was told by Ishido Sensei that this term was once mentioned by Yamazaki Sensei (the Eishin Ryu teacher from Shizuoka) and it had somehow taken root in some people's minds. For a while, a few of us in Europe (myself included) puzzled over the inner depths of this word and how it could relate to Iaido. We theorized, pontificated, wrote articles on it until finally realising that we were bored with this attempt to assign extra meaning to a purely functional term. If someone tells you that your embu lacks merihari then ask them to explain exactly what they mean. Ask them to explain what "merihari" is and what the words mean that make up the compound verb. Ask them to point out official ZNKR documents that contain the instruction "thou shalst merihari oneself into a froth". Hmmmm. 

The fact that many of these Budo jargon are borrowed from theatre (jo-ha-kyu) or from Chado (merihari) speaks loudly about this being concerned with presentation rather than sheer practical value. Ask a Kendo 8th dan to demonstrate merihari to you and they will probably ask you what this has to do with fighting. This all brings us inexorably to... 


Sadly this phrase has been around a long time in Europe and so it has had plenty of time to be reinterpreted, misinterpreted, misrepresented, mutated and finally turned into a fairly catchy pop song. I understand the sentiment of people trying to explain it especially in Iaido circles and while it is a slightly subjective term, somewhat open to interpretation...

...perhaps we should first ask ourselves why it needs "interpretation"!

The simple answer is that it doesn't originate in Budo. Andre Ho can probably explain this in better detail than me but it originates in Noh Theatre (the art of not snoring loudly while sleeping in a chair). In theatre it is used to mark the typical arc of a story: the setting (jo), the change (ha) and the climatic ending (kyuu). 

For a more in-your-face demonstration of Jo-Ha-Kyuu from the theatre, I recommend spending a few minutes watching this. It probably won't improve your Budo but it might demonstrate very clearly how loose the connection is between Budo and Jo-Ha-Kyuu..


Somehow, before my time doing Budo in Europe anyhow, this has been generously reinterpreted (I'm being kind, I really mean misinterpreted) to mean gradual acceleration from slow to medium to fast. I suppose this is one way to interpret it into a kata-Budo context but it's not what I would call a useful interpretation for developing ones physical performance of a kata.

For example, what does "slow" mean other than "less speedy than 'fast'"? If I move relatively fast at the beginning of a kata and then move blindingly fast at the end, is this jo-ha-kyu? What about kata that demand a rapid ("kyuu ni") beginning such as Tsukaate, Ukenagashi, Nukiuchi (the literal meaning of "suddenness")?

Gradual acceleration is not the way that my general guide for Iaido (Ishido Sensei) explains jo-ha-kyu so I will have a go at representing here how he explained it a few years ago (undoubtedly I have misremembered and added my own thoughts into this but I don't think they are incongruent with what Ishido Sensei was trying to convey). I should emphasise that I don't think the following is important because it was uttered by Ishido Sensei as much as the fact that it makes complete practical sense... 

"Jo" (tsuide) means occasion, opportunity or situation. In Iaido this means "junbi" (preparation), not just mental but physical as well. If you are sitting in seiza then you shouldn't be sitting passively with your muscles relaxed but your posture and muscular tension should give you physical alertness and the ability to respond to an attack at any time. At the same time however, this should not be an unnatural tension, you should feel like you can sit comfortably like this (this is the meaning of "tsune ni itte" from the very iaido-specific term "tsune ni itte, kyuu ni awasu").

"Ha" (yaburu) means to tear or break. It refers to the moment when you make a decision to attack/defend either as a pre-emptive preventative attack (shikake) or as a literal defence (mamoru/kotaeru). The main point with "ha" is that this a decision-making moment which can be either fast or slow. In the case of Mae, your hands move smoothly to the sword in an attempt to subdue the opponent and convince them not to attack, you are transitioning with surprising surety from passively sitting to actively attacking. In the case of Ukenagashi, your metsuke and your hands move quickly to respond to an attack that has already been committed to by the enemy.

"Kyuu" (isogu) means suddenness and rapidity. This means that once you start down the road to an attack that you have to commit to it and use smoothness, skill and speed to win the moment. The key point though is that the ability to move quickly and efficiently is through a mastery of "Jo" (readiness) and "Ha" (ability to change), it is not merely a skill to acquire as a separate criteria.

This closes the circle from "Tsune ni itte" (be natural in your everyday situation or "Jo") to "Kyuu ni awasu" (rapidly adapt to the circumstances or "Kyuu").

To conclude, while I understand how such a complex concept can end up being simplified to mere "acceleration" I think it would be best if we updated our understanding of this. Similarly with....

Mitori geiko

Before I start on this one I urge you watch the excellent explanation of this by Paul Shin Sensei:


After I watched this video I contacted Paul and had an online chat/rant about this subject (10 minutes of Paul's time that he will unfortunately never get back though I learned a lot from the conversation). The main feature of the points that we agreed on was that the most optimal mitori geiko was being in line waiting to go onto the floor and watching others train. This allowed you to identify beneficial concepts or shared bad habits that you could, in the space of a few minutes, physically experiment with, either through implementation (of good points) or elimination (of bad habits). Paul's point was that while doing this from video was in a sense another form of mitori geiko, it was extremely limiting. He said that in Kendo as an example it was extremely difficult to identify an Ippon in comparison with actually being there at the shiai.

Paul explained that the human mind has a very limited capacity to store visual information. If you don't put it into physical practice almost immediately then it is lost into the ether. My own introduction to mitori geiko was while training in Japan, on a few occasions the dojo floor was too full to train so my original sensei would order me to sit by the side and do "mitori geiko". I gradually became to understand that this meant "watch, study, learn, implement". As Paul explained, the vital part of the term "mitori geiko" was "keiko".

So what's my point? It's the head scratching that goes on at Sim Energy Towers (a sustainable version of Hogwarts) when more than a few people post videos of embu of extremely good sensei, or maybe the finals of a shiai and write "Mitori geiko" as a comment. I'm sure by now that you have realised that the subtext of this blog post is to not use Japanese words when there are perfectly representative English/French/Italian/Martian versions. To be direct, when you sitting there, in a chair, eating popcorn, watching a video of an embu, you aren't doing mitori geiko you are simply watching a video. It's called "watching". I don't really care what people post on Facebook but I just don't think that it's healthy to make yourself believe that watching admirable performances are really going to significantly improve your own Budo. As I said to Paul, it's similar to posting a video of someone eating dinner and commenting "Learning to cook!". To be sure, I use video technology a lot in my own training and teaching. For my 6th dan prep (the original raison d'etre of this blog) I exhaustively used videos to prepare. But, to be clear, this meant filming my own embu, watching it within 3 hours of filming it, spending hours examining errors and bad habits by going through frame by frame where the problem originated from, writing copious notes, taking those notes to the dojo and working on the points. And then repeat, week after week after week. There was no popcorn.

I do the same thing with my students and Budo friends when they ask for feedback. I ask them to video themselves and I spend no small amount of time going through some parts, frame-by-frame to find the root cause of problems and then ask them to have a look themselves to try to evaluate a solution.

Honestly, I also like watching videos of Morishima Sensei going ballistic in embu but I don't pretend that that is going to fix my own performance issues. It's inspiring, yes. It's interesting, yes. It's enjoyable, yes. It's nothing like keiko (that opinion obviously has more than one meaning). I actually believe that to be able to do iaido more like Morishima Sensei, it is more useful to watch how he does repetitive physical preparation and training in the dojo. Understanding that concept at least (his breaking down of techniques into elementary units, each to be mastered before re-assembly) can be exported and transferred perfectly into one's own training regime.

To get off my high horse, I have to say that I am at least glad that the understanding of some Budo specific terms is usually well understood. Kan-Kyuu-Kyou-Jaku, if the contextual meaning isn't well understood then at least the individual terms are (slow, fast, strong, soft). And who could misunderstand "te no uchi" when teachers like Oshita Sensei very helpfully translate this into English themselves as "finger work", an extremely useful explanation of what "te-no-uchi" requires in order for it to be there.

To close, I want to emphasise that I'm not advocating that everyone needs to master Japanese in order to improve in Budo (it does help a bit though to study the language); I just want people to realise that the constant uttering of words of the Japanese Budo lexicon, like recitation of a mantra or the invocation of Cthulu, doesn't make it real or special. I am hoping that as the number of people who study and learn Japanese in the European Budo community increases, that this faith-based reliance on recitation gradually gets pushed out of the way to make room for clear and unambiguous literal understanding. When the next Japanese 8th dan sensei says "Need more sayabiki", people will hopefully understand that this doesn't mean "go and buy another left arm".

Simply shouting "More kigurai!" at your students while sitting in the sidelines ain't gonna do it!