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An Interview with Kenji Ushiro

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by Ikuko Kimura

Published Online

Kenji Ushiro

“Keiko is learning whether you can really use what you have”

Bujutsu (martial arts) training is fundamentally a process of discovering how to respond in critical situations, and more specifically to situations in which you are attacked by an opponent. How do you “extract” yourself from that danger? How do you free yourself from the crisis? How do you protect yourself from his attack? These are the basic questions marking the point of departure for any kind of bujutsu training. I’m sure this is the way it has always been, and in this sense there is really not much difference between bujutsu training in the past and today. Over time, the various techniques and secret teachings (gokui) that have emerged from this kind of training have been compiled, and these compilations of physical knowledge gradually led to the formation of the kata (forms) we practice today.

The question we have to ask now is what kind of approach and thinking should we adopt today in order to learn these kata and all that they have to offer?

I personally have found it best to view kata not simply as forms to be learned, but rather as “tools” for studying how to deal with critical situations, and more specifically how to keep myself out of harm’s way in those situations. This is how I think about kata, and this is also how kata are viewed within the Shindo-ryu tradition. What it means is that learning and studying kata is not necessarily such a cut-and-dry process, and in fact in some ways is outside the bounds of logic and reason….

In other words, our bujutsu training is not so much about learning techniques as it is about learning how to use the techniques inherent in the kata we practice, and more importantly whether or not we have “usability” of those techniques.

Five steps toward “usability”

Please explain a bit more the difference you see between the word “technique” and the idea of “usability versus non-usability.”

People often try to learn fighting skills by learning things like “against this kind of attack, I’ll do this…. if he attacks that way, I’ll do that.” But there’s no point in learning such things unless you can actually use the techniques you’re talking about. What we call “techniques” are more properly understood as “processes.” This is an idea I want to emphasize because training focused on learning (or teaching) techniques as formulaic responses, instead of as “processes to be unfolded,” usually results in no real usability.

With that in mind, let me introduce a series of five steps that can serve as standards for approaching usability, that is your actual ability to do what you’ve learned.

The first step is “hatsu-go, gan-go” which means something like generating hardness from within hardness. The second is “hatsu-go, gan-ju” which is generating hardness from within softness. The third is “hatsu-ju, gan-go,” or generating softness from within hardness. The fourth is “hatsu-ju, gan-ju,” or generating softness from within softness. Finally, the fifth and last step is “hakki gan-goju, or generating hardness and softness from within ki, which implies a manipulation of energies.

I can of get a sense of what you mean from the words themselves, but please elaborate….

In other words, at the first level, hatsugo-gango everything is about hardness and rigidity, both inside and out. When your opponent punches, for example, you react by blocking with some hard, rigid technique. Of course, this usually results in a clash and tends to be painful for both of you. Doing everything using such hard, rigid techniques is the first level.

At the second level, hatsugo-ganju, you take your first steps toward a softer, more flexible approach, for example by slipping past your opponent’s technique and using various kinds of shifting movements. Outside there is still hard rigidity, but inside you’re developing a certain softness and flexibility.

At the third level, hatsuju-gango, you have hardness within, but you translate that into outward softness and flexibility. Throwing techniques might be a good example; you receive and stop your opponent’s attack with a relatively stiff blocking technique, but then in the next instant shift into the throw, which is necessarily a softer, more flexible movement.

At the fourth level, hatsuju-janju, you react to your opponent’s attack with softness and flexibility and maintain that state for the duration of your response and counter-attack. From start to finish it will feel to the opponent as if he is simply being lightly touched all over.

Finally, at the fifth and final level of hakki-gangoju, your opponent attempts to attack, but you check, stop, or control him using your ki (energy, intention).

The first two levels I would consider entry-level technique; the third and fourth mid-level technique; and the fifth advanced technique, or okuden as we say in Japanese.

However, to move up through these various levels the best way is to get into the sparring ring, take your knocks there, and learn through experience. Working through the five levels I’ve described is like learning to ride a bicycle. At first you’re just trying to stay up on two wheels, which is the first level. You have to follow kata at this point in order to improve, because kata give you the hints you’ll eventually need to move to the next level. This isn’t to say that kata become unnecessary once you’ve reached that second level. Arrival at that second level does not necessarily mean you have nothing left to learn from the first level, so you still need kata as a tool to continue improving those first-level abilities. This is particularly true of the fifth level, because your performance there can be viewed as a result contingent upon everything you’ve done up through the fourth level.

As I said, it’s not necessarily a logical progression, and throughout the whole process, improvement is based solely on the criteria of usability, that is, whether or not you can actually use what you have.

Verifying universality when establishing theory

You’ve said a few times that the process you’re describing is outside the realm of logic and theory. Is that because logic and theory can only come later, as something to talk about only after real ability (or the lack of it) has been confirmed?

Exactly. For example, if you’re thinking about trying to walk on water, you might advance some theoretical basis for it, like all you have to do is step with your rear foot before your lead foot touches the water; but in reality you can’t do it, no matter what your theory. To formulate a valid theory you first have to consider actual usability, that is, whether you can or cannot actually do something. Only from that perspective can you start building a true theory. Only from there can you ask, “Okay, I can really do this thing; now, why am I able to do it?”

People often talk about the so-called “dual path of scholarship and martial arts.” I think this refers to what we call “applied philosophy,” or in other words philosophy that follows from the experience of real actions and activities. Of course philosophy requires teachings and theories, and in fact is comprised solely of teachings and theories. In this sense, the words I’ve just used to describe progress in five steps are in fact only a “theory,” but in this case I happen to think they’re underpinned by a real reality and are on the mark in terms of describing how progress and improvement are really made in martial arts training. They are words that have come out of actual experience, and I think they serve as a good set of markers for assessing one’s current level and what kind of training you need to pursue next.

So, why have you waited so long to start talking about these five steps?! (laughter)

A lot of people have asked me that! (laughter) Let me say in my own defense that first you have to have practical fighting experiences, and then it takes time to build words and theories around those experiences. There’s also the fact that I’ve also spent a lot of time testing and verifying the universality of these things from every angle I can think of. Even if you can do something with your body, you still have to do a lot of confirmation work if you want to build it into a theory. I’ve just recently come to a good stopping point in that process, to the end of one phase in my analysis, so only just now has it seemed a good time to share my findings with others.

It’s good to have been taught, for example, that if you fall down you should put your hands out to catch yourself, but in fact you never know if your hands will work as you imagine they will, that is according to what you know in your head. In your mind you may hear this advice and make plans to put your hands out the next time you fall down, but these plans are only theoretical and they don’t necessarily correspond to what will actually happen. If you ever do happen to fall down, all you can really do about it is let your body react, and that reaction becomes a result that your body remembers. You can then express that result in words—that is, as a theory—and then you have to get to work verifying that theory in every possible way, to make sure it is as true as you think it is.

Courage in Action Precedes Confidence-Building

The example of falling down is actually too simple, because falling down is something you do alone, whereas martial arts always involve another person and are therefore more complicated.

For example, what do you do when your opponent suddenly comes at you with a strong attack? Do you respond to it by clashing with equal ferocity? Or somehow absorb it? Or let it flow by? Or do you use some even more advanced means, like predicting the attack early on and controlling it with your ki? How you respond to a serious attack depends on what your body remembers, which depends on what level of training you’ve reached, or in other words the degree of usability you’ve achieved.

If, for example, your body is equipped to “catch” all of the information about the opponent at the moment of contact and use this to formulate a correct response on the fly, then I think you can say you have “usability.” At that point you can start using bunkai kumite (step-by-step sparring) based on kata as a system for getting feedback about the usability you’ve achieved.

Techniques that take kata as their starting point can be evolved limitlessly. And limitlessness [in terms of what could happen] is definitely a feature of any real combative encounter. You start your learning by worrying about specifics like when and where and weather to twist your hips; but what you really want to learn, ultimately, is not such specifics, but rather the ability to feel within your own body something like a plane, or a line, or a point, or ultimately a central core around which all of your movement flows. Then, once even that sense has faded from your consciousness mind, at that point you’ve developed a body fundamentally imbued with martial technique.

Someone like Zaha Sensei trained in a very authentic, real environment from the beginning, so there was never any waste in his learning process and I think he was able to start building that fundamental body very early on. In contrast, most of us these days have to start by thinking about specifics like twisting our hips and so on, which in some ways is starting out with the wrong environment. As much as possible we need to get back on track, to the path that leads more toward the real thing.

Even if we recognize our own error, it’s still difficult to extract ourselves from it; doing so requires courage in a number of ways. With courage comes action and change. Those changes in turn transform you, leading eventually to the emergence of greater confidence.

The important thing is that you have the courage to set out on a real path. It’s from this point that “lateral integration” begins. This also becomes a kind of energy that you send out into the world.

These days it’s more important than ever to have the courage to choose that which is correct, that which is real. I feel that as we move into this new century and as we move into the world, one of the things we need most is action underpinned by courage.

As far as learning martial arts goes, we have to focus on that which is usable. People who focus wholeheartedly in that direction will progress and improve. They also need to have faith in the usability of what they’ve learned. People like that will make the best progress. Further, learning truly usable martial arts plants the seeds of self-confidence, and as those seeds sprout they lead in turn to changes in behavior and other positive growth. I think this sort of thing is especially important for developing children.

Learn in the body, not in the mind

Let me go back to one of your earlier points. You said that what is important is not necessarily “technique,” but rather whether or not you are able to use what you learn. I’m still not sure I understand exactly what you mean by that….

Imagine there is a bicycle. A person who can ride that bicycle can use it to head down to the corner store when they need to buy something. But to someone who doesn’t know how to ride it, the existence of the bicycle is meaningless; so they walk to the store instead, or go by car, or whatever. A person who does know how to ride uses it as the need arises, naturally and without really thinking about it, just because he can and because it’s available. Now, what we call “techniques” (giho) are really just processes, as I’ve said, which in this example are analogous to practicing riding the bike. Usability, on the other hand, has to do with what we call “actually riding the bicycle,” as well as all those things we can do and accomplish by riding it.

About 500 kilometers north of San Francisco there’s a town called Redding. I once made a day trip up there at the invitation of a friend named Uchigaki Sensei. It’s about the same distance as between Tokyo and Osaka, so I rented a car and spent the whole day driving up and back. But all of the Americans I mentioned this trip to found it rather amusing; they suggested that to go that distance in the United States one usually flies, either by chartering a small plane or taking a regular flight if there happens to be one available. In the U.S. people use such air transportation the way we Japanese use private cars, buses, and trains. Out of necessity there is a most effective means of travel depending on the distance, for example by plane or by car or by bicycle and so on. People in the U.S. regard 500 kilometers in about the same way we regard 80 kilometers or so in Japan. It simply didn’t occur to me that there would be planes going between two cities that I perceived (wrongly) as being about the same distance apart as, say, Osaka and Kyoto. So I assumed I should drive. 500 kilometers to Redding and back.

“Effective means” are what we call techniques, and “applications” how we use those techniques, which in real situations changes depending on the sense or feeling of the person doing them.

Among the people who come to train with me or observe my classes, those interested in improving their full-contact skills tend to be most interested in sparring, so we usually do some of that first. From the very beginning they tend to come right in with a lot of low kicks and such. In contrast, those of a more theoretical bent spend a lot of time talking about how if their opponent does this or that then they will do such-and-such. These latter in many cases end up looking only at “parts” and so prevent themselves from seeing the whole. My advice to them is to stop using their heads so much and concentrate on learning with their bodies.

In other words, they can’t actually ride the bicycle….

If the organization or system they’re part of is a large one, then they sometimes have trouble getting away from it. They get a shock when they discover that something’s wrong, but all they can do is worry about it more and more. Something I’ve noticed about even those who come seeking to improve their fighting skills is that they still tend to view wherever they come from as the strongest. Some even leave their organization’s symbol or patch or whatever on their uniform, or come with their black belts on. To me that suggests something other than a pure desire to learn, and they don’t even seem to realize that they’ve lost their sense of courtesy. Of course, there are also others, some even some top-level champions in their own right, who do still make the effort to be polite and come with a humble, open attitude. Probably their ability to do that is part of what allowed them to become champions in the first place.

Just what is “strength”?

In budo we train to be able to handle whatever we’re confronted with, and to be able to maintain a sense of everyday calm and natural poise under all kinds of conditions. In asking “What is strength?” we first have to ask “In relation to what should we be considering ourselves strong or weak? Winning in the sparring ring is certainly one possibility; but what I think is more important is to be able to win against your self, to be able to protect yourself, and to behave in a way that earns you the confidence and trust of others.

The management of many corporations used to say things like “our employees are the most important thing for us”; but those same corporations are now involved in so-called “restructuring” efforts [inevitably involving layoffs]. They’ve had to do that in order to survive. But I wonder if that’s actually a very realistic management approach, to save the company, which ultimately is the same as saving the employees working there, and to be able to change and evolve to meet new realities. The world is always changing, so companies have to change, too. Companies whose employees are all well aware of this, and that maintain the courage to move forward as a force committed to engaging reality, those are the companies that will prosper.

It seems to me that achieving real results has to do with using your people effectively to begin with, and that laying people off as part of restructuring efforts is the complete opposite of achieving results.

I think so, yes. Restructuring is only an idea, a concept, not the end in itself, and simply having the idea that “restructuring is what we need” has little meaning. To have meaning, it has to be practicable and put to use in a real situation with good results. Karate is the same. There’s not much point in learning karate in an intellectual way; whatever theoretical understanding you need will come naturally through the real results you achieve. I think you have to have this kind of relationship between the hands-on practical and the theoretical.

Those with “Usability” Make the Best Teachers

Imagine someone attacking you by striking down from above with a staff. There are established ways to deal with such an attack. But just knowing those ways won’t help you, because usability doesn’t necessarily follow from knowing alone. You have to be able to say, “Go ahead and strike from above or below or any other direction you like” and then be able to deal with whatever comes. Anything less is likely to be useless. If you’re going to be a teacher, it’s not enough just to be able to do the kata; you have to be able to use whatever is in the kata to decisively handle opponents coming at you from any direction, in any way. Someone who can do this can be called a teacher.

You can see your external form by looking at yourself in a mirror; but what is inside you, what is really in your inner mind, comes to light only when you start teaching others.

In the beginning you start by “learning.” Later you move into “learning through teaching.” And only when you move past that can you start considering yourself “able to do.” This is exactly what is meant by the expression shu-ha-ri (lit. Maintain - Break - Separate). Probably it’s something that usually happens to you around your forties or fifties. I think it’s essential to learn from a teacher who has reached this level, because learning martial arts from someone who is himself “incomplete” may inadvertently send you down wrong paths that you’ll have great difficulty turning back from.

By “complete” I mean that you have to start with someone who can actually ride the bicycle and has had practical experience doing so. Later, once you’ve managed to get up on the bicycle yourself a few times, then you can you start improving. And when you find and practice with others who have who have also managed to ride the bicycle, that leads to even further improvement—and ultimately to improved technical usability.

Translated by Derek Steel