Chief instructor of Traditional Aikido of Napa reveals how his classical weapons training has shaped his aikido, and how he uses these skills to enhance his teaching.
Meik Skoss: Tell us a little about your background in weapons training, both in aikido, and in classical systems.
Mark Jones: My first weapons training came under Saito Sensei, who in both his books and his teaching, talks about riai, a blending of truth consisting of the study of the bokken, jo, and taijutsu. Each teacher has a different part of that triangle at the top. I think Saito Sensei would have the sword at the top, while others would have their taijutsu at the top of the triangle. I think I would also place the sword at the top of the triangle The more I train with the sword, the more my taijutsu becomes sword-like. It’s something I can’t separate.
The taijutsu and the weapons?
Yes. Constantly during practice I’ll take a bokken or jo off the wall to help illustrate a point I also teach a lot of weapons. During the week we have separate aiki weapons classes and taijutsu classes.
What weapons do you teach?
The bokken and the jo. We do the Iwama-style jo kata, the thirteen and thirty-one count kata. We also do suburi with both weapons and basic partner practices. Then as people get more of a feeling for the weapons, we’ll go on to partner practices involving bokken against jo and also some jo against jo.
The bokken against jo, these are Sugawara Sensei’s training sequences?
Yes, so the first half is more Katori Shinto-ryu sword against aiki jo. There are eight partner practices that we practice which tend to be longer and closer, and the maai (combative distance) is much more critical. They’re faster, with much less room for error.
When I was out in Iwama as a part of a group of Kazuo Chiba’s students we were very disappointed at the distances they were using in their paired weapons sequences there. Saito Sensei told us that he wanted us to keep a longer distance for safety’s sake. We felt that this led to bad habits. But because he was training with people who had very little experience in training with weapons, he had to do this for safety’s sake. We went out there, learned a lot from Saito Sensei, learned a lot from the other people, but felt that it was pretty tame. Have you any thoughts on this?
I think it is understandable that Saito Sensei would have people work at a greater distance. He sees an awful lot of people on his travels around the world, people who haven’t experienced much weapons training yet and might not have the control that they need. He might spend just a short period of time on weapons during a weekend workshop. The world being what it is, and litigation being what it is… It’s understandable. If you’ve been training for a number of years with weapons and you’ve achieved a degree of control and so forth, then I think it is important to get closer and achieve a real distance I trained with Saito Sensei in his weapons system for a number of years, and I got a lot out of them. But there came a point when I just felt I needed a little more I needed to be put on edge a little more, to feel that it was a little more real. At that time, I was also practicing with Sugawara Sensei, and he took me to the Katori Shinto-ryu dojo. I was amazed at the weapons-they were really something special. It’s a very difficult school to get into. I was very lucky that I could even watch class to begin with, and it took me three more years of going mere year after year, just watching classes, before I was allowed to join. The only reason I was allowed to join was because Sugawara Sensei and several others sponsored me.
So you’ve done taken the blood-oath (keppan) of the Shinto-ryu?
Yes, with Otake Sensei. He was my first teacher. Now I study solely with Sugawara Sensei. But after practicing both Iwama-style weapons and classical weapons, I find that my way really lies along the Katori Shinto-ryu path, because I feel it’s a deeper level of the sword. I think the Iwama-style weapons can be very beneficial and I think you can learn a lot from them. For a lot of people, that’s as far as they’ll ever go, and that’s as far as they want to go, and that’s fine Personally, I had to go in another direction and that took me into Katori Shinto-ryu. I was very privileged to be allowed to join, since it was rare for an outsider to be permitted to do so. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dorm Draeger who was the first to pave the way and made it possible for others to follow.
When did you join the Shinto-ryu?
1986, I believe Unfortunately, Donn Draeger had died by that time, so I never had the chance to meet him.
What can you say about similarities and or differences in attitude or approach or philosophy between the two systems-Ueshiba’s aiki, and Otake’s bujutsu, budo, and heiho?
Well that’s one thing that really attracted me to Katori Shinto-ryu-the feeling in the dojo was very similar to an aikido dojo. The atmosphere was very much of people training with each other, as opposed to people competing against each other. It goes back to the founder of the Katori Shinto-ryu, Izasa Choisai lenao in the 15th century, who died at a ripe old age of more than one hundred. It was pretty rare at that time for a swordsman to last that long. People would come to challenge him and they’d stay as students. According to stories that I’ve heard he wouldn’t fight them.
The philosophy was very much the same as aikido. You try to reconcile He wasn’t teaching members of one or the other feudal domains to go out and beat their enemies, he was at a shrine If people wanted to come and learn swordsmanship, he’d teach them. Katori Shinto-ryu is also based in Shinto, much like aikido is, and not so much in Zen. It’s very much an art for living, not for killing somebody. The fact that I could reconcile my aikido philosophy with something with real swords and real applications really appealed to me How do you see your training progressing from here? Do you see yourself possibly studying other weapons as well, as an adjunct to what you are doing now?
At this time, I feel I have my hands full just trying to learn the Katori Shinto-ryu and aikido better, to become a better teacher. People don’t realize how many layers there are to weapons. In partner practices you see a lot of weapons being banged against each other and quite often, I think, students think that that’s all there is to the weapons, but I’ve been taught that reality is very quiet You’re not bashing weapons. In effect, that block would be a cut. It takes quite a few years just to learn the first level, where to put the feet, and many more years to find out what the true applications are (the one’s that your teacher will show you). Then after that you make up your own applications to the movements. From what I can see now, I have a long way to go just to do that In 1992, I was part of a group of ten that included people from the San Francisco Bay area and Sugawara Sensei that traveled from Japan to China, to Shanghai and Beijing. We were asked to go there and demonstrate and teach aikido and we also demonstrated Katori Shinto-ryu. Our understanding was that this was the first time that aikido had ever been taught in mainland China. Always before our demonstration, they’d bring out their best wushu people and demonstrate. One thing that Sugawara Sensei is exploring now is the roots of Japanese weapons, specifically the sword, and he’s very interested in Chinese arts and how they relate to Japanese arts. Perhaps down the road if I get a better understanding of what I am doing now, that might be the next direction-learning more about Chinese arts and how they relate.
So you clearly do think that weapons training is appropriate for people who practice aikido?
I think it is very appropriate. There’s much to be learned from weapons, such as maai, and I think they bring a certain amount of realism to training that one might not get from practicing only taijutsu. I think that the feeling of the bokken or jo being an extension of one’s arms, a physical extension of your ki, is very evident when working with weapons. Another benefit is that many women students, at least in my experience with my own, feel much more comfortable training in weapons with a larger, stronger man than they do using taijutsu.
This is something you’ve discussed with them?
Yes. I do a lot of weapons in my classes, and I have a lot of women in my classes, and they all love weapons. They tell me weapons tend to be equalizers. A woman who is only five feet tall against someone who is two hundred fifty pounds and six foot five has a more even chance. Although with the principles of aikido, size and strength differences are not supposed to matter, but with a sword against sword, it’s a much more equal thing.
A strength multiplier as it were. Do your students have any problems with the fact that weapons are instruments for causing serious pain, injury and death?
When some of the students first start with weapons and see or feel the reality of what would happen when a sword hits someone, it can be a little disturbing. But then they realize that down the road it can be beneficial to know exactly what can happen. They understand that they are practicing a martial art and that martial arts can be lethal The question is really what you do with that knowledge.
Not the fact that you have the knowledge itself?
It’s not that you are ever going to use it The fact is that the more severely you train, the more real your training is, the less chance there is that you would actually need to put it into effect I think a lot of fights are started by people who are insecure. They don’t know what they are capable of, and tend to overreact Sugawara Sensei told me a long time ago that you should find your peace in the middle of war. I took that to mean that the more severe my training is, outside the dojo everything else will look pretty mild in comparison.
Have you ever had any problems with people becoming uncomfortable with your style of training in classes?
No, never. I think people realize when they join what kind of dojo it is. I’m not super strict in a lot of ways, I don’t insist that people call me Sensei and I don’t insist that people kneel down when they are talking to me If people refer to me as Mr. Jones, I think that my father is here. The way the sempai and I handle things demonstrates a certain amount of control. People see this when they come and watch their first class or train, and if they feel this is for them, they stay. And if they don’t, they leave. They don’t last You can usually tell who is going to last a week, or three months, or who’s going to stay with you permanently. Every sensei’s personality attracts a certain type that will stay with them. For example in Japan, I’m amazed at how many sensei smoke. All the sempai in that dojo probably smoke too. But I’ll be at a dojo where the sensei doesn’t smoke, and none of the sempai smoke If there was a smoker and he had a choice between entering the dojo of a non-smoker and a smoker, I’ll bet he’d take the dojo where the sensei smokes. One tends to gravitate towards what one likes.
You have trained in a classical weapons tradition, and you have also trained in aikido. Do you differentiate between the various types of instruction that you do at various times?
I do quite often make a distinction between what I’ve been taught as aiki weapons, and what I’ve been taught at Katori Shinto-ryu. But I try to find parallels between the Katori Shinto-ryu and the taijutsu I teach More and more my taijutsu becomes sword-like in its movements. I don’t have a lot of flashy movements, and I don’t use a lot of extra movements. I’ve been taught by Sugawara Sensei that there are only two kinds of movement in aikido, necessary movements and unnecessary movements. The more I train, the less movement I try to get by with, and the more streamlined I try to make them. Learning a classical sword style that is grounded in reality, and that’s battlefield proven, really teaches me what I can or can’t do in reality.
How long do you want someone to train with you before you start teaching them Katori? Or is it less a matter of time and more an assessment of their personality?
Of course, I want to evaluate their personality, but before I’ll let somebody start Katori Shinto-ryu, I want to know that they’re going to stay committed to it It’s a commitment of not only time and effort, but also financially on their part, because they need to buy at the very least an imitation sword, to be able to do the iai. If they don’t have a hakama, then they need a hakama, as well as a sword-cleaning kit It’s much more of an investment than just starting a karate or aikido class. Katori is taught much more on an individual basis, because you can’t teach fifty Katori students at a time, like you might in an aikido class. It’s traditional to teach to a small number of people and I basically want to keep along the traditional lines. I select people who are going to study Katori Shinto-ryu. So there’s no set time. When I first received permission to start teaching a class, I thought that maybe I should limit it to just black belts who have been with me for a long time and I know to be committed, but there are other people who have been training for a number of years but they’re not black belts yet They are also very committed, and they’re very interested. So my choice is pretty much based on the individual.
Do you require formal initiation of your students in the classical tradition?
People sign an oath, the same basic Katori oath that they’ve been signing for years. The only difference is that we don’t do a blood oath, which I had to take.
Do you find that that’s not something that’s appropriate in the United States?
We did change the oath a bit, in that in the original Katori oath, if you broke the rules you had to submit to the punishment of the deity of the Katori Shinto-ryu. In America this doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning because in America they don’t believe in Japanese deities, so we made it appropriate to Westerners.
How did you do that, if I may ask?
The rules are very basic, very simple, very straightforward. If you don’t follow the rules, then basically you are not training in Katori any more, and you will incur a fair amount of displeasure, but we really don’t have any retaliatory actions.
In the series “Weapons Training in Aikido,” several authors wrote about whether you can teach good aikido without weapons. What is your postion on this?
I very much agree with David Lynch and also with Larry Bieri about the fact that although weapons can be very helpful, they are not absolutely necessary. If you have never learned good weapons, then it certainly is not going to be beneficial to teach weapons to your aikido students.
You’ve trained with a number of different teachers, both in Japan and the United States, all of whom have their own ideas about taijutsu and weapons. How would you evaluate the level of weapons in aikido in general?
I think there are a lot of people whose experience with weapons is rather limited. If you’ve never seen other things you tend to think that what you are doing is all there is. The classical Japanese bujutsu are not very well-known-they have not been popularized-and they are taught in very few places around the world, so it’s understandable that people are not too familiar with them. I think people just have to stay open to what’s out there. And just because they learned the basic kata doesn’t mean they’ve mastered it. After you’ve learned the basic kata, you have to start learning what the applications are I think that’s a common mistake Once somebody gets all the way through a partner practice they think they know it That’s like saying that if you’ve passed your fifth kyu exam you know aikido. In fact, shodan is just a serious beginner. Once you get to that stage you can really start looking at what the weapons are about, the possibilities that exist, and they are numerous. I see a lot of people who refer to themselves as masters, but I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a master.
I’ve lived in Japan for twenty years, trained with some of the top people, and I have never heard any of them call themselves a master.
To me a master is one who has nothing more to learn. That might not completely agree with the definition in the dictionary, but as far as martial arts go, I would consider someone like O-Sensei, who has been enlightened and has created something as in credible as aikido, to be a master.
But even he himself said, “I’m a beginner.” And it wasn’t just false humility. He was still training.
That’s probably why I would consider him a master. I think his type are few and far between, and I’ve never met one. Someday I hope to.
[To be continued]
Profile of Mark Jones Began aikido in 1970 under William Morris, and has since trained with Dennis Tatoian, Morihiro Saito, Tetsutaka Sugawara, both in California and Japan. Holds the rank of 4th dan. In 7986 entered the Katori Shinto-ryu, and is now licensed as kyoshi or instructor. Has also practiced judo, karate, foil fencing, and t’ai chi ch’uan. Opened Traditional Aikido of Napa in 1983 where he offers instruction in aikido and Katori Shinto-ryu.
Traditional Aikido of Napa 2516 Laurel Street Napa, CA 94558 USA