Winter Grading 2018

Our semi-annual gradings were held over the weekend. A small group of mudansha. Something that had to be continually kept in mind. Our last few gradings have involved yudansha, and one must reset one’s expectations accordingly.

For some, this was their first ever grading with Ten Shin Sho Kai; always an added pressure.

For those watching and those participating, it is very easy to focus on all the negatives, all the errors that are made during a grading and lose sight of the bigger picture. This art is not finite and neither is the learning of it. Put into that context, one forgotten form of one particular technique is a minor event.

This was also the first time one of our relatively new instructors was asked to formally judge the students and present a report on their performance. (It is possible this instructor, should they happen to read this, and I think I am safe here, may take minor offense at being described as new. Which is why I prefixed that with, ‘relatively’, a word that allows one to describe anything in any way they wish and still be able to find a valid argument to justify it. Relatively speaking). It is a very different experience watching and trying to take pertinent, critical notes, than it is to be on the mat enjoying oneself.

The note taking occasionally makes students nervous, but the notes are not really about them, they are rather pointing out common flaws that indicate gaps in, or problems with, the teaching that has led to this point.

All who graded did exceptionally well and will be awarded their certificate/s of rank in due course. The other students who assisted throughout, especially the two yudansha for open hand, also did extremely well, putting the grading students under just the right amount of pressure throughout. No certificates for you though.


Ever a mix of emotions, a grading.

Expectations being disappointed and exceeded in a continuous flux of surprises.

The beer at the end always tastes good.


Kai Cho





I find it odd when my students look up at me from the mat with utter disbelief after I have thrown or pinned them, or the eyes of a weapons student bulge in terror as I attack them, or counter one of their attacks.

I believe the French phrase for the facial expression is: “What the fuck just happened?”

Why is it after so many years they still seem surprised when the technique works?

I understand with the beginners. They are new to the art and the instructor. I am an unknown to them. And, to be honest, my physique is not that of the stereotypical Hollywood martial artist. More akin to Rooster Cogburn than Bruce Lee.

But surely it should no longer be a surprise to my regular students that I actually know what I am doing and that the art actually does work as advertised.

Maybe if I start going to the gym again and stop making disparaging remarks about Isaac Newton on the mat?



“I call that bold talk for a one eyed fat man”

Lucky Ned Pepper


Kai Cho



Not Just Because I am Cruel

Actually, I am not really cruel. As I once pointed out to a student many years ago, you have to care to be cruel. I can still picture their shocked and crestfallen face. But that is another story. Today I am talking about tai sabaki and why we do so many every class.

The theory and hope is that by doing them enough, eventually they will become inherent in the body movements of the student. That when placed under pressure from an attack, they will, without conscious thought, simple execute one of their basic turns.

The extreme repetition is designed to carve new pathways in the brain so that students may, eventually, move, not just with a reaction, but with a fluid, intuitive motion that correctly matches and counters any given attack. It is one of the first steps towards mastery and wu wei.

Tai sabaki set the student up for both avoidance and balance breaking preparatory to executing a technique; they are the physical embodiment of fundamental principles.

How many repetitions are needed before the connection between the seemingly endless turns at the beginning of every class and the student actually using them in a kakari keiko situation is actually made?

Obviously this varies from individual to individual, but I do have mudansha that have conservatively reached 15 000 to 20 000 repetitions of each turn and still nothing. I know they are in there somewhere, just waiting to come out. I know this because history, experience and my yudansha, clearly demonstrate it to be so.

And so the repetition continues.

For my weapons students, nota bene, all of the above applies equally to your suburi.


 Kai Cho



Struggling with simplicity

Last night I taught an adult class a series of escape techniques. I designed these decades ago as a means to help protect my, then, very young, daughter. All the forms can be used effectively by small children against adults. Obviously, no strength can be involved, as few five year olds are physically stronger than an adult. To work, the techniques had to be based on fundamental Aiki principles and be very simple. I have been teaching them to children regularly and successfully since the early nineties.

Should have been an easy class for my adult students.

But no, the very concepts that make the forms suitable for children became stumbling blocks for the grown ups.

Aiki is a beautiful art. One that works extremely effectively with very little effort; if executed correctly.

Small children do not know that Aiki is impossible. They can do it extremely well.

Adults sub consciously refuse to believe it is possible. They need to prove it works. They try to make it complicated and add physical force to MAKE IT WORK.


Today the child I created those techniques for is an adult.

Indeed, today is her birthday.

Happy birthday, first born.


Kai Cho



Back in my day . . . . .

Circumstances had me teach another beginners’ sword class recently, which seems to inspire one towards ranting in disbelief.

My impression of relatively new students is that they lose focus very quickly. After as little as five minutes doing one form of solo kata they begin to fidget; they look around, they scratch themselves, they check that their sword is still made of metal, they wonder how cool they would look if I allowed the curtains in front of the wall mirror to be opened, etcetera, etcetera.

Naturally this, and the fact that I am old, leads me to question as to whether people are different now than when I first learned battojutsu.

When I began training with katana all classes were on a wooden floor, no mats. We had mats, we just were not allowed to use them and for the first few years all techniques were suwari waza; no one ever stood at any point during a class. People bled from the knees and feet.

Our teacher lived in Japan and taught us the first quarter of one technique to practice during one of his visits to Australia. He then taught each of the other parts on subsequent visits, roughly every six months. So, after two years, we had one complete form to practice. It was some years after that, that we were shown our first standing technique.

We simply do not teach it like that now.

If we did, would we still have any sword students left?

Are our current students so limited in their ability to maintain focus and lacking in any willingness to push through the pain and discomfort, that, if I taught battojutsu the way I was taught, it would quickly solve my ever having to deal with beginners again?

Or is it simply that I no longer have the patience to watch them struggle through? That I am misjudging them and that they would relish the opportunity to train the way I did? That the fault lies not with them, but with me? Should I grant them the benefit of the doubt and maintain a training regime from this point on, whereby no battojutsu students will be shown any standing techniques until after their shodan, leaving the mats in the store room and instead stocking up on bandages and antiseptic wipes?

Sadly, my observations over the past few years inclines me to believe, that, for the majority of new students today, I am not wrong in my assessment.

Though it might be an interesting exercise as a ding an sich



Back when I was young, old people never complained.

Kai Cho



People used to think I was rude

Well, actually, people still think I am rude, though the rumours started by members of my family that much of Bernard Black’s personality was based on mine, are demonstrably false.

It is more my behaviour towards new students that tends to dismay the onlookers and possibly even the new students themselves.

A case in point is when new people try to introduce themselves to me and I tell them not to bother as I have no intention of even trying to remember their names until they have trained with us for at least two years. Why would I? If they cannot demonstrate even that minimum level of commitment, then they are essentially just wasting my time. Two years is more than generous. I have spent too many years teaching too many students who think they can master something in just a few months or even weeks to be bothered taking seriously someone who cannot even last a couple of years. I fully accept that all new students have the potential to be long term, but it is up to them to prove that to me through actions, not words; and after two years I will acknowledge those first steps by learning their name.

In the face of such an attitude, why would any new student bother turning up twice?

Because they are at the dojo to learn and what we teach is worth the effort.

I am not running a social club.

I am not their parent, or new best friend.

I am not advocating any of the existing students shun the newcomers. Quite the opposite. It is their role to make them feel welcome. It is the role of seniors and sempai to answer their questions and ensure they understand what is required of them.

It is not my role.

So, am I rude?

Perhaps by other people’s social conventions. But I am also making an efficient use of my time and resources within the boundaries and protocols that govern a traditional martial arts School.

“You’ll laugh,
You’ll cry,
It will change your life”.
~ Bernard Black

Kai Cho



Just Make the Shape

In learning our art there is often a struggle between mind, body and perception.

I have spoken about this before, students see something, or at least think they see something, then try and force that into reality.

They try too hard.

One of the simplest ways to progress is to just make the shape of the technique. Forget about what the mind is telling you to do, just put the body into the appropriate shape.
The shape is a vessel for the energy of the technique.

It is also the means by which that energy is correctly and most efficiently directed.

By focussing on the shape, we can short circuit all those annoying and counter productive thought processes and instead teach the body. Such learning is much deeper and longer lasting.

Make the correct shape at the correct time and uke’s body and/or weapon will respond as if bent to your will; the magic, (jutsu), of Aiki.

And now I have Mr Maker stuck in my head:
“I am a shape
I am a circle
I am a square
I am a triangle
I am a shape”

Kai Cho




This is not specifically a martial arts post, (though many martial arts schools do describe themselves as unique), it is more of a personal rant. This, I believe, I can indulge myself in, as I am reasonably certain that the number of people who read this blog can be counted on less than the fingers of one hand.

Stop using the word unique.
It adds nothing to your conversation.
Everything is unique.
Name one thing, anything, that is not unique.
So by describing something as unique, you say nothing that is not already known and obvious. It is akin to describing a bone as bony.
Being unique is not special, or unusual, or even, unique.
So just leave the word out of your vocabulary.

Rant done.

Kai Cho



Teaching Beginners the Sword

I love battojutsu.

It is a simple, elegant art.

Aiki battojutsu adds another dimension of the sublime to this.

This is why I try to avoid teaching beginners at all cost.

Image an exquisite sumi e piece. Just a few basic strokes capturing the essence of the subject; perfection rendered in minimalist movement; nothing wasted; nothing lost.
Now ask a bunch of preschoolers to try and reproduce that art work with finger painting, their choice of colours.

This is what it is like teaching beginners aiki battojutsu.

Kai Cho



A New Year

Well into the new year’s training, but numbers are still down.

I have never quite understood why that is always the case. Of course, some people are still on holidays, and others have ongoing health issues, but surely the attitude should be one of, cannot wait to get back into the dojo.

I remember many, many years ago when I would close the dojo for the christmas – new year break, one of the senior students would always say, “But you are not going to stop training are you?”
They were right, I did not; I would always meet up a number of times with my teacher over the break and continue to train. Not sure whether the student was angling for an invite, or simply pleased to know their seniors never really stopped. Ironically, both that student and my teacher have since left the Path.

Which brings us yet again back to the old cliché that martial arts is a way of life, not a hobby. Too many people see it as little more than something they do one or two nights a week for fitness, or to feel cool amongst their friends, or whatever ephemeral reasons they might have. Too few have the courage to make a Real commitment. Without that Genuine commitment, however, your ‘martial arts’ training is destined to go the way of the stamp collections of your youth.

Make a worthwhile new year’s resolution this year and look deeply into the value of true martial arts training, then, actually make a True Commitment to the Way.

Kai Cho