Kūki Yomu: Can You Read The Air?

From Shiro Kuma by kumafr

This is my third trip to Japan this year, and Sensei is still developing the concept of control through Mutō dori. The type of control he is able to apply to his opponents is not mechanical, but mental. And when there is physical contact, it is only with the twist of a few fingers.

Often Sensei controls with the tip of one finger; other times, he is not even touching the attacker. But this one is so stressed that he freezes like a rabbit caught in the headlights of the car.

In many occasions, Sensei has been using the word “Kūki” to explain how he is controlling the opponent. (1) My friend, Peter Torngren from Sweden, told me about  a specific Japanese expression: “Kūki Yomu” or “to read the air”, that explains this.

The full sentence is “Ba no Kūki wo Yomu.” It is “understanding the situation without words” or “sensing someone’s feelings.” It is a critical concept for understanding Japanese culture. The literal meaning is “reading the air.” (2)

When Sōke meets the attack, he “reads the air” and reacts to control the opponent. This typical Japanese trait is often difficult to grasp for a Westerner. In Japan, you have to develop a new skill and know when “it is the time.” To find the “good moment” is something we are not used to doing in Europe. We often privilege direct speech and answers.

Here, in Japan, you have to read the atmosphere in order not to make a mistake. This is the same in a fight. And I tend to believe the centuries of wars, have helped the Japanese to develop this ability. On the battlefield, awareness is an asset.

Many times I came here with a question to Sensei, that I couldn’t ask. Because it was never the right moment. In Budō, this capacity creates a natural set of reactions. Your body reacts naturally without strength or thought. This is the “zero state” we learned a few years back. In the “control”, Hatsumi Sensei plays with Uke, like a cat with a mouse. And at times, it seems he is not interested in the attacker, that he chooses to ignore him. (3)
Uke is so focused on sensei’s reactions that he is unable to move.

I cannot do it yet, and, apart from Sōke, no one can. Control is not something you decide. It emanates from you and forces the attacker to reconsider his actions.

Everything is Genkaku, an illusion (see the previous post). You don’t do anything for Uke to be unable to react. But it should be something natural, undecided.

If you fail to understand Kūki Yomu, you will remain “kūki ga yomunai”, “someone unable to read the situation”. (4)

1 空気, Kūki: air; atmosphere; mood; situation
2 Kūki Yomu: https://en.m.wikipedia.org
3 空気扱い, Kūki atsuka: treating (someone) like they are air; ignoring (someone)
4 空気が読めない, kūki ga yomunai: unable to read the situation; unable to pick up on the mood (e.g. of a conversation)

“Tehodoki” Is Not “Te Hodoki”!

From Shiro Kuma by kumafr


Friday class was full of discoveries, the Dōjō too. More than 190 Bujinkan members gathered to train under Sōke. Needless to say that training was not easy, space was missing. But the content was complex. Sensei spoke a lot and demonstrated many things. I will write about them in later articles. The most exciting point concerned “Tehodoki.”

Everything was about: “control, control, control.” Sensei was receiving the attacks from a punch, a knife, a sword, and even from a bō. Each time the ending was about controlling Uke through the fingers.

When he was twisting the fingers of his Uke, Sensei repeated many times: “this is not Te hodoki.”

At first, I wasn’t sure I heard it right, but after the third time he said it, I understood that I didn’t understand. Let me explain. When a Bujinkan member hears “Te Hodoki,” he thinks: “Chi Ryaku no Maki / Aite to Kumu Kokoro Gamae (or Hajutsu Kyū Hō) / Te Hodoki.” (1)

But yesterday, what he was doing was not the basic technique we know. He was speaking of “Tehodoki” which has a different meaning. (2)

If it was “not Tehodoki,” as he said, it is because it was a high-level technique, and not the technique from the basics.

In fact, it is something so complicated that no one was able to do it. Each time Hatsumi Sensei was in control, he was twisting the fingers and defeated the attacker. There was no force, nor speed. Only control with the fingers.

Watching him do it, looked simple. But it was not. It was the highest level of taijutsu. This is the type of control that only him can do.

Listening to the comments from his various attackers, it was always the same. They were defeated at the moment of the attack. An outside viewer, would have had the impression that the opponents were giving their fingers to Sōke willingly. His movements were so in tune with the attacks that Uke could not react or escape. It was slow and efficient.

In Life, like in Budō, what you see is often Genkaku, an illusion. (3) You think you know what Hatsumi Sensei says, and often you do not think further. You do not try to read “between the lines.” In a real fight, a wrong interpretation leads to a terrible result. Having a preconceived vision of things is a mistake.

As the Japanese proverb says: 猿も木から落ちる。“ Even monkeys fall from trees.” (4)
Or “Everybody can make mistakes.” Your goal is not to repeat them. So, in your next class with Sensei, try not to make the same mistake again. Listen to what he says because sometimes the truth is more beautiful than what you expect.

When you train in Japan, keep a permanent Zanshin. (5) Have an open mind, and never think that you understand. Because things are never what they seem to be. Simplicity is complex.

Te Hodoki, has nothing to do with Tehodoki!

1 手解くTe Hodoki: unlock the grab on the arm/hand. From 手, Te: hand or arm; and 解く, Hodoki: to undo; to untie; to unfasten; to unlace
2 手ほどき, Tehodoki: teaching the basics; initiation; introduction​
3 幻覚, Genkaku: hallucination; illusion​
4 猿も木から落ちる, Saru mo ki kara ochiru: Even monkeys fall from trees
5 残心, Zanshin: continued alertness; unrelaxed alertness


Stop Copying Sensei!

From Shiro Kuma by kumafr


Noguchi sensei was very enthusiast yesterday. We covered the Tonsō no kata; the first level of Kukishin; a few sword techniques, and some hanbō jutsu. That was intense!

Noguchi sensei’s taijutsu is getting more destructured every time I train with him. As often, it is difficult to see the basics from the variations. I have attended his classes for 28 years now, and I am still amazed by his creativity.

Each time I train the Ryū with him, I have the feeling that I am studying new techniques. That is impressive and shows me the distance between his level and mine.

In the Mutō Dori part of the Tonsō no kata (waza 4, 5, and 6), we control the Uke’s sword. Noguchi sensei made a fascinating point. Uke attacks with Tsuki and Tori dodges the attack from the right. Dodging is Gomakasu. (1)

He said that holding the blade the way Hatsumi Sensei does, is not of our level. First, we have to learn how to avoid the stab. Catching and controlling the blade will come later

Sōke’s level is way above ours. He shows what is happening when you reach his degree of mastership. He does that so that we know where we are heading. But if we try to mimic his movements, we are dead.

For the last few days here, I have been exchanging a lot with my friend Daniel about this. We have to train at our level. Copying Sensei is not what we need, we need to better our sabaki first.

Too often, young black belts try to reproduce Hatsumi Sensei’s movements. They cannot do it because they don’t have acquired the basics. Footwork is key to our survival, and as long as we don’t have a perfect sabaki, and perfect timing, we cannot do what Sōke does.

Many visitors in Japan try to teach what they train here when they come back to their students. This is wrong in many aspects.

They “play Grandmaster” without the proper knowledge.
They do not teach their students.
They put their students’ lives at risk.

As teachers, we have a responsibility of transmitting what we see in Japan. But we have to do it in a way so that our students can develop their skills. If we keep imitating Sōke, we don’t pass on any new knowledge. This is not teaching, this is cheating (the other meaning of gomakasu). (1)

Teaching is Shugyō in Japanese. (2) And the essence of education is to instruct. You don’t need to look good, you have to be. It is not about showing off, some teachers should reflect on that.

If you lure your students into a fake sense of efficiency, you deceive them. You are Shūgyotō, attracting fish using lights. (3)

A fake teacher can cause the death of his students.
Be a true shugyōsha, not a shūgyotōsha!

1 誤魔化す, gomakasu: to dodge; to deceive; to falsify; to misrepresent; to cheat; to swindle. It is interesting to see that to dodge also has the meaning of misleading.
2 授業, shugyō: lesson; class work; teaching; instruction
3 集魚灯, shūgyotō: fish-luring lights


Control With Tō Toku

From Shiro Kuma by kumafr


Precise footwork is what defines better the taijutsu of Nagato Sensei. We had a long session of Taijutsu where we “wrapped” Uke, taking his balance in many directions. François, a newly promoted Shidōshi had a long flying and crashing meeting on that day.

Nagato sensei was controlling Uke with his elbow, as usual. But he was also using his back a lot. By turning inside the attacker, Nagato sensei was taking the distance to lock Uke.

Hatsumi sensei wants us to “control” the attacker and space during the fight. This was a fantastic demonstration on how to do that. The techniques unfolding one after another, it seemed that Nagato sensei was a leaf in the wind. When you know his body shape, it is interesting. James Garcia recently wrote: “someone commented on how muscular Nagato was. He said, “yes, but with Taijutsu, you don’t need muscles.” There was no strength, only footwork.

During the break, he spokes of his relationship with Sōke. He said he was following him like the bug holding the tail of a horse and moving with him. Applied to his taijutsu, it was the same. The attacker was the horse, Nagato sensei, the bug. And whatever the opponent was doing, the control was total.

At the end of the class, Nagato did some hanbō jutsu. On a fist attack, Nagato sensei put the weapon vertical to the outside of the arm, protecting himself. It was like a high tate no kamae. (1)

This point of contact was the fulcrum. From there, he would counter attack, moving from the outside of the first to the outside in a sort of tsuke iri. (2)

That was a simple and efficient movement in one flow. What amazed me was that with this simple action, Nagato sensei was taking advantage of every opening created by Uke.

He insisted on the importance of shielding your body behind the hanbō with Tō Toku no kamae. (3) Hatsumi sensei said many times this year that there is no attack. You do not fight back, tatakai wa Janai. (4) You do not leave any suki available to the opponent. (5)

Staying out of reach is how you can control Uke’s and turn his actions to your benefit. Remember Tō Toku, it is a vital part of taijutsu.

1 縦, tate: vertical; height
2 付け入る, tsukeiri: to take advantage (of somebody’s weaknesses, carelessness, etc.); to impose on
3 匿, Toku: shelter; shield; hide
4 戦い じゃない, tatakai Janai: there is no battle; no fight; no struggle; no conflict
5 隙, suki: gap; space; break; chink (in one’s armor, armor); chance; opportunity; weak spot; breach

Bimyō or Bimyō? Both!

From Shiro Kuma by kumafr

Despite his fragile health, Senō sensei continues teaching on Saturdays. It is always a pleasure to attend one of his magic classes.

Of all the Japanese Dai Shihan, he is the one that has this fantastic touch. The movements he teaches are always simple, but impossible to reproduce. This is why I will not even try to detail the moves we trained during the whole class.

It was some kind of Ryō Mune Dori (double chest grab). Then it was magic.

During the class, I was training with my friend Aluisio from Brazil. We had excellent training, but we couldn’t do the technique. What is nice when you practice with a high rank, is that no one is trying to win, both do their best to repeat the technique. At some point, a pair of students were doing their own stuff instead of trying to understand the waza. I saw myself doing the same mistake years ago. I went to them smiling, and asked: “did he change the technique?”. And I went back to my training spot. Both looked at me puzzled. I hope they understood this subtle message. When you are a young black belt, you cannot see correctly. Then you add the strength you feel is needed to get to the same result. But it doesn’t work like that.

The movements by Senō sensei are very light and very subtle. Many times I asked him to perform the technique on me. It was like fighting a cloud. You cannot sense any pressure from his part. But you always fall as he softly takes your balance without you knowing it.

This subtlety is the make of a great teacher. The Japanese have a term for that: “Bimyō.” (1)

Bimyō is another of these Japanese words carrying many different interpretations.

At the same time, it is subtle and difficult; delicate and complicated. Bimyō also is tricky. As I wrote earlier, when you are Uke, you know what he is going to do, and you lose your balance without knowing.

At one point during the class, Senō sensei said to ask anything we wanted and to experience with him as Tori. Many teachers don’t do that. Senō sensei is so good that his taijutsu applies the same to anyone. This is not a technique, this is real control. It is beyond the biomechanical aspects of the movement.

I hope that one day I will get this superior taijutsu. His movements are holistic in the sense that they encompass the whole without any tension. This is exquisite to be his Uke and to witness first-hand the elegance of his taijutsu. We are lucky to have him teaching us.

This natural elegance is also Bimyō. (2)

1 微妙, bimyō: delicate; subtle; sensitive; difficult; delicate (situation); complicated; doubtful; questionable; dicey; tricky
2 美妙, bimyō: elegant; exquisite