Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Benefits of Being Injured

The Benefits of Being Injured

    If you're doing martial arts, you are going to get injured.  Hell, if you are alive, you're going to get injured.  But, this doesn't have to be a completely negative experience.  You can look at this as a unique opportunity to do somethings you don't normally get to do.  First it depends on the injury, and the severity of the injury.  I break my maladies into two categories: on the mat, and off the mat.  On the mat injuries are smaller, and I can still participate in class.  Off the mat means I'm out of commission for a while and can't do my classes.  As with any physical situation, you should get the opinion of a trained medical professional (i.e. NOT me) before ascertaining any activity.

Off the Mat Injuries

    Sometimes there are things that prevent you from getting on the mat normally.  Could be something as severe as a broken limb, or as simple as a bad head cold.  This gives you two kinds opportunities.  First, if you can go to the dojo (again using the Japanese terminology), you should use this time to watch class.  Watch the instructor not from the point of getting the technique right, but instead look at all the other things they do.  Pick one small aspect, like foot angle or shoulder position, and watch that point through all the technique applications.  Try to notice the little, subtle details of each time they demonstrate the technique, let alone between different techniques.  This would be a good thing to record in your martial arts journal.  By staying back, and looking at the whole picture, you can sometimes see things that you normally miss up close.  Use this time off the mat to practice this wide focus of learning.
    Second, If you are laid up at home, then use that time to study the other aspects of the art.  There are huge amounts of history and philosophy to sift through in all martial arts.  I'm an avid reader of martial arts books.  I read books on the arts I practice, I read books on martial philosophy, and I read books on other martial arts.  They all build my own understanding of my personalized art.  If you are unable to go to the dojo due to injury, you already have that time set aside in your schedule.  Use it to read up on your favorite subject.

On the Mat Injuries

Not me, but how I feel today
    There are a lot of small injuries that though painful, and irritating, are not debilitating.  Make sure whenever you are injured, you let your practice partner know of the injury.  In some dojo, I've seen that use black tape on the gi to indicate an injury.  This is the type of injury that brought up this post.  I'd hurt/strained a muscle in my lower back (getting old sucks, avoid it if at all possible).  I actually was doing an aikido technique, and my sore back was irritated every time I did a technique.  It was a technique that, like much of aikido, was not supposed to be using any strength.  I realized from my back telling me so, that I was using muscles to pull the opponent around instead of using their own motion.  If my back hadn't been sore, I wouldn't have figured this out.  It is possible to learn through these small injuries.

    I don't hope or wish injury on anyone, but when the do happen, and they will, find a way to make a positive, learning experience from them.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why can't my Aikido be like my driving?

Originally posted on, but removed due to space

Mushin Kanji
    When I was starting out in my martial arts world, I was introduced to concept of Mushin.  The best definition I’ve come up with for mushin is “Mindless, consciousness.”  In martial terms, you cut out the thinking and interpreting part of the process.  Your body has learned, through repetitive exercise to react to certain circumstances without your brain being part of the reaction.  This was always presented to me as a goal of martial arts, to willingly enter the state of mushin. 

    Most of us have experienced this to some extent.  I’ll give you an example from my experiences.  I love driving long trips.  They are therapeutic for me.  In high school, I had to drive about 25 miles to school, at 6:00 am so there were almost no cars on the road.  Most of the time, I hadn’t had any caffeine yet, so I was on some kind of autopilot.  I would essentially "wake up" at my friend’s house to pick him up for school.  For a long time, this scared me.  Obviously I hadn’t been asleep, but I had absolutely no recollection of anything that had occurred along the drive. I didn’t get into an accident, so I must have done everything right, I just had done it without thinking.  I think many people have some experience with a situation similar to this.

Noticed how relaxed he is...
    This is what I want my martial arts to be.  Thinking takes time.  It may be only miliseconds, but any fraction I can gain while someone is trying to punch me in the face is welcome.  The normal pattern of an incoming attack is Perceive, Interpret, Plan, React.  The samurai came to the conclusion that by extensive repetitive training, two of the steps can be reduced and/or eliminated.  The pattern would then be perceive, react.  Many other warrior traditions came up with this idea, but called it different things. What ends up happening when this situation in encountered is a nigh unbeatable opponent.  They seem to react before you attack.  They counter attack before you understand you’re attack has been stopped.  For the defender the experience is unusual.  I’ve only had this happen once.  During one sparring session, I counter attacked everything my opponent attacked with.  My mind wasn’t there.  I wasn’t thinking of anything.  Everything just seemed to happen. 

That is the goal.  The question then becomes how to get to the goal.  The answer is repetition.  I’ll go back to my personal example of driving.  Think about learning to drive.  Really think about it.  You had to be told what to do, you forgot steps (Adjust your mirror, check you blind spot, slowly apply the gas).  While learning, you started out being able to drive straight with minor turns, but if anything unusual happened, say someone walked out in front of you, you couldn’t react.  Most people would freeze, overreact, or react badly.  You were too new to the idea of driving.  As you got more comfortable with driving you stopped thinking about the steps.  You no longer thought “in order to go faster, I must depress the gas pedal, which is the pedal on the right.”  You simply accomplished this by your body doing what it needs to automatically.  How was this accomplished?  Large amounts of time behind the wheel, what’s called experiential knowledge.  Think about how much time you spend driving, and then compare this to how much time you spend on the mat?  Notice the discrepancy?  So if you want to be the unbeatable opponent, get out there on the mat and practice those reactions until you no longer have to think about them, they just happen.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Where's Mr. Miyagi?

Originally posted on, but was removed due to space

Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi
As westerners we come into martial arts with certain stereotypes in our mind, most of which have been put there by martial arts movies of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  One of most common of those stereotypes is that of the martial arts instructor.  The sensei of the movies is almost always a traditionally minded, stoically quite, Asian male who disseminates the secrets of life in cryptic pieces of wisdom that are not fully understood until “the right time.”- in short, Mr. Miyagi. 

In my few years of martial arts training, I’ve met dozens of martial arts instructors in many different styles, and none have fit the Mr. Miyagi model.  They may have had a characteristic or two in common with the archetype, but they’ve all been very different people.  I’ve met grouchy aikido sensei (in the Japanese language they don’t have plurals for words, i.e.the plural of sensei is sensei), smiley kung fu sifu, and timid jujutsu sensei.  I know it sounds like I’m naming all random members  of the seven dwarves, but this is to show how stereotypes are just stereotypes, especially those made from fictional sources.  I’ve even met sensei who were…female.  (Mrs. Miyagi?)  Each of these sensei have taught me valuable things, sometimes the things they taught me were martial arts, sometime they were not.  Occasionally I’ve even learned, through example, what I didn’t want my martial arts to be.  If you’ll pardon my indulging, I’m going to go through a couple of sensei I’ve had, and what I’ve learned from them.

            The first martial arts instructor I had was Jason Backlund sochi of Yamagata ryu Hyoho.  I discovered this instructor while attending the University of Florida Gainesville.  In hindsight, I never new what a unique opportunity I had.  Over the course of a couple of years, he taught me the beginnings of martial arts.  I spent many hours going up and down the dojo doing kicks and punches before moving on to anything resembling a jujutsu.  At the time I didn’t know any better, but this became a great foundation for my martial arts.  It still surprises people when I, a mere aikidoka, pull a kick out of my repertoire.  Backlund sochi also taught me something else.  One of his ideas was that drawing something, made you look at it closer.  Draw the knot of the sageo of a katana.  In order to draw the knot, you have to understand how the knot is constructed.  Draw the motion of ikkyo.  See if you can illustrate the motion that is required.  I still do this today, and my understanding of something usually increases when I do.

Sweep the leg, Johnny
My second instructor was a good example, but for bad reasons.  Once I moved to South Florida, I wanted to continue with my training, so I looked up a traditional Japanese jujutsu that was being taught South Florida. The sensei was short, not particularly muscular, and looked more like an accountant than a martial artist.  He was good at what he did, but he was a gruff sort of individual.  In fact, that’s why I left that system.  I left after witnessing an incident where sensei was yelling, in anger, at a student.  That student happened to be his son, so I don’t know if that influenced his behavior, but I wasn’t willing to find out.  I finished that class, and never went back.

"Doc" Philip Chenique of Atemi ryu Jujutsu
Now I study aikido, kenjutsu and jujutsu through Atemi Ryu under the tutelage of Doctor Philip Chenique.  “Doc” is humble, but he puts on a large persona when teaching.  He actually hates the spotlight, but is good at being in it.  He often uses humor to teach, but usually at his own expense.  He treats everyone as if they were family members.  He cares more about your character than your martial skills.  He is a large man who still surprises me with his quickness.  He has a huge presence, but is still able to sneak out of the door when no one is looking.  In some ways, he’s more Mr. Miyagi than not.

All of these people have their own method of teaching: learn from them.  It is the individual that puts the art into martial arts.  They will all have their own philosophies and experiences on what martial arts are.  Just because you don’t agree with them, doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them, or even that you won’t change your own mind in the future.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Martial Thoughts Episode III is now ready

Episode III-Interview with Matthew Apsokardu

We have just uploaded the latest episode of the most amazing martial arts podcast on the web.  The Martial Thoughts Podcast.  Downloade it from the link below, through iTunes, or Stitcher!

 Click HERE for the Episode

Show Notes

Introduction Music:  Theme from "Enter the Dragon" by Lalo Schifrin

Discussion Topic: Difference between Shodan and Instructors
  Shodan = "Black Belt," 1st Dan, 1st Degree Black Belt
  Instructor = Intends to Internalize a system,
  Through the Wormhole
  Go Rin no Sho
  Doctor Philip Chenique (of Atemi ryu Jujuts)
  Sheep, Sheepdog, and Wolves
  Karate Chimp
  Planet of the Apes
  Enter the Dragon
  Martial Arts Journals
  Martial Arts Practitioner vs. Martial Artist
  Jamaican Martial Arts Scene: Chinese Martial Arts, Karate, Tae Kwon Do
  Brazilian Jujutsu, MMA
  Red Stripe
  Steven Seagal
  Above the Law
  Marked for Death
  Bob Marley
  Blues Brothers
  Good Samaritan Law
  Bernard Getz
  Lethal Weapon
  Martial Arts History Museum
  Enter the Dragon
  Allen Horn
  Michael Eisner
  Walt Disney Studios
  Vladamir Putin
  Chuck Norris
  Barack Obama studied Tae Kwon Do
  Rocky IV
  47 Ronin
  Keanu Reeves
  D&D (Dungeons and Dragons)
  (Oda) Nobunaga
  The Matrix
  The Man of Tai Chi
  Tony Jaa
  Ong Bak 3
  Mel Gibson
  Ben Afflac
  M. Night Shamalan
  Jet Li
  Hiroyuki Sanada
  Samurai Champloo
  Meiji Restoration
  Black Sails
Interlude Music: Back in Black by AC/DC
Interview with Matthew Apsokardu
  Bruce Heilmen
  Okinawan Kempo
  Odo Seikichi
  Rick Zondlo
  Muso Jiken Eisen ryu
  Chuck Merriman
  Bill Hayes
  Jody Paul
  Miguel Iberra
  Dewey Deavers
  Robert Trias
  Iwakabe Sensei
  Nakamura Shigeru
  Itosu Sensei
  Kunioshi Shinkichi
  Community Safety Service
  Verbal Judo
  Rory Miller
  Marc "Animal" MacYoung
  DVD-Logic of Violence
  DVD-Facing Violence
  Warrior Mindset
  Lorren Christensen
  Living the Martial Way-Forrest E. Morgan
  My Journey with the Grandmasters-Bill Hayes
  Fumio Demura-The Movie
  Bruce Lee
  The Karate Kid
  Castle Rock Colorado
  Natural Karate
  Tales from the Western Generation
  Kyan Sensei
  Miyagi Sensei

Outro Music: Voodoo Chile-Jimi Hendrix / Gayageum ver. by Luna

Why do we wear Gi?

Funakoshi Gigo in Gi
    Gi are anachronisms.  (In the Japanese language there are no plurals.  One gi, many gi.)  We could just as easily practice martial arts in sweats, shorts, or any of the more modern clothing that makes more sense.  In fact, there is a whole industry designed to make effective, efficient workout gear.  You don't have to train in this traditional Japanese clothing, but something would feel weird about it if you didn't.  Again, I'm not discrediting the Chinese silk pajamas, but my art is Japanese based, so that's where I come from.
  Hakama are even worse. Although there have been some martial arguments made for wearing hakama, they were originally based off of leather riding breaches used during medieval Japan.  Why do I need to wear them to do Aikido?  I don't wear leather chaps when I fire my sixshooter at the range (though it would be fun to see someone do that).  There are several reasons why we do, and I'll discuss some of them, and then tell you why I think we wear them.
Traditional Clothing are functional
  There is a certain amount of functionality built into the traditional martial arts clothing.   They keep us covered, they are made of durable material (thicker cotton or canvas), they are firm enough to keep up with the abuse we put them through, and they absorb sweat relatively well (at least the judo gi that I use).  The downside is they are generally more expensive than workout clothes.

It is traditional
  Yes, there is a lot of tradition associated with martial arts, and the clothing associated with them is part of that.  Originally, the instructors were people from some Asian country, and in that culture, these clothing would be appropriate.  However, I am a white guy from Wisconsin who has never even been to Japan, let alone have good grasp of the culture.  Why should I wear something that isn't culturally significant to me.  Well, it is basically because my sensei did.  Why did my sensei?  Because his sensei did, and so forth.  There is a connection to these other people, to all martial artist because of the uniform.  It is a recognizable symbol, and in that, there is value.

The Ritual Reason
  I believe the real reason is because it becomes part of the ritual of martial arts practice.  Rituals have a very real purpose in life.  They separate the sacred from the mundane.  And in this sense, I'm using the word sacred as Mircea Eliade uses it.  Sacred is something other than mundane, a separate time or place that is deemed special.  Doesn't that describe a dojo pretty well?  We have a clearly demarcated area, we have a ritual for entrance and exiting the area, and we have a special set of rules governing behavior on the mat.  Sound like a sacred place to me.  Donning the uniform, the gi, signifies that you are changing into a different person for that short time.  It is a psychological tool for establishing difference of mindset.  This is extremely important aspect of humanity.  We seem to crave rituals, despite our seemingly Western idea that tradition and ritual are silly, or at least unnecessary.  I would argue that our modern Western way of life seems somehow flat, or at least lacking, because of our reluctance to accept the idea of rituals or sacred space.  I think that this use of ritual and sacred space, masked as tradition, is one of the many reasons people come to the martial arts in the first place.  So next time you're getting dressed in your gi, think about how it is changing you, and how you perceive things in the dojo.

The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion by Mircea Eliade

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

We're on Stitcher!

Good Day Everyone,

  For those of you who don't like iTunes (and I understand why) I've also put Martial Thoughts Podcast up on Stitcher.  Here is the link

Please add reviews and let us know what you think,  be it positive or criticism.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

An Interview with Jason Backlund Sochi of Kobushin Kai

This was originally posted on, but has since be deleted due to space.  I believe this interview was important enough to share again, as I learned a large amount of information, and I studied with the Gentleman.  Enjoy!

Martial artists are a sundry group, which is one of the fun aspects of our art.  Everyone has a different take on the same thing.  As an example, here is an interview conducted through emails with my first instructor in Martial Arts, Jason Backlund Sensei.

Martial Thoughts:  Thank you for doing this interview with me.  As an introduction, could you describe the history/origin of Yamagata Ryu, as well as what the official name of the system is?

Jason Backlund Sensei: When I began studying under Yamagata Sensei, he was a Soke Dairi (official representative) of a style called Matsubara Ke Senpo (literally - Matsubara Family Strategy / but better translated as the Matsubara Family's Method of War Fighting). The Matsubara Ke had a huge number of techniques detailed in several scrolls including Tojutsu (sword techniques), Sojutsu (spear techniques), Naginatajutsu (glaive techniques), Bojutsu (staff techniques), Taijutsu (unarmed techniques), Goshinjutsu (self-defense techniques) and Kotojutsu (knife techniques). Unfortunately, none of us had the time necessary to devote to studying all of these techniques adequately, so, as time went on, Yamagata Sensei began to focus his lessons on two main fields of study - Tojutsu and Goshinjutsu. Yamagata Sensei's true passion was the sword, and for this reason nearly half of the classes were devoted to Tojutsu. He was also a strong believer in practicality and, therefore, Goshinjutsu filled most of the remainder of our time. About 10 percent of the classes were spread among the remaining Matsubara Ke curriculum.

Such a large amount of time was spent on self-defense techniques and sparring that the mindset of practicality and efficiency began to pervade every aspect of our training. This was especially true for sword training. Matsubara Ke Tojutsu included hundreds of techniques for every conceivable form of attack and defense. Yamagata Sensei began to see this method of teaching as flawed. He believed that groups of techniques could be distilled to their fundamental versions, and that mastering these fundamentals and practicing them free-form in controlled-sparring situations would allow the students to naturally adapt to variations in an opponent's attacks. The difficult and time-consuming part was choosing which techniques best fit this criteria.

As this transition was happening, I was becoming increasingly dedicated to my training - to the point that I stopped going to school and spent more time at the dojo than I did at my own home. Yamagata Sensei rewarded my dedication by working with me privately before and after classes. Eventually, Yamagata Sensei utilized me as his sounding board and assistant while he developed and catalogued his new method of teaching sword techniques. What began to emerge was not only a set of distilled Matsubara Ke techniques, but also a complete and distinct curriculum. Yamagata Sensei thought that this new curriculum could become an addition to the Matsubara Ke curriculum and presented it to the Soke, Matsubara Isao, during his visit to the Orlando dojo in January, 1994. Soke Matsubara was indeed impressed, but in addition to entertaining the idea of including Yamagata Sensei's curriculum into Matsubara Ke Senpo, he also insisted that the techniques and, more importantly, the method of teaching them, be taught as an entirely new style. This new style became the Yamagata Ryu. 

Yamagata Sensei, then at the age of 64, had little interest in starting a new style, and instead had planned to return to Japan the following year and retire. Having devoted a substantial amount of time to helping Sensei with his endeavor, I was excited about the prospect of opening a school and teaching Yamagata Ryu. Sensei, who had begun to encourage me to go back to school and continue my education, proposed a deal - my reward for achieving a high-school diploma would be permission to open my own school. After graduating high school, I made plans to move to Gainesville and attend college. Yamagata Sensei rewarded my efforts by issuing me a Menkyo Kaiden (license of full transmission) certificate that not only granted me permission to open my own school, but named me as the Nidai Soshi (Second-Generation Head Teacher) of Yamagata Ryu Kobujutsu (Yamagata Style of Ancient Martial Arts). The following year I opened the first Yamagata Ryu dojo in Gainesville.

Regarding the second part of your question:

The original name for the style was Yamagata Ryu Kobujutsu, which was composed of two equal parts: Yamagata Ryu Hyoho Kenjutsu (literally - Yamagata Style Soldier Method Sword Techniques / but better translated as the Yamagata School of Strategy and Sword Techniques) and Yamagata Ryu Goshinjutsu. 

In addition to the Matsubara Ke curriculum, our Dojo in Orlando also held classes by instructors of Jujutsu, Aikido and Judo. Part of the Matsubara Ke Taijutsu set included a group of techniques referred to as Inyoho (Yin Yang Method), which was very similar in nature to Aikido and other styles of what is today called Aikijujutsu. My interest in these techniques and Yamagata Sensei's take on them led me to include a large portion of them in a separate curriculum, which I briefly taught in Gainesville under the name Yamagata Ryu Aikijujutsu. My interest in this curriculum waned, and I eventually stopped teaching it as a distinct class. As my interest in Aikijujutsu was fading, I was beginning to rekindle my interest in Jujutsu and Judo. Atemi waza (striking techniques) had always been a dominant part of Yamagata Ryu Goshinjutsu, but I wanted to teach more grappling than had been in the original curriculum. Since this was getting outside the realm of what Yamagata Sensei had developed, I decided to start a club, which I called Kobushin Kai (Society of Ancient Martial Spirit) with additional techniques in its curriculum. Today, approximately 60 percent of Kobushin Kai's curriculum is taken directly from Yamagata Ryu Goshinjutsu, and the remainder is a combination of Jujutsu and Aikijujutsu techniques that I have learned from various sources over the years. Since I no longer teach Yamagata Ryu Goshinjutsu, Yamagata Ryu Hyoho Kenjutsu is now a stand-alone style. There is a certain amount of irony in this, as it was my insistence that Goshinjutsu be included as part of the Yamagata Ryu curriculum, and Sensei, who originally wanted the style to focus solely on Kenjutsu, only agreed reluctantly after a significant amount of respectful badgering on my part. 

MT: So your official rank/title is as Soke?

Backlund Sensei: Soke, as I'm sure you are aware, essentially translates as head of a house or family, and its use in the Japanese martial arts stems from the fact that many styles used systems of family succession to transfer leadership from one generation to the next. I was first referred to by this title when I moved to Gainesville. At one point, I was invited to join an international body composed of the heads of various martial arts styles, which referred to its members as Soke regardless of their official titles. As it is such a widely understood and accepted term, I fell into the habit of using Soke as my title and even signed a number of documents as such. The title that Yamagata Sensei conferred upon me is Soshi (Head Teacher), an uncommon term in the martial arts. At the time when I was considering joining the aforementioned organization of "Soke", I did not have a healthy respect for the difference between the two titles.

As I became more involved in the martial-arts community at large, I discovered that there exists a group of Koryu purists that take offense to Americans using the title of Soke, and I have come to see their point. Soke describes a relationship with a family, and usually is conferred upon a blood-relative of the previous head of style. At the very least, Soke of legitimate Ryu are almost always Japanese. While I am the head of Yamagata Ryu, I am not a blood relative, nor am I Japanese (I guess I should point out that my father is half Japanese, which I guess makes me a quarter, but that detail would be irrelevant to most purists). 

Over the years, I have learned to see the wisdom in Yamagata Sensei's choice of title. Even though Soke and Soshi both effectively mean the same thing in terms of day-to-day responsibilities, they are very different in what they represent. Koryu, led by Soke, are family endeavors that span generations with carefully protected histories. Our style is a technical study of Japanese sword techniques stemming from historical teachings but intended to treat its subject matter as if it were still relevant today. In other words, Koryu are snapshots of history, and their techniques are essentially frozen. Yamagata Sensei approached his art by essentially saying - hypothetically, what if we were still engaging in sword fights today? What would be the best way to train students to fight and defend themselves? From that perspective, Yamagata Ryu is a Gendai Bujutsu headed by a Soshi, not a Koryu headed by a Soke.

MT: Looking at the nature of weapons involved in the art, I'm going to assume that this is a traditional bushi art, and not a modern budo.  Is this a correct assumption?

Backlund Soshi: I would classify Yamagata Ryu as a Gendai Bujutsu (modern-age martial art). It is not a Koryu simply because it was developed in the 20th Century. However, it is not a Budo either. The goal of Yamagata Ryu is to teach its students to effectively fight using the Japanese sword with ancient Japan as the setting. The curriculum includes techniques for fighting in armor on the battlefield, and for fighting out of armor in the context of a self-defense situation or duel. We train using bokuto (wooden swords) for kata (paired forms) and kumitachi (sparring), and shinken (live blades) for batto (sword drawing) and tameshigiri (test cutting).

MT: You mentioned earlier that practicality and efficiency became part of the mindset, could you elaborate on this?  Is this in terms of removing techniques from the common repertoire or in terms of minimalizing movements?

Backlund Sochi:  A little of both. The kata of Matsubara Ke were far more numerous, and there were many kata that, while being slightly varied in movement or execution, essentially expressed the same fundamental principle. Yamagata Sensei spent a great deal of time trying to determine which kata best expressed each fundamental principle and included one version of each in an attempt to avoid repetition - thus increasing efficiency. The problem as he saw it was that too much time was spent on training kata and not enough on training waza. 

In Yamagata Ryu, a kata is a pre-arranged series of movements that deal with an attacker from the initiation of his attack until he has been dispatched. Waza are individual, constituent components such as individual cuts, blocks or footwork. Most kenjutsu styles spend the bulk of their time training kata, as was the case with Matsubara Ke. Yamagata Sensei saw this as a flawed method of teaching. He believed that kata should make up approximately half of the students' training time. The remainder should consist of training individual waza in combinations that are put together by the instructor on the spot and changed often, so that the students begin to learn how to deal with unpredictable situations. The students then work their way up to being able to respond to free-form, improvised attacks - thus increasing practicality. Eventually, the students can even freely spar. This is similar to the method used to teach Kendo, but Kendo techniques have become so specialized toward winning competitions using shinai that they are not practical for fighting with shinken.

As for minimizing movement, there was a little bit of that in adapting the kata, but those changes were fairly minor. The individual Matsubara kata were already a pretty good case study in efficient movement.

MT: When did you start martial arts training, and why did you start initially?

Backlund Sochi: My father took me to my first martial arts classes when I was eight years old, and the best reason I can think of is because I liked to watch martial-arts movies as a kid. He also thought it would be something that would provide me with the benefits of physical fitness and discipline. The first classes I took were Karate and Tae Kwon Do, but those didn't last for very long.

When I was in fourth grade, I met two classmates, Tommy and Yoshi Hara, who shared my enthusiasm for martial-arts movies. Being Japanese, they were somewhat isolated in a school populated almost entirely by Caucasian children. When I told them that I had a Japanese grandmother, we became fast friends.  Eventually, I learned that they were receiving private Jujutsu lessons three times a week, and, even though I had no idea what Jujutsu was at that age, I was nevertheless fascinated by what they described. They invited me to attend one of their backyard sessions, and I jumped at the opportunity.

Tommy and Yoshi's father, as it turned out, was a big financial supporter of the Matsubara Ke dojo, but never had the time to attend. Instead, he arranged for three private lessons a week for his sons - two of which were to be taught by a senior student and one to be taught by Sensei. As luck would have it, I happened to show up for my first time on a day in which the class was to be taught by Yamagata Sensei himself. I'll never forget the look of disapproval I received when the brothers introduced me. During a very brief sidebar, which I could not understand at the time, Yamagata Sensei informed Mr. Hara that I was not welcome. Mr. Hara, however, insisted that I be allowed to stay, as he thought it would be rude to send me away after having been invited by his sons. Sensei reluctantly allowed me to participate, but only as an uke for the brothers.

At five feet, nine inches with a barrel chest and stern demeanor, Sensei was quite intimidating, especially to a fourth-grader. That first training session was intense, exhausting and painful. Sensei, as I would only come to understand much later, was hoping that I would never want to come back. Ironically, I was more afraid of quitting than I was of showing up for the next lesson. For some reason, the idea of simply not showing up never occured to me. I thought that in order to quit, I would need to personally give some excuse for not wanting to continue, especially since Mr. Hara had gone through the trouble of insisting that I be allowed to attend. The idea of trying to explain to Sensei why I couldn't continue, and what his reaction might be, terrified me, so I came back - over and over again.

MT: That’s an awesome story.  Now that you have stayed in martial arts, how has martial arts positively impacted other aspects of your life?

Backlund Soshi: I guess this is the part where I admit that growing up I got into a few fights, and martial-arts training certainly came in handy. Although the neighborhood I grew up in was a normal, lower-middle-class area, it was surrounded by areas that weren't so nice. Before moving away from Orlando to go to college, I worked on occasion in private security, and it came in handy a few times then as well. Aside from those circumstances, the real benefit of my training has been that it has taught me the nature of conflict and conflict resolution, which I use quite often in every aspect of my life. What we do in the dojo can be thought of as a metaphor for the interpersonal conflicts that we deal with every day - in my case, both personally and professionally. I don't mean to say that people are always trying to start fights or arguments with me on a daily basis. Rather, I've learned to read peoples' postures, expressions, demeanors, etc. - I've become sensitive to the potential for conflict. Usually, I can use that extra sense to avoid conflict, but sometimes, if a conflict becomes unavoidable, I can anticipate it and deal with it better than I would be able to otherwise. Once I'm in a conflict, I can determine the best strategy to deal with my opponent using some of the lessons I've learned through the years.

In my professional life, I am a vice president of a construction company. I deal with both customers and subcontractors on a daily basis. Customers often want more from us than what was agreed upon in the contract. Subcontractors often don't want to provide all the goods or services they are contractually obligated to deliver. Conflict resolution has become my specialty, and I use the lessons I've learned from my 27 years in the martial arts on a daily basis.  

MT: I agree with that.  Martial arts has to influence your daily life, or its really not an art.  Now for the fun questions.  You know how James Lipton always asks the same questions at the end of his interviews, well you get to be the first test for my three questions.

Q1: What is your favorite martial arts movie and is there any particular reason why?

Backlund Soshi:  Recently, I saw the movie "13 Assassins," which I really enjoyed, even though a couple of parts were a little twisted. I have to say that my favorite Samurai movie is "Heaven and Earth," which tells the story of a famous battle between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. It is not a martial arts movie, per se, but it has some excellent battle scenes and a really good, albeit brief, sword battle between the main character and one of his retainers.

Q2: What book would you recommend to all your students?

Backlund Soshi:  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. As far as martial arts books go, I haven't read very many of them, and I can't say that I've ever read one that I would recommend.

Q3: Who was the most impressive martial artist you ever worked with and why?

Backlund Soshi:  Yamagata Takashi Sensei, without a doubt. He understood every aspect of the martial arts techniques and concepts he taught, and could see every conceivable variation and counter. This was the most important lesson that he taught - how to truly understand. I've worked with and taught many martial artists over the years, many of whom have more years under their belts than I do, and it always surprises me how little they truly understand. I can watch the mechanics of a technique that is completely foreign to me, one that I might be seeing for the first time, and immediately understand how it works. It amazes me how few martial artists there are that can do that, but it makes me appreciate the depth of what my teacher communicated to me and how much of a genius he really was.

MT: Again, it was a pleasure to talk to you again, and thank you for your time.

Jason Backlund teaches Yamagata Ryu Hyoho Kenjutsu and Kobushin Kai Goshinjutsu in Jacksonville, Florida.  His webside is

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