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

If you are a martial artist, or you would like to recommend a martial artist to share an interview with us, please contact Martial Thoughts at

1 comment:

  1. If you know of someone in the martial arts world that would make a good interview for either the blog or the podcast, drop me an email or leave a comment.