The Lessons of Embu

by Diane Skoss

In martial arts training it is essential, in my opinion, to have some arena in which one is forced to put oneself on the line. Arts that have shiai provide plenty of opportunity--believe me, there's quite a lot riding on the line when you face an opponent trying to stab you with a bayonet. But in the classical arts, and arts like aikido that in general do not have competition, we must find other ways to push ourselves to the edge. Promotion examinations provide one sort of opportunity to face fear of public failure, to learn to control natural physical stress reactions, and to continue come what may. But for most of us, exams are few and far between. Demonstrations, then, are perhaps a sensible alternative.

In some styles of aikido (Tomiki aikido in particular, but by no means exclusively) formal kata embu kyogi, or kata demonstration competitions, are used to provide this sort of training. I am coming to the conclusion, however, that the resulting emphasis on what the technique and overall performance looks like in order to win a prize is misguided. I am a (now retired) kata embu competitor, and have competed quite successfully in Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, in sometimes as many as four events per year. There is no question that I have gained from my experience--I have no problem with giving a demonstration of anything that I know in any art that I have studied at any time, and remain unperturbed when not all goes as planned.

This is a useful ability, but I have recently discovered that there is something more to a demonstration than just keeping cool, looking good, and getting through it. Several years ago my jukendo training partner (now my husband) told me that when he went out to do a demonstration he approached it as if he were entering into battle. This didn't fit my image of the way to do a demonstration at all--I thought you were supposed to concentrate on making the techniques look effective (naturally, actually doing them effectively is the best solution, but I am not skilled enough to get each and every technique off each and every time, so knowing how to fudge has been essential) in order to show the audience the nature of the art. My response to his remark was that I hoped I would never have to do a demonstration with him.

This was a vain hope, indeed, and last December, when his usual partner turned out to be unavailable, he signed me up to join him in a demonstration of Toda-ha Buko-ryu naginatajutsu. The only real problem was that I had been training in Buko-ryu for merely a year, and that the event was scheduled for January 16, just one week after our return from a month--long trip to the States--where we would not be practicing naginata. Fortunately, it was just a prefectural festival, and not too big a deal--or so I believed. Just goes to show you how wrong you can be--we were on a fully lit stage with TV cameras everywhere. It was enough to make my knees shake, and my palms go very sweaty.

It was at this point that I recalled Meik's words, and knew that he would be coming after me with a fully committed one hundred and twenty percent. He was not the slightest bit concerned with allowing me to do "pretty" technique; my only goal could be to defeat him and "take" my technique. It felt entirely different from performing with the goal of winning a gold medal. Nor was the demonstration for the audience--it was entirely to force me to function effectively despite adverse conditions (did I mention the nasty hangover?)--in short to simulate the battlefield in the only way possible in our modern world, where we are unlikely to ever wield a naginata for real.

In aikido training we need to seek out as many opportunities as possible to tune our training by participating in demonstrations, and I suspect that this would prove most effective without dreams of trophies clouding the mind. The "no-mindedness" that is said to be one of the signs of mastery is difficult to cultivate or test in the artificial environment of the dojo, and may be thoroughly frustrated by "wrong-mindedness." The demonstration hall is perhaps one of the few remaining arenas in which we can study both spirit and effectiveness, "on the line."

Copyright ©1994 Diane Skoss. All rights reserved.

Classical Japanese Martial Arts
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Classical Japanese Martial Arts