Torrance, California, December 31st, 2014
Dear Parents, Students, and Friends:
As 2015 approaches, I wish to take this opportunity to share some of my experiences and thoughts with those of us who have made Budō – The Martial Path – the way to travel this life’s journey. Please be aware that I expect students to use the teachings as material to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. As long as we consider the principles of Budō, Sei Ryoku Zen Yō (Maximum Efficiency, Best Use of Energy, etc.) and Jita Kyō Ei (Mutual Welfare and Prosperity) in daily situations, we will stay on the right path and correct our mistakes – not because we act out of guilt but because we know the right thing to do.
We will know what to do if we understand our motivations for traveling this martial path. What do we want from our practice? Here is a story full of teachings that may help us think about why we practice budo:
A young man visits a master and asks, “Sensei, I would like to study with you. I heard that it takes a long time to get a black belt under you. But see, I already have a black belt in x-dō, one in y-dō and one in z-dō. How long will it take to get a black belt from you if I train five times a week?”
“Eight to ten years, maybe” replies the master.
“But Sensei, if I train seven times a week, how long will it take?”
“Maybe fifteen to twenty years.”
“Then if I train every day with every class,” the young man persisted, “if I live at the dōjō, how long will it take?”
“Maybe thirty years!”
“But Sensei, I don’t get it: if I am willing to do more, how come it will take longer?”
“Because if your two eyes are on the goal, you have nothing left to observe the Path! You are seeking entitlement, not enlightenment.”
I frequently get that same question from prospective students – “How long will it take to get my black belt?” It is a red flag that indicates a person’s true motivation.
But what is the significance of the black belt? Let’s examine its origin and meaning.
In 1883, Kano Jigoro Sensei founded Jūdō after years of studying different systems of Jūjutsu. He was a graduate of Tōkyō Imperial University, fluent in three foreign languages, English, French and German, languages that were required in order to attend the lectures given by the foreign professors. While in college, he also studied and practiced western sports and became familiar with western teaching methodology based on drilling. At that time, Japanese martial arts were mainly based on Kata (forms) repetition and practice. Kano Sensei later applied western training principles to Jūjutsu; as a result, his students made rapid progress, and he gained the attention of the Japanese Police Force as well as of the Ministry of Education.
Until then, traditionally, Japanese teachers had awarded students certificates of proficiency (Mokuroku). Dan ranking was already in use in other fields outside the martial arts, but Kano Sensei introduced the Black Belt into the martial arts. Dōgi (practice uniforms) needed to be kept tightly closed with an obi (flat canvas belt), so Kano Sensei used the Black Belt to indicate the student’s proficiency. His idea was first criticized; however, as the practice became successful and popular, it was immediately copied, as is commonly practiced not only in Japan but elsewhere when an idea finds success and popularity. Thus, the black belt became a regular standard in the martial arts.
So what does a Black Belt really mean?
I asked Mochizuki Sensei about the meaning of the Black Belt. He answered that black was a symbol of maturity, stability, and solidity. A student who had reached that level had received all the basic techniques and fundamental spiritual teachings and was able to continue his study without interruption. It may be compared to high school graduation: the student has been taught all the basic techniques, principles, discipline, and skills to study. Now he is ready to go to college where he will be on his own without supervision. In the same way, the Black Belt holder has shown that he is now ready to carry out his shugyō (austere training). Hence, committed to maintaining and developing Kano Sensei’s principles, Mochizuki Sensei estimated that the minimum age for Black Belt student should be around eighteen years.
Not long ago, giving a Black Belt to a child was considered humorous and unethical; however, it did not take long for it to become profitable. American commartial artists (pun intended) achieved financial success by selling Black Belt contracts to ignorant parents. While at first, the practice was sternly criticized by professionals and traditionalists, soon, this “it’s-the-way-to-do-business-nowadays” virus spread all over the country and to Japan and Korea where the child prodigy syndrome created lucrative business opportunities and profits.
But one interesting fact continues to be that few of those Black Belt “child prodigies” pursue their training after being promoted. Due to that fact, some parents felt that they had been trapped, seduced first with seemingly reasonable lesson payments but then shackled by other unanticipated costs that they could not refuse because the Black Belt chase had been initiated – high fees for too frequent examinations, special lessons to prepare for the exams, ranks awarded without evident progress, imported certificate fees, new belts, etc… It’s the same marketing scheme as with the newest gadgets that compel parents to think, “All the kids we know have one. If my kids don’t, they will be left behind, and I will be a bad parent!”
One problem we are facing now is that once people think that they have been conned, they feel angry and ashamed; then they assume that all martial schools are the same, and the negative reputation of martial arts education spreads. Another problem is that, once the standards have been lowered, we cannot raise them anymore in the present circumstances without radical changes. Look at history and what happens when a king decides to bring democracy and make it possible for competent commoners to enter the government: he loses the support of the aristocracy! Instructors and their dependents, used to the rewards of their position, face the prospect of sacrificing that lifestyle. Who is willing to do that? Consequently, the deterioration continues. How far will it go?
Lowering standards for the sake of maintaining lifestyle then becomes the norm. One of my Japanese colleagues recently visited a foreign branch of the Yōseikan and was appalled at the drop in quality at that branch compared to what he had seen on one of his previous trips. He criticized the instructor, who then replied that he had to adapt to what people wanted. Looking at that instructor’s lifestyle, my colleague understood that the instructor had trapped himself into living at the limit of his means. That instructor then left the Yōseikan to become independent; as a result, he interrupted the lineage, and his students were cut from the source and would eventually land in a cul-de-sac on their martial journey.
In order to help students concentrate on their study and cure blackbeltitis (black belt disease), some teachers and leaders have suggested doing away with the dan ranking system and returning to the mokuroku system, whereby deserving students are awarded certificates of proficiency for specific levels, and every one, beginner and expert alike, wears the same belt. But this does not address the underlying problem. The Black Belt and the Dan Ranking System are not the problem. Replacing them without changing our perception and understanding merely shifts the target of our obsession.
Even if we eliminate all forms of recognition of the level achieved by a student, we won’t solve the problem. What we need are teachers who have the ability to inspire and help their students focus on improving themselves internally and externally. The teachers establish the foundation for their relationship with the students and guide them through the path through which they too have travelled. We also need students who genuinely want to improve and trust their teachers to help them navigate this path that they have chosen. It may take years for a student to develop deep understanding and let go of his focus on receiving promotions. The ranking system when wisely used will help a teacher achieve this objective. The ranks then serve as landmarks for teachers and students to orient themselves during their martial journey.
The Black Belt – and any rank – then becomes a covenant between a teacher and his disciple. The teacher says, “This is the level that I expect you to achieve.” If the student agrees to the rank, then he holds himself accountable for the conduct expected of students at that level; however, the student also may refuse if he thinks that he is not ready to take the responsibility and needs more time. Budō is deeply rooted in Bushidō, the Samurai Path or code of ethics, a lifelong path that offers no short cut. On this martial path, the Black Belt is the modern equivalent of knighthood; thus, Black Belt holders are held to a high standard of technical expertise and honorable conduct in and out of the dojo. A true disciple will also be aware of the example he sets for his peers and kōhai (juniors) through his behavior after accepting the rank. A student who, for whatever reason, cannot maintain his end of the covenant must resign and return his rank. That is the honorable thing to do. This process starts with the covenant between the teacher and his student.
I went through this process as I learned from my teachers and became a teacher myself. I am not an economic migrant. I made choices early in my life based on my observation of people around me, most of them well-off but who never believed that they had enough and were constantly worried about losing what they had. That was not my understanding of the quality of life. I have followed what my heart and my teachers have been telling me. My childhood teachers’ guidance opened the way for me to meet Mochizuki Sensei. This opportunity and their teaching allowed me to recognize his authenticity; I saw what he represented, and I committed to him as my teacher.
I do not know about the afterlife, but one sure thing that I know is that those people who paved the way in order to make our existence possible continue living in us. They had a vision: they did not see their lives as ending with the decline of their bodies and did not make plans in order to reap the fruit of their labor within their lifetime. They invested their lives so that others may make themselves better. Consequently, I believe in maintaining and improving the standards that were modeled for us by those who came before us – and those who came before them. I do not consider myself a master; that is something that students will decide after their teachers are gone, so this is not our concern. But I believe in paving the way for one or several masters to arise.
In order for a master to arise, three ingredients are necessary: talent, environment, and will. There are many talented students. The environment also exists – but it has to be carefully chosen. How do we tell the true teachers from the rest? Genuine students must also find genuine teachers, who have built and established genuine learning environments. Even with these two conditions, though, few students are willing to do what it takes. In these present times, it’s quite a challenge to stay focused and achieve excellence in one field. There are just too many distractions, too much time wasted on useless activities. But those who can maintain their focus in spite of all temptations and obstacles will become the masters of the future.
We have much to benefit from the martial ways taught in a traditional Dōjō. Sadly, in Japan, traditional Dōjō have been disappearing due to high real-estate value and high operating costs. They are now being replaced by large public facilities (Shimin Taikukan/Budōkan). There, one cannot stay after practice, cook and share meals together, or stay overnight and do early morning practices as used to be done in traditional Dōjō as part of regular training. In these new environments, each martial art has to compete with others for prime-time scheduling, usually between 7 and 9 PM. Some activities may share a room (usually several hundred tatami wide) at the same time. In this environment, convenience and popularity go together. This has led to lower standards, loose etiquette, easy (or, I should say, lazy, Kiai-less) practices, disappearance of advanced techniques and/or those that require more class time to learn, skipping of basics, and easy promotions. No more student collaboration to maintain and clean the Dōjō, another staple of traditional training: janitors take care of that in the morning. Ten minutes before 9 PM, lights start dimming while the intercom plays a Farewell Song. At 9, if you are not out, you soon find yourself in the dark.
Like the traditional Dōjō, professional martial arts teachers also have been disappearing and are now being replaced by part-time instructors. Some are quite skilled and dedicated, but with every generation, quality goes down. If you do not teach what you know, or if you do not improve yourself due to lack of time and/or resources, what are those who come after you going to do? What will they learn? What will they teach?
Every year, I renew my commitment to maintain and improve the standards established and taught by my teacher. My loyalty goes beyond his persona and is directed toward what he represents. Yōseikan is a “Progressive Traditional Budō.” By Traditional, I mean that we study what our ancestors did in order to understand what they went through; their struggles and evolution help us evolve. Traditional is different from Conventional, which means that we repeat what others did or do, which does not imply understanding.
The Yoseikan tradition is so rich in techniques and principles that it cannot be done alone.
Kaoru Sensei and I have taught many students since 1977. Some of our earliest students continue to remain active and now teach as well. This is one major Yōseikan characteristic: students and teachers in their fifties and sixties, who are working with age-related physical challenges, still train and teach. Each one has developed a specialty that keeps enriching the tradition and inspires other students. It is thanks to those people’s faith in Mochizuki Sensei’s teachings that we have been able to continue together through difficult and challenging times and maintain the Yōseikan tradition.
This coming year, we will keep working on improving our Kiai, our Zanshin (maintaining awareness) and the sharpness of our techniques together.
May you all be safe, happy, and healthy. Thank you for your continuous support and trust in spite of all the difficulties and moments of doubt that you may have experienced under our teaching. We could not be here without you.
I would like to acknowledge the help of our long-time senior student, Mr. William Brown, for his help in reviewing this English version.