Weapons Words – The Big Picture

Weapons work shares many words with open-hand training, but weapons also have a lot of words of their own. There are a bunch of numbered things, too, and those can be really confusing until you have a sort of framework for understanding them.

So here are some words about weapons stuff, starting with the basics. There will be another couple of posts going into jo words and bokken words. Often you’ll hear technique names with the numbers in Japanese. That will be another post, too.

I’m just going to cover the wooden weapons we use in regular training here. Maybe we’ll look at katana, shinai, iato, shinken, and other weapons words later.

The Sticks

Jo – The longer straight one that looks like a rake handle.

Bokken – The somewhat shorter one with a little curve to it, like a sword. Also sometimes referred to as just ken. You’ll also hear tachi in the names of bokken or sword exercises.

Tanto – The little one, about the size of a hunting knife.

The Kinds of Things We Do with Sticks

One of the most confusing things for me, when I was first trying to figure this stuff out, was sorting out the kinds of things we were doing. Not the specific instances, but the groupings. One exercise would be a suburi, another would be a kata, sometimes we practiced awase… I couldn’t figure out what was what.  It’s hard even to describe. Let’s just get right to it.

Suburi are discrete techniques, or very small groups of techniques, that you do by yourself. They are the very first things you learn.

They are like learning words or phrases in a language. You’ll put them together later to form more complex expressions and conversations.

You will see the suburi referred to in numbered groupings, like the “20 jo suburi” or “ken suburi 1-7” For some reason the jo suburi have names, and the bokken suburi are numbered. We’ll get into those in detail in a couple of other posts. 

Kata are sets of techniques, still done alone, strung together in a prescribed way, each flowing into the next.

If we stick with the “suburi are like words” concept, kata are like poems. You memorize them and recite them. Like reciting poetry, everyone will have their own subtle ways of expressing kata, but we don’t change the words.

You’ll hear numbers when talking about kata, too. The “31 jo kata” is everywhere – it’s a string of 31 movements. You’ll also see the 13 jo kata, which has 13 movements. No reason you couldn’t make up your own, either, but mostly we practice the set ones handed down to us. There are bokken kata, too.

This is where the numbered stuff starts to get weird. The jo kata are made up of the number of techniques in the name: 13 jo kata, 31 jo kata, etc. But the bokken kata are numbered: bokken kata 1, bokken kata 2, etc.

But back to the kinds of things we do…

Awase are prescribed sets of techniques that you do with a partner. One partner in an awase does a familiar suburi or kata, and the other partner does the appropriate techniques that complement it. These are basic exercises to learn timing and distance when working in relation to another. The suburi you have been learning will begin to make more sense in the context of practicing awase.

If suburi are words and phrases, and kata are poems, then awase are very simple conversations, the kind you learn when studying a new language. “Good morning.” “Good morning.” “Where is the library?” “Is there there, on the left.” “Thank you.” “You are welcome.” Very simple, perhaps a bit formal, and not quite how a real conversation might go, but a necessary step in becoming fluent. 

The two simplest are left awase, and right awase. Then there’s a little more number weirdness… You’ll hear the “5th awase” and “7th awase” mentioned. These are just partner practices incorporating the 5th and 7th suburi. (There are no 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 6th awase.)

Kumitachi and Kumijo are partner practices that more closely simulate an actual fight, using the bokken and jo, respectively.

The distinction between awase and kumitachi/kumijo seems fuzzy to me. There is a partner practice based on the 31 jo kata, for instance, that I see referred to both as the 31 jo awase and 31 kumijo.

A Last Comment on Numbers You’ll Hear

The numbers for suburi have nothing to do with the numbers in the names of kata.

When you see “20 jo suburi” or “ken suburi 1 through 7” those are just describing which ones we’re talking about. If you have to do the “bokken suburi 1-5” on a test that’s just the first five descrete bokken techniques. Saito Sensei created a set of 20 jo suburi for us to practice. They are 20 separate exercises.

The 31 jo kata, on the other hand, is a single flowing exercise incorporating 31 movements. Note that the 20 jo suburi are not the 1st 20 movements of the 31 jo kata. They are completely separate things.

Some Examples

If, like me, you need to see stuff to understand it, here are some of my favorite examples to get you started. Each link here will open a YouTube video in a new tab or window. Remember that each dojo will do things a little differently.

Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros of Takemusu Aikido Kyokai Nederland:

Jo suburi 1 through 20ken suburi 1, 2, and 3, and ken suburi 4, 5, 6, and 7 (solo)

The 6 jo kata13 jo kata, and 31 jo kata (solo)

Miles Kessler Sensei:

5th ken awase and 7th ken awase (paired, from 5th and 7th ken suburi)

31 jo kata (solo) and 31 kumi jo (paired)

Morihiro Saito Sensei:

31 jo kata (solo) and 31 kumi jo (paired)

Tolerating Bullshit

The article “Open-Minded Man Grimly Realizes How Much Life He’s Wasted Listening To Bullshit” on the parody news site, TheOnion.com, begins:

“CLEVELAND—During an unexpected moment of clarity Tuesday, open-minded man Blake Richman was suddenly struck by the grim realization that he’s squandered a significant portion of his life listening to everyone’s bullshit, the 38-year-old told reporters.

A visibly stunned and solemn Richman, who until this point regarded his willingness to hear out the opinions of others as a worthwhile quality, estimated that he’s wasted nearly three and a half years of his existence being open to people’s half-formed thoughts, asinine suggestions, and pointless, dumbfuck stories.”

It’s funny, but it also rings true. How much of our lives do we spend letting pointless, stupid, and just plain wrong junk influence our thoughts, moods, and activities? News, ranting talk show hosts, ads for things we don’t need, bogus heart-wrenching sob stories that get passed around the internet, as if our pity, tears, or righteous indignation make any bit of difference.

Practicing Aikido, and meditating, have helped me to see where I stand, what’s important, and where I want to place my focus.

Time is all we have. We should spend it wisely, on people and work and activities we love. Don’t waste a moment on things that don’t matter. Get up and walk away, delete it, turn it off, refuse to feed it with your energy. Let the bullshit fall to the ground unnoticed, to decay its own good time.

Facing a Shut Gate


Sensei has announced that there will be an uchi-deshi program at our dojo, beginning in mid-summer [this was in 2011]. You can contact him for details (via the Aikido of San Diego website) if you are interested in participating.

It looks to me like a rare and valuable opportunity to train intensively, deepen one’s understanding of Aikido, learn to teach, test one’s own limits, and discover new possibilities, all under the guidance of a truly gifted teacher.

It also looks to me like a right of passage. Forging, like seeing combat, for a future military officer. A gateway. How one moves from casual student to serious practitioner.

Right now I’m not in a place to walk through that gateway. I don’t know if I ever will be. I hope, maybe, somehow, someday… There’s a little fear and frustration about that. What if I’m not able? What if it’s not there? A sense of loss. And there’s reminding myself that upset from thwarted intention just points to a commitment.

It’s OK, though. There are cracks to peek through, high places where one can see over, and a lot of space to explore on this side of the wall. For now.

[Added the next day…] And now I’m seeing that there is more than one gate. Not feeling so stuck on this side. :-)

Practicing “Low Falls”

High falls, hard falls, break falls…

Just the names conjure up tension. I have fun practicing them, and am improving (softer/safer). But I also end up with some interesting bruises and sore spots now and then, from doing them in a slappy, braced, breath-holding, brute-force-ish kind of way.

We go about learning to do them in a relaxed, easy way, but at some point between the working up to them and the doing them my brain flips from “swoosh” to “wham!

A few days ago when one of our instructors said we were going to work on high falls (Yay!) a fellow student jokingly suggested that we should “work on low falls instead.”

Huh… I think I like that idea!

The point isn’t to get lots of air, it’s to land comfortably, with as little impact as possible. Keep (or get) your head low to the mat. Reach over and touch the mat as you rotate into rolling down softly. No “wham!”

Thinking of them as “low falls” takes a little of the edge off, and is a handy reminder that the idea is to get low, not high.

I think I’ll call them low falls from now on. 

As usual, here’s my exam video. You can watch it here, or go to YouTube (where you can post comments, if you like):
This link goes to the HD version – probably best watched full-screen. If you have a slower connection, change to one of the lower-res versions.

Feedback (which I know will be constructive, even if it’s critical!) is welcome. I’m pretty happy with how I did, but of course can see lots of things to work on for next time.

I figure now that I have 4 exam videos, they deserve their own playlist. So here it is, starting at 6th kyu (in case you have nothing better to do). LOL http://www.youtube.com/pla​ylist?list=PL0F5D81895C5E5​A30

My 6th kyu exam has around 9,500 views so far. Every month or two I get a nice comment from someone who’s been encouraged in some way by my exam videos (usually a new student who is freaking out about taking their first test, as I was). One of my favorite comments came in a few hours ago, and just made my day:

“You’re amazing, Linda-sama. I started train Aikido last week, but before – I had lot of doubts: if I am too old, people are bad, everything will be bad. I’m waiting about two years for my first train. But i taste it, and became addicted of this art. Thank you, for recording. Good luck! (sorry about my english)”

3rd Kyu Test Prep – The Real Story

A few days ago I posted a note to myself on preparing for my upcoming 3rd kyu exam. My test is tomorrow morning. Here’s how things have really gone:

  • Do laundry and cut your nails two or three days ahead. [check]
  • Go to class on Friday night.
  • Stay after to work out a few questions on some techniques.
  • Pick out a jo and bokken to use, and put them where you can find them on the rack.
  • Decide to burn off some nervous energy and get settled by cleaning a little.
  • Put on music.
  • Sweep the mat, vacuum, wipe down some stuff, clean up cobwebs.
  • Take out the trash and recycling.
  • Check out the jo, and discover a rough spot. Find another one you like better.
  • Decide it’s important to remove the years-old “Made in Japan” sticker from the jo.
  • Find the Goo Gone. Remove the sticker goo and create a little clean spot.
  • Decide to clean the whole jo with a damp rag and a little soap.
  • Notice that it’s not a slick as it should be. Find weapons repair kit in dojo bag.
  • Oil jo. Run through the first 10 jo suburi just to be sure it still works OK.
  • Close up and go home.
  • Get confused about the start of yon no suburi while driving.
  • Feed cats and donkeys.
  • Review your Giant Spreadsheet of Technique Notes.
  • Try a slow-mo in-motion technique on husband to be sure of how it goes.
  • Set up the coffee maker for morning.
  • Notice that it’s late.
  • Decide to wash hair in the morning instead.
  • Write a blog post.
  • Go to bed.

Still working on that whole masakatsu agasu thing…

    Freeing Ourselves from “I Can’t…”

    Recently a teacher wrote a frustrated blog post about their students not training enough to really improve, not participating in seminars with visiting instructors, and not supporting the dojo community.

    The context was Aikido, but it could have been music, horsemanship, or anything else. I see the same thing happen all over. 

    We mostly live in the same world. We have jobs, families, and other things going on in our lives. But if we want to get good at something, anything, we have to put in the hours. And if we want our teachers, schools, and arts to be around for us, and for others, they need our active participation and support. 

    What does that look like to me? Join, and pay your dues, even during times you can’t train for a while. Pitch in and help with projects and events. Invite your friends. Promote your art publicly. When teachers are generous enough with their time to write books or produce videos, buy them. Show up and train, and support each other.

    Something I’ve noticed about people’s participation (or the relative lack thereof), is a common way of thinking and speaking about priorities. “I can’t…” “I would, but…” “I have to…” It’s disempowering. It robs us of the opportunity to engage fully (at whatever level is appropriate). When we’re honest with ourselves about where we are, and what’s true for us, we have some power in the situation. When we whine about our circumstances we become victims to the choices we’ve made, and powerless to change.

    One response to the above teacher’s post struck me as a perfect example of this kind of speaking. I don’t know their actual situation, and don’t mean to pick on them, it’s just that they provided a perfect example to discuss. The commentor said something to the effect of “I wish I could train more, but I just can’t. I have to be home to have dinner on the table every night.” Really? You have to? Either this person is enslaved or imprisoned (unlikely), or is making the choice to be home with their family rather than head to the dojo after work. That’s a perfectly fine choice, but don’t whine about it.

    When we speak the truth, which is likely something closer to “I love the idea of training daily, but it’s more important to me to provide a good dinner for my family every night” then we not only honor our real priorities, but we can actually see them clearly. When we see them clearly, we can choose freely whether to change them or not. When we speak as though we have no choice, we actually cannot see that we do have a choice. Our unspoken (and often unexamined) real priorities control us, instead of the other way ‘round.

    So as an exercise, I invite you to look for these things in your own speaking (even/especially if it’s only in your own head):

    • “I cant, because…”
    • “I wish I could / I would / I’d love too, but…”
    • “I’m too busy / broke / etc…”

    Carefully examine the real situation, and reword them. Notice if you feel either happier with your current situation, or if you feel more able to change it. 

    Some examples:

    • “I can’t. I don’t have time.” vs. “It’s more important to me to relax, away from people, in the evenings.”
    • “I wish I could, but I have to work.” vs. “I would rather save my vacation time for something else,” or “I chose to work in a field/job without any flexibility in the schedule,” or “I’m afraid to ask my boss for time off.”
    • “I’m too old.” vs. “I’m afraid it will be too physically challenging,” or “I’d be self-conscious being the only one there over 20.”

    There are cases where you really, truly, factually can’t. I can’t join the Navy. I’m too old. Fine. But mostly our limitations are lies we tell ourselves, to give ourselves a comfortable way out. Once we realize the truth is “I’d be self conscious…”, and not really “I can’t…” we can chose either to let being self-conscious stop us, or to give it a go anyway. “I’m too busy” keeps us from seeing how we really choose to spend our time. Even if the reality is “I don’t know how to,” then at least we can explore how to, and not be stuck up against “it’s not possible.”

    When we shift from "I can’t. I have to be home to have dinner on the table every night,“ to "I don’t train every night because it’s important to me to provide a good dinner for my family,” we open up some freedom to explore options. Maybe making big dinners on Mondays and Wednesdays could mean great meals from leftovers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Maybe, if the real issue is spending time with family members, breakfast together could be the solution. Maybe finding a dojo with morning classes is the answer. Or maybe the truth is “Training at that level really isn’t important to me.” That’s fine. But we can’t explore these things as long as we’re stuck in “I can’t… I have to…”

    Some issues I’ve dealt with, or am working on:

    • “I can only train one night a week, because I’m busy every other night.” I gave up other commitments, changed my work hours, and now I train 4 nights a week.
    • “I wish I could ride my horse more.” I realized that was a familiar story I was telling myself, but wasn’t true for me anymore. Now my horse is off with a potential new person, and I can stop feeling bad about not getting around to riding.
    • “I can’t ever be an uchi-deshi because I don’t have that kind of freedom, and besides, I’m too old.” I’ve changed my speaking on that to “I’d love to train at the level of focus and intensity one would find as an uchi-deshi. I don’t how see to do that right now, because I have a job, a home, and a husband, and I don’t know if I’d be physically up to it, but it’s a possibility I’m open to exploring.”

    I love to hear about places where you’ve shifted from “I can’t…” to something more powerful. Even if it’s only “I want to, but I don’t see how yet.”

    3rd Kyu Test Prep – Notes to Self

    Test Date: Saturday, 9 July, 2011,
    Test Time: Immediately following a 9 a.m. class

    Dear Self,

    You will have a happier day, and a more successful test, if you follow these instructions:

    • Do laundry and cut your nails two or three days ahead.
    • Go to class on Friday night, then go home.
    • Set out gi, clothes for going to lunch, weapons, Gatorade, banana, & a protein bar.
    • Review your Giant Spreadsheet of Technique Notes.
    • Sit quietly and visualize doing your entire test beautifully. Twice.
    • Go to bed by 10:00. Set two alarms. Put the iPad down. Sleep.
    • Get up at 6:00. As in Out Of Bed. Feet on the floor! Make coffee.
    • Eat a big 3-egg and cheese breakfast before doing anything else.
    • Put the iPad down.
    • Feed critters, shower, get dressed, and leave for the dojo.
    • Listen to “Powerful Energy” playlist in the car. Visualize the whole test.
    • Eat a banana and a protein bar.
    • OK, OK, yes, you may check in on Facebook. Sheesh.
    • Be on the mat by 8 a.m. 
    • Warm up. Stretch. Breathe. Explore the space. Your space. Relax.
    • Drink a Gatorade, and refill your water bottle.
    • No matter what happens on the way, or in class, focus, breathe.
    • Remember your posture, your freedom, your happiness, connection, and the ground.
    • Remember that you are well prepared for this.

    Bow in with gratitude and joy.

    Your Self