Interview with Ellis Amdur – Part 1: Martial Journey from Aikido to koryu
Ellis Amdur is one of the most prominent and prolific writers in the martial arts world. He has spent many years living in Japan and learning traditional japanese fighting systems, and he is one of the few westerners who hold teaching certificates, in not one but two koryu (traditional schools), namely, Araki-ryu and Toda-ha Buko-ryu. Ellis has also studied Aikido with pioneers such as Yamada Yoshimitsu and Terry Dobson. Ellis Amdur received his B.A. and M.A. in psychology from Yale University and Seattle University, respectively. In this series of interviews, I will try to introduce this complex character, starting from his martial journey in Japan, then tackling on his views of the martial arts world, and finally, in part 2, covering his activity as a crisis resolution professional.
Guillaume Erard: Ellis, thank you very much for talking to me, what have you been up to lately?
Ellis Amdur: I’m in Greece, working with my training groups, but because that’s all in the evening, I’ve had lots of time in the day. So, I have been writing all week. I just finished the final draft of a book called Safe Behind Bars, which is a comprehensive guide for correctional officers in jails who are responsible for the incarceration and care of mentally ill inmates. I am also finishing up second editions for both Old School and Dueling With O Sensei.
Guillaume Erard: Since Old School is out of print, it is pretty obvious why you might want to make a second edition but why did you decide to do so with Dueling With O Sensei too, were you unhappy with some parts, or did you change your mind on some things?
Ellis Amdur: For Old School, I have added a good bit of information. I have a new chapter on lineage in the 21st century, with a discussion of how ryu attempt to transmit their knowledge in a world where these archaic, culturally-bound forms are, paradoxically, diffused in international organizations. In particular, I discuss Katori Shinto-ryu, Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu, and a fascinating Edo-period school called Honma Nen-ryu. Another chapter will discuss the role of esoteric training (mikkyo, etc.) for people, foreign and Japanese alike, who do not share either the worldview or the religion(s) upon which this esoteric knowledge is based.
For Dueling With O Sensei, apart from some small changes of opinion, I am actually still pretty happy with most of what is in there, I am mostly improving the writing. In fact, that book too had ran out of print so I had to choose whether to reprint the same volume myself or to have a publishing company take it. I chose the latter, but they wanted some extra material so I added about three new chapters, some funny like a true story where a Taekwondo fighter fights a ballet dancer and the ballet dancer wins, and some more serious. My favorite new chapter is called “It Aint Necessarily So“, and I think I will, once again, trigger some controversy, as I will be taking on some myths that are regarded as conventional wisdom and standing them on their heads.
Guillaume Erard: When and where were you born and in what sort of environment?
Ellis Amdur: I was born in 1952 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My father was an ex-FBI agent, who was a spy in the 2nd World War. He later became a lawyer. My mother was a former light opera singer and concert pianist. I’ve got one sister. After my father died, my mother became a cantorial soloist in a synagogue and later, from age sixty until eighty two, a hospice social worker. I was brought up in a middle-class suburban neighborhood, with large houses, and lots of trees around.
Guillaume Erard: What kind of kid were you?
Ellis Amdur: I was a little of this and that. I was pretty intellectual, but also played a lot of basketball. As a Jewish boy in a predominantly Christian society, I not only felt like an outsider, but I wanted to be an outsider. Like many young people, I tried on various roles for size: at one point, I had a mane of hair halfway down my back, and in college I studied art history, Jungian psychology and existential philosophy, particularly Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas.
Guillaume Erard: Can you talk us through your beginnings in martial arts?
Ellis Amdur: I started doing Karate in somebody’s backyard when I was 15. The guy, a typical sort of lying bullshit artist, was a gym teacher who had done a little bit of Karate in the military. I did a little of that, but it was really silly stuff.
When I went to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, I was wandering around and I found this school called Kung-fu Wushu. It was an offshoot school of Alan Lee’s, who was one of the first Chinese in America teaching non-Chinese people. The man running it was a black guy who was a member of the syncretic religious movement, the Nation of Islam. I trained there for a couple of years; I was their only white guy (laughs). Unfortunately teacher eventually ran away with the dojo funds (laughs).
From that point I decided to go to New York City and train directly with Alan Lee. I looked him up in the phone book and Alan Lee’s school was about 36 blocks from where I was staying in Greenwich Village’s Christopher Street. It was a hot summer day and for some reason, I decided to walk there instead of taking the subway. At some point I got tired and I remembered that on 18th street, there was an Aikido school. I knew about Aikido because of an ad that I had seen on the back of a comic book that said: “Throw people with mystical energy“. I really wanted to see that so I figured I would check out the Aikido school nearby and go to the Kung-fu school on the next day.
I was so ripe for a conversion that I sometimes regret not having been a few blocks further because there was a Capoeira school. If I had gone there, I would have gone to Brazil instead of ending up in Japan and I probably would have had a lot more fun! (laughs)
Guillaume Erard: Who was teaching at that school?
Ellis Amdur: The school I walked in was Yamada Yoshimitsu’s New York Aikikai. I did not know much about Japanese martial arts other than the little Karate I had done before, but it was the right time for me. It enthralled me. Yamada Sensei was not on the mat that day, but the level there was very high. I really think that, except for the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, the New York Aikikai at that time had a greater concentration of skilled people than anywhere else in the world. There were easily twenty or so 3rd Dan, which at the time was close to a 5th or 6th Dan today because of rank inflation. There were a lot of very strong people with very unique characters.
Ellis Amdur teaching Aikido (Photo courtesy of Niels de Vries)
Guillaume Erard: Hang on; was it Yamada Sensei who published that mystical energy ad?
Ellis Amdur: No, that was just a comic book ad. Yamada Sensei is a character, but he wouldn’t do that! (laughs)
Anyway, I made some inquiries and found out that about a month later, an affiliated branch would open in New Haven. The teacher there was Bob Barrett, who had assisted a former captain in the Thai army, Samboon Tongarom, a brilliant guy who was also a gymnastics, Judo, and swimming coach. He was an incredibly physical and skilled practitioner who was on a grant from the army to learn and teach martial arts in the US. After Tongarom returned to Thailand, Bob was looking for somewhere else to affiliate with. At the time, the school was called the New Haven Aikikai and Yamada Sensei sent Terry Dobson and Harvey Konigsberg to regularly go there and teach. This is where I started Aikido.
Guillaume Erard: And after that, you went to study more closely with Terry Dobson right?
Ellis Amdur: I finished school in New York City and for a while, I was living near his Bond Street dojo and I subsequently moved into the dojo. I did not care about the political stuff so I would still go up every day to Yamada Sensei’s dojo. I basically went everywhere where people would let me train but Terry was like my mentor.
Guillaume Erard: How was Terry Dobson and why did you decide to train under him?
Ellis Amdur: Terry Dobson was quite a remarkable man. He was a big guy and he would fool around on the mat doing strange things. He’d studied a little xingyi with the famous Wang Shu Chin and he was actually Hatsumi Masaaki’s first non-Japanese student, but really, his aikido technique was quite limited. He would do mainly shihonage and irmininage, albeit in a very unique way, which I have incorporated in my own Aikido. He also loved ikkyo and nikyo. He was doing very simple stuff but what he was really good at was that he had the ability to just relax and drop his weight without any local tension. That was quite brilliant.
Morihei Ueshiba instructing Terry Dobson
He was also a provocative guy. I remember one day when he came to Japan around 1977. There was a large contingent of French guys who were training at Hombu at that time and they tended to be very “proper” and strict, saying that there was one right way of doing things. We went to Osawa Sensei’s class and afterwards, we started practicing freely. People were curious about Terry because they knew his story as an American uchi-deshi, even though he looked like a big fat shaggy biker. While we were working out, he was improvising all sorts of sutemi waza and other nonsense while these French guys were watching and whispering, looking like a bunch of broody hens over on the side of the mat. All of a sudden, Terry reached into his keikogi, took out his sweat-soaked towel, and threw it in my face in the middle of a technique! People were just outraged, there we were in the Aikikai itself, and this man was acting like a beast. (laughs) That is the way Terry was on the mat and because of that, he was a lot of fun, he would shake up your preconceptions.
Guillaume Erard: I was not aware that he did come back to the Aikikai after leaving the first time.
Ellis Amdur: Yes you know, there was all that political nonsense, it never stopped. He came just after the first International Aikido Federation Congress; he was trying to get some level of independence for American Aikido, and also to assume a diplomatic role since it was the time when Saotome Sensei was out of the Aikikai. There was all that stuff going on.
Guillaume Erard: It reminds me of the status problems that another pioneer, André Nocquet, had when he came back to Europe.
Ellis Amdur: Terry was not necessarily looking for more recognition, but he was outraged by the fact that he considered that Aikido was not being properly disseminated. Despite his own personal quirks and flaws, he felt that Aikido could literally transform human thinking in the world. He felt a literal anguish that what he perceived as Aikido was being presented as just another mundane martial art – either as a money-making enterprise, or just as a pseudo-fighting practice.
Guillaume Erard: Nocquet and Dobson were both mature men when they entered Hombu compared to the young Japanese uchi-deshi and one can wonder if this age difference could explain why they were more interested in the humanistic, rather than physical dimension of Aikido.
Ellis Amdur: Actually, Terry was not mature. He was in a desperate state when he entered Aikido. He was living in the countryside, in a small village, having what he thought was a secret affair with some farmer’s wife, and he was utterly ostracized. He went to Tokyo on a weekend, with the resolve that if he didn’t find some reason to live, he would return back to the countryside and kill himself. He was sitting at an udon cart, and a paper flier blew against his leg. He picked it up, and – in English!!!! – it announced an Aikido demonstration in Yokohama. He’d done a little Judo, he went to the demo that Yamada sensei was giving and literally, followed him back to the Aikikai like a stray dog. Making a long story short, when he asked to become an uchi-deshi, there was quite a lot of opposition, but Tamura sensei spoke up for him and then Osensei simply said, “I want him here“. But back to your question, the thing with both Nocquet and Dobson, as different as they were, is that because they had been uchi-deshi, they could not be denied, they were both part of the family.
Guillaume Erard: How long did you practice Aikido before going to Japan?
Ellis Amdur: I did about four years in America and then two years in Japan.
Guillaume Erard: Why did you decide to go to Japan?
Ellis Amdur: I graduated from college with a degree in psychology and the thought of either going to graduate school or working as a psychologist, at that time, filled me with horror. In my own mind, it was a kind of slow death, a predictable future, in which there would be no surprises or adventure. I thought I’d go to Japan and see what happened next.
Guillaume Erard: Where did you do your Aikido training?
Ellis Amdur: I associated with a small dojo in Tokyo called the Kuwamori dojo. It was run by a wonderful man, Kuwamori Yasunori. I lived in his house for a while. What he gave me was freedom; he said he did not need me as student so to speak. What he did is that he had his dojo name put on my hakama, which meant that I was “owned” by that dojo. This meant that I could go to any other dojo, and it would be perceived as a mark of respect from Kuwamori dojo. It also clarified my situation; people would not wonder what to do with me or whether I was here to join. They would welcome me as a guest and the only question would be whether I behaved well as such. As a relative beginner, would I maintain the style I was used to or would I try to learn something?
That way I trained in what I call “shape shifting“; I would attempt, internally and externally, to become the teacher, to move and feel exactly like the teacher. Within my own Kuwamori dojo, I would also do that with the sempai, even if they happened to be aggravating old men. I reckoned that I already knew what I knew, so I would not learn anything by maintaining that. Instead, if I could take on somebody’s movement, I could learn something from anybody, even if it were only the flaws in their methodology.
Guillaume Erard: Does this mean that you performed the technique the way your partner would have liked to receive it?
Ellis Amdur: Yes, when an old 5th Dan would say to change something because I was not moving right, I would do it, because it was not a fight, it was a laboratory. I had nothing to lose from doing that. I thought that the more I expanded myself, the more my own style would coalesce and become credible. I am two meters tall and over a hundred kilos; I am not able to do Kisshomaru Sensei’s [Editor’s note: Ueshiba Kisshomaru, son of the founder, and 2nd Aikido Doshu] style or whoever else’s. (laughs)
Guillaume Erard: Did you get promoted in Aikido while in Japan?
Ellis Amdur: The last formal test I took was a nidan test supervised by Yamaguchi Sensei at Kuwamori dojo. He did not like me very much. He used to do suburi with people so he would pick you up as a tool and if you did not behave the way he wanted, he would throw you away and move on to another tool. I tried hard when I took Yamaguchi Sensei’s class but there were things that my body refused to do, because they did not seem intelligent. Now please understand, what I mean by “intelligence” does not refer to artistry, because Yamaguchi Sensei was a brilliant artist. But I felt that too much of what he did was contingent on his uke adapting to his desires. I wanted to train with someone who could maintain their style, no matter what their opponent did. Because Yamaguchi sensei was the supervisor of the Kuwamori dojo, when I stopped showing up at his class and go to other classes at the Aikikai, he noticed it. So I took that nidan test and against all odds, he passed me. Later, I heard that while he was holding court at a local coffee shop, he said about me: “I still don’t like that guy, but I have to admit that he has made his own Aikido, it works for him“. That is a good compliment from somebody who does not like you.
Guillaume Erard: Who were the teachers that you liked to train with most?
Ellis Amdur: Kuwamori dojo was the place where I worked out. Kuwamori-san, who died very young, was like my big brother, he was magnificent. He was 1m75, 80 kilos, massively and beautifully built. He was a joyful man who had nothing to prove, a beautiful man.
Another main teacher who I mostly trained with was Nishio Sensei. He was one of my ideals, both as a budoka and as a man. He had a unique ability to absorb other martial studies, and make them his art: Aikido, Judo, Karate, Jodo and Iaido. His Aikido could be described as handsome. It was a combination of virility and high art.
I particularly liked Kuroiwa Yoshio Sensei. He started training around 1954. He was six months junior to Kato Hiroshi Sensei, who broke his arm on the first class (laughs). Kuroiwa Sensei told me that Kato Sensei’s mother dragged him by the ear to his house to apologize to his mother. Kuroiwa Sensei was an interesting man; after World War II, there was a return to normality and boxing came up again. He probably fought over 200 bouts with no weight classes. Unlike a lot of the fellows who became Shihan at Hombu, he was not a middle class bourgeois, he came from Asakusabashi, in downtown Tokyo. He was a tough kid and he had that kind of anger that poor kids sometimes have. He used to walk around and pick fights with strong-looking high school or college students, knock them out, and steal their school badges as trophies. He took up Aikido when he realized that his ways were probably not the best for his own safety, hoping that Ueshiba Sensei might help him straighten himself up. The specificity of his practice was that he linked all of his techniques to boxing, not in terms of hitting but by putting every Aikido technique in a framework of hooks or uppercuts, never extending his arms, everything being a spiral on a figure-eight frame. For the rest of my Aikido time, he was my main influence.
Yoshio Kuroiwa demonstrating at the first Aikido Friendship Event
Guillaume Erard: You then stopped Aikido to study koryu right, when was that?
Ellis Amdur: I started Araki-ryu about two months after arriving in Japan, so I actually trained in parallel for a while. I formally stopped Aikido in 1978.
Ellis Amdur demonstrating Araki-ryu with his Sensei in 1977 at Meiji-jingu
Guillaume Erard: How did you discover and get introduced in the Araki-ryu school?
Ellis Amdur: I wanted to do Yagyu Shinkage-ryu. I heard that a ward gymnasium had practices in Araki-ryu and Yagyu Shinkage-ryu and I decided to go to the Araki-ryu on Saturday, just to watch, and then on Sunday, to go to the Yagyu class, and hopefully join up. I spoke almost no Japanese, I was dressed in rough blue jeans, and when I went to the Araki-ryu class, the teacher, who was a very formidable, dangerous-looking man, only a few years older than I, appeared very suspicious, even hostile. This could be a long story but so to sum it up, he eventually invited me in, and I sat in seiza without moving for three hours. I honestly didn’t like what I saw, at first. It seemed very violent and unsophisticated. At the end of the class, he walked up to me and said, “You can start next week.” Without any conscious intention, I said, “Thank you. I will.” I didn’t even want to join – but I keep my promises. I went to Yagyu Shinkage-ryu the next day and they also invited me to join, but I declined, saying that I had already committed to the Araki-ryu. I was cursing myself inside, because Yagyu Shinkage-ryu was what I wanted to do. But I made the right choice. Yagyu Shinkage-ryu is a polished gem; I am more suited to a chunk of rock.
Guillaume Erard: What did you find particularly interesting in Araki-ryu?
Ellis Amdur: My original intention as I started doing it was to supplement my Aikido with some old martial art but not only did I fall in love with it more and more, Araki-ryu became me. Ryu have personalities and Araki-ryu has that of a wolverine, a profoundly aggressive and low to the ground animal that will win by any means necessary. It is not like Jigen-ryu, which is pure berserker. The berserker state is something that people do not understand by the way. True berserker is not chaotic, undifferentiated rage or attack. It is the ability to tap into a kind of primal power, in which one can exert 100% of one’s power, without holding anything back, either from fear of death, from pain, or from fear alone. One can parry or even retreat in a berserker state, but for the most part, it is like a falcon plunging at 200 km/h onto its prey. I must also say, by the way, that there are several lines of Araki-ryu, and the one that I practice is different from the more mannered, embu-oriented styles that one sees in public demonstrations in Japan.
Guillaume Erard: It sounds quite diametrically opposed to the ideals of Aikido…
Ellis Amdur: The odd thing was that I became a much more pleasant person doing Araki-ryu than doing Aikido. There is something about Araki-ryu that taped really deep in my neurology, my spirit, bringing up things that needed to be addressed.
Guillaume Erard: Did you then decide to stop Aikido to dedicate more time to Araki-ryu?
Ellis Amdur: I was doing Araki-ryu for two years and one day, while I was sparring with my teacher, I said that I was not sure whether Aikido worked. My teacher used to do dojo yaburi – in fact, he was quite infamous, so he suggested that I should go and test my teacher.
As I said before, my Aikido teacher was like my brother so I was not going to do it that way. He and I used to work out and do freestyle stuff after class when nobody was watching so I started to block his technique and every time I did that, he would successfully throw me, but with a Judo technique. To me, it seemed that Judo was his option when Aikido did not work, so I gathered that I must have been doing the wrong martial art. I ended up doing some years of Judo, but primarily, I focused on the grappling elements inherent in Araki-ryu. Now, I must say that in recent years, in my studies on internal martial arts, I have become aware that the Aikido that was taught to almost everyone was not the essence of the art. What I saw, however, was mostly technically oriented, and even though there were undoubtedly teachers of pure Aikido who were more formidable than I was, there were still, in my mind, so many technical deficiencies in the art that I simply didn’t want to do it anymore.
Ellis Amdur demonstrating Araki-ryu
Guillaume Erard: What were the reactions when you said you were quitting?
Ellis Amdur: I was still involved with Terry Dobson and it really upset him. We had, in some ways, a father-son relationship, and in that light, he saw me as someone who could pick up his torch. Instead, he saw me as casting it aside. I don’t think that Aikido, in its essence fulfills, Terry’s dream, otherwise there would be more people with more integrity. Don’t get me wrong, there are myriads of nice people, wonderful people, in Aikido, but there are in any martial arts. Aikido did not seem to have that particular curriculum that would radically change personalities so that we are no longer in that human fight or flight mode. It provides us with alternatives, with possibilities, but it is not unique in that.
Guillaume Erard: You also hold a teaching certificate in Toda-ha Buko-ryu, how did you get into that?
Ellis Amdur: About two years after starting Araki-ryu, my then-wife and I wanted to practice something together, and I got an introduction to Nitta Suzuyo Sensei of Toda-ha Buko-ryu, a school that specializes in the naginata, particularly the kagitsuki naginata. Nitta sensei was a woman of elegance, dignity and grace. She followed my mother as an emblem of strength and morality. I needed her desperately, because I was very much drawn to the edges of life – I still am – but what has kept me civilized was the moral influence of those two women.
Ellis Amdur demonstrating Toda-ha Buko-ryu with Nitta Sensei at Meiji-jingu
Guillaume Erard: Isn’t naginata considered a “girlie” activity in Japan? What does a big man like you find in it?
Ellis Amdur: If Araki-ryu is like a wolverine, Toda-ha Buko-ryu is like a Doberman, it is a very aggressive art. There is no retreat anywhere, you are attacking even while stepping backwards. That the naginata is associated with women is a historical oddity. It was very much a weapon of powerful men. However, it provided women, isolated when their men were at war, with a long weapon that was effective against attacks on horseback or foot. In the Edo period, the weapon was very much lightened, and became an emblem of the bushi woman’s dedication to a confined social role. Training in the naginata or other budo for women was to develop the endurance and tenacity to accept a very rigid social role. That said, Toda-ha Buko-ryu retained a very aggressive and powerful set of techniques.
Nitta Sensei presenting his Toda-ha Buko-ryu shihan certificate to Ellis Amdur in 1983
Guillaume Erard: Did it take special effort to learn two disciplines at once?
Ellis Amdur: Learning two ryu is actually very hard – I think most people who do this are technique-greedy, and they easily can become ryu collectors. They learn different sets of kata, but nothing enters their bones. They do the ryu, they do not become the ryu. It is actually profoundly difficult to truly do justice to one ryu; to do true justice to two or more is exponentially more difficult.
Araki-ryu filled my marrow. I was already shihan-dai in Toda-ha Buko-ryu after 12 years of training, when I actually did my first real Toda-ha Buko-ryu kata. I remember it vividly – it felt so different compared to Araki-ryu, so powerful in its own unique way. I recall this moment when Toda-ha Buko-ryu finally coalesced within my nervous system, a wonderful moment of revelation. There is a certain level at which, perhaps, all martial ryu are the “same” – but from another perspective, they are profoundly different, with different psychological and physical organization. I literally become a different person when I am doing each of those ryu. To be sure, in freestyle, they meld into one entity, but I maintain the distinction. Referring back to an earlier point in this discussion, this is true shape shifting.
Guillaume Erard: Aikido being a shin-budo, you would think that this work on the human spirit would be the main element of practice, as opposed to Araki-ryu, which being a koryu, would not have been designed to change characters but to make things work efficiently.
Ellis Amdur: First of all, most koryu do have moral teachings, based on neo-Confucianism and often profoundly “work” on the human spirit, through practices derived from esoteric Buddhism and Taoism. Many shin-budo pay lip service to work on the human spirit without offering a specific, articulated methodology to accomplish this; rather, they simply assert: “more practice“. Beyond this, anything can change you. One thing about authentic koryu is that when you are doing something that puts the responsibility in your hands for harming someone, a potential of killing someone or being killed, that changes your spirit in a different way compared to a lot of shin-budo.
For example in Iai, when you do a cut that would not actually cut, as opposed to a cut that would cut, you are lying with your body; it affects your soul, your spirit. Now if someone confesses: “what I do has no combative validity whatsoever, I just like to move this way, it puts me in a meditative state, and that makes me a better person“, I have no argument with that. But if one claims that they are enacting an effective way to use a sword in combat while cutting in a non-effective way, there is a primordial part of us that knows that a lie is being expressed.
Guillaume Erard: Even though you stopped formally practicing it, you do write quite a lot around the subject of Aikido don’t you?
Ellis Amdur: For one thing, the possibilities for moral reflection that seemed to be embodied within some Aikido have always nagged at me. Furthermore, I returned to Aikido recently, due to my interest in what Ueshiba Morihei was doing, in particular, internal strength training. The vitiation of Aikido, the removal of what made it really powerful, does make it kind of a lie, and it can be problematic for those doing Aikido. Now, the great martial artists doing Aikido are formidable fighters, far better than me. Nishio Sensei was a genius for example, but he was not the run of the mill. There used to be an inner curriculum, even though O Sensei did not express that curriculum very openly. It was a means of achieving some kind of honesty allowing you to know at every second how powerful you were.
Honestly, for that I also love boxing. My son is a professional boxer; he just won a fight a week ago on my birthday. He has had a rough go of it for a couple of years, and that was a beautiful, wonderful moment. Losing gracefully is certainly to one’s credit, but winning – that is sublime. The thing about boxing is that you can’t lie to yourself. Your life is not in the balance but you know where you are at, how hard you have trained, etc. My son was on several losses, two of which were technical knockouts, but he handled it extremely gracefully. I’ve seen him with his girlfriend and he is incredibly gentle, a true gentleman in the old sense of the word. It used to be thought in America that boxing did that, it made gentlemen. In the ring, you can’t depend on the other person on anything except trying to hurt you. All you can do is to try to protect yourself and hurt them back. It is very honest.
The thing with shin-budo is that with all the abstraction that goes with it, good people will probably become better doing Aikido, average people will remain average, unpleasant people will continue to be unpleasant. Evil, damaged people who want to harm others will have a perfect arena to do that. This is what I see in shin-budo.
Guillaume Erard: So does it mean that in koryu, which do not come with an agenda in that respect, the refinement of the individual is just a byproduct of honest practice?
Ellis Amdur: Koryu have those same agendas, particularly today, where, for most Japanese, training is simply a hobby. They also have other agendas. One of the big problems with koryu is the idea of becoming intangible cultural properties, the mukei bunkazai, because what it means is that you are a living antique. What do you do with living antiques? You display them, and they are valuable as they are, so you can’t repair them. If I fix an ancient broken cup, I will be able to drink from it, but I will destroy a million dollar antique.
A lot of koryu have frozen themselves in what they believe is time, but there have also been distortions over hundreds of years. No one is doing exactly what was done hundreds of years ago. I can see distortions within a single generation, and in koryu, it is asserted that this is not supposed to happen. And the majority of these deviations are either inadvertent or at the whim of someone – they are often not rooted in a conscious honing of one’s methodology.
Guillaume Erard: Yes I can certainly see that in my practice of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu. I thought I would find a consistent body of knowledge, but I ended up finding out that techniques could differ drastically from one teacher to the next, depending whether you were in Hokkaido, Osaka, or Shikoku.
Ellis Amdur: (laughs) Yes, similarly, there are several factions of Araki-ryu. I have a film of the Araki-ryu Sensei of 1955 and not only what they are doing different, but I dare say that what I am doing now is much better. It is not a matter of either arrogance or humility; I am just talking sheer practicality. I definitely know what they are doing and I know why I am not doing some of these things.
The Araki I learnt was definitely koryu bujutsu in the sense that it is a stream flowing from the past, but it continues to develop. I have done tameshiai with people from a lot of different views. I have done a lot of sometimes dangerous freestyle practice in the dojo I was in, and I continued this process with my own students, some of whom are strong people, including a Sambo expert, as well as with people like Bruce Bookman [Editor’s note: A long-time student of Chiba Kazuo Sensei who is now running is own Tenzan Aikido], who, in addition to his expertise in Aikido, has taught me some Brazilian jiujitsu, which he is also quite good at. They all have instinctive responses against which I may be ill prepared and that is wonderful. Instead of saying: “You did the kata wrong“, one can say: “Maybe the kata is wrong, we need to test this“.
I remember, I was working on a technique with a training brother who does Katori shinto-ryu and a certain technique did not work because in Katori shinto ryu, they cut with the arms relatively straight, while in Araki-ryu, we keep our arms curved. The thing is that you cannot ask a swordsman: “Can you please cut with curved arms so I can do this technique?” Therefore, as far as I was concerned, that technique was useless, and I threw it out. I love to cut waza or even kata from my line – one has a sense of taking a blade and sharpening it, eliminating the rough edges. Why practice something that is dependent on the other person?
Guillaume Erard: It does not sound like something that would be readily accepted in Japan, especially in the koryu world.
Ellis Amdur: I have been involved in a process that my teacher fully approves of, which is something that he himself actually did in his own generation. It is not so much making new stuff up but instead, paring it down, taking things away. But that is indeed very unusual in koryu today. Once upon a time, however, it was common. That’s one of the reasons that there were so many ryu – creative men and, rarely, women, found something more effective, as far as they were concerned, and made their own line. And often they had to be prepared to defend this against dojo yaburi.
Koryu today has its own agenda and it can make it a tiger skin rather than a tiger. Many koryu rely on how wonderful and strong their headmaster was. I am not interested in that, I am interested in how strong I am and how strong you are if we are training together. If the principles are sound, the technique can change, but if the principles lack something, then you have a problem.
In my Toda-ha buko-ryu naginata-jutsu school, we the senior shihan also have made variations, but we are much more scrupulous and careful about it. There are a couple of reasons for that.
The first reason is that the learning model is very different. Araki-ryu has always had this “break the kata to win” idea, an improvisational character. You can think of Araki-ryu as a circle with several wedges, you can start at any point and go right to the center. If I am practicing sword, I am at one point on that circle, but it does not prevent me from also studying naginata or spear or kodachi because it is just like entering from another point. The same principles are found throughout, so literally, you can start at any point. On the other hand, Toda-ha buko-ryu has a progressive andragogy; you have to learn the first level to start the second level, and the second level to learn the third level. You cannot start with the third level. The real weapon of the school is the kagitsuki naginata, not the su naginata, which is practiced, in part, as a preparation for that third step. Anything you can do with the su naginata can be done with the kagitsuki naginata, but the latter offers so much more. It is such a beautifully constructed system that one has to be careful before removing steps because even though one other technique might seem to be better in isolation, that step might be crucial for the learning process.
Kagitsuki naginata versus bokken
The second reason we are all so careful is the relationship we all had with our teacher Nitta Sensei. As I said vefore, she was a treasure to me, I was living in Japan, becoming not a very nice guy, and it is that relationship with Nitta Sensei that kept me from going completely off the rails. My Araki-ryu teacher was a profoundly moral man as well, but he was also a person who thought that a man, in many respects, makes his own morality. Nitta Sensei gave me the other side, balancing it, implicitly saying that in society there was a right way to act. She would delicately, almost invisibly point out when I was not acting that way. Sometimes she would just look at me and that would be all it took. That was very important because I had a wife and children; I had no right to be solely an individual. I owe something to her. She passed away in 2008, and her successor was a very young man named Nakamura Yoiichi, a very fine guy.
So while I recall Nakamura sensei, let me give you a concrete example of how a change can happen. There are some movements in Buko-ryu where the weapons are joined and you do a wrapping of one weapon against another, and flip/deflect aside the other’s weapon to cut them. I have been training a lot using spears to generate nairiki. One can, through this, generate power without tension or windup; it is, rather, a pulse in which your entire body functions as one unit, augmented by force directed from the ground. I returned to Japan a couple of years ago and I was working with another shihan and he had my weapon pined, and without moving, I did that and his naginata was flung upwards and hit him in the face. I repeated this several times, despite his resistance. The way we had originally learned this technique was a more muscular way of moving. Nakamura Sensei came over and said: “That is not the way Nitta Sensei taught me“. I responded that it was not the way she had taught me either but that I had been working on this. He then stopped the class and said: “Everybody, Amdur Sensei is doing something that is better than what we learned; I am going to ask him to teach us all“, which I did for a mere 45 minutes. Very shortly after that, he came down with cancer, a very fast, burning cancer and he died not too long ago. The last time he came to the dojo, he was emaciated, he had to be helped to his feet, but he wanted to give a last lesson, to emphasize what we, the members of Toda-ha Buko-ryu must maintain. He said that there were two things that were very important in Buko-ryu. The first one was to make sure that the techniques were big and the cuts powerful. For the second, he demonstrated the same thing that I did. This man was dying of cancer, and although I instructed him only once, he had trained alone, for a period of about a year, up to a point where a student told me that he was as good as me. Alone! That, alone, is why I have little sympathy for people who claim that Japanese teachers hide essential teaching, or expect you to “steal the technique“. If you are watching, a single demonstration of something true should be enough. And beyond the technique, this is what Nakamura Sensei did! That is what is beautiful, a spirit, the sign of a living koryu. He saw something he found better and although dying, he was determined to learn it before the end. This, to me, is so much more than having a living antique, which is unchangeable.
Guillaume Erard: So then, if you argue that you can alter any traditional form on sheer practical grounds, what could keep the boundaries of what defines one style compared to the other?
Ellis Amdur: The first limitation is the gokui. What makes a Cognac as opposed to an Armagnac? Without the right soil, the right location, the right grapes, the right methodology, you will not have one or the other. And you cannot make one into the other. One can, within limitations, go deeper and richer, but there is a limitation on how widely one can go.
A further limitation is built-in. If I am using a Japanese sword, which is a culture-bound instrument that nobody fights with today, and I say that I am left handed and therefore, I want to use it left-handed, that is stupid. In the spear, I had a student who wanted to experiment using it on the left side and I said that it was fine, but that he should remember that because the wakizashi goes across the body, the spear was used mainly on the right side because that way it allowed you to tangle it up. Therefore, he should always practice with a wakizashi, so he used the spear in a realistic way for the period. Another example, the kusarigama would function a lot better with a piano wire than a chain but that would be silly because it is an archaic weapon. These weapons are windows to the past, so we should make that weaponry as strong as possible but only according to its own terms.
It is interesting when any change happens; you have to think about it deeply. Regarding the kusarigama in Toda-ha buko-ryu, during the two generations where I was there, there was a cord rather than a chain, and no hand guard. I asked Nitta Sensei the permission to put the chain back on ours because aerodynamically, it was different. She accepted. A lot of these weapons had a hand guard. One problem I found in our own practice of kusarigama against naginata is that without the hand guard, when you do some of the techniques, you have to be very careful not to get your hand hit. Since the kusarigama is the uketachi, by being too careful about not getting his hand fingers broken, he is not providing the naginata player with a good practice. Remember, uketachi is the teacher, and if he or she cannot adequately challenge the student, the latter will not get as powerful as they should. So I decided to put a hand guard on my kusarigama, which provoked a little debate amongst some of the current shihan about the legitimacy of doing so. I answered that I tried to make my students stronger in Buko-ryu’s own terms. I also pointed out some of the other changes that had been made: for example, the fact that Nitta Sensei and Kobayashi Sensei, which were small women, used to go to demonstrations with their spears, which were close to 3 meters long, but because they couldn’t fit them in the train, they decided to cut off 1 shaku. (laughs) These changes do happen, some of them good, some of them bad.
Guillaume Erard: How do you link this to Aikido practice? Do you see the need of changes?
Ellis Amdur: When I am asked to teach Aikido, I am like a guest, I do not regard myself as an aikidoka, but when I teach, I hope to offer people something that they find interesting, intriguing. I do so without treating Aikido with any disrespect, not saying things like: “this is all bullshit, you should do this and that“. First of all, I might be very wrong as well as disrespectful! That is not the issue, anyway. Aikido technique is a framework, a container. The question is: “Can I put something of a different flavor in that container without damaging it, something that people can find useful?” Aikido gave me so much that it is the kind of gift that I try to give back. Can I respect the form while making the content stronger?
I have had the long-term intuition that Aikido techniques are vectors, not techniques. Ueshiba Sensei selected just a few techniques out of the entire Daito-ryu curriculum for a reason. These techniques are pointing out physical organizations for a purpose. I believe that this purpose is to build internal strength by putting certain pressures in certain ways so you can achieve centering.
Guillaume Erard: Something you wrote on that subject about the fact that all Aikido school, Aikikai, Yoshinkan, etc. share the same small core of techniques out of the Daito-ryu curriculum reminds me of what Henry Kono once told me. He said that if you are smart enough, you can learn all there is to know in Aikido by doing just one technique. It seems that we just need some technical variety to make the learning process more obvious and less repetitive.
Ellis Amdur: That is something that has been repeated throughout Japanese martial arts history, a pulsation of expansion into variation and contraction into simplicity. Jigen-ryu is a good example of that; it developed from Katori Shinto-ryu, but when you look at it, it seems so primitive that you could think that it came first. What the masters of Jigen-ryu thought is that there was too much stuff there and they worked on getting rid of what they thought was unnecessary information.
Guillaume Erard: Thirty or so Aikido techniques does indeed sound like a nice and round number to beat that boredom while keeping the essential out of the 2884 Daito-ryu techniques.
Ellis Amdur: It is the same in Itto-ryu. Consider their phrase, itto sunawachi banto, “one sword [technique] gives rise to ten thousand sword [techniques]“I must confess, however, that when I see some ryu, I wonder whether I would have the discipline to train in that because I would be bored to tears. It makes perfect sense to me that their curriculum is that small, but it would kill my mind. (laughs)
Guillaume Erard: I suppose that the cultural aspect in itself can be worthwhile too. I initially only kept training in Daito-ryu because of a sort of academic, historical interest for the origin of the Aikido techniques. For some, I suppose that it justifies setting an extensive and unchangeable curriculum.
Ellis Amdur: To me, the funny thing about Daito-ryu is that I really don’t believe that Takeda Sokaku organized things like that.
Guillaume Erard: Well, my understanding is that most of the formalization came from his son Tokimune.
Ellis Amdur: Indeed, and this was done in various ways, for example, the Takumakai [Editor’s note: School of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu founded by Takuma Hisa, one of the most prominent students of Takeda Sokaku] did their own organization.
Guillaume Erard: And they also went back to Tokimune to get some instruction on formalization, which explains why both schools share so many common usages and rules.
Ellis Amdur: I believe that Takeda Sokaku basically grabbed hold of people and did something to them and people just recorded what they saw, trying to figure out what to do, and that became the waza. I really tried my best, honestly, to bring that man to life in a different way in my book Hidden in Plain Sight. I find him a profoundly sympathetic character, and I also think he was profoundly disagreeable, very disrespectful to people.
Guillaume Erard: It seems to be a problem of perceived legitimacy. Aikido has chosen to get its legitimacy by cutting all ties to Daito-ryu and presenting itself as its own thing, while some Daito-ryu practitioners sometimes seem to go out of their way to undermine the validity of Aikido. When people define themselves in opposition to other things, and not for their own merit, it tells me that there is a problem of self-image.
Ellis Amdur: The one thing about the koryu world is that there is a lot more Kira than Asano [Editor’s note: Reference to the story of the 57 Samurai, where Asano was forced to commit seppuku after assaulting Kira, a court official, and the subsequent revenge of Asano’s former Samurai]. There are a lot more people focused on form than on integrity.
Guillaume Erard: It is easier to learn the form; it does not take a genius to copy it quite accurately.
Ellis Amdur: And one can feel special all by oneself. (laughs) I don’t want to criticize it too much but I don’t like romanticizing it either.
Guillaume Erard: So in spite of all that, what interest do you find in being a koryu instructor?
Ellis Amdur: Obviously I love koryu, otherwise I would not have spent 40 years doing it. The standards I am talking about are the standards I hold myself to. I am asking myself at all moments whether I am just doing form, or getting self-satisfied. I am also suspicious whether the role of being a teacher is important to me. I try to make it not be, I am on a first name basis with my students, they call me Sensei on the mat but I hang out with them afterwards. We are not friends, I am a lot older, but we are close, it is a different relationship. I don’t identify myself as being a martial arts teacher, I have a real profession, and this is something I do, which I love. Because these traditions were given to me, whether I like it or not, I have an obligation to pass it on, just as they were passed to me, but it is no more than that. There is a wonderful saying in Araki-ryu that goes: “Keiko is just that, nothing more“. It is not real life, it is a preparation for real life, so don’t make a big deal out of the fact that you go to the dojo and do that stuff.
This is actually why I left Japan, because over there, the best thing in my life was keiko, while the best thing in my life should have been my life. So I left to create something of my own. Araki-ryu and Toda-ha Buko-ryu have been instrumental in teaching me how to do that.
- Amdur, Ellis – Dueling with O-sensei. Edgework: Crisis Intervention Resources PLLC (August 1, 2000)
- Amdur, Ellis – Old School: Essays on Japanese Martial Traditions. Edgework: Crisis Intervention Resources PLLC (August 1, 2002)
- Amdur, Ellis – Audio Interview: “Memories of Terry Dobson”. Edgework: Crisis Intervention Resources
- Amdur, Ellis – Oniisan. AikidoJournal
- Amdur, Ellis – Yamaguchi Sensei – Suburi with People. AikiWeb
- Amdur, Ellis – In Memory of Kuroiwa Yoshio – 黒岩洋志郎 — 1932- 2010. AikiWeb
- Amdur, Ellis – Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power. Edgework: Crisis Intervention Resources PLLC (2009)
To go further:
- Ellis Amdur’s Edgework: Crisis Intervention Resources official website
- Ellis Amdur’s Araki-ryu website
- Ellis Amdur’s Toda-ha Buko-ryu website