Thursday, July 28, 2005


Sosuishitsu-ryu, sometimes called Sosuishi-ryu (to take the 'shit' out in the 50's) or Futagami-ryu is a style of unarmed combat (formally called kumi-uchi, but casually, jujutsu) and swordsmanship that has been handed down in a single family since 1650. When I first wandered into the dojo in Portland I was looking for a judo school- I was a hot young (and arrogant) judoka moving to the area.

Dave Sumner, the sensei, broke through the aloof arrogance and had me out on the mat in a matter of minutes. Though it took me months to realize it, he was an exceptional teacher, fighter and martial artist... and those are three very different things. It was a formal, Japanese- style class. Not the rigid militarism of some, but very formal, very aware of 350+ years of tradition. I first decided to stay with the school because of the quality of the students. Dave is modest and never played hard with beginners -it took time to realize how good he was- but his students were amazing. Then I saw the formal kata of Sosuishitsu-ryu and I was hooked. I'd never been a kata person. I'd always preferred hard randori or kumite to forms... when I saw these old two-person kata they were the most brutal things I had ever seen.

I'll talk about kata as a training system later. In Dave's dojo, though the kata was and always will be the heart of koryu (old school), you didn't practice it for a long time simply because it wasn't safe unless your basic fighting skills (especially distancing, timing and falling) were very, very good.

Fast forward fifteen years later: I teach in a converted garage, concrete floor, street clothes, heavy bags, weapons. It's a traditional system, but I'm not a traditional teacher. First names, very little bowing. My emphasis has shifted largely from technique to principle eg I was taught dozens of elbow locks... but there are only two ways to do it, the rest is window dressing. More, my emphasis has shifted from the physical to the will- all the skill in the world will not help you if you freeze in surprise or shrink at the onset of pain. If you have a little technique but apply it with true ruthless aggression (and not one martial artist in a hundred has even seen a true killing rage) very little can stop you. We groundfight with foam bricks; fight from the clinch with training knives on our belts; practice slow motion with iron bars instead of batons; practice deescalation, escape and evasion, recognizing a predator dynamic and reading terrain. We practice flipping the switch from conversation to on! in a second.

In the end, though, it's still tradition and it's still in the kata. About 350 years ago a bushi set up a system to possibly survive if you were ever unlucky enough to have your weapon break or drop in a battle. It was brutal and close and fast. It amazes me that a man named Futagami Hannosuke knew more about staying alive in a modern jail than any of the DT instructors or "modern combat masters" that I have trained with since.

I'm not a traditional instructor- I have a lot of experience, enough to never say that there is one right way, enough to value heart over strength or speed. Educated enough to pursue modern training methods, experience enough to see where those break down and where traditional training helps. But I am a traditional (or maybe classical) teacher. It's about the students, about giving them the best chance I can in any shitstorm of blood and fear they might face. It's about war stories and drills and flexibility and encouragement. It's about trying to teach them to do what I've done without the injuries and memories.