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Old School: Real Life Lessons from 60 Years of Martial Arts

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

By Michael Finn

Training in a real martial art requires and builds perseverance and fighting spirit. You enjoy the benefits not only on the mat but also in daily life — which is why the arts remain so popular centuries or even millennia after they were developed for combat. I know this because i’ve spent the past 60 years following the martial path.

Writer and Photo Credit: Michael Finn

I began my journey in 1955 with the London Judo Society, then delved into aikido, kendo and karate. I joined the British police and subsequently served as a troubleshooter in a bad part of London, which resulted in my rolling in more gutters than most people. It was a learning curve that separated dojo training from the real thing.

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In 1967 my victory at the National Police Judo Championship inspired me to visit Japan to further my training. Being short on cash, I was forced to go there via a six-week crossing of Siberia during the Cold War. That was just the beginning of the adventure.

It continued because this period in history marked the tail end of an era that was quite unlike what we see in martial arts today. For that reason, it’s worth looking back to gain valuable insight into where we came from. In the 1960s in Japan, spending time in a dojo destroyed one’s ego rather than encouraging it. This was intentional. The purpose was to foster

learning through humility.

Part of that process was to require complete devotion from all students. During one aikido practice session I participated in at Waseda University in Tokyo, I recall the instructor turning to his sempai and saying‚ “I don’t think that student is sincere. Train with him and break his arm and let’s see.”

Not long afterward, I heard what sounded like a tree branch breaking. For the next several months, the student attended class but could only watch because his arm was in plaster. When the cast came off and he could train again, he was accepted into the dojo. During the years I spent in Japan, students still occasionally died in the dojo, often the result of discipline meted out after they missed too many lessons. Each lesson presented us with this daunting possibility, and it made us realize that what we were doing had to be taken seriously.

Other methods of training reinforced that notion. I recall a special course taught by Sumiyuki Kotani, a 10th-degree judo black belt. The topic was strangulation and resuscitation. When the time came to practice what we’d been shown, we pretended to choke each other out. That was when Kotani proceeded to grab a student and render him unconscious — and then bring him around.

“If you don’t do it for real, you won’t know if it works‚” he admonished us. For the next half-hour, we did exactly as he had done, choking each other out and then initiating the resuscitation. I was fortunate to train under some of Japan’s greatest masters. The lessons were not just about how you developed techniques; they were about how the techniques developed you. As the student developed, the application of the techniques became more powerful. I implemented that very lesson on personal development when I represented Britain at the first world kendo championship in Osaka. I didn’t win, but I had learned enough of the martial way to know that one did not make excuses and blame others for one’s own shortfall. You had to evaluate your weaknesses, analyze your tactics and then train for the next time.

I also was fortunate to become a student of Takaji Shimizu, the last grandmaster of shindo muso-ryu jodo. A unique teacher, he favored the old isshin denshin manner of instruction, which refers to the direct transmission of knowledge. This is a major difference between East and

West. In the West, a teacher imparts knowledge to the student. In the East according to isshin denshin‚ the student takes knowledge from the teacher. The first concept is mainly left-brain learning, while the second is right-brain. It’s more involved than that, of course, but this short description will be enough to resonate with some students.

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During my stay, I came into contact with the likes of Masaaki Hatsumi, Risuke Otake and other Japanese legends. American martial arts researcher Donn F. Draeger was an excellent mentor and later a good friend. Once Draeger and I trained at Otake’s stud farm in Narita. The “dojo” was nothing more than a canvas spread out in front of the stable.

In a moment of downtime, Draeger told me that during a training session he had attended there, Otake cut the underside of his foot badly. His treatment entailed walking into the stable, pulling a red-hot iron out of the fire, cauterizing the wound and returning to the class as if nothing had happened.

Clearly, training in those days was very different from training today. I consider myself lucky to have learned each technique from its source, and I have maintained my skill set as it was taught to me. The martial arts I see nowadays are the result of years of technical changes, and that has rendered some things very different from the way they were. I’m not saying one way is right and the other wrong; they are just different after so many years.

The public image of the martial arts is also different. These days, it’s often the case that if you don’t have an attitude and you don’t claim you can kill a person with the death touch, in the eyes of many, you don’t do martial arts. This points to an underlying difference between training then and now. All the masters I studied under believed that the purpose of martial arts training was to develop the individual and that only then will the techniques be viable for said individual.

“Martial arts training is about creating a socially mature person who plays a useful role in society” was an oft-heard sentiment. Another one was driven home in a conversation with Kotani. When I asked him about the usefulness of judo in self-defense, Kotani simply said‚ “Yes‚ I suppose you could use it for that — I never really thought about it.”

Michael Finn has been inducted into three halls of fame for his contributions to the development of martial arts in the United Kingdom. He’s written 10 books and numerous magazine articles.

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