Jo no kata: what a mess!

Some time ago we wrote a post: Carrot and stick: kumi jo and fourtwelve steps kata.

Summarizing, in that post we wrote that what may appear from the outside when looking at jo exercises, especially in relation to the various forms – kata, may sound messy. From the inside it often has the flavor of discord. Very rarely someone refers to that as a tile of a larger mosaic.

Intuitively it is quite possible to understand the meaning of bare hand techniques. Roughly speaking, the techniques work on joints, kinetic chains and points of imbalance: if performed according to the principle they embody, they allow you to immobilize or throw away your practice partner.

In short: they are coherent in themselves. They have certain “reasons why“, inside.

But the reason must always be well contextualized, otherwise we end up in the obvious amazement of guys like Mike Tyson who, honestly, did not understand the point of attacking a person by grabbing him by both wrists.

In teaching buki waza – weapons – the “reason why” becomes essential.

In our previous post we joked about the “fourtwelve” kata. Just do a search on YouTube by entering the keywords “jo kata Aikido” to understand why.

In the over thirty thousand videos indexed, the majority of results are connected to the three kata (roku no jo kata, jusan no jo kata, sanjuichi no jo kata) systematized by Morihiro Saito and disseminated according to the Iwama Ryu style. And comparing Saito sensei’s videos with the thousands of imitators, one often notices the “Chinese whispers game” effect. Something in the transmission was lost.

Yet the sparks that originated from Morihei Ueshiba’s original fire did not just light Morihiro Saito’s hearth.

Many others have spread Aikido throughout the world, according to what they had seen, understood and integrated, perhaps even with other parallel paths.

Therefore, on the tatami as on YouTube, there is a very vast sample of kata, proposed by teachers who attended the Founder and who, on the basis of their technical and historical authority, have spread further forms.

If then, in that gray zone that lies halfway between the legitimate desire for exploration and the never-suppressed adolescent narcissism, anyone gets in front of the camera and invents a kata that he/she proposes and sometimes imposes on his group, the ramifications increase.

Regardless of the style you practice, regardless of the Martial Art you study, grounding, posture, centrality, connection, are some of the essential pillars for a practice correctly understood from a technical point of view.

Then one looks at O’Sensei’s kata from 1952 (which are taken up for example by Hiroshi Tada Sensei) or that of his pupil, Koichi Tohei Sensei.

How can it be stated that…the inventor of Aikido, the student whom he himself defined as closest to his way of conceiving the discipline and the living monument of Italian Aikido, do not know what rooting, posture and centrality are…

Yet the execution of these forms, at least from an educational point of view, is carried out in such a personalized way to make it almost incomprehensible. And therefore dangerously slippery from an educational point of view.

In fact, according to the well-known proverb which sees a master, a student, a finger and the Moon as main charachters, too much complexity is a double-edged sword.

Because human beings hate complexity and believe, once they have copied a form in a way judged satisfactory, that they have “understood”.

So in the colorful world of online videos, we see a lot of emulators of the legends of Aikido repeating what they have understood.

Tohei’s fluid elegance ends up being represented by strokes delivered as if the guys in the clip were ice skating. Tada’s vibrant research is reproduced with convulsive movements. Saito’s geometric perfection often becomes a manifestation of the contraction of any possible and imaginable muscle.

If we then look in detail, we will see practitioners holding the jo as if it were a muzzle-loading rifle straight from the independence war. Others like a harpoon for fishing octopuses or like a fishing rod. Still others who slash, holding the stick as if it were the ax used by Rocky Balboa when he trained to defeat Ivan Drago.

Finally, we will also be able to see transitions in which jodan level blocks will have the jo in all conceivable positions: parallel to the hanmi, orthogonal to the hanmi, on the left side, on the right side of the head… One-handed jo rotations, with two hands, under the armpits…

What a mess!

It’s just that…we like practicing so much that we are hardly willing to question what we have laboriously learned and memorized.

It may be true that Saito Sensei lived with the Founder for more years than anyone else. So it is very likely that in his schematization he made a great effort aiming at transmitting a minimum and complete set of basic elements to be able to practice the same principles both with bare hands and with the use of weapons.

But the point here is not to debate in a sterile and useless way the presumed or real technical and philological completeness of Iwama Ryu compared to other styles.

The point is that the Aikido practitioner, in every style, has the right to access a teaching methodology in which he/she does not get lost. He/she has the right to a methodology that includes weapons teaching that reiterates the same principles and the same movements.

He/she has the right to be able to discover, in the “poems” that he/she is taught, something that can be found elsewhere and not just in the poem itself.

It is difficult, just to give one example among many possible, to understand teaching systems in which stability, extension and power are taught in bare-hand practice but when one moves on to certain forms with the jo, the jo is used to strike with both hands holding it at one end during a tsuki. Why stability, groundness and extension got lost?

Or is it done so…Because it has always been done that way and it must be done that way?

Everything can be discussed and questioned. Whether it is better to load a tsuki by swinging the jo or with a linear movement. Whether an “ushiro” blow is still such if the body rotates completely in the direction of the blow. Whether the mass of the body must always be distributed homogeneously on the hanmi or whether there are cases in which it needs to be moved to one of the feet…

However, one cannot – one should not – discuss the functional explanation of the various steps of the kata. If these steps have a functional sense and if they can also be applied to tai jutsu, then we are in the presence of one more tile of a very vast mosaic to be explored. We know very few practitioners and teachers who are aware of that.

If, in the end, the functional sense is not there and we have to admit that “we do that this way, because we have always done that this way”, then it is good to start rewinding the tape and return to the point where behind a technique we find a “reason why”. Otherwise our practice is a study of “play”.

Disclaimer: picture by Soulful Pizza from Pexels

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