I received an email last week in Google translated English (from Japanese) which invited me to come to Japan for a “a very special testing,” the coveted 7th Dan in the Japanese martial art of Kenseido.
It will be the first time a non-Japanese person has been invited to attempt joining this prestigious club of only 11 or so Japanese 7th and 8th dan level masters in this ancient art form.
Everything about the timing – the short notice, my own physical injuries, budget and scheduling issues led to the immediate conclusion that this great opportunity would have to be passed-up. Five weeks is just not enough time to put this kind of an effort together.
In the past, whenever preparing for an epic challenge of this magnitude, I always had up to two years of forewarning to adequately prepare. My wife and daughters just looked at me plainly and said, “You’ve got to do this.”
Then, my son-in-law who is involved in technology venture capital in Israel says, “Kickstarter.”
Tentatively committed, I launched a crowdfunding campaign around the challenge and a book that delves into the stories behind the story.
Next, a friend asked me how would I be able to prepare for an exam that I know very little about and have not had adequate time to prepare for. My last trip to Japan was eight years ago when I trained and successfully examined for 6th dan. Even though we have had Japanese sensei’s-in-residence visit us during this period, I am flying blind here.
The answer that came out of me was, “I have been preparing for this for nearly 50 years,” as long as I have studied the martial arts.
A Little Background
After studying martial arts on the west coast for almost twenty years, it was time to step up the training quality so, in 1984, I sold my worldly possessions (consisting mostly of a VW Thing) and temporarily moved to Kyoto, Japan. That was a turning point for me from an authenticity stand-point. It also availed to me a deeper resource of profound wisdom, technique and culture that could be shared with students here in the U.S.
Migration of the Art to Texas
After moving to San Antonio from La Jolla, California the next year I helped my Japanese colleagues get their H-1B visas so we could co-establish the art of Kenseido in the U.S.
By 1990, my partners Masami Nakahashi and Yukio Kanai had both succumbed to home sickness, moved back to Japan, and the responsibility for Kenseido in the U.S. fell onto me. This put into motion a vigorous exchange program where I would make frequent trips to Japan to train at numerous Kenseido dojo’s as well as the Hombu Dojo (headquarters).
Over the next 20 years, in addition to going back-and forth to Japan, we played host to a long line of visiting sensei’s from Japan. One result of all this exposure and training was that I became the highest ranking non-Japanese person in the world in Kenseido, 6th dan – Kyoshi Shihan, or master instructor.
Keeping it together
Japan Kenseido is quite proud of the legacy we have created together here in San Antonio. There have been six shihans, or master level instructors of the 4th dan rank or higher, trained and advanced here. They include Neal Takamoto, Pamela Ortiz Swart, Alex Katzman, Gadier Garcia, Von Shields and Adrien Ivan. In addition to this, is the uniqueness of having maintained strong official ties and positive relations with the Japan headquarters. Most martial arts systems tend to defect after a while and become their own authority. That may be part of the reason there are more 10th degree grand masters in Topeka, Kansas than in all of Asia combined.
Ok, I made up that part about Topeka, but for fun we used to read yellow page ads from around the country and laugh our heads off at what the average karate studio owner claimed as their rank and pedigree. My real point is, it is not easy to maintain the multi-cultural nuances over time, and most people find it easier to captain their own pirate ship than be part of a fleet.
So, what’s the big deal?
What I tell my students is,” The secret to becoming a high-ranking black belt or red belt shihan is: just don’t ever quit.”
That’s it. That is all there is to it. No special talent or gifts. Just sheer, stubborn determination, a healthy dose of loyalty, and the ability to overcome persistent overuse injuries. So here I am, the last guy at the dance. Other multi-nationals who started Kenseido before me or when I did are just not in it anymore. The others of lower rank started after me. There is something to be said for dedication, skill and mastery and I do not want to minimize that. But the “90 percent is just showing up” rule still applies.
Getting There: You Can Help
So now there are a few contingencies to this becoming real. The kickstarter campaign has to totally fund in order to fund at all. Being that we have college students in our household, there isn’t any mad money for last second trips across the planet. Fortunately, the campaign is going very well. My body has to hold up too: 54 years of light to full-contact activity takes its’ toll. Knees, shoulders, all the usual broken parts for an older athlete. This level of examination is more energetic and spiritual than athletic and physical, though you still have to be an undisputed mentor for the vigorous 30 and 40 year-old master level instructors, as well as be able to hang with your 50 through 70+ Japanese peers, some of whom never seem to age.
There will be over 100 Japanese master’s at the Kenshukai, instructors retreat in Kashima, Japan, scrutinizing who gets into the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi” club and who doesn’t. I hope I make it.
*Featured/top image: Lavoy Allen, NBA Pacer and Sensei Winslow Swart’s Journey Kickstarter project backer. Author photo.