By John Donohue
Note: “Heiho" is the second of two excerpts from
Donohue's new martial arts thriller, "Sensei." The first
excerpt was titled "Intro
To A Thriller" which included the
Prologue and Chapter 1 (Ronin) from the book. This excerpt is Chapter
2 from the book. "Sensei" is available in our Estore.
Also read Christopher
Caile's review of this book.
You could usually hear a pin drop in that room. The slanting
rays of the sun came in through the high windows. The angle was acute
enough so that you never had to worry about being blinded (an important
thing in a place where people hacked at each other with oak swords),
but it showed the dust motes dancing around. Less wary students had been
distracted by them. We had all been with Yamashita Sensei for a while,
however, and that morning when he strode onto the floor, all eyes were
riveted on him.
Yamashita was a small person: in street clothes he probably would have
seemed surprisingly non-descript. In the martial arts dojo-the training
hall-his presence was a palpable thing. It wasn't just the way he was
dressed. Most of us had been banging around the martial arts world
for years and so were pretty much used to the exotic uniforms. Yamashita
was usually dressed like any other senior instructor in some of the
more traditional arts: a heavy quilted top like the ones judo players
wore and the pleated split skirt/pants known as hakama. The wide legs
of his uniform swished quietly as he knelt in front of the class. Even
in this small action, there was a decisive precision. He gazed at us,
his round head swivelling slowly up and down the line.
Other than his head, nothing moved, but you could almost feel the energy
pulsing off him and washing over you. He was the most demanding of
taskmasters at the best of times, but today we were all tremendously
Yamashita was wearing white.
In Japan, white is the color of emptiness and humility. Many of us had
started our training in arts like judo or karate, where the uniforms
known as gi were traditionally white as a symbol of humility. Most
mainline Japanese instructors I knew frowned on the American urge to
branch out into personal color statements with their uniforms. The
message was clear: a gi is not a an expression of individuality. People
wanting to make statements should probably rent billboards and avoid
Japanese martial arts instructors. They are not focused on your needs.
They are concerned only with the pursuit of the Way. You are free to
come along. But your presence is not necessary.
You have to get used to that sort of attitude. In the martial arts,
nobody owes you anything, least of all your teacher. The assumption is
that you are pretty much worthless and lucky to be in the same room with
your sensei. You do what he says. You don't talk back. You don't ask
rude questions. You don't cop an attitude-that's the sensei's prerogative.
In the sword arts Yamashita teaches, only the high ranking teachers are
eligible to wear white. Yamashita could. He had done so in Japan for
years. But he didn't do it much here. If he was wearing white today,
it meant that he was symbolically adopting the attitude that he was
the lowliest of students. Humility is nice, of course. The only drawback
here was that, if Yamashita was being humble, it meant that, as his
students, we were somewhere way down in the crud with other lower forms
As we sat there eyeing him warily, I heard some very quiet sighs up and
down the line: we were in for a rough workout.
You don't get in the door of this particular dojo without having considerable
experience and martial aptitude. In the first place, it's hidden in
Brooklyn among the warehouses down by the East River. We occasionally
have trouble with our cars being broken into and stuff like that, but
then a few us go out and spread the word that Mr. Yamashita is beginning
to get annoyed. He's been in the same location for ten years and has
had a number of"conversations" with the more felonious of
his neighbors-there are people walking those streets whose joints will
never work correctly again.
The neighborhood is dirty and smelly and loud. Once you get inside the
dojo, however, the rest of the world disappears. The training hall is
a cavernous space. The walls are unadorned grayish white and the floor
is polished hardwood. There are no decorations on the walls, no posters
of Bruce Lee or the Buddha. There's a small office area to one side with
a battered green metal desk and two doors leading to the changing rooms.
Other than the weapons racks, that's it. There is absolutely nothing
to distract you from the task at hand. It also means, of course, that
there is nowhere to hide, either.
The sounds of the passing traffic on the Gowanus Expressway are muted.
Half the time, the gasping and thudding and shouts would drown things
out anyway. It's tough inside the building and out.
Yamashita doesn't accept beginning students-we've all got black belts
in at least one art-and you have to have a letter of introduction even
to get an interview. If he accepts you (and he's very picky, relying
on some weird formula none of us really understand) you essentially
get training that makes all the things you endured before pale in comparison.
I've been doing judo for twenty years. I also have another dan ranking
in karate. The first time Yamashita used me as a demonstration partner,
the sheer force of his technique and spirit were overwhelming.
So when I say that the workout was going to be tough, I mean it.
We don't do a great deal of conditioning. What we do is basics.
Yamashita's idea of basics, of course, is bewildering. He thinks basics
are essentially illustrated through application. This is where the
bang and crunch comes in, but with a difference. Anybody can slam someone
into submission-take a look at any tough guy competition or kick boxing
match. Yamashita is after something different. He thinks that the essence
of any particular technique should be demonstrated in its effectiveness.
He doesn't separate form and practicality. He doesn't even admit they
are two separate things. He likes us to destroy with elegance.
There are technical terms for this in Japanese. They can isolate ji-the
mechanics of technique-and ri-the quality of mastery that allows you
to violate the appearance of form yet still maintain true to its essence.
It's hard to explain how they differ and how to separate them, since
most of us have spent years in pursuit of ji and are pretty much conditioned
to follow its dictates. Yamashita doesn't seem to have much of a problem,
however. He prowls the floor like a predator correcting, encouraging,
and demonstrating. And woe to the unlucky pupil whose focus slips during
the exercise: Yamashita screams "Mu ri"-no ri!-and slams
you to the floor.
It's a unique pedagogical technique, but it works for him.
So, beyond the sighs of anticipation, once the lesson started, none of
us spent much time worrying about how tough things were. In the dojo
of Yamashita Sensei, the only way to be is to be fully present and
engaged in the activity at hand. The unfocused are quickly weeded out
and rarely return. The rest of us endure, in the suspicion that all
this will lead to something approximating the fierce skill of our master.
The experience binds you to him in ways I can't even begin to explain.
There's the conscious respect you have for his skills, of course-compared
to him, we're in the infancy of skill development. But there are more
subtle dynamics going on as well. Yamashita knows you. He knows your
weaknesses and fears. He doesn't judge you for them, but he makes you
confront them. In this, he is without mercy. But, if you trust him
enough and can stand the heat of his lessons, you come out changed.
And when that happens, you see the faint ghost of a satisfied smile
drift across his face. It doesn't last long, but in that subtle moment
you feel a pride and a gratitude that keeps you coming back to him
We were working that day on some tricky techniques that involved pressure
on selected nerve centers in the forearm. At about the time when most
of us were slowing down-shaking our arms out in an effort to get the
nerves to stop jangling-Yamashita called that part of the lesson quits
and picked up a bokken. We scurried to the lower end of the floor and
sat down as he began his instructions.
The bokken is a hardwood replica of the katana-the two handed long sword
used by the samurai. It has the curve and heft of a real sword and
so is used to train students of the various sword arts that have evolved
over the centuries in Japan. Kendo players use something called the
shinai-essentially a tube composed of bamboo strips-in most of their
training. This is because they hit each other with them and don't want
to get hurt.
Bokken, on the other hand, tend to get used in situations where training
is done solo. This is done because, in the right hands, a hardwood
sword can be very dangerous. They have been known to shatter the shafts
of katana and people like the famous Miyamoto Musashi, armed with a
bokken, used to regularly go up against swordsmen armed with real swords.
The results were never pretty, but Musashi used to walk away intact,
bokken in hand.
Bokken are also used in set series of training techniques called kata.
This is typically what Yamashita had us train in with bokken.
Kata means form: they are prearranged exercises. Don't be fooled. Kata
practice in Yammashita's dojo was enough to make your hair stand on
When we perform kata, we do them in pairs of attacker and defender, and
the movements flow and the blade of the bokken moans through the air
as it blurs its way to the target.
There's nothing like the sight of an oak sword slashing at your head
to focus your mind.
I was backpedaling furiously to dodge a slashing kesa-giri-the cut that
with a real sword would cleave you diagonally from your shoulder to
the opposite hip-when movement on the edge of the practice floor caught
The visitors filed swiftly in, bobbing their heads briefly in that really
poor American version of bowing. There were three of them in street
clothes and the fourth was dressed in a hakama and top. The outfit
caught my eye: the top was crimson red and looked like it was made
out of some silky sort of material, the hakama was a crisp jet black.
Quite the costume, really, especially when its wearer had a shaved
brown head the shape of a large bullet. He had come to make a statement,
I guess. They sat quietly with their backs against the wall, watching
the class with that hard-eyed, clenched jaw look that is supposed to
I suppose I should have been impressed, but my training partner would
not let up. She was about as fierce and wiry as they come. And her
sword work had a certain whip and quick snap to it, a slightly off-beat
rapid rhythm that was hard to defend against, even though in kata you
theoretically know what's happening. She wasn't at all impressed with
the visitors. She was a relatively new student who was mostly intent
on making one of Yamashita's senior pupils-me-look less than accomplished.
So even though I was pretty curious about these guys,Yamashita did not,
as a rule, tolerate visitors and one of them was dressed like he came
to play-I quickly got more interested in not making a fool out of myself
during bokken practice.
It's a pride thing. There's a lot of talk in the martial arts about letting
go of your ego and all that, and we try, we really do, but the fact
is that, at this level, you have invested a tremendous amount of time
and effort into developing your skills and creating a certain status
position in the dojo, and you really get just a bit ticked off when
something happens to threaten that. All the bowing and titles, the
uniforms and colored belts, are all about status, your sense of worth.
It's a closed little world with its own system for ranking you, but
it's still a status system, and human beings respond to that.
This woman was good with her weapon. I could sense that and so could
she. She was pressing me a bi-Caltering the tempo of the moves, delivering
her cuts with something close to full force, shortening the time between
parry and counter-delivering a type of challenge to see whether I could
I could, of course, but that wasn't the real point. For me, the challenge
was how to respond to her force with something more refined. It meant
that instead of parrying her cuts with a force that would make our
bokken bark out with the shock of impact, I needed to finesse it a
I changed the angles slightly, moving my body just out of the line of
attack, which served to place me out of the radius of her strikes.
I tried to keep my hands supple as I parried, accepting the force of
her blows and redirecting them slightly, but things were getting a
bit sweaty and I didn't want the sword flying out of my hands and shooting
across the room. It happens occasionally, and if nobody gets hit we
all laugh and the one who let go gets ribbed unmercifully, but this
was not a situation where I was willing to get laughed at.
I knew this woman was a relative beginner at the dojo, and I counted
on her weapon fixation. It was an unfair advantage in a way, but its
also an example of what Yamashita calls heiho-strategy.
Between shifting a bit and redirecting a bit more through the next series
of movements in the kata, I built up enough frustration in my partner
for her to over commit in her next strike-a little too much shoulder
in the technique, her head leading into it-and it was all over. I simply
let go of my bokken with my left hand, entered into her blind side, led
her around in a tight little circle and took the sword away. It wasn't
a move that was in the kata, but Yamashita tells us any time you can
do tachi-dori (sword taking) to your partner, you should, just to keep
them on their toes.
The pivot took her around on her toes, all right. She knew what was happening
about a split second after the spin began, but it was too late to get
out of it. I handed her back the bokken; she smiled a bit ruefully
and we bowed just as Yamashita called the class to order in preparation
to bow out.
He glided to the head of the room and waited for us to line up. He was
studiously avoiding looking at the gang of four in the back of the room,
but you could tell from his body language that he was annoyed.
You don't come dressed to play unless yove been invited. Only the sensei
can give permission for a student to train in the dojo. If you show
up uninvited and suited up, it means that either you don't know anything
about Japanese martial arts teachers and are in real risk of being
beaten up, or that you are purposefully being insulting and wish to
challenge the sensei to a match.
In which case, it is anyone's guess who gets beat up.
I've seen this happen before. Not often, but you don't tend to forget
it once you've seen it. Especially if you're a student of the teacher
being challenged. You get used as a type of canon fodder for your teacher.
He sends you or one of your pals out to fight the challenger, he watches
the action, analyzes the skill level of the opponent. If the first
student gets beaten, a more advanced pupil goes next, and so on up
the line. By the time the challenger reaches the sensei (if he lasts
that long), he has either revealed his strengths and weaknesses and
so can be defeated, or is so tired that he's no longer much of a challenge
to the sensei. It's not fair, of course. It's heiho.
We all knelt, a solid dark blue line stretching down the length of the
dojo. Yamashita sat quietly for a minute then turned to one of his
senior pupils, a mild-mannered Japanese-American guy named Ken who
sat next to me at the end of the line reserved for higher ranks. He
looked like he was dreading what was about to happen. Yamashita said
to him, "I see we have visitors. Perhaps you would invite the
colorful one to speak with me."
Ken bowed, got up and scurried to the back of the room to deliver the
invitation. The guy in the red top nodded, exchanged a series of ritual
handshakes with his companions and stepped onto the training floor.
He struck a ready pose and let out a loud "UUUS." A few of
us rolled our eyes. Some of the karate schools out there think that
kind of thing makes you seem like a real hard charger.
Yamashita nodded slightly and Red Top moved forward.
I regret that I was unable to welcome you properly to my dojo. I am equally
distressed to say that I do not know who you are or what you want, since
we have not been properly introduced." The words came out quickly,
but were carefully pronounced. Sensei doesn't really have much of an
accent, but when he gets annoyed his words get very precisely formed.
I don't know if Red Top was picking it up or not, but there wasn't one
of us who doubted that Yamashita Sensei was really ticked off.
Mitchell Reilly, Sensei." He bowed, properly this time. Ken caught
my eye. Mitch Reilly ran a notorious jujutsu school, pretty much specializing
in combat arts of the one-hundred-ways-to-pluck-their eyeballs-out variety.
He was a mainstay of the non-traditional Black martial arts community.
He was built like a refrigerator and I could see his knuckles were enlarged
from the damage too much board breaking creates. Mitch Reilly had the
reputation of being a really savage competitor, a fair technician, and
a guy staggering under the weight of a giant ego.
So, Mr. Reilly. I must assume that there is a reason for your presence
here. The school is hard to find and only a man in need of something
would make a journey through such a dangerous neighborhood."
Reilly looked contemptuous. "No problem. I can take care of myself."
And," Yamashita continued, "the obvious care with which you
have selected your. . . charming costume tells me that you are, perhaps,
interested in . . . ?" He let the question hang in the air.
I sat and watched the steam start to come out of Reilly's ears. I have
to admit, he got it under control fairly well, which was a sign that
he was probably a dangerous man. When the faint trembling stopped,
Reilly finished Yamashita's sentence.
"A match," he said. "I'm challenging you."
You had to admire him. The guy pulled no punches. He was probably five
years older than I was--in his early forties--and had been banging
around the martial arts for at least two decades, and now felt he was
ready to take on the closest thing the New York area had to a bona
fide master. Most people don't even know Yamashita exists. He came
to New York years ago from Japan for reasons none of us can fathom
and hones our technique with a type of quiet brutality. The senior
Japanese sensei send their most promising pupils to him, but he's never
appeared in Black Belt, hasn't written a book divulging the ancient,
secret techniques of the samurai elite, and doesn=t have a listing
in the Yellow Pages.
Which was why Reilly=s presenceCand his challengeCwas so odd.
You could see Yamashita's quandry. Reilly was fairly dangerous in a savage,
commonplace kind of way. Yamashita was a harsh teacher, but he never
needlessly put any of us in danger of serious injury. It was beneath
Sensei's dignity to accept the challenge, but you could almost hear
the clicks in his brain as he weighed various other options. Would
this match serve any type of purpose in terms of teaching his students?
Who would be the most appropriate opponent? Ken was a senior student
and could be a logical choice. We all knew-and Sensei did too-that
his wife had just had a baby and that a great deal of Ken's mental
energy was not totally focused on training at this time. He was good
(even on his bad days) but a match like this was bound to be one where
both parties limped away. Ken didn't need that right now and Yamashita
Yamashita's head swivelled along the line of students, weighing each
one for potential, for flaws, like a diamond cutter rooting carefully
around a draw of unfinished stones. The more experienced among us sat,
trying to be totally numb about the situation, not really focusing
on Reilly, listening to the hum of the fluorescents and the faint rumble
of trucks. The newer students sat in various states: the smart ones
were secretly appalled at the prospect; the really dense were excited.
When he called me, I tried to feel nothing. "Professor," Yamashita
said. Ever since they found out I teach in college, the nickname stuck.
It could have been worse. Early on I had worked out at a kendo school
where the Japanese kids simply called me "Big Head."
I bowed and scooted up to the front. In this situation, you sit formally,
facing the sensei, which put me right next to Reilly
This is Dr. Burke," he told Reilly. "I am sure you will find
Reilly jerked his head around to size me up. I looked back; flat eyes,
sitting there like a blue lump with relaxed muscles, no energy given
to the opponent.
You think you want a piece of me, asshole?" Out of the side of his
mouth, like he'd picked it up from old Bogart movies. I swung around-you
could see a slight jerk before he realized what I was up to-and bowed,
saying nothing. Silent. Passive. A shade. Heiho was keeping yourself
Reilly looked back at Sensei. "You must be joking. I'm not fucking
around with this piece of shit."
Yamashita is funny about foul language. He spends his days teaching people
how to do serious harm to others, but he has this real thing about
keeping conversation civil. Part of it's just that Japanese politeness,
but I think that the other part is that he is a man dedicated to an
art that celebrates control of one sort or another, and foul language
strikes him as either the result of a bad vocabulary and poor imagination
or as a lack of mastery over your temper. In either case, this kind
of language is forbidden in his dojo. Reilly may not have known it,
but he had just committed a gross breach of etiquette.
I am sorry, Mr. Reilly. I regret that we cannot accommodate you in your
request for a lesson. You are clearly not ready for any serious training." With
that, Yamashita looked right through him and stood up like he was preparing
to leave the floor.
Wait a minute. . . " Reilly shot up and looked like he was going
to reach for the old man. Which was how I got to wondering about whether
I could pole ax him. I was targeting him for a knuckle strike right below
the ear (I figured with any luck I could dislocate his jaw) but there
was really no need. Yamashita had about reached the limits of his patience.
As Reilly came at him, Yamashita shot in, a smooth blur. There was an
elbow strike in there somewhere before he whipped Reilly around to
break his balance. Then Yamashita was behind him, clinging like a limpet
and bringing Reilly slowly down to the floor. The choke was (as always)
precisely executed: the flow of blood to the brain was disrupted as
he brought pressure to bear on the arteries and Reilly was out cold.
Yamashita stood up and beckoned to Reilly's pals. "Remove him. Do
not come back." Not even breathing hard. They dragged Reilly off
the practice floor and trundled him away.
What a foolish man. An arrogant and violent man." He looked around
at us all, then turned to me. "I am surprised at you Burke. I would
have tried for the jaw dislocation. Work on your reaction time, please."
He glided away and the lesson ended.
About the Author:
John Donohue, Ph.D., is a long time kendo practitioner and a black belt
in Shotokan karate who has studied various other Asian martial arts disciplines
such as judo, aikido, iaido, and taiji over the last 25 years. A nationally
recognized authority of martial arts, he is an Associate Editor of the
Journal of Asian Martial Arts and has also written four books involving
the arts: “Herding The Ox”, “Complete Kendo”, “Deshi:
A Martial Arts Thriller” and “Sensei.” Donahue has
also been a featured speaker at national and international conventions,
as well as on radio and TV. For FightingArts.com he has contributed an
in depth article on kendo. A Ph.D. in Anthropology, Donohue is a Professor
of Social Science and VP for Academic Affairs at D'Youville College in
Buffalo, NY. Previously he was a Professor of Social Science in the Department
of Social Sciences at Medaille College, Buffalo, NY, where he also served
as a tenured professor, teaching anthropology, General Education, and
other courses in both undergraduate and graduate programs. He lives in
Youngstown, New York with his wife, the artist Kathleen Sweeney, and
their two children.
Sensei is available in the FightingArts.com Estore
By John Donohue
(258 Pages, Hardbound)
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