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By John Donohue

Editor's 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 apprehensive.

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 of life.

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 for more.

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 end.
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 my eye.

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 intimidate you.

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 withstand it.

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 bit.

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 knew it.

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 him instructive."

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 in shadow.
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.

This excerpts is reproduced on with permission of the publisher and the author. Excerpt one: Intro To A Thriller. Excerpt two: Hieho.

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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 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 Estore


By John Donohue
(258 Pages, Hardbound)

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