I was lucky enough to be one of Joe Thambu Sensei’s students while studying Aikido, spending 1 month as a live in student with him at his dojo in Melbourne, Australia.
Joe Sensei began training at aged 11 in his Uncle’s dojo in Malaysia. At an early age he was lucky enough to be exposed to martial arts, and come into contact with high level martial artists such as Donn Draeger. After studying with his uncle, Thamby Rajah, he then moved to Australia and after trying other styles of Aikido and finding they didn’t suit him – he set up the first Yoshinkan school.
In 1993 Joe Sensei tested to 5th Dan under Gozo Shioda Kancho – the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido and was both the youngest non-Japanese to test to that level, and the last to be tested by the Yoshinkan founder.
Now an 8th Dan and head of the Aikido Shudokan. Joe Sensei is know for his speed and dynamic Aikido even at 59 years of age. He talks about his history in Aikido, what a functional martial art really is, and the future of Aikido in the 21st Century and why it has such a bad reputation in some circles.
A man I could spend hours talking to about martial arts (while drinking beer), as I say in the interview, if I lived in Australia and trained with him, I would still be practicing Aikido I think! A man that deserves a huge amount of respect, we are honored to have part one of our interview with Joe Thambu Sensei below.
A system of hierarchy is something that the Martial Arts, and especially traditional Martial Arts, are built upon. While the elusive and often coveted Black Belt (gasp, oooh, ahhh) should not be the main goal of training, it is often a useful motivational tool for those who struggle with self-discipline and attending class, especially after the initial high of learning a new Martial Art has worn off. So while hierarchy, or belts and levels can be a fantastic tool within the Martial Arts, there are also some drawbacks which are often overlooked or not address.
Levels or grades can be intimidating for those just beginning in the arts.
I am sure we all remember our first ever martial arts class – walking in to a sea of white pajamas, feeling completely out of place and wondering why the hell you walked through the front door in the first place. Let’s face it. Walking in to a room full of people willingly kicking, punching and throwing each other about, and agreeing to participate when you have no clue what you’re doing – can be a little scary.
Of course, those of us that teach know this and should instantly make the new person feel super welcome. We should let them know there is nothing to worry about and that we won’t go in to full on sparring until at least week two right…?
It can still be a little scary however, and the presence of colored belts or grades adds to this intensity. The black belts are the ones to be avoided at all costs as they are basically ninjas and you can just stand at the side of the class with the other white belts, desperately trying to remember your left and right as a fully grown man or woman. All while doing your best to ensure you don’t make a nasty stain in your beautiful new white gi bottoms…
At no time is this more prevalent than at major seminars. I have been lucky enough to attend a number of seminars with high ranking instructors in various martial arts and often saw the instructors gathered together. Black and brown belts together, and then lower grades together, both in training and socially after.
In training at these events, if you can pluck up the courage to ask a brown or black belt to train with you as a beginner, this can be a big deal, but I remember seeing the disappointment on their face at being paired with a lower grade. The clock watching from them began and you could tell, they just weren’t feeling it. This obviously left me… and I’m sure other beginners, feeling a little dejected! I seemed to be an annoyance and someone holding them back from really achieving the maximum in their training, and this happened on a number of occasions, not just with myself, but with many other lower grades I talked to. Black belts trained with the black belts and the white belts trained together slowly mastering the art of putting one foot in front of the other without falling over from nerves.
This seemed an unspoken rule but saying this I have been to other seminars where the visiting instructor has actively encouraged the senior grades to train with the lower grades for a while, before then training with someone equal in terms of experience. This does however, seem the minority, not the majority.
This – as stated above, also translated to hierarchy off the mats at the socials afterwards. The post training beer at the local boozer and meal would see a similar situation. Instructors and high ranking students sitting on a table together, laughing, joking and drinking. While lower students would often be on a separate table, missing out on the experiences and stories from the high ranking instructor’s years in the arts. It seemed as though this almost had to be earned in a way – an almost VIP to hang around with the cool kids!
Is this the way it should be?
Levels or grades can lead to some delusions of grandeur.
We have all done it and all been there. The new “black belt dickhead”. You’ve just got your black belt, you think you’re the dog’s danglies. You walk into the dojo, chest out, head high, smiling and nodding to all the stupid lower grades that know jack shit.
This could last a day, a week, a month, but at some point – you will realize. You are not the dog’s danglies, your head will go down, your chest will sink in and you will realize you are that dickhead you took the piss out of when you were a white belt. The guy who thinks he knows it all!
For some this can take quite a long time to realize. For others, they have yet to realize…
But in terms of the arts, this can be an issue. As a black belt, you instantly want to start teaching and imparting the knowledge you have acquired. But here’s the thing. It may not be all that good!
Sure you have a black belt. But that just means you have put the hours in and know the techniques/requirements to pass the grade. Oh my friend, the journey is just beginning ad you have such a long way to go until you are ready to impart the knowledge you think you are capable of!
Sure you can help out with some basics, but trying to teach too much too soon can just be more detrimental than anything. You can teach bad habits which then need to be un-learnt by the student. Or, heaven forbid, you teach something that is completely the opposite or in contradiction to what your instructor is trying to convey, be it in a class or seminar.
For some, black belt means you are ready to teach and nearly at the end of your journey, this is completely the wrong attitude and can be a problem with having this hierarchical nature in the martial arts – especially the traditional ones.
At the end of the day, we are all just students
We are all just students of the martial arts at the end of the day, whether you have been training for one month or for 10 years, you still want to just improve yourself and learn more. The best teachers and martial artists are those that continue to learn even though they are considered by many to be at the very top of their game. An excellent example of this can be Guro Dan Inosanto. In an interview done with one of his top students – the legendary Bob Breen in my book Martial Masters Volume 1 – Bob talks about Dan’s day to day routine and how he is constantly on the go and learning new arts, be it in striking or ground such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu!
Hierarchy can sometimes hinder this when we think we have reached the illustrious black belt, we can rest on our laurels and chill. This should be where the training really ramps up, test what you know, evolve it, develop it and make the style uniquely your own – Bruce Lee Style.
How many of us truly do this however, and how many of us simply think we know what we are doing now all due to the fact we now have a different colored bit of cloth around our waste? We all unfortunately have an ego, and we all like it when that ego is massaged, especially on the mats.
The traditional martial arts can be a great place to have your ego massaged as once you reach black belt you are sometimes placed on a pedestal and thought to have more knowledge than others. This is fine until it’s tested and if you can back up the goods, awesome, if not. Your ego may be a little bruised rather than massaged.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a great example here of an art that has adapted more to this hierarchical system through competition. Any newbie walking into a new BJJ class should know that they will be tapped out… a lot. It is part of the process and keeps your ego in check from the get go.
Even at black belt level, competitors still compete or even just roll with their students, and it takes one mistake to be caught in a submission and realize that you are not invincible and some sort of black belt demi-god! Sure you should be tapped out WAY less than a white belt, but it can still happen! Yet how many traditional martial arts have this same mentality where the instructor is shown to be a mere human?!
For me, martial arts are about ego checking and we often tell our students to leave their ego’s at the door when they train. How many instructors follow through with this too however…?
Always interested to hear your thoughts… Let me know!
Here we interview Kenji DuBois Lee, main man responsible for bringing the Jacques Payet Project to life. Jacques Payet is a 7th degree black belt in Yoshinkan Aikido and was live-in student of Yoshinkan founder Gozo Shioda for many years. As a westerner in Japan, Payet Sensei was able to build a close relationship with Shioda Kancho and wasn’t as bound by the rules of the student-teacher relationship and so was able to form a close bond with Kancho Sensei, gaining many insights in to the man and his powerful form of Aikido. Payet Shihan now teaches around the world and is revered by many as one of the top Yoshinkan Instructors in the world. He also recently graded me to 3rd Dan and is a thoroughly nice guy! Here’s the interview!
Hey Kenji thanks for interview, what is your background?
I have been living in Japan for nearly 7 years, making short films for the past 4. I like to consider myself a Self University graduate seeing as I pick up tricks of the trade mainly through online tutorials and real life trial and error. I shoot, write, and edit wedding, promotional, and business videos for a living. I’m happily married to the world’s most amazing woman who brings me happiness everyday. My interests include hanging out with creative action-takers, beaches, mountains, and soccer.
How did the JP Project initially come about?
One day a good friend of mine, Izzy, told me, “Dude, I’m gonna move to Kyoto and dedicate my life to aikido: intensive training 6 hours a day 5 days a week for a year.” After that year, he did it again! Over the years I watched as Izzy transformed.
Physically, he made me feel like a slob for not having a six pack and waking up after sunrise, but he also went through a rather impressive internal transformation. His business boomed, spirituality deepened, and even with the newly acquired bulge on his knee resulting from hours on the tatami mat, he was constantly exploring the boundary of possibility.
Because I was the video man for his business I spent a lot of time filming him, listening to his ideas, discoveries, and interpretations of a purpose-driven life. Purpose – which Izzy seemed to find loads of in the dojo – was taking a stronger grip on my life as well. Inevitably we spent many conversations exploring the overlap of martial arts principles and everyday life.
As you might have guessed by now, Izzy was training at Kyoto’s Mugenjuku Aikido dojo under the instruction of 7th degree instructor Jacques Payet, who, as Izzy pointed out to me in one of these conversations, “has an amazing life story that would inspire the sh*t out of you.”
Thus the stage was set for me to enter the dojo and meet the man himself.
My first time in Kyoto Mugenjuku dojo was for a 5 day shoot where I produced a short film highlighting the dojo’s Kenshusei program. This short film was well received by Jacques Payet and the international community.
A year later, Izzy, Jacques Payet and I sat down for some coffee in a small cafe across the street from the dojo. This was when Jacques Payet told me about his journey of becoming a 7th degree master, and what his hopes are for the future.
We came to the conclusion that film is a very effective tool to reach the masses. With the unforeseen success of the Kenshusei short film, we decided to implement this tool once again, this time to deliver Jacques Payet’s life story. The desired outcome being a wave of inspired and purpose-driven youth across the globe.
What was it that made you think JP would be a great choice for the project?
From my understanding, in aikido there is a push and pull between what I control and what I don’t. Even though the extent of what I control has a limit, if I am committed and effective enough I can use these outside forces and be part of something amazing and far more powerful than anything I could do alone.
This project is the perfect example of such forces combining. The timing, the people involved, the city I moved to, all these outside forces were staring me in the face like, “C’mon man! This opportunity is right here, right now. So what are you gonna do about it?!”
So I committed.
Now as for why I think Jacques Payet would be a great subject for this documentary film project.
Yes, Jacques Payet overcame challenges, accumulated accolades, and gained the respect of the martial arts community around the world. Yet, the even more significant part of this project isn’t exactly his life.
What strikes me is how so many young adults are taking the same journey a young Jacques Payet did and how even more people are stepping into their own journey.
The important thing to note is their journey.
Jacques Payet is blazing an amazing trail but it’s not as if he wants others to follow him. Rather, he wants to see others fully commit to blazing their own trails.
He wants you to feel alive – not just to go through routine, tradition, and necessities – but to truly feel alive, by finding your own path, committing to it, and embracing the discoveries along the way.
In this sense, this documentary project came to be because of the inspirational power Jacques Payet’s journey has, as well as me choosing to step up to my own.
Just after my 3rd Dan test
What do you hope will be achieved through the project?
In a word: empowerment.
Personally, I’m finding so much happiness blazing my own trail in this part of my life right now. I’m 29, well-travelled, blessed with an amazing wife, ridiculously supportive family, and talented friends around the world. When I told them, “Hey, I’m gonna make my first feature length documentary film” I was met with mixed responses. To be completely honest, I had no clue how I’d do it, who’d help me, where I’d get the resources, and I began to hear that all-too-common voice of doubt. I had a long list of reasons to give up – worse yet – not even try.
But as fate would have it, the subject of my very first feature length documentary is an aikido master.
And like any master will say, to master anything requires doing what’s difficult, uncertain, and often unrealistic, just out of reach.
So for me as a filmmaker, I hope to stretch my filmmaking career by learning as much as possible while I take these steps into the unknown. Even though I had been shooting and editing for years before this project started, I had never tried launching a crowdfunding campaign. I had never built a production team. I had never drafted an official request for funds. I had never made a pitch to influencers. I had never spoken with a bona fide producer about confidential private placement memorandum documents. I had never consulted with a campaigning agency. Now, even though we’re still in pre-production, I can happily say I’ve done all of these things and learned so much along the way. Image what I’ll have learned by the time we’re in post-production!
Most importantly, I know that there will always be more to learn. I know this because 7th degree aikido master Jacques Payet told me, “Of course I still learn new things everyday. It’s neverending. It’s for life.”
Even a master continues to learn.
Hence the name of Jacques Payet’s dojo ‘mugenjuku’ which can be translated as ‘never ending training.’ He instills this principle in his students and it is one of the messages I hope to share with the JP audience.
Simply put, whatever you want requires endless effort.
This process – endless effort – uncovers possibilities that are buried within ourselves which surface in the face of adversity. The more and more possibilities come to the surface, the more and more empowered we become.
Jacques Payet personifies this. Ultimately I hope to use his life story as a mirror so the JP audience can start finding possibilities within their own lives.
And if someone was making a documentary of me making this documentary I would hope that audience feel empowered as well! They would watch as an aspiring filmmaker makes his debut feature project about a martial arts master. Unexpectedly the young filmmaker begins to connect martial arts principles to his own life, in turn applying them to filmmaking, and begins blazing a new path in the world of cinema.
See, I wasn’t even able to articulate this a year ago!
How far is the project in development?
We’re in pre-production. We’ve done extensive research on what production level we can take JP to depending on how much monies we raise. We’ve spent even more time writing and editing the story of JP, again, to different degrees depending on the monies raised which will directly influence the scope of the film.
JP has taken multiple forms and been through so many changes since we committed to it back in November 2014. But I firmly believe these changes polished JP into what it is today.
Now we are in the funding phase of the project. Arguably the most important. Undeniably the most suspenseful!
When will the project be released?
I hate this question. lol
Once we finish the funding phase we’ll have a far better estimate of the release date. But I know this is important, especially when we’re receiving monetary contributions from supporters worldwide.
At this point, we are expecting to release in spring 2016.
We’d like to enter JP into film festivals in France, Japan and the United States.
What will the project focus on? Yoshinkan Aikido? Jacques Payet’s life?
The original title of this film was Aikido Is Life. The change was made to JP to put more focus on Jacques Payet and his relationship with Japan.
This film will focus on the overlap between martial arts and life within the context of aikido master Jacques Payet’s
3-decade journey to become a master.
How can people get involved with the project?
Make a contribution to our Indiegogo Campaign!
Rub elbows with big-timer producers? Contact us!
Ask 5 friends to pitch in on a group contribution!
Are you a musical genie who can whip up amazing scores for film? Contact us!
Become a sponsor by supplying our production team with transportation in Japan and/or Reunion Island!
Got access to gear in Japan and/or Reunion Island? Contact us!
Speak French, Japanese, and/or Russian and want to build up your resume as a translator? Contact us!
Got a private jet with room for a few filmmakers? Contact us!
Wanna support JP but not by contributing money? Contact us!
Know someone somewhere who should be involved in JP? Contact them!
Where can we keep up to date with the latest news regarding the project?
The best place is over at the JP Indiegogo Campaign page: igg.me/at/jp-film
You can also keep up with us on our social media outlets listed below.
Nearly a New Year! What are your goals for 2015? I have a few and to train more is one of them. Due to injuries and work commitments, training time has been tricky the past few months, but 2015 I’m back on it! Here’s 5 ways that I personally am going to increase my training time!
#5 – Surround yourself with like minded people!
Find training partners and people around you that have the same goals! I want to find a gym buddy in the new year to push me to go more, as well as just making it more fun when you’re with someone, pushing each other to push the extra rep, or increase the cardio time! The same with martial arts training, find people who want to train more and really progress in 2015, people looking for the next grading, or people wanting to instruct or attend more seminars. Surround yourself with people who want to get more involved and feed off that!
#4 – Train in AND out of the dojo!
Training at the dojo is easy. Once you’re there you train, then you leave and wait until the next class. Why? Why not go home and research the techniques, watch some YouTube videos of techniques, or demonstrations by your favorite martial artists! Watch an awesome movie like The Big Boss and get your martial arts fix that way! Buy books on the subject and read up, or read online articles and share and contribute to the discussion! Don’t just go train and leave, do your homework and a little bit extra!
#3 – Get yourself a decent training partner!
I’ve said before that a great training partner can make the world of difference when training and this is true! Grab yourself a great training partner in the New Year and push each other to do better, improve and work harder! You’ll be more dedicated to going to training, and your training time while you are there will improve dramatically!
#2 – Get inspired!
We all work better and train harder when we have something to train towards. Find someone that inspires you in your training, whether it be someone more experienced that you at your school, or a Sensei or teacher, and try and become more like them in your martial arts training! Get inspired and get training 🙂
Training is fun! Martial arts are fun! Yes they serve a purpose, can be hard, and can make you hate the art you do, but in the end if you aren’t enjoying yourself whats the point? This isn’t a job, you don’t have to do it, you dictate the training. Training you enjoy will make you more receptive to learning, as well as leaving you wanting more and eagerly awaiting the next class. So find a decent art, a decent school and ENJOY!!
For many studying the martial arts, black belt is the goal to work towards, and even those who have little interest or knowledge of martial arts have some idea of what black belt means. If I am speaking to someone new and the topic of my training comes up, inevitably the first question that is asked is whether I have a black belt or not. What does it really mean to be a black belt however?
When people learn you have the rank of black belt in one form of martial art or another, there is the general thinking that you can handle yourself well in a fight, and are in fairly good physical condition. This may well be the case, yet the idea of the black belt is more than this. The black belt means simply that you have not given up, you have worked hard and acquired a certain level of skill in the chosen art. I remember being told once that a high percentage of people stop doing martial arts after achieving black belt, as for them, the goal has been reached. They have the certificate, they have the black belt, and they have the right to say they are black belt. For them the goal has been reached. This is the wrong way to look at it in my opinion however. Black belt is simply the second step on a very large flight of stairs! The first step is making the decision to study a particular martial art, choosing to go up the grades and progress which in itself can take any number of years. Black belt is simply the second step, recognizing some technical ability, but recognizing more than you continue to come to class, work hard and seek to improve yourself. Black belt is not the destination, it is just one pit stop on the very long journey…
With the rank of black belt comes responsibility as well. You are there to set an example to other students who may well wish to achieve their black belt one day. You may start instructing and imparting the knowledge that has been acquired over the years studying your martial art. All this comes with responsibility to represent your art, and to set the tone for other lower graded students.
The black belt itself means very little, but it signifies that perhaps you are ready to study the art in more detail, and acknowledges the hard work and effort put into your training. As already said, it is just one stop on a very long journey :). An interesting discussion with more detail on this can be found here
As always thanks for reading and feel free to get in touch with any topics you’d like to see discussed via the comment section below or at firstname.lastname@example.org