INTERVIEW WITH JOHN VIOL SHIHAN
By S. Patterson Ph.D
I first met Viol Shihan in 2005 when he came to Michigan to give two seminars to the local community of those studying the martial arts and sciences. I was studying Aikido at the time after spending nearly 13 years in karate, mostly in dojo operating under JKA affiliated or descendant organizations. Additionally, I had just begun training in Toyama Ryu Iaido as well with a small group of students from the Aikido program who, like me, were seeking to branch out in their own martial studies.
What I learned in those two seminars permanently changed the way I saw all martial training. The following year I began training in sogobujutsu with one of Viol Sensei’s groups in Michigan, effectively bringing together all the disparate elements of my past training around an effective, unified, and valid core. Far from invalidating the previous 13 years of training, however, the last two have instead deepened and expanded them. Old mysteries have dissolved (Why do we do that move in that kata in that sequence?) and newer and deeper ones have taken their place (How many things can I do with just the motions involved in a single stroke of a sword? Do I really know how to use my sword if I don’t know them all?). Beginning training in sogobujutsu after spending so many years in single arts is like realizing for the first time that what one thought was just a table with a few magazines on it is actually a collegiate library. In the last two years I have gained not only a new appreciation not only for what I have done in the past, but for how much more there is to martial study over what I used to see as the horizon. No verbal description can really do the experience justice, however.
The proof is on the dojo floor.
On the occasion of Viol Shihan’s 40th anniversary in martial sciences training I asked him if he might share some reflections about his journey and about martial sciences in general for the benefit of those of us who train in sogobujutsu and for the general public. He very graciously consented. The result is this interview.
S. Patterson: I’d like to begin by thanking you for doing the interview and by congratulating you on your 40th year of training.
John Viol: Thank you.
S. Patterson: You trained for many years in Japan. How long were you there and where did you train?
John Viol: I went to Japan in 1977. I stayed as long as possible and returned to the U.S. only when necessary. Sometimes I went to Korea or other countries for short periods but went back to Japan as quickly as I could. I still have a residence, family, friends, and a Dojo in Japan, but most of my time is now spent in the U.S.
Our primary training bases and Honbu Dojo in Japan are on the northern coast of Honshu. Much of our training took place on and around the shoreline of the Sea of Japan. Our teachers also liked to conduct training in and around Hachimantai National Park. A great deal of training occurred on several military bases. Training in Sogobujutsu involves travelling to train with the highest living sources available in a particular discipline so we also trained at many of the most eminent and historical martial training sites throughout Japan and Okinawa. Our teachers saw to it that we visited and trained at many famous battlegrounds around the country.
S. Patterson: What was it that first drew you to Japan to study the martial arts?
John Viol: My primary martial science teachers were Japanese. After training with them for several years in the U.S., they invited me to return with them to Japan for more specialized advanced training, and I accepted. I would like to clarify the fact that I was initially exposed to the martial sciences, not the martial "arts". I went to Japan specifically to train in the martial sciences, not the martial arts.
S. Patterson: Your experiences in Japan encompassed a lot of diversity over the years, but with what teacher(s)/ryuha did you spend the most time?
John Viol: I spent the most time with my original and primary teachers Hoshina Sensei, Takenaka Sensei, and Takumi Sensei in Sogobujutsu at our main training bases and Honbu Dojo.
S. Patterson: You were an uchi deshi three times. With what teachers did you live, and what ryuha did you study each time?
John Viol: My study and training was predominately in Sogobujutsu at the main training bases under the mentoring of my primary teachers. Who else I lived and trained with depended on which Uchideshi division I was serving in at the time, what training stage of the curriculum I was at, and in what part of Japan I was sent to live.
S. Patterson: Can you describe what those times were like? (e.g. what a typical day of training would have been like, the instructional styles, etc.)
John Viol: A typical day consisted of non stop diversified training, study, and routine tasks. Training sessions were very classical and professional. Sessions were conducted at several different locations, mostly outdoors, by several teachers, instructors, specialists, and assistants. Instructional styles were very Spartan and consistent due to following the guidelines of the Sogobujutsu curriculum. Training sessions were optimized by eliminating non productive actions and activities that are common in most amateur martial arts practice routines. The main training focus was always on engagement and practical applications in realistic environments. We simply spent a great deal of time fighting strategically which meant consolidating the weaponry, percussion, and grappling applications into strategic fighting situations. Everything we did was task or goal oriented, so we worked until we achieved our objectives.
Uchideshi training was not only physical. No day in the life of any Uchideshi was without the shared routine tasks of cleaning, laundry, cooking, and constant detailed preparation for more training. Like any special forging process, training was often brutal, harsh, taxing, demanding, overwhelming, and painful - just the way it should be, and just the way I like it. Training was always balanced with study of Hyoho / Heiho, historical truths, and in my case, a lot of Bunkakoryu - cultural interchange. I was not a native of Japan so my training was supplemented with lessons in language, history, etiquette, local and national customs, fine arts, music, sports, and general indigenous education. I was encouraged to volunteer helping and working at the homes and shops of the local residents, some of whom I lived with at times. I was also fortunate to live in some Temples. I spent some time sitting in on classes at local schools and was frequently asked for English related lessons. All the local community members helped me with my cultural education. No matter what activities I engaged in, everything was meant to increase my comprehension and appreciation of the martial sciences. I know for sure that without a deep understanding of the culture, there is no way the physical training would have been as meaningful.
S. Patterson: You were training in traditional arts in Japan at a time when it was relatively rare for non-Japanese to do so, especially as an uchi deshi. Can you give us a sense of what that was like?
John Viol: Aside from some initial cultural misconceptions on my part, my experiences were the same as all the other Uchideshi - very strict, very precise, very strategic, and extremely disciplined. I was not the first non-Japanese to serve in the program. I did not know it was rare at the time and no one told me it was but I do believe the cultural exchange enhanced the experience for everyone.
S. Patterson: How did your experiences as an uchi deshi help to shape your own outlook both as a practitioner and as an instructor?
John Viol: As a trainee, my outlook got wider, as an instructor my outlook got deeper. Uchideshi are called the shadows of the light and / or moonshadow warriors. They have the advantage of being connected to and learning both the Omote (surface / light) and Ura (underside / shadow) of the martial science training process. Uchideshi physical training is hard core and extreme, but Uchideshi are also well versed in the essential behind the scenes operations of the classical martial sciences curriculum. This unique insiders' perspective shapes a lot more than your outlook and can only be achieved by those who serve as an Uchideshi.
S. Patterson: When and where did you begin teaching and what were you teaching when you started?
John Viol: I was assigned instructional tasks shortly after arriving in Japan. It is one of the responsibilities of the Uchideshi training and learning process. I was scheduled in with the rest of the specialists to instruct at the home bases. I provided instruction in the core fundamentals of Sogobujutsu to newcomers which always commences with base / foundation weaponry.
S. Patterson: When did you return to the United States, and why?
John Viol: I returned to the U.S in the late 1990's. While living in Kyoto, my wife passed away after a very long struggle with cancer. Shortly thereafter, I decided that it would be best to return home to the U.S. to raise our child.
S. Patterson: What led you to start the United States branch of the Seishinkan at the particular time and place you did?
John Viol: It was mandated that I would run programs in the U.S. concurrently with my training in Japan but my home base was in Japan. International travel was not fun but was necessary. Northwest Airlines had a hub at Metro Airport which provided regular flights to Japan so I took up residence in Michigan for travel convenience. Shortly after I got set up in Michigan I went back to Japan to settle in again.
While I was in Japan, several Michigan organizations kept sending many requests to many groups and organizations in Japan, looking for a qualified instructor for their martial and cultural programs. Word came down the pipeline to us because our Dojo was very well known and respected and everybody knew I had recently taken up residence in Michigan. Things ricocheted around for a while but always came back to us so I was commissioned for the job and sent back to Michigan temporarily to set things up.
S. Patterson: Where did the name “Seishinkan” come from?
John Viol: The name Seishinkan came from a very thorough dissertation I did in Japan on the interpretation of Seishin. Sei = to cleanse or purify, Shin = heart and / or mind, Seishinkan = The place you go to cleanse and purify your heart and mind. Seishin was originally inspired by one of the ancient Kanban at our Honbu Dojo. It read, Senshin, which is similar in meaning to Seishin but from much older origins. Senshin, roughly means; to wash, cleanse or purify the heart, mind, spirit, soul etc.
S. Patterson: Over the years the Seishinkan has sort of grown into an organization of its own. Even though the “brick and mortar” incarnation of the U.S. Seishinkan no longer exists, many of your American graduates--many of whom now teach in their own programs--remain in contact with you and with one another as a sort of martial sciences research group. That’s an uncommon phenomenon in the U.S.. What is it, in your opinion, that makes the Seishinkan so vital and persisting an entity over time?
John Viol: Truth and purity.
S. Patterson: Many of those we’re talking about are graduates of the Instructor Training Program (ITP). Could you say a few words about how and why ITP come to be?
John Viol: ITP is a standard and integral part of the classical Menkyosei licensure curriculum. Legitimacy cannot be obtained in any martial activity without going through the strategic instructor training programs. It was my goal to carry on the tradition of making sure that the credentials for all Seishinkan staff members were validated by earning actual licenses to instruct and teach martial programs.
S. Patterson: To return more specifically to Seishinryu, I’ve often heard it said that each ryuha has its own distinct “personality” or character that persists over time. I’d like to ask about the “personality”, if you will, of Seishinryu. In a few words, what is the “personality” or character of Seishinryu?
John Viol: Spartan simplicity and practical combat effectiveness.
S. Patterson: What are the origins of that personality—from what elements in your martial background does it come? Does it represent one particular element more than any other?
John Viol: The elements of Shinbu (Shin = true, bu = martial) and Junbu (Jun = pure, bu = martial) applied to the logic and consistency of the martial sciences.
S. Patterson: Sensei, you often talk to us about the difference between martial arts and martial science. Could you say a few words about that difference now, or maybe give an example of how the two approaches are different?
John Viol: The difference is that martial sciences have genuine potency whereas martial arts are a much diluted form of martial reality. One of the primary differences in the two approaches is in the emphasis that is placed on the urgency and amount of time it takes for the trainee to become truly proficient. The focus for martial science training is totally devoted to making sure the trainee is truly combat ready in the shortest possible time without sacrificing the integrity and quality of the training. This approach saves lives.
The martial arts approach on the other hand, places much less emphasis on students actually becoming effective with the techniques they learn. The tendency in the martial arts seems to be on drawing things out to the point where proficiency is no longer a consideration and may never really be obtained. This approach provides only an artificial sense of competence.
S. Patterson: As you know, there’s an ongoing debate among those who study and write about koryu about whether they are dynamic entities that change over time or whether they’re a sort of cultural artifact to be preserved in as fixed and as historically intact a form as possible. What would your position be on that question?
John Viol: My position would be mokuteki hon ii - focus on the objective. Stop debating and go back to training, the way it was before the debating - the original core-ryu.
S. Patterson: Do you think that a martial arts-based perspective would answer that question any differently than a martial science-based perspective?
John Viol: Absolutely.
S. Patterson: Another thing you often tell us, Sensei, is that the martial science perspective is a sogobujutsu perspective. Could you give a brief explanation of what that means for the readers?
John Viol: What that means is that Sogobujutsu requires proof. Martial sciences are based on facts that have actually been validated through proper and thorough testing. Similarly, Sogobujutsu is based on the results of actual battleground encounters and information from reliable first hand accounts. The information gathered from those results overwhelmingly prove that warriors cannot ever rely on one thing or one way to be victorious.
Sogobujutsu knows that there are only three warrior fighting elements - weaponry, percussion, and grappling. These three fighting elements are best represented by Borromean rings - three rings that are connected in such a way that together they provide strength in unity. Removing any one ring severs all connections and everything else fails. Remember, the most important pieces in a puzzle are the ones that are missing. When single martial arts disciplines ("styles") came into being, the essential martial connections were severed and a major breakdown began. The action is much like severing the human spine with all its vital connections - once severed, repair is almost impossible.
The absolute and seamless consolidation of weaponry, percussion, and grappling into a dynamic singularity is the core of Sogobujutsu. Frankly, it defies all logic to approach it any other way. Readers of this interview should not make the mistake in thinking that Sogobujutsu simply mixes or combines the three fighting elements in the curious and random way that one typically finds in the so-called “mixed” martial arts. Sogobujutsu employs a profoundly sophisticated and specialized scientific methodology to seamlessly meld them. A Martial arts perspective would lack the necessary depth of comprehension to replicate the Sogobujutsu process.
S. Patterson: It’s safe to say that the vast majority of people who train these days are training in one discipline, for instance karate or aikido, only. What do you think the particular benefits of sogobujutsu training are, as opposed to training in a single discipline?
John Viol: The benefits of Sogobujutsu training are the infinite choices and opportunities it provides for serious martial science trainees. Success in all things martial and in battle is about effective chaos management. Warriors must be able to constantly adapt, improvise, and overcome. This can only be accomplished if the warrior training is well rounded so as to provide the necessary state of awareness and preparedness that is critical for survival in real combat.
Training in a single discipline is simply naive, unbalanced, illogical, and can be potentially hazardous to the practitioner. Devotion to a single or even more than one martial art, or worse, trying to mix or combine them, will only impose severe limitations, restrictions and even more confusion on the practitioner. It will also remove almost all of the essential choices that could increase the odds of survival in an actual battle. Sogobujutsu encourages specialization but only after proper preparation. The tendency for most people to learn martial arts or to train in a single discipline is the probable cause for the current bewildered state of the martial arts and why so many have gone astray.
S. Patterson: After forty years of training, is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to do? What’s in the future for you?
John Viol: I still have many goals to achieve and countless martial projects in the works. The future for me looks quite brilliant. I am looking forward to it more than any other point in my career. I am past all the phases of training at it and am now able to just live it. I want to collaborate with more outstanding individuals. I invite anyone sincere to work with me, that is, if they are willing to do what it takes, and can go the distance. I am also looking for some good agents / representatives to help with the preservation and promotion of Sogobujutsu and martial science related events. I would like to help more serious martial practitioners with their training, curriculum, Dojo, cultural studies etc.
S. Patterson: Do you have any advice for those who may be beginning their own training?
John Viol: Yes. Choose martial sciences and cut through all the madness. Be well grounded, be well rounded, be well balanced, logical, and thorough. Seek truth and purity in all things martial. Learn from the highest legitimate authorities - those with a valid license, not a black belt. Let form follow function, and just train.
S. Patterson: I’d like to thank you, Sensei, for granting this interview. Once again, congratulations on your 40 year anniversary in the martial sciences.About John Viol Shihan
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