Thoughts on Identity Formation & Time Compression Diseconomies

January 14th, 2011

As a scholar, I have been working on a paper that uses professional sports as a research context. In reviewing the literature during the writing stage, I came across a fascinating paper entitled, “Identity in Sport Subcultures” by Peter Donnelly and Kevin Young in the Sociology of Sport Journal. While the paper has no mention of martial arts, it did contain some interesting commentary that I would like to share, and then reframe in terms of participation in the Bujinkan.

The paragraph of interest is as follows:

“As we have noted, in order to pay homage to the subculture’s focal concerns (Miller, 1958), some novices will undergo anticipatory socialization procedures. That is, they will vicariously perform roles in various situations that they assume are expected of them. For example, a typical trait of novice climbers is to want to display to both climbers and nonclimbers that they are now climbers. This is part of the first stage of identity construction. Display involves wearing climbing clothes and boots in nonclimbing settings, carrying equipment, books, and magazines about climbing as conspicuously as possible, and turning the conversation to climbing as often as possible. Novices have even been seen wearing the extremely uncomfortable boots designed specifically for rock climbing (removed immediately upon completion of a climb by veterans) in a number of nonclimbing situations such as attending class or in a bar. While they may claim to be breaking in the boots, such novices are invariably pleased that one has recognized their boots, thereby recognizing them as a fellow climber. In fact, the purpose of the display is to indicate to nonclimbers that one is now different, and to signal to other climbers that one is now a fellow member and may be approached as such. Of course, what such display actually does is indicate to climbers that one is a novice.” (pp.229-230)

As practitioners, we have all seen such novices running around in the Bujinkan. With their wide eyes and hunger to learn, they are like puppy dogs excited that the Bujinkan world even exists in the first place. Speaking frankly, when I have observed this novice behavior in the past, I dismissed it as the individuals being either dorks or too inexperienced to know better.

What’s intriguing about the description of the novice rock climbers is that it conjures images not just of newbie whitebelts, but also of newly minted Shodan, newly minted Godan, and newly minted Judan in the Bujinkan. Clearly, having reached the levels of Shodan, Godan and Judan, these individuals are not newbies to the art, and they certainly should not be too inexperienced to know better. Yet, there they are….

And their existence always kinda bothered me. Be it an individual who has business cards printed the day of passing his Godan test in order to distribute widely to those in Japan (yes, this happened), or the individual who alters his dojo website within days of being given a Judan even before getting home from Japan (again, yes, this really happened), these activities always left me puzzled. “Perhaps they are just dorks” was the only rationale I could find the behavior.

I had never even considered the role such activities play in the construction of one’s own identity, both as a martial artist and as a member of the Bujinkan organization.

The Donnelly and Young paper continues:

“As novices become more experienced and more secure in their identity as climbers, their need for display will decrease, and they will gradually become conscious that such behavior is not “cool.” Overt display is a rookie error that highlights the subcultural values of coolness and understatement. While display is expected from novices, it may be ridiculed as the individual becomes more experienced. Normally, the more obvious signs of display are removed-ropes are removed from the outside to the inside of a backpack, climbing boots are removed and more comfortable shoes worn when not climbing, and conversations with other climbers turn to the subject more naturally. Recognition of other climbers becomes more subtle. Without quite realizing it, the individual begins to notice the rolled-up magazine, the guidebook in the hip pocket, and the cuts and scars on an individual’s hands that could only have come from climbing rock.” (p.230)

In the Bujinkan, it is not rolled-up magazines and climbing scars that indicate experience, it is the quality of one’s Budo–the shape of the space created by the individual, the subtle adjustments in structure that lead to big changes in the uke‘s body, and the facility with which the individual can see the movement of the teacher and replicate its principals. The more mature one becomes in the art, the better the movement.

This brings me to an important theory of learning that also comes from the literature, this time from scholarship on firms. Back in 1989, Ingemar Dierickx and Karel Cool wrote one of the most important papers in the history of management scholarship, entitled, “Asset Stock Accumulation and Sustainability of Competitive Advantage.” As a measure of its importance, this eight-page paper has received almost 4,500 citations from scholars around the world to date.

There were many insights in this paper but the most relevant for a martial arts context is the idea of “time compression diseconomies.” Given the paper’s management audience, the concept was framed around corporate R&D. Dierickx and Cool wrote,

“In the case of R&D, the presence of time compression diseconomies implies that maintaining a given rate of R&D spending over a particular time interval produces a larger increment to the stock of R&D know-how than maintaining twice this rate of R&D spending over half the time interval.” (p.1507)

Said differently, if you invest X over Y number of months to generate Z amount of knowledge, investing 2X over half the number of months will not lead to Z amount of knowledge.

The implications of time compression diseconomies on your budo are profound. Doubling your training time over half the time will not yield the same knowledge creation as putting in your time. You see, some things in the world are “flows” that can be purchased or received, changing instantaneously whether you “have” them or not (e.g., a belt to tie around your waist, a drawing from Soke to hang on the wall, and, yes, even a new rank such as Shodan, a Godan or a Judan). Other things, however, are “stocks” that take time to build up and cannot be rushed; budo is a “stock” not a “flow.” And there is a real danger when students of budo interpret their budo progression as a series of flows (i.e., ranks that pour in), rather than the stock that it is.

People who perceive their budo as flows, and receive those flows in an overall shorter time period than those who take their time, often become disenchanted with their training and with their place in the art (i.e, their identity). They say things like, “I’m X rank and I am shocked that I don’t know Y.” This is because they view their budo as a flow and have failed to recognize that time compression diseconomies have made it impossible for their budo to reflect the flows received to date. As a good friend of mine likes to say, “You can never go back.” He is referring, of course, to people who rush to fill their cup from the flows (i.e., rushing to take the Godan test) and who neglect the fact that they lack the proper gestation time to accumulate stock in the art. If you take rank flows too quickly, it is not uncommon that as your time in the art lengthens, you will begin to feel that your (overflowing) flows do not match your (paltry) stocks. And it is at this point when people start looking elsewhere, rather than looking inside themselves, for the cause of their “flow-stock” mismatch.

I have watched a few people go to Japan every year and return with a new rank. They tell me, “It is rude to turn down a rank.” But they also neglect to mention that they are always asked one question before they are promoted. That question is always the same: “What is your rank?” If previous experience with this question has always led to a promotion in rank, and if you have reflected on your stock of budo and personally do not feel that you should be receiving any flows at that time, why not answer the rank question as a Japanese person might–by avoiding the question all together? A simple, “High enough for now” should suffice and you will have communicated your own understanding of your own budo stock at that moment in time in light of a potential new flow. Soke will be pleased that you see where you are in your own understanding of budo, and will simply continue on….

And hopefully you will, too. Remember: To be successful in budo, you need to know where you are along the path. Do not confuse flows for stocks, and that should help you see where you are and where you need to go.


The Memoro Interviews

December 5th, 2010

I went looking for information about the Daikomyosai on Joji Ohashi’s website and came across some links to an incredible series of interviews with Hatsumi-sensei on Memoro, a Japanese oral history website. It is unfortunate that these interviews are all in Japanese because some of the things that Hatsumi-sensei is discussing are quite personal in nature and deserve a broader audience.


For example, in the first of the series, when asked about what drew him to martial arts, Hatsumi-sensei reflects on the fact that his father used to get violent around the home, and that out of necessity, Hatsumi-sensei had to learn to take away any objects that his father might be swinging about and to be able to “put him to sleep.” Wow! That is not normally what one talks about on camera to be shown to the world…and preserved for prosperity. I am certain that if the same interviews had happened thirty years ago, the quality of the answers would have been vastly different.

It is clear that Hatsumi-sensei took this interview very seriously. Hatsumi-sensei is reflecting on the lessons of his rich life; the honesty of his answers is humbling. I hope that someone has time to provide a more detailed translation at some point in the future.

Here are the various videos:

Part 1: Being Drawn to Martial Arts

Part 2: Meeting Takamatsu-sensei

Part 3: Spreading Martial Arts Globally

Part 4: Lessons for the Next Generation

Part 5: Budo and Art

Part 6: Thoughts on the War

Part 7: Martial Arts and Animals


Luke Molitor Seminar (May 15-16, 2010)

May 26th, 2010

Luke Molitor
Photo by Nancy Kelly

This last weekend (May 15-16), the Muzosa Dojo was kind enough to bring Luke Molitor back to NYC for Part II of his wonderful sword seminar series.

I will begin by saying that I am biased toward Luke; we used to the knock the crap outta each other during training at both Nagato Dojo and Hatsumi-sensei’s training. He’s a good friend.

He also happens to be a terrific budoka and the most skilled swordsman in the Bujinkan among the non-Japanese, in my opinion. Luke has gotten frighteningly good at sword, and there are many lessons to be had in that….

First, Luke’s skill did not improve because he was living in Japan. It improved because he actually practiced once back in America what his teachers had shown him in Japan. It is clear that Luke does not just do a “Back from Japan” seminar one week and then return to doing what he was doing before his Japan trip. There is no way Luke could have gotten as good as he has gotten by following that prescription.

I knew Luke’s budo very well when I left Japan in 2000. I had felt his shuto many a time. His time spent with the sword has added a new dimension to his budo, and I am extremely happy to see that progress.

Luke could always generate power, my jaw recalls fondly. But the way he generates power today is in a totally different league. Luke owes that growth to his work with the sword, in my opinion.

Second, everyone in the Bujinkan should attend one of these seminars with Luke. I don’t care who you are, how many years you have been practicing, or how good you think you are. There is no one in the Bujinkan who could not learn something from Luke in this seminar. At the urging of his students, Luke has broken down some of the key lessons of swordwork within the Bujinkan, and he basically serves those lessons on an all-you-can-eat platter of Tasty Budo. Do your best to attend one of these seminars.

Third, just because you attend does not mean that you will “get it” during that seminar. In fact, most of the people in attendance really had no idea what Luke was doing. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That means there is still room for growth! And that is, after all, the reason you are attending the seminar in the first place.

At one point during the seminar, one of the practitioners behind me was swinging his sword quite forcefully. I turned to him quizzically, wondering what was up. He looked at me and said, “I’m trying to make the sword whistle like Luke.” To which I responded, “You won’t be able to make it whistle for at least another year. Get the mechanics instead first.” And that presumed that the practitioner was actually going to practice religiously what Luke was showing that day.

The last time that Luke was in town (for Part I of his seminar series last summer), our dojo spent six straight weeks working on what Luke had shown.

  • “What was the structure of the wrist?”
  • “How did he shift his knees?”
  • “Where did the sword stop?”
  • “Does anyone remember what happened to his elbows when he did this?”

It was a collective effort to try to reconstruct the lessons of the seminar, and we relied on the fact that each person was going to take away part of the puzzle and together we might be able to reassemble it. In the end, we worked on the material until we came to a point where we could not go any further without starting to make stuff up. When you get to that point, it’s best to simply stop…and to get more on which to work from the teacher—in this case, Luke, who had been scheduled to return to NYC later that summer, but ended up having to cancel.

Still, those six weeks were a worthwhile investment, as we were able to follow along this time around with a bit more ease. We plan to work on the newest material in a similar fashion again. Hopefully, we can improve by the next time Luke hits the Big Apple.

Thanks for a great seminar, Luke! We look forward to the third installment next time around.