Physical Training May 2012
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From the Teacher's Corner 21:
Street Cred

copyright © 2012 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.


I've always disliked lifers, and lifers have always controlled the Marine Corps. Maybe that's the definition of institutionalization: Those in power become lifers.

Institutionalization. That's what lifers are all about. They have to have an institution to exist. Their drive to institutionalize is probably based in their desire to belong. They need a creed, a set of rules, or a bible to guide them. Lifers do not exist outside their institutions. They shape themselves into some mold, and as time goes on the original purpose of the conformity loses significance. Form instead of content. Symbols instead of meaning.


Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man: Reflections of a Khe Sanh Vet

Ernest Spencer


I was reading a Vietnam memoir from soldiers in the field and when I read these words, I found myself nodding in agreement. Yes, lifers exist, even in martial arts. Lifers are those types that need to belong to an association or a group. They need the comfort and security of having an organization behind them. They operate well when backed up by a set of rules and having the name of an organization behind them.

I will relate to you a story I heard from a fellow martial arts colleague of mine. He related this story to me once he heard from me about what I had read from that Ernest Spencer book about Lifers. He told me that he knew of such a case. Here’s how the story went. There was a martial arts teacher who had been following a certain style for quite a while. By this, he meant training in this style in Japan and also teaching this style in his home country.

Eventually, a new headmaster took over the style and changed the style. The teacher gradually found that he didn’t fit in anymore. The new style didn’t fit him and he didn’t fit the new style. He looked around and found another master teacher from another style whom he admired, and began training with him. He was now caught between two worlds. His old world and his new world. He told his top students about his disillusionment with his old world and that he was leaning towards a shift to his new world. But he felt that he still owed it to some of his old students to teach the old style while for others he would start them on the new style. Some of his top students agreed with his decision to take a new journey. Change is good for the soul sometimes.

What he didn’t know was that some of his other top students had vested interests in sticking with the old world; they were on the list to be eventually ranked in that style, and this new shift in direction meant the destruction of all their dreams of glory and ambition. This new direction put their relationships with other sempais and teachers in that organization in jeopardy. They were in danger of being cast out, of losing their position in the organization.

One student in particular opposed his teacher’s decision openly. We are not going to help you to hide this decision from the headmaster, pretending everything is as usual. You are betraying your teacher and the organization. We will not be a party to this and we will not follow you in this. If you are going to do this, you’ll have to do it on your own. Eventually, this disgruntled senior student wrote a letter to the headmaster to inform him of his teacher’s intentions and disloyalty.

Wow, a shocking story. This one student was a lifer. Good talker, good at schmoozing and saying the right things, repeating the company line. Average martial artist in terms of skill and ability. But he could talk the talk. And he was good at maneuvering and jockeying for position in the dojo hierarchy, like a worm that slithers along, finding cracks to hide in, surviving and infiltrating the infrastructure. Problem was all his colleagues hated him since he was always very quick to put others down to cement his position in the dojo. I heard that it got to the point where no one wanted to practice with him since any practice was his chance to show you what you didn’t know so that he would impress upon you that he was better than you.

Well, this lifer eventually got ranked and runs his own dojo now. So he has achieved his primary ambition. But if you look at the skill of his students compared to other students from other affiliated dojos within the same organization, their skill is nowhere close. But they pay obeisance well and are overly ostentatious in their displays of respect to their sensei and their sempais, to the point where it seems unnatural. But that’s what they have been trained to do. Form over substance. Symbols instead of meaning. Ernest Spencer is right. It’s unfortunate. He’s got the rank but his skill level and knowledge of the art is far below others of similar rank. But he’s got the official status now. Form over substance. Symbols instead of meaning.

The other senseis and students from the other dojos don’t say anything but I have heard (on the street) that he is not held in high esteem. This lifer’s got the status symbol now but he still doesn’t have street credibility. Everyone knows it but nobody’s saying nothing. There are many ways one can get a piece of paper.

Here’s another excerpt from another Vietnam memoir:


General Karsch and Colonel Bain came out to the perimeter fairly often, and it was interesting to see the contrast in these two officers. The colonel looked, and was, every inch a field marine, a brusque, hulking man, with a face that managed to be ugly and attractive at the same time. His nose, banged up and too big, the seamed flesh and hard, worn eyes told more about where he had been than the words in his service record book and the ribbons on his chest. It was an ugly face, but it had the dignity that is conferred upon those who have suffered the bodily and emotional aches of war. The colonel had paid his dues under fire, and so belonged to that ancient brotherhood to which no amount of money, social pedigrees, or political connections can gain a man admittance.

The tall but paunchy brigadier (general) was another matter. He affected dash by wearing a green ascot with his starched battle jacket. His boots and the stars on his collar gleamed, and a kite-tail of staff officers trailed behind him when he toured the perimeter. The general made some attempts at talking man-to-man to us during his outgoings, but he could never quite bring it off. Once, he came to my platoon command post while I was shaving out of my helmet. As I started to wipe the lather off my face, the elegant figure, all starch and sharp creases, waved his hand deferentially. “No need for that, lieutenant,” he said. “Keeping clean in the field. I like to see that. Carry on.” I carried on, struck by the insincere friendliness in his voice, like the voice of a campaigning politician.


A Rumor of War

Philip Caputo


Here’s another story.

I know of two 5th dans. One is a budo superstar. The other a lifer with average martial arts ability. The budo superstar far outclasses the lifer in terms of skill and knowledge of the art. This guy’s like Jean-Claude Van Damme: he’s got the looks, he’s got the body, he’s got the moves, he has the tournament experience, he’s got everything. But the lifer is pretty mediocre. But I’ll give it to him, he has a way of surviving and getting narrowly promoted. Everyone respects the budo superstar because he earns their respect with his awesome abilities and magnetic personality. He is definitely the perfect role model for the younger generation. The lifer knows about the art too but the skill is glaringly lacking. But he is good at the business-side of the art and helps the headmaster a lot with translation and administering the various affiliated dojos overseas. It’s almost to the point where the headmaster cannot do it without the aid of the lifer. The lifer has the ear of the headmaster, the budo superstar does not. But in a brochure or on a website, they are listed as the same rank and so many people would assume that they are both equal in terms of knowledge and ability. But they’re not. What’s even more disconcerting is that some students (who do not know the difference) will come to follow the lifer and say he’s the best sensei they’ve ever had. It’s sad but true.


I understand perfectly what those men might be thinking. Marines follow; they don't mind being led. But they sure as shit don't want a wet-dream leading them. They don't like suck-ass lifers, but they like jerk-offs even less.


Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man: Reflections of a Khe Sanh Vet

Ernest Spencer


I can totally agree with this guy. When you think of the Marines, you think of the tough, the brave. And being led by a 5th dan lifer? They would probably laugh, or maybe cry.

I guess if you think of it in classical terms, the lifer is like a court eunuch, a personal servant to the ruler. Their physical proximity to the ruler “… could in theory give a eunuch "the ruler's ear" and impart de facto power on the formally humble but trusted servant”. (see Eunuch ) Lifers could also be like courtiers in the royal court. When I read up on the subject, I found these quotes memorable and quite telling:

Courtiers were not all noble, as they included clergy, soldiers, clerks, secretaries, and agents and middlemen of all sorts with regular business at court. Promotion to important positions could be very rapid at court, and for the ambitious there was no better place to be.

In modern literature, courtiers are often depicted as insincere, skilled at flattery and intrigue, ambitious and lacking regard for the national interest. In modern English, the term is often used metaphorically for contemporary political favourites or hangers-on.

Source: Courtier

History repeats itself, over and over again. The packaging may be different nowadays but the product is still the same. I am sorry but titles and papers do not really impress me that much. Let me look at the guy face-to-face and see what he’s about. I want to see his skill level. I want to see his fighting spirit. I want to see his leadership. I want to “feel” his personality. Like what Philip Caputo said in his memoirs, I want to see if this guy’s for real.

It’s perfectly echoed in this great song from Destiny’s Child:

If his status ain't hood

I ain't checkin' for him

Better be street if he looking at me

I need a soldier

That ain't scared to stand up for me

Gotta know, to get dough

And he better be street…

Video: Soldier by Destiny's Child

If you get a chance, watch the video. It says it all.

What is she saying? You need to have street credibility. In other words, if we put it back in the world of the Marine Corps, the grunts believe you and will follow you. You are tough enough, you are skilled enough, you are knowledgeable enough, you are experienced enough. You walk the walk. You’ve been there, you’ve slugged it out in the trenches, you’ve earned your way to the top through blood, sweat, and tears. You’re not just some suit in an office who got there by being good at office politics.

A guy can flash all the paper certificates he wants, but you can tell right away if this guy’s a lifer or the real deal.

Here’s another story. I know a martial artist who is now world famous. He runs his own show now. He doesn’t belong to any big organization or worldwide federation. He is an independent. But he is well-respected because he has done that and been there. He doesn’t have the paper certificates of rank in all the styles he has learned. All he has are pictures of him with various famous sensei. Sure, you could argue that this guy is just some photo-hound that goes around getting his photo taken with famous sensei. And a person could do this I suppose. But eventually, word will get around and when asked if so-and-so studied with him, those famous sensei better say “Sure, I know that guy. He studied under me for X amount of years. Oh yes, he’s good…” You can only lie so many times before it catches up with you.

But no, this martial artist I know does actually know all these sensei and has studied under them. In some cases, he has talked to them extensively, while doing his research into the origins of his art. He has been all over Japan, Okinawa, and China. He is a former national champion and has the trophies to prove it. He has trained with and fought all the big names and has the scars and the ring photos to prove it. So, as I said, this guy knows all these famous sensei (I number them probably around 15 sensei and sifu), has trained under them and they know him and can vouch for him. He doesn’t have the paper certificates from all these other styles (principally because he is not going to be a teacher in that line or style). He does have the papers for the style that he teaches. But he knows his business and is very skilled at what he does. He knows what he is talking about. He can talk the talk and also walk the walk. He has ‘street credibility’.

Teachers, you don’t want to be a lifer. Soldiers respect soldiers.

Students, look at the teacher carefully. As Spencer said, you don’t want to follow a wet dream.

It’s all about street cred…


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July 15, 2012


Yagyu Shinkage Ryu Kenjutsu

July 16, 2012

With 11th Generation Headmaster (Soke) of Yagyu Shingan Ryu

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from Tochigi, Japan

For more information, see:

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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