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The Importance of Female Shihans

Shihans of the future!

Why is it important that there are good female instructors in the Bujinkan? Is there value in a female instructor over a male one? Does gender make a difference? These are some of the questions that I want to explore in this blog post.

We have all heard the same thing from our teachers, 'relax, be relaxed'. This can seem quite a standard thing to say and in general people who are more relaxed have better waza. One of the challenges that instructors face is how to apply general teaching themes, such as this, to a mixed audience. For example, it would be right for the majority of men to relax more because generally guys will have been socialised to hold their body posture firmly, and take up maximum space. This results in more rigid kamae, and the application of strong, fixed, hard, waza at early levels of experience. Although this may seem a gross generalisation it has been my experience over the years.

Generally, guys benefit from encouragement to be more relaxed and less 'rigid' but more often than not, women actually need to be instructed to do the opposite. Most women have been socialised to hold their body in a soft and yielding way, that communicates placidity and minimises the space that they occupy. In my experience, women's techinque really benefits from training to develop more structured, rigid and controlled movement - at beginner level.

Problems can happen when teachers apply teaching tools that work with men to women, without any adaptation. Unfortunately, I have seen the long-term effect of women who take on the 'soft and relaxed' teaching and they become completely unstable and unable to hold ground against the force of a stronger attacker. Even when they reposition, the structure is not strong, and the core is out of balance. They then lack the ability to deliver a thunderous attack (seiten no heki-reki 晴天の霹靂 - thunderbolt from the heavens).

The way I visualise this in my teaching method is to consider each student unique and working towards perfecting their own form - like each student forging their own katana. The Japanese katana has two elements to it, a soft side and a hard side. If the blade is all soft it is useless and will not protect (Tōtoku). Nagato Sensei teaches that we always need a totoku. Conversely if a sword is all hard (like a cheap sword from Ebay!) it will shatter the moment it is used as Tōtoku.

The importance for female instructors, therefore, is to understand and validate the lived experiences of female bodied people within the Bujinkan. The way females need to learn and develop taijutsu is different, subtlety so, from the way men need to learn and develop. Women that train will rarely need to be 'softer', actually they need to be harder, fiercer, more structured. This is in reference to early levels training to complete and make techniques substantial. This is not advanced level where technique and waza need to be transcended, as we need to learn first the correct and effective waza before we move away from using them. This is not to suggest that women need strength to perform waza, but they need to have strong structure, good balance and movement and a power within they are able to draw upon. They need to be able to absorb power against a natural ability to redirect it.

I do not feel that this means that male teachers should only be instructing males and females should only be instructing females, not at all! But I do feel that there is a general lack of female shihan within the Bujinkan and that their position within the overall community is not as highly regarded as that of male practitioners - even though they have a valuable insight and perspective on taijutsu training.

I am lucky enough to know and have trained with Elizabeth Scally, who is leading the way for female visibility within the Honbu Dojo. Her depth of knowledge and skill is outstanding, and she has gallons of "secret sauce" to share! If you're going to Japan, don't miss out on training with her at Ninyo Dojo.

This is a BIG UP post for all the female members of the Bujinkan, let’s get things rocking!

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