Put some mojo in your dojo

Suigetsukan dojo in Oakland, California has long been popular in Bay Area progressive communities because of its balance of intensity and inclusion, tolerance of diverse life-styles, and sliding scale tuition. Compared to other places I’ve had the opportunity to train in North America, I’ve felt a supportive yet rigorous climate, one without machismo, mystification or mindgames. Suigetsukan hosts the Girl Army, a Women and Transgender Self-Defense program that integrates an anti-oppression analysis.

I was intrigued to hear of youth Jujitsu classes starting up at Suigetsukan, and surprised that word hadn’t gotten around in the community. In life’s tempest I had wandered to the Midwest for some years and come back to find a lot of my friends turned into ‘rents. And how were they showing their kids how to hold their own in Oakland? Didn’t they remember that cool dojo where squatters met nuclear engineers at swordpoint?

An Ancient Tradition

Jujitsu is derived from the grappling arts of the Samurai–techniques taught to defend themselves were they to lose their weapons on a battlefield. From these roots have evolved a wide variety of fighting techniques, including Judo, Aikido, and Brazilian Jujitsu. The style taught at Suigetsukan is Danzan Ryu, developed by Henry Okazaki after he immigrated to Hawaii from Japan. He was one of the first teachers of women and non-Japanese.

A little cross-culture reality-check: As Asian martial arts became popular in the West, an image emerged of a peaceful warrior. This icon not only hoped to use force only when necessary in an ideal sense, but also had the calm spirit to not rush to fearful conclusions, and the presence of mind to see non-violent alternatives.

Is this because Eastern culture is thoroughly infused with a mellow mysticism? Actually, the Japanese arranged their harsh, pragmatic arts as sport and personal development because the American occupiers frowned on anything resembling military activity. Before that, in the rush for Japanese military modernity in the late 1800s, practitioners of traditional warfare sought to preserve their craft as an idealized cultural heritage.

Meanwhile in China, according to legend when the Manchurians demanded the secrets of Tai Chi from their Chinese subjects under penalty of death, they were granted a watered-down recreational version. The emperors were happy. Yet in all the great traditions of the soul, from Bodhidharma to P.T. Barnum, showmanship and hype can be vehicles for the profound truths of life.

The Youth Program

All these ideals translate well into a youth program. Suigetsukan youth classes offer a safe environment for girls and boys to learn Jujitsu. Through a blend of games, drills and traditional forms training, students get to have fun while gaining all the well-known benefits of an early martial arts training such as improved self-esteem, confidence, focus and healthier bodies.

Sensei Gina Rossi is the lead youth instructor. She’s been studying martial arts for 19 years, and is a fourth degree black belt in Danzan Ryu Jujitsu and a third degree black belt in Aikido. She also teaches after school youth classes at Urban Promise Academy in Oakland and adult Jujitsu, Aikido and Battodo classes at Suigetsukan Dojo.

Usually I find martial arts classes hard to watch, something geared for a bodily participant rather than distant eyes. But this kids class fascinates. The children have silly natures. Gina must guide them to mastery without thwarting their true natures; it is a Ju-Jitsu of the spirit. “Have fun with this, but be serious,” she says. She must draw the line sometimes: “Try not to be silly.” This class could be the beginning of a life-long journey; it is more than social occasion. “Focus on yourself.”

Q: How did you [Gina] decide to coordinate the youth program? Was the program your idea?

Yes, the program was my idea. I had been teaching youth at a middle school after school program for a year and I decided to start the program at the dojo. I think having a youth program is an important part of a martial arts school.

Q: How are parents involved?

The parents are involved to varying degrees. One parent, Gopal Dayaneni, is also one of the instructors. He is a green belt at the dojo and teaches with me every Thursday. Some parents watch class and help out at events. Other parents just drop their kids off and come back when class is over.

Q: I see your “not-too-tight, not-too-loose” approach. How has practice shaped your original theory/ideas?

I started off not wanting to be authoritarian and wanting the kids to have fun but found that if I don’t have clear boundaries and structure then it isn’t as fun and we don’t get to do as much martial arts. So, I try to find a balance between serious training and time to be silly and I try to be transparent about it so the youth know what to expect.

Q: Suigetsukan’s been around for 20 years. Besides using the mat, how does the kid’s class build on that?

I think the youth program brings a lot to the dojo. It makes the dojo intergenerational. It is easier to integrate martial arts techniques at an early age. Many of the great martial artists started as kids (for example, our own Mike Esmailzadeh Sensei and Jonathan Largent Sensei). To learn more, see suigetsukan.org/youth-classes/.