A Personal Reflection & Tribute to a Kokondo Master and Friend

by Sensei George M. Rego
Jukido Jujitsu Academy, Home of Martial Arts in Palm Coast, Florida

HowardDemo8My first experiences with Master Howard were at the age of eight or nine at the old hombu dojo in Newington, Connecticut. Even as a young boy who grew up, literally, inside of the hombu dojo, when I thought about Master Howard on a technical level words like “Wow!” came to mind. Today my descriptions haven’t changed much, but my respect has grown exponentially. As a young boy I was in a state of awe when Master Howard performed Jukido waza (techniques) – I am still in state of awe, one that I believe has been knocked into me permanently (sometimes literally) – by Master Howard himself. One does not have to be in Kokondo long to realize after a demonstration by Master Howard that he is the standard for what brilliant and superior Jukido waza should be. When one has the honor of being his uke, he or she understands this a bit better then most.

Being a Kokondo-ka is a privilege and an honor in and of itself. I consider myself in many ways particularly privileged. During the bulk of my younger days at the old hombu the Jukido classes were small – there were students who came and went – but there were only three consistent students. For the three of us this meant that most of the time we had direct and almost private training with our sensei – Shihan Arel. He was the most direct and influential sensei to our training (I think I can speak on the behalf of the other two). Most of our training was directly under his eye and critique. As if this wasn’t an immense enough honor we very often had the privilege of having additional sensei on many occasions assisting Shihan Arel. Many sensei visited, but the regulars were Sensei Sandy Nukis, Sensei Jim Scanlon and of course Master Greg Howard.

When Shihan Arel was away for seminars, testing, and other Kokondo engagements Master Howard was very often the Sensei in charge of the dojo. These days were extremely painful – but lessons learned were well worth the pain – these days were particularly fun too.

Master Howard was very laid back (if you haven’t noticed) and he would allow us to ask all kinds of ridiculous questions, questions we wouldn’t dare ask the Shihan. We didn’t ask out of a lack of respect, although it was based primarily on a lack of maturity, but more because we knew Master Howard wouldn’t mind answering – after all, we would be the uke’s for the answers. I remember questions of the following ilk, “Howard sensei, I was watching WWF wrestling the other day and I saw a wrestler do a hold called the ‘Boston Crab’ how would a Jukido-ka deal with being in such a hold?” Shihan Arel always stressed that there were no such things as silly questions – but I think we stretched that rule for everything it was worth! In any case, after listing to the question Master Howard would give us the “look” and laugh with that very distinct Howard laugh. But he did answer the (absurd) question, using us as the ukes.

In these situations I truly believe that Master Howard was demonstrating Intellectual Kuzushi. Instead of “fighting” the question – he would give way using kuzushi like a true master – we felt the effectiveness of this kuzushi and the pain that came with it. It usually did the trick for a while and would give us plenty of stories to talk about for weeks in the basement of the dojo as we put the mats away. However, as time passed we “probed” further with our urgent questions….I think he liked it when we did.

Master Howard would also love demonstrating finishing and follow up techniques after a self-defense situation (usually on me) – in typical Master Howard fashion it revolved around the use of painful kansetsu waza and pressure points. Not only did he thoroughly enjoy demonstrating these finishing techniques, but he liked demonstrating them simultaneously and/or in succession. In further typical Howard fashion he did this for extended periods of time – in essence putting on a clinic of pain. In one particularly humorous memory Master Howard put on one of his extended finishing technique demonstrations and when he was done with me he laughed and turned to the class and asked, “What was the original self-defense technique I demonstrated before the finish?” The entire dojo laughed as no one could recall after a minute of thinking about it – he played with me for that long. We moved on to a new technique.

GRMasterHowardWowIt was because of this and other painful stories like it that we referred to Master Howard very often as the “prince of pain.” Although none of us ever acknowledged it verbally we all called him the “prince” because we subconsciously agreed that Shihan Arel would naturally have to be the King.

Oddly enough I always knew that there was more to these extended periods of pain then this jujitsu master simply having fun – he taught me (and others) some very major lessons. At some level I always knew that the reason he used me as his uke was because he liked me. In these situations the uke was always having the privilege and honor of being his partner – I fully understood and was honored.

Master Howard is well known for his famous corrections, “Is that supposed to be a Tai-Otoshi?” Questions like these were somewhat common place around the dojo when he was around. Sometimes they were and are hard to deal with. In these types of corrections the objective is not to humiliate or discourage (although there is a test of one’s spirit involved). He asked these types of questions in an effort to show us what amounted to his dissatisfaction with our not demanding excellence from our own performance. I can’t recall a time when I was trying my absolute best and he made a comment of this type – it were those times when 100% effort wasn’t there. It is his special way of saying that he doesn’t ask for absolute perfection of technique but he does ask for absolute perfection of effort. Some people get it and some people don’t – those who do benefit from this type of tough love. Some have tried to mimic this type of correction practice, but it doesn’t work for them. Usually it’s because they are trying to feed their ego by making others feel discouraged about their ability. Like Shihan Arel says often “don’t mistake politeness for weakness.” When Master Howard uses this type of tough love correction (with a smile on his face) it serves the purpose of keeping our own ego in check – although we might believe we have a great Tai-Otoshi (and we might), it doesn’t mean it can’t improve and it doesn’t mean someone like Master Howard can’t look at it and tear it apart for it’s flaws. Eliminate the ego and work at 100% effort, this is the Kokondo spirit and this is what Master Howard expects from us as Kokondo-ka.

Howard sensei was always willing to answer my questions about Kokondo and budo in general. In fact he went out of his way to make me understand and grow in my knowledge in a healthy way. When I was a shodan he purchased for me the martial arts texts of “Three Budo Masters” and “Zen Combat.” He wrote personal notes in one of them for me. In that note he describes how the book helped him learn much about the arts and he wished the same for me. This did help me shape my understanding of martial arts to some degree and it began what today is an obsession with martial arts book reading. I have allowed many of my own students to use the very books he purchased for me and they have benefited from reading these small but informative texts themselves. In a indirect, yet very significant way he helped influence my students understanding of budo.

P1010057As I’ve grown as a Kokondo-ka to become a sensei he has always been full of support. Five years ago when I began my dojo in a small recreation department he wrote letters of recommendation and gave me plenty of useful advice and was supportive in difficult times. In one of the highlights of my Kokondo life Master Howard took time out of his Florida vacation to visit my old dojo in December of 2003. The group of students was small that day (because it was before Christmas and the visit was rather sudden and unexpected) but it was reminiscent of the small Jukido classes in the old days at hombu, very private and personal – we learned a lot that day.

There are many sensei who have helped, supported, taught, and guided me and I owe them all (as all Kokondo students owe their seniors). As I mentioned previously Shihan Arel is the chief influence in my life. With that said, Master Howard has played a colossal role in my personal growth and I owe him for it. It is the case with all sensei/student relationships that one cannot payback what the teacher has taught. The only thing we can do is put to work what they have taught us, passing on the art of Kokondo, staying loyal to them, and letting them know it has meant a lot – this personal reflection is one small way of my trying to let Master Howard know just that. Though this is a personal tribute from me to him I’m sure many of my fellow Kokondo warriors have there own stories of this exceptional master. On behalf of all of the students you’ve impacted Master Howard – Domo Arigato Gozaimasu!!