Here’s the abstract and poster I presented at the Japan in our Futures one day conference in Sheffield on 5 April, 2013.

Lessons in survival: The community of practice in a Japanese martial art

The classical Japanese martial tradition of Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden Kobudo has an unbroken line of transmission dating from 1532 and as such could be seen to be a master of survival. Rooted in the past, yet located firmly in the present where it thrives through its role in the lives of its members, like any traditional pursuit it faces challenges if it is to continue into the future.

Using the theoretical framework of Communities of Practice, this poster examines how the group’s approach to teaching and learning enables the communication of an established body of knowledge, yet is flexible enough to deal with challenges such as lifestyle changes, economic fluctuations and the increasing involvement of non-Japanese practitioners. The research takes an ethnographic approach, analysing data gained through participant observation at the main dôjô in Kyoto. What practitioners learn from their experiences; the impact it has on their lives, identities and conceptions of self; and how traditional martial arts relate to contemporary life and education in Japan are the subject of my work.

This poster focuses on providing insights into how and why the group endures, which may have lessons for ways in which other groups could ensure their own sustainability into the future.



These are the abstract and slides from a presentation I gave at this one day workshop in London. It was a fantastic opportunity to gain feedback and to meet other postgraduate researchers in Japanese Studies from all over the country. Highly recommended.

Teaching and Learning in a Koryu Bujutsu

My research takes an ethnographic approach to researching Japan’s classical martial tradition of Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden (TRB), exploring it as a form of education and character development.  Students spend years practicing this intensely mentally demanding and potentially dangerous physical combative art, which has been passed down from teacher to student since 1532.  What they learn from their experiences; the impact it has on their lives, their conceptions of self, issues of gender and group and individual identity; and how the koryu bujutsu[1] relate to contemporary life and education in Japan are the focus of my work.

This presentation will focus on approaches to teaching and learning in TRB at the head dojo of the tradition, based on data gained through participant observation and consisting of field notes, photographs, audio recordings, copies of internal documents and records of online discussions where members exchange ideas about training and their experiences.

TRB offers an example of a rich learning environment outside mainstream education. Teaching methods include demonstration, oral instruction and some use of written materials. However, although the head instructor plays a central role, this is not the only way that learning takes place. The learning is highly experiential with most work taking the form of paired practice where a senior student works with a junior.  Formal practice begins with kihon, basic moves which are practiced many times, even by more advanced students. This is followed by kata, or ‘forms’ where practitioners alternate between taking a ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ role. Kata are central to the process of passing on the techniques as they codify the knowledge in a form which can be both practiced and remembered. They have names which may range from a simple description of movement to the esoteric. The combination of the sequence of a kata, its name and when and how it is taught all have a significance which may not be apparent to the novice, but which is revealed as the student progresses.

Koryu rarely include sparring or free form practice in their training methods, so performing kata in formal situations (embu) is one way in which participants ability to perform under pressure can be tested and this is therefore a core element of the training.

There are also aspects of the philosophy of the tradition which are learnt outside of the formal training, in the informal discussions after practice, through shared participation in events and the sharing of stories. For example, the preparation of tea is the job of the most recent recruits, as they learn how to do this they become legitimate peripheral participants in the dojo community through interacting with more senior students.

The presentation will explore how these formal and informal methods create a community where individuals through shared practice can develop their character and identity.


[1] Koryu bujutsu = ‘old’ style pre-Meiji martial traditions

I’ve been accepted on the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Summer Program as a guest researcher under Professor Kimio Ito in the Sociology Department of Kyoto University. Here’s an abstract for the poster presentation which I gave on 15 June, outlining my plans.

Forging the spirit: How training in a koryû bujutsu affects
practitioners’ lives

The term koryû bujutsu literally translates as ‘old stream martial arts’ and refers to classical traditions founded before 1868. Literature on martial arts includes popular manuals; studies of samurai writings; historical studies; modern writings on techniques and philosophy; catalogues of extant koryû; and ethnographies of modern arts; but not of koryû. My research explores how the koryû contribute to discourses on selfhood, identity and masculinity through investigating participants’ motivations for entering a koryû; how they view their practice; and how membership relates to their identity outside training. The study takes an ethnographic approach, gathering data through participant observation, interviews and examining practitioners’ writings.

This poster introduces a framework of distinctive koryû characteristics, providing the starting point for research in Kyoto where I will observe regular training in a koryû and two events in the tradition’s calendar. On July 16th, members of the dojo perform kata (forms) as part of the Enmamôde ceremonies at Byakugô Temple, Nara. In August, the festival commemorating the tradition’s founding includes members from other parts of Japan. I aim to record a rich description of both events which will provide a starting point for developing more detailed interview questions in the future.

Here’s the poster, click on it to see a larger version:

I have been using Mendeley to manage all my bibliographic information for over a year now.  It does have limitations but ease of use and accessibility are proving a boon. I’ve become something of an evangelist and will be running a workshop at the ALDinHE conference in April. Here’s the abstract.

Manage your information social life using Mendeley

Mendeley is free academic software (Win, Mac & Linux) which enables you to manage, share, read, annotate and cite your research papers. It provides a research network to manage your papers online, discover research trends and statistics, and connect to like‐minded researchers. This workshop will introduce the key features of Mendeley for new users and explore examples how it can be used to set up collaborative projects, work and discuss in groups, and share data. It will be useful for anyone who needs to manage their own research or who supports students to do the same.

A Mendeley group for this workshop can be found at

There’s also a webinar coming up introducing Mendeley for Librarians which is actually a general introduction. Sign up here.

Slides from the session:


The following is an abstract for a short presentation I will be making on February 22nd about my research. I’ve chosen to focus on this topic as it’s something I will need to write about anyway and the audience will include people whose main focus is China as well as students of Japanese studies.

What is a koryu and what makes koryu interesting phenomena for research?

The term koryu (古流) literally translates as ‘old style’ or ‘old school’ and is used to refer to the classical martial traditions of Japan.  Over 700 koryu have been identified (Friday, 1997) of which the Japan Kobudo Association lists 78 extant member koryu (Nippon Budokan, n. d.). However, despite the prevalence of martial arts in popular culture, film and television, most (if not all) of these are unfamiliar to people outside the koryu world, even in Japan. This presentation will offer an initial introduction to what a koryu is and through comparison with modern martial arts attempt to establish what makes the koryu distinctive.

The koryu are an example of aspects of Japanese culture, such as tea ceremony, calligraphy and arts and crafts, which have been successfully transmitted from teacher to student over centuries.  However, at first glance, they may appear to have little relevance to the modern world. They are not studied as part of formal education; it could be argued that their techniques are archaic; and they are  potentially only of historical interest. Why then, do members of a koryu spend years practicing these intensely mentally demanding and potentially dangerous physical combative arts?

Studying a koryu can have a profound effect on its practitioners. A pilot study taking a grounded theory approach to interviews of two members of different koryu yielded initial results which suggest that researching the koryu may provide insights into why generations of Japanese have found them be a positive influence on their lives.

Friday, K. F. (1997). Legacies of the sword: The Kashima-Shinryū and Samurai martial culture, with Seki Humitake (p. 248). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Nippon Budokan. (n.d.). Nippon Kobudo Kyokai: Kamei Ryuha (Japan Kobudo Association: Member Schools). Retrieved March 11, 2011, from

My work uses ethnographic methods to research the traditional Japanese martial art of Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden, exploring it as a form of education and character development. What practitioners learn from their experiences in the dojo; the impact it has on their lives, their conceptions of self, issues of gender and group and individual identity; and how the classical martial traditions relate to contemporary life and education in Japan are the proposed research areas.  The study aims to contribute to research on the martial arts; the anthropology of Japanese cultural and leisure pursuits; and pedagogical approaches to self-development. Situating this study of a particular dojo within existing research, my initial aims are to explore:

  • What a koryu offers participants in comparison to modern martial arts and other leisure activities; how this is reflected in martial arts’ role in contemporary Japanese culture;
  • How ethnographic approaches to researching koryu can contribute to discourses on selfhood, identity and masculinity;
  • How the pedagogy in TRB relates to that of other educational contexts, both formal and outside academic institutions.

I’m one month into my PhD, though only feel to have really begun in the last week or so. I’m hoping to blog about the experience as well as about my research (about which I’ll add some basic information later). Here’s a list of what I’ve done so far:


  • Registered! And have an ID card, student card, student railcard…
  • Attended Faculty induction
  • Found the Graduate Studies cluster and rooms in the maze that is the School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures
  • Set up personal webpage holding page:
  • Started this blog (or rather repurposed it – I’ll still blog about teaching and learning issues)

Literature, current awareness


Classes and workshops

Study Skills
  • Worked part way through the tutorial on Scrivener, I think it’s going to be an excellent alternative to Word (which I detest with a vengeance for writing!)
  • Have planned how to organise .pdfs and record my notes using Evernote and Mendeley


  • Written initial notes on koryu and some sketchy notes on a few other areas

I was planning on writing some reflections on all the above this evening, but we’ve had a massive power cut, so they will have to remain in my head for now. I hope this blog can: be a place where anyone interested in what I’m doing can keep up to date with ‘progress so far’; provide a record of how the work and my development as a researcher changes over time; and serve as a repository for ‘first thoughts’ about my research.

First Student Education Conference at the University of Leeds, session abstract (slides available below):

Due to unfamiliar approaches, differing expectations and perplexing uses of language, international students often struggle to negotiate the transition to the requirements of academic discourse at Masters level and may also lack familiarity with critical approaches to study.

As the proportion of international students taking Masters at Leeds increases (44% in 2010), the challenge for staff is to help students gain an understanding of the conventions of academic discourse, threshold concepts which students must to possess to enter the arena where the exchange and creation of knowledge takes place.

This session introduces a suite of workshops developed by Academic Skills Advisers, Faculty Team Librarians and Academics working within the curriculum to embed a critical approach to postgraduate research, reading and writing skills with cohorts of mainly (but not exclusively) international students. Scaffolded tasks apply a model  of critical thinking to subject specific materials, thus enabling international students to gain the academic skills required to reach their full potential.

An Indian student’s comment on an earlier version of these sessions:

Back home, all assessments were blatant copy-paste from website.  Reading literature was unheard of. Referencing was never done. Nobody heard of EndNote, let alone plagiarism. So adapting to a system where quoting three consecutive words without a citation was tantamount to plagiarism was difficult!

Here’s some follow-up on the session I ran at the ALDinHE conference in Belfast on critical thinking for international students at Masters level which I wrote about in an earlier post.

First, here were the questions and issues which people brought to the session, which I’ve grouped into themes:

  • Nature of critical thinking
    • Common question: Critical Analytical Thought, what is it?
    • CT is the reason so many students come to see us. We have a model which is also based on a questioning approach, which we encourage students to use.
    • I find critical thinking difficult to conceptualise in a non-contextualised way
    • Because I teach groups of students who struggle with ‘critical thinking’ and I want to clarify my thinking about what it is and what steps they need to take.
  • Teaching
    • Is critical thinking/lesson prep possible without having a specific issue at hand, particularly for inductive, example driven teaching?
    • Interested in the approach/model.
    • Want to design critical thinking workshops
    • My HEA-accredited course is under development to convert to an M-level model
    • Pointers to help PG students – particularly overseas students.
    • How can we support students to structure longer arguments, such as research papers or dissertations?
  • Student problems
    • Our MA students struggle with critical thinking
    • How to help students gain confidence in critical thinking – need time to practice but don’t have the time on Masters courses
    • One year course means difficulties encountered in adopting appropriate discourse that students can understand it in relation to what they already know/existing ideas of academic writing
  • My area/CPD
    • Postgrad international is my area. Most challenging – 12-16.5 thousand word report or dissertation in one year, involvement and conversation with our learning development coordinator
    • Because it addresses Masters level – most learning development focuses on undergraduate.
    • New ideas, new approaches – am I missing something?
    • Because I’m keen to learn more about academic literacies beyond my ‘own’, out of curiosity and to help my communication with students in different disciplines

More to come…

ALDinHE Conference abstract
Learning developers consider the engagement of students in academic skills development as a key aspect of their professional practice but with a decreasing number of staff and resources it is often difficult to maintain this service.

The University of Leeds has an established network of librarians working with academics to develop students’ information literacy skills and the move of the learning development team into the Library identified an opportunity to utilise this network to engage a wider group of students.

This session will describe the LibTeach programme, a collaboration between library, staff development and learning development teams. The programme used submission for Associateship of the Higher Education Academy as a motivator to encourage the transition from a ‘training’ culture to the inception of a community of practice of librarians who teach. We will look at the context; purpose; content and structure of the initiative as well as discussing the factors which have led to its success to date and follow this with an opportunity for structured discussion.

The session will be of interest to learner developers who work with librarians or who are looking for strategies to engage with (more) students. A parallel paper has been accepted for Librarians’ Information Literacy Annual Conference (LILAC) being held simultaneously at The British Library, London. It is hoped to establish a virtual link between the sessions to facilitate a shared discussion, hopefully live, but if not through Twitter and social networking. Details will be available nearer the time.

Linking details
Carol Elston and I will be presenting at ALDinHE before Rebecca Dearden and Rachel Myers do so at LILAC. We’re hoping to encourage a joint dialogue, however, by asking people to use the hashtags of both conferences in their tweets to link the two. So if you’re at either presentation, or can’t be there but would like to comment, please tweet using both conferences’ hashtags somewhere in your tweet:

#aldcon #lilac11

To follow the discussion, either search for both tags in twitter or watch the conversation develop here. And here’s a short URL to this feed should you wish to share it:

Tweets will be archived here.

Let’s see how this attempt to link Librarians and Learning Developers works out…

Slides now available on slideshare.

The video content is available here: