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Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]
The reflective practice of Samurai educators

Katie Thomas
Centre for International Health
Curtin University of Technology

There are a range of non-western teaching practices which have been developed with a specific focus on reflective practice. The Japanese Samurai tradition is an example of a discipline of teaching and learning that relies heavily on an inter-linked cycle of reflection and physical engagement. A Samurai education engages the student simultaneously in the roles of teacher and student, requires physical commitment to Ninjukai training and commitment to continuous reflection on the training experience. Samurai education utilises reflective practice as a primary tool for self-development. Reflective practice, in this research, was defined as the allocation of time and energy to the consideration of outcomes of action as well as recursive alterations to practice and behaviour that are made as a result of reflective consideration.

Members of the Samurai Group were involved in longitudinal research that used contextual mapping to elucidate the effective components of their reflective practice. The research found that Samurai education uses reflective practice to help people to alter their subjectivity, transcend their socialised roles and to have an increased range of responses for everyday life. These three processes overlapped and fed into each other to merge in what participants described as the most powerful learning experience of their lives. This paper begins with an overview of the research; moves to a description of Samurai education and the intellectual assumptions of the research project and then describes the primary outcomes of the research. The article concludes with some considerations of the implications of the research findings for reflective practice in education.


The Samurai Group (SG) is a private organisation that educates its members using a transcendental discipline derived from the Samurai tradition. Advancement within the society requires taking responsibility for the physical and emotional education of immediate subordinates in an iterative cycle of training and reflective practice. In contrast to many other fields of martial arts Ninjukai forbids fighting for display or competitive reasons and requires commitment to training and contemplation over many years in order to attain a brown or black belt. The Samurai Group advertises itself as having a teaching program that leads its members to heightened power, capacity and strength through an integrated process of action and reflection. Students are required to simultaneously engage in Ninjukai sparring and observation of their own reactions during the process. For the Samurai, reflective practice leads people to heightened capacity and self-empowerment. Reflective practice, in this research, was defined as the allocation of time and energy to the consideration of outcomes of action as well as recursive alterations to practice and behaviour that are made as a result of reflective consideration. This research followed participants engaged in Samurai training to ascertain which factors were most critical to their ongoing development and how reflective practice was used in their training process.


As Samurai training is quite arduous and requires years of engagement, students in the organisation were involved in longitudinal research in order to map their education process over time. The sample included members from each of the organisational ranks, including the CEO. Case studies were drawn from across the ranks to compare and contrast learning experience at different stages of the educational process. In total seven case studies were constructed to represent the Samurai process. Each case study involved a series of interviews over an eighteen month period (Glesne, 1999; Shank, 2002). Contextual mapping was used to create a visual representation of the individual's educational process which could be easily visually apprehended and validated or corrected by research participants. Contextual mapping is a methodological tool that draws on the ontological claims and the world view of contextualism proposed by the philosopher Stephen Pepper (1942). Pepper proposed that, in any change event, there are blocking strands (represented in the maps as BS) that interfere with goal achievement and instrumental strands (IS) which enable blocks to be circumvented in order for individuals to achieve their goal (Payne, 1996; Pepper, 1942). Contextualism, as a research method, analyses change processes by identifying and mapping the transitive path of growth and how obstacles are circumvented (Payne, 1996; Pepper, 1942; Rappaport, 1995; Reason, 1994; Rosnow & Georgoudi, 1986; Smith, 1995). It also enables the researcher to consider multiple layers of context (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994) The interviews centred on reflective and change processes for Samurai learning.

Initial interviews with Samurai trainees were transcribed and a map was constructed of the critical elements of training and development as identified by the respondent (see Figures 2, 3 and 4). In follow-up interviews trainees were invited to reflect, to further explicate the educational process and to point out changes that needed to be made to their individual maps. Maps continued to be drawn and returned to participants until they expressed satisfaction with the education map that had been drawn of their reflective practice. The Leader of the organisation discussed the Ninjukai perspective on education process as much as his own experience. A total of twenty one interviews were constructed with two females and five males. The length of participant involvement with the discipline ranged from five years to 30 years with a median involvement time of six and a half years. Their organisational rank was one blue belt, one purple, two brown belts and three black belts (see sampling profile in Figure 1). Participant ages ranged from 31 to 53 with the average age being 39.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Samurai rank levels

Group profile

The Samurai Group (SG) is a private organisation devoted to the education of its members through the practice and philosophy of Ninjukai. The highest echelon of the society has only three members worldwide, one of whom lives in Western Australia. Within the group, grading for a black belt is allowed only after invitation from the leader. Typically this invitation is made after eight to nine years of rigorous training and when the student has demonstrated strong commitment to the discipline. The organisation provides martial arts education for children and adults at a number of centres throughout Western Australia. The leader of the organisation has black belts in six other martial arts besides Ninjukai, and has spent over 30 years in the discipline. It is distinct from other martial arts education available in the Perth metropolitan area in a number of ways.

The first distinction is that there are no competitions or tournaments allowed in the sport and competitive rivalry between members is discouraged. Part of the education process involves participants learning how to measure their mastery of the art without using competition to enable comparison of themselves with others. The second distinctive feature of the sport is that, once participants reach the level of Instructor, a considerable amount of their training time is devoted to the use of traditional weapons such as swords, daggers, nunchucks, and staffs. A third distinctive feature is the breadth of the education process. Advancement through the hierarchy of the discipline requires a commitment to education in physical, emotional and spiritual domains. Development in these domains is measured by the participant's capacity for self-understanding which is considered to be developed by reflective practice. At the Instructor's level participants engage in lengthy meditation and breath training, dietary changes, diarising of their experiences and teaching sessions with the leader of the organisation to further develop their reflective capacities.

The final distinctive feature of the SG is the amount of time that is involved in the education process before members can be considered to have attained mastery. While many other martial arts allow members to attain a black belt in two or three years, the SG requires an average of eight to nine years of rigorous training before the black belt can be attempted. Grading for a black belt is only after invitation from the leader from the group. Members must demonstrate self understanding and capacity for self observation as well as a deep commitment to the tradition. The examinations themselves are extremely rigorous. At the brown belt level grading is conducted over two 8 hour days of combat sparring with a half-hour break for lunch each day. Educational mastery is not proposed to occur until participants reach Instructor's levels and are engaged educationally with all aspects of the art - spiritual, emotional, physical and intellectual.

Research aims

In regards to education, the process of Ninjukai was examined in line with Freire's ideas of education as a reflective process (Freire, 1970a, 1970b, 1996). Freire proposed that it was essential that we understand how education 'speaks' to people within the context of their daily lives and enables them to understand and reflect on their own practice and the social practices of society.
It is in this sense that I insist once more on the imperative need of the progressive educator to familiarise herself or himself with the syntax and semantics of the popular groups to understand how those persons do their reading of the world, to perceive that "craftiness" of theirs so indispensable to the culture of a resistance that is in the process of formation, without which they cannot defend themselves from the violence to which they are subjected. (Freire, 1996, p. 106)
In this sense the research aimed to examine how effective education alters subjectivity in the Foucaultian sense. Subjectivity was a concept introduced by the philosopher Michel Foucault. It includes the notion that internalisation of wider social rules shapes individuals and produces individual social identities which then recursively result in actions that shape the social (Gordon, 1980; Gutting, 1994a, 1994b; McHoul & Grace, 1993). In other words, Foucault suggested that socialisation results in non-reflective action and such action results in perpetuation of social norms. In Foucaultian terms, the only true education is reflective practice which enables people to have greater understanding of how they are shaped by the social and gives them greater choice of action. Freire and Foucault both suggested that development of the capacity for self-reflection and reflective practice results in individuals who can consciously respond to and shape social systems. Within this definition of education, it is the reflective capacities of educated individuals that empowers them to act upon social systems.
Power is both reflexive, then, and impersonal. It acts in a relatively autonomous way and produces subjects just as much as, or even more than, subjects reproduce it. The point is not to ignore the subject or to deny its existence (as is the case with some forms of structuralism) but rather to examine subjection, the processes of the construction of subjects in and as a collection of techniques or flows of power which run through the whole of a particular social body. (McHoul & Grace, 1993, p. 22)
In order to examine reflective practice the assumption must be made that students are capable of both social and self-reflection. Giddens proposed that reflective practice is possible for all people within a social system when they are encouraged to articulate their experiences of the social (Giddens, 1979, 1989). Understanding how individuals use reflective practice to learn from their interactions is critical to understanding the types of education processes that can enable change at individual and systemic levels (Hagan, Simpson, & Gillis, 1988; Haralambos & Holborn, 1991; Hayes, 2002; Kipnis, 1990; Newbrough, 1995; Pfeiffer, Madray, Ardolino, & Willms, 1998; Prilleltensky, 1994). Therefore, this research followed the lines of social constructionist inquiry to investigate how education within the Samurai tradition affected individual identities, understanding of the world and individual capacities.
Social constructionist inquiry is principally concerned with explicating the processes by which people come to describe, explain or otherwise account for the world (including themselves) in which they live. It attempts to articulate common forms of understanding as they now exist, as they have existed in prior historical periods, and as they might exist should creative attention be so directed. (Gergen, 1985), p. 266)
The formalised hierarchy of the Samurai Group's organisational structure was used as the basis for sampling people in different learning and power positions. The formal stratification of the organisation represented different levels of knowledge power in the organisation, as well as legitimate power. The aim of the research was to privilege the voice of student-teachers and their reflections on the Ninjukai education process.


The primary finding of the research was that, by requiring constant reflection on action, Samurai training is very effective in enabling individuals to transcend socialised roles and alter their personal identity. The group leader claimed that Ninjukai, as a reflective process, has been used in this manner for millennia. SG members, using the art within the modern context, defined the key benefits of reflective process as: helping them understand their socialisation; increasing the range of responses available to them and helping them to transcend their socialised limitations. Samurai participants described reflective practice as resulting in personal empowerment.

Reflective outcome One: Greater understanding of the social context

The group leader described the main reason that people came to the group as a desire for "undoing" rather than of doing something. He described reflective practice within the Samurai tradition as helping people move from unconscious, limiting and sometimes harmful automatic responses and understandings.
We methodise everything in the western world.(laughs) There is no method in (Ninjukai); there is no doing to be done. No effort, no doing. But!! there is a lot of undoing to be done. Understand your mind. See how you are going to undo it.
Students described the reflective process of Ninjukai as helping them to become aware of ingrained, unconscious cultural values of dominance and aggression. Respondents described the most helpful part of reflective practice as a slowing of their thought processes that enabled them to identify the beliefs that were unhelpful to them.
Whereas in so fast situations there is a different element [sic]. There are no rules. It is survival aspects in it, so it comes down to very....very basic way of acting, and this acting is quite uncovered by the learned behaviour patterns that we do have to overcome....
*Three respondents were from a Non-English speaking background and grammar is unaltered in the quotes.
Respondents described how reflective practice was an ongoing process of challenging themselves and that, over time, this taught them how to detach from external social evaluations. This description bears remarkable similarities to the "de-schooling" process described by Ivan Illich and others in the sixties (Illich, 1969, 1973, 1978). One of the reflective tools that enabled detachment was described as learning to focus on one's own experience. Increased self-absorption, through reflection, was not selfish in the sense of excluding others or trying to call attention to the self. Rather, it was described as a heightened concentration on internal learning that enabled the person to intensify their personal education process in a private way, protected from external critique. Therefore, a key part of the Samurai education was described as training in reflection to teach people to validate their own experiences and to resist external evaluation.
The grading might not be as important as the way you go at it. Before when you go for a grading or after you to a grading you start asking yourself, "What did I learn from this belt?"
The process of constant reflection on action helped participants put a higher value on their own learning and this led to greater acceptance of personal mistakes as a valued part of the educational process.
You don't feel like you are being judged by other people so much....You don't feel like you are being affected by other people, of...opinion. So you just, you do what you want to do.
Reflective practice in Ninjukai was described as helping people detach their self-identity from a sense of inferiority in regards to material success as well as from a sense of compulsive conformity to a range of social roles and norms. In effect, students described Ninjukai as helping them feel less inferior and more equal to other people. This occurred through reflective processes that challenged a range of social norms and myths about their individual worth.

Reflective outcome 2: Detachment and identification of alternatives

The second benefit of reflective process was described as a slowing of response rate that allowed individuals to consider a wider range of responses. Slowing responses was described as particularly helpful when in difficult or challenging situations such as weapons combat. Students described having increased control in situations where previously they had only been able to react. Reaction, as described by participants, was internalised learning that was so ingrained that it felt as if the reaction occurred spontaneously, without time for conscious choice. That is, action without reflection. This sense of being "out of control" of the self was described as a loss of the self and of self identity. Ninjukai education repaired this in two ways. Firstly, by teaching individuals to slow down their response to events through reflection and calm and secondly, through group observation of members in high pressure situations such as weapons combat.
Freedom of situations that you may have experienced in a similar pattern and you then instantly associate your momentarily decision - what to do or how to act - to rather release this old situation and try to make it different this time.
After having discussed how reflective practice had increased his control over physical aggression one respondent commented that he now wanted to learn how to respond better to psychological aggression.
Not to be so...if someone makes a smart arse remark, not to take it so personally or to get so um...uh...I don't know...have to make a response. You know what I mean? I...I... And I have....that part of me, which I didn't think, hadn't even thought about. I could, I really would like freedom from that as well.
Ninjukai training in calmness and reflective practice led to an increased range of response choices for participants.
Because of my training I am able to respond in a better way, rather than reacting to something I can stand back and say, "Well, hey, I can respond differently to this rather than get upset or anxious." I can just respond in a, I suppose, gentle way rather than being angry.

Reflective outcome 3: Transcending learned limitations

The increase in response choices mentioned in Processes One and Two are linked and intertwined with a number of findings which fall under the umbrella heading of transcending modern subjectivity. Participants described Samurai reflective practice as having enabled them to transcend social learning, roles and norms which they had internalised as part of their identity. This process was experienced as enormously empowering. Students described being strongly affected by the dominant meaning systems of the Australian culture before they joined the SG:
I think that probably in the past you know, 5, no sorry the last 50 years has exceeded the progress of the past 50 million years you know, the present day world. And, um, we are not taught how to cope really; a lot of people are just very, very empty, very, very empty inside. They are just virtually chucked out into the world you know, and just, fend for yourself. Basically they are not taught how to, how to work a way around you know.
Reflection on social norms and evaluations was described by individuals as crucial in regards to four core areas: Materialism, masculinity, femininity and leadership.


People described the internalisation of the wider cultural gestalt linking prosperity and possessions with success as leading to a sense of themselves as inadequate (identity damage). Ninjukai taught an alternate value system which enabled them to detach their sense of themselves from prior learning about dominance, wealth and possessions in order to enable repair, recovery and identity rebuilding.
But I would like more control over...things like...things like, like, I would say I don't suffer from it as much, but things like say...jealousy. When you say jealousy of someone having a car and you haven't got that car you know.
The cultural definition of power linked to wealth generation was challenged by the Samurai discipline which requires reflection on the social milieu and evaluation of lifestyle.
Power and education and power is also depending on which environment you choose to live in. You can choose to live in a very stressful environment. Make a lot of money and go out and go to Wall Street, whatever. You have a very different sense of empowerment than if you choose your life to be in a sort of a more steady lifestyle that in itself still offers a lot of areas for freedom.
In the map below (Figure 2) the respondent maps the reflective process that led to him transcending socialised learning about wealth and personal inferiority.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Educational map for Samurai Respondent 1.

In his case, the widespread cultural valuation of dominance, power and wealth had given him high anxiety about failure and meant that his life was quite restricted before he began Ninjukai. For this respondent, reflection on socialisation resulted in liberation from a sense of inferiority and hence a greater capacity to enjoy his life. Ninjukai was described as providing an alternate education system that enabled individuals to reflect on their social positioning and to transcend the effects of low social standing.

Like you , you can uh...do your day to day sort of living a lot easier. A lot of things you don't worry about. Like you think if you have a new house everything be happy for but you don't feel like...you don't really have to really thinking of, "you have to protect it every time." Like, what I find is, because of spiritual side of it, makes you understand the importance of living.


Self-reflection was described by all participants as leading to significant changes in their perceptions of gender limitations. All of the male students who had children mentioned that Ninjukai had improved their capacity to relate to children. They described the reflective process as leading them to become increasingly aware of social rules they had learned as males which included defining the self as physical rather than emotional, and as dominant; not female and therefore, not inferior. Prior to training men described that they often felt a sense of rage at themselves when they could not adhere to these internalised rules and high fear in regards to the social context. Reflection through Ninjukai was described by the men as giving them increased choice in regards to their behaviours and liberating them from the belief that they had to be dominant in order to retain a sense of being adequately male (identity recovery and re-building).
And the only reason being is...I now know that I can walk away from a confrontation and feel very good about myself because I don't feel as if I'm being threatened.... Whereas, I would probably have gone in anyway and got a hiding before because I just couldn't handle the trauma of uh...of myself saying you know, "You're a coward" or "You're weak, you, you're not very masculine."
The increased range of responses for males was linked to the capacity to not respond; that is, not get angry, not have to attack another in order to assert dominance and not to have to be in control at all times. The slowing of responses that came from reflection was cited as very important by the male participants.
Where, in the reality, your sense of empowerment, I guess if you can show that you can bring down an opponent, you can attack, you can do...experience the use of weapons, and the closeness of very potentially harmful and painful situations, without the element of you actually get angry.
Subsequently, reflection and the increased capacity for self-control manifested in the men experiencing less violence and conflict and better relationships with their children. The evolution of gender role change through reflective process for a young male is outlined in the map below (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3: Educational Map for Samurai Respondent 4.


Females in the SG described training and reflection on training as leading them to a clearer understanding of internalised Australian sex role stereotypes. Unreflective acceptance of social norms was described by the women as leading to a sense that they could not trust themselves and needed to look to others for trustworthy support and advice (identity damage). Female students in Ninjukai described that, as a result of training and reflecting on their own capacities, they became more confident. They described devoting less time and energy to defending themselves from males and becoming more absorbed with their own progress and the physical evidence of their own capacities (identity repair and rebuilding).
But, because I have been around for such a long time um, I've gotten used to it and I am actually inspired by chauvinism as such. Any comment is better than none and it does spur me on. I've grown to love it (laughs). If that is possible.

I am a lot more confident. I always thought that I was confident but I am a lot more confident now because I know that I can do what the guys can do and I can do it just as well. And I know I am more confident about being on the street, and if there was a situation I could handle it um...I just simply feel so exhilarated when I am training with the guys.

Developing physical strength (practice) directly challenged prior cultural teachings about female weakness, and enabled the women to have the courage to challenge other learned beliefs in relation to femaleness (reflection). The experience of physical strength was cited as leading to a great sense of excitement about what other possibilities there might be for women. The map below (Figure 4) illustrates the reflective process for a brown belt female.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Educational map for Samurai Respondent 9

Understanding of leadership

Those in the higher levels of the organisation were described as continually modelling for others and providing opportunities for observational learning of reflective practice in action. This modelling was described as enormously empowering, not just in the demonstration of strength and capacity, but for students to understand that even the leaders were continually learning and making mistakes in order to learn.
So you know, he changes. And...um...that's good to know that he perhaps...he is still developing himself, still evolving ways to go about it. And that depends on the interaction between him and the students.
Leaders described their own reflection on their interactions with students as leading to increased consciousness for them about possible uses of power, including the possibility that increased power could be used to abuse others.
So there is also this element, the higher you go, and with education I guess, it is the, the, the, the element of maintaining a certain integrity within power becomes then very challenging as to......That you feel this element of power you can very easily abuse it.... I can't say you know...it is education to do anything apart from that you may get more aware of that element of power. You can use it more, you can abuse it more.

It is not a sense of enlightenment or education that is one of gift and because you are brown belt - you are really powerful, and black belt - you are even more powerful. It is nothing like that. The black belt is like in a, in a sort of a skyscraper building...you see more, you look more...but you also fall much further.

The continual experience of benevolent use of power by leaders was observed by participants and described as leading to increased trust in reflective practice as an education process.
Um...there's a, there's a growing feeling or at least now I am getting a sense that yes there is something here. I might not be able to describe it more fully but uh...you know, I am confident that I; that it will come. And uh, you know I don't have to rush it or don't have to grab it; it ...it comes and the testing nature is an important part of, uh the development.

I am unfolding and I know I can do better. And sometimes it is daunting, I think, "Wow, I have done all of this training and where else will I go?" And I just keep moving forward. I don't know how good I'll get, but I am just growing, that is the main thing.

Leader use of power, high levels of involvement with low power members and modelling of reflective practice were described as critical elements in reinforcing the education process.


Education processes in the SG are strongly grounded in reflective practice. That is, student learning occurs experientially, and people are engaged in constant reflective processes that affirm their capacity to learn while they increase their response range. Reflective practice was described as enabling students to consider and transcend socialised limits and cultural norms. In the Samurai reflection does not occur in isolation alone but is strongly linked to a public system of challenge and training. This public training provides an arena for practice that is safe and where feedback is immediate and supportive. The physical training provides ongoing evidence of change and leaders constantly model the next step that trainees are trying to master. In addition, teachers publicly reflect on their own learning so that others may benefit from it. The trainees describe this process of public and private reflection and practice in a supportive environment as empowering and increasing their capacity to learn.

Reflective practice within the Samurai resulted in detachment from current social values and the generation of creative alternatives through a supported educational process. Through reflection, internalised myths of inferiority, based on modern western values, are challenged and externalised, resulting in identity repair and recovery. Reflective practice in the Samurai is facilitated by a structured system of support and feedback. The reflective practices of the individual are supported by the norms of the group and by individuals who have experienced and understand the process. The mentoring support was described by lower level members as critical to their own development of reflective practice. At the higher levels of the organisation the leader took personal responsibility to monitor the progress of individuals and to give them feedback on their learning.

These findings suggest that if western educational processes are to integrate a higher level of reflective practice there needs to be preliminary work to address cultural learning about individual value and capacity before people are engaged with evaluating their own learning processes. Capacity for self-reflection is a precursor to developing skills in reflective practice. The Samurai case demonstrated that reflective practice works well in a strongly supported system of learning, with numerous positive models and mentors to provide feedback on action. SG members, using the art within the modern context, defined the key benefits of reflective practice as: helping them understand their socialisation; increasing the range of responses available to them and helping them to transcend their socialised limitations. This suggests that reflective practice could be a powerful tool for working with marginalised and disempowered groups in a supported and continuous manner. Reflective practice has the capacity to empower teacher and student alike.


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Author: Katie is a psychologist with extensive experience in change and reflective practice. She has conducted cultural analyses and monitoring and evaluation for industry, communities and community service organisations. Katie has an academic background in critical, community, and counselling psychology and has lectured in these domains at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. Her clinical work has included group and individual psychotherapy across a range of presenting issues with a particular clinical interest in postnatal depression.

Katie Thomas
Centre for International Health
Curtin University of Technology
GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6845, Australia
Phone: 9266 3115 Fax: 9266 2608 Email: Katie.Thomas@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Thomas, K. (2005). The reflective practice of Samurai educators. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/thomas.html

Copyright 2005 Katie Thomas. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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