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There’s More To Martial Arts Than Kicks And Strikes.

Barton Boehm held his left palm forward. He smiled and said he didn’t want any trouble. His right hand was behind his back, holding his birch staff. As the “attacker” approached, Boehm’s right hand rapidly swung the stick through the air with a whoosh, striking the shins of the man, who fell to the ground.

Boehm was demonstrating a simple technique that he teaches in his private Seiken classes.

I met Barton Boehm in the late 1970s through my association with the nonprofit, WTI. Its founder, Richard E. White, introduced Boehm to me as a martial arts master. His path to becoming a master began a long time ago.

Barton Boehm poses in 1964 in his Navy uniform (this was before he met his master, Peter Suzuki).

 

While on shore leave when serving in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, Boehm inadvertently met a master living in Japan and, some time later, moved into his home, becoming his full-time student for five years. The story of their meeting and subsequent time together is remarkable!

As I got to know Boehm better, I became his student, taking classes in his home dojo. There, during my private evening classes, I learned about holds, getting out of holds, falling and punching, as well as all the ways to quickly avoid a fight—or to never start one in the first place. But, for me, the highlights of the evenings were always the discussions we had after each of the workouts. It was then that he would share his philosophy of martial arts, developed from his Japanese training.

Master Suzuki is seated on Boehm’s shoulders while in a group of some of Boehm’s Navy buddies, who also trained with Suzuki.

“You don’t want to fight,” Boehm would tell me. “People get hurt when you fight. You want to end a fight as quickly as it begins. You want to dispatch your opponent as rapidly as possible and get out of there.”

Martial Arts on TV

“You don’t want to fight,” Boehm would tell me. “People get hurt when you fight. You want to end a fight as quickly as it begins. You want to dispatch your opponent as rapidly as possible and get out of there.”

Needless to say, he wasn’t a fan of the martial arts movies, in which fights go on for 30 minutes, with actors flying from rooftop to rooftop, breaking bricks and continuing the battle in every possible position.

“Don’t get your information about martial arts from watching kung fu movies,” Boehm would tell me with a laugh.

Master Suzuki is seated at the front, center. Boehm stands at the far left, along with some of his Navy buddies.

When we discussed the popular Kung Fu TV series, which starred David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, Boehm pointed out that Caine often had many opportunities to avoid a fight; and when he did fight, it often went on way beyond what was necessary to end it. Even so, Boehm did say that he found the original TV pilot and some of the very first episodes of some value.

“They had hired a Taoist priest as an advisor to the show,” he pointed out. As a result, the show actually had some of the pure philosophy. But, because TV is so driven by ratings, as soon as the ratings dipped, Caine fought more often to show off his skills (but not because he really needed to).

Boehm takes a much-needed rest on a bench in front of the Suzuki household.

Discussions

I particularly enjoyed the stories Boehm shared about his training with his master, Peter Kiyoshi Suzuki. I taped many of those conversations, because they were so full of insight. Plus, they were highly entertaining: Some were funny, some deeply profound, and all had a highly pragmatic nature.

I recorded those conversations with Boehm with the goal of working with him to one day produce a book of his experiences and insights. I knew it would be a book like no other, because his five years of daily training and living with his blind master were unlike any I’d ever heard. But, we never finished the book project.

Master Suzuki demonstrates a move during Boehm’s training.

Years went by. Eventually, my wife and I sponsored stick-fighting classes with Boehm in our backyard, where he shared the psychology of the samurai, along with ways to stop a fight before it gets started. More years went by.

That was 10 years ago, and Boehm moved too far away for regular lessons.

Boehm Writes the Book

Imagine my great happiness at receiving a package containing Boehm’s book! He did it! The book is an incredible introduction to his master’s system, Seiken. The book’s full title is Lessons from a 21st Century Samurai: Seiken Way, Completing the Circle, A True Story.

During my on-and-off training with Boehm, I got glimpses of how he met his master during the Vietnam War. His book filled in many of the gaps of his story that I found insightful: Boehm had been in Japan and began asking around for a martial arts master with whom to train. Eventually, he found Suzuki and became his full-time student.

A wedding picture of Peter and Shizu Suzuki

Boehm then lived with Suzuki for about five years, sleeping barely more than four hours a night, seven days a week—and losing 50 pounds after his first two years. When Boehm described his ambitions to me, he said that he was seeking “power.”

“But,” he added, “I didn’t know what that meant at the time.”

Boehm’s stories were filled with how Suzuki trained him to repeat certain exercises endlessly until a new technique was mastered and to always “feel” what you were doing—and focus on the goal—so you don’t get lost in doing it by rote. His stories were also filled with a fascinating stream of people that he met through Suzuki.

Boehm’s book fills in a lot of the gaps in his training that I never heard about, such as the early days of meeting Suzuki and how Suzuki’s wife and two children responded to having a hakujin, or white man, living with them in their small barracks-like home in a low-income part of the town.

Barton Boehm displays his first training certificate, earned while he was still in the Navy.

The book points out that the full system taught by Suzuki is not just for training the body; it’s also for training the mind and the spirit. Boehm’s book explores all the major aspects of his training and how a blind man developed and mastered several entire systems. The book focuses only on Seiken (“kind hand”), the system taught to Boehm. The full name of the system is Wado Goshin Seiken Jitsu (the “wide, deep, kind hand system”). Not only did Boehm have to learn his lessons, he also came to understand that he had to learn how to think.

“Finally, I came to understand that he was trying to teach me how to think.”

“’Frustrated’ is not a big enough word to describe how I felt during the first few months with Peter. Finally, I came to understand that he was trying to teach me how to think. In all my years of school in the States, I’d never learned how to think. I‘d learned how to memorize data and how to do math problems, but I never learned how to think!”

A view of Boehm’s home, while he lived with the Suzuki family in Oppama, south of Yokohama, Japan

If you’re looking for a how-to book about martial arts systems, this isn’t that book. In fact, no one learns martial arts from a book: You must learn directly from a teacher. Nevertheless, this book does show how the dedication of one man led him on the path to his own self-awareness—to the point at which he ultimately realized he could, and would, even kill for his master.

A Master in His Own Right

Eventually, Boehm saw that his relationship with Suzuki was unhealthy, and he came back home to the United States. He realized that he’d become a master in his own right.

He opened his own martial arts studio in Azusa, California, for a few years. Eventually, he turned his home garage into a dojo, in which he did private training for decades. His book is one of his ways to pass along the hard-earned knowledge he gained through his unique and painful experiences.

Boehm, now 71 and retired from an engineering career, continues to teach the few students who’ve stayed with him.

Boehm with his “friend”: His walking stick serves as a sort of multi-purpose tool.

Significant Book

Boehm’s book is highly recommended for anyone seeking an insight into the world of Japanese martial arts. I regard the book as both a standard and a classic.

Interestingly, in a disclaimer at the beginning of the book, Boehm states that it’s biographical—based on real events—“but is a work of fiction,” because the actual conversations and details of the interactions were necessarily re-created from memory or imagination in order to re-tell the story.

This admission certainly doesn’t diminish the book’s quality or significance.

Boehm, shown in his backyard, with an assortment of sticks, some of which are more “socially acceptable” than others

As the “attacker” approached, Boehm’s right hand rapidly swung the stick through the air with a whoosh, striking the shins of the man, who fell to the ground.

In his classes, Boehm teaches the students how versatile an otherwise simple stick can be.

Boehm exhibits some stick movements in his backyard practice area.

Boehm cycles through some practice movements with a cane.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.