James Morganelli is a Chicago-based writer, consultant, teacher, and trainer. He has studied martial arts for 40 years, including Eastern and Western styles, and lived and trained in Tokyo, Japan, for a period of three years.
His first published book, The Protector Ethic: Morality, Virtue, and Ethics in the Martial Way, was released in May 2018 through YMAA Publication Center. It has since won the "Social Change" category of the 2018 Best Book Awards by American Book Fest.
James is also an award-winning screenwriter and has written for such publications as The Federalist and Black Belt Magazine. His blog KOSSHI has been read around the world and he is currently working on several books.
A graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he majored in philosophy and held concentration in East Asian language and culture. In 2013, he received a Master of Arts in Social Philosophy from Loyola University Chicago, where he concentrated study in Applied Ethics and Natural Law.
James founded the Bujinkan Shingitai-Ichi Dojo upon his return from Japan, in 1998, to continue his training and outreach. The dojo celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018. In that same year, James was recommended to Dai Shihan, the highest level within the Bujinkan Dojo. He is also one of only a handful of people to hold the rank of Junkyoshi through Makko Ho Kyokai, a Japanese system of stretching and rejuvenation.
James has held certification in Verbal Defense and Influence from the Verbal Judo Institute and is an Associate at Resolution Group International, professional conflict resolution experts dedicated to teaching ethical, verbal, and physical skills to civilians, law enforcement, and the military.
Ten Questions with James Morganelli 2019
What is your personal martial arts biography?
I started training Karate at a community center in my hometown when I was nine. Once I went through the course, I joined a Tae Kwon Do/Hapkido school in the next town over. I also joined a wrestling group at another grammar school, as mine didn’t offer it.
In high school, I floated around some different schools, went to seminars and trained a lot on my own, including weight training. At 16, at the height of the “Ninja Boom” I traveled to Nebraska to train with Robert Bussey, marketing his own brand of “modern Ninjutsu.” I would continue long-distance training with him for the next several years. Bussey had limited training with Hatsumi Sensei and even Nagato Sensei, and had received rank from them. But by the time I was training with him, he had split from everything Bujinkan. Bussey was very good at what he did, but I would come to realize that what he did wasn’t very good—it was primarily based on speed and power.
Bussey was fast and talented, but his vision of training was obscured by his own ego. Eventually it got the better of him and his organization—RBWI, Robert Bussey’s Warrior International—fractured when many of his top folks deserted him. It was at that time, I and several others in a training group based in Wisconsin, left RBWI as well.
At 18, I was also concurrently training in Genbukan Ninpo, with Michael Coleman in Milwaukee, who was ranked under Shoto Tanemura and his organization. At the time, I had no idea of the vast differences or history between the Genbukan and the Bujinkan, and since Coleman was close to my university, I traveled there occasionally. Coleman also hosted the first seminar for Tanemura that I attended. Eventually, I grew weary training with Coleman, unhappy with both his approach and personality.
Over those years, I was training a lot—with my own group at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, the former RBWI group in Madison, as well as working out on my own. I also attended regional seminars, like the time Tadashi Yamashita, headmaster of Shorin Ryu Karate and well known as “Sakura” from the Chuck Norris movie “The Octagon,” taught at a small local dojo.
Back then I was prone to extremes, sometimes dangerously—brutal sparring, violent techniques, and tough-guy attitudes. We practiced dive rolling over the roof of my friend’s hatchback and sometimes used live knives and guns in training— pretty stupid stuff.
I eventually transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and would graduate from there. Unhappy with any of the martial arts on campus, I began my own group and called it “Sentokai,” or “combat society.” We would become about six people strong and larger from time to time. I had my share of close calls then too, when other folks showed up to see how good I was—like the Russian Kung Fu expert who tried to knock my block off. This was also the height of my weight training—at 150 lbs I was bench pressing 320 lbs.
After graduation, I moved to Japan and stayed with family friends in Tokyo until I found a job. Thanks to a fortuitous meeting there, I began training in the Bujinkan. A fellow, by the name of Paul Nolasco, turned out to be one of Hatsumi Sensei’s early foreign translators. Paul began my training and would eventually set me on the right path. I can’t thank him enough. I joined Nakadai Sensei’s group at first, but eventually found myself drawn to Nagato Sensei and have stayed with him ever since.
During my time in Japan, I was promoted quickly, jumping a few ranks. I even took the Godan test a scant two years after beginning training, when Nagato Sensei himself ordered me to. I took the test twice: once at Ayase, when Hatsumi Sensei buried a shinai in my head with a resounding “NO!” And then a second time a week later—a much harder test, that still gives me chills to this day.
I returned home and began teaching others reluctantly and eventually founded the Shingitai-Ichi Dojo, meeting many wonderful people over the years, including Mark Hodel, Jack Hoban, and my own students, many of whom have been with me now going on 20 years.
Training also led me to the love of my life. Hatsumi Sensei had studied Makko Ho, a Japanese stretching art, and incorporated the four simple movements into training—we know them as the “Ryutai Undo.” When I heard about someone teaching Makko Ho here in Chicago, I couldn’t help but look them up. I would meet and fall for Tomoko Horikawa, who has brought love, strength, kindness, compassion, and grace into my life. Thanks training!
Why do you train?
I train to be a protector of self and others—all others, including my enemy, if possible. In order to do that, I train hard physically, aspiring to gain a level of real-world competency, known as shinkengata, that I can utilize outside the halls of the dojo. "Real-world competency" is terribly tricky to comprehend and even harder to actually achieve because as much realism as we may believe we have in the dojo, the truth is, only real is real.
For many people training in martial arts, their “why” seems to be a gooey sense of being a better person or getting “good” at their respective art. But knowing “why” one is training, knowing one’s purpose and aim for doing so, is to know a standard that we can rely upon to tell us the difference between better and worse in our own training. Unless we can do that, we’re going to have difficulty accruing ability.
Without a standard, there is no scale, no means by which to appraise the utility of concepts, form, and technique—no solid way by which to know what is actually “good,” or how we can become it. Without a standard, everything looks exactly the same. Like a spinning compass, we have no sense of north, which disallows us from getting to where we want to go.
Sure, I would like to mature my perspective in martial arts because I think martial arts are cool. And I'd like to be a better person overall. But real-world martial proficiency is the key to embracing both of these values.
If we’re to mature in martial arts, an overall physical endeavor, then real-world competency is the sonar by which we can navigate the ocean of martial minutiae, allowing insight into what we ought to give our time to, and what we can avoid.
And far more important, being able to deal effectively with conflict in today’s world might as well be a superpower—conflict is everywhere and manifest in ways many people could never have predicted. Knowing how and being willing to deal with conflict makes us a protector, because protectors risk themselves for others. That is better in my book.
What do you think is/are the core value(s) of martial arts training?
Through enduring training, we can learn to respect, protect, and defend life—all life, including our enemy’s—to the best of one’s ability while tempering the ego. This is a kind of purification.
Can you explain your method of training and teaching?
Allow students to “discover” their training through context. Rather than have new students memorize and program themselves with “proper” or “correct” procedure, I have them plug into the principles through effective movement to recognize opportunity and advantage. This will eventually refine their ability with the alignment of technique.
I’ve found this method to be far more successful than confusing new students with heaps of procedure they have no idea where to place or what to do with.
Is there a “secret” to training?
Yes: show up and keep showing up. We learn nothing unless we put our feet on the mat and keep doing it.
What would you recommend others do to improve their training?
Be honest, be tactical, and be free in body and mind.
Be honest: intentionally try to strike your partner and make sure they are doing the same for you.
Be tactical: only use the necessary amount of space you need to stay honest.
And be free: be creative in your movement and let go of “winning.”
What are the biggest differences today than when you first began training?
Confidence is high. Years ago, nobody was really sure what they were doing. Now, everybody is sure, even with vastly different approaches. This cuts both ways—good and bad.
What is the role a martial artist plays in our world?
A martial artist can be a leader. A needed and necessary leader in a single moment. But without the right training, we may have trouble recognizing it, and the moment may just pass us by when it desperately needs us.
What one thing would you contribute to a “Book of Knowledge?”
Do not underestimate one’s own sense of self direction. It may just be the way forward. The way to excel.
Do you have any great hope for the future of martial training?
With clarity, many more people can have the opportunity to train throughout their lives and contribute to the well being of themselves and others. If we continue to refine ourselves and our approach, I firmly believe, we really can make the world a better and safer place.