Leon Jay and the continuing development of the Small Circle Concept
At the beginning of the 21st century many martial artists are questioning their abilities to apply their chosen arts, to reconcile the classical with the practicalities of modern life. It is unsurprisingly difficult therefore, to find instructors able to teach us to walk that tightrope between tradition and innovation. Professor Leon Jay is one of those singular martial artists able to do just that – but he would be the first to emphasise that he is on a long learning curve. Right now he is a long way down the road, an accomplished martial artist, and when approached, a willing and skilful guide to anyone who is open to learning.
To have some idea of his qualifications as a teacher, and to understand why and how he comes to be the teacher he is, you have to know something about his background. Leon is the son of Wally and Bernice Jay – yes, that Wally and Bernice Jay – and the Professor’s successor to the leadership of the Small Circle Jujitsu School, being the Second Generation Headmaster.
Leon Jay was born in Alameda, a small island on the south side of San Francisco bay in 1955. His parents are each of mixed race: Wally is Chinese-Hawaiian; as is Bernice (who also has an English ancestor). Hawaii was the world melting pot for much of the twentieth century. Many of the best modern martial artists of all races and cultural traditions, Wally Jay not least amongst them, learned their arts on the island.
You may ask yourself what is significant about Leon’s heritage? Well, for one thing, despite coming from his family, it was never an automatic conclusion that he would inherit his father’s art – far from it. In fact, martial artists of the quality of Professor Wally Jay do not practice nepotism; they recognise it doesn’t serve the teachings they are trying to promote. Leon had to earn his rank and his inheritance the hard way. The significance of which family Leon was born into lies in the values espoused and practiced by the Jays, even more than in the incredibly high standards of technique and innovation demanded by them.
Although Leon received an education in Small Circle Judo and Jujitsu from his father from the age of 2, he was always interested in other arts. He holds the ranks of Shodan in Kodokan Judo, 1st Degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and Sandan in the Kodenkan ju-jutsu system of Professor Henry Okazaki, his father’s original sensei.
His father had always encouraged him to seek out other arts, and like many young men, particularly during his teenage years, Leon looked at a number of systems, seeking the exotic – having been surrounded by the highest standard of martial artists from his earliest memories, Leon simply thought this was normal. What it would take to impress Leon, I really can’t say; this is a man who can recall often coming home from high school to find Bruce Lee sitting on his doorstep, waiting for Professor Wally Jay to arrive home from work. Once the Professor was there, he and Bruce would push the living room furniture out of the way, and punctuate their long talks on the arts, with graphic, and tangible, illustrations of their points.
Leon began studying Tae Kwon Do at the age of 18, gaining his black belt when he was 20. He had to be banned by his teacher from grappling, as he had a tendency to capture his opponent’s kicking leg in sparring, throwing them on their faces and placing them in his father’s trademark ‘pretzel’ hold. In 1986 Leon was injured in a road accident; he still experiences stiffness in his upper back and shoulders – not that you would ever notice – and the damage to his back won’t allow the use of a lot of high kicks. But then, as he points out, he never kicks above the waist; with one notable exception when he decided he needed a little more room to work, and pushed a would-be assailant across the room with a side-kick to the chest, thus discouraging him from continuing with the attack.
As a result he returned to concentrated study and teaching of Small Circle in April 1990 after he settled in Surrey, having married his lovely English wife, Sandra. By this time, his father had begun to collaborate with two other world-famous martial artists – Remy Presas and George Dillman – and the three often presented seminars together. After Leon hosted the first of a series of seminars in Surrey, where both the Professor and Dillman Sensei taught, he began to extend his studies with Kyusho Jutsu and Tuite. Mr. Dillman had already found the Small Circle concept had further improved his grappling skills, and the Professor that Kyusho pressure point knowledge had furthered the effectiveness of his locking and throwing skills.
Leon threw himself into the study of Kyusho Jutsu and Tuite, and took further tuition in a wide variety of arts with John Mellon, a London-based teacher, in between his regular teaching and flying off frequently to assist his father in seminars. In 1997, the Professor seeing the commitment with which his son had studied and promoted the family art, and his continued development in more than one skill area, decided it was time to name him Soke Dai. As someone who has often been a guest in Leon’s Leatherhead dojo, I can testify to the effectiveness of his skills and his ability to pass those skills on. It seems that other martial artists hold Leon in the same high regard; George Dillman awarded Leon his 8th Dan in Tuite, and in 1998, Pat McCarthy, an American Sensei known as ‘the Black Ship’ of karate, the only westerner to hold a 7th Dan ranking from the Botutukai, named Leon a 5th Dan in Karate. Leon has performed many knockouts on volunteers in his Small Circle/Kyusho Jutsu seminars around the world.
There are a number of other instructors out there, who claim knowledge of the material Leon has mastered. He doesn’t bother to challenge their claims – it’s not in the Jay character to do so – he simply shrugs and smiles, and relies on his own level of skill to do the talking. As it is, there are only two other individuals in Europe who have the Professor’s permission to teach Small Circle, and they don’t presume to do so; by their own admission, they simply recommend the Jay family art, and will attempt to demonstrate the basic principles of the art to interested students. As for the Kyusho Jutsu skills, there are very few sources of this information, certainly within the karate field, though similar, rarely taught knowledge does exist within other systems. George Dillman is the likely originating source of this material for most European karate instructors, and out of those who have studied with Dillman sensei, Leon has logged the most training time with him. However there seems to be a worrying belief held by some sections of the martial arts world, that it is sufficient to host a seminar by a great instructor, write a book based on that singular experience, and then go on the road, teaching the skills you’ve developed so suddenly.
If Leon’s family background signifies in all of this, apart from the fact of having two incredible martial artists as parents, it is in two fundamental ways. The first of these is a family attitude towards education and self-improvement; very simply, it is that you should remain a life-long student, and a day without learning is a wasted day. The second, and something that all of us could well aspire to, is the Hawaiian concept of Kokua, or hospitality. There is a wonderful atmosphere in Leon’s dojo, welcoming and open-minded, with the students’ intent upon learning while having a thoroughly good time doing it. Anyone who has had the privilege of spending time around Wally and Bernice Jay, the two most generous spirited people I’ve ever met, will be familiar with the feeling this generates.
Leon’s latest innovation is the Small Circle Concepts Programme, a training programme designed to allow non-Small Circle Ju-jitsu practitioners to acquire certain key skills, mechanics and techniques from the system. The programme was co-authored with John Mellon, the head of the Munen Muso Ryu and a long-time friend and technical advisor to the Jay family, and is structured to allow martial artists from any background to learn signature principles and techniques from Small Circle to supplement their own art. Leon says, “If you ask almost any other martial artist what they know about Small Circle, they’ll say ‘Finger Locks’! It’s entirely understandable, as they’re pretty spectacular techniques, and in a way they really do encapsulate the essence of what makes Small Circle different, and that is the sheer mechanical efficiency of the art.
“We’ve been very careful in structuring the Programme, which is seminar-based, with a number of modules dealing with distinct skill-areas. Everyone starts with the same seminar, kind of a ‘Small Circle 101’, in which the core mechanics are taught. After that, if the student wants to pursue it further, there are core modules on Entry Techniques, Body Throws, Wrist Locks and Finger Locks, with supplementary modules on Counter-Throws and Transitional Flow, and these can all be studied in isolation or in any order. Anyone who completes all of these has the opportunity to enter Instructor Training for the Programme. The idea is to make it all accessible to other stylists who may want to supplement their own system and develop some of the Small Circle grappling skills without having to convert.”
I can thoroughly recommend training with Leon Jay whatever your personal martial arts background. Doing so can only increase your knowledge and your perspective on the arts – I for one have met many wonderful martial artists through my association with his family, and benefited correspondingly. Try it – you will like it!
Written by John Mellon