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When sons reach 10 years of age they enter Nisshinkan, Clan’s school. During the first year they learned Nisshinkan Kokoroe (日新館心得 Rules and etiquette taught at Nisshinkan) that consisted of 17 principles that are more expanded and thorough than those of the Ju no okite.
Here are 17 principles these children had to learn. I will be the translator and I will take full responsibility for the accuracy of the translation.
- 1. Every morning, you must get up early, wash your face and hands, brush your teeth, comb your hair, put on your clothes properly, and give morning greetings to your parents. Clean the house to the degree according to age, so that you can receive a visitor at any time.
- Be sure to assist in the meal preparation with your parents and the elders. Also, prepare tea and tobacco. When you sit at the same table with your parents, do not start eating before them. In the rare case when you must eat first, you must explain the reasons to your parents and get their permission before hand.
- When your parents leave or return home, or when you have a visitor, you must both greet them and see them off at the entrance door.
- You must tell your parents your destination when you leave the house. You also must inform them of your return by telling them, “I am home”. You must get permission from your parents on everything and you must not do anything at your own convenience.
- When talking to your parents and the elders, do not communicate with them standing up. In addition, do not put your hands in your pockets even when it is very cold. Do not use a fan, take off the jacket or raise the bottom of your kimono when it’s hot. You must not display or leave anything that is dirty in front of your parents.
- When you receive errands from your parents or from the elders, accept them courteously and be sure to complete the tasks. When they call you, reply promptly and pay full attention to them. No matter what happens you must not fail to complete the tasks and never answer them back rudely.
- If your parents recommend that you should wear more clothes because they think it is cold, accept their recommendation even if you do not feel cold. Furthermore, if they prepare new clothes for you, wear them even if you do not like them.
- You must not step on the tatami mat where your parents are normally. Also, you must reserve the center part of the road to an adult samurai thus children must walk on the edges of the road. You must not step on the base plank of a gate and you must walk through by the edges. This must be enforced especially with the gates where the senior rank samurai walk through.
To step on the base plank of the gate is considered to be bad luck in Japan. This is because we believe there is a certain guarding god in the gate who is protecting the people from the bad luck of the outside world, thus you are not allowed to step on it. See the photo on the right, a gate of a typical samurai house.
- When you meet a teacher or someone who is a friend of your parents, be sure to greet them from the edge of the road. Never ask them where they are going. If you have to walk along, be sure to walk behind them.
- Do not speak ill of others, or laugh at them without justifiable reasons. Do not play in dangerous places, climb to high places, or play near deep rivers and ponds.
- You must start by learning things first. And when you learn, correct your posture, with sincere desire to learn. You must learn from others with respect from the bottom of your heart.
- How you wear your clothes shows the class of person you are. You must wear your clothes correctly so that you will look properly as a samurai. Never engage an action that would receive criticism from others. You must certainly speak properly and formally to another person regardless of how closely you know that person. Also, do not speak a vulgar language that is not understood by the people from another clan.
- Even if you are presenting a gift to a person, you must always add a comment that your father gave him his best regards. When you receive a gift, you must always not only give your thanks but also comment that your parents will also be pleased. We must always bring our parents up front, and show to the others that a samurai child does not handle things all by himself.
- When you help your parents, do not try to save your effort even a little. Work hard with your full attention and earnest.
- When a high-ranking samurai or a senior person visits you, you must stand up to greet him. You must also stand up to see him off when he leaves. In addition, in front of a guest, you should never yell at a servant, or even a dog or a cat. Also, you must not engage in a manner that could be considered as rude, in front of a senior person. Rude manners also include spitting, burping, sneezing, yawning, looking without attention, stretching, and leaning against something.
- If a senior person asks a question, first you must look around to see if someone else, who you think is better qualified, wants to answer. If so, let that person answer first. Do not show off your knowledge by answering first.
- Avoid joining a party where they drink alcohol. Do not look for visiting places where young women serve alcohol without doing your work.
It is true that young men want to spend time with young women. If such an action becomes a habit, it may lead you into a big mistake in your later life. If such a thing happens then it will be a very disgraceful and shameful matter. Therefore, it is very important to keep a distance between a boy and a girl. It is also important not to talk about your dating with a girl.
In addition, you must not use a vulgar language to make your friends laugh and to engage in a careless action. In addition, remember that when you lose your cool head, it leads you to a fight. So, you must always pay full attention in controlling your feelings in order to avoid a fight.
This concludes the 17 kun list. What did you think of the rules? Are they too strict or too controlling? Do not be surprised, there is even a longer list of 31 kun for the older samurai children! In Part 3, you will find out what are those rules that were taught several hundred years ago.
I am happy to announce that my fourth book was published from Amazon Books on May 1, 2017.
The title is “Karatedo Paradigm Shift“.
It comes in Paper back and Kindle versions.
Get your copy from Amazon Books and here are the links:
Now, comparing a Japanese sensei and a non-Japanese sensei can be a sensitive and controversial subject. In fact, I consider this comparison almost meaningless as each sensei is different and their qualifications vary vastly. In most cases, it does not matter where they come from.
Having said that I have my personal opinion which I am happy to share here. I decided to write this essay because I have received a few inquiries that were something like this. “Dear sensei, I need your help. I live in xxx (most of the time, from a European country). I have been looking for a karate dojo but I cannot find one with a Japanese sensei. What can I do?”
First of all, we must ask if a Japanese sensei is absolutely necessary when you first learn karate. I can firmly say it is not necessary. I am very much aware there is a sentiment and natural want for a Japanese sensei by a person who wants to start karate training. You automatically believe or want to believe that a Japanese sensei must be an “excellent” instructor and better than a non-Japanese one.
As a matter of fact, there are a few negative sides of having a Japanese sensei when you start your karate training. The Japanese people are known to have poor command of the English language. I cannot say this about other languages such as Spanish, German, French, etc. so my statement here may not apply to all the Japanese sensei who reside outside of Japan. I say this only from my experience with the Japanese sensei in the USA. Secondly, if a certain Japanese sensei is very senior and has many students, then you, as a beginner, may not be able to be directly taught by the Japanese sensei. You may get your training under the assistant (of course, non-Japanese) instructors for many months and possibly a few years.
If a senior Japanese sensei operates a dojo in or near your town or city, you can consider joining there. If not, finding a local instructor is not a problem as long as you choose a qualified one. I am not going to describe how to find a qualified instructor here. Nowadays, we have many excellent internet tools to examine the people’s background and their organizations, thus you can easily do a thorough search on a targeted instructor and/or his dojo/organization.
After meeting many non-Japanese sensei in my lifetime, I must tell you that there are many who are truly well qualified. As a matter of fact, a few are even better than some of the Japanese instructors I know.
Once you become an advanced level of Nidan or above, you may want to search for a senior Japanese instructor or to have some training in Japan to advance yourself even further. This can be a political and a sensitive move as your non-Japanese sensei may be offended and not bless your move. You must make your own decision on this matter. You must think carefully when you make your final decision, you must decide on what is the best for your karate and its development. Karate is a total package that includes not only the karate techniques but also the Japanese culture and its martial arts teaching. Therefore, a senior Japanese instructor tends to have better qualification than a non-Japanese sensei. This particular qualification is something, unfortunately, a non-Japanese instructor would lack, not due to his fault, but since he has never lived in Japan.
At the same time, you must realize that there are possibly a few downsides you may discover with a Japanese sensei. Besides the language ability, I find many Japanese instructors tend to be very political. Making a trip to Japan and training there can be very expensive as you can easily expect. Training there for one week or just a weekend seminar by a senior Japanese sensei, can be beneficial and possibly also fun. At this stage, it is totally up to the individual to decide on what is the best direction they need to take, as they continue their karate journey. I am aware that my advice here may not be too helpful. I apologize for this, but the situation and an environment of an individual practitioner differs so much, it is almost impossible to tell what is best for him.
My final advice for the practitioners who are very serious with their karate training. The most important sensei is yourself. If you are committed and determined to improve, more than half of your challenge is being met. The second important sensei is who you will follow in your daily training. The higher that sensei is (I am referring to his knowledge and not his dan rank), it is very possible that you can also develop higher. Also, remember that karate is a whole package which include not only the karate skills but also the martial arts culture and teaching. In addition, you must never forget that the character of the instructor is extremely important. If he is not the kind of person you wish to imitate, then even if he is a karate expert, he may not be your kind of sensei. You need to think what kind of person you wish to be and your sensei must be a model that you are proud to follow.
I hope you are lucky and have found such a sensei. He or she does not need to be Japanese, but must be someone you can trust and believe you can follow in their steps in your daily life. If you have not found such a person, I hope you will be determined to look for one even if it would take you several years. In Japan we have two old teachings.
One teaching is「三年勤め学ばんよりは、三年師を選ぶべし」, “Sannen tsutome manaban yoriha, sannen shi wo erabubeshi”. This means if you want to excel in budo one needs to focus one’s time on looking for an excellent sensei even if it takes three years, rather than training by yourself during that period.
The other teaching is 「師は必要な時に現われる」, “Shi ha hitsuyona tokini arawareru”. This is my favorite teaching as it means “a proper teacher will appear when the time is matured”. Isn’t this wonderful? I personally believe this teaching is true. I can say this as it has indeed happened several times in my martial arts journey during the past more than fifty years. If you have not already found a wonderful teacher and if you are having a difficulty in finding one, have faith and do not give up. I am sure you will come across with one in the future but you must keep your eyes open.
Once again I must tell you that this essay is based on my personal opinions and beliefs. What do you think? Let me hear from you and tell me about your sensei.
“What is dojo?” This may be a silly and too obvious question to most of the readers. Some of them may say, “Are you kidding us?” Some others may even believe that I am ridiculing them. I wish to assure them that I am quite serious about this subject. I believe it is more than what you are thinking, so I hope you will continue reading this essay.
When you hear the word of “dojo” most of you will think of a special place such as a gym in a school or a health spa. Some lucky people have a building where the practitioners gather to train and that is definitely a dojo. I am not disputing this. In fact, that definition is correct. However, I want to explain that a dojo can be more than this.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, dojo is defined as a school for training in various arts of self-defense (i.e. judo, kendo, karate, etc.); It further explains the origin and etymology of dojo as follow: it is from do (道) way or arts plus jo (場) groud.
I am afraid this explanation is not sufficient or even understandable. What do you think? Let me explain better. The first kanji, 道 means path, road or way. The second kanji, 場 means place or area. So those two kanji together it means a place where you seek a way. It sounds simple enough but it is not so easy if we ask the next question, “What is a way?” It is certainly not a direction to a certain place such as a Post office or a cafe. When we talk about a way in the world of karate-do or any other martial arts, the definition becomes pretty deep. Most of us have heard of karate-do but how many of them know the difference between simple karate and karate-do. You can know the difference only if you have learned the meaning of this “do” or what it stands for. This is the very key point. I will further explain as I feel all the karateka should know this.
First, I must say that it can mean various different ways depending on the persons if they are in martial arts, other arts or religion. However, if we say “karate-do”, the word of do must bring some new meaning. It typically add the element of budo to karate.
To find it one must excel in karate not only in the physical aspect but also in the mental and spiritual ways which may be as important if not more.
One good idea was shown by one of the principles of Funakoshi Niju kun.
Dojo nomino karate to omouna
“Karate goes beyond the dojo”
The translation here can be expanded a little though most of the readers understand what this kun means. Some may misunderstand that the meaning of this kun is limited only to the self-defense and danger outside of the dojo. Of course, it is included but his kun covers much more. He wanted to tell us that we have to apply all the virtues (that I mentioned above) and the self-discipline must be applied to our daily life.
Many people have asked me where I have my own dojo. Today I am answering the question.
My quick answer is that I do not have a karate studio or school in the city I reside which is an outskirt of Sacramento, the capital of California. I used to have such a facility when I lived in San Jose till 2014 before I moved. It was located in Japan-town and I was teaching there for nearly fifteen years. I had to move to the suburb of Sacramento in 2015. Since then I have not started a karate club.
Though I do not have a karate stuido or school, I still say I have my own dojo. This dojo follows me where-ever I am or go. In other words, I can practice karate both physically and mentally no matter where I may be. I spend 4 to 6 hours daily for the physical self-training. It happens in the morning starting around 7am and lasts till noon or 1pm depending on my condition. And my dojo in this situation is in the living room. When I walk at home or outside the house such as shops, side-roads, stairs, hallway, etc. I pay much attention to how I walk (balance, posture, safety in all aspects). Therefore, all the places where I walk are my dojo. When I drive (though not too often) I pay attention to beyond the cars around me. I am not just talking about the police cars behind me or hiding behind a tree, but more importantly (at least to me) I pay attention to my breathing and mind calmness. If I am not driving then I still pay attention to the surroundings as well as the breathing and my posturing. Thus, the car I drive or ride becomes my dojo. I wrote an essay about this and it is included in one of my books, Shotokan Transcendence. The title is Jidosha Dojo (Automobile Dojo). I also read the books, articles, etc. for my research in the area of budo almost daily. Therefore, my study room is indeed my dojo.
Now that you have found what I think of a dojo, I would like to to ask what does a dojo mean to you?
Ju no okite 「什の掟」: Kun for six to nine year old sons of samurai
As many of the readers already know that the samurai had a very strong mindset and spirit. There are many reasons why but it is true that they could be very brave because they were not afraid of dying. At the same time, they followed a high standard of discipline similar to that of modern day soldiers.
However, it was more comprehensive, meaning it dictated their on and off duty conduct or way of life. The modern day Japanese are also known for their discipline and a high standard of conduct, but these modern day Japanese claim the discipline that the samurai had is almost impossible to duplicate. How did the samurai acquire such a high degree of discipline? Of course, their parents and senior family members taught them the rules but what we must remember is that their schooling was well organized in the feudal period of Japan.
Today I am sharing a well-known (in Japan) example of a teaching at one samurai clan.
The following kun (oath or rules) are for the male children (younger than ten years old) of Aizu-han (会津藩) or samurai clan families. Aizu han was located over the area that covers the western region of what is now the current Fukushima Prefecture (福島県), a part of the Niigata Prefecture (新潟県) and a part of the Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県). Aizu-han samurai were known to be very stubborn or strong minded.
First, we must look at the history of Japan in the last half of the 19th century to appreciate the mentality or the attitude of the Aizu bushi or samurai. That particular period is called Bakumatsu (幕末) and was an extremely turbulent and exciting (for the history buffs like myself) period with many battles and wars between the shogun (将軍) and the imperial (官軍) forces. Bakumatsu refers to the final years of the Edo period when the Tokugawa Shogunate ended. Between 1853 and 1867 Japan ended sakoku (鎖国), its isolationist policy. This changed from a fuedal shogunate system to the pre-modern empire of the Meiji government. The major ideological-political divide during this period was between the pro-imperial nationalists (維新志士) and the Shogunate forces.
Although these two groups were the most visible powers, many other factions attempted to use the chaos of Bakumatsu to seize personal power. Furthermore, there were two other main driving forces for dissent: first, growing resentment on the part of the tozama daimyo (外様大名 outside lords), and second, growing anti-western sentiment following the arrival of Commodore Perry. The first related to those lords who had fought against Tokugawa forces at the Battle of Sekigahara (関ケ原合戦) in 1600 and had from that point on been permanently excluded from all powerful positions within the shogunate. The second was to be expressed in the phrase sonno joi (尊王攘夷), or “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians”. The turning point of the Bakumatsu was during the Boshin War (戊辰戦争) and the Battle of Toba-Fushimi (鳥羽伏見の戦い) when the pro-shogunate forces were defeated
The Battle of Aizu (会津戦争) was fought in northern Japan in the autumn of 1868, and was a part of the Boshin War. Aizu bushi or samurai were known for their martial skills. The clan maintained, at any given time, a standing army of over 5000. It was often deployed to security operations on the northern fringes of the country, as far north as southern Sakhalin. Also, in the period immediately before, during, and after Commodoare Perry’s arrival, Aizu had a presence in security operations around Edo Bay (江戸湾). During the tenure of the 9th generation lord Matsudaira Katamori (松平容保 photo right), the clan deployed massive amounts of their troops to Kyoto, where Katamori served as Kyoto Shugoshoku (京都守護職), Kyoto Guarding Marshall. Earning the hatred of the Choshu clan (長州藩), and alienating his ally, the Satsuma clan (薩摩藩), Katamori retreated with the shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu (徳川慶喜) in 1868.
Though the Satsuma-Choshu controlled Imperial Court, following Yoshinobu’s resignation, called for the punishment of Katamori and Aizu as “enemies of the Court,” he took great pains to beg for forgiveness, finally acquiescing to calls for war later in 1868, during the Boshin War. Though the Aizu forces fought as part of the greater efforts of the Ouetsu Reppan Domei (欧越列藩同盟 European Column Alliance), they were eventually abandoned (after the loss at the Battle of Bonari Toge, 母成峠の戦い) by the forces of the former Bakufu under Otori Keisuke (大鳥圭介). Aizu, now fighting alone, had its forces besieged at Tsuruga Castle (鶴ヶ城), the seat of the Aizu clan, in October 1868. This was the start of a month-long siege.
A detached unit from the Byakkotai (白虎隊), a teenage samurai team, is famous for having committed seppuku (切腹 hara kiri) on Mount Iimori (飯盛山), overlooking the castle. Because of the smoke from the burning castle town, which was in between them and the castle itself, they mistakenly assumed that the castle had fallen. Their story is known because of the only one among them whose suicide was unsuccessful: Iinuma Sadakichi (飯沼定吉). A remnant of Shinsengumi (新選組), a unit which Aizu had supervised while in Kyoto, was present at the battle, under the command of Saito Hajime (斎藤一). After a month of siege, Aizu officials agreed to surrender, through the mediation of their neighbor, the Yonezawa Clan (米沢藩). Soon after, Matsuraida Katamori, his son Nobunori (松平伸典), and the senior retainers came before the imperial commanders in person, and offered their unconditional surrender. The samurai group was sent away as the prisoners of war, and the Aizu clan ceased to exist.
In order to create the stubborn samurai like Aizu bushi, they established a schooling system for their sons. What did they teach?
All the male children from the ages of six to nine from the officer level samurai families were required to form a group of approximately ten children. Thus, these groups are called Ju no kumi (什の組, groups of ten children). Each group will meet daily and the oldest child became the leader. Even though they were not supervised by any adults, they met every day and recited these rules. After that, each student would report to the class if his life style on the day before was lived according to the rules. If he admitted that he violated any of the rules, the senior student would give him a penalty. The severity of the penalty depended on the degree of the violation. This program was informally initiated in 1664. The idea of the formal school, Nisshinkan was conceived in 1798 and was formally established in 1803.
The building was 109 meters wide and 218 meters long(photo right). It also had a swimming pool and an observatory. It contained between 1,000 and 1,300 students. The education started at eight o’clock and they learned 11 different volumes of Chinese classical books including Confucian Analects (論語), the Great Learning (大学), Kokyo (孝経) and the Small Learning (小学). In addition, they learned the samurai etiquette, Chinese writing and various martial arts. These male students studied there daily starting at the age of ten years old until fifteen or sixteen years old, prior to their genpuku (becoming adult) ceremony.
Ju no Okite (The rules for the children up to nine years old)
There are seven basic rules the children must follow:
*Must not disobey the elders (someone who is older than the person)
* Must bow to the elders.
* Do not lie.
* Do not be a coward.
* Do not bully the weak persons.
* Do not eat things outside the house.
* Do not speak to women outside the house.
These are the seven rules, but there is an ending sentence that is very interesting.
“These rules say no, thus you must follow without fail.”
The older children had a longer list of the samurai rules they needed to learn. The longer list will be introduced in the Part 2 of Nisshinkan Doji Kun.
I will cover the longer list in the future.
In the past I have picked out and discussed several interesting subjects from Heian Shodan. You can find them in my blog or in my books if you wish to read them. So, you would wonder if there could be another subject worthwhile to discuss from this basic kata.
Indeed, there is still an important subject that, I feel, needs our attention and maybe a better understanding. Once again, I am picking a subject that no-one else (as far as I know) has ever paid much attention to in the past. Some of the readers may not agree with what I present here but I think it is worthwhile to give you my explanation and opinion.
OK, today’s subject is the seventh movement of Heian Shodan. First, we need to agree on exactly which technique is the 7th move. Believe it or not, we need to take this process because it is almost a forgotten move. Here is one popular diagram of Heian Shodan (left) in which the first eight moves are shown. The sixth move is easy to see, as I am sure, we can all agree, it is the left side gedan barai facing shomen (the second image from far right). So, what is the next step? In the illustration it is shown as “step forward and a right side jodan age uke” (the far right image). What’s wrong with this? Were you taught this way? If you had learned Heian Shodan this way, I am sorry to tell you that you learned or were taught incorrectly. You might be shocked with this statement since this kata is taught this way in many dojo these days. In fact, I have learned recently that the JKF (Japan Karate Federation, the sport karate organization in Japan) has decided to omit this move. That decision may have influenced other major Shotokan organizations such as JKA and JKS to follow suit. A recent JKA kata manual for competition, illustration below shows this omission (photo leftt).
So, what do you think is wrong with this? A hint is that one important movement is missing. If you are from the old school, you can quickly point out, “Oh the next move is left hand jodan shuto age uke.” Yes, this is the answer I was looking for. I want to share how this kata was taught to me over 50 years ago. Here is a page from one of the Best Karate books (by Masatoshi Nakayama ). In it Osaka sensei is performing the first seven steps of Heian Shodan (photo right). See the sequence is this photo. The key move is numbered as 7a. When I learned this kata long time ago, we were taught kaishu age uke as a transitional move. We are to execute kaishu age uke during the stepping forward motion with your right foot.
In later editions of the same Best Karate Books (Vol. 5) the designation 7A and 7B were eliminated and were combined into the one movement of 7. In the photo below, you will find that this move is not mentioned and is shown only as a transitional move. The term of hidari jodan age uke is left out.
But we need to look even further into the history of this kata. Here are the photos from Master Funakoshi’s Karatedo Kyohan (空手道教範). The photo below left is from the Japanese version (1936 edition) and the English version (photo below right) is from an edition translated by Harumi Suzuki Johnson (2005 edition).
You can clearly see that Funakoshi put this 7th move as an independent move. He also explained on the page that this move is a combination move of jodan block from gedan block (6th move). He did not say it was a preparation move for right age uke or this should be treated as a transitional move.
OK it may look like I am paying too much attention to this point, but I do not think I am. I am doing this because I consider it an extremely important point for the readers to know. I feel I needed to mention this before we go on to the main point that I will discuss below.
Let’s go back to the main point of this left side kaishu (open hand) age uke technique. You should do this technique without changing the stance, left side zenkutsu dachi. What is most important, however, is that you execute this technique by moving your left arm alone. When you think of this technique in depth, wouldn’t you agree this is not the standard way to do jodan age uke? When you were a white belt, I assume, you would have learned how to do jodan age uke in the way that is shown in the photo sequence shown below. Though it is probably unnecessary to describe the process of this technique as it is almost too obvious. However, I will describe the details of this technique later. This single arm movement of jodan age-uke is the very point of the subject of this essay.
Have you asked your sensei, why we need to do this? If you did, then what did your sensei tell you? He probably told you that pulling the left arm is called hikite which, by pulling it back, gives speed and power to the rising block, jodan age uke. The details of age uke technique are shown blow in the photo sequence (demonstrated by Hidetaka Nishiyama). Since you were only a white belt or a beginner, I am sure you convinced yourself that you understood this explanation. You would say, “Yes, hikite is important as we use this in almost all the techniques such as gyaku zuki, soto uke, uchi uke, gedan barai, and many other.” This understanding is ok for white belts and beginners. However, this is not an acceptable explanation for the advanced practitioners. This is why I am writing this essay. Are you surprised?
Before we go into the in-depth explanation of this move, let me ask you one key question. Did your sensei explain the bunkai for this (the seventh) move? In most of the dojo I am sure the instructors typically skip bunkai for the white belts. I think that is a wise choice as I also believe that the white belts should not worry about bunkai at their level. Despite that, if your sensei bothered to explain, he probably described the meaning as follow: the sixth move, gedan barai, means a down-block to either the opponent’s right mae geri (left side of the photo) or right chudan oizuki. The seventh move starts with a left jodan block (with a shuto or open hand) to the opponent’s right jodan oizuki (right side of the photo, the demonstration here is done with a closed fist) or his left jodan oizuki. Then grab the opponent’s wrist with your left hand and step forward to deliver a counter attack. One popular bunkai shows an elbow joint attack (illustration right). Frankly I must point out that the illustration I found in the public domain is very unrealistic. It assumes the opponent who performed a right jodan gyaku zuki would step back so that the defender (person on the left) can step forward to give an elbow joint attack. Would you not agree that this is very unrealistic? The natural reaction of the attacker would be to stay where he is and immediately strike with his left fist while he tries to pull his right wrist back. Why would he step back? It does not make any sense. The second unrealistic move is an elbow joint attack itself. Even if we assume, no matter how unrealistic it may be, the opponent stepped back, why would the defender want to execute a not so effective counter attack? It certainly does not look like a good choice. I will present a much better bunkai idea later.
If you are an advanced (brown belt and above) practitioner you need to know the bunkai, so I am pretty sure you have studied this or seen this in the video demonstration published by a certain major Japanese Shotokan karate organization. Am I saying that those bunkai ideas mentioned earlier are wrong? No, for the white belt students they are acceptable ideas. What I am saying is that different bunkai ideas are much more appropriate and realistic, especially for the advanced practitioners. Though the bunkai idea is not the core of this discussion, the application of this technique is. If you agree that the 7th or 7a move, a shuto jodan age uke, is considered as a legitimate blocking technique, then why did we learn the other method of age uke using both arms (photo left)? Is this 7a move, a non-crossing method of age uke, an exception? This is something all the advanced practitioners should ask and find the answer. Here is, indeed, a hidden teaching which has been forgotten or ignored by most of the instructors these days.
For the white belt students we teach techniques using both arms as it is easier to perform the technique correctly as well as the body motion resulting in sufficient power. If you teach them how to do those techniques using a single arm, their techniques will be inaccurate and done with much less power. Therefore, the white belts should not be taught the real meaning of this motion. As we advance in the karate skills, we must be able to execute almost all the arm techniques singularly. Of course, there are some exceptions that require both arms, morote waza (諸手技) of various types including hikite (引手), kakiwake (掻き分け), kosa uke (交差受け) or kosa uchi (交差打ち), etc. In other words, as an advanced practitioner we need to be able to execute our arm techniques effectively using only one arm. This means the management of one arm should be totally independent and not to be affected by the other arm as well as the legs unless it is working in coordination with them.
Therefore, I regard this step as a full independent move and not a transitional one or a part of the next step. This single arm technique is not an exception but rather an introduction to an advanced technique. So, I suggest to the advanced practitioners to make a full technique with this move, instead of executing it only as a preparation or a transitional move.
I want to bring up another important subject that is not known by many practitioners. I have mentioned this in another essay in the past. I need to mention it again here because it is the very essence of the technique that is often misunderstood or even unknown for many practitioners.
The subject I am referring to here is the relationship between the techniques and their names. This may seem like a minor subject but it isn’t. We must understand the history of Okinawan karate or Te or Tei (手) to know the reasons. Until the 20th century, the techniques did not have names. This may be extremely difficult to believe for most of the practitioners these days. It was not because the Okinawan masters were illiterate or uneducated. It was certainly because of some other reasons.
First, they did not want to put one name to each technique. If you are a beginner you may have difficulty in understanding this statement. Allow me to explain it further with some facts. Let’s take this technique of jodan age uke. This technique can, of course, be a jodan level block but at the same time, the same technique or arm movement can be used for attacking techniques such as kentsui uchi going upward or jowan uchi, a forearm strike. Even though the arm movement is different, the final form of a jodan mawashi uchi (roundhouse punch) would look like the form of jodan age uke. Thus, they must have known that tagging the names to the techniques would only cause confusion.
Another fact is that before the 20th century, one master typically would have only one or two students. In other words, each sensei used to teach karate in a one to one basis. In a face to face environment, a master would only show how to do the techniques.
In addition, the Japanese culture is we prefer to teach by demonstrations. The verbal teaching was and still is not considered as the best method. So, an Okinawan sensei most likely did not explain much and definitely he did not consider tagging names to techniques at all. For example, to explain the seventh move of Heian Shodan, he would tell the student, “OK bring your right arm this way and do this, etc.”, “Yes, in this case, you will block the opponent, etc.”, “But if he is here, then you will not block but rather strike the opponent under the chin, etc.”, and so on.
By labeling a certain technique as jodan age uke, the practitioners tend to assume that such a technique is used only for blocking purposes. This is exactly what has happened with the seventh move of Heian Shodan. As the technique was labelled as jodan shuto age uke so you assumed the bunkai would have to look like the photo on the right. That is acceptable as just one of the options. However, I wish to suggest that it would make better sense, for the 7th move, if we use the left shuto to strike in the opponent’s neck (photo right).
In the 8th or 9th move, you would strike in the opponent’s neck or the side of the head (photo left). Isn’t this application more realistic and effective than an elbow joint attack?
You may agree with my ideas for bunkai up to now. Then, let me ask you the following question. Why did the creator of this kata, Anko Itosu (糸洲安恒), put in four jodan age ukes (the first one is in shuto hand)? There are at least two answers.
The first answer is Master Itosu thought this technique (currently called jodan age uke) is a very important technique and it should be practiced in a sequence of four times. This can be said for the chudan oizuki in the latter half of this technique (done three times in a row) as well as the chudan shuto uke at the end of this kata. The second answer to the question above is that Master Itosu wanted to show us that there are many different applications using this technique. It can be used as a block using a shuto hand or a fist, a forearm strike, or an elbow joint attack, or even a jodan mawashi uchi (photo right). This idea supports my earlier statement that the Okinawan masters prior to the 20th century did not want to tag a name to a certain technique.
I want to mention another interesting hidden fact of Heian Shodan kata. Many people notice a curious point of the tate kentsui uchi (vertical hammer fist, photo below) that is found in the 4th move.
Many question if this technique could be an anomaly in the seemingly symmetrical kata. We wonder why Itosu didn’t put the same technique going to the left side. Instead, they should have noticed that the right fist is being used as a counter attack right after gedan barai. Yes, this is the same concept you find in the 6th and 7th (or 7a) move, gedan barai and jodan shuto uchi (I prefer to call it this rather than age uke). The 4th move was done with the right arm and the transitional move to the 7th (or 7a) move was done with the left arm. Though it may not look symmetrical in its enbusen, as far as the concept of the techniques now we can see it was planned symmetrical or at least well balanced on using this unique technique on both sides. Itosu hid (most likely intentionally) this advanced technique in the kata that is considered as an “easy” kata. I hope you are happy to find the answer to this puzzle.
- 1. The transitional jodan shuto uke which I believe to be the 7th (or 7a move) of Heian Shodan, is the advanced form of age uke and should be a single arm technique. This teaches the advanced students to perform the arm techniques of uke as well as uchi in single arm movement.
- Often, the names of the techniques do not really mean the true applications. Do not let the names influence you incorrectly in bunkai.
- Many of the bunkai ideas spread around the world are very unrealistic. The advanced students should not accept only one or two ideas. I ask them to spend more energy in their effort to figure out the applications that are more realistic and usable in a real fight. If the techniques do not work in a real fight then what is the kata worth?
Heian Shodan is the very first kata for most of the Shotokan practitioners and age uke is one of the first techniques those beginners to learn. Though these matters are so “elementary” and almost matter of of-course, we must pay closer attention to those subjects as we advance. In doing so, we will discover some new meaning and a new horizon of the karate that will take us to a higher level of understanding of this martial art. I look forward to hearing what the readers think about this subject that was discussed in this essay.
First of all, we should define what rasen (螺旋) or spiral is. In Dictionary.com, spiral is defined as: In Geometry, a plane curve generated by a point moving around a fixed point while constantly receding from or approaching it. This can be found in the natural world such as some shells, plants, bugs and even animals.
In this essay, I wish to share one secret technique of Asai ryu karate with the readers. The fist is called rasen ken (螺旋拳 spiral fist) or in-yo no ken (陰陽の拳 yin yang fist). This fist is being taught in Taiwan among the White Crane kung fu practitioners, but I am not sure if it is being taught in Okinawa. Regardless, I am afraid it is almost forgotten in the traditional karate styles.
Rasen ken or in-yo no ken is consisted of two different styles of a fist. In other words, it has yin-fist and Yo-fist. Yin or In (陰) means moon, shadow or negative. Yo (陽) means sun, bright or positive. With this definition, I am sure the readers will have very little idea what this technique is all about.
This technique is one of the furiken (振り拳) or whip fist techniques. Most of the readers are familiar with uraken (裏拳 photo below left). This technique can be a furiken if it is used with a large and circular arm motion. There is another furiken technique that you are probably familiar, mawashi uchi (photo below right). In short, a furiken technique is defined as a fist whipping technique with a large and circular arm motion. The arm motion can be horizontal but it can be also diagonal or even vertical. The angles and the directions do not matter.
The important thing is that your arm will swing starting from the shoulder (along with the twisting of the shoulders and the total upper body in many cases).
Furiken techniques, unfortunately are not too popular among the traditional karate styles due to the immense popularity of sport karate. Maybe I do not need to explain as it is very obvious. Most of the furiken techniques will not be able to gain a point in tournament kumite thus they are being ignored or forgotten. On the other hand, these techniques are considered to be one of the key techniques in budo karate including Asai ryu karate.
I assume that now you have a general idea of what furiken techniques are. OK then, let me explain what rasen ken is and how it is used.
Before we go into the explanation, I need to mention something. I needed some photos of a fist demonstrating the technique for this essay. I looked for the appropriate photos, however, unfortunately, I could not find any photos of this nature except one in the public domain. As a result, the photos of the close-up view of a fist used in this essay are the images of my fist.
Yo (sun) fist or Yo-ken (陽拳):
OK, as I have explained earlier there are two separate fists and let us start with Yo ken (sun or positive fist). Look at the two photos shown below. As you can see, yo or yang fist looks very similar to ippon ken. The photo on the left shows the palm side and the one on the right is from the knuckle side of the same fist.
It is difficult to see the spiral shape in the fist form by looking at these photos. I suggest that you will form one with your own hand. If you have the fingers lined up correctly, you can see that the second joints of the fingers (but excluding the thumb) are lined up in a beautiful spiral shape. Thought it is important to form your fist this way, forming itself is not the ultimate objective of this fist. Just remember that this form is only a bi-product.
The key point of this fist is that you need to tighten the little finger most securely against the palm, then tighten the other three fingers naturally. The third joint of the index finger will not be bent and you will form an ippon ken. Another key point is the base of the thumb should be pressed against the finger-tips of the middle and ring fingers.
After having rolled in the four fingers, place the thumb on top of the index finger between the first and second joints. The thumb, then presses the index finger down firmly (photo below left: note this photo is used to show the thumb and the index finger, therefore, the thumb base and the middle finger are not forming correctly). The thumb is fully extended and it will line up parallel with the base of the index finger (photo below right).
When you strike there are two methods. One way is to use the index finger ippon ken where the thumb performs as a support to the ippon ken. The other way is to use the first knuckle of the thumb (Uechi ryu practitioners should be familiar with this method). The key point for both methods is the little finger which must be tightened most firmly.
In (Moon) fist or In-ken (陰拳):
The second fist is In (moon or shadow) fist. Two photos below show the fist from the palm and the knuckle sides. To make this fist, it is important that you must start from Yo (sun) fist that was described in detail above. The key point is that you will keep the fist and you will move only the knuckles to change the fist-forms between Yo and In.
Remember that the fingers must be, in general, touching each other all through this process. In other words, do not open the hand or make any space between the fingers during the process. For the In-fist, you will squeeze the thumb tightly against the side of the index finger as seen in the photo (above left). You must tighten the index finger most firmly. Two fingers (middle and ring) are rolled in with the natural firmness but the little finger will be extended at the third joint (photo left).
From these photos I am afraid the spiral form of the fist is still not too visible. Though it is not that important about the fist form, you are welcome to make this fist with your hand if you wish to see a spiral form (provided you have the correct form).
What is important here is to know how to use this fist. With the In-fist, you can hit a target with any of the finger knuckles, however, the little finger knuckle is most frequently used in this fist. To use In-fist with the little finger knuckle, you need to swing your arm in a reverse way. If you are using your right fist, the right arm will swing clockwise starting from your left chest or shoulder. The movement will be similar to uraken uchi, except the hitting point will be at the second joint of the little finger.
Can this fist be used in a regular circular motion of mawashi uchi (counter clockwise with the right fist)? Yes, it is possible and can be done with In-fist. This fist is not common even among the kung fu styles. Luckily, I could find one photo demonstrating a Japanese Pa Gua practitioner (photo below). As you can see, he is delivering enpi uchi with his right elbow and simultaneously executing a chudan strike with his left In-fist (the opponent on the left side in karate uniform is famous Naka of JKA).
On the other hand, using Yo-fist and hitting with the index or thumb knuckle is much more common in the regular circular motion. Try these fists and see how they work then you can easily see why one way is much easier and also more practical than the other. Now you understand how to make the fists and how to use them individually. That is the first step and now you need to move on to the second step.
What you need to practice is to shift these fists smoothly. However, at least initially, I assume that your knuckles move or fist shifting may be awkward or not smooth. You have to repeat this exercise hundreds of times before it can become natural and smooth. Once, the shifting becomes smooth, it is important that you can do this very quickly. This is because these two fists are often used in the same combination.
The typical combination is as follows. Let’s assume that you are using your right fist. First, the attacking arm will move in a semi-circular movement similar to mawashi zuki in counter clockwise direction. The first impact will be either with the thumb or index knuckle (Yo-fist). Right after the first attack is completed, the arm direction will be reversed (or to clockwise) and hit with the little finger knuckle. For the second impact it must be done with In-fist. If you keep the fist in Yo-fist, it will become kentsui uchi or hammer fist. Of course, that is also an option. However, a hammer fist has a large impact area which means the impact energy will be spread over a large area which results in less impact power. Thus, you want to have a small impact point or a single knuckle. This is why you need to change your fist quickly to In-fist to stick out the little finger knuckle. The arm will swing like a windshield wiper. Between the two hits or impacts, now you can understand why the fist-form must change very quickly.
By practicing these two fist forms of Yo-fist and In-fist, your arms will move if both arms swing more than once, you may be able to swing them in the spiral and possibly vortex motion. Why not include this fist in your repertoire? Try this technique in your kumite training and see if it works for you. Good luck!
For the senior karate practitioners, the fumikomi technique must be very familiar. The readers all know that this technique is found in many of the Shotokan kata including Heian and Tekki. I could choose any of those kata but for this essay, I decided to pick Jion to discuss this subject and I will explain later why.
In Jion (ジオン or 慈恩) kata, the kuro obi practitioners know that it has one interesting sequence of techniques of fumikomi (踏み込み, stomping foot) and chudan uchi otoshi uke (打ち落し受け, drop forearm block, photo below) in the 43rd, 44th and 45th steps.
When I learned this kata more than 40 years ago, I was taught to stomp down and hit the floor as hard as possible with my foot. The bunkai for this combination was the otoshi uke to a chudan oizuki attack and simultaneously you will stomp the opponent’s front foot. Our sensei told us we should imagine that we were a big sumo wrestler when we did this technique. We were to deliver this stomp so that it would almost put our feet through the floor with the impact. I am pretty sure that this is similar to what the readers understand.
Today, I am writing this essay as I need to inform you about this teaching. You may be shocked but this teaching has been incorrect. Incorrect, maybe, is too strong a word so I should use the word “insufficient”. In other words, the standard way in which a stomping technique has been taught all around the world is only for beginners. By beginners, I am not referring to the dan rank or belt level but rather the degree of experience in this technique. What I am saying is that one needs to learn this technique as a strong stomping down on the floor with a big impact. But once again, it is only to learn the movement. Once the practitioners learn the move, they must move to the next level, a better way of delivering this technique.
In fact, you can find fumikomi in Heian Sandan (photo right), Godan, Tekki (photo below left), Jitte (below right), Jion, etc. Understanding the true delivery of this kata is too advanced for the color belt students.
If your instructor knew this technique, he might have shared this knowledge when he taught you Tekki Shodan. If he did not, he probably wanted to wait till you earned your black belt. Understanding how to deliver fumikomi correctly is indeed reserved for the dan rank practitioners.
I could have picked Jitte for this essay as we find a sequence of three fumikomi. However, I find Jion is a better kata to explain fumikomi techniques. Why is it better? It is because fumikomi is delivered with a swinging down arm technique (uchi otoshi waza, photo below left) to emphasize the down motion.
So, you must want to ask, “How do we deliver this technique in a correct way?” Though it may sound contradictory, a short answer is that we need to learn how not to stomp the floor. My statement may sound puzzling to many of the readers. You may even think that this does not seem right. Yes, I am aware of this. It sounded strange to me too when I first learned about it. Believe it or not, it is not too difficult to learn how to deliver this technique mentally. On the other hand, physically doing the technique correctly requires a lot more body management than you can imagine. OK let us go further to understand what this technique is all about.
What we need to do here is to study how this technique is practiced in the forefather of karate, kung fu. It is unfortunate that we have to do this since the deep understanding of this technique has not been taught by most of the traditional karate styles, especially in Shotokan. If you are a fan of Shaolin kung fu, you might have seen the stone block training floor in the temple that shows some dents (photo below left). Yes, these dents came from the repeated stomping by the Shaolin monks who trained there for many years (photo below right).
This technique is called shin-kyaku (震脚) which literally means vibration leg. Of course, it does not mean that the leg itself vibrates but rather it vibrates the floor or the earth like an earthquake by its stomping. This technique, shin-kyaku is found not only in Shaolin style but also in many other kung fu and Tai Chi Chuang styles. There are several different ways to deliver this technique.
One is from the natural stance you raise one leg and then stomp it down (illustration right). The illustration shows the practitioner raises his right arm and leg, in a manner that is similar to that of the technique found in Jion. The difference is the practitioner stomps his right foot next to his left and simultaneously he punches his uraken into his left palm. In Jion, you are familiar that we use kiba dachi and uchi otoshi uke (photo below right). When we compare these techniques of the two different styles, it is very interesting that the preparation mode (raising one arm and the knee up) is very similar. Also, notice how the knees are bent when the technique is completed in the kung fu method (illustration above right). The degree of his bended knee is exactly identical as when we assume kiba dachi. If this kung fu person spreads his feet apart to about twice the width of his natural stance, then he will have a perfect kiba dachi.
Another method of shin-kyaku is done from a longer stance such as zenkutsu or kibadachi and stomp with one leg. An interesting method is the stomping with the rear leg (photo right) which is rather unique. In Shotokan, fumikomi with the rear leg in zenkutsu dachi is not being taught. Even if it starts from zenkutsu dachi, a kiba dachi stance is used at the time of the stomp (Heian Godan, Jutte and Jion). This is an interesting subject but we will not go into this subject in this essay.
Whether a shin-kyaku technique is made with the front leg or the rear leg, as you become familiar with this technique you will be required not to make a stomping sound when you bring your foot down. In other words, the instructor will tell you not to deliver the power downward, but rather to erase it by squeezing the internal muscles in the low tanden area.
In one of the kung fu styles, Pa Gua, they have a technique called Chin tsui kei (沈墜勁, illustration below). As I am not familiar with this style and its technique, I will not go into the details of the technique. However, I wish to share the basic and important concept of the technique which is taught in this style. In essence you bring up the body first then bring it down to generate the power. The technique definitely uses this dropping power to deliver a strong punch (photo below left) or elbow strike (below right). This is no surprise, however this is not the main point. What they teach is that as you drop down you are not to drop all your weight down. I know this statement is not clear and can be puzzling.
Let me explain further. Towards the end of the stomp, right before your foot reaches the floor, you need to generate the upward power (by tightening your inner muscles in your lower torso) so that the impact of your foot will be nullified. Does this make sense?
In other words, you will generate the same amount of power upward by tightening your core muscles within the lower part of your body. That power within your body will work against the stomping leg. Maybe you can think this as putting a braking action to your stomping leg at the very moment of impact. It is like a car. Imagine that you are driving a car. All of a sudden, something jumped in front of your car so you have to use a quick braking action to avoid a collision. Obviously, the challenge of this technique is that you need to put this “brake” on at the last moment and be able to avoid the “collision”.
If you are a senior practitioner, you recognize that this may sound similar as to how you will make kime when you punch. Believe it or not, this technique is managed using the same concept. The difference is that this leg technique is more versatile than the arm technique. You probably have the experience of too long kime with your punch when you were still at junior level. You will be stuck in a posture or a position too long if your arm and body are tensed too long. In a kime situation, you were taught to relax right away so that you can continue to the next technique or step. In the stomping foot technique, when you deliver your weight down without a “brake” two major disadvantages will occur.
One major problem is that you will be stuck in one spot that is called itsuki (居着き) in Japanese and this condition is mostly despised in Japanese budo. We consider itsuki as the gate to defeat or death. The other possible problem is the great reaction impact to your foot at the time of stomping. This negative impact to your stomped foot may cause a serious joint (ankle and knee) problem.
By being able to do this leg braking technique, your body will become “floating” like a hovercraft or an ice skater. This means you are not stuck in one spot after the stomping technique. Rather, you are able to move around very easily in any direction. In other words, this technique enables you to remain move-able and shift-able. In this kung fu style, this condition or status is explained in an analogy; one’s head is being suspended or supported by a string and being pulled up. In other words, you become like a marionette and your body will float like a suspended doll.
Let’s go back to our fumikomi technique. I believe our technique had this similar concept. In fact, in the other Japanese martial arts this technique is called Fuminari (踏鳴). It is usually used in budo with weapons such as kenjutsu but it is also practiced in jujutsu and even sumo (shiko fumi 四股踏み), Believe it or not, it remains as one of the important high level teachings in the Japanese martial arts. It is unfortunate for the modern day karate practitioners that this technique in karate is now interpreted as only a stomping down of the leg action and that the most important concept of the nullifying action is forgotten.
Once you understand this concept and wish to experience the benefits, I suggest that you practice all the kata that have fumikomi technique such as Heian Sandan and Godan, Tekki, Jutte, Jion, etc in the new way. If you have developed strong inner muscles, this technique may not be too difficult to execute correctly. I hope you can feel the difference in your body when the fumikomi technique is done with a last minute brake. I also hope that you will discover the forgotten benefits from executing fumikomi in the higher skill level.
In western boxing there is only one way of using your hands, a fist. Of course this is because they are required to wear a pair of boxing gloves. Due to this rule, their hands are made into a fist. On the other hand, in karate we have so many different ways. Not only can we use both a fist and an open hand, but also many different parts of our hands. I am not going to list all of those different parts and uses but most of the readers (most likely the karate practitioners) know most if not all of those parts and methods.
The subject here may be a surprise to the readers. You might wonder why are we going to discuss such a simple and self-evident subject, how to make a fist. Yes, it is very true that we, the karateka, make our fist every time we train in karate. Therefore, it is almost natural for us as far as how to make our fist. I am well aware of this and despite all of this, I have been feeling a strong necessity to bring this subject to your attention.
My comment may raise your eye brow but I suspect most of the practitioners do not know how to make a fist correctly. It is not their fault as I suspect that they never learned how from their sensei who may not know nor learned how to do it themselves. I can almost hear many readers saying, “What is he talking about? How can he say we do not know how to make a fist?” I know how you feel but wait. You probably believe the way to make a fist is quite simple. Take a look at the photo shown on the left. It shows the steps to make a fist. First, we roll in all the fingers except the thumb. By placing a thumb over the index and middle finger, now we have a beautiful fist. Right? Even though the more precise way to make a fist is different (this will be shared in the later part of this essay), the general concept is correct as shown above. Well, it is very straight forward so what would be a problem?
Before I get into my explanation, I wish to share something very interesting. Here are a couple of photos of a boxer whom we all know. Yes, this is Muhammad Ali who passed away last year (2016). Take a look at his fist (photo right). It looks just like the fist we make, even though he wore boxing gloves when he fought. This is nothing unusual but the next photo (below) is the interesting one. It is interesting not because it is a comical photo of Ali (right side) who wore a bathrobe with someone else’s name on it. That someone else happens to be the guy standing in front, Sugar Ray Leonard (left side). What is important is not their faces. Take a close look at Ali’s right fist under the chin of Leonard.
Did you notice it? Did you find that Ali’s index finger is being extended rather than rolled in? Can this be a freak photo where Ali was relaxing or being sloppy? No, I can definitively tell you that it could not have been. I do not know exactly how old Ali was when he started his boxing training but I am sure he had been training for twenty or close to thirty years by then. If so, he would make his fist, unconsciously, to the way he normally did whether in the training or in a photo session. So, I conclude this is the normal way of how Ali made his fists. Interesting, isn’t it? Well, at least this photo made a strong impression to me.
Before I discuss about this interesting fist that is made by Ali, let me share another photo here (right). Obviously it came from a book. Do you know which book this is and who is the author? Some of you may be surprised. This is from Karatedo Kyohan (published in 1935 from page 20). So, you know the author, yes, Gichin Funakoshi. Look at the index finger! I wonder if Ali had read this book and seen the photo. This may sound like a joke but there is a very interesting and important point hidden here. This is another reason why I am writing this essay.
By the way, the photo shown here is from the English translated version. Here is a PDF of the original Karatedo Kyohan in Japanese so you can access this link and check page 20 yourself in case you wish to verify this.
In that book, Funakoshi is showing the readers how to make a fist with three step by step photos (left). The first two steps look almost identical to the one shown in the first page. However, the last photo shows that the index finger needs to be extended. It is missing the third photo so I will add it here (below right). The steps from photo #2 to #3 maybe confusing so this additional photo will supplement it. It is easier to roll all four fingers (little finger to index finger) first rather than roll only three (little finger to middle finger) and keeping the index finger extended, even though you can do this once you get used to it.
Have you learned this way of making a fist? Most likely you have not. As a matter of fact, when I first learned karate in 1962, I took both Shotokan and Goju ryu. The teacher at the Goju ryu dojo in Osaka showed me this method more than 50 years ago. In fact, he showed me two options of extending only one finger (index) which is more popular and a less popular option of extending two fingers (index and middle fingers). I do not know if the Goju ryu practitioners are still making their fist this way and I would like to hear from them about this. I know that this method is, as far as I know, still honored in one of the Okinawan styles, Isshin ryu. I can say this because they picked up this fist as their style logo (photo left).
So, we must assume that this manner of fist making was brought to the mainland Japan from Okinawa by Funakoshi and other Okinawan masters. It, somehow, survived at least (in Goju ryu) until the early sixties. I am not sure how long it lasted in Shotokan and this may be an interesting research project I may do in the future.
Now that we have touched on the historical background of this fist style, let us get into the meat of the subject. Why did the Okinawan masters use this fist?
When I learned how to make this fist in that Goju ryu dojo, the instructor did not tell me to roll all four or even three fingers. He told me to start from the little finger and roll one by one (photo right) but keeping the index finger extended. He also told me to squeeze the little finger the tightest, then a little less on the next finger. With the index finger, I was told to even relax that finger. You cannot squeeze the index finger because the part of the finger between the second joint and the finger-tip is extended. Try it with your hand and you will see how it feels. Unfortunately, he did not explain why I had to make my fist this way. If he did, I just do not remember it. Regardless, I practiced Goju ryu for one year and during that time I made my fist this way.
At the same time, I was attending a Shotokan dojo in Kobe. When I started my karate training, I did not know that I was not supposed to do this (training at two dojo of two different styles). After one year, my training friend found out and he advised me to stop and so I had to choose one dojo. I liked both dojo but the Shotokan dojo was closer to my house so I stayed with Shotokan. At the Shotokan dojo when they saw my fist, they (my senpai) told me that it was an old way and they told me to roll all four fingers. I do not know exactly when this happened but I think it was in my first year. I remember clearly that I wondered why it was an old way. However, in Japan the students are not supposed to ask questions so I simply said “Oss” and followed. For those few months, until I quit Goju ryu, I used two different styles of fists.
When I started my makiwara training, I really had to squeeze index and middle fingers in tightly. If you do the makiwara training, you know this well. We are supposed to hit the board with the knuckles of those fingers (illustration below). For many years I never doubted this method and continued this training. At the age of 38 I retired from tournaments. I started to search for a karate life after competition. The answer was budo karate in which you train to master the techniques that work in the street. In other words, the real fighting techniques for life and death situations.
After searching for the budo karate I found my answer in Asai ryu karate that was founded by Master Tetsuhiko Asai. He taught me many ideas that were different from what I had learned in my earlier training in the 70’s. First, you need to keep the elbow pointing downward when you complete a choku zuki (straight punch). I wrote an essay on this subject and it will be included in my fourth book, Budo Karate Paradigm Shift (which is slated to be publish in April 2017). I described in detail why the arm and elbow have to be held in that position in that essay so I will not cover it here. If you are interested in this subject, please get a copy of my book.
Another important thing I learned was that you have to be totally relaxed. I am talking about the entire body being relaxed. Asai karate is known for the whip like techniques such as the whip arm strikes (photo below) and whip leg kicks. In order to generate this type of body movement, you must learn to relax all of your muscles and your body must turn into a flexible tube, so to speak. From this main tube, two flexible branches stick out from the top area. Of course, those are your arms. Then from the bottom, two flexible branches support the whole tube. At the same time, one of these two lower branches supports the body while the other is used as a whip like kick.
This is the reason why we use a lot of open hand techniques. The open hand is naturally more relaxed than the closed fist. We also use the fist techniques for punching and striking. I learned that you need to relax your fist if you want to punch faster. In other words, you do not want to squeeze your fist when you are delivering a punch. You will make a tight fist only for a split second (the shorter the better) when the fist impacts the target. The benefit of this way of punching is not only faster but also I can keep my shoulder down. When you punch your shoulder comes up if your punching side arm, including your fist, is too tense. When I was competing my sensei used to tell me that I needed to tense my armpit more so I could keep the shoulder down when I punched. No one told me to relax my fist. I remember that I used to clench my fists during the kumite matches that resulted in a raised shoulder when I punched. What is wrong with this raised shoulder is simply your upper body motion will be detected by the opponent and also your body motion will not be smooth as you will have an up and down motion.
So, what I learned is that we need to keep our fists in a relaxed condition instead of having them tightly clenched. These relaxed fists helped me to relax my shoulders, upper body, neck area, etc. In other words, I could keep my entire body relaxed much easier. This body relaxation is needed to have an effective delivery of the Asai ryu whip-like techniques.
There are, in general, three ways to relax your fist. One is to have the thumb and the index finger somewhat tight and keep the other fingers very relaxed (though they are rolled up). The second way is the opposite of the first. In other words, you keep the little and the ring fingers sort of tight and keep the other three fingers relaxed (again they should be rolled up in a relaxed manner). The third one is to have all the fingers relaxed and they are only half way rolled. Master Asai asked me which I thought was the best way. I answered that the first option was. I knew many of the kumite competitors would choose the third option since they use the kumite mitt or fist protector so they may be used to having all their fingers relaxed. However, I had a strong feeling that the third option was the answer.
Which way do you, the reader, think was the answer? Believe it or not, it was option two or the second way. In other words, he told me that it was best to keep the little and the ring fingers tight first. At that time, I was very surprised by this answer, even though I am now fully convinced that this is the correct way. So, I asked him why? He brought out Funakoshi’s book, Karatedo Kyohan and showed me that page. He also showed me another book by Master Funakoshi, “Goshin –rentan Karate-jutsu” (護身練鍛空手術). On the cover page there is an illustration of a fist which looks like nihon nakadakaken (photo left). Asai sensei said the page from Karatedo Kyohan and also Karate-jutsu made him think about how to make a fist when he was young. Then he discovered that this method was the best way when he started to practice kobudo, especially bo and nunchaku. He practiced many other weapons such as sai, whip chain and tonfa but he told me that he had realized that the best way to hold a bo or a nunchaku is the second way from the previous paragraph. As I have practiced nunchaku and sai, I immediately agreed with him on this. It is very true that you need to hold a stick with your little finger very tightly and not to hold it too tightly with your thumb and the index finger. If you happen to practice these weapons in an extensive way, I am sure you will see what I am talking about.
He also told me that that is the correct way to hold a katana sword in Iaido (first two photos below) and a shinai (bamboo sword, last photo below) in Kendo.
In addition, he said this way of holding an instrument can be seen in golf (photo below right), tennis (photo below left) or any other sports or arts that you need to hold a stick or handle.
He explained that if you want to generate precise movements with a stick, this way of holding is a must. The movement does not need to be large. In fact, a small but accurate movement of a stick requires a relaxed thumb. Why? If you examine the functions of each finger, the answer is self-evident. Just think how you would pick up a small item like a jelly bean with your fingers (photo below). Almost all of us will use our thumb and the index finger. How about when you turn a page of a book or a magazine? Yes, the thumb and the index finger. How about when you pinch someone? Try to do this with your little and ring finger. OK I guess I do not need to answer this and to bring up other examples. Now do you agree that we need to use our thumb and our index finger to do many of the small and precise activities.
You may say, “Fine, I agree that we need to use our thumb and our index finger to do small and precise work, but then why do you say those fingers have to be relaxed when you hold a bo, a katana, etc?” An excellent question and the answer is the key to the subject we are discussing here. When you pick up a jelly bean, try tensing your thumb and your index finger before you pick one up? Then relax those two fingers instead. Which is easier to pick up a jelly bean? It is obviously when they are relaxed. So, the mechanism is the same when you handle or hold a stick or a kobudo weapon.
We must pay close attention to the evolution of our thumb which is very unique among the animals including monkeys and chimpanzees. Suzanne Kemmer of Rice University, thinks that by enabling fine motor skills the thumb promoted the development of the brain.
So, we know that our thumb plays a critical role in fine motor skills. By tensing it too much you will prohibit or prevent the full performance of hand or arm dexterity. This is why you need to have it relaxed until the moment you really need to tense it. On the other hand, tensing the little finger will not have much negative impact to the fine motor skills.
This is the exact reason why Asai sensei and I recommend that you will roll up your little finger tight and keep the thumb and the index finger somewhat relaxed for your arm technique, of course, until it makes impact.
Interestingly, this is exactly the fist that was shown in Karatedo Kyohan.
Let us look closer at how this fist (extending the index finger) would work. First, I want to ask the readers to try this fist with their hands. How do you feel with this fist? I suspect that you cannot make that part of the fist as solid as when it was fully rolled up. In other words, when there is an impact to the surface of a fist, half rolled index finger will “give” or bend slightly inward. When the finger is fully rolled, then that part of the fist is more solid and it seems better for punching. If this is the case, we must think deeper to find why the ancient Okinawan masters, including Funakoshi, believed in this type of fist. I am afraid this is one of the secrets that has been lost not only in Shotokan but, maybe, in many of the traditional karate styles in Japan.
The major reason I brought this up earlier in this essay was to de-emphasize the thumb and index finger area in the arm technique so that one can achieve optimum performance from the hand/arm region. In other words, you can achieve accurate and maximum speed movement with your arm including the hand region when your thumb and index fingers are being semi-relaxed or minimally tensed.
I also suspect Muhammad Ali knew this secret. Even though we will never know if he had held his fist in this way inside the gloves, but I have a strong feeling he did. He knew that by relaxing that area (his thumb and the index finger), he could achieve an accurate punch which he was famous for. Despite Ali being in the heavy weight division, his fighting style was known for being light and relaxed, unlike Joe Frazier and George Foreman. He himself described his style as “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. In order for him to be able to float in a relaxed manner when a strong opponent like Joe Frazier was coming to knock him down, I say keeping his fist relaxed was a must. You also notice when you watch his fighting style that he kept his hands down as he moved around. Most of the boxers would always keep their guard up but Ali would judge the distance so well he could fight with his guard down. To do this his fists had to be totally relaxed but at the same time they were ready to come up and strike right away if he found an opportunity.
Here is a video of Ali’s match where his relaxed floating style is very obvious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIi9YPA_nMg
What is more important that we must pay attention to in his saying in that he had described his punch as a “sting” of a bee. Of course, it was a comparison to a butterfly. However, he could have used something else if he wanted to describe his punch as a heavy punch or devastating punch. That was what Foreman, for instance, was known for. Ali could have used a word such as a bite of a cobra or a strike of a rhinoceros but he chose a sting of a bee. It is very interesting and at the same time it is very revealing too. He knew his punch was light and quick. His punch was not like ikken hissatsu but that was ok with him. He did not need a heavy punch as he knew how to knock opponents down leveraging perfect timing and his own unique rhythm he developed. Thus, all he needed was a light but fast, almost invisible, punch. So, I conclude that he kept his fist loose around the thumb and index finger area inside the boxing gloves as he had “accidentally” shown in that memorable photo with Sugar Ray Leonard.
Now let’s get back to the nature of that fist that could possibly be its downside. This fist is good for the movements prior to the strong impact to the Seiken (fist). Then, how about when you hit a target? If you hit a makiwara with this fist (extended index finger), you will see that you cannot hit the target evenly on two knuckles. In other words, you will have to depend more on the middle finger knuckle. As most of you know that there are two bones in our forearm; radius and ulna. Radius is thicker and longer, in fact, it acts as the major support for the hand (see the xray photo left). You can also see that the middle finger naturally is in the center and can receive the most support from the radius.
The subject of which part of the fist should be used to hit a target has been discussed by the karate practitioners in the past. It looks like it is now agreed that Shotokan and other traditional karate styles believe in using index and middle finger knuckles (illustration b). On the other hand, in Shorinji kenpo the ring and little finger side is used (illustration c). They say it is the most natural as they mostly use tateken (vertical fist photo below) and not too much of Seiken (regular horizontal fist). I think the little finger is too delicate to make the full impact. Shorinji kenpo’s punch concept seems to be somewhat different from that of Shotokan. Instead of one punch one kill, they seem to use it as a preparation before a throwing technique. Maybe someone from that style can send me more information if my understanding is correct or not. Regardless, I am a little surprised that we do not have a concept of using the two knuckles of the middle and the ring fingers. Out of all three choices, I like the last method.
Asai sensei and I discussed this and we agreed that karate masters, before it came to mainland Japan, used mainly only one knuckle, middle finger when they punched. However, they must have rarely used the flat fist as we see most of the modern day karate practitioners using. Then what did they use? I believe they used either nakadaka ken (middle finger knuckle below left) or ippon ken (index finger knuckle below right).
By the way, my fist in my kamae is almost always nakadaka ken. As a matter of fact, there are other single knuckle fist styles such as oyayubi ippon ken (thumb knuckle photo below). The use of single knuckle makes much more sense from the perspective of the budo fighting. If you have some physics discipline you know that the impact energy is reverse correlated to the impact area. In other words, the delivered energy amount decreases as the impact area increases. So, if you hit a target with the entire surface of the fist, the impact energy is much less than any of the one knuckle fists. Definitely no one can disagree, ippon ken gives a more devastating impact to the opponent.
I can see this heritage in one Okinawan style, Uechi ryu. Ippon ken techniques are commonly used in Uechi ryu. Interestingly, they use oyayubi ippon ken from the open hand and it is found in their standard kamae (his left hand photo below). The way he holds his left hand, a shotokan practitioner would misunderstand that it would be an open hand for tsukami (grabbing). This hand, in fact, is used to strike with the first knuckle of the thumb. In the same photo, this karateka is forming his right fist in index finger ippon ken. I consider this is a very budo like kamae by looking at this. I can also see that his hand technique whether left hand or right hand can cause a very devastating effect upon the opponent.
I am not going to say that this is the proof that Master Funakoshi favored ippon ken. However, I believe he did. This must be one of the reasons why he specifically showed, in his famous book, how to make the fist with the index finger half extended. Then, why did it get sort of lost or did he stop teaching this fist? I am guessing it was for two reasons.
The first reason was kumite training was adopted in his class. As many of the readers know that his original class consisted of only kata training. His students asked to include kumite and some of the students who had experienced in Kendo came up with the kihon kumite ideas. Most of his students were from various universities in Tokyo. Even though Funakoshi did not allow them to do jiyu kumite (free sparring), he felt ippon ken or nakadaka ken would be too dangerous if he encouraged it even in kihon kumite. Thus, I suspect that he recommended the students to make their fists into a flat fist for safety reasons.
The flat fist became standard since sport or shiai karate has gained such popularity in the last fifty years or so. Obviously, in jiyu kumite ippon ken would be very dangerous and it will not achieve any benefit or advantage in sport fighting. When I was competing in the 70’s we did not wear any gloves or fist protectors at all. Even though we were not allowed to hit the opponents we frequently had some light “touches”. Nose bleeds and knocked out teeth were very common occurrences. I confess that I had never thought about forming my fist into ippon ken or nakadaka ken in my competition days.
Currently, all the traditional karate styles in Japan including Shotokan use the flat fist with all the fingers excluding thumb rolled in (right side of the Illustration). However, Master Funakoshi, Father of modern day karate, is documented (by his published books) that he had taught a different type of fist with the index finger extended (left side of the illustration). This type of fist is now almost forgotten among the traditional karate practitioners but it is still being practiced among some of the Okinawan styles.
The author hypothesizes that the popularity of sport karate made Funakoshi fist inappropriate to use and eventually it was forgotten by the practitioners. The author believes this fist form enables the thumb and the index finger to be relaxed which results in faster and more accurate arm movement. He hopes the budo karateka will re-evaluate this fist forming as well as ippon ken and include them, if they haven’t yet, in their daily training.
Here are a few nice photos of Sensei Teruyuki Okazaki (ISKF ex-chairman) showing kokutsu dachi jodan shuto kamae. They are from Heian yondan.
As you know the first two steps of Heian yondan are done slowly. On the other hand, the similar moves in Kanku dai are done very quickly.
The big question here is “Why are they done very slowly in Heian Yondan?” In fact, you will see many techniques in kata are purposely done slowly. They are done slowly for many different reasons. Have you ever thought about the reason why the first two moves of Heian Yondan are done slowly?
I consider this is a very unique and interesting case. The explanation I present here is my own idea so I could be wrong. However, I am pretty confident that I am not.
First you need to look at the source. This kata came from Shurite (Shorin ryu) Pinan. Earlier today (January 2017) I shared a video of Pinan Yondan performed by the Shorin ryu (Shidokan) practitioners in Okinawa. I shared it to show that those first two steps in the original kata are supposed to be performed in a quick motion.
For your information here is the link to Shidokan Pinan Yondan:
Here is how this kata is performed by Shito ryu.
As you can see they also perform the first two movements in a quick motion. Doesn’t this make you wonder? We need to think why Shotokan is the only ryuha (style) that does these two steps slowly.
You also notice that the stance by Shorin ryu and Shito ryu for those two steps is in neko ashi dachi. It is a historical fact that Master Funakoshi invented kokutsu dachi and he replaced neko ashi dachi in many kata including all of Heian kata. He also made other changes such as changing mae geri to yoko geri in Heian kata (nidan and yondan) but we will not go into that subject. I wrote about that in depth in one of my books, Shotokan Mysteries. If you are interested in this, please read Chapter One (New Techniques by Funakoshi) of this book. However, this change from neko ashi dachi to kokutsu dachi caused a great impact to some kata, namely Kanku dai.
As many of the readers know that Kanku dai (Kusanku) was Funakoshi’s favorite kata. When he taught this kata to his students, the brown belts and probably shodan practitioners, he noticed that it was difficult for them to do the fast moves of the 3rd and 4th steps, left and right jodan shuto uke in kokutsu dachi.
If the stance is neko ashi dachi, it is much easier to coordinate the stance with shuto movement including turning quickly. However, a longer stance of kokutsu dachi makes it much more challenging to get in the good stance and to execute the upper body motion (jodan shuto uke) simultaneously. Especially, if you wish to execute two sides with a 180 degrees turn in a hurry.
So, that was Funakoshi’s concern with his students. I believe he found a solution in Heian yondan. He made the first two moves slow so that the practitioners will learn how to coordinate the lower body motion (kokutsu dachi, photo below left) and the upper body motion (jodan shuto uke, photo below right, sensei Kase) in a simultaneous motion.
It is easy to say to do these moves in synchronicity but in fact what happens with many of the intermediate practitioners (6th kyu all the way up to shodan level), they will first make a kokutsu dachi and the upper body technique, jodan shuto uke, will follow. In other words, those two areas (lower body and upper body) motions are not coordinated or synchronized. Is this the way you do Heian yondan? If you do, then what is wrong with that? It is easy to explain. As the foundation, the stance is already formed, the upper body motion will be done separately thus it will lack the speed and power. This is the same principle as gyaku zuki executed in a still stance (no matter how much of hip rotation you may add) you cannot generate as much speed and power in its punch as the moving techniques of oizuki.
As Funakoshi sensei found that it was difficult for his students to execute these moves quickly, he intentionally slowed the speed of those two steps. In this way, the students could practice the coordination much easier. Unfortunately, as the incorrect moves (upper and lower bodies moving separately) have become so popular and common, it seems to have been accepted lately. Sadly, it also has become the “correct” way by many dojo and organizations. I hope that is not the case in your dojo. This may seem like a minor error or deviation but you will pay for it when you begin to practice Kanku dai.
The image below is a sequence shots of correct way of doing the very first step of Heian Yondan demonstrated by Yoshiharu Osaka. When he completes his kokutsu dachi that is exactly when he completes his arms’ movement.
For the second move, initially your hands drop down in a semi-circular way, before your feet and body begins to turn. In other words, you will remain in left kokutsu keeping your weight on your right leg when the arms make the first half of the semi-circular motion. Only when the hands pass the center of gravity line and begin to rise again, your weight will start to shift to your left leg. Remember that your weight will transfer gradually as the hands rise slowly to jodan shuto position. By doing it this way, the upper and lower body move simultaneously and are completed at the same moment.
Why not try this way and see how challenging it is to do it correctly. Once you master this with Heian yondan, I guarantee that you will be able to do the first two quick moves in Kanku dai much faster, and most importantly, you can do them with much better balance and a more stable kokutsu dachi.