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Today I am touching an unusual subject. You will be surprised as it is not related to martial arts at all. It is rather to pure art of drawing and music. I am not sure if the readers are interested in this but if you are interested in the classical music and the Japanese art of Ukiyoe, you may find this interesting.
So, the interesting subject is, believe it or not, that the Japanese art of the Edo period had an influence on that of the 19th century Europe. What I want to share today is that there was an interesting relationship between Hokusai (a famous Ukiyoe painter, image below left) and Claude Debussy, a famous composer (photo right).
Believe it or not, one interesting key element in the creation of Debussy’s most concentrated and brilliant orchestral work, La Mer comes in the form of Hokusai’s iconic “Under the Wave off Kanagawa”—also known as “Great Wave”. Its popularity emblematic of the Japonisme movement that overtook France in the mid-nineteenth century. While a student in Rome from 1885–87, Debussy was often rummaging through the city’s antique shops and purchasing Japanese artifacts to take back to Paris. It comes as no surprise, then, that his studio would retain many of these objects, and chief among the Japanese artwork Debussy kept on his walls was a framed print of Hokusai’s “Great Wave.” (photo below right)
I also share an article on this by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that describes the details of the background of the work done by Debussy and the influence he received from the Ukiyoe works, particularly by Hokusai.
Hokusai and Debussy’s Evocations of the Sea by The Met (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Cultural circles throughout Europe greatly admired Hokusai’s work—a result of the 1853 treaty that opened commercial trade between Japan and the West and therefore created a prolific market for Japanese art, particularly in France. Major artists of the Impressionist movement such as Monet owned copies of Hokusai prints, and leading art critic Philippe Burty, in his 1866 Chefs-d’oeuvre des Arts industriels, even stated that Hokusai’s work maintained the elegance of Watteau, the fantasy of Goya, and the movement of Delacroix. Going one step further in his lauded comparisons, Burty wrote that Hokusai’s dexterity in brush strokes was comparable only to that of Rubens.
The aesthetic parallels between Hokusai and Debussy within their respective disciplines are many, as both artists chose style over realism and placed an intense focus on brilliant color and vibrant energy. Just as Japanese art of the Edo period prized decorative motives independent of system or conventional development, so did Debussy have distaste for formal structure, motivic development, and the use of strict musical forms that composers adhered to during the Classical and Romantic periods.
For both artists, creating dynamic new colors and a sense of motion was of chief importance, and their work moves well beyond that of mere portraiture. The ferocious height and terrifying form of Hokusai’s wave are amplified by his use of the then-rare “Prussian blue” and a jarring sense of perspective that keeps the eye from focusing on the print’s primary subject, Mount Fuji. As such, Debussy’s sea isn’t composed of cymbal crashes and fluttering flutes that allude to a literal oceanic sound, but instead the composer uses a group of sixteen cellos (twice the number found in a standard orchestra) to breathe life into a heaving, slowly blossoming chorale in the first movement, and pentatonic harmonies to create a sense of the ocean’s vast expanse. In fact, one of the only differences between the two artists lies in their portrayal of the sea’s power: Hokusai highlights the cultural fear of the water that ominously surrounded his country, whereas Debussy imbues his work with a sense of wistful nostalgia at the respite the coast provides in his.
Hokusai’s work as a point of inspiration for Debussy was solidified by the composer’s use of a detail crop of “the Great Wave” (image below) on the cover of the 1905 first edition of La Mer p
ublished by A. Durand & Fils. Debussy was notorious for personally curating the cover artwork for his scores (he called it his “cover mania”), and in choosing “the Great Wave”—an image already so recognizable throughout Western Europe—Debussy immediately brought a sense of familiarity and exoticism to his new work. Just as Hokusai’s print was on its way to the immortality it enjoys today as a symbol of the finest of nineteenth-century Japanese art, so was Debussy advertising that his new orchestral score would contain the power, elegance, and color of the work represented on its cover. And, in one last act of homage, Debussy placed his name on the score in the exact position where Hokusai’s is located on his own work—floating in the sky, safely above the wave.
I hope this essay was interesting to you. In fact, this is not the only case of influence by Ukiyoe made upon European art world in the 19th and 20 centuries. I will share the other specific examples in the future.
If you are interested in this subject, here is a short video (7 min 39 sec), “La Mer of Japan” explaining this relationship.
(Part 1 title: The first step of Tekki is to the right and it is to the left side with Heian kata)
In the earlier part of this essay (it is posted under the title of “The first step of Tekki is to the right and it is to the left side with Heian kata”) , I concluded that Itosu decided to make the first steps of Heia/Pinan to the left side because all the first steps of Tekki/Naihanchi kata go to the right side. This is only my assumption and there is no document by Itosu or anyone related to him on this subject so we really do not know.
Regardless of the reason, it is definitely a fact that all the first steps of Heian kata from Shodan to Godan go to the left side or the 9 o’clock direction. I feel we need to look deeper to find out why Itosu chose to move in this direction instead of stepping forward or backward.
It is also interesting to see that zenkutsu dachi is used in the first steps of Heian Shodan only. For all other Heian kata, neko ashi dachi is used for the first step (for Shotokan this stance was changed to kokutsu dachi by Funakoshi after he migrated to Tokyo). Though this is also an interesting subject to research as to why neko ashi dachi was favored in Heian kata by Itosu, we will not discuss this in this essay. For those who are interested, I have written a separate essay on this subject in the past. You can find it in Shotokan Mysteries, Chapter 1: Funakoshi’s New Techniques.
For now, we need to focus on the interesting subject of why all the first steps of Heian are done to the left side. Before we jump into this, I think it is worthwhile for us to see the first step of other Shotokan kata. As we all know that there are 26 standard Shotokan kata (list below) honored by most of the Shotokan organizations.
If we discount the 8 total kata of Heian and Tekki from the total list, we have 18 kata left and they are listed below. The list also shows which direction the first step takes. Note that some kata have an in position (no feet movement) moves initially; Kanku dai, Chinte and Unsu. We discount those moves and the list shows the very first foot step, therefore it may not be necessarily the first body motion.
Bassai dai steps forward (12 o’clock)
Bassai sho steps forward (12 o’clock)
Hangetsu steps forward (12 o’clock)
Chinte left foot forward (12 o’clock) to make kiba dachi
Sochin steps forward (12 o’clock)
Gojushiho dai steps forward (12 o’clock
Gojushiho sho steps forward (12 o’clock)
Unsu steps forward (12 o’clock)
Jion left foot steps back (6 o’clock)
Jutte left foot steps back (6 o’clock)
Jiin left foot steps back (6 o’clock)
Gankaku right foot steps back (6 o’clock)
Nijusshiho right foot steps back (6 o’clock)
Kanku dai: stepping left foot to 9 o’clock, facing 9 o’clock
Enpi left foot takes half a step to 9 o’clock, facing 12 o’clock
Wankan diagonally left forward in 30 to 45 degrees in neko ashi dachi
Meikyo right foot moving to 3 o’clock (kiba dachi), facing 12 o’clock
Kanku sho stepping right foot back to 3 o’clock but facing 9 o’clock
Here are the interesting statistics of the first step:
Forward: 8 cases
Note: See an added comment below about Chinte.
Backward: 5 cases
To the left (including diagonal): 3 cases
To the right: 2 cases
Have you checked this before? What do you think? Is this list surprising to you? These numbers are very interesting but not too surprising, at least not to me. As we expected, 8 out of 16 kata, or 50% of these kata have the first step moving toward 12 o’clock. I must point out that there is one exception in these six kata. Five of them face and execute the technique to 12 o’clock, however, in Chinte you step forward to make kiba dachi but you face and deliver the technique to 3 o’clock. Even its first technique is delivered (from heisoku dachi) to 3 o’clock.
It is also interesting that the first step in 5 of the kata is to step back. I assume that most of the readers were taught that in kata our motions are always forward and stepping backward is a poor move. It is obvious that stepping forward toward the imagined opponent is the best move and stepping away or backward is most disadvantageous. Even during the kata, we do not see any stepping back movement except in Gojushiho dai and sho (steps 55 – 57 in Sho, 52 – 54 in Dai, illustration right) and the other cases of taking one of the legs back from kosa dachi (Kanku dai, Enpi, Jion, etc). Some people may point out the last three steps or hops of Chinte are moving back. However, it is a known fact that those three steps were added in the middle of the 20th century. The reason why they were added was simple, the ending spot would be about 3 steps forward of the starting spot. This was a problem in kata competition as we are supposed to return to the starting point. In order to “fix” this problem, these three strange hopping backwards (steps 33 B, 34 A and 34 B, illustration left) were added. This is not my pure guessing. You can easily see the original kata by Shorin ryu and you will find that it has no hops.
There are only two kata whose first step moves to the right side or 3 o’clock. In Meikyo, though the first step is to 3 o’clock you will face and deliver technique to 12 o’clock which is similar to Tekki Sandan. In Kanku sho, though the first step is to 3 o’clock, you will face and deliver the technique to 9 o’clock. This means there is no kata that faces to 3 o’clock in the first step with the possible exception of Chinte. So out of all those 18 major Shotokan kata, there is no kata that you step to the right (3 o’clock) and deliver the technique to the right side. This is why it is interesting that we find this movement in Tekki Shodan and Nidan in which you step and deliver the technique to the right side (though I am aware that the most popular bunkai for this movement in Tekki Nidan is to break a hold and throw the opponent from behind).
There are three kata that develop to the left side: Kanku dai, Enpi and Wankan. However, in Enpi, though you move the left foot to 9 o’clock, you face and deliver the technique to 12 o’clock (illustration right). Therefore, obviously the imaginary opponent is positioned in front (12 o’clock) and not to the left side (9 o’clock). If you add Kanku sho from another category (above), there are three kata (Kanku dai, Wankan and Kanku sho) that develop to the left side (to 9 o’clock).
So we found that out of the 18 kata, only three of them develop to the left side. We also found that most of the first steps are either stepping forward or backward. Then, why didn’t Itosu follow suit with this trend? Was that an error or did he miss this? I do not believe so. I believe he intentionally chose to make the first step as well as the direction of the first technique to the left side.
I concluded this hypothesis from studying the physical mechanism. Before I explain what this physical mechanism is that I referred to above, I wish to remind the readers to remember why Heian kata were created a little more than one century ago. Yes, they were created for the middle school (for 12 to 16 years old students) physical education. In other words, Itosu designed a series of “easy” kata for the young students for the physical fitness purpose and those students were totally novice to karate training.
Obviously for the purpose of martial art, it makes more sense to formulate a kata based on an actual fighting situation. Thus, it is natural to make the first step to either step forward or backward as you will fight an opponent who is in front of you. Even if you find an opponent on your left or right side, it is unwise if you do not face the opponent first. Thus, a kata that starts with a step to left or right side and delivering a technique to a side cannot be classified as a martial art minded kata. Itosu knew this but he created Heian in that way on purpose.
What are the reasons? Now this is the core question of this essay. The hypothesis I have is purely my own guesses based on the movements I find in Heian kata. I am happy to share them and I would like to hear from the readers if they think my ideas make any sense.
OK I think there are at least three reasons why Itosu picked the first step and technique delivery to the left side.
- Natural left rotation including our solar system
You do not need to be a scientist to know that it is more natural to rotate in a counter clockwise direction. It is known that our Solar System that all of the planets, with the exception of Venus, rotate counter clockwise even the moon rotates counter clockwise (as observed in the northern hemisphere). It is also a known fact that most of the figure skaters choose to spin in that direction. Also, we know that a track not only for tack-and-field events but also for indoor bicycle racing, running the bases in baseball, speed skating, Roller Derby and even NASCAR racing is set in the counter clockwise direction. Also, notice that is the direction for merry-go-rounds and revolving doors. I can name more examples but I believe I have made my point. I am sure there is a scientific reason but I believe it is simply because our planet revolves in that direction we feel more natural to turn that way. Regardless of the reason or reasons, our body seems to feel comfortable in an instinctive way when we turn in that direction.
Both Heian and Tekki are training or kihon kata. The first martial art or budo kata is Bassai dai. The first step of this kata is to move (or almost jump) forward and this makes the most sense from a martial art perspective. This is the correct direction to practice. On the other hand, as I will explain further in the next point, being able to move forward quickly is not an easy technique thus it requires a lot of training.
So here is my hypothesis. Itosu, having known this, intentionally chose turning the body left as the first movement. He knew this body movement was much easier and better for the novice students with their introductory kata.
- The foot: a shape for natural shifting
I believe I have written an essay on the definite relationship between the shape of our foot and the body shifting mechanism of Tekki kata in the past. Since it is a simple concept I will repeat it here. As you can see the illustration on the right, our foot is designed to be longer than its width. You may feel it is so natural that you do not think about it twice. The shin bone is positioned not in the center but rather towards the back or the heel.
This design makes the body steadier or better balanced with the body forward. In other words, you can keep your balance pretty well even if someone would push you from behind. However, if someone pushes you from the front, you tend to lose your balance much easier. The same thing can be said when the pressure comes from either the left or right side. Of course, you have two feet so you can keep your balance with both of them firmly planted. Try this when you are standing on only one leg.
You can manage your balance well when you are losing it towards the front as you can bend your knee and tighten your calf muscle. At the same time, there is a lag of time if you wish to move forward. On the other hand, it is much easier to lose balance to the rear and the sides. As we do not consider moving backward as a wise choice so we will skip this direction in this essay. So, the conclusion is it is easier to lose your balance and that translates to that you can move or body shift faster. Just as the creator of Tekki designed to move only sideways, Itosu used the same concept in Heian kata.
Shifting to a side may not be a wise or a desirable move from a martial art perspective, it is, however, a useful training method for a karate novice to learn how to shift smoothly and swiftly. In fact, many of the Judo techniques are to the sides, they teach and practice how to fall sideways correctly or without getting injured (illustration right).
I conclude and praise that Itosu choice of this concept in the first step of Heian kata was very wise and also innovative.
- Easier to make a hanmi (半身) position
For the beginners it is typically taught that the first technique in kata (and karate in general) is a block. For instance, it is gedan barai in Heian shodan, chudan uchi uke in Heian Sandan and Godan. Those blocking techniques must have a hanmi or half hip stance. In addition, other than Shodan, the stance in the first move of other Heian kata is neko ashi dachi (or kokutsu dachi) which is a defensive stance and works better with hanmi.
You can try this on your own, to shift to one side is not only faster but is also better suited to form a good hanmi. This is so simple because making hanmi is natural as the sides of your body is already turned either to your left or right side before you start your first step. Itosu could have picked the right side but he chose the left side for the reasons I have explained in Part 1 of this essay.
Try the first step of any one of the Heian kata. You will bring your left hip by stepping forward with your left foot to the 9 o’clock direction in your first step. As you deliver either chudan or jodan uchi uke, you will discover that you are in a distinctive half hip stance and capable of making an excellent hanmi zenkutsu and much easier regardless of the stances of Zenkutsu, Neko ashi and Kokutsu.
After trying it on your own, did you see if what I am proposing above is true or not? I am sure you have felt with your body that it is much easier to make a good hanmi when you shift to your left side compared to step forward that you typically do in your kihon training.
Here is Itosu’s idea (according to my theory). A novice, first, learns how to quickly body shift to the left side in all Heian kata. He will learn next, shifting to the right side with Tekki kata. Therefore, after these kata, the student can begin to practice body shifting forward as found in Bassai dai.
OK these are my ideas for the reasons why Itosu chose to make all the first steps in five Heian kata a step to the left side or 9 o’clock direction. I want to emphasize that the first steps of these five kata did not come about by an accident or without much thought behind them. I conclude that the creator, Itosu, put a lot of consideration and made them very strategic moves.
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.