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It is not documented exactly when the first kung fu training started. However it is commonly believed that Dharma, or Bodhi Dharma (illustration right), a Buddhist monk in the 5th or 6th century is the person who transmitted Buddhism to China from India.
It is also believed that along with Buddhism he brought fighting methods with him.
Many people have wondered why a Buddhist, a person of peace, would introduce a “killing” method and then teach it to the monks, who also ascribed to peace at a Shaolin Temple in China. When you think of this, it is a small mystery.
Some people have speculated that the monks, before the introduction of kung fu exercises, were not in good physical and mental shape and would therefore fall asleep during the meditation or the recitation of the holy scripts. Therefore, Dharma taught them how to exercise and therefore this helped to keep them awake during long and arduous meditation sessions. It sounds almost convincing but I do not believe that was the case.
Others have speculated that Dharma needed some fighting skills to protect himself during the long journey from India to China. As you are aware there was no modern day transportation then. I do not believe he was lucky enough to have a horse or a donkey. Thus, he probably had to travel on foot most of the way. You can also easily guess that the security in those days was far from safe, especially when you had travel alone on a deserted path through the wilderness. He probably gave everything he had to the robbers, but I assume he had to fight when his life was in danger.
Ok, he needed the fighting skills, but why did Dharma teach this to the monks? Wasn’t he supposed to teach peace and love?
Well, we must remember that the governing emperors of the ancient kingdom of China often prohibited Buddhism. When the monks refused to discontinue their religion and its activities, the emperor sent soldiers to threat and kill them. In addition, in those days, groups (some were huge) of bandits were very common and they raided the villages. When the villagers escaped to the temple, then the monks would have to fight to protect not only themselves but the villagers as well.
I am pretty confident in this historical background. The fighting methods were necessary and in addition they must have discovered that the physical training brought much health to the monks.
Those two reasons seem to make sense, so we may think that we have found the answers to the small mystery. However, I do not think these two reasons were the only ones to explain why Dharma chose to teach the fighting arts. I think there was a hidden reason. This is my hypothesis. No one has proposed this idea before so I may receive some push back and possibly criticism, but I have a strong feeling my hypothesis is correct.
According to the stories about Dharma that have been handed down to us, he was an enlightened person. If he really was an enlightened person then that means he really knew the meaning of love, or agape, just as Jesus Christ did. If this is the case, I suspect he realized that the ultimate status of martial arts, is the same as that of religion.
Dharma must have believed that training kung fu with right mind would help the monks to reach the ultimate status or enlightened. This may sound like a far-fetched idea, but I do not think it is unheard of. If you have trained or studied Aikido, you are well aware of the founder, Morihei Ueshiba (photo below).
I share two quotes from Ueshiba.
- “All life is a manifestation of the spirit, the manifestation of love.”
- “Aikido is the Art of Peace, the power of love.”
I have also heard that Jesus Christ had owned mystical skills to fight off possible attackers. This fighting skill is, suppose secretly, and transmitted to a small group of the Christian monks in Europe. I am not a scholar or historian of Christianity, and I do not have any documents to substantiate this. Maybe some of the readers who are Christians may have some documents or knowledge about this.
Then, many of the readers would wonder why the reaching of an agape state is the ultimate goal of martial arts. This is a natural question and it is a challenging one. As I have not reached such a state myself, I can only guess why it is so.
Here is my hypothesis.
I must go back to the general concept of Ki, or Chi in Chinese. It is the life force coming from the energy and the vibration of nature including human beings. If the vibration in your mind and body is in harmony, then you are healthy and you feel good. If the harmony of the internal vibration goes off tune or lose the harmony, you will be sick and you do not feel well. I am sure most of the readers will agree to this general concept.
Then, what has this got to do with martial arts? If you train karate, for instance, only for the competition and tournament, your focus and attention will be only with your physical ability and techniques. On the other hand, if you are into budo karate, you will train not only the physical aspect of improvement but also the mental and spiritual aspects.
You will reach the ultimate level of martial arts only when you maximize the improvement in all three aspects; physical, mental and spiritual. In addition, these three aspects must not improve independently, but rather must show the unity and harmonization.
In Buddhism, they try to reach this state through by Zen meditation. Even though they may look like not having the physical aspect as they are simply sitting and meditating, that would be a big mis-understanding. The long hours of meditation require much physical discipline. Think of sitting in a lotus position for many hours without moving. You must have the flexible hip joints and strong seika tanden as well as the back muscles. You also need to have the training in correct breathing.
In Zen meditation they aim for empty mind. In budo karate, we also aim for empting our mind, while at the same time our body must move quickly and continuously as well. When a martial artist reaches this ultimate state, his body will move without thinking. At the same time, he realizes that he has no enemy. He will be filled with love for all mankind. If an ill intended person approaches him to harm him, that person will not be able to move in front of him. This martial art master will emit such a magnificent aura and strong Ki, he will disable any of the attackers.
Ok you may reject this as a silly fiction that can be found only in a cheap martial art novel or a movie. You must remember that only one or two persons in the world with the population of six billion can reach this state. And I am not talking that this state can happen in a year or even in a decade. I am talking about at least one life time. This is like looking for a true miracle, or a real saint.
Bodhi dharma was so dedicated, that more than one thousand five hundred years ago, he traveled alone in the wilderness for thousands of miles to transmit the teachings of Buddhism from India to China. No one would or could do this before him, though a few might have tried. If he could travel in the dangerous journey for many months and maybe years, he had to be enlightened, and had the ultimate level of martial arts. He really was an enlightened man and only one out of the millions who have reached the ultimate level.
So, I will come back to the original question. Why did he teach kung fu to the Shaolin monks? Now I am sure the answer has become very self-evident. Whether you believe or agree with my hypothesis, you cannot deny that the martial art that one Indian Buddhist monk brought to China resulted in, later years, the beginning of unique empty hand martial art in Okinawa islands that was called Te and now Karate.
I am sure you were shocked and may even be offended by this title. Of course, I chose this title to catch your full attention. I expect I will get a lot of push back on this title but give me a chance to explain why I think it is better not to explain when we teach karate.
If you happen to have or have had a Japanese sensei, I suspect you have noticed that your sensei does or did not explain too much in his karate class. Many people may blame the lack of language skills such as English. It is true that many Japanese sensei are or were not fluent in the local language whether it were English, French, Spanish or whatever. Regardless of the language ability, I emphasize that this is the basic attitude of the Japanese instructors. I can say this not only because of my personal experience in karate training as well as teaching but I wish to present that there is a very good logical reason.
Before I go into the explanation of this logical reason, I want to share a little background of the Japanese word of “to learn”, manabe (学ぶ). This word’s origin is manebu (まねぶ) which means to imitate. So, the original concept of “to learn something” for the ancient Japanese was to imitate the teacher. This is why we have a saying of Shu Ha Ri (守破離). Many readers may already know the meaning of this. It is a concept that describes the stages of learning to mastery.
To understand this concept let me quote the explanation by an Aikido instructor, Endo Seishiro.
“It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”
This is the key point. So, the main idea is while you are learning or at the stage of Shu, all you are expected to do is to repeat and imitate. This means you repeat the same thing without trying to be different or thinking.
In fact, this idea was even more prevalent when I was in school some fifty to sixty years ago. I remember that we, over fifty years ago as the karate students, never asked any questions not only to our sensei but also to our senpai. We knew that we were not supposed to ask any questions during a training session. Without any exaggeration, the only word we could use was “Oss”. If we had dared to ask any questions about techniques, kata, kumite or anything else, they never gave us any answers. They would have come back, instead, with a sharp statement such as “Keep your eyes open” or “Watch more carefully” or “Practice more”, etc.
When we had a question that we believed was important, we, only once in a while, dared to ask. However, it was important that we needed to pick the right moment. Regardless, it always had to be after the class is over. We waited till we went to a restaurant or a café after training, if we wanted to ask something. In a casual environment while we were talking about some social and casual subjects, we used to slip a question or two into our conversation. Regardless, I remember it was awfully difficult to ask our sensei about a technical question. Even though the situation in Japan may have changed somewhat since those days, I am pretty sure that this basic concept has not changed much in Japan. I suspect you would consider this as a terrible learning situation. You are half right but missed the point in the other half. Let me explain further.
Do you think this “barrier” would prevent or slow down the students from learning? I suspect it is considered so in the non-Japanese countries. If you are a karate instructor (I imagine many of you are), I am sure you try to explain a lot about the key points about the techniques and many things about karate. I have watched many classes taught by both Japanese and non-Japanese instructors in the classes outside of Japan. I found that non-Japanese instructors spend much more effort and energy in verbal communication.
The Japanese instructors tend to speak less and to demonstrate more. This is partially due to their weakness with the foreign or non-Japanese language. Regardless, we (the Japanese instructors) feel uncomfortable when we see that the non-Japanese instructors are spending so much time with great enthusiasm on the technical matters, especially on the difficult subjects. My intention is not to bash those instructors but I feel they are almost in love with themselves or in the ecstasy of showing their knowledge. I apologize if I offended anyone about this but this is my true impression and I am pretty sure many of the other Japanese instructors will agree with me.
OK, we must agree that there is a difference in the teaching styles because of the difference in culture. In fact, many of the Japanese instructors believe that giving too much explanation is bad for learning. As I had already mentioned that many of them lack the language ability, but it is still the same even in Japan where we have no language difficulty. It is probably a big mystery to the readers to find that the Japanese sensei do not believe in much explanation. You might have noticed this before but you most likely did not know why. You probably ended up guessing it was just because of the language problem.
Let’s investigate why the Japanese instructors prefer to explain less. First of all the most important reason comes from a cultural factor. Believe it or not, we do not value verbal understanding too much when it comes to learning anything but especially when it involves a physical or technical skill. This comes from the belief that words are imperfect and they are unable to describe anything in full and adequately.
Further, probably shocking to the western people, we do not believe in logic too much. We avoid people who like to argue. In fact, have you noticed that most of the Japanese people are poor at making speeches and presentations? In school we never learned how to speak eloquently. Using a joke to relax the students in the karate teaching in Japan is almost unthinkable and impossible for a Japanese sensei (excluding those who have been living abroad).
We consider it is almost impossible and unrealistic for a student to understand a physical thing (something that happens inside of your body which is very personal) fully with a verbal explanation. The instructors feel that a student must learn physically with his own body by repeating a technique thousands of times. In other words, a student must feel and “know” it with his body.
The Japanese martial arts instructors tend to give little explanation during their class because they believe explanation results in a long period of time of not doing anything and is not that good for the students mentally as well as technically. As they put less value in thinking they encourage you to keep moving and repeating the techniques.
In addition, the instructors expect that most of the students, initially or at least during the first few years, would not understand, not only about the karate techniques, but also the concept of kata, kumite, bunkai, etc. In fact, they consider this is a necessary step or stage.
Think of a situation where an instructor spends a lot of time and energy to explain something difficult such as ki, breathing method, gamaku, muchimi, etc. Then, the students may gain some understanding about this subject. So, what’s wrong with that? If the students understand something, didn’t the teacher complete his duty well? Yes, that is how it will be regarded in the countries outside of Japan. The Japanese instructors think that even though the students may feel like they had gained some understanding, it was not a true or full understanding. In fact, the students were unable to demonstrate “that something” even if they thought they understood it. We consider a pure mental understanding a dangerous state as it does not comply with physical understanding in most cases. We fear that those students were not ready and premature “understanding” would only harm their natural development of their karate skill.
Let’s look at another easy example. How about swimming, which is also an acquired skill? You cannot swim unless you learn how, especially a difficult swimming method such as the butterfly stroke. Let’s take a student who happens to be so novice he does not even know how to float or is afraid to put his face in the water. If he is impressed with Michael Phelps (right) and this student asks his swimming instructor how to swim the butterfly stroke like him. Of course, you do not want to crush their excitement or interest, but an instructor in Japan would not spend time to explain how to do a dolphin kick, etc. He will tell him like this, “Yes, Phelps is great. I will teach you how to do a dolphin kick once you learn how to float.” Once the student learns how to float, they may realize they have to learn other important things such as how to do a dog paddle, how to hold their breath while their face is in the water, etc.
As you know karate skill requires much more complex physical and mental techniques. In the water, as long as you can float you can save yourself even if you cannot swim the butterfly stroke. However, in a life or death situation or even in a street fight, failure to perform a technique could mean a serious injury possibly even death.
As I have mentioned earlier, we do not rely too much on verbal understanding and communication when it comes to learning a skill. We put the value on “physical understanding”, instead. This is exactly why the instructors demand our students to look closely or imitate them as much as possible. This is not only true in karate or martial arts but also in other arts. You can find the same method in teaching carpentry, cooking, brush writing, zen study, etc. When you become an apprentice to a master carpenter, your boss would never teach you any carpentry skills, at least for some years if not never. It is your job to “steal” such skills by watching your boss. This is the same in cooking such as sushi (photo above). Why does sushi taste better in Japan? It is not because the fish or rice is better. It is because the sushi chef has been properly trained for at least several years before they can begin to prepare and serve the food (sushi) to customers.
Another good example is a zen monastery where they train the monks by having a very strict and harsh (as the secular people see it) daily schedule. First of all, the monk candidates have to beg to be admitted by the temple by waiting at the entrance in a half sitting position (photo right).
This challenge is called Niwazume (庭詰 photo below). Literally, it means “staying in the garden”. In the early morning, you need to arrive at the gate of the zen temple you wish to join. You have to stay there half sitting and bowing down to show your desire to join. You will continue this position 9 to 10 hours that day. During that period, the monks in the temple will ask you to leave. Sometimes, they will even drag you out (but gently) of the gate. However, this is a part of the ritual so you must not give up if you are determined to become a monk at this temple. You will have to continue your request to be admitted by sitting at the front entrance all day long. After the long day of sitting, they will admit you to come in to eat dinner and stay overnight. But this does not mean they were admitted. Then, the next morning you need to restart this waiting at the front entrance at 4 or 5 am. This harsh ceremony or patience testing ritual lasts two or three days.
However, this is only the first step of the entrance examination. If you can sustain these few days of waiting at the front entrance, they will let you in and ask you to show your interest in joining the temple by sitting in zen meditation all day long (about 12 hours a day). This second test will last one week. After succeeding in these two tests, a monk candidate can finally be admitted to this temple as a regular training monk. After this he will start a zen monk life that is filled with zen meditation and work around the temple.
Here is a typical daily schedule at Sogenji in Okayama Prefecture:
3:40 a.m. Wake up
4:00 Morning service (sutra)
5:00 Zazen (meditation)
8:00 Niten Soji (daily cleaning)
8:30 Samu (cleaning)
1:00 – 2:00 Bath (1st group)
2:00 – 4:00 Samu (garden work)
4:00 – 5:00 Bath (2nd group)
9:00 Kaichin (lights out)
Even though I am writing about karate teaching, I spent a lot of space explaining about zen monastery rules. This is to show that they consider doing is much more important than the words. As you know zen is a religion in which they seek to be enlightened. During the hours of zen meditation, a monk will try to reach the enlightened state of mind. However, during the meditation he will encounter many questions such as “What am I?”, “What is the purpose of my life?”, “How can I be enlightened?”, “Why there is good and bad in this world?” etc. The monk master is supposed to have been enlightened so a training monk seeking an answer may ask such questions of the master. The master will never explain anything or even try. He will simply say “Do not think” or “Get busy”. He demands the monk to do things and discourages thinking. During zen meditation, a monk is supposed to empty his mind but it is very difficult. However, by spending many hours just sitting, he learns how to do this. He may see the light when he is engaged in garden work, hall cleaning, chanting sutra, etc. rather than when he is thinking in meditation.
So, these examples illustrate the Japanese instructors believe in the value of demonstrating the techniques with their own body and much less in the explanation using words. You will see the same tendency in Japan not only in karate but also in other martial arts, such as kenjutsu, iaido, kyudo, aikido, etc.
Lastly, we must consider the fact that karate skill (not just the techniques but the total structure and system of empty hand fighting) requires one of the most difficult physical skills. You may not agree with this statement but this can be theoretically proven as sound and correct. Thus, the Japanese instructors believe it is almost impossible to explain the most critical part of the techniques, thus they will tell the students “Practice more”.
Then, is this approach of not explaining better than the method found in the western world? My quick answer is “It all depends”. I believe this practice of not explaining method can be an excuse for a Japanese instructor so he can hide his ignorance or lack of knowledge. If he has to face all kinds of questions, the instructor will be forced to study and learn more. So, in this sense I like the western method.
On the other hand, karate skill development comes in a gradual ascending form or in slow progression. In other words, you need to go one step at a time which means your body needs to be trained. Understanding or believing that you understand a technique is totally different from being able to do that technique. A proper understanding comes at a right time after repeating the technique thousands of time. Trying to understand these things in your head before that proper time may not only act as worthless self-satisfaction but also could become hazardous to your sound karate achievement.
The similar effect is found when a student learns an advanced kata before his level. I have seen a brown belt doing Unsu in a tournament. The instructor of this student is responsible and should be blamed for this ignorant action. We must all know that karate achievement is similar to building a house. If the foundation or the walls are weak, the house will not be able to withstand an earthquake or a storm. Life time karate training is more like building a skyscraper of 50 stories or taller, the importance of the solid foundation and the firm structure becomes even more critical.
When you teach karate in the western world, it is important and necessary to include some verbal explanation. Karate training must mean being truly physical but at the same time, thinking must be encouraged.
The instructors must remember that they need to be very careful in determining how much explanation is appropriate and necessary. It is because too much explanation can not only be wasting valuable training time but also harmful to the students who are not ready mentally and/orphysically. This can be equated to a situation where an instructor teaches a black belt kata to a color belt student or to engage a beginner in jiyu kumite (free sparring).
The skill level of a karate instructor should be determined not only by his karate skill but also by his teaching skill including knowing how much explanation is appropriate. This is what I believe. What do you think?
(Here is the content of the interview in English. The Russian translated content is also posted in the Russia category of this blog.)
Shihan Kousaku Yokota was a student of Sensei Sugano, an assistant to Teruyuki Ozakaka and a student of Asai Tatsuhiko, as well as an instructor at the ISKF headquarters and devoted more than fifty years of his life to martial arts. He wrote several books about karate. In this exclusive interview for the site budokarate.ru we will talk with the shihan about his Way, views on modern karate and much more …
- When did you started to train karate, and why?
I started my training in Karate in 1962 when I was 15 years old. Why I started karate involves a story which I must explain.
My first experience in martial arts was with Judo. My father was a black belt from Kodokan (the headquarters of Judo in Tokyo). I think he got his sandan while he was attending his university in Tokyo. When I graduated from the elementary school and was getting into a junior high school, I told my father that I was interested in martial arts. In fact I wanted to do Kendo or Kenjutsu but my father said I should pick up Judo so I did. The police station of our ward had a Judo program for the children. One policeman was our sensei. He was big and strong. He impressed us so much we were convinced that the Judo was the best martial art.
After two years of training, one small young man (maybe he was an university student) joined the club. As he was totally new I could throw him easily. He was polite and very enthused. One thing I noticed about him was he would jump up right away after he was being thrown down. He was like a toy that was designed to hop up. When we are thrown, we normally rolled over into all fours (hands and knees on the floor) before we stood up again. However, he jumped up from the supine position (lying on his back) without rolling or using his hands.
We all thought he was strange but did not ask him why, until he told us that he was leaving the dojo after about one year. So, after the last training I walked with him to the nearby station where he took a train to go home. During our walk, I asked him why he decided to quit after only one year. He said that he was really a Karate practitioner and wanted to learn Judo’s throwing techniques as well as the floor work (holding and pinning techniques). So I asked why he would quit as Judo was more devastating martial art than Karate. At that time, I had very little knowledge about Karate. Besides, we saw a movie called Sugata Sanshiro in which a Judo guy wins in a match with a Karate guy. So, we believed Judo was much better as a martial art.
Surprisingly, he told me that he would tell me the truth as he was leaving the dojo. He said he respected Judo and learned a lot from Judo, but he definitely believed Karate was more effective in a hand to hand combat. I strongly objected and told him that I threw him many times and he could not do anything to me. He told me that was because he did not use his Karate techniques. At that time, I truly believed that I could grab and throw him before he could do anything. So, without a warning I grabbed (or tried to grab) his jacket to throw him. At that moment, to my great surprise I found myself knocked down on my back and staring at the guy who was standing over me with a shocked face. I did not know what had happened. I felt something hit me very sharp on my belly. The guy quickly apologized and helped me stand up. Apparently he kicked me in the belly and knocked me down. As the distance was so short and I was not expecting anything like this so I did not see his leg to move. It was like a magic.
He told me that he did not kick me too hard, only enough to knock me down. In fact, he said he was surprised that I fell as his intention was not to knock down but only to push me away from him with a kick. He told me that he could have kicked harder to break a few of the ribs and to finish me with a punch to the face after the kick. He totally convinced me with this demonstration that Karate can be more effective in a hand to hand combat. I really wanted to learn Karate but I had to stay with Judo and wait one more year until I graduated from the junior high school.
- Who was your teachers? How long did you train with each one of them, and what influence each of them had on your technique and vision about karate?
I consider that I have three teachers.
The first sensei is Sugano sensei, my first sensei who was the co-chairman of Japan Karate Association, 9th dan in Kobe Japan. I trained under him for 26 or 27 years. He was a big and strong karateka. I learned how to generate power by watching him. He was also brutal in his training. He used to open the windows in the winter time even when it was snowing outside. Then, in the summer time he shut the windows and turned off the fans. The floor became very wet with our sweat thus very slippery. He told us to go faster and we used to fall down especially we had to do the kicks. It was so hot in the room we felt like we were training in a sauna or steam room. We felt like passing out many times. By the way we trained we learned not only how to keep the balance but also to be tough and enduring. He passed away in 2001.
The second teacher was Teruyuki Okazaki, ex-chairman of ISKF, 10th dan. I was one of the assistant instructors at the headquarters in Philadelphia. I trained under him for about nine years until I returned to my home in Kobe in 1981. Okazaki sensei was an excellent karateka and his basics were almost perfect. He was known for his beautiful yoko geri so we all tried to imitate that kick.
When I was training at the Philadelphia dojo, I remember that our kumite was very severe and contacts were allowed. Seeing a bleeding nose was almost a daily event. The students did not quit even after this brutal kumite training. This was in the 70s when Bruce Lee became very famous. We had a waiting list of more than 100 at this dojo. Many of the students wanted to be like Lee, I think and did not want to quit.
My last sensei is Tetsuhiko Asai, the technical director of JKA in the 80s and the founder of JKS, 10th dan. I trained under him only five years since he passed away in 2006. However, he had the biggest impact on my karate and I am still following his way of karate. I call it Asai ryu. After he became one of the instructors in JKA, he was dispatched to Taiwan to teach karate there. During his stay he picked up White Crane kung fu. His karate was definitely different as his move was more circular and fluid. He also created more than 100 kata as he felt the standard 26 JKA kata was not enough. He was flexible and agile even when he was in his 60s so he became my model who I wish to follow and imitate. I plan to train till the day of my last living day and to promote Asai ryu karate around the world.
- Kata is probably the most arguable exercise in karate. Some say that kata is anachronism, others that kata is most important part of karate, but had a hard time explaining why… Can you explain why the kata is so important? Is it not possible to learn how to fight without kata?
OK there are two questions.
- a) Why the kata is so important? B) Is it not possible to learn how to fight without kata?
Let me tackle with the first question. This is a very heavy question and it requires complex answer. Therefore, I have written an essay about this subject, and placed it in my 3rd Shotokan series book, Shotokan Transcendence. As it was a 19 page essay I will not repeat the whole concept here. I will share only the conclusion, that is, we need to train kata to achieve the maximum result in open hand combat. If you are interested in finding the reasons why, please read Chapter 5 under the title of “The reasons why we must preserve our kata”.
The second question is also answered in my essay. The conclusion is yes you can learn how to fight without kata but only to the street fighter level. If you wish to go beyond, you need to train in kata. You will find the details in the same chapter.
- Is there some predetermined bunkai in modern kata, or that’s a field for personal research for each karateka?
First of all, we must know that the possibility of bunkai is infinite. In other words, it can change depending on the circumstances of all variables in the fight. There are some standard or popular bunkai for each kata, but we must not be trapped in them. They are only one example of many or infinite possibilities. As you cannot study or train the infinite number of bunkai situation, one needs to train more to understand the other possibilities. The level of bunkai understanding will also change as one improves his karate skill. Once you achieve the total understanding of kata after repeating it thousands of times, he will be able to use the techniques in kata in any possibilities regardless of the situations and the circumstances. It sounds contradictory but we must practice kata without thinking of bunkai so that we can achieve the skill level that allows all bunkai.
- You are running organisation called “ASAI”. Can you tell more about it?
I am very happy to do so. First ASAI stands for Asai Shotokan Association International. I chose this name because we want to promote budo karate and to remember the name of Master Asai who changed my karate. I was a member of JKS, the organization Master Asai created in the year of 2000. I was a member of JKA for 40 years (1962 to 2002) and I did not want to resign but I had no choice. In order to follow Master Asai’s karate I joined JKS in 2002. I stayed there even after his passing but resigned in 2009 as I felt that JKS was not paying sufficient effort to follow Asai style and feared that his name will be forgotten. After leaving JKS I felt I needed to establish my own organization to accomplish my objective, so I started ASAI five years ago. Our objec
tive is to promote budo karate and also to add the Asai ryu karate to standard Shotokan karate.
What is unique about ASAI is that we focus on budo karate. This means we do not agree with the current trend of karate becoming more and more sport that is promoted by World Karate Federation (WKF). We believe in shobu ippon kumite so ASAI has its own tournament rules which is very similar to the rules JKA used to have. We fear that the watered down karate often found in the WKF tournaments will ruin the true essence of karate and karatedo. This is a sensitive subject so I have a lot to say but I will refrain myself from doing so in this interview. I expressed my opinion and the reasons in another book of mine, Karatedo Paradigm Shift Chapter 14, “Want to win vs do not want to lose”. In this chapter I described what will happen to karate after karate begins its history in the Olympics.
We are also totally non-political, because we consider the segregating politics that are common among the organizations is the cancer of karate. The best way to improve our karate as a whole is to keep the doors open and we exchange our knowledge between the practitioners. The secrecy and the segregation were the products of the
The biggest benefit this organization provides to its members is the direct access to Chief Instructor (me) and also to our Shihankai board. We have a board of 7 senior (6 dan and above) instructors around the world (2 in the US, 2 in EU, 1 each in Japan, Middle East and S. America). With these members combined, you are talking about more than 300 years of karate experience. If any of the members have any technical questions they can ask me and I will get back to them directly with the answers. If I am not sure or unfamiliar with the questions, I contact the Shihankai board to access their knowledge. I know quite a few Japanese karate organizations but none of them provide such a service.
Another unique benefit for the ASAI members is the Online Dojo training and online dan examination. This is something very new and unknown, a lot of people are skeptical and negative. I wrote another essay on this subject and you will find it in Chapter 8: “Is internet dan examination valid?” of Karatedo Paradigm Shift. I have explained about Online Dojo training as well as the online dan examination matters in this chapter.
- We’ve been talking about kata. What was the reason for Asai sensei of creating so many kata?
There are two schools on the number of kata one should learn.
One is to learn and train a few kata intensively. The famous advocate of this school is Motobu Choki (1870-1944), an Okinawan master who competed with Funakoshi in teaching budo karate in Tokyo. He believed in practicing only a few kata, he was popularly claimed that the only kata he had practiced was Naihanchi (Tekki in Shotokan), even though it is documented that he knew other kata. He believed that by mastering a few fundamental kata like Tekki, one can attain all the techniques one needs in a fight.
The other school is to learn and train as many kata as possible. Definitely Master Asai was for this belief. His thinking was the techniques found in the 26 JKA kata are not sufficient. As we all know that Funakoshi changed the stances in many kata. The most critical one is neko ashi dachi in all Heian and some advanced kata. As Master Asai considered neko ashi dachi is critically important he adopted many kata with this stance. He also found the tenshin (body rotation) moves in those 26 kata are not sufficient. In the JKA kata, only a few reverse body rotations are found such as Gankaku and Ji-in. In addition, he felt more open hand and the elbow techniques should be practiced. So, what he did was to make a kata with a certain emphasis of one or two types of techniques. For an example, Rakuyo is a kata with various types of enpi (elbow) techniques, Seiryu is a kata of whip arm techniques, and Kyakusen is a kata with many different kicks including ushiro geri and whip kicks. He feared that by practicing only a few kata, your training will be limited to them. By practicing many different kata one can learn and practice wider variety of techniques and combinations. I agree with him so I added 30 or so more Asai kata in addition to the JKA kata in my kata raptor.
- Don’t you think there is too much sport in modern karate? Everything most people do is for sake of sport. Many techniques never used in competition, and almost forgotten, such as mikazuki geri, shuto, haito, elbows, knees etc…
I agree with you 100%. We believe in budo karate. In our kumite we are not practicing to get a point but rather to achieve a killing technique. I have already stated my position with karate being included in the Olympics. I know we will be a minor group but we will continue to preserve the true essence of budo karate that was brought from Okinawa.
- Is it good idea to use researches of modern sport science in shotokan or knowledges developed by karate masters in the past century is enough?
This is an excellent question. I feel we can always learn something new from different studies. Therefore, I am for using the researches of modern sport science and kinesiology. At the same time, I must warn that many people blindly believe in the modern day science. We must realize it is only one way of understanding the universe including our body. We must not believe that science is always correct and has no limitation. As I stated earlier science is only one way and it can be helpful in understanding some things.
At the same time, we must not be little the teachings and understanding of the ancient masters only because they are old or came from the last century. The genuine truth remains as the truth no matter how old it may be. In many cases, we do not make enough effort to evaluate and discover the true meaning of their teaching. We must spend as much if not more in the study of the old teaching by those ancient masters.
- JKA masters of 50-60 changed shotokan karate drastically. How do you think karate should develop in the future? Maybe there is already some trends regarding this questions?
Yes, it is true that JKA changed Shotokan karate, especially with their kata in the 50s. This is because Nakayama sensei wanted to organize the first All Japan Karate Championship (which came to reality in 1957). Nakayama sensei also inherited the hard and long stance karate from Gigo, the son of Master Funakoshi.
Consequently, some moves in the current kata do not make sense or cannot explain with a doable bunkai. The best example of this problem is the last three hops of Chinte. They added these three hops backward so that the kata performers can return to the starting point. I do not agree with the changes to the kata as they can change the meaning of the techniques as well as the purpose of the kata. I also do not agree with sanbon shobu (3 points matches). Karate is based on one punch sure kill concept. The objective of kumite match became just getting a point these days.
Funakoshi sensei was against the idea of making championship with karate. He passed away in 1957 so JKA could start its annual tournament in that year. I am sure he was against the idea for the same reason I am very much concerned.
Unfortunately, the same thing is, indeed, happening right now. Because the Olympic commission accepted Karate to be one of the events in the 2020 games, JKF (the Japanese branch of WKF) is changing the kata and kumite. There are many changes and I will not list them here but these changes are not good for karate. They are doing this to please the Olympic committees who are interested only in the commercial side of the event. If you look at what had happened to Tae Kwon do, you can easily guess what will happen to Karate if it becomes the regular event.
- Do you practice some other styles of martial arts?
When I started Karate more than fifty years ago, I practiced Goju ryu karate for one year. I also practiced Kyokushinkai (full contact karate) for one year in the early 80s to get an experience of full contact kumite.
I also have picked up Kobudo in the 70’s. I have practiced Nunchaku, Sai, Tonfa, Sansetsu kon (3 section staff), Kyusetsu bin (9 chain whip) and Nanasetsu bin (7 chain whip). I think working with these weapons help understand the movements of our body. Shotokan, unfortunately, dropped Kobudo as the main syllabus. I recommend all the karate practitioners to pick up at least one weapon of their choice to their regular training.
- At the end what can you tell to all who loves shotokan, and who cares about its future.
Thank you for asking this. I am very happy to have this opportunity to express my strong belief and desire with the readers who love Shotokan karate.
First of all, if you love Shotokan karate I must ask you to stay non-political and keep you mind open. The politics or narrow mind should not stop you from associating with the practitioners and instructors from other organizations or styles. We must keep our mind flexible so we can learn something new from everyone.
I love Shotokan but I do not claim Shotokan is the best karate style. Frankly, there is no such a thing as “the best style”. We have only the karateka or instructors who are either bad, good, better or best in their style regardless of the styles. Shotokan practitioners can learn from other styles and other martial arts such as Judo, Kendo, Kenjutsu, Jujutsu, etc. Let us keep our mind open and be willing to learn all the time.
Secondly, I hope all the readers will continue to train (mentally and physically) in the art of karate. Karatedo means the way of life which means practicing Karate not only in the dojo but also in our daily life. I am 70 years old now, but I spend 3 to 4 hours to train my body every morning. This is essential to improve and to keep the water hot as Funakoshi sensei told us in his 20 precepts.
I look forward to having an opportunity to meet you and train together one day in the future. Oss
Here is the link to the actual interview site at Budo Karte Russia:
Do you know who Ernst Mach is? From his last name, you may guess he was the scientist whose name bears the speed of sound. In fact, Mach was the first to systematically study super-sonic motion.
Mach (1838 – 1916, photo right) is considered by many pundits as one of the greatest 19th and 20th century physicists and philosophers. This Austrian scientist made major contributions not only to physics and philosophy, but also to physiological psychology. He also made important contributions to understanding the Doppler-effect. Another notable fact is that his critique of Newtonian ideas of absolute space and time were an inspiration to the young Einstein. He credited Mach as being the philosophical forerunner of relativity theory. Mach’s systematic skepticism of the old physics was similarly important to a generation of young German and western physicists.
He is mostly known in physics but today I am sharing this knowledge as he made some unique and interesting discoveries in the area of physiological psychology. Here are two interesting self-portrait photos (#2 and #3). They are titled as “view from the left eye,” by Mach (1870 & 1886). Have you seen them before? They certainly made me think in relation to martial arts. What are your thoughts?
Although Ernst Mach is widely recognized in psychology for his discovery of the effects of lateral inhibition in the retina (“Mach Bands”), his contributions to the theory of depth perception are not as well known. Mach proposed that steady luminance gradients triggered sensations of depth. He also expanded on Ewald Hering’s hypothesis of “monocular depth sensations,” arguing that they were subject to the same principle of lateral inhibition as light sensations were. Even after Hermann von Helmholtz’s attack on Hering in 1866, Mach continued to develop theories involving the monocular depth sensations, proposing an explanation of perspective drawings in which the mutually inhibiting depth sensations scaled to a mean depth. Mach also contemplated a theory of stereopsis in which monocular depth perception played the primary role.
The Public Domain Review
This unique self-portrait, also known as “view from the left eye”, is the creation of Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, noted for his contributions to physics such as the Mach number (which relates an object’s speed to the speed of sound) and the study of shock waves. The sketch appears in Mach’s The Analysis of Sensations, first published in German in 1886 as Beiträge zur Analyse der Empfindungen, and is used to illustrate his ideas about self-perception.
The considerations just advanced, expressed as they have been in an abstract form, will gain in strength and vividness if we consider the concrete facts from which they flow. Thus, I lie upon my sofa. If I close my right eye, the picture represented in the accompanying cut is presented to my left eye. In a frame formed by the ridge of my eyebrow, by my nose, and by my moustache, appears a part of my body, so far as visible, with its environment. My body differs from other human bodies beyond the fact that every intense motor idea is immediately expressed by a movement of it, and that, if it is touched, more striking changes are determined than if other bodies are touched by the circumstance, that it is only seen piecemeal, and, especially, is seen without a head. If I observe an element A within my field of vision, and investigate its connection with another element B within the same field, I step out of the domain of physics into that of physiology or psychology, provided B, to use the opposite expression of a friend of mine made upon seeing this drawing, passes through my skin. Reflections like that for the field of vision may be made with regard to the province of touch and the perceptual domains of the other senses.
He gives a little more information on the origins of the image in a footnote:
It was about 1870 that the idea of this drawing was suggested to me by an amusing chance. A certain Mr L., now long dead, whose many eccentricities were redeemed by his truly amiable character, compelled me to read one of C. F. Krause’s writings, in which the following occurs:
“Problem : To carry out the self-inspection of the Ego.
Solution : It is carried out immediately.”
In order to illustrate in a humorous manner this philosophical “much ado about nothing,” and at the same time to show how the self-inspection of the Ego could be really “carried out,” I embarked on the above drawing. Mr L.’s society was most instructive and stimulating to me, owing to the naivety with which he gave utterance to philosophical notions that are apt to be carefully passed over in silence or involved in obscurity.
According to John Michael Krois the “Mr. L” in question is Mach’s colleague at Prague University, Prof. Hermann von Leonhardi, son-in-law of the Kaul Christian Friedrich Krause mentioned. Krois also tells us that this original drawing sketched in 1870 in fact differed from the woodblock of 16 years later — the right arm with pencil is absent, with a left arm instead brandishing a cigarette (which has found its way to the mouth in the 1886 image), and a steaming cup of Viennese coffee sits on a small table.
I found these self-portraits to be very interesting as the single eye Mach used was his left one. He chose not the right eye but the left one which is managed by the right side of the brain.
As of the readers know that our brain – consists of two major parts; right and left hemispheres. It is very interesting to know that these two hemispheres are not equal or redundant but rather they function differently. The left side of the brain is responsible for controlling the right side of the body. It also performs tasks that have to do with logic, such as in science and mathematics. On the other hand, the right hemisphere coordinates the left side of the body, and is the more artistic and creative side of the brain.
So, now many of the readers can guess why I picked up this subject or why I considered his drawings to be interesting. Ernst Mach is a genius of a scientist which means he must have utilized or depended much of his brain work on the left side or logic side of the brain hemisphere. But yet, he drew a self-portrait, curiously looking through his left eye which was managed or controlled by the right side of the brain or creative side.
Why did he choose the left eye vision and not the right one? It can be a mystery and as far as I know he did not write down or tell people if there was any particular reason. Was it just coincidental and had no meaning? I do not think so. I wish to share my hypothesis that there was a definite reason.
Before I present the hypothesis, I would like to bring up a couple of things from the Japanese culture. I am not 100% sure if these things have any relationship to the mystery of Mach’s portrait. However, I think it is worth the mentioning. One fact comes from Noh play that was cherished and loved by samurai especially of the senior ranks. Noh play is not too popular outside of Japan, but I assume the readers know that each Noh performer plays with a mask (photo left and bekiw right). What is interesting, at least I find, is that the holes for the eyes are made rather small. For a performer, it would be better if he could have a better vision with the larger holes. It is almost they were made on purpose to that small size. As I have not received any formal education on Noh, I can only guess that they (the Noh players) believe the narrow vision would stimulate the brain of the players and improve their performance.
The other interesting fact comes from another Japanese performing art, Kabuki which is more popular in the western world. I suspect the readers have either watched a play or at least have seen the photos or drawing of Kabuki ukiyoe (photo left). In Kabuki play, they do not wear a mask but did you know that they were trained to have one cross eye? Believe it or not, the players have to train their right eye to be crossed while the left eye to stay straight. This is indeed a strange sight if you see it closely (photo below left). They say that a player with this “strange” eyes will catch the attention of the audience. Maybe it can be true if the player is close enough to see his eyes. However, to me one cross eye seems to be too subtle for that purpose, especially to the audience who are seated far from the performing floor. I am not educated in Kabuki dance either, so I can only guess the real reason. By crossing the right eye, a player must depend on the left eye heavily for his vision. This means this player must stimulate his right side of the brain. As I had mentioned earlier, the right hemisphere is the more artistic and creative side of the brain. Therefore, my guessing is that in order to maximize or at least to stimulate the artistic side of the brain, the Kabuki players purposely train their eyes in this way.
Now back to the portraits of Mach. Why did he draw those pictures through his left eye?
This is my pure guessing but I honestly believe that there was a definite reason behind his choice. We all agree that he was a smart person and a genius scientist. It is very possible that he studied about his brain, though I am not sure if he had known that there were two hemispheres in his brain. Regardless, when he was alive in the late 19th century, I do not believe the different functionality of the two hemispheres of our brain was known even among the medical experts.
Therefore, I conclude that Mach empirically knew that he was using his left side brain when he did his mathematical thinking. He probably felt that he was over working his left side brain and not enough with the right side. Thus, he felt that he needed to train his right side brain in order to get the maximum capability of his brain. My guessing may be a wild guess but I do not think it is too far-fetched when you consider how smart and successful Mach was. Somehow he knew that right side hemisphere of his brain would stimulate his creativity that would help him in his scientific research and study.
What do you think? Whether you agree with my hypothesis here, it is still true that the world famous physicist, Ernst Mach left us a few portrait of himself with an unique technique. I think this subject deserves further study and we may be able to find a unique way to maximize our mental as well as physical performance.
The first step of Tekki is to the right but why to the left side with Heian kata? (Part 1) 第一挙動の謎: 鉄騎は右方向・平安形は左方向
Many Shuri-te practitioners may have wondered about the mystery of Tekki (or Naihanchi) kata. In fact, there are two main mysteries. One is that the Tekki’s enbusen is a horizontal and straight line. The other is the first step of all three Tekki kata is taken to the right side (photo below).
I have already written a couple of essays regarding these mysteries of Tekki and shared my understanding and hypothesis. If you are interested you can find these in my books; Shotokan Myths and Shotokan Mysteries.
Today, I want to bring up another puzzle. The first kata for the Shuri-te (such as Shotokan, Shorin ryu and Shito ryu) practitioners are the five Heian (or Pinan) kata. Have you ever wondered why the first step of all these kata is taken to the left side (illustration below)? Another interesting point is the first move is not taken to the front but rather to the left side.
You may not consider it a big deal but I believe there was a well thought out reason for this. Some people have guessed that Master Itosu, the creator of Heian kata, has chosen the left side simply because the first step for Tekki kata was to the right side. Also the direction is to the left side instead of front is because of the Tekki enbusen.
I am writing this essay because I do not think it was from such a simple reason. I wish to share a deeper reason why Anko Itosu created this kata with the first step of all Heian kata to the left side. Before we jump into this subject, I wish to also mention that starting to the left side does not matter in the end. This is because the Okinawan masters have taught us that we must practice the mirror side once we become familiar with the kata. This teaching starts with Heian then on to Tekki. Believe it or not, this will continue with other kata such as Bassai (or Passai), Kanku (or Kusanku), Enpi (or Wanshu), etc. If you have learned all 26 Shotokan kata, you can practice 52 kata when you include the mirror sides.
Despite starting to whichever side will not matter in the end if you practice both sides, I believe there was a good reason why Itosu chose to make the first step of all Heian kata to the left side. With modern sports science, we have learned a lot of facts about our body. One of them is we have a favorite or better side. Even though our body, viewing from the front, may look symmetrical. If you study a little of anatomy, you begin to find that our body is not symmetrical externally and more so when you view it internally (internal organs).
One determinant is our heart, an extremely important organ and we have only one. Our heart is located on the left side of our body rather than right or in the center. This may be one of the reasons why we have more right handed people than left handed. When we shake hands for a greeting, we extend our right hand. Of course, it came from the etiquette in the time of knights. The right hand was the hand that held the swords, thus by extending right hand meant “I have no weapon” or a sign of friendship. Even though there are many who write with their left hand, right hand writing is much more prevalent.
As the right side is the favorite side for most of us, thus the right leg is the favored one. In Tekki kata (Shodan and Nidan), we move the left leg first. The right leg, the favored leg, is used to support the body weight. Of course, there is one exception, Tekki Sandan. In this kata, the first move is the right leg with the left leg being the supporting side (illustration below).
The body mechanism here is opposite from that of Shodan and Nidan. This is an interesting subject to research why Tekki Sandan has a different body mechanism in the first move. Though we will not go into this subject in this essay, I wish to add that many karate historians believe that the original form of Tekki was one long kata and it was simply separated into 3 different parts; Shodan, Nidan and Sandan. If this idea is correct, the only starting move of Tekki was that of Tekki Shodan.
On the other hand, if the creator of Tekki, indeed, made this kata intentionally into three different kata then we need to figure out why Tekki Sandan’s first move is based on the opposite body mechanism from Shodan and Nidan. In this case, we must not say that the difference is meaningless or it was created like so by accident or non-intentional. The creators of these karate kata, I believe, must have spent much time in figuring out each and every move to make it the most efficient and effective move, because the kata is the condensed form of fighting techniques that are infinite in possible numbers.
Interestingly, in Heian or Heian kata, we move our left leg first and we use our right leg to support the body weight. Thus, the fundamental physical movement is based on the similar sequence (move left leg first and use the right leg for support). Even though on the surface, Tekki kata seem to start to the right side and Heian kata to the left side, they are done with the same mechanism. Therefore, I conclude that Itosu knew this fact. He intentionally formatted the same physical movement, but with a superficial difference in the direction of the body starting to the left side with Heian.
Also, we may want to pay attention to our brain and the nervous system, as well, to understand our physical functions and mechanism better. As you know our brain consists of two sides (left and right). Each side has its own controlling functions. The left hemisphere controls the muscles on the right side of the body while the right hemisphere controls those on the left. This is why damage to the left side of the brain, for example, might have an effect on the right side of the body.
Full article from SpartaScience
It is clearly evident that there are two parts: right side and left side, of the brain. However, it is also true that there are other parts of the brain that perform some critical functions as well. In addition, even though we have discovered and learned a lot about our brain in the 20th century as well as the early part of this century, it is sadly true that there still exists many mysteries about the exact functions of the brain. We hope that more study and research in the future will teach us more about these fascinating mechanisms of our brain.
Despite that we do not know exactly how our body and our brain work in harmony, there remains the final question. Regardless of the cause or reason, if the right side is the favored side, then why didn’t the creators of Tekki and Heian have the right leg move first? Here is my hypothesis. Both Tekki and Heian are so called practice kata rather than the actual fighting kata such as Bassai and Kanku. For this reason, the creators must have planned for us to use the less favored side, left leg, first so that we can focus on our weaker side.
After Heian and Tekki, the next kata we learn is Bassai. The first foot movement is right leg and you will also use the right arm in its first move.
The points I brought up may sound insignificant and to some people, maybe, almost meaningless. Many people mistakenly believed or still believe that all the mysteries of karate have been answered. This misunderstanding not only makes karate less exciting but also harmful. When we do not improve something, it tends to degenerate and worsen as time progresses.
Therefore, I feel strongly that it is our responsibility to dig deeper and try to understand more of how these kata were created as well as their objectives. Unfortunately, those creators have already left us a long time ago and only a few written documents are available or were left behind. This means we must depend on our intuition and understanding of our anatomy and kinesiology to reverse engineer to discover the wisdom and true teaching from the valuable treasure, kata, that have been handed down for many centuries. To be able to reverse engineer means a great deal of responsibility is left to us. It means we must excel in both our physical skills in karate and the intellectual understanding of human anatomy and kinesiology.
So far, I have reached this level of understanding that you read in this essay. I hope my essays will be a springboard or at least a start for the readers so that they can reach to the deeper level of the truth and better understanding of the wisdom of karate in the future. I am sure there is more to be found and discovered. I look forward to continuing my karate journey. I invite the readers to join me in this exciting journey.
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“.
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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.