English Blog Pages
1. What is the difference between standard Shotokan and Asai-ryu Shotokan?
Asai karate is based heavily on Funakoshi/Nakayama Shotokan karate or JKA Shotokan. What is different is that our style has the added techniques of Master Tetsuhiko Asai. JKA karate is typically a long distance fighting method and it ignores or de-emphasizes the techniques from a short distance fighting method.
Asai karate supplements that short fall with the techniques from White Crane Kung fu which Master Asai trained in while he lived in Taiwan. Most of those kung fu techniques are not new to JKA karate, they are simply not taught much. Thus, they may seem foreign to you. Such techniques involving the elbow and knee, short stances such as neko ashi and sanchin, open hand techniques, etc.
Asai karate differs slightly in kumite concepts such as not adopting sanbon and gohon kumite. Our kumite concept is to encourage a defender to step forward and not to step back. Instead of the linear moves we prefer the circular and natural movements and techniques. We also teach how to generate power from the core muscles while the exterior muscles remain relaxed.
Even though some of the concepts and methods are different, the fundamental techniques are the same. For most of the shotokan practitioners the transition or getting adjusted to Asai ryu karate will be easy and enjoyable, once those differences are understood.
2. When the Dojo becomes a member, do all the students have to register for individual membership?
No they are not required though it is recommended. It is totally up to the students to decide if they wish to affiliate themselves with ASAI. The only time we require their membership is when a student takes an ASAI dan examination or applies for a dan diploma.
3. Do we have to learn Junro kata?
Junro kata are a part of the ASAI exam syllabus so the five Junro kata will be required only if a student wishes to take an ASAI kyu or dan exam. These kata are not mandatory if a student is not interested in an ASAI exam.
You may wonder why these kata are included in addition to 26 JKA kata. Junro are designed for the students who are five kyu and above. You will realize that these kata supplement the Heian kata. Junro has many techniques that Heian have only a few of, or not at all, such as neko ashi dachi, jodan barai, yoko kekomi, mawashi enpi uchi, tenshin, nagashi zuki, morote zuki to name a few.
We do not expect the new members and non Asai style practitioners to know these kata nor learn them right away. We allow a grace period of two years or even longer for a new member dojo. We expect, during that time, the practitioners who are five kyu and above will be able to learn these kata.
4. How do we learn Asai karate?
There are only two effective ways to learn Asai karate. One is to participate in a class or a seminar taught by an ASAI instructor. This is the best way to learn the Asai techniques and kata in person. It is almost impossible to learn from the written materials or even through video tapes. The other method is to take a program from Online Dojo taught by Sensei Yokota. It is not as good as an in person training during a seminar but it is a viable alternative. Unfortunately, he is not taking any more Online Dojo students at this time. What has to happen is that the ASAI member instructors will have to learn the Asai karate só that they can teach their students instead of depending on Sensei Yokota. It will take some time but Sensei Yokota believes in a few years there will be multiple instructors around the world who can teach Asai karate.
ASAI considers tournaments as one of the necessities in running a dojo or an organization. On the other hand, during the last two years we have not hosted nor endorsed any tournaments. Why? This is because karate tournaments have become too sports like event instead of staying as a budo competition. There are two specifics we are very much concerned about. One is a technical one. We believe in ippon shobu but the trend of the tournaments is going toward sanbon shobu. In budo the concept is, when you receive a decisive attack you are dead and you will not have a second chance. The second one is not a technical matter but we consider it more serious. We see the serious decline of the tournament etiquette such as bowing, attire, etc. among, not only the competitors but also the coaches. We also witness the improper behavior and actions by the spectators. At this time, there is no rules and regulations to control them.
So, what are we going to do about this? ASAI has just re-organized its Shihankai, Technical Board, was formed recently. One of the projects is to establish tournament rules and regulations. If a tournament is held under the new rules and regulations then ASAI will be able to endorse such a tournament. I hope we will have the official document before the end of 2015. That document will be distributed to all the country representatives as well as the dojo members who wish to receive a copy.
In short, no the instructors are not required to have an examiner’s license to give the kyu ranks to their students. They are free to give the kyu examinations and grant the appropriate kyu ranks and the certificates. The certificates must not say anything about ASAI and must not have our logo. The instructors we authorize to give the kyu examination must have at least sandan ranks (either from ASAI or from other legitimate organizations). We make an exception to the instructors who are ranked at only Nidan with two conditions. They must have a minimum of three years since they received the Nidan rank. Another condition is that those Nidan instructors promise that they will take a dan examination from ASAI to become Sandan within one year from the time they affiliate with ASAI.
If you wish to have an ASAI kyu certificate, we have our official certificate with our logo printed. This certificate can be licensed to a member dojo (for an annual license fee). If you are interested in licensing the certificate, contact ASAI to get the detailed information.
7. How do we get a dan rank from ASAI? Does ASAI recognize the diplomas from other organizations?
One is, of course, to take a dan examination from one of the ASAI examiners.
The other is to receive a lateral dan recognition. This means that ASAI respects and recognizes the diplomas from JKA and its lineage organizations. They include JKS (Kagawa), ISKF (Okazaki), SKIF (Kanazawa), JSKA (Abe), Karate no michi, WSKF (Yahara), etc. If you have earned a shodan diploma from, say, JKA, you do not need to take another exam to receive an ASAI shodan diploma. All you have to do is apply for a dan recognition and you will receive an ASAI shodan diploma. If you have trained enough time after receiving a diploma from another organization, you may take a dan exam for the next level. Contact ASAI for the requirements (note: you must be an ASAI member before you can ask for the examination details.)
Dan recognition is a very important subject for ASAI as we pride ourselves as a holder of high quality shotokan karate. We do not wish to compromise our level or “water down” the quality. At this time, we do not recognize a diploma that is issued by a local or an international organization that is not related to JKA or not having a Japanese chief instructor with JKA experience. We make some exceptions for some organizations. If you are not sure if your diploma would qualify, the best way is to send us a copy of your diploma for an evaluation. (Please note that you must be an ASAI member before you can send any diploma for an evaluation.)
8. Please explain about the ASAI Examiner license that will allow you to give a dan diploma.
When the instructors receive their dan diploma of Sandan and above, they can apply for an examiner‘s license. An examiner‘s license authorizes the instructor to conduct a dan exam and decide on the exam results. There are four classes from A to D. For an example, a “D” class license requires a minimum dan rank of Sandan and it allows an instructor to examine the first kyu students to Shodan. An “A” class license will allow an examiner to grade up to Yondan. For the higher ranks above Yondan, a multiple number of examiners is required or it may be decided by the Shihankai, ASAI Technical Board.
9.What is KarateCoaching?
KarateCoaching is an internet karate teaching site (www.karatecoaching.com). Sensei Yokota is the major contributor at KarateCoaching and they have many video teachings performed by him including Junro kata. He has no business or financial relationship with them. He considers that this video site is the best internet karate teaching tool so he works with them and recommends this site. When one becomes a member of ASAI, he or she will receive a one month free subscription as one of the benefits.
KarateCoaching is the best internet tool for the one way video. However, for a better teaching method it will require an interactive feature. Sensei Yokota started Online Dojo program three years ago using the internet conference tool, Skype. He provides a one on one private lesson to the domestic and the overseas practitioners who want to learn directly from Yokota Sensei. As of July 1, 2015 he is not taking any more students as his schedule is too busy to take any more private students. When and if one of the students quits or graduates there will be an announcement that there is an opening.
10. What about the instructor training privilege?
This is a program to assist the member instructors to improve their teaching ability. Teaching a karate class requires more than knowing how to execute the techniques though that is also mandatory. In addition to that skill, an instructor must have a knowledge of how to transfer his skills to his students. They need to know how to plan and conduct a proper class for the students. In addition, they need to learn the effective teaching method and how to schedule the class contents properly (exercise, kihon, kumite, kata, etc) and to allocate the appropriate amount of time. There are a lot more teaching skills one needs to learn and it does not come from just teaching a lot. Sensei Yokota has done the research extensively of athletic coaching and instruction. He now has a reputation of being one of the most effective instructors in the entire Shotokan world.
Here is how the teaching of instructors is conducted. When Sensei Yokota visits a member for a seminar, an extra night will be planned for this instructor to run a class. Sensei Yokota observes the class and evaluates the instruction that was given. Then, he will make the comprehensive evaluation of the class and provide the analysis and recommendation of changes and modification of teaching method or approach. This service is provided free of charge to the member instructors if they host a seminar. If an instructor requests this separately without hosting a seminar, it can be done using Skype. There will be a fee associated with the observation, analysis and recommendation. If anyone is interested they should communicate with Sensei Yokota directly to get more details and some specific information.
If you have more questions and require further information, you can read the “Shihan Yokota Interview” at this blog site. You can also contact the country representative of your country or ASAI headquarters (www.asaikarate.com).
There are more than a dozen Facebook ASAI pages that are managed by the country representatives. Accessing one of them is probably the easiest way to get in touch with ASAI.
I am afraid some of the dojo have discarded the traditional line up ritual before and after the training. I am sure there is a “good” reason why they did this but I am not going to discuss why we should keep the ritual in this article. I hope most of the readers here are still exercising this important ritual of seiza line-up.
I have received some common questions from many practitioners that are related to the line-up ritual. This ritual is a cultural matter so I can understand why many people are uncertain or confused about some of the things they are supposed to do. Let me share a couple of common questions and explain how it should be done and the reason behind it. Hopefully this information will be helpful in your training.
The most frequent question I receive is, “Should the senior students line up from left to right or the other way around? This is an excellent question as I have seen this done both ways around the world including Japan. Look at the two photos here that are the line-up done by the JKA instructors. The first photo (above) with late Master Nakayama (taken in 80’s), the first Chief Instructor of JKA, shows the line starting from left to right (facing front). The second one (photo left) with Ueki sensei (current Chief Instructor of JKA) shows the line starting from right to left. So it is no wonder that some conscientious practitioners would get confused. Let me explain why this happens. To do this we must learn a little about the ancient Japanese culture and its heritage that is affecting the life style of Japan.
The ancient (samurai time) Japanese culture consider left as higher or more important. In the middle ages there used to be two prime ministers to support the emperor. Their titles were Left Minster (左大臣) and Right Minister (右大臣). As I said earlier Left Minister was the higher rank position than Right Minister. Japan was in feudal period until Meiji restoration (1868) so it held all the traditional values and culture right through Meiji period, 19th century.
However, this ruling was intentionally changed some one hundred years ago when the western culture was introduced to Japan. As Japan “opened its door” to the western world it adopted some western “etiquette” or culture such as clothing and seat positioning. Look at the portrait of Meiji emperor (明治天皇, 1852 – 1912, the 122nd emperor) and empress (photo right). As you can see the emperor is standing on the right side in the photo which means he is positioned on the left of his wife. In late 19th century, Japan was still keeping the old tradition of having the higher person on the left as you saw in this photo.
For Meiji restoration see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiji_Restoration)
But by the time his grandson, Akihito Showa emperor (April 29, 1901 – January 7, 1989) became the emperor in early 20th century the position changed between the emperor and empress (photo left). Some royal advisers told them that this is the way the western monarch would position. I do not think this positioning is such an important factor among the western monarchs as I quickly search through the official photos I see the photos of Queen of England and her husband and the positions do not seem to be consistent. I am not sure if such a positioning rule is not clearly defined or exercised in Europe. Maybe the readers in Europe can send me their understanding about this matter for my education. Regardless, “correct” positioning is a very important matter in Japan so the change was made within the imperial household. As this is the model to follow for all the Japanese many did, except for some of the martial arts practitioners. For a samurai left side is safer (easier to draw sword and cut someone on the right and the reverse) thus we must remember that fundamentally left side is a higher position, kamiza (上座). There are synonim Joseki (上席, upper seat) and Masseki (末席, lower seat) but we will not go into this in this article as their meaning is very similar and the difference does not matter to the subject I am discussing here.
Kamiza or upper position is often difficult to determine, sometimes even for the Japanese. Therefore, the concept of upper side of a dojo may be a difficult one to understand for the westerners. This is not a religious matter and only a cultural etiquette but it is good to know if you are a serious karate practitioner. Here are two easy ideas that will help you when you need to determine kamiza. To know the high position in a dojo is fairly easy because there is a kamidana (神棚) (portable shrine, photo right) or tokonoma (床の間, alcove, photo below) or a photo of Funakoshi sensei or other sensei. There is also a key factor to determine the lower position (shimoza 下座). That is the entrance or a door. It is interesting why the Japanese consider a door a lower position. It came from the samurai time that an area near a door was considered less safe as you will face an intruder there, thus it is a lower position.
This explanation should easily make you understand why a door or entrance area is considered as shimoza. OK it would be easy if the entrance is one side and if you can find a kamidana or a photo of Funakoshi on the other side. However, often times a door may be placed in a different part of the dojo building. Here is a blueprint of a certain dojo in Japan (below). You can see an illustration of a tokonoma and a photo in the middle of the right side wall. So it is easy to determine that the right side of this dojo is kamiza, higher position. Where is the door or the entrance to the dojo? It is placed at the bottom of the blueprint. So the bottom part of the dojo is shimoza. Therefore, in this dojo, the senior students would probably line up from the left facing to tokonoma or top of the blueprint and the junior students will sit to the shimoza direction (the door or entrance).
Again, this is the general rule and it is possible to find a dojo in Japan not paying an attention to the joza and shimoza concept. However, most of the Japanese sensei are from old school and most likely there would be a strict rule in their dojo about this matter. So I suggest you to know this concept if you plan to visit Japan to train.
I receive another common question related to the line-up so I will share the answer to this question too. They say, “I have no problem in my dojo. Everyone knows exactly where he or she should sit. The problem is when I visit the other dojo or when I participate in a mixed school seminar.” Let’s look at the situation when you visit a certain dojo for the first time and if you do not have time to ask around and find the ranks of the students there. The best guideline is to sit at the end of whatever the color of belt you wear. For an instance, if you are a brown belt take the last position of brown belt. If you are a black belt go to the end of black belt line. It should not make too much difference even if you assumed a wrong position but by knowing this guideline you will probably feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar dojo and focus your attention to the training itself.
One thing I need to add here is a particular etiquette not too many people know. If the visitor happens to be the highest rank in black belt students, where will he sit? If he is a certified instructor then he will sit in the assistant instructor’s line which is in front of the students’ line. If you are, say, nidan or sandan but not a certified instructor. All the visiting dojo’s students are junior to you, will you sit at the top of the line? I have seen this to happen but this is not considered as a good etiquette according to the Japanese dojo culture. Let me explain why. According to the Japanese etiquette the job of making ritual command such as “Seiza”, “Mokuso”, etc must belong to the head person of that dojo. This role must not be taken over by any visitor regardless of his rank. In fact, this particular case has happened in my training days in Japan. I was sandan and visited one dojo where the highest rank of the students was nidan. I sat next to him (on his right or junior side). He offered me to move to his left side. I thanked him but politely declined. With this cleared everything went smoothly in that training. If you did not follow this rule would it be a big error? Of course, it isn’t if it is outside of Japan. However if you plan to visit Japan to train knowing this rule may save you from an embarrassing situation. You may think this situation will never happen to you but if you are a yudansha do not expect that there would be always a higher rank student in all Japanese dojo. If you choose to sit at the wrong position of the line, the sensei of that dojo may tell you to move which would be an embarrassing situation for you. Sometimes they may not correct you as you are a foreigner but they will consider you as ignorant and ill-educated. It may save your face by knowing this etiquette.
This seating position is a very important matter in the Japanese life and is very pervasive. When you have a business meeting or if you attend a party or a dinner in Japan, you must know exactly where you are to sit. I am sure you have experienced this if you have visited Japan on a business trip. This kamiza and shimoza concept applies to not only a meeting room or a restaurant but it expands to almost all occasions and places. It applies not only in the rooms and places but also in a car, a bus, a train and even an elevator. You may not believe this but you are expected to stand at the “right” position in an elevator if you are with your boss, guest, etc. Not only the particular about the place or position, would you believe there is a specific order to enter and exit a taxi or an escalator? I will cover this interesting customs in a longer version of this article but I will not spend any more space here.
At the end of this article I want to add an interesting fact about the origin of one Japanese custom. If you visit Japan you will notice that the most Japanese people would always walk on the left side of the street. This happens no matter which city, town or a village you may visit in Japan. This happens to be the same with the automobile traffic direction. This is not because the Japanese followed the English traffic rule. Once again, it came from the long custom of the samurai, believe it or not. As you all know that samurai used to hold two swords on their left waist. If you had practiced Iaido (居合道) you know this but the tails of the swords would stick out to your left as the handle parts would be kept slightly inward (photo left). What would happen if two samurai waked across each other to their left side? The streets in Japan (especially in the feudal time) were very narrow so the tails of the swords may hit each other. If this happened then there would be a life and death fight as samurai considered their swords more important than their lives. If a merchant or a farmer accidentally hit a samurai’s sword then that samurai was permitted to cut this poor person to death. So, in order to minimize this kind of accidents all the Japanese citizens in the feudal time walked on the left side. The people walking towards you would pass your right side and you would also pass their right side. This unwritten law was exercised over many hundreds of years all over Japan so it almost got ingrained in the DNA of the Japanese people. When you go to Japan next time check it out. The photo here (right) shows the side street in Tokyo. The people are walking on the left side of the street. If you are interested you can also watch a short video of a street in Ginza (the most fashionable district in Tokyo) in which you can see how the pedestrians actually walk.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-q6ykP8ywk. There are many non-Japanese in Tokyo but yet look at this video. You can clearly see that the people in Tokyo want to walk on the left side of the street. Don’t you think it is amazing? Here is a photo (left) of the escalators in Tokyo and here again you will go up on the left side and come down on the right side. Notice that the people on the left escalator are standing on the left side and keeping their right side open so that a passer-by can walk up the steps on their right side.
I guess I made my point that left side is very important in the life of Japan (particularly of Kanto or Tokyo region) and how the samurai traditions have the lasting effect on the Japanese. It is interesting to mention that this rule is totally opposite in Osaka. The pedestrians walk on the right side and the the people stand on the right side of the escalators. I have written about this in another article so some people may remember why the Osaka people have a different custom.
Now have you decided which direction you want to line up in your dojo for a bowing ritual? Or are you more confused?
From your yoi (musubi dachi) position you have two ways to kneel down. One is to kneel down without moving your feet (the way I do). I start with the left knee going down first then followed by the right knee. I know this method is hard for many people as it requires the strong legs and good balance. The other way is to take a short step back with your right foot then to kneel down on your left knee (see the illustration, photo 1, below).
During the kneeling process, do not put your hand or hands down to support yourself. If you have a knee problem then you must ask your sensei for permission to do this. Normally, you must keep your hands at your sides or laps during this process. This will allow you to correctly kneel down into the seiza position.
From a seiza position, Photo 2 (right) shows that you should put your left hand on the floor first while keeping your right hand on your lap. Then you will put your right hand down. This is the samurai way and this is how I do it.
However, putting both hands down at the same time is also acceptable since we no longer carry swords. It is up to the individual karateka to decide if he/she wants to do a samurai way or the modern way.
Then the next question is how close or far apart the hands are when you place them on the floor in front of you. The photo #3 shows the samurai way which shows a distance of 4 to 5 inches (or about the width of one hand) between the hands. What is important is that you must not have a wider distance, than this. A bowing with the hands wide apart is considered impolite or uncultured.
Photo 4 is from Ogasawara ryu (小笠原流) etiquette showing their style of za rei. This is the most respected Japanese etiquette and this method is also used in other Japanese arts such as sado (tea ceremony) and kado (flower arrangement).
Sadly, these days in Japan many people do not know how to do za rei correctly. So, in the budo dojo such as judo, kendo and karate, the teachers have to teach their students how to do za rei correctly. In the photos 5 & 6 (below), the teachers (kendo and judo) are coaching their students how to do the za rei correctly.
The three key points to follow for your za rei:
1. Do not lift your buttocks as you bow. In other words, you must keep your buttocks on your feet at all time during the za rei process.
2. Keep your back straight and do not arch your back as you bow.
3. The best angle for a teacher is 45 degrees. The students can bow as low as 90 degrees. Do not bow too deeply.
This Japanese teacher (photo 7) is bowing a little too deeply. You can see this as his buttocks are off his feet. He looks like he is losing his balance which is not proper for the etiquette. His back also should be straight and keep his buttocks on the feet.
You must keep your elbows in line with the sides of your body (refer to the earlier photos 3 & 4)
Photo 10 is a very nice poster designed for Master Kanazawa’s birthday. I understand that they are trying to show their respect to sensei with this illustration. Sadly, the bowing person’s hands are placed in the wrong position. As a consequence, it makes this bowing “strange” and not proper. As stated above, the hands should be either together or separated only by 4 to 5 inches.
These two boys are from a kenpo dojo (photo 11).
What’s wrong with their za rei? They seem to be doing the ritual all right. Take a look at the hands of the boy on the right. He should have all his fingers held together. A small infraction but it must be corrected.
Here are couple more good examples.
This is probably a company’s training class for the newly hired employees.
Now you know how to do the kneeling bow as well as the standing bow. These manners are as important as the karate techniques. I hope you will remember them and perform them correctly in your daily training. Good luck.
There are two ways to do the bowing; one is standing bow and the other is sitting or kneeling bow. Today I will post Standing bow, Part 1. An article on kneeling bow, Part 2 will follow later.
I want to thank Sensei O’Neill for correcting my English.
Part 1: Standing bow (ritsu rei 立礼)
There are basically two ways to bow in a dojo situation. I decided to write this article as I find so many western dojos (some Japanese also) that are doing this important ritual incorrectly. I feel this error is almost as bad as an incorrect karate technique. The instructors must learn the correct way of bowing as it is an integral part of karate-do.
Bowing is done to show respect to opponents, your sensei, your colleagues (senpai, kohai, etc.) and even to the dojo itself. Doing a bow in an incorrect manner, even with good intentions, is impolite. Please read this article and learn the correct way.
The first thing I must say is that there is no one standard way to bow. This statement may sound confusing to some people. Let me explain. The bowing method or agreement may be slightly different from style to style and even from organization to organization. What I am sharing here is strictly limited to Shotokan karate rituals.
Standing bow (ritsu rei) seems to be an easy one and you may wonder why I make it such a big deal. After showing you the correct way I will post some photos to show the incorrect ways that I witness around the world.
OK let me start with the correct way. Here is an illustration of standing bow (photo 1, left above).
The second photo (photo 2, below) shows tournamentjudges in Japan that are bowing to each other. This is the way standing bow should be performed. I do not think I need to explain the details or the finer points as you can see how it is done clearly in these two photos.
Let me share some of the incorrect bows. I call them “funny bows”. I cannot determine which is the worst so I will list the incorrect ones randomly. Also, I must note that I picked these images from internet sites to show the bad examples. I do not mean to disgrace or ridicule anyone. They just learned the wrong ways. If a photo happens to show someone you know please remember my intention is to correct a mistake.
Photo #3 and 4 (below): What is wrong with these?
The practitioners are looking up as they bowed. If you try to look up as you lower your head what will happen is that your behind will be pushed back (especially the lady on the left, photo 4). We consider this way of bowing impolite. You need to look down and your eyesight should drop to the ground in front of you. Some teachers say, “You need to keep looking at your opponent when you are practicing martial arts.” He is only half right. It is true that you must be paying attention to your opponent but bowing is a ritual that is fixed in a tournament or in training. Your opponent is not attacking you when you bow. Even if they did for some crazy reason you can still see his feet or legs as you look down thus you could still defend yourself if you had to. In a street fight, of course you do not bow so this bowing is used only in training and tournaments where you are supposed to adhere to rules including bowing.
We, the Japanese, put our hands like this only at a shrine. We do not bow like this in our dojos in Japan so please do not teach your students to do this. The hands should be placed at the sides (front is also ok) of your body.
Photo 6 and 7
These two ways of bowing are a Chinese style so please do not mix the Chinese ritual in Shotokan karate.
What is wrong with this?
The lady on the left is doing fine but the boy on the right is bowing only with his head. He needs to bend from his waist to do a proper bowing.
Photo 9 and 10
I see this often especially in tournament situations. This was the way Japanese armed soldiers bowed during WWII. However, we do not bow this way in our dojo. In other words, do not stick your elbows out. The elbows must be placed close to the sides of your body.
Other than the hands being in the wrong place, it is obvious these two children are too close to each other to do a bowing. They could hit their heads together. The distance between two practitioners should be about 2 meters.
His hands are not held straight down at the sides of his body. His bowing simply looks sloppy.
The distance of the two players is correct and the angle of the bowing is also good. The only suggestion I would make is that the person on the right should close all his fingers together instead of spreading them out. Then his bowing would look much more polite and elegant.
Finally, I must add that we must NOT teach our students (especially the children) to slap their hands to their legs as they put their hands down to get ready for a bow. Some teachers may be teaching this way so that they can organize their children students easier. Or some may believe it is more militaristic or martial art like. We just do not prepare ourselves this way. Please remember that we must get to the ready position quietly and in a natural manner (photo below).
I often receive the questions that are pertaining to these two popular terms. I realized that those questions came because the western people do not know the real meaning and the rules that are attached to them.
These words are very popular in the dojo but you are puzzled and wonder what they really mean. The confusion or misunderstanding arises because the concept behind these two terms is tied closely to the unique Japanese cultural concept or behavior. Let me explain this unique cultural concept so that you will have a better understanding of what is behind those two words.
First, let’s look at the kanji and their meaning so that you will understand the construction or foundation of the terms. Kanji for Senpai is 先輩 and Kohai is 後輩. Sen or 先means early, in advance, first or prior. You are familiar with this character as it is used in other karate words such as Sensei and Sen no sen. Hai, 輩 means fellow, person, colleague, or people. So, Senpai means a student or a practitioner who started training karate earlier.
Ko, 後means later, afterwards, rear or aback. So you can easily guess that the meaning of Kohai is someone who started later than another or other practitioners. It is a comparison normally between the practitioners typically in the same dojo but it can expand to a larger organization or to an entire ryu-ha (style such as Shotokan).
This is a very straight forward and simple concept. Therefore, there is little confusion about this concept among Japanese. Let me give you an example. If you started your training at your dojo, say, in January 2000 then you are a Senpai to all the students who started later than February 2000. You are a Kohai to all the practitioners who started training earlier than your starting date. Some Japanese are very precise and detailed minded so that a shorter timing difference than a month makes the separation. Even one day difference may determine him to be senpai or kohai. If a person joins on the same day or very similar timing, he is called Dohai 同輩. Do (同) means same or equal. The sound of do is used in other characters so do not get this mixed up with another popular do (道) which means way or path as used in Karate-do.
In Japan, the concept of seniority is highly important and the division or classification is exercised or enforced. For instance, there is a definite hierarchy among the siblings according to their ages. The eldest brother or sister has the most power or respect compared to other siblings. Of course it comes with more responsibilities too. This goes to every aspect of Japanese society in different degrees. Two obvious places are dojo and school. It also applies to the workers as life time employment was once very common in Japan. Even though this custom is fading away in the Japanese companies the legacy of calling Senpai and Kohai in an company is still very common.
In the western world there is no strict hierarchy that is tied to the time. For instance, a male sibling is simply called a brother. To show he is older you have to add elder in front of brother. In Japanese we have one character, 兄 to describe that. Secondly, the western people are more mobile and do not stay in the same dojo for many years.
In your dojo I assume Senpai is understood as a senior student or even an assistant instructor who is not a qualified or main sensei. In some dojo all the black belts are called Senpai and the brown belts and the lower ranks are called Kohai. I understand why this is happening
Let me share one interesting thing that can happen in Japan with Senpai and Kohai. Suppose you are shodan and so is your senpai who joined the dojo, say, one year earlier. He would become eligible to take a nidan exam sooner than you. But suppose he got sick or quit karate training for a few years. You can go ahead and advance to nidan while your senpai will remain as shodan. If your senpai comes back to the dojo then you will sit in the senior position. This sitting arrangement is same in Japan but what is different is that he remains as your senpai as when he originally started karate does not change. This could cause some confusion even in Japan so in a Japanese dojo one typically cannot take a next exam until all your senpai take their exam first. This happens typically in the high school and university karate clubs. All the senior students become shodan or advance to nidan, etc at the same time.
I know this concept will not work in the western world and cannot be exercised. On the other hand, I think it is good for the senior practitioners to know about this cultural concept in Japan that when you started karate is the deciding factor in determining senpai and kohai. By knowing this, you will be able to answer to a small puzzle why Okazaki sits in front of Kanazawa even though he got his 10th dan later than Kanazawa.
We all know Sensei is translated as an instructor or a teacher. The translation is correct so there is no problem there. I receive some questions concerning the qualifications that make a person a Sensei. There seems to be some unspoken or unexplained area that brings some mystery in karate training. I do not like a mystery so I will share my understanding of what I know about “Sensei”. I hope this will be helpful in your evaluation of an instructor or search for one.
First, let’s look at the kanji for Sensei; 先生 which may guide us to a better understanding of this term.You may remember another article where we examined 先 from Senpai (先輩). So, 先 means advance, ahead, first, early, etc. How about 生? It means birth or life. Therefore, it literally means someone who was born earlier. In other words, it means a person who is older than you. It does not say anything about his age or his ability. Interesting, isn’t it? So, the Japanese concept is that you learn from those who are older than you as they supposedly have more experience thus they are wiser from which you can learn. This must not be a surprising concept if you remember the Japanese belief of the time seniority, whether you agree or disagree.
Then, you say “OK, I am 50 years old and the instructor is only 25, only a half of my age. Can he be my sensei?” To answer this, we have to adjust the time table to karate time. Suppose he started his karate 10 years ago and you only 5 years ago. He is your senpai in karate. If he is teaching a class regularly in your dojo then he is your Sensei. In a dojo, the age difference does not count and the time seniority comes from when one started karate training. If this sensei is mature enough to be respectable and able to give you a life guidance is totally another matter.
Another person asked, “My sensei is only Nidan. I thought a real sensei must be yondan and above. How should I consider him?” My answer is “He is your sensei.” Anyone who is in front of a class and teaching is a sensei regardless of his/her dan rank. Whether he is qualified to teach (if he has a teaching certificate) or not is another matter. Besides, having a teaching license does not automatically make him a good sensei. I know a Nidan who has been that rank for over 30 years. His training and teaching experiences probably exceed those by a younger Yondan. I have seen poorly planned instruction by many senior (7 dan and 8 dan) instructors. The key is if the instructor is enthused enough to share the knowledge and the skills he own. If you can learn something from him or her then he/she is your sensei. If you are not learning little from him or her, you can always quit the dojo and find another dojo or sensei.
We expect our sensei to be more than someone who teaches how to punch and kick. This is true because karate-do is more than just punching and kicking. You are lucky if your sensei can teach you more. Can we expect this from a sensei of 25 or 30? Some may be very matured and have many years of karate training but most of them may be too young and lack those qualities. So do not have a wrong expectation from a young sensei. His minimum obligation as an instructor is to be able to teach the karate techniques. This means he can explain and demonstrate those techniques. On the other hand, not all senior or old sensei have the qualities and qualifications either. Maturity and wisdom do not necessarily come with the age. Many of them get out of shape. If an instructor is too overweight and out of shape to demonstrate the techniques, I do not consider him as a responsible instructor.
I like what Musashi said some hundreds of years ago. He said everyone other than himself was a teacher to him. I follow his concept. My original sensei (Sugano and Asai, photo below) may be dead and gone. I believe my current sensei is everyone who comes through my life whether he is in martial arts or not. I want to learn something (good or bad) from everyone and all experiences in my life. That is my philosophy and I am not expecting the readers to agree or accept it.
How you select a sensei is totally up to you. Each of us has different expectations and objectives from our training. I hope you have a sensei who you are happy with. If you do not, I hope you will find one you will be happy with and can learn a lot from.
If you are a sensei in your dojo, The minimum obligation you have is to teach the correct karate techniques. This means you need to be in shape so that you can not only explain but also demonstrate those techniques you teach. In addition, I hope you try to provide more than the karate techniques. Many of your students are expecting this. Good luck.
Here is another Japanese culture lesson today. We will take the same process of understanding the base meaning of the kanji that is used for this popular dojo word. Then I will add the interesting cultural aspect of this unique word.
This word is pronounced and written in a few different ways. Many write “Osu” or “Oss”, some pronounce it “Ous” and I write “Ossu”. They are just different pronunciations and all of them are “correct”.
O from “oss” is written like this,押 and it means to push or suppress. The part of “ss” or “su” is written in kanji as 忍 which means to endure or persevere. Therefore, these two kanji together, 押忍 symbolizes the attitude of suppressing your own emotions and endure the hard training or tiring toil or duty. This word is commonly used by the budo practitioners such as karate, judo and kendo. But it is also used by the athletes of the sports that are typically considered aggressive or macho such as baseball, football, etc.
It is also typically used by the male practitioners or athletes in Japan. This is because “osu” is also written as 牡 which means “male”, therefore many Japanese female feel uncomfortable saying “Osu”. In many dojo they are allowed or even recommended not to use “Osu” and use the normal greeting words and also yes and no when they answer back to their sensei , senpai and colleagues. As Judo and karate became so popular around the world, so did the word Oss/Osu. The cultural part of the word being very male oriented, however, did not spread so many western female practitioners and athletes use this word.
Let’s look at the history. Surprisingly, the origin is not clear and there are a few theories. I share two of them.
One theory is that this word was invented only in mid-20th century in the imperial Navy of Japan which supposed to have nurtured the spirit of samurai. The way it happened was like this. The Japanese for Good morning is Ohayo gozai masu. The soldiers were trained to do things in a hurry all the time in the navy including the greetings and responses. Thus, supposedly, the greetings of Ohayo gozai masu was cut down to only “O” and “su” and became “O-su”. The greetings for the afternoon and evening are different, of course, but “Osu” began to be used for all occasions including the answers whether it is yes or no.
Another theory says it was invented by the samurai of Saga clan (佐賀藩in Kyushu Island). Famous author of Hagakure (葉隠), Yamamoto Tsunetomo (山本常朝 1659 – 1719) was born in this clan and bushido was very strong and strictly exercised there. Supposedly the young samurai of Saga clan in 18th and 19th centuries used “Osu” for their morning greetings.
If you are interested in Yamamoto Tsunetomo, see Wikipedia about his biography:
Hagakure was considered by many samurai as the spiritual guide to true bushido. If you do not know about this famous book, Hagakure read the simple explanation in Wikipedia:
Many people asked me why there is only one “Osu” for both yes and no answers. To be able to understand this you need to understand the culture of bushido or Japanese martial arts. The backbone of bushido is total obedience. Read Hagakure and you will have a better understanding whether you agree or disagree with the fundamental concept of total obedience. Here in the western world, when a sensei says “jump” the students may ask “why” or say “no”. Of course, some of them may ask “How high?” In a Japanese dojo, all the students without an exception would answer “Osu” and jump. So, there is no need for a “no” answer in a dojo in Japan. I am sure many Western people would probably consider this act “stupid” or brain washed and unwise. I want to emphasize that the purpose of the comparison of the cultures of the two different worlds is not to judge which is better or right, but rather to show merely the differences so that the readers will have a better understanding.
First, I use Shihan in front of my name. It is not because I need or want to tell the world that I am a big sensei or a big shot. I retired from a high-tech company three years ago but I was in the industry for 30 years. During those years I kept my karate background secret or confidential from my bosses and even colleagues. I was not ashamed of my karate background but karate was (and still is) a very personal thing to me and I wanted to separate my business life away from my karate life. I used LinkedIn for my high-tech network and you can check it there but I used only my name. When I joined FaceBook 5 or 6 years ago I was still working for a high-tech company so I decided to use shihan as my first name and posted myself as Shihan Yokota. Now that I do not need to keep my karate background secret anymore I changed the name on FB as Shihan Kousaku Yokota by adding my real first name. I could have dropped shihan but it became almost like my nickname so I kept it. That is all and I will not be offended at all if anyone calls me without this title.
OK that is enough of an introduction. Let me explain about those confusing Japanese titles. In my explanation I will add Soke and Kancho as a bonus.
Let’s start with shihan. First of all, shihan is not exactly a title. In other words, this is not something an organization would bestow or permit. Shihan (師範) means literally “to be a model” but it is only a formal word for sensei or instructor or teacher. So if you are teaching karate; for that matter any martial arts and non martial arts field, you can be addressed as shihan. However, it is customarily reserved for the senior instructors or teachers. For instance, if a Nidan or Sandan person at the age of 20′s will not normally be addressed as shihan even if he or she may be the chief instructor of a dojo or a club. Since it is not a bestowed title it does not have the age or rank requirement. We would consider Godan and above as the senior ranks those sensei can be addressed as Shihan. On the same token, it will not be considered as impolite or rude if you address a senior instructor as sensei even if he is 8th or 9th dan. In other words, you can address me as sensei instead of shihan.
There is one exception to the above rule. There is a bestowed title of Shuseki Shihan. Shuseki means “Top position” so it means the Chief Instructor of an organization. This is used only in a large organization like JKA, JKS, ISKF, etc as they have multiple number of senior instructors. If you are the only instructor in your dojo or an organization then you should not use Shuseki Shihan even if you are asenior rank instructor.
On the other hand, Kyoshi, Renshi and Hanshi are bestowed titles. However, in general in karate (with JKA, ISKF, JKS, IJKA and WJKA) we do not use those titles. The only exception is Zen Nihon Karatedo Renmei (Japan Karate Federation or JKF). This organization is a non style specific organization and its members are Shotokan, Shito ryu, Goju ryu and Wado ryu. It is a member of WKF and I assume it also grants these titles. I do not know why they grants these titles but I suspect there is an influence from Kendo. The history goes back to 1895 when the martial arts organization called Dai Nihon Butokukai was established. They promoted various martial arts including kendo, judo, jujitsu, kyudo, and a few others. However, this organization was dismantled by the occupation force (GQ) in 1945. Even though the same name organization was established in 1957 it is not related to the original Dai Nihon Butokukai though they probably wish to claim as such as the prewar organization received a lot of respect and honor as it was sponsored by the Japanese government. The current organization is no longer well known or large in membership as it is only a private organization without any sponsorship from the government.
Anyway, I find it interesting to meet so many Kyoshi in the Americas but yet not too many Renshi or Hanshi. According to Dai Nihon Butokukai or JKF, the ranks starts with Renshi and ends with Hanshi being the highest. So, Kyoshi is the middle rank and I do not know why I meet only Kyoshi among the instructors.
For your information, let me list the requirements to qualify those ranks (by JKF):
Hanshi （範士）: 8th dan for more than 2 years, older than 60
Kyoshi (教士）: 6th dan and above for minimum 2 years, older than 50
Renshi （錬士）: 5th dan and above for minimum 1 year, older than 40
What is Kancho (館長）? You are familiar with Shotokan and the part of “kan” is the same here. Kan means building so the connotation is the dojo. Cho means the head or top (i.e. shacho: president). Kanazawa sensei uses Kancho as his title. I wonder if he wants to claim that he is the top of Shotokan which I do not know. This is a little mystery as his organization (Kokusai Shotokan Karatedo Renmei) does not end with “kan”.
The last one is Soke（宗家）and I find and hear about so many soke in the US. I laugh about this as I know they cannot be legitimate. Soke means a central family who carries a certain art as their family tradition. Though you can find such a family in some Japanese martial arts such as kenjutsu this tradition is more popularly with the non martial arts such as tea ceremony (sado), flower arrangement (kado), Japanese dancing (kabuki, noh, etc), Japanese music and instruments (shakuhachi, koto, etc). It is customarily carried by the same family of the founder but of course there are some exceptions. This is why I laugh when I see an American guy who claims a “soke” title for his karate. This means he had to create his own style which is possible but I am not sure how legitimate his style can be. Or there is another possibility which is more unlikely that is his Japanese master decided to hand over the title as this American guy was good enough to carry the style. Anyway, if you meet any one in the western world with Soke in front of his name do not trust him too much.
As many of the readers can guess that Funakoshi sensei did not care for the titles. He never accepted any rank for himself even though he granted those ranks to his students. Thus, I am confident to conclude he did not accept any worldly titles such as Soke, Hanshi, Kyoshi, Renshi or even Kancho which he could have and deserved. The only exception is Shuseki Shihan. When Japan Karate Association (JKA) was founded in 1948 he accepted to become the first Chief Instructor. Even with this title he resigned in 1956, a year before his passing. I understand that he wanted to remain neutral as JKA was having some friction with Shotokai in 50s when both groups claimed the ownership of Funakoshi lineage.
Nakayama sensei and Asai sensei both held Shuseki Shihan positions. As far as I know they did not claim any other titles. Personally, I have no desire to claim any titles including Shuseki Shihan or even the dan rank from any organization. Dan ranks are mass produced these days and they no longer prove any real skill level or proficiency but this another subject so I will not go into this now.
Today I wish to introduce a kung fu style, White Crane (白鶴拳). This is an important style for Asai ryu karate. Tetsuhiko Asai (浅井哲彦) learned and practiced White Crane style while he lived in Taiwan (台湾) in the 70’s. As a result Asai ryu karate adopted many of the concepts and the techniques from this style.
What is White Crane Style? It is a Southern Chinese martial art which originated in Fujian (福建) province so this style is also called Fujian Crane style. Fujian White Crane is an imitative-style of Shaolin Boxing. An entire system of fighting was said to have developed based on the observations of their movements, fighting abilities and spirit.
The true origin of this style is not known or documented though it is attributed to Fang Qiniang (方七娘), a female martial artist. The characteristics of this style are deep rooted stances, intricate hand techniques and fighting mostly at close range as if to imitate a pecking bird. The flying crane style however has a greater amount of long range techniques although it too prefers close quarters hand oriented combat, which simulates the flapping of the wings. Some white crane styles also use a great variety of traditional weapons whereas others have discontinued practice with ancient weaponry.
Let me start with the basic ideas of this style with a video link of Master Asai demonstrating various animal techniques. Here is a link to a short video (2 and a half min) where Asai sensei demonstrated various animal techniques. This is a portion of a French video taken in 1994.
Earlier we looked at the brief history of White Crane style. We found that this system was for short distance fighting and the techniques are developed based on the observations of the various animal movements.
There are many video clips on White Crane style but I will share just two forms that demonstrate some typical techniques of this style.
The first one is Southern Shaolin White Crane Fist (two and a half minutes). It repeats the same form (kata) two times. The first time it is explained in Chinese, then the second one will be in English. In this video the techniques are all open hand such as shuto, nukite, teisho, etc. The moves are fast and with some kime so that we can relate to most of these techniques.
The second form is called Bafen (one minute and 15 sec). The performer uses mostly open hand techniques but he also punches a few times with closed fist, seiken. You will notice that he gives one loud ki-ai in the middle. I also found it interesting that he ends with a bow which is not common in mainland China. I think the performer is a Taiwanese.
What do you think? Do you see any similarity to our karate, Shotokan?
Now take a look at one of Asai’s kata. This one is called Kakuyoku Nidan and I consider that this kata contains many of Asai ryu techniques including open hand techniques, enpi strikes and neko ashi dachi. There are three Kakuyoku kata. Kaku (鶴) means crane and yoku (翼) means wing. Master Asai himself will perform this kata then two of his students will show the bunkai of each technique. If you like this Nidan kata you can find and watch Shodan and Sandan kata.
As you can see this kata certainly does not share much similarity to any of the Shotokan kata. Did you notice any techniques from White Crane style kung fu? Asai ryu karate is based on JKA Shotokan and Master Asai added many techniques that are not popular or commonly used in the standard Shotokan. In other words, he introduced a few new techniques and emphasized some key techniques that are found in Shotokan but yet are not practiced often such as nekoashi dachi, tenshin, enpi, teisho, kumade, keito, etc.
Let me continue with another Asai kata here. Suishu which means Water Hand and it was one of Master Asai’s favorite katas. Watch the following video and see if you can detect the influence of White Crane in his Shotokan karate.
I want to bring up three karate styles that are supposed to share the root of White Crane kung fu. Those three are Goju ryu, Uechi ryu and Shito ryu. I am not an expert in any of these styles and I look for some input and comments from those who practice these styles. What I want to do is to layout my amateur observations and share my thoughts, I also have some questions. I want to compare them with Asai karate and see if there are any similarities or differences.
I will start with Uechi ryu because its founder, Kanbun Uechi (上地完文) visited China to learn Fujian kung fu (1897 – 1904). What he learned was Pangainoon which literally means half hard and half soft. Pangainoon was indeed a southern China Fujian style kung fu but I am not sure whether it was a White Crane style or another style. Uechi ryu practitioners may be able to help me with this. Regardless, Uechi used Pangainoon as his style when he first taught his style in Japan in the early 20th century. They are supposed to mean they use soft blocks and hard counter techniques. I find it interesting because the literal meaning of Goju ryu is hard and soft style. This must be one of the reasons why some people regard these two styles as having the same root. I am not sure how closely they are related and once again either a Goju ryu or a Uechi ryu practitioner may be able to help me on this particular point.
Take a look at one of the Uechi ryu kata: Sanseru
One thing I notice with Uechi ryu is that most of their hand techniques use an open hand and the closed fist techniques seem to be at a minimum. What do you think? Do you see any strong tie to White Crane style?
Many people know that Chojun Miyagi (宮城長順) is the founder of Goju ryu. He learned his karate from Kanryo Higaonna. Higaonna travelled to Southern China in the 18th century to learn Fujian White Crane style. There are many different versions of how long he toured in China, anywhere from 3 to 15 years. I understand that Miyagi was a very dedicated karateka and he visited many other masters to expand his karate expertise. I read that he even visited Itosu (sensei of Funakoshi) and humbly asked him to teach him some Shuri te techniques to compliment Miyagi’s Naha te. Itosu supposedly rejected his request by complimenting Miyagi for his expertise and told Miyagi that Itosu had nothing more to teach him.
Though Goju ryu means hard and soft style, I wonder why Miyagi made it to look like a hard and hard style. As an outsider this is the impression I certainly get. Though they have some open hand techniques they utilize a lot of closed fist techniques. Ibuki breathing also gives me the same impression. World famous Morio Higaonna sensei made his fists look fearful (ugly lol) by beating on rocks and a concrete wall. I want to emphasize that my comments are not to criticize Goju ryu at all. I am simply stating my impressions and I have a deep respect for this style. I even practiced this style for one year when I first started my karate journey more than 50 years ago. I sincerely wish to receive comments and explanations from Goju ryu practitioners to enlighten me.
Here I will post a link to Seipai which I think is the softest looking kata Goju ryu has.
The kata performer in the video is Higaonna sensei:
Here are two kata by Gojukai performed by GoshiYmaguchi (山口剛史), the son of Gogen Yamaguchi (山口剛玄, photo right).
The first one is Genkaku
The second one is called Chikaku, also performed by Yamaguchi.
What do you think? These two kata were created by Goshi Yamaguchi (photo left). In fact, he created four kata and these two are a part of the newly created kata. I do not know if he practiced any White Crane style or based any White Crane kata. It is, however, very obvious these two kata show the White Crane techniques. Maybe a Gojukai practitioner may know the history of these kata.
Now if you are a Goju ryu practitioner, here is a link to a very good documentary video (44 min). Two Goju ryu practitioners in Taiwan travel to Hong Kong to search for its root in Fujian White Crane.
Kung Fu Quest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-OTHCGNs7o
Finally we will look at Shito ryu which was created by Kenwa Mabuni (賢和摩文仁) who learned his karate from both Itosu (糸洲) sensei and Higaonna (東恩納) sensei. Mabuni sensei named his style Shito ryu (糸東流) honoring both sensei by taking one kanji from each of their names; 糸 and 東. Mabuni sensei was indeed one of the few fortunate ones, at that time (early 20th century), to master both Naha te and Shuri te.
I am sharing a link to a Shito ryu’s kata, Hakkaku, performed by Teruo Hayashi. Hakkaku (白鶴) literally means white crane. You can see a strong influence of White Crane in this kata.
So, what do you think?
Which style do you think carries the strong influence of White Crane? Which one is closest to Asai ryu karate? The more I think about these questions the more I find these points are not that important. Each style is different and it is good only if the practitioners are proficient in that style. Thus the importance does not rest on a style but on the proficiency of a practitioner. On the other hand, it is very important for all of us to study and learn about the other styles to compliment what we are practicing to make our own karate as effective as possible. This is probably similar for a samurai to practice not only katana but practice with many different weapons to perfect his fighting ability. Let us continue our karate journey and find more excitement along the way.
As many people seem to want to know more about Kagami biraki I decided to share some interesting information that is associated with this event as well as the explanation of the term, Kagami biraki.
Let’s start with the meaning of each word. Kagami (鏡) means “mirror”. Biraki (開き) means to open. So you would wonder how “opening the mirror” is connected with the first training of the year for the martial arts. One must look into the historical background behind this term to understand the event.
During the new year period, an ornamental rice cake called Kagami mochi (鏡餅, photo left) is a standard item in many Japanese houses just as a Christmas tree is in the Western world for the Christmas season. There are many different kinds of Kagami mochi these days but the typical one is constructed with two round mochi with a strip of sea weed, a stick of dried persimons and an orange on the top as shown in the photo. Each part has its specific meaning but I will not go into that in this article.
Mochi is a dried and hard rice cake so it was a perfect portable ration for the samurai to carry when they went to a war and that is exactly what they did during the civil war period (戦国時代) in the 16th century. So, it was their ritual to crack the rice cake after the new year period. The new year celebration ends either on January 11th or 15th depending on the lunar or Gregorian calendar. On that day the family members ceremoniously take down the mochi and break it into small pieces. They eat a piece to gain good health for the year. This breaking a mochi into small pieces and to be eaten by the family members is similar to the idea of Christian sacrament where a priest breaks a loaf of bread and the church members eat the broken pieces.
This samurai family custom has been handed down to the martial arts world and now all across Japan on January 11 or 15, all the dojos of all kinds of martial arts, of course, including karate have Kagami biraki which is the first training of the year (photo below).
Then why do we call the mochi kagami (鏡, mirror)? This was because the shape of the round mochi looked like one of the three sacred tools of Shinto, Yata no kagami (八咫鏡, sacred mirror, photo below). By calling it kagami they made the event into a religious or sacred one.
Then why did they not call it mirror breaking (wari, 割り) like we see in tameshi wari or cutting (kiri, 切り)? Cutting a white round mochi could remind us of cutting the belly in seppuku or harakiri which is definitely bad luck thus they avoided such a word. They chose biraki (開き) which means opening that was better sounding and more appropriate for the occasion. They either cracked with their hands or used a wooden hammer to crack a dried mochi cake (photos below).
This tradition expanded from the ornamental mochi to breaking the top lid of a sake barrel (酒樽) with a wooden hammer (木槌, photos below).
You may know that sake (酒) is considered as sacred drink in shinto and it is used in almost all the shinto events including a wedding (photo right). I also find it interesting as this fact shares another similarity in Christianity where red wine is treated as a sacred drink.
As it came from the samurai custom thus, it has become a standard event for all the martial arts dojos and organizations in Japan. The dojos use the Kagami Biraki ceremony to signify their first practice of the new year. If you are lucky to visit Japan in the first part of January you can attend a kagami biraki where they will offer a bowl of sweet beans after the training. You may wonder why they feed you with this. It is obviously difficult to eat a raw dried mochi so they put the mochi pieces in their favorite dessert in Japan, zenzai (ぜんざい, photo left). You can see the small pieces of mochi in the photo. These days they even skip the mochi in the zenzai and they serve only the sweet beans (汁粉, photo below) which many westerners may have some problem eating them. It is OK not to eat the beans as the real thing to eat is mochi in the true tradition. If you do not like the mochi either then hide the mochi piece under the beans and pretend like you ate the mochi. Or jokingly you can ask for sake instead.
More reading on Kagami biraki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kagami_biraki