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This interview was done by Sensei Leandre Rosa of Brazil. He gave me a lot of good questions and I want to thank him for this opportunity to introduce ASAI and Asai karate. This interview will be translated in Portuguese and will be posted later.
1. Let me ask you about yourself, Shihan Yokota. I am sorry to say this but I have heard from many people that you are not known in Brazil like Kanazawa and Yahara who are well known here by the senior karateka. No one had heard of you until recently. It seems that you appeared suddenly with the books (“Shotokan Myths” and “Shotokan Mysteries”) that you published and with your new organization, ASAI. It has been only recently the Brazilians began to hear your name and about Asai karate. It seems very strange so please tell us how did this happen.
(KY) Yes, what you said is true and I had no exposure until 2009. There are two main reasons why this was the case.
The first reason was that I had a full time job (non karate) to support my family with three sons. I simply did not have time to write an article (let alone a book) or to travel for a seminar. It finally changed in 2009 when I lost my job and got divorced at the same time. I took advantage of these fortunate events and decided to teach karate full time.
The second reason came from a very Japanese way of thinking. I had two senseis to whom I felt I owed my karate to. First sensei was Sugano, 9th dan JKA co-chairman who taught the basics of shotokan karate. The other is Asai, 10th dan Founder of JKS who taught me Asai style karate. While they were still alive I felt I must not go out myself so I declined all the invitations for an interview or give a seminar.
Sugano sensei passed away in 2002 and Asai sensei followed in 2006. After that period I felt those senseis would allow me to go out myself and share my knowledge. My full time karate activities started in 2009. Since that time, I resigned from the JKS and published my first book in 2010. I also began visiting different countries to teach Asai style karate which is a very unique Shotokan Karate. I plan to visit Brazil two times every year and hope to meet many dedicated karate practitioners in Brazil.
2. Before you followed Master Asai’s JKS, your karate training was under Master Sugano JKA, and later you became an assistant instructor of Master Okazaki, ISKF. I am sure you also met other famous masters but how did Master Asai inspire you so much that you decided to propagate his name and legacy?
(KY) It is true that I was lucky to have had different instruction from some famous instructors including Nakayama, Kanazawa, Okazaki, Yaguchi, Mikami, Tanaka and many others. They were all excellent karate senseis and I believe I learned a lot from all of them. Thanks to all of them they built a solid foundation of Shotokan karate in me. I will never discredit their influence in my karate.
I knew Master Asai since the 80s as he and I both belonged to the same organization, the JKA at that time. I saw his demonstrations at the All Japan Championship in Tokyo which I participated in 1981 and 1982 (I represented my state, Hyogo). I was very much impressed with his karate because he had those signature techniques of the whipping arms and legs. However, at that time I did not appreciate his circular and whip like techniques enough to follow him. In fact, I was fully into the JKA style strong kime techniques that are straight and linear.
When I hit 50 years of age I wanted to improve but could not find a way with the techniques of JKA. I felt very frustrated and in fact I quit karate for three years (1997 through 2000). I returned to Japan and entered a Ki training center in Tokyo. I learned how to relax deeply and the importance of using the backbone in relaxation exercises. In 2001 I happened to participate in an Asai seminar and saw his karate while in his mid 60s. He was still flexible and his techniques were still like a whip. At that moment, I immediately knew that his way was exactly how I wanted to be when I reach his age. In addition, I was impressed to have found that he spent two to three hours every morning. So he became my karate model.
3. You were a life time member of JKA then you switched to Asai’s organization, JKS in 2002. Then, you resigned from JKS in 2009 and you created your own organization, ASAI last year. What happened here?
(KY) You are correct that I was a life time member of JKA and I kept it for 40 years (my name is still listed in the JKA member list even today). It was a very difficult decision and it took me a year to switch my membership from JKA to JKS. As the multiple membership is not permitted in Japan, so I had to pick one. It was hard but I really wanted to follow Master Asai so I switched. I knew I was doing the right thing and I do not regret what I did. In fact I believe that was the best thing I did for my karate. Every time I visited Tokyo I visited Master Asai and learned a lot from him.
Unfortunately, he passed away in August of 2006 at the age of only 71. He had major surgery in the winter and he was supposed to rest but instead he visited the US and Mexico in July to do a seminar which definitely shortened his life. I wrote the details about his last seminar in my second book and the chapter’s title is “The Last Samurai”.
For three more years I stayed in JKS even after Master Asai’s passing. I wanted to promote Asai karate as a member of JKS. However, as time passed JKS shifted its attention to its new Chief Instructor, Sensei Kagawa. With due respect he is a great karate-ka too but his style is not Asai ryu. His style is the standard JKA shotokan. I understand the necessity of doing this for JKS but this change made me decide to resign. I belonged to another non Japanese organization for three years to promote Asai karate mainly in Europe. I had to resign from that organization too in 2013. After thinking it over for one month I decided to create a non political organization solely to promote Asai karate. The new organization’s name is ASAI (Asai Shotokan Association International) and there are no other organization in the world that is doing this.
4. I would like to ask you about your two books: “Shotokan Myths” and “Shotokan Mysteries”. Where did you get the references discussed in them? Did Master Asai or Sugano have anything to do with the information you provide to us in your books?
(KY) This is a good question, too. I have read hundreds if not thousands of books on all kinds of subjects including karate, other martial arts, sports medicine, kinesiology, philosophy, zen, etc. Some of the ideas and information came from Master Asai. However, most of the contents in those books are my own knowledge and the accumulation of the information that I received from those books. When I needed to quote something I always put the sources. For an example, in the teaching of Ueshiba’s San Go Ichi, I listed the name of the book I quoted from. As I have little knowledge about Aikido I had to refer to a book on this subject which I happen to own.
(KY) The translation has been completed and it is going through a proof reading process right now. Unfortunately, I do not have an exact date of publication but I hope it will be soon. The second book will follow suit if the first one is successful. I hope many people in Brazil will buy “Shotokan Myths” in Portuguese.
I am planning to publish my third book (in English) towards the end of this year or early next year. If you liked the first two, you will like the new book too. I will share one thing with the readers here. The title of the new book is “Shotokan Transcendence” and this book was written in a spirit of “going beyond”. I am very excited about it.
6. I was one of the participants of the seminar you gave in Campinas this year. I found your training excellent, at the same time I felt everything we did was very advanced. Was this expected? In other countries that you visit and teach, do the participants make the same comment?
(KY) I am pleased that you enjoyed the seminar in Campinas. I enjoyed it too, because I was very impressed with the participants as they were all very dedicated and enthusiastic.
Your impression that the syllabus was advanced was natural and expected. You felt that way only because you were not used to the Asai techniques. Many movements such as the Tenshin (rotation) were new to you. I purposely selected the techniques that are not familiar to the participants. When this happens to a black belt, one feels like they were back to being a white belt again. Naturally, they felt lost and very uncomfortable. When I experienced Asai karate for the first time, it happened to me too. It took me a few years to get used to the new ideas and techniques. Many new techniques are included in Asai kata, Junro Shodan through Godan. Once you master them, you can advance to Joko kata (1 – 5) that are designed for the black belts. Practicing those katas you will soon get used to most of the Asai techniques.
7. Do you think the sport Karate and Budo Karate can be practiced concurrently by a karateka?
(KY) Yes, it is possible but only if that person truly understands what Budo Karate is. For most people who claim they are practicing Budo Karate do not know what it is. They think it is Budo Karate only if they are not in a competition. Budo Karate and Sports Karate are two totally different things. I am not going to write about the difference here. I teach only Budo and Bujutsu Karate and my aim in my seminar is to pass on some Budo concepts as well as the Asai techniques so I hope many readers will be able to participate in my seminars.
8. I know you personally and I have you as my model. The last time we met, you mentioned that you live your life based on the precepts of the Dojo Kun. There are Senseis who recite the Dojo Kun daily and say they live by Budo but they do not conduct themselves with budo. What do you think of them?
(KY) It is very true that there are some instructors who do not live by Dojo Kun. However, I do not wish to criticize them or talk about them. Criticizing them will not make me or you any better. I only feel bad for the students who train under those teachers. I am planning to write an article about this. My advice to those students is if the students find their senseis are unethical, irresponsible, immoral, untruthful or in-dedicated, it is best to leave those instructors. Karate is not only the physical techniques. It comes with the philosophy and intangible teaching. It may be difficult to leave a teacher but it is better not to have any teacher than settling for a bad teacher.
9. Master Yokota, what do you think of training other martial arts? Do you think we should focus on only one style or is it beneficial to practice others?
(KY) Your question is a good one. I recommend all the practitioners to have an open mind and a desire to learn more. This includes not only the other karate styles but also other martial arts such as jujitsu and kung fu.
Having said that, I recommend that a practitioner focuses on one karate style for three to five years. By then, he/she will be Shodan or Nidan and will have a solid foundation in one style. If you train in two different karate styles one can get confused or mixed up as different styles tend to emphasize differently on the same subjects. It is ok, however, to mix with another martial art that is totally different from karate. A good example may be Aikido, Kendo, Kyudo or Kobudo (weapons). They will expand your physical ability. After securing your karate foundation on one style you can start learning other karate styles and martial arts.
However, I have one requirement. Cross training is advisable only for those who can train at least 2 or 3 hours every day. If you have the time only for two or three times per week then I suggest that you would focus on only one thing.
10. The youth nowadays is considered Generation Y, a generation with lower concentration and poor attention span. How do you see the relationship of karate and this generation?
(KY) Yes, I guarantee that Karate training is very beneficial to not only the Generation Y youths but also for both physically and mentally challenged people. In my last dojo I had two mentally challenged students. They are still training after I passed the dojo to another instructror. The attention and physical ability of those students increased significantly. The parents of these students (both students were young) were very grateful and they support their sons’ karate activities.
11. I often access the blog page of ASAI website (www.asaikarate.com/blog) and I find the interesting and well researched articles you wrote. I can tell that you have researched and studied well before you wrote them. Luckily some have been translated into Portuguese. I liked the articles on Ki, Breathing Method and Bushido. What are you planning to write about in the future?
(KY) The future articles are secret. That’s a joke. Seriously, I have many ideas and I plan to write about all of them eventually. It will probably take me a few years if not longer. I was focusing on the Shotokan matters when I started writing several years ago. I touched on the myths and mysteries of common things in Shotokan such as kiai, kime, kumite, bunkai and various katas such as Heian, Tekki, Hangetsu and Chinte. Lately I have expanded my subjects to other styles such as Goju-ryu and other martial arts such as Aikido and Wing Chun. In the future, I plan to cover even wider varieties of the topics including Japanese cultural things, philosophy and science. By the end of September I will post my next article on Tachikiri, a special training of Kendo, which I am sure all karatekas will enjoy learning this unique training method.
We are lucky that we have an excellent translator, Mr. Samir Berardo who is a member of ASAI and the first ASAI member to pass the online examination to Shodan. I want to thank him here for his dedicated work. I am confident his work will be a big contribution to the better understanding of Karate in Brazil.
Let me take this opportunity to ask the readers for their assistance. We are lucky to have Samir but he is only one person. He is also a busy person with his full time job and family obligations. We have so many more articles to be translated so additional translators would be a big help. If you are fluent in both English and Portuguese, please help us with the translation work. Most of the articles are not that long, about ten pages or less. Please contact me directly and your help will be greatly appreciated not only by me but by hundreds, possibly thousands of the readers in Brazil and other countries. My email address is <email@example.com>.
(KY) Asai ryu karate is unique but not too much different from the standard Shotokan. It was created by Master Asai who was the Technical Director of JKA in the 80’s. So, our karate has a solid foundation in Funakoshi/Nakayama JKA style. Master Asai was sent to Taiwan in the 60’s and the 70’s to teach karate there. During that time he learned the techniques of Hakutsuruken, White Crane Kung fu from a Chinese master. So, he combined the long distance fighting method of Shotokan and the short distance fighting method of Kung Fu. Thus, Asai karate is smooth with the circular motions of Kung fu and at the same time it is dynamic and powerful with the linear Shotokan techniques. We believe this is the next generation of bujutsu and budo karate. We can provide the advanced karate concepts and the techniques to the Shotokan practitioners. I hear the many frustrations of the many senior Shotokan practitioners that they feel they have reached a plateau with their skill level and they are unable to reach the next level. Asai karate can be the answer and they may be able to advance to the higher level of Shotokan karate by practicing its syllabus.
There are more than 50 Asai katas but only five of them are required for the Asai ryu practitioners. The required kata is Junro and there are five of them from Shodan to Godan. They complement the Heian katas. For instance, a 5th kyu student will learn both Heian Godan and Junro Shodan. A 4th kyu student will practice both Tekki Shodan and Junro Nidan, etc. We allow a new dojo member 2 to 3 years to learn Junro kata. The new members have an option to omit Junro from their kyu examination syllabus. We do not rush them to learn the new katas. They need to enjoy learning the new katas so we allow a lot of time for this important process.
13. What is your organization, ASAI all about? What are its purposes and goals?
(KY) Thank you for asking this. ASAI has two purposes. One is being a non political organization to promote Asai style karate around the world. We are open to all the practitioners from any style. We wish to provide a home for the practitioners who do not belong to any international organization so that they can get the world class training and also dan recognition. Some practitioners have strong ties or loyalty to a certain organization which is understandable and respected. We allow multiple organization memberships which means you can affiliate with ASAI while you can retain your membership with your current organization. This way they can belong to their organization and at the same time they can learn Asai ryu karate. The second purpose is to keep the name of Asai alive and remembered.
Our second goal is simple but challenging. We wish to reach out to all Shotokan practitioners and to have the members in every country in the world.
I have listed the benefits for the ASAI members on the website. www.asaikarate.com
If you are interested, please contact us. We welcome everyone into our karate family.
14. What is your idea to develop it in Brazil?
I am very confident about the karate we offer. Asai karate is a high quality system, which no one can dispute, but the people need to see and experience it. So, I will continue to visit different countries and show Asai karate to as many people as possible. My schedule is busy but I still plan to visit Brazil two times a year. I consider Brazil to be the key country in South America.
Even though we have members in more than 30 countries, we need to be heard more and be better known. So what we need is exposure and education. Thus, my second strategy is to write and publish more books. My articles have been published in many Karate magazines. However, the exposure here is limited. To supplement this, my books are being sold via Amazon. This helps us to receive much more attention and wider audience.
When they participate in my seminars they can see that I am in good shape and able to show them Asai karate techniques. With the articles and the books the readers will find that I have knowledge and an understanding of karate.
There is no quick way to expand an organization. I know it will take time as the process is slow. But I have the patience and time so I am confident that we will be able to find many practitioners who share the same value and interest.
I hope to meet all the practitioners in Brazil at my future seminars. Oss!
Have you ever used shiko dachi 四股立ち in your kihon or kata? If you are a shotokan practitioner I assume you have not. Do we find this stance in our katas? No, and as a result we do not use this stance in our kihon. Haven’t you ever thought it was sort of strange? I did. No one, as far as I know, has ever bothered to explain if there is any good reason why. If shiko dachi was there from the start what had happened to it? Isn’t it an interesting question and wouldn’t you like to find out? Let us investigate together and try to find the answers.
First, we need to look at the shotokan history by reviewing the textbooks. I always refer to two of the shotokan classics; Funakoshi’s Karatedo Kyohan 空手道教範 (2005 Neptune Publications Incorporated) and Nakayama’s Dynamic Karate (1966 Kodansha). I believe these two books are the foundation of shotokan karate and the best references. I have a copied version of Japanese Karatedo Kyohan (1935 Kobunsha) but for our discussion I will use the translated version which was translated by Harumi Suzuki-Johnson.
In Chapter 3 of Karatedo Kyohan, pages 22 and 23), Funakoshi listed seven stances, namely Hei soku dachi, Hachi ji dachi, Tei ji dachi, Zen kutsu, Ko kutsu, Neko ashi, and Kiba dachi. He stated, “There are seven general stances.” I am a little surprised in the incompleteness of the list as it misses the very popular and important stances such as musubi dachi, fudo (sochin) dachi, hangetsu dachi, tsuru ashi dachi, sanchin dachi and kosa dachi to name a few. So, it is not a surprise that shiko dachi did not make it in this list. I will explain extensively why shiko dachi did not make it as a popular or key stance in shotokan later in this article.
How about with Dynamic Karate? Its Chapter One is “Stance and Posture”. In page 27, Shiko dachi is listed among other key stances such as Kiba dachi and Fudo dachi. Then in page 37 Shiko dachi is shown again by occupying the entire page with a photo and some explanation. However, the explanation by Nakayama 中山正敏 (1913 – 1987) is very short, “This stance is just like the straddle-leg stance except that the feet are turned outward at an angle of 45 degrees and the hips are lower. A plum line dropped from the center of the knees would hit a point midway between the feet.” That is all. It does not say why it is included and how it is used. It is introduced twice but you would wonder why bother. I will share my understanding regarding this subject towards the end of this article.
Now let’s look at the other styles and see if they use Shiko dachi. It may be a surprise to some readers that this stance is a very popular stance. It is found in many katas from the other styles. Probably the most representative one with the shiko dachi stance may be Seienchin which is one of the Shitei katas in the mixed style tournaments like WKF, WUKF and WKC. This kata is one of the kihon katas practiced by the Nahate styles such as Goju ryu and Uechi ryu as well as Shito ryu and Kyokushinkai.
Here is a video of Seienchin performed by a Shitoryu competitor:
Here you can see that this kata is really based on shiko dachi. Though I am not familiar with the details of the Naha-te katas, I know shiko dachi is so popular it is included in almost all katas (ie. Seipai, Saifa, Gekisai, Sanseiru, Seisan, Suparinpei, etc) and on the other hand, kiba dachi is not used in them. It is almost like a mirror image of shotokan. How interesting.
So, let’s get back to the fundamental question, why we do not have Shiko dachi in our katas?
First we must all remember the following fact. When Funakoshi 船越義珍 (1868 – 1957) learned his karate in Okinawa in the late 19th century, the Okinawan senseis had not needed to use any specific terms for the stances and the techniques. The only terms they had were the names of the katas. An Okinawan instructor had only one or two students. Sensei showed the techniques with his body and did not give out any explanation nor needed to put the terms to different techniques. He would say, “Watch this kata” or “Do this technique like this.” My assumption is that Funakoshi was taught the katas but did not have the distinction between kiba dachi and shiko dachi. Thus I assume he probably allowed both stances; kiba dachi and an open toed stance (shiko dachi). He might have considered it as a relaxed stance of kiba dachi when one cannot do a tight kiba dachi stance. To have a perfect kiba dachi you really have to pull your toes in and the inner muscle tension in the thighs. I am sure you have experienced that as soon as you relax the legs your toes point out easily. In fact, look at the stance of Funakoshi (photo right). This is from Tekki and his stance is definitely not a strict kiba dachi as we know it. I say this is much closer to shiko dachi. Some people try to give him an excuse that he was old and he could not hold a good kiba dachi. But here is another photo of Funakoshi doing Tekki when he was younger. I think that is very disrespectful to Funakoshi sensei if we said he was too old for kiba dachi as he was only in his 50s in this photo (left). So, in the old shotokan training, I assume he allowed shiko dachi like kiba dachi in different katas.
We no longer practices this stance and we wonder why. Was this stance considered by someone else other than Funakoshi as an unnecessary or even a bad stance? OK we will continue our investigation.
As I pointed out above, Funakoshi himself used shiko dachi in Tekki and I assume he did in other katas such as jion, jutte and gankaku. Thus, I do not think Funakoshi considered open toed stance, shiko dachi as unnecessary nor bad. I am sure Funakoshi taught this stance to Nakayama because he added this stance in his book.
If so, was it purposely dropped from or changed in the Shotokan syllabus by someone else?
I believe so. You naturally wonder why. Let us look into this further. You must know the history of early shotokan, namely before WWII (specifically in 20’s and 30’s) to understand what has happened to the karate Funakoshi originally brought from Okinawa. He started to teach karate in Tokyo in 1922 when he was 54 years old. He was not the first Okinawan to bring karate officially to the mainland Japan. In fact, Choki Motobu 本部朝基 (1870 – 1944, photo left) moved to Osaka Japan in 1921. His karate level was excellent and was very agile, which gained him the nickname Motobu no Saru, or “Motobu the Monkey.” His existence was almost unknown for three reasons. He could not speak Japanese well and he had no influencial connection in Japan. In addition, he was reputed by some to have been a violent and crude street fighter. His training was so severe not too many students could last out and continue to be his followers. Eventually he decided to return to Okinawa without having made much impact to the karate world in Japan. But he was a big opposing factor as he openly criticized Funakoshi and claimed his karate was poor.
Funakoshi moved to Tokyo in 1922 and to his credit he was successful in promoting karate in Japan. He could speak Japanese and he was lucky to make a good connection with Jigoro Kano 加納治五郎 (1860 – 1938), the founder of Judo. So, he was the only karate sensei in Tokyo then but soon other Okinawan masters started to arrive in Japan. The most notable one was Kenwas Mabuni 摩文仁賢和 (1889 – 1952), the founder of Shito ryu. He visited Tokyo in 1928 and decided to move to Osaka in 1929 to live there. Funakoshi‘s profession was a school teacher and was not a full time karate practitioner when he lived in Okinawa. He learned from two teachers, Azato and Itosu but he learned only Shuri-te style of Okinawa karate.
On the other hand, Mabuni (photo right) was a policeman he had a lot of time to practice karate. In fact, he trained almost full time and had two famous teachers: Itosu from Shuri-te and Higaonna from Naha-te. So, Mabuni learned Okinawa karate in a very comprehensive way. As a result he became legendary for his encyclopaedic knowledge of kata and their bunkai applications. By the time he arrived in Japan, he was regarded as the foremost authority on Okinawan karate, bunkai and karate history.
So, what had happened here with Funakoshi teaching in Tokyo? Most of his students were the young students from various universities in Tokyo. However, some adults from other martial arts such as judo, jujitsu (Otsuka, later founded Wado ryu) and kenjutsu (Shimoda and Konishi, later founded Jinen ryu) also joined to learn karate on the professional level. So far so good. However, he faced the first problem as the students became more advanced. They wanted to know a lot more about bunkai and to practice kumite. Ever since he arrived in Tokyo, he only taught kata and some bunkai explanation but there were no kihon or kumite. He was very adamant about sticking to only kata training and prohibited any jiyu kumite. In fact, he resigned from one of the university karate clubs as he found the students there were secretly practicing jiyu kumite. It is clearly recorded that many of his students were very dissatisfied with the way Funakoshi trained them.
On the other hand, Mabuni had a different attitude. He welcomed jiyu kumite and went as far as a full contact karate using the protectors (photo left). Many young university students became curious about Mabuni so they along with Otsuka and Konishi visited Mabuni dojo to learn about kumite. Moreover, Mabuni knew more advanced Shurite-kata such as Unsu, Sochin, Gojushiho, etc.
So, what did this mean to Funakoshi? In the 30s he faced the serious competitions from Motobu, Mabuni and other Okinawan masters. What did he do? Now what we have to put a spotlight on Funakoshi’s talented son, Gigo or Yoshitaka 義隆 (1906-1945) who moved to Japan with his father when he was only 17 (1923). By 1930 Funakoshi senior was over 60 years old while his son was 24 years young but had been practicing karate for more than 12 years under his father (Gigo started the official training when he was 12 years old). Gigo was not an expert yet but he proved to be very talented and strong.
In 1934 Funakoshi’s number one assistant instructor, Shimoda died from an illness. After this Gigo took over the position and started to make a strong influence on Shotokan karate which his father brought from Okinawa. Funakoshi Senior believed the basic 16 katas or even fewer were enough. Gigo disagreed as he was young and wanted to learn more katas. What did he do? He went back to Okinawa to learn more kata and bunkai. He also visited his ‘competitor‘, Mabuni to learn more Shurite katas. Gigo is also credited with many different kicking techniques such as mawashi geri, ushiro geri and yoko kekomi. He also believed in the low stances (photo right) and did not like the high stances such as neko ashi and sanchin dachi. I also assume Gigo changed from the moving techniques using high stances to the still ones with low stances such as kiba dachi and zenkutsu dachi.
You also know it is easier to move if the toes are pointed outward like shiko dachi. So, when you do the body shifting from one kiba dachi to another in a kata like jion and jutte, your stance becomes more like shiko dachi. Gigo Funakoshi also shows that this is true (photo above). I know your instructor will tell you to pull your toes in. You also realized that you can squat deeper if your toes are pointing out and it is extremely difficult to lower your hips when you have a perfect kiba dachi. This is natural when you consider how your leg bones and the hip joints are constructed.
So, Gigo thought shiko dachi was a defective kiba dachi and decided to drop it from the syllabus. In all katas, the stance was limited to kiba dachi and shiko dachi stance was discouraged or even prohibited. Funakoshi Senior was not happy with all the changes his son was making. Why was he quiet? It was mainly due to the period the Japanese society was going through in 30s and 40;s, the war period starting with China in 1937. Gichin must have compromised and allowed those changes as long as Gigo did not bring in the jiyu kumite and the tournaments.
We know that Gigo had a big influence on both Egami 江上茂 (1912 – 1981, kumite with Gigo who is on the right of this photo), the founder of Shotokai 松濤会, and Nakayama, one of the key organizers of JKA 日本空手協会, until Gigo’s passing in 1945 at the very young age of 39. It is very interesting that two organizations, despite the same origin (Funakoshi Sr and Jr) developed their own techniques including the stances so differently in such a short period of time. I will not go into the details of the differences between Shotokai and JKA Shotokan in this article but look at shiko dachi in Shotokai (photo left). The feet are pointing outward on a straight line which is very unique and it does not look like the stance we know. Try to stand in this way. You will find it is very unbalanced and will not be able to keep the stance if you are pushed from the front or the back. A quick lateral body shifting is possible but I am not sure why they chose this stance and called it shiko dachi. Maybe a Shotokai practitioner can enlighten us.
So where did shiko dachi originate? Many readers may already know that it is from sumo 相撲, the traditional Japanese wrestling. The exact period of origin is not know but it could be traced back to the 6th century or earlier. Prior to becoming a professional sport in the Edo period (the 17th century), sumo was originally performed on the grounds of a shrine or temple. It is still popular in Japan and it is broadcasted on TV as a tournament of 15 days that happens six times per year. It keeps some old traditions such as throwing the salt in the ring which is supposed to purify the ground. Women are barred from the ring so the workers have to be all male. There is a controversy regarding this policy at the sumo association and many people both men and women have protested but so far this policy has not been changed.
More on sumo if you are interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumo
The most popular stance in sumo is called shiko dachi (photo above) in which one can take a very deep squatting position. The rule for winning and losing in sumo is pretty simple. A sumo wrestler must either push his opponent out of the ring (4.55 meter diameter) or throw him (no body parts except the feet must touch the ground of the ring). In the ancient time, they were allowed to hit and kick even if it could hurt an opponent. One famous story tells that one sumo wrestler killed the other by kicking him and he won. Nowadays these two techniques are prohibited, however, an open hand slapping is still permitted though it is not considered as an honorable technique in the modern sumo.
In fact, shiko dachi is so popular in Japan because many athletic coaches believe this is the best stance for their athletic activity.
For example, you will find the warm up and the leg exercise using shiko dachi in a basket- ball training (photo left above) and a soccer practice (right). I do not need to show the photos of the practitioners in judo and western wrestling but they also engage in the exercises such as deep squats using shiko dachi. I want to show one more example. One of the most popular sports in Japan is baseball. The photo left below shows the kind of exercise the Japanese high school baseball team members do (below left).
The photo right, shows the famous Japanese baseball player, Ichiro Suzuki 鈴木一郎 who now plays for New York Yankees. One of the exercises he does on the field as shown in the photo is his stretch using wide shiko dachi.
So what had happened to shiko dachi when Nakayama formed JKA in middle of the 20the century?
Nakayama was not only highly trained in karate, he also was aware of the modern science and the medical aspect of the human body. He knew the great benefit one can get from training shiko dachi. To show the respect to Funakoshi he did not change the stance from Kiba dachi to Shiko dachi. What he did was to keep this stance for the leg exercises. We practice the deep squats often in our training in Japan (photo right) to strengthen our legs. Nakayama added shiko dachi in his book, Dynamic Karate. Unfortunately, he failed to put the explanation of how this stance should be used and what are the benefits in his book. I wonder if this omission was intentional or not. Regardless, as a consequence, I am afraid that the importance and the necessity of shiko dachi has not been relayed and taught enough to the western shotokan practitioners.
Then what are the benefits of shiko dachi specifically? There are two major benefits that I can quickly point out. One of them is the training of the inner muscles that connect the thighs to the pelvis. Training these muscles is not easy but it is extremely important for karate. I have mentioned these muscles in my previous articles on Weight Training and Relaxation. I will not explain these muscles again but I ask you instead to read those articles as you can get the full story behind this subject. One thing you can do is to do the slow and deep squats using wide shiko dachi. You will feel the tightening or the tiring of the muscles that are located inside of your thighs. You may wonder if the same muscles can be trained by using kiba dachi. Try the deep squats using kiba dachi. Where do you feel the pressure? Do you not feel it mostly on the front of the thighs? Of course, you will use the hamstrings and the rear muscles (gluteus maximus) too but you will use the quadriceps the most. In shiko dachi even though you will use the quadriceps you will use the inner muscles such as adductor longus, adductor magnus, etc (see the illustration). I have mentioned in the past that strengthening these muscles are very important to any of the athletic activities including karate. The inner muscle exercise cannot be maximized if you practice with kiba dachi alone.
Second benefit of shiko dachi is its mobility. In seienchin kata you will see the practitioner moves from shiko dachi not only sideways (back and forth) but also towards the front in an interesting way. Of course you can do this with kiba dachi but you can do it easier with shiko dachi as your feet are pointing outward which makes the stance less restricted. So, kiba dachi gives you more solid or stable stance but shiko dachi can be more mobile. You can keep a steady kiba dachi when you are in that position without any body shifting. However, when you body shift regardless of moving towards left or right in kihon or katas such as Tekki, Jion, Jutte, etc. your feet will naturally open up, though your instructors will yell at you to keep your feet parallel.
Then the natural question may be, “If this stance is so beneficial, why didn’t Nakayama explain more about shiko dachi?” My answer will be only my guess. I did not hear the explanation directly from Nakayama when I met him before his passing. However, I know that he had a great respect to both Funakoshi senior and junior. He was sort of sandwiched between these two instructors. So, he believed shiko dachi could be used in the katas interchangeably with kiba dachi but he did not want to put it in writing. He only added this stance in the Tachikata (stances) list without any explanation. He intended to explain the importance to his students in person and I know that he had done so to the JKA instructors. However, this omission in his book resulted in one of the shotokan’s mysteries.
It is widely known that to supplement shotokan kata, Sensei Kanazawa 金沢弘和 (1931 – present) practiced seienchin himself. I am sure one of the reasons to practice this kata was to get familiar with shiko dachi. I suspect his followers must be aware of or practice shiko dachi kata such as seienchin. Here is a video of Kanazawa performing Seienchin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0U7KPaiZJ08
Here is a sample video of this kata: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McVf2bTvqSs#t=13
If this is the case, the big question is why didn’t this information spread more to the western world? I cannot answer that question but I wish to recommend strongly to all Shotokan practitioners that we will add this to our standard training syllabus now so that we can enjoy the benefits from this excellent stance.
Shiko dachi was a part of original shotokan karate that was brought from Okinawa by Gichin Funakoshi. Shiko dachi was used almost interchangeably with kiba dachi in the shotokan katas in the early 20th century.
Gichin’s son, Gigo being physically strong emphasized the strong and steady stances such as low zenkutsu and low kiba dachi. He not only discarded or ignored the high stances such as neko ashi and sanchin but also shiko dachi as it is less stable (though more mobile) than kiba dachi.
Nakayama, knowing the benefits of shiko dachi kept the stance in the syllabus. However, he did not push this stance as he decided to keep all kiba dachi in the JKA katas. He wanted to use it only in the leg (mostly squats) exercises. He failed to write the benefits and its use in his famous book, Dynamic Karate. We do not know if the omission was intentional or unintentional. Unfortunately, it resulted in the general omission (forgotten) of this stance from the standard shotokan training.
If you have a problem making the strict kiba dachi because of the lack of flexibility or whatever the reason, now you can relax. You no longer need to feel depressed or discouraged. You found that Shiko dachi is an excellent stance and it is more flexible than kiba dachi. I will not go so far to recommend replacing kiba dachi with shiko dachi in our katas, as I believe the kiba dachi requirements of the inner thigh tension and butt tucking are important and necessary for us to master. Since you can use shiko dachi in your shotokan katas such as jion and jutte, learning a Naha-te kata such as Seienchin is not necessary to practice shiko dachi. Including the exercises both in kihon and hojo undo 補助運動 using shiko dachi is, I conclude, critically important and necessary for any shotokan karate practitioners to improve their karate.
This term is a very popular term to the Japanese but it may be foreign to most of the western readers. When we talk about martial arts and martial artists we use this term often. I would like to explain what this term means so that you may want to add this concept to your martial art life.
The first kanji 文, bun literally means letter or writing. In this term it means 文事 or学芸 which means “arts and science” or “liberal arts” including the Japanese arts of shodo (brush writing), kado (flower arrangement) and sado (tea ceremony). In other words, it represents the mastery of the general education and the cultural studies.The second kanji 武, bu should be more familiar to the karate-ka. Of course it means military. In this term it means 武事 or 武芸 meaning military affairs or martial arts. The third kanji 両, ryo means both. I am sure you know the last kanji, 道 do that means road or path. Now you can easily guess what the term means. Yes, it means the ability of being excelled in both education and also in martial arts. It also refers to someone who possesses such an ability.
This term can be found to be as old as the famous literary Heike Story of the 13th century. We do not know exactly when this term was invented but the combination of two kanjis 文 and 武 was popular in ancient Japan. We find the combination of 文武 was used for the 42nd emperor 文武天皇 in the 7th century. Though the pronunciation of those kanjis was “Monmu” the meaning remained the same and it represented the meaning that this emperor was to excel in both higher education and military affairs.
During the samurai time, especially in the age of civil war in the 15th and 16th centuries, bunbu ryodo became more like a requirement for any samurai to be a leader or even to be recognized. As you can easily suspect that most of the samurais paid more attention to the attainment of the high skills in the martial arts such as kenjutsu (sword), sojutsu (spear) and kyujutsu (archery). An uneducated samurai with a sword could turn into a dangerous hoodlum.
So, in addition to the martial arts training they spent much of their time learning poems, tea ceremony, history, strategies and other subjects. All the politicians were required to have the knowledge of 武 bu. Of course, during these periods almost all the politicians came from the samurai clans. They needed this as they were in the civil war age; but at the same time, they needed it to segregate other powerful groups such as the educated monks, merchants and the aristocrats who would seek a governing position.
Some of the scholars in that era stated that 文 and 武 are the two sides of the same coin and they must not be divided. In others words 武 without 文 means an imperfect martial art and it cannot create a respectable samurai.
For thousands of years Japan was almost totally isolated due to its geographical characteristic of being an island off in the Pacific. In 1868, Japan graduated from the feudal age and that of isolationism to join the western civilizations. The samurai class was dismantled but until the end of the WWII (1945) Japan’s military and the soldiers were respected just as the samurais were. Thus, it was an easy transition and the term was used for the soldiers and the military men. The swordsmanship was replaced by the guns, fighter planes and the war ships. The kamikaze pilots were called the samurais in the sky.
After the WWII it changed again as the new Japanese Constitution prohibited Japan from having a military. We have a Self Defense army but they lost the reputation and the respect the samurai used to have. We no longer have the samurai class and the military does not receive much respect. In fact, its existence is supposedly illegitimate according to the constitution but we will not go into that subject. Regardless, the term of 文武両道 bunbu ryodo is still frequently used in Japan. Nowadays 武 bu is no longer martial art or military affairs and it has been replaced by sport. Even judo, kendo and karate are now generally considered as sport and not bujutsu, martial art. A slight legacy of a martial art still remains, however, that they consider only the tough and “manly” sport as 武 bu. Since the end of WWII baseball and football (soccer) have become very popular in Japan (much more than karate and judo) so those sports are considered as 武 bu. On the other hand, a gentle or leisurely activity such as music and dancing are not included in 武 bu. They were, in fact, originally included in the 文 bun category.
Then how about the 文 bun category? Its meaning also changed since the samurai time and it no longer refers to the cultural education such as poetry and tea ceremony. Now it refers to the graduate work and the higher education. In other words, to have 文 bun, you need to attain a PhD for example.
Even though 文 and 武 are supposedly equally important in 文武両道. Not surprisingly, the side of 武 seems to receive more credit these days. For instance, in a job search a college graduate who was a member of a soccer club would receive preferential treatment for hiring by a company than a candidate who was not involved in any sport club activities even if he was a Cum Laude student.
It is a shame that the original meaning for 文武両道 has changed. I am afraid it has gotten watered down. One is called 文武両道 because he has an MBA and played baseball in his college days. Being involved with an athletic club certainly brings some benefits including good health but it will not guarantee the superior quality such as total dedication, perseverance and honor that came with the samurai. In addition, the institutional education we have in the universities does not necessarily teach us the wisdom, gentleman-ship, leadership, diplomacy or even common sense. I met a few “stupid” and ignorant PhDs in my life so I know this. I would rather respect a person who is excelled in the music or the art of poetry or any artistry even if they are not a college graduates.
If you are a serious karate practitioner you can really develop the true spirit of 文武両道. Of course you devote yourself in the karate training but It is possible to develop 武 bu by not only the karate training but also byfollowing and exercising what is written in the dojo kun (photo above, beautifully written by Tetsuhiko Asai) and Niju kun. Then to develop 文 bun, you must study to train not only your head but also your character. The study includes reading a lot of books on history, kinesiology, philosophy, strategy and even science and religion.
You also need to be able to write. How many senior karate instructors have written the books? The books do not include the “how to” books with a lot of photos but I am talking about a book with the theories, concepts, methodology, history and philosophy. I cannot think of too many other than Master Funakoshi. In addition, you may need to expose yourself to painting, poetry and music to deepen your character. Look at Musashi who wrote the famous book of Five Rings. He is also well known for his excellent paintings and carvings. Some of them, in fact, became national treasures (an example, photo right).
I hope this short article provided you some idea of 文武両道. The ancient Japanese expected a lot from a samurai and many of them fulfilled the requirements. It will take a strong determination and a commitment by a practitioner to follow the path but it can be done. It is entirely up to you.
Many of you know that Hoitsugan is the name of the Dojo Master Nakayama opened in 1972. It is located near the JR Ebisu station next to famous Shibuya. It is in the southwest direction looking from the empirial palace. When I visited the dojo and Master Nakayama it was only 10 years old (in 1982 and 1983) so the dojo was new but I remember the dorm (?) where the visitors would sleep was extremely small (even to the Japanese standard). I was lucky (?) enough not to stay there. I was impressed that it had a ofuro, the Japanese bath.
OK let’s go into the meaning of Hoitsugan. It is a very unique and rare name. In fact, it is a difficult one to figure out what it means. It is consisted of three kanji, 抱一龕. The first two kanji are rather easy but the third one is the challenge. I did some research and I am happy to share this with the readers. I am sure this trivia will be an interesting information for all who have trained Nakayama karate.
The first kanji, 抱 is pronounced as “ho-u” and it means to “hold”, “hug” or “wrap”.
The next kanji is an easy one; “一” is normally pronounced as “i-chi” meaning numerical one. This word is familiar with all the karate practitioners as we use this in our training when we count. As you may already know that one kanji could have multiple ways of pronunciations so it is pronounced as “i-tsu” in the name but the meaning remains the same.
Now the most challenging and interesting kanji is the last one, 龕. It needs a lot of explanation. As you can see it is a very complicated one and in fact, it is excluded from our standard kanji list, Toyo kanji 当用漢字; characters announced officially by the Japanese Ministry of Education which is a list of 1,850 characters issued in 1946 that are used in the standard documents such as the newspaper and the magazines. This kanji is not taught in the Japanese public schools. No wonder few Japanese can explain what this word means. The lower portion of this kanji is 龍 ryu, a dragon but it has nothing to do with the name of Hoitsugan. This word, 龕 is, in fact, a Buddhism related word and it is a cave that is carved out of the stone wall to store the statues of the Buddha and other religious tools and important documents. (Photo 1 and 2)
Eventually, its meaning expanded to the temples and the stone structures in it (photo 3 and 4).
OK so what does Hoitsugan all together mean? They do not seem to make a good sense. You are right that those meanings for the three kanjis together (“hold” “one” and “cave”) are puzzling.To solve this mystery, what we have to do is to investigate the origin of the first kanji, 抱 ho-u. As I wrote first, it means to “hold” and it came from holding a small bird in your hands. Put your two hands together imitating to hold a small animal in your hands. Do they not look like the hands of praying? (photo 5).
Now the pronunciation of 抱is happened to be the same with 仏, buddha, so the meaning expanded to “learning the teaching of Buddha, Buddhism”.
The second kanji means one and it can also mean together, thus 抱一means to learn together. And the last kanji of 龕 means a cave or a place where they store the statue of Buddha. So, the original meaning was a carved wall, then it expanded to a place where the Buddhist monks or worshipers came to study.
Now it began to make a better sense but you would ask, “Why did Nakayama sensei name his karate dojo with this name?” I am sure he did not mean us to learn Buddhism in his dojo. You must remember that he was stationed in China during the war in 40’s. As a diligent karate-ka I am sure he visited the famous Shaolin temple and watched the monks practicing their kung fu in the temple yard. (photo 6 and 7)
I heard he was impressed with their training and he realized that karate originated from kung fu. Thus he decided to name his future dojo to remember the origin of karate. This was a surprising discovery, at least, to me. It surprised me for two reasons. First, is that during the war time (1940s) the Japanese in general looked down on the Chinese people, so anything coming from the Chinese culture was not well respected by the Japanese then. Secondly, most of the karate instructors at that time believed (some still do) that karate was originated in Okinawa. I can see that Nakayama sensei was a very eduated and open minded person. Now that I think of it, it is no more a surprise that he was the revolutionary person who sent tens of young and talented JKA instructors around the world to promote karate. He also provided a “place”, a dojo where everyone to train together. In fact, he accepted hundreds of practitioners visiting from all over the world.
Though Nakayama sensei passed in 1987, Hoitsugan dojo still exists now (headed by Kawawada sensei) and the international practitioners can train karate there.
I have another trivia as a closing. This may bring a smile to a practitioner who had a chance to live at the Hoitsugan dorm. The last kanji, 龕 has another meaning and it refers to a stone coffin. I said a Hoitsugan experienced practitioner may smile because the beds in the Hoitsugan dorm were so small and tightly packed he could imagine that he was sleeping in a coffin.
When you hear the term “black belt” I am sure it means more than just a black colored belt to you. For the karate practitioners it means our pride and many years of hard training. For the non-practitioners it may mean an expertise in karate or a dangerous person which we think funny.
Because of the movie, Kuro Obi, this Japanese term has become well known to many of the karate practitioners. The movie was not at a Hollywood level but a JKA instructor, Sensei Naka, co-starred. I would say it is interesting to see a real Shotokan instructor playing in a karate movie.
Here is the URL to watch the entire movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urQQBsoTjfw
Whatever the color your belt may be, you certainly wear it every time you train. It is so much a part of our karate training, yet there are many facts about karate belts that you may not know. You might have wondered about something related to a karate belt in the past and maybe you are still looking for the answers. The subjects here are, more or less, only the trivia of karate but I think they are interesting. To some extent, it is important for all of us to know and appreciate some facts. For that reason, I hope this article will help you with your better understanding of karate and its culture.
The dan rank and the black belt system in karate is itself an interesting and a puzzling subject. We must look at the history to understand where this belt system came from. Many of the readers may already know that there was no belt system in the Okinawa karate that was introduced to Japan by Master Funakoshi. Did you know that Funakoshi adopted this system from judo? The founder of judo, Jigoro Kano (1860 – 1938) was a very educated man who was also very talented and successful in business and academic arena. For instance, he founded judo in late 19th century (1882 to be exact) and within a short period of time the membership of his dojo increased to several thousand members. He was also one the first representatives of the Olympic Committee from Japan. I suspect he invented the dan system about the same time he created judo from jujitsu. As you may know that judo and Kano had a huge influence on Shotokan karate at the early stage of Funakoshi teaching in Tokyo. In fact, the name of the style, Shotokan, believe it or not, shows its influence. The name of judo headquarters was Kodokan and it was a very reputable name in the martial arts society in Tokyo at that time. Thus, Funakoshi adopted the “kan” (館Hall or Building) part in Shotokan, probably, hoping to build his dojo as big as Kodokan. There was another reason why Funakoshi chose Shotokan for his dojo name. He believed in having one karate and did not want to create his style, ryu. There was only one organization, Kodokan, in judo and he liked it. This is exactly what he wanted to see with karate and he used Shotokan for his dojo and refused to use “ryu”. This is why Shotokan has no ryu at the end of its name like Shito-ryu and Goju-ryu. Some people recently (ignorant, I am afraid) are referring our karate as Shotokan-ryu which I do not think Master Funakoshi would appreciate or approve. Here is a link to Wikipedia on Jigoro Kano if you are interested in learning more about this interesting man: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jigoro_Kano
OK let’s go back to kuro obi, Funakoshi granted the first dan diploma to a few of his students as early as in 1924, two years after he migrated to Tokyo. In the early period of Shotokan karate the highest rank one could attain was Godan (5th degree) as they followed suit to the system in judo. As the population of judo increased Kodokan expanded its highest dan rank to 10th dan. Thus karate followed the rule change and the highest rank in Shotokan is 10th dan now. In some styles of karate a higher degree wears a different color belt. A practitioner of 6th, 7th or 8th dan would wear a red and white belt (photo above). For 9th and 10th dan a full red belt may be worn. These belts are also the imitation from the judo policy. Obviously Funakoshi did not like this idea so he did not adopt it. The Shotokan practitioners only use a black belt for all dan ranks.
In other styles, the stripes are embroidered on the belt to show one’s rank (photo left). It is true that you cannot tell one’s rank if his belt is plain. I personally do not like this idea to make the ranks visible. I do not wish to criticize the other styles but I do not like it. In fact, I like the idea of a black belt turning into almost white after many years of wearing. I am proud to wear an old belt (photo below) as it shared my daily training for many years. I sometimes come across with a few Shotokan practitioners who wear a belt with the stripes. I am sure they are ignorant about our tradition. I want them to know that it is Shotokan tradition to use only a plain black belt.
Kendo is another budo that has a dan system and their highest rank used to be 10th dan rank. It is interesting that in the year of 2000 the All Japan Kendo Federation decided to drop the 9th and the 10th dan ranks thus 8th dan is the highest rank one can attain now in kendo.
What I will bring up next is one particular subject about the karate dan rank system that, I consider, should be discussed more frequently. This is something that you all know well but it has not been discussed openly.
In many of the sports or athletic events they have their own ranking systems. For instance, in boxing it is divided into many weight divisions or classes and in each division they have the world ranks. I am also aware that there are different groups such as WBC, WBA, WBO, etc. and each one has its own ranks but I will not go into this part for our discussion today. The point I wish to bring up is the fact that the ranking systems in boxing are fluid and not permanent. In other words, your rank whether it is first (champion) or 100 will not stay permanently (though such a record may be kept as the historical ranking). It goes down when you lose in a fight and your rank disappears when you retire from the fighting. This is not the case in karate as well as in all budo. Once a dan rank is granted a practitioner will have that rank permanently. He can get promoted but the rank will never come down. I am aware that ranking system of the sports (boxing, tennis, etc.) are different in its objective from the budo’s dan ranks. In fact, judo now has the competitors ranking system called World Ranking (by IJF) that is unrelated to the dan rank system. I believe a dan rank is given on the belief that this particular practitioner will continue his training so that his ability will not deteriorate, in fact, it is expected only to improve. But the sad fact is that many people do not continue their training and quit. Only a handful will remain and train throughout their life. In addition, at a certain age one reaches the maximum of his physical ability and the skill level may even come down despite the continuing of the practice. It is an honorable thing to receive a dan rank and we should be proud of it. At the same time, I feel that the integrity and the substance of the dan ranks must be there to mean anything to us. It is a big shame but there are too many bogus and self-promoted ranks. I can truly understand why Funakoshi sensei refused to receive any dan ranks.
Let’s move on to another interesting subject. Have you ever wondered why kyu rank starts from 8th (at some dojo from 10th) and the rank decreases down to one kyu as a student progresses? Once you reach Shodan or the first degree black belt, the rank increases as you get promoted. When I first joined JKA more than 50 years ago I wondered why I did not start from 1 kyu. I wondered why the kyu system would not take an increasing system like the dan system and of course I could not ask such a thing to our teacher. Many years later I found that the kyu system had been intentionally structured this way. Let me share the concept behind this system and hopefully you will see the logic.
The fundamental concept of martial arts is that a student is not expected to start a real karate training until you become Shodan (first degree black belt). Some of you may know or practice a custom of making a new Shodan to wear a white belt for a short period of time (a month or so). This custom is to let a new Shodan know that he is now starting a real karate training or he is finally at the starting point of real learning of karatedo. Until that level a student’s objective or a goal is to build the foundation and at the same time, reduce the bad habits or the “natural” ways of body movements.
This may be a difficult concept but is an important one. In other words a student will learn the basic karate ways or the conditions that are necessary to learn the real karate techniques. For an example, if you ask a street person to make a fist he can probably make something that is similar to a karate fist, seiken 正拳.However, if you ask him to show you an open hand he will show you something like Photo A (natural open hand, left above). You ask him next to put the fingers together, he will show you a hand like Photo B (right above) but never shuto 手刀(knife hand, Photo C below). It will require a little learning to make a shuto hand. It will require numerous repetition to “forget” your natural hand forms and make this shuto hand (three photos right) “natural” to you.
This is just a small example and the scope of the preparation (forgetting the natural ways) will extend to all those stances, body shifting, postures, breathing method, leg strength, ki-ai as well as the dojo etiquette just to name a few. All the knowledge and the techniques, indeed, are necessary before a practitioner can “start” the karate training. Note: In a perfect world, all those “pre-requisites” should be learned in advance, but in a real situation the learning of these matters are done in parallel as he engages in karate training. This is why you start from 8th kyu and move up to one kyu as you get yourself prepared for the real karate training.
Another subject; we all know that a beginner starts with a white belt. Before he reaches a black belt there are many different colors such as yellow, blue, green, etc. When I started my karate training in early 60’s there were only two colors before black. They were white and brown. If I remember correctly I started from Mu-kyu (no kyu) and with the first exam I became 6th kyu. We were all white until we reached 3 kyu (brown belt). Now most of the dojos start from either 8th kyu or 10th kyu. Some dojo even give a stripe to show a half kyu advancement. In one dojo the chief instructor told me he would never advance a student by one full kyu. With the first exam a student will become 10 and a half kyu. With this system this student has to take 20 kyu examinations before he reaches 1 kyu to go for a black belt. I did not make any comment to this instructor (luckily he was and is not in the same organization) as he considered karate as a pure business. I am not here to make a judgment on making karate a pure business but I personally would not send my sons to his dojo. Each student is different in his development and speed of learning. Though it may not be good for a business but I do not like having so many examinations in order to receive more money from of the students (or their parents).
A popular question I receive is if the colors to the kyu ranks are fixed or if there is a universal order. The quick answer is no. The basic idea is to start from white (no color) and the belt gets darker towards black. At many dojo the next color to white is either yellow or light blue and I think it makes sense. However, some dojo start with a red belt for 10th and 9th kyu. It is indeed a very dark color but it is intentional. As we all know that the drop-out rate is the highest with the white belt. The instructors believe the red color belt will give more motivation than a yellow or a blue to the beginners and they will stay with the training longer. This may be true and that would be another business decision a dojo instructor needs to make. Incidentally I find it interesting because in judo and a few karate organizations, a red belt is allowed to 9th and 10 dan. In our organization, we have a guideline of the colors that are associated with the kyu ranks but it is not mandatory. We let the member dojo decide on the colors for the kyu ranks.
Here is another popular question. After having a lengthy absence or illness, say more than a year or longer, you may wonder if you deserve to wear your old black belt. You may not be sure what color of a belt you should wear when you return to your dojo. There is no universal rule on this subject and it is up to the policy of an individual dojo. Many dojos or organizations do not mind a member wearing his black belt even if had a long absence. Some dojos have a policy that a returned practitioner has to wear a white belt for a certain period of time. That length varies and again, it will depend on an organization’s rule or policy.
If you are a black belt but you had a long absence and today is your first day back. What belt should you wear? Ask yourself if you can perform just as good as you did right before your lengthy absence. If you are exceptionally talented and if you are confident in your performance, then you can wear your old kuro-obi. However, if you are an average person then you feel less coordinated and out of shape. You may even forget some of the kata. If this is the case, why not wear a white belt? Or does your self-pride or ego bother you? I would rather look as a great white belt than a very poor black belt. Believe me the color of a belt does not help you with your karate. It will not make you look any better or worse so why not wear a white belt for a few months until you gain back your coordination, your stamina, etc? Length of being a white belt depends on the length of one’s absence as well as that person’s ability to gain back to the black belt level. It can be only a couple of months to a half year. It will all depend on an individual and your sensei should be able to tell you when you are ready.
So, what do you think of your kuro obi now?One thing I can tell you is that even if your belt is black, it will not help you with your karate or make you look any better. On the other hand, if you wear a kuro obi there will be a certain amount of obligation and responsibility associated with your belt. For instance, you need to train not once or twice a week but every day. You must be in shape and lead a healthy life. Obesity must not be tolerated for a black belt. You also need to live by Dojo Kun and follow Niju Kun.