Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is it Possible to Block to the Front and Back Simultaneously?

One of the most difficult techniques in karate is the yama kamae or manji kamae. The bunkai explanation for it is that it is a defense against multiple attackers (to the front and to the back). It is not as if we are a super hero, so why does such an explanation exist? I believe it is because either they are confusing movie action with reality, or they have never seen the original bunkai for this technique. It is hard enough to defend against an attacker from the front; I don’t believe it is possible to defend against an opponent to the rear who you can’t even see.

If you try to defend against two opponents simultaneously, you will see that you would have to train as if you were a stunt actor. If, let’s say one could defend against attacks from the front and the rear, and even manage to counter against the opponent in the front, the rear opponent is not going to wait for that attack to finish.

Also, even if one is attacked from the front and rear, one can avoid both attacks by moving. There is no need to increase the risk factor when one is already in a dangerous situation. Even beginners can understand this if given a rational explanation.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Explanations for the Katas are Incorrect to Begin With.

Currently there more than a few instances where the bunkai, or application for katas, which one has learned is not practical. This may not be a problem for beginners, but after one has trained for a while, or if they have trained in other martial arts many may have questions about whether certain bunkai are really applicable or not. Even if one learns from a great master, if the bunkai is not applicable, what they have learned is merely a dance, and has no meaning as a martial art.

So, why are there techniques, which cannot be used? I believe we have to accept the possibility that the bunkai itself is incorrect. If one accepts that fact, then even if one practices for twenty to thirty years, it is makes sense that they will still be unusable. This would the same if one were to practice a Chinese character beautifully, but incorrectly, for many years; one would not be able to communicate the correct meaning to someone else.

Practicing incorrect characters is the same as practicing incorrect techniques. One will not be able to overtake one’s opponent. If an instructor teaches incorrect techniques, the people who have learned from him will have wasted a lot of time and energy. In the case of case incorrect explanations, we can assume the following.

1. One hasn’t been taught.

2. One has been taught incorrectly.

1. One Hasn’t Been Taught.

Actually there are many instances where one knows the movements of a kata, but doesn’t know the bunkai. It is also possible to pass a black belt examination by only performing a kata by itself. As a result, there are many instructors who do not know the bunkai for katas, and those instructors produce instructors like themselves again and again. There are some who say that even if one hasn’t been taught bunkai, if they practice long enough, they will be able to figure it out on their own naturally. In fact, though, as I previously mentioned, even if one practices a kata for a long time, if it is incorrect, they will not be able to use it.

2. If One is Taught the Bunkai Incorrectly.

In olden times, one would be at a disadvantage if their techniques were seen by others. Perhaps the same was true when karate was introduced to the mainland and the Okinawan karate masters decided to only teach the most basic katas. In other words, they were influenced by the so-called traditional Japanese practice of Mongai fushutu or Isshi Soden (Not letting the body of knowledge to be known outside the school, or passing on the body of knowledge only to one’s own child.)

Okinawan karate was no exception from other martial arts in that only those who were deemed of sufficient character were allowed to begin training. Other than a teacher putting himself in a disadvantageous position, there were two reasons for that. First, since they were teaching potentially killing techniques, it was necessary to determine whether or not the student would act violently. Second, it was necessary to judge a person’s character in order to prevent that master’s teachings from being leaked to the outside.

When Okinawan karate, which became strictly disciplined in such a manner, was taught in schools after the Meiji period, there were bound to be problems with teaching such dangerous techniques to the general public. Thus there was a need to protect the core teachings while opening it up to the public. There arose a need to make a distinction between “regular students” and “technically advanced students”.

Martial arts on the mainland developed a system of beginning level, intermediate level, and advanced level, so that the regular student could continue learning techniques, while not showing the advanced or hidden techniques to the general public.

Compared to that, Okinawan karate had no such system. It is believed that the masters changed the techniques or changed the explanation in order not to openly teach to beginners or regular students.

Until now, it has been written in karate articles that certain movements were changed or abbreviated on purpose. This may account for unusable katas.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Katas are Unusable Due to Insufficient Practice.

In judo the “over the Seoinage” and the “nage no kata” are the same technique, but it takes a lot of practice to be able to use it. Accordingly, unless one practices a certain amount, they will not be able “own” that technique, so the notion that a “technique cannot be used without sufficient practice” is valid. Also, since there are some techniques, which are prohibited in kumite competition, it is possible that they will not be practiced.

It is often said that “unless one practices for 20 -30 years, one will not be able to actually use it.” Is that really true, though? It has been over 80 years since karate was introduced to the mainland. There are many karate practitioners who have been training for over 20 – 30 years primarily using katas, but there are perhaps only a small percentage who are able to apply them practically.

Furthermore, if it takes 20 to 30 years of practice to be able to use a technique, it can hardly be considered practical. In the case of other martial arts on the mainland, historically there are many instances where it is possible to attain a master ranking after training for five to six years. Of course polishing one’s techniques takes a lifetime, but if it takes too long to learn the techniques of a particular style, then the very existence of that style may be in danger. In the days when the average life expectancy was fifty years, if it took thirty years to master the techniques of one’s style, then the practitioner would die before they would be able to pass it on and the style would die out in one generation.

Thus we see that the idea that insufficient practice is responsible for kata being unusable is not applicable here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Unusable Katas

The greatest problem facing modern karate is the gap between kumite and kata. In other martial arts, almost all katas are practiced with two people, so it is possible to learn the bunkai, or application from the beginning. In judo, for instance, the throwing kata for a Seoinage is the same as an Ippon Seoinage. Therefore it is impossible in judo not to know the application of the Seoinage.

In contrast, the chasm between the movements of kumite and the movements of kata is large, and there is no explanation for how to get from one to the other. Furthermore, bunkai or application of katas is not clear, or the explanations that exist are not practical. This is the unfortunate situation for many karate practitioners.

So, the fact that only strikes and kicks can be used is a simple problem that most karate practitioners face at some time.

It is possible to come up with two major reasons why katas cannot be used.

1. They are unusable due to insufficient practice.

2. The explanation itself is incorrect.

Let’s look at both of these possibilities.

Karate as a Sport

The original meaning of karate as an art of self-defense has become lost with the development of karate on the mainland. Also the trend for it to become a competitive sport has become stronger. Especially after the war, martial arts have become known primarily as a sport. Martial arts had been once considered an important part of a military education. After the war, with the introduction of democracy, there was a trend to change the name from a “martial art” to a “sport”.

The introduction of judo as an Olympic sport in the Tokyo Olympics in 1959 spurred this trend. Thus begun the great epoch where, while there was kumite before the war, rules were established and kumite developed into an official event. Just as judo and kendo were spread with competition at its core, with the use of mats and protective gear, making competition possible, karate followed along the same path. As the number of tournaments increased, the purpose changed from defending one’s self to winning in competition, and more and more practice was spent on kumite competition and kata as well.

In competition rules, unlike in self-defense, certain dangerous techniques are forbidden, so only those techniques, which are applicable to the competition, are emphasized, and that is what makes a sport. As a side note, it has been said that the reason kata competition takes place before kumite competition was to determine whether or not the competitors have sufficient ability to compete in kumite.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Introduction of Karate to the Mainland

The two public demonstrations by Master Gichin Funakoshi in 1916 at the Butokuden in Kyoto, and the other at the Tokyo Physical Education Exposition in 1922 were the first to introduce Okinawan karate to the mainland. For some reason 1922 is given as the date of the introduction of karate to the mainland in written documents. In that year Master Funakoshi was invited by Dr. Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, to teach karate for several months at the Kodokan. So, if we are talking about the spread of karate rather than the introduction, then the year 1922 can be credited as the beginning. Master Funakoshi never returned to Okinawa, concentrating instead on spreading karate throughout the mainland, primarily in the universities.

There were, however, certain difficulties in having karate recognized, compared to judo and kendo.

1: Judo and kendo already had national organizations.

2: Dr. Jigoro Kano had endeavored to unified judo.

3: Okinawa did not have equal status on the mainland.

4: Katas were practiced individually, so it was difficult to access karate’s true ability.

In 1924 Master Funakoshi promoted his first student to first-degree black belt.

In 1929 Master Chojun Miyagi created the first “style” of karate.

In the year 1931 Okinawan karate was recognized as a part of judo by the Ministry of Education.

The Chinese characters were changed from ”Chinese hand” to “empty hand” around this time.

Master Kenwa Mabuni established Shito Ryu in 1934. Likewise, Shotokan Ryu, which took until 1935 to formulate and develop its curriculum, established its full time dojo, Shotokan in Soshigaya, Tokyo in 1939. Although Master Funakoshi did not give his style a name, other styles and schools such as Goju ryu and Shito ryu began to appear. Unlike judo and kendo, which unified jujutsu and kenjutsu respectively, karate became further divided into separate styles.

I would like to summarize these trends.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Okinawan Karate

Because karate was practiced in secret, it is not known for sure when it first began. References to karate were seen in print around the middle of the Meiji period (Meiji period: 1868~1921) after the passing of Masters Anko Itosu of Shuri style and Kanryo Higaonna of Naha style. Before that, because it was passed down orally, there were no written records.

Also, according to oral legends, there are many stories of various masters being taught by Chinese emissaries, or having gone to China to learn first hand. Thus, it is believed that Okinawan karate was influenced considerably by Chinese kempo. Since the history of this period is covered elsewhere, it is beyond the scope of this book. I will only introduce an outline after the Meiji period.

After the Meiji Restoration (1868) the interest in martial arts fell into decline. Around the time of the Seinan no Eki (Coup d'etat) in 1877 the study of kendo and judo gained popularity under the government’s plan to “enrich the nation and build strong a defense”. In 1876 a bare handed means of self defense was recognized under the government’s proclamation against the use of the sword.

In 1879 Master Anko Itosu opened the first karate dojo in Okinawa and began teaching his first students openly. Only his students received attention for being awarded the rank Koushu (High rank) in the military conscription examination. They went on to return home as decorated heroes after the Japan-China war of 1894, and Japan-Russia war of 1904.

In 1901 karate became part of the public school curriculum. At that time Okinawan karate was practiced individually, and there were no style names, rather, it was referred to as “someone or some place’s hand”. In 1904 Master Itosu created the Heian katas as a tool for teaching in the public junior high schools. That same year karate was first introduced in the mass media. An article written by Master Gichin Funakoshi in which he interviewed Master Anko Asato appeared in the Ryukyu Newspaper. Karate gained interest, not only as a method of self-defense, but also for physical education, and there was a concerted effort, including the use of public demonstrations, to introduce it to the general public.

In his “Ten Principles of Okinawan Karate” (1908), Master Anko Itosu wrote “One should know the meaning and application of a kata before practicing it.” From this we know for a fact that the meaning (application) for katas existed at that time.