One of the most popular and most frequently visited postings that I’ve ever done on this website has been an unbiased look at the differences between Karate and Tae Kwon Do. So I thought I’d do the same between Karate and Kung Fu.
As with Karate and Tae Kwon Do, I believe that there is often a lot of misunderstanding between Karate and Kung Fu practitioners as they don’t really understand what the other one is doing or why! That said, there are many people who cross train between the 2 styles, in particular Karateka who train in Kung Fu to better understand the roots of the their own system.
This post is not aimed at arguing that either martial art is better than the other, as I have always maintained, there is no “best style” only a “best style for a given individual”.
But to tackle a question like this is a massive subject as there are hundreds of styles of Karate and thousands of styles of Kung Fu; so I am going to have to lay down some parameters before I start.
Firstly from the Karate perspective; most modern styles trace back to the two Okinawan styles of Naha Te and Shuri Te. There is arguably also Tomari Te, but that is really a branch of Shuri Te. To confuse the issue further, many modern styles are also a hybrid of the two (like Shitoryu).
Naha Te (which later became Goju Ryu) was almost completely based on White Crane and Praying Mantis Kung Fu, whilst Shuri Te was quite extensively modified by the Okinawans. So for the purpose of this posting, I’ll be looking at the Karate styles from the Shuri Te/Shotokan lineage. Ironically, much of this will apply to Tae Kwon Do as well, despite significant development by the Koreans.
Kung Fu is even more difficult due to it’s huge variety. So for the purpose of this posting, I’ll be looking at the traditional Shaolin styles of Kung Fu (rather than modern Wu Shu, Wing Chun or the Daoist based internal arts).
Usually one of the first things that people say when comparing Karate and Kung Fu is that Karate is more linear and that Kung Fu is more circular. But what does that actually mean in application?
If you look at a Karate reverse punch, the hips are rotated, yet the arm goes out straight; so there is a combination of circular and linear movements within the same technique. Many (if not most) Karate techniques are powered by a hip rotation, so does that make them partly circular. Furthermore, although Kung Fu tends to have more techniques where the arms attack in a circular fashion, they also have a lot of techniques that come out straight forward, so are they linear?
Basically, what defines a linear or circular technique is not just whether the body rotates or not, or even if the attacking hand/foot moves in a straight or circular motion. It is how the technique is powered. A linear technique is powered by the forward inertia and momentum of the body, whilst circular technique is powered by the centrifugal force created by a rapid rotation which does not necessarily move the body forward.
You can see this more clearly in the 2 videos below. In the first one you see a Karate reverse punch. The hips rotate from being pulled back approximately 45 degrees to being rotated square to the front. But overall the body weight moves forward in the direction of the punch.
In this Kung Fu example, you’ll see that the hips are rotated much further, so much so that the stance is facing at 90 degree’s to the direction of the punch and opponent. When he performs the second punch, his hips rotate almost 180 degrees around to face the other direction (compared with Karate’s 45 degree hip rotation). This obviously creates more centrifugal force. The technique will vary from style to style, but it does demonstrate the general principle. However, it does not create any forward momentum towards the opponent.
Again, I do not suggest that either method is superior to the other, they are just 2 modified ways of achieving the same result, which is putting down some b*****d who seriously deserves it. It should also be made clear that Karate and Kung Fu both contain linear techniques and they both contain circular techniques. It is just that Karate puts more emphasis on linear whilst Kung Fu puts more emphasis on circular.
Some people say that Karate is more aggressive. Shuri Te was developed by the bodyguards to the Okinawan king. They were the masters who evolved linear technique. When you examine their requirements and the challenges that they faced, they needed a system of taking the fight quickly and ruthlessly to their enemies. To do this you need to be able to move forward (linear).
With a circular system, to a certain extent you are letting the other guy bring the fight to you. That may not have been an option for the Shuri bodyguards, but for us today who should only be interested in self defence, it is fine. You can still take the initiative and give a pre-emptive strike if somebody comes too close (which an aggressor will do) but you don’t need to take the fight to him.
Circular technique is better for grappling, spinning very fast when you have hold of somebody is a good way to of-balance or throw them. It also helps to apply locks to any trapped limbs very quickly.
Linear technique is less versatile in application, but was designed for very much with multiple assailants in mind where running away was not an option (as in bodyguards). For this they needed to take the fight to the opponent, put him down very quickly, then move onto the next. I believe that this is where the Japanese maxim of Ikken Hissatsu (one strike, one kill) comes from. Grappling techniques are too slow when you’re outnumbered, so that versatility was not required.
Many of the Shaolin styles are based on animal movements such as Tiger, Snake, Monkey, Praying Mantis, Crane and many others (even mythical creatures such as the Dragon). Although these styles imitate animal movements, they are still very effective in application. Drawing from the movements of mammals, birds, reptiles and even insects has led to a great deal of innovation and inspiration, not only in fighting techniques, but in the principles adopted (for example, power from the Tiger, but flexibility from the Snake).
Karate however has been more influenced by the Zen philosophy which is (or was) very popular in Japan. Part of Zen is to minimize everything, which has also been applied to the movements in martial arts. Only the movements strictly required for a technique are included, all else is striped out giving it a much plainer appearance in many ways. This also fits in with the linear concept of less emphasis on grappling and versatility, but focusing more on multiple opponents instead.
Of course this is a very broad subject as already mentioned and there is a lot of overlap between Karate and Kung Fu, so this posting can only be a guide rather than a definitive in every case and every application. As such there will be plenty of exceptions, so any writing on this subject (by me or anybody else) should only be regarded as a generalised guide.
If you have found this useful, or if you have anything to add to the subject, then please leave your comments below.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do any videos on kata bunkai, which was a very prominent element of this website when I first started it. Unfortunately I still haven’t been able to, yet recently I’ve been asked if I will be doing any more.
So what I’ve done below is take an excerpt from my DVD, Inside Bassai Dai. It features some kata bunkai from the opening sequence of Bassai Dai. I hope you enjoy it.
Many visitors to this website don’t get taught this kind of bunkai at their own Dojo, so please leave your feedback below and tell me what you think.
Karate Depot have asked me to review a makiwara (striking board) for them. But first, I would like to talk about what makawara training is actually trying to achieve as it not quite what most people imagine.
Personally, I like makawara’s. Some people argue that as they have so little give in them, your punch/strike has to stop after impact, rather than going all the way through the target – as you might do in a real combat situation. Therefore (it is argued) you are training yourself to “stop short”.
I personally believe that if you can slam your fist very hard into a target that barely gives and not damage or hurt yourself, then you have no fear of whatever you hit at all. You also develop so much impact that you don’t have to punch too deep to do damage. Besides you can practice punching/stiking deep on other pieces of equipment, that is not what the makawara is all about.
Some also argue that it is a stationary target and therefore less functional than focus mitts which obviously can move about. I’ll come back to this point shortly.
Although many see the makawawa as a method to harden hands, especially knuckles, Gichin Funakoshi says that the main point of using a makawawa is to learn correct alignment of the body when striking. Harding knuckles etc is secondary. Delivery of a good technique (be-it Karate or any other style) depends heavily on correct alignment of the body’s skeletal system. This in turn should allows you to become more and more relaxed in your technique as you advance through the grades.
How does correct skeletal alignment enable you to become more relaxed and why is this useful?
Firstly, correct bone/joint alignment absorbs the reaction created by the impact of your strike, transfers it to the ground, and then effectively bounces it back into the target again. With incorrect alignment, that part of the body will collapse and absorb much of this “impact reaction”.
This is the single most important function of the makawara, to weed out the bodies incorrect alignments and correct them.
This is best done with a training device that has little give in it (like a makawara). Focus mitts are better for accuracy training and for training reactions to a moving target, but they do not offer enough resistance to allow you to weed your incorrect alignments within your body. Neither training device (makawara or focus mitts) are superior to the other, they simply serve different functions.
As low grades, we can use a lot muscular strength to support our skeletal structure and stop it collapsing if there is any weakness (in the form of miss-alignments). However, as we progress, the alignment of the skeletal structure improves and can absorb the “impact reaction” with less support from the muscles. As we need less & less muscular support we can become much more relaxed. This in turn enables us to move faster, conserve energy and actually do more damage with less effort!
This really is one of the biggest keys to combat side of martial arts.
This is why Tai Chi is considered an advanced martial art. It is something that martial artists progress to, after a “harder” style has already taught them good skeletal structure. It is not a martial art to start with (unless you are only interested in health and well being, which is of course perfectly acceptable).
The slow relaxed movements of Tai Chi are partly to teach you to use your ki/chi (internal energy) which is of course a controversial subject that not everybody will agree on. However, on a more scientific level, the slow deliberate moves of Tai Chi do teach good skeletal alignment and good posture. Doing movements slowly without correct alignment and posture, you will be more likely to loose your balance than if you do it fast.
Tai Chi is therefore (on some levels at least), a continuation of the learning alignment and posture that starts with the makawara, but taken to a much higher level. I personally think that Tai Chi is much more than this, but this one aspect of it.
Anyway, this brings us back to the makawara and hopefully you’ll have a better idea of its deeper purpose and benefits now. The makawawa was traditionally a bail of straw, tied to a post set solidly into the ground. This is not aways practical today. However, you can get wall mounted versions like the Deluxe Makawara Board which I’ve been asked to review.
I found it very good. It can take a lot of punishment and is hard wearing. It’s also quite convenient as you put it up almost anywhere that you have a solid wall. As it can’t flex (like the traditional wooden post), it has a little bit of give in from the hard foam under the canvas cover. This foam does eventually get a little bit compressed from continuous blows, so I would suggest trying to strike different parts rather than just hitting the centre each time. This particular makawara is a bit larger than most others, so it does allow you to move your point of impact around about a bit. A good addition to any traditional martial artists training regime.
For centuries masters have taught that fighting is more mental than physical. However, when training martial arts we concentrate mainly on the physical technique. As we progress, we learn to be more focused, aggressive and intense; but how exactly does that make fighting more mental than physical when we are still punching, kicking, throwing, gouging or simply bitch-slapping some bugger that deserves it?
I’m going to ask you to bear with me as I explain, as at first this is going to look like I’m going of subject, but it will fit together in the end, I promise.
Something that I’ve come across a couple of times lately is the idea that we should be “living in the present”. Well of course we are you might say, how can we not be in the present?
Let me explain a bit more. Many people spend a lot of time living in regret for things they have done in the past or missed opportunities; or resentment about things that have been done to them. They are in effect, spending a lot their time thinking about and focusing on the past, constantly re-living the causes of their regret/resentment.
Others spend a lot of time looking to the future. How many times have you thought, “I can’t wait for work to finish and go home”, “I can’t wait for the weekend” or “I can’t wait for my holiday/retirement/promotion/whatever”? This is in effect living for the future. The idea is, “I’ll be happy when . . . . . . . whatever”.
The key to actually being happy, or even effective in live, is not to be re-living past problems or to be just biding your time until something better comes along, but to be consciously present in the current moment. This is not to say that you don’t plan for the future, just don’t focus on being there instead of now. Be present now, whilst you plan your future (you’ll plan it much much better that way). This is a big subject which I can’t really do justice to in one post. Books have been written on this subject, so for now please just accept this general idea.
So what has this got to do with martial arts?
One more detour first, then I’ll answer that. I have read several times in the past that soldiers in real combat report that they had “never felt so alive”. That’s not to say that they found it to be fun! Rather they found it very intense, the very fact that their existence could end at any instance made them very much aware of that instance (rather than dwelling on the past or what could be). They were very intense on staying alive and very present in that moment. Hence feeling really “alive”.
OK, back to the martial arts. How often have you said (or heard somebody say) that when training you/they forget all your worries and problems?
Why does this happen? It is because we are practising a combat art. We need to maintain our concentration and focus, especially when partnered up for sparring. We know we’ll soon get hit if don’t focus and be present in that moment. Even in pre-arranged sparring routines, if you don’t block/parry/evade an attack that is coming in full-steam, you’ll get hit.
In solitary practice as well (basics or kata/patterns/forms) we should still train with an opponent in mind.
Note: Our nervous system can not tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. For example, if we watch a scary film, we know full well that we are safe and it’s only on a screen. However, we still “jump”, our heart beat can speed up and our breathing can change. This is our nervous system responding to our imagination as we are engrossed in the film. Therefore training with an opponent in mind is almost as good as training with a real partner.
Our training forces us to be in the present. It forces us to forget our past problems and to forget about our daydreams of our future and to be much more there, focused on the guy in front who is about to knock you into next week if you don’t focus fully on what he is about to do to you.
Being fully focused and aware in the present moment is a necessary reaction to danger. Fortunately it is an almost automatic reaction to being in danger.
That said, some people still struggle with it. When confronted with a bully/mugger/predator, some people will focus on “this isn’t fair”, “why does this always happen to me”, “this b*****d is always picking on me”. The are still partly in the past.
Some will be thinking, “I’m going to get killed”, or “this could really be humiliating”. They are still partially in the future.
Over time with many sessions of partner activities (whether free sparring or pre-arranged activities), we don’t just get used to physical technique, but we get uses to being in the present moment. We get better control over our fears and become more able to instinctively push out the fears of defeat/humiliation or feelings of victimisation. It is often said that martial arts fosters courage. One of the main ways it does this is by teaching you to be in the present rather than focusing on the past or future.
Usually if you get a black belt sparring with a somebody of a middle range grade (say purple/blue belt) then assuming all other things are equal (age, build, strength, size, etc) the black belt will usually dominate. Obviously the black belt should have the better technique, but if you put the 2 of them side by side and tell them to perform say a punch at the same time, the black belt will be only a split second faster.
Does this split second account for the level of domination that most black belts have over lower grades?
Obviously it is part of the reason, but I don’t think it is the full reason. By the time somebody reaches black belt, usually they are much more used having their mind in the present moment and not worrying out defeat, humiliation, fighting a higher grade etc. They find it much easier to commit to their technique and just go for their target, un-hindered by a mind worrying about what the outcome might be. There is a greater sense of certainty about the way they move.
This is where the mind is trained to be “present”. It is more important than just the physical technique that the body is performing. This is where fighting becomes “mental”. This is where your focus and concentration over many years will take you to.
A side effect of this is of course is that you learn to be more “present” in your everyday life as well. You usually find that high grade martial artists often have more resilience to deal with the everyday problems that life throws up than most other people do (whether it’s divorce, career, health, whatever). Why? Because you can solve your life problems much better if you are thinking in the present rather than resenting how you got there (thinking in the past) or fearing the outcome (thinking in the future).
So many martial arts talk about making you a better person with a stronger character and it is irrefutable that they do. Most however are short on explanation on how this actually happens. I personally believe that learning to be “present” is one of the most central principles of the “Do” (The Way).
This concept is a continuation of the idea of silencing that little voice inside your head (which I’ve written about before). You know, that little voice that keeps telling you that you can’t do something for this or that reason. That reason is usually something in the past – dragging you back there and away from the present moment.
Note: Being “present” is a very big subject which I cannot do justice to in one posting. If you want more information then I would suggest that you check out either: A Bug Free Mind (heavily marketed, but has changed my outlook) The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle (I’ve seen this recommended several times. I have a copy waiting for me to find the time to read it).
The video below recently came to me via my Youtube subscription. It is the old Okinawan kata of Chikin Sunakake No Eiku by Akamine Hiroshi. This is a weapon that originated from a humble oar.
There is a story of an old Okinawan master who was famed for being good with this weapon, who was repeatedly challenged by a Samurai. He declined the challenges several times until eventually the Samurai confronted him and told him this it is, basically you fight or die. As the Okinawan Master reluctantly picked up his oar, he used it flick sand into the Samurai’s eyes. He then took advantage of the Samurai’s temporary blindness, to strike him in the throat with the oar, crushing his windpipe and killing him. Very crude, simple, yet highly effective bunkai from such a basic weapon.
Not many of us are likely to carry around a oar these days just in case. It’s not common to be confronted by a sword wielding Samurai either for that matter. However, it does make a good point of using everyday implements as a makeshift weapon. That is a principle that we can use today, even if we don’t practice traditional weapons.
Imagine if your home was broken into and you were attacked (or you had to defend your loved ones), what could you use around you as a weapon. How about a photo frame on the mantlepiece? Or a pen/pencil on your desk? Could you use a fruit bowl to fend of blows or even hit with it. Do you have chairs that are small enough pick up swing around. Of course if you’re in the kitchen then there are many more potential weapons.
But have you ever stopped to look around your house (in every room) and see what you could pick up and use in an emergency? Then of course, have you ever practiced a few strikes with it, or even made up your own little kata?
Then of course what about when you’re out? There’s the obvious ones like bottles and glasses. How about an ash tray or a pool que.
When Shotokan Karate was still quite young in Europe, women did not have to free fight for their black belt. Instead they had to perform self defence techniques. One scenario commonly used was that they would carry a handbag that the “mugger” would have to try to take from her. He would do this by grabbing her wrist with one hand trying to take the bag with the other hand. The defence was the twist the wrist and pull back the hand, then continue the movement in, up over the top and come down striking the top of the head with the handbag (third movement in Heian Shodan/Pinan Nidan, normally ending in a hammer-fist . . . . without the handbag).
At an early grading I took, my class was told the following story by the late Ray Fuller (our grading examiner). When his then wife, Pauline, who at that time was the highest ranking woman Karateka in Europe took her 1st Dan black belt, they demonstrated that particular defence. When she struck him over the head with the handbag, she knocked him out cold. He later asked her what the **** she had in the handbag? She apparently said “half a brick”. He asked why, to which she allegedly said, “to make it look good”.
Well women carry many things in their handbags, maybe some will start carrying half a brick now!!
Although I’ve always found that an amusing story, it does show how an effective weapon can be made out quite ordinary things. It does make sense to look around your home, your workplace, places you socialise to see what can used as a weapon in case of emergencies. In the home at least, it is also a good idea to pick them up now and then and make up your own little katas with them. It does not have to as sophisticated as the oar kata below, but just being used to handling any object that could become an unsuspected weapon could be the deciding factor.
Note: For non-Japanese stylists, Shihan means a master level instructor, (above an ordinary Sensei).
This is one master that I particularly hold in very high respect for 2 main reasons. Firstly is that through his book Shotokan Myths, he seeks to give us (mainly in the West) the real truths behind much of the mysticism and mis-information that has built up over the years for social, political and even commercial reasons. The honesty and directness is very refreshing.
Secondly is that he truly understands the difference between Western and Eastern thinking and applies it (rather than expecting others to meld to his way).
I hope I don’t offend anybody here, but most of my previous experience of Japanese Karate masters was that some of them would even pretend that they could not speak English properly when you know full well they can. This was so that they did not have to teach you very much.
When I took my early gradings in the late 70’s early 80’s under the late and charismatic Ray Fuller, we would all come out from his classes thinking “wow, isn’t Karate great” and being really inspired to learn it all. When I moved to Scotland and gradings were conducted by 2 senior Japanese masters, my class mates come out saying “isn’t the wee man great”. I was thinking to myself, yes he is technically brilliant, but I’ve learnt very little. There’s a stark difference.
This is why after several emails between Shihan Kokota and myself, I was blown away when this Japanese 8th Dan suggested that we have a chat on Skype and that I don’t need to be so formal with him.
I don’t think Shihan Yokata will mind me sharing this with you, but in one of his emails to me on the subject of being a master, he said “I am only 64 so I am still too young to hold that title. I will wait till I am 70 or even 80 and see if I feel old enough to be a master”. For a man who’s trained in martial arts for over 50 years, compare that to the many much younger martial artists who readily use the title Grand-Master!
Anyway, on to the interview. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Shihan Yokota’s answers and I hope you do to.
CW: Please tell us how old you were when you first started your martial arts training, how you started and what led you to focusing on Shotokan Karate in particular?
KY: My father was a Kodokan judo practitioner so I wanted to practice judo as soon as I was in junior high school. I joined a club at the local police station where the policemen taught the classes and I was 13 at that time. I was an energetic child so I loved the rigorous training of judo and practiced it very diligently. After a year or two later a new student joined. He was a short and small guy so I threw him easily. He liked to be thrown but he was different. If you are familiar with judo, a person who gets thrown would do ukemi (breaking the fall with slapping an arm on to the floor) and stays down for a short moment. That was what I expected from the new student but he jumped up like a bouncing ball every time I threw him. As he was a small boy and was light it looked very natural. I did not think too much about it. As he was a cheerful fellow I got to like him and we became sort of friends after several months of training. One day after the training, we walked to the bus station together. I asked this boy (maybe he was 16 or 17) why he would jump up after a throw. He surprised me with his answer. He said he is a karate practitioner and he wanted to learn judo to improve his karate. I knew the word of karate and have seen a demonstration or two but I had no idea about karate. I still believed judo was the most lethal method of martial arts so I asked him if he would switch to judo. He said no way as karate was the meanest system of fighting. I could not believe his words. I told him that I could throw him on the hard road and hurt him. He told me that he could disable me before I had a chance to throw him. I thought he could not punch me if I grabbed his arms very quickly. So, the next day, I asked him to show me how he would disable me as I grabbed both of his arms so he could not move them at will. He smiled and without moving his arms he kicked me in groin. I know he only tapped me but I had to let the arms go as I crumbled to the ground for a few seconds. I saw the sparkles in the eyes and I knew he could kill me. He apologized and helped me up. After this event, he stayed with us for a few more months but he went back to his karate training. During that time I asked him to teach me karate but he said he was not an instructor and he could not teach. So, I waited till I get my shodan in judo before I made my switch. I had to do this to show to my father that I was serious in training in judo.
I was 16 when I switched to karate. I did not know that there are many different styles in karate so I did not ask that boy which style he was. I thought karate was only karate. I wanted to dive in karate in full so I decided to train every day. I joined a karate club at a local YMCA (Kobe is my home town) but they practiced only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. So, I went to another YMCA in Osaka (a big city about 50km from Kobe) as they trained on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. One thing I did not know or realize was Kobe YMCA club was Shotokan (JKA) and Osaka club was Gojuryu (with Gogen “Cat” Yamaguchi). I trained at those two clubs for one year before I quit Gojuryu. It is a long story how this happened but I will keep this story to another occasion. I stayed at Kobe YMCA club for 3 years and practiced Shotokan under Kashimoto sensei. Sugano sensei was his teacher and he came to see the training once in a while. I remember this clearly as I was scared of him. When I rejoined his dojo about 15 years later he was not as scary as I thought but for a high school boy Sugano surely had a scary face. Many new students quit but I stayed and I got my shodan when I was 18 (1965).
CW: Sounds like a painful introduction to Karate! What kind of a man was Master Jun Sugano and what was his main strengths in Karate?
KY: He was independently wealthy so he did not need to earn money from Karate which I liked very much. He did not care whether you join his dojo or leave. He liked the traditional hard training and he liked to push you to your limit.
He was a large man for Japanese. He was close to 180cm tall and weighed nearly 100kg. He was strong like a bear. We were all afraid of his punch when he uses you as his opponent in a demonstration.
CW: Later you trained with Master Tetsuhiko Asai, 10th Dan and founder of the JKS. What made you change over to training with him? What kind of a man was he and what unique things did he bring into his Karate teaching?
KY: When I hit the age of 50 and Godan in JKA, I felt I reached a plateau. I felt I could not learn anything new to develop my karate and I was very discouraged with my karate. This is when I was reconnected with Asai sensei. He came to California for a seminar. Of course, I have known him from 80’s and have seen his demonstrations at All Japan National Championship in Tokyo when I participated in 1981 and 1982. I knew his karate was great and different. I saw my answer in his karate. He was in his late 60’s and he was flexible and his moves were sharp and dynamic. I said to myself this is the way I want to look in my 60’s and 70’s. I decided to follow his path in 2003 when I resigned from ISKF (JKA then).
You must experience his karate to fully appreciate Asai ryu karate. The movements are freer or less restrictive. There are more complex foot work with a lot of spins and rotations in many different ways and directions. Many combat effective techniques such as finger thrust, enpi, teisho, etc. are used and practiced. Your body is required to be flexible and that is not limited to the hip joints but all joints including back bones. The flexibility of the muscles is critical so that your moves will be fluid like a cat or a tiger. The body movements follow the nature of water (fluidity) and they are performed with the strong foundation of the legs. This is why we include the exercises like one leg squats and other squatting involved workouts. Your body needs to be like a whip when your arm and leg techniques are executed. There are too many unique things and I cannot list all of them here.
CW: He sounds a very interesting man. I understand that Master Asai also trained in White Crane Kung Fu, which had quite an influence on his Karate (which you describe above). When Funakoshi first introduced Karate to Japan, he tried to hide some of the Chinese influences on the art. How was Master’s Asai’s Chinese influences accepted by the Japanese Karate community? And how did the Twainese accept Master Asai teaching Karate in their country when they have so many of their own martial arts?
KY: This is an excellent question and I can write a book on this. Let me explain something about your statement, “When Funakoshi first introduced Karate to Japan, he tried to hide some of the Chinese influences on the art.” There were two major reasons for his action. One is he wanted to brand Karate as an Okinawa grown martial art which is true despite there was an influence from the Chinese martial arts. The second reason was the period when he introduced karate to Japan. The first public demonstration Funakoshi did in Tokyo was 1922 and that was exactly when Japan was in a war against China. It was wise for him to de-emphasize anything that may be related to China and Chinese culture.
Back to your question about Asai sensei’s karate, unfortunately, he was regarded as unique to be nice or an odd ball by some of the JKA instructors. I do not think his ability (Nakayama claimed he was the best karate-ka JKA has ever produced) was not truly appreciated or received the credit it deserved. After passing of Nakayama in 1987, Master Asai tried to change the syllabus of JKA and that caused so much up roar the organization split in 1990.
Regarding the second part of your question, how did Taiwanese accepted his karate, I cannot tell you too much as my exposure to the Taiwanese on this matter is limited. I have spoken to Mrs. Asai who was a Taiwanese origin and I also have met a few JKS members from Taiwan. They all told me that Asai karate is different from JKA and also kung fu (white crane style). I support this idea and it is true that JKS had the affiliates not only in Taiwan but also in Hong Kong and some other Chinese cities. If Asai karate is not good enough or too similar to the kung fu style then his karate would have not received this much of support by the Chinese people.
CW: What other martial arts besides Shotokan Karate have you studied along the way and how have they affected your development as a martial artist?
KY: I already mentioned that I took Judo for 3 years. With karate, I took one year of Goju ryu when I initially started karate training. The period was so short so fortunately or unfortunately, I do not have any effective influence from this experience.
In 1981, I also took Kyokushinkai training for one year. I wanted to learn the full contact karate to expand my kumite experience and ability. It definitely had some positive influence and learned several very important facts about kumite. I can write a book on this too but I will stop with only one comment. I suggest all the Shotokan practitioners who are into competitions or tournaments to experience full contact karate. Then they realize that the sports karate kumite is not a martial art activity.
I also took a Ki training for over two years at Nishino dojo in Tokyo (1998 and 1999). Even though I do not feel that my ki became stronger I can tell that ki exercise made my body more flexible and elastic.
CW: What about weapons? Which weapons have you studied and how relevant are traditional weapons to the modern Karateka?
KY: I practiced kobudo including nunchaku, tonfa, sai, three sectional stick and 9 chain whip. I find nunchaku and chain whip are the best supplement to karate training especially in developing the circular motions with your arms. The weapons are the extension of your body so it is good for all the advanced practitioners to select at least one weapon and include that to the regular training.
CW: Karate has many elements to it. Do you have any particular favorite element? If so, what is it and why?
KY: There are five major elements in karate;
1. Stretch and exercise 2. Kihon 3. Kata 4. Kumite 5. Bunkai They are like five fingers in your hand. They have different functions but yet all of them are necessary to do the coordinated work of karate. I like them all in their own ways. What I love is the art of karate as a whole.
CW: In your younger days you had a very successful competition career, could you tell us a little about that please?
KY: I have had some years of tournament days when I was younger but I cannot say it was a very successful competition career. Maybe my highlight is the participation of All Japan Championship (JKA) in 1981 and 1982. I was lucky to be a state champion of Hyogo prefecture in those years. I was also a representative of Hyogo prefecture in National Athletic Tournament (Japan’s local Olympic game) called Okutai (short for Kokumin Taiku Taikai) in 1981 which was the WUKO event when JKA joined as one of the karate organizations for the first time. One funny story I can tell you is a little story when I checked the roster of the karate participants in Okutai. It listed all the participants from 47 prefectures of Japan and it showed the styles (Shotokan, Gojuryu, Shitoryu and Wadoryu), dan rank and age. I was 35 years old then and I knew I was one of the most senior participants as most of them are in their 20s and a few were even in their high teens. I was going from one page to another not finding anyone in their 30’s. I finally came across a guy who was either 33 or 34. So I said to myself “Yes there is another senior guy who is willing to mingle with those young guns.” I wanted to find out if he was in kumite or in kata. I flipped the pages to find him but he was not in the competitors list. So I thought “Maybe he is one of those back up guys.” But when I got to the last page where they showed the names of the coaches he was there. So I realized that I was older than this coach and I was the oldest competitor in that big event. I retired after this tournament.
CW: I have read a number of interviews and articles on how most Karate in Japan has become almost obsessed with competition results as a way of measuring a clubs success. Do you feel that this is a fair criticism?
KY: I am afraid the competitions and tournaments are very popular and play a very important role in many dojo and organizations. It is true that a karate magazine may use the competition results to measure a club’s success especially among high school and university clubs. However, many instructors know the difference between the tournament karate and martial arts karate. They do not use the competition results to measure the level of a regular dojo. At least that is what I see with the instructors in my home town, Kobe.
CW: That’s good. We’ve also previously discussed how the levels of violent crime in Japan are so low that even in Tokyo young ladies feel quite safe walking home alone late at night (something that would be considered madness in many Western cities). As such most Japanese people do not see any real need for self defense. Although this is a fantastic achievement for the Japanese people, which many in the West would like to emulate, how has it affected the Japanese perspective on making (or keeping) their martial arts practical and functional?
KY: It is true that Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. So, the people do not pick up karate or any martial art for a self-defense purpose. They choose to practice one of them for other purposes or objectives. I believe the lack of this need for self-defense was one of the reasons why bunkai was not seriously studied in Japan. I am also afraid that Samurai spirit is almost extinct in Japan.
CW: That’s quite sad to hear you say that. During World War II the rest of the world could not help but admire and respect the fierce fighting spirit and sacrifice of the Japanese servicemen. Japan has also been very influential in spreading so many fine martial arts to the rest of the world. I was therefore quite surprised the first time you told me how you feel about the Japanese fighting spirit today. Would you please elaborate on those views for the readers?
KY: When Japan lost in WWII, it was our first total defeat in any international wars. It is sad to admit but it is true that the Japanese lost both the patriotism and samurai spirit. The entire nation went to commercialism and the core value has changed dramatically from honor to money. Some good part of the old culture did survive, however. In Japan, we see more respect to the others as well as the rules and the laws. For instance, at a red traffic light a pedestrian would stop and wait until it turns to green even if it is 2am and there is no traffic in the street. This is why it is very safe not only in the small towns but also in any of the big cities in Japan. However, the general population lost some important values such as honor and principle. Along with it, we lost the fighting spirit to uphold those values. The occupation army (mostly the US military) after the WWII did a good job as they planned to change the social structure and education in Japan so that it can never be a threat to the US or other allied countries. It was a cunning strategy but the Japanese must not blame the US for its policy as they did the similar treatment to Germany but the Germans recognized the consequences if they followed blindly. The Japanese were too naive as they had never lost in a major war and the leaders were not prepared for this kind of policy and to bring the Japanese population back to the old culture with honor and self-respect.
CW: That’s a shame. You have also told me how you have found many of the bunkai explanations given to various kata movements in mainstream Shotokan to be quite unrealistic. We discussed in particular the double Uchi Uke “blocks” near the beginning of Bassai Dai which is simply not realistic when used literally as 2 blocks and could only conceivably work with a compliant attacker. When did you first start to doubt the explanations that you were being given for these bunkai and how do you think they came about?
KY: My sensei, Master Sugano, told us at one of the casual meetings we had after training that we should not be fooled with the names of the techniques that are used in kata. He also told us that kata do not always start and end with a block as it is publicly announced by many organizations including JKA. He told us that most of those techniques are attacking techniques. He further explained that there is no one application or bunkai to any of the techniques. He said the fighting situation has millions of variations thus a technique must be any solution that works in a particular situation. He told us that our mind must not be ridged but fluid and open so we can be prepared for any situations.
First of all, bunkai is not popular or common in Japanese dojo. The main reason is, believe it or not, JKA headquarters at its foundation chose to drop bunkai from its main syllabus so that the sufficient knowledge was not handed down from Funakoshi. At JKA headquarters in 50’s and 60’s, a standard training menu was only kihon, kumite and kata. Any of the bunkai training was almost completely ignored. Along with bunaki, another major component, kobudo, was dropped from the menu. Now I am talking about the general trend. There were a few instructors and dojo like Master Asai and Master Sugano who considered bunkai and kobudo as the important aspects of karate and believed they must be studied along with other elements.
CW: It seems then that you were very fortunate in your teachers. How did you go about finding more realistic applications for yourself?
KY: Sugano sensei used to tell us, “Do not get stuck on one application. The actual applications are limitless. The techniques must be free and natural”. I could not quite understand what he meant when I heard it more than 30 years ago but now I am beginning to understand it. As you practice all the different techniques in many kata and if you keep your mind free, the applications can be “felt”. One technique can be very neutral so to speak. In other words, I can feel that a technique can be a block but at the same time it can be a strike. A good example is the very first move of Bassai Dai. In the end, any applications can be correct if it serves the purpose of the situation. So, I do not look for, or I’d better say I do not need to look for more “realistic” applications any more.
CW: A number of Westerners have made big names for themselves in the field of applied Karate and practical bunkai geared for street self defense. How do you feel about their work and do you feel that they are on the right track or not?
KY: I believe there was a huge contribution by those practitioners and exposing there are other applications and bunkai. They tried to bring karate back to an art of self-defense so I give a credit for that. However, one thing we must not forget is that the number of applications is limitless and any of them are “correct” so it is almost impossible to list all of them. What you as a martial art karate practitioner must do is to learn the concept and the principle then apply them according to the situations that can be limitless. It is almost like Mathematics. There are limitless numbers and what we need to learn is the concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, etc. We all know that we cannot remember all the combinations of numbers which is unlimited. What is interesting with karate is it is somewhat different from Mathematics. In Mathematics 1 plus 1 is always 2, in karate it can be different numbers such as zero or three, for example, and those answers are all correct if they meet the principle of karate.
CW: Point taken. For many people, Karate is mainly about self defense. To others it is more about self developments. What are your feelings on this? Do you feel that either aspect takes precedence over the other, or are they both equally important?
KY: Those two aspects of karate must compliment each other thus they are equally important. I am afraid many practitioners put emphasis only on the physical part (self-defense or tournament) of karate. In fact, karate is the most primitive and less effective weapon when compared to a stick, a knife or a gun. How good is karate if it only creates a karate expert who has no respect and honor? What would be the difference between that to a gang who has a knife or a gun?
CW: Having been based in America for many years and teaching all around the world, how would you describe the attitude to training and the fighting spirit in the West?
KY: I found the practitioners in the countries I have visited (not only Europe but also in Latin America) have an excellent attitude in general. I cannot say which country has better or worse attitude because I found very serious and less serious practitioners in all countries.
CW: That’s good. You are also noted for the work you’ve done in uncovering myths within Karate (particularly Shotokan). In a culture noted for not questioning the official line, did this get you into trouble in younger days, or did you develop strategies for getting to the truth without rocking the boat too much?
(Note: I remember you saying that you sometimes had to wait until your master had taken a few drinks)!!
KY: In my younger days I did not ask questions as I followed our culture. The questions and doubts blew in me and I always investigated on my own mainly through the publications in Japanese. When I got older I had more chances to ask questions to Master Sugano and Asai. Yes, it was much easier to ask the questions in a non-training environment in a restaurant or a bar. I held my opinions and thoughts to the masters as I did not want to offend them or their organizations. I came out of the hiding only 3 years ago after the passing of both masters.
CW: I’m sure that many of us are very grateful that you have finally come out of hiding. You have also expressed concern with me previously that Karate “will end up in a museum some day”. Would you elaborate please and explain these concerns?
KY: Let’s look at the other martial arts that have become museum pieces. One is kyudo (Japanese archery). They judge the practitioner’s skill by their posture and the body movement only. It does not matter if their arows hit a target’s center or miss it by many meters. The original archery’s biggest purpose was, needless to say, to hit an opponent with an arrow. Now kyudo forgot the original (and true) purpose of shooting an arrow. Therefore, it cannot be classified as a budo (martial art) any longer. If an art loses the true purpose as a martial art then I consider it a museum piece. I definitely consider kendo and judo are definitely in that category. I am afraid jujitsu and iai-do are on the verge of joining the museum classification. Karate with the increase of sport karate is showing the same trend. Even if some of us would try to keep the martial art aspect of karate alive, we will no longer be the mainstream and our style of karate may be classified as a forgotten karate or a museum piece.
CW: I see what you mean. What are you personally trying to do to stop this from happening? Was this one of the main reasons why you wrote your recently released book, “Shotokan Myths”?
KY: You are correct. The main reason to publish my book was to expose and shed more light to the martial art aspect of Shotokan karate. The book was translated in German now and a company in Germany will publish it in the near future. I plan to have it translated in Spanish also. In addition, I plan to write more articles around the same theme and publish them in various magazines and publications. This interview is also contributing to my effort and I am thankful for the opportunity to express my thoughts and beliefs.
CW: You’re more than welcome.
KY: I also accept invitations from any organizations or styles for a seminar so that I can share the concepts and training style that are related to the martial art aspect of karate-do. I have been testing my training menu all around the world and hoping that the participants would find the unique value of Asai ryu karate. So far I feel I have been very successful and the feedback has been very positive.
CW: I’m very glad to hear that. Can you give us a couple of simple examples of some of the myths you expose?
KY: Here are a few: · Kata do not necessarily start and end with a blocking technique as it is commonly believed. · There was no ki-ai routine (at least audible ones) in any of the original Okinawan kata before 20th century · In the original kata you were not required to return to the exact spot where you start your kata · Many techniques in kata are named with blocking techniques such as shuto uke, uchi uke, age uke, etc but the true applications are “hidden” behind those names and they are most likely attacking techniques.
CW: Interesting! Who is this book primarily aimed at and how exactly do you think it will help them?
KY: This book is primarily aimed for the advanced (dan belts) students who have been practicing karate for at least several years. However, the information in it is useful for the intermediate as well as the instructors as the subjects are very general and well known among all the Shotokan dojo.
CW: Many styles have been spawned or influenced by Shotokan. Therefore, although your book is called “Shotokan Myths”, do you think that it is relevant to people of other styles as well?
KY: I used Shotokan in the title because that is the only style I am familiar with. But this does not mean the subjects I covered are limited to Shotokan. Many subjects such as ki-ai, coming back to the same spot in kata, etc are common subjects as they stem from the same karate history regardless of the styles. I am sure Shito ryu, Goju ryu and Wado ryu practitioners can relate to the topics and learn something from this book.
CW: How well is the book doing and what kind of feedback are you getting from your readers?
KY: I only have the record of how many books were sold during the first 3 or 4 months, but we sold at least 2-3 hundred copies so I am very happy for the very positive reception of the book at the initial stage. It has been only 6 to 7 months since the initial publication so I will know how more on how well it will do as more time goes on.
The feedback I have received so far has been very positive. They agreed with my opinions and showed appreciation to bring the subjects out in public. Many have said they wondered about those points but they did not bring them out in the open as they assumed those points are not to be discussed or what they heard was the fact and not to be challenged.
CW: I’m glad to hear that it’s doing well. It should really pick up when the German and Spanish translations are completed. Have any of your Japanese peers objected to you writing this book and revealing what they would not?
KY: I knew they would object and advise me not to do this so I did not contact any of the Japanese peers about this project. I am also hoping that they do not read the books in English so they will never find out.
CW: Well we in the West are very glad that you have. What do you think the average Karateka can do to keep his/her training relevant for today’s world and to stop Shotokan from ending up “in the museum some day?
KY: Karate has many venues such as self defense, sports, health, discipline, confidence building, etc. All purposes are fine and we must not judge one purpose is better or worse than the other ones. The tournament karate seems to be becoming the main stream and majority in many countries. I wish to see more practitioners for the martial art karate and balance the scale. I wish to see the preservation of the original karate techniques by more practitioners.
CW: Understood and I hope that through your book and interviews like this, you are able to persuade more Karateka to do so. What are your future plans? Will you be writing any more books? Will you be travelling and teaching very much?
KY: I have many ideas about the next book. The only problem I have is time or lack of it. I cannot promise how soon the next one will be out or on what subject but it will be out as soon as I complete the content.
As far as the seminars are concerned, I am booked solid this year and have received many invitations for the next year. If the readers are interested in my seminars, the details can be found on the website of WJKA (www.wjka.org). All my seminars are open course, so, everyone is welcome. It does not matter from which organizations and styles you are from (as long as you pay the fees).
CW: Shihan Yokota, on behalf of myself and my readers, I would like to thank you for a very interesting and informative interview. It’s been an honour.
As mentioned by Shihan Yokota, he is interested writing more books. As such he is very interested in receiving feedback to answers above and about his first book if you’ve read it. Please leave your comments below. In particular if you would like to know more about any of the subjects that Shihan has touched on, then please tell him.
I have to say that so far, I’m impressed with it. It has all the toughness and ruggedness of other traditional gi’s, but being made from soft brushed cotton, it is very comfortable. So even us big roughty toughty Karate types can enjoy a little softness in our training 🙂
Seriously though, it is comfortable. I don’t know if it due to hardness of the water in the area I live, but my other gi feels like cardboard when it is freshly washed. That stiffness soon comes out with ironing or a bit of sweat (I really should iron my gi more often – what can I say – I’m a single guy)!!
My new Karate Depot gi however did not have that cardboard feel when fresh from the wash, it was still comfortably soft and I did not have that “breaking in” feeling at the beginning of a session that I do with the other gi.
I find that with some gi’s, the trouser draw-string gets a little bit stiff and does not always slide very well when putting them on. This draw-string however is very easy to do up. It is however still very new, but I believe that it is partly to do with the soft cotton that it is made from.
The gi is still very big on me, I should have probably chosen the size down, but never mind. I’m hoping it will shrink in the wash. Anyway if you want to know what it actually looks like on, you see me wearing it in video in the video in this earlier posting.
The only very trivial down side I can see with this gi is that is that the post wash creases don’t drop out so well as they do with my other gi. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to get the iron out after all !
OK, this is mainly from a Karate perspective, but does also apply to some other styles too. If you’re not a Karateka but sometime compete with them, then it might help you to understand some of the mechanics of our techniques too.
The content in the video below is in fairness nothing new, it’s just honing a fine detail which may help some to understand the mechanics of a reverse punch (gyaka zuki) that little bit better.
For those who teach, it may just give another way for you to explain to your students the mechanics of the movement that you’ve been trying to get them to understand.
I talk a lot on this website about practicality and bunkai, but you still need to have good technique or the practicality and bunkai won’t work very well.
It might be immodest of me, but I consider one of my strengths to be an ability to break techniques down into fine detail and sometimes to re-frame details to help people to understand that little bit better. I might of course be deluding myself so I’ll let you be the best judge of that. If however you agree and find this video useful, then please pass this link on to you club mates and martial arts friends. I hope you enjoy it:
One of biggest assets in a real fight is to be able to move naturally. And there is no more natural bodily function then breathing.
Yet in Karate, I believe that one of the biggest problems over the years has been an over emphasis on the exhalation at the end of the technique. In fairness to other styles, I should point out that most of my experience is with Shotokan Karate so it may not apply to other styles quite so much. But if everybody is honest, I don’t think that Shotokan is completely alone with this fault.
An over-emphasis on exhalation at the end of a technique, especially if the exhilation continues after the technique is competeled will unnecessarily waste energy, create pauses between techniques (where your opponent could counter) and create stiffness and tension in the movements. Not only is this counter productive for self defence, but it not the healthiest way for the body to move either.
I would guess that a lot of this come about because many of Funakoshi’s early students where lost during the War. After the war, Funakoshi was quite old and not able to steer the teaching quite so much. Also Karate was dumbed down a lot for political and social reasons (see my 5 part video course for more info) so more emphasis was placed on the physical development.
Over the decades Shotokan Karate (and probably most other styles) has progressed and become much more fluid and relaxed (hence more effective). Some of the very senior Karate masters like Kanazawa, Kase and Abe have also studied Tai Chi (as does my Sensei) and have brought some of that knowledge back into their Karate. There are still many who do it the old way tense way, but it’s changing.
However, I think that for the majority, the details of breathing are seldom broken down in the way I’ve been taught. So I’ve put together a couple of videos to help anybody who is not quite sure of how it should be done.
Ironically, the way it performed in the more modern versions of Shotokan is quite similar to how it is done in the more modern versions of Tae Kwon Do where they use the sine-wave movement. Although Shotokan does not rise up and down like the sine-wave, both breath in during the first half of the step to get relaxation and fluidity and exhale in the second half of the technique. It is explained a bit more in the following video’s which I hope you enjoy.
First of all though, after my last post it was commented by some Tae Kwon Do guys that I had mainly described Tae Kwon Do from a sports perspective. I totally accept that comment. But I will repeat what I said in the last posting:-
“Tae Kwon Do has been through a number of incarnations starting with a form that was quite close to Karate, through to a much more Olympic sport oriented version. Therefore we have to accept that not all of my observations will apply to every Karate/Tae Kwon Do style. These observation are intended to be of a general nature”.
I think it is fair to say that those who practice applied practical Tae Kwon Do will generally learn two approaches. For competition, they will use a stance and techniques as broadly described in my earlier posting, yet for practical applications they use more traditional stances as used in the patterns (which after all contain the more “street-wise” self defense moves).
There is also another quite pronounced difference in approach in some (but not all) versions of Tae Kwon Do and that is the inclusion of a sine-wave movement. This where the practitioner will raise their centre of gravity up as they approach the half way mark of the technique (usually seen as a chambering position) then sink down as the technique is executed. When executed with a step, the practitioner will move up and down in a sine-wave motion. The theory behind this is that the on impact the striking surface (lets say the fist) will have both a forward vector (from the step) and and downward vector (from lowering the body) applied to it, thereby increasing its impact.
Karate and older versions of Tae Kwon Do will remain at the same height throughout the step. This removes the downward vector of dropping the body weight, but makes more use of compressing the supporting leg half way through which is then released like a spring to increase the drive forward. I would like to emphasise that I’m not saying either method is better than the other, just that they are different.
You can clearly see the difference in these two video clips.
The first is Ed Newcomer, 6th Dan Internation Tae Kwon Do Federation and the second is Kanazawa, 10th Dan Shotokan Karate.
Sometimes in the Tae Kwon Do (with sine-wave) version, there appears to be a little pause half way through, or the first part of the movement seems to be slow then accelerate during the second half of the movement. In contrast, Karate and older versions of Tae Kwon Do accelerate from the very beginning of the movement.
I am going to take a guess here and suggest that for those that practice the sine-wave version, that this is seen as a training method rather than a practical way to step. After all, how often do you need to take a full step like that when sparring/fighting (and if you did, you wouldn’t start slowly).
If I’m wrong, then I’m quite happy to be corrected, it is just a guess!
The older version of Tae Kwon Do which is still very widely practiced does actually look a bit more like Karate than it does Tae Kwon Do with sine-wave (just my opinion). You can see and example below with former World Patterns Champion, Ray Smeathers.
Another difference between the more modern version of Tae Kwon Do and Karate is that the Tae Kwon Do exponents usually make a “ch” sound as they exhale with each technique. You will notice that this is missing from the Kanazawa’s kata and Smeather’s pattern. I have seen/heard this so many times that I know it is intentionally put in, though I don’t really know why.
As exhaling on completion of technique is practiced in Karate, Kung Fu and older versions of Tae Kwon Do, without the “ch” sound, it is clearly not required make exhalation happen. Again I can only guess, but it seems to be a way to let the instructor know that the student is exhaling at the right places. Maybe it is felt that the “ch” sound makes the exhalation happen more quickly (again a guess . . . . I don’t know).
I would appreciate any Tae Kwon Do exponents who practice with the “ch” sound, to please leave a comment below to let us know the true purpose of it.
Again I emphasise that this posting (as with the last one) is simply to look at the differences between Karate and Tae Kwon Do so as to help practitioners gain a better understanding and hopefully a better appreciation of the other style. It is not intended to be a one-up-manship for either style.
It was commented last time that I was “brave” as comparisons between styles often end up as a big slagging match. I would love for people to comment and fill in any gaps that I’ve let out, but I will delete any derogatory comments about any style or organisation. Keep it friendly.