Karate For “Perfection Of Character”: Truth Or Just Part Of The “Marketing”? – A Historical Perspective

“The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants”.
Master Gichin Funakoshi.

Gichen Funakoshi

The above words by Master Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan/Shotokai have been widely quoted, but I wonder if that was what his teachers had in mind.  Gichin Funakoshi had a number of teachers, but the main ones were Yasutsune Itosu and Yasutsune Azato.  Both of these had (prior to teaching Funakoshi) been body guards to the King of Okinawa.  In this role, they could have been faced with superior numbers of armed men, whilst they themselves were actually unarmed due to Japanese law.

If you had to face a superior number of men, they had weapons whilst you did not; which do you think you would be most interested in:

  1. Victory or defeat?
  2. Perfection of character?

I don’t doubt that self development/perfection of character has always been part of the training, but I do doubt that it would have been the main focus when your very life could be on the line.  However, it helps to have a look at what was happening in Japanese society when Funakoshi went to Japan and what Funakoshi’s own goals would have been.

Funakoshi travelled to and demonstrated Karate in Tokyo, Japan in 1922.  At that time Japan was modernising very fast.  Japan had been almost completely isolationist under the Tokugawa Shogun until being forcibly opened up by the American fleet in 1853.  This humiliation led to the overthrow of the Shogun and the reinstatement of the Emperor in 1868 (Meiji Restoration).  From this point on, Japan under the Emperor eagerly and hungrily absorbed whatever it could from the West, not least of all in terms of weapon and armaments.

Having found that raw recruits with a few hours training could easily shoot and kill a charging Samurai with several decades of training, it is understandable that traditional martial arts were being seen as obsolete from the a real combat point of view.  The rival clans and warlords had lost their power which had shifted from clan Samurai to the new Japanese military forces answerable only to the Emperor and Japanese government.   Japan was moving ahead more and more as a single formidable unit and developing it Imperial ambitions overseas.

From August 1894 to April 1895 Japan had fought China for control of Korea and had won.

From February 1905 to Sept 1905, Japan fought Russia over Korea and Manchuria and again came of best.

Parallel to this, it is interesting to note that after the death of the King of Okinawa (exiled in Tokyo since the Emperor regained control of Japan), Yasutsune Itosu started to teach Karate publicly in Okinawan schools in 1905.  He was then 71 and this was the first time that he’d taught publicly.  By 1905 Okinawa had been much more integrated into being part of Japan rather than just an occupied territory.  An ambitious Japan had military conscription and it had been noted that youths with Karate training had better physiques and took to military training better than those without Karate training.

So what were Itosu’s motives behind this sudden change in policy and teaching this previously secret art to the public for the first time?  It is hypothesised by Bruce Clayton PhD in his brilliant book, Shotokan’s Secret, that the bodyguards would have had some kind of oath of secrecy to the King of Okinawa.  When the king died in exile, the oath was no longer binding so Itosu was free to teach publicly.

Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating on a makawawa

As Karate trained youths performed better when conscripted, arguably this sudden expansion of Karate training was to prepare young men for war.  This may sound horrifying to us today, but that was a different society with different values and unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor was an important social value.

So bearing in mind that traditional martial arts were seen as obsolete from a combat perspective, and that you don’t really want school children damaging themselves too much in a playground brawl, what do you suppose was the emphasis of the teaching?  Most likely the emphasis would have been to toughen up young men physically and mentally.  Not for self defence in the usual (Western) sense of the words, but so that they could be physically and mentally tough when fighting with bullets, bombs and bayonets.  Being mentally tougher to serve the Emperor without question (and without mercy to the enemy) would have been “perfection of character” under those societal conditions.

But before we condemn, the British Empire (and other colonial powers in their day) committed many atrocities to build their empires.  We also taught our you men at school similar “values” to protect “king and country”.  This was considered normal and patriotic at that time.

Later in 1922 when Funakoshi travelled to Tokyo, many Japanese martial arts had already transformed from their combat form (Jutsu) to self development form (Do).  Judo had been created from Ju Jutsu, Aikido had been created from Aiki Jutsu and so on.  Furthermore the Japanese tended to look down on the Okinawans who they saw as a bit primitive and backward, so for Funakoshi to gain acceptance of his Okinawan art, he had to go with the flow of Japanese martial arts and emphasis the “Do” as well.

Funakoshi’s main sponsor in Japan was Jigoro Kano, creator of Judo.  Kano also worked for the Ministry of Education and represented Japan as the first Asian member of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), so he was a very influential ally to have.  As Kano had changed his combat Ju Jutsu into a sport and a Do, Funakoshi would have been obliged to do similar things with Karate.

That said, I do believe that Funakoshi took the self development side very seriously and was very genuine in his beliefs.  Unlike his teachers, he had never been a bodyguard, facing superior numbers of armed men.  Furthermore, there are hardly any records of Funakoshi getting involved in any real fights.  This goes back to his early years too, when he would have likely learnt the combat emphasis of the art.  In later years in Japan, Funakoshi was challenged many times by Japanese Judo and Ju Jutsu exponents, keen to show that their art was superior to this strange new art from backward Okinawa being introduced by this diminutive Master.  But Funakoshi consistently refused all challenges as he believed that it would be dishonourable to himself and his art.  It is unlikely that Funakoshi declined out of fear.  Funakoshi’s master, Itosu, at the age of 75 had been challenged by a Judo expert who thought that Judo should be taught in Okinawan schools rather than Karate.  Having dispatched his opponent (who was about half his age) with just one punch, Itosu applied first aid and left.

Funakoshi would have probably been able to do the same and gain respect and credibility for the effectiveness of Karate at the same time.  It could have been a good way to speed up Japanese acceptance and gain more students, but Funakoshi was adamant that he would not lower himself.  So this (and many other stories) would indicate that Funakoshi was indeed a man of great integrity and honour.  He did not just say that Karate was about self development, he lived according to what he taught.

In his autobiography he recalls how just after the Second World War ended Japan was in chaos and people were starving.  On his way home, he was accosted a by a younger man who tried to rob him.  Funakoshi was in his senior years and very short.  As the young man swung at him, Funakoshi easily evaded, then grabbed and squeezed the other mans testicles.  Most of us would say fair enough the young man deserved it.  But as Funakoshi reflected he realised that the young man probably had a family to support and acted out of character in shear desperation.  He was overcome by a terrible feeling of guilt and shame that he would have caused this man excruciating agony when he was already in such desperate circumstances.  Not many of us would have been so generous to a man who had just tried to mug us.  Most of would have proudly recalled the story of how we gave some young thug what he deserved.  Funakoshi was truly a man of great character and honour, no doubt his Karate training had a great deal to do with this.

 

Kata Bunkai for Shorin Ryu Pinan Shodan (Heian Nidan)

This is something that has been discussed on my Facebook page before, but I wanted to go into more depth with it.  Most traditional martial arts have been dumbed down.  Karate applications (Kata bunkai) were dumbed down when the Okinawans decided to introduce it into their school system in the late nineteenth century.  This dumbed down version was taught to the Japanese and from there to the Koreans.

Kung Fu too has suffered.  The Chinese were at first very reluctant to teach martial arts to anybody who was not full blooded Chinese.  Later it was realised that it could be quite financially lucrative to do so!  However, in the main they still held back a lot from Westerners.  It is known that when the legendary Master Ip Man was teaching Wing Chun to Bruce Lee, he held back some of the more advanced secrets because Bruce Lee was not full blooded Chinese.  If Bruce Lee was not taught the full system, what makes any Westerners think that they have been?

So moving on to the point of this post, I want to look at the end sequence of Shorin Ryu’s Kata (form/pattern), Pinan Shodan, as evidence of how Kata has been changed by people who most likely did not understand the meaning of the moves.  In particular I draw your attention to the end sequence which finishes with a Downward Block (Gedan Baria) followed by an Upper Raising Block (Age Uke).

You will notice that the performer goes into a fairly a low stance for the Lower Block, but very deliberately rises up when he performs the Raising Block.  Now if he was in fact actually “blocking” a punch, then it would make sense to move his head away from the punch.

It makes no sense at all to “block” a punch by pushing it upwards, as you move your head upwards at the same time.  If you don’t completely clear the attacking punch, then you are moving your head right into the firing the line.  In fact you probably end up with your throat in the position where the original attacking punch was aimed, which is even more dangerous.

If this so called Rising “Block” was actually an upward strike using the forearm to smash up under the chin and into the neck (which many martial artists now accept it as being), then it makes much more sense for the whole body to rise up.  One of the principles of linear Karate (such as Shorin Ryu) is that the techniques are powered by the momentum of the body movement.  In this case, the body momentum is clearly moving upwards and would be a great way to power an upward strike.  If you look at the above video closely again, you’ll note that as the performer executes the Raising Block, he actually steps through in a relatively low stance and only rises up at the end of step as he actually executes the technique.

The other consideration (which has been discussed many times before in very many places) is why would a Kata finish with a “Block”?  It means that your attacker is still able to continue attacking you.  Viewing this technique as a “strike” makes more sense as you can incapacitate your attacker and the fight/assault is over.

Now fast forward Shorin Ryu as it develops into Shotokan Karate.  The Downward Block and Raising Block sequence are performed at the same level without the performer raising up as he performs the Rising Block.

So why did this change?

It changed because the Japanese did not know that this technique was actually supposed to be a “strike” and it is not in their culture to question the master.  If you view this technique as a “block”, then there is no advantage in rising up as you execute the technique (in fact it would be a distinct disadvantage as mentioned above).  So as with many other movements within Kata, there was a lot of standardisation.  The heights of the stances were standardised so that the stances all stayed the same height throughout.

Of course many styles have been derived from Shotokan, so this is very much the norm in the majority of the Karate world today.  This is why I always encourage martial artists of any style to look at their Kata/patterns/forms with a questioning mind.  Also, don’t get hooked into looking for why your style is superior to others; instead look at other styles (especially your styles predecessors) to find out what has been changed and why.

The Japanese changed a lot of the Okinawan Katas because they did not understand the true meanings.  The Koreans changed a lot of their patterns to make them “more Korean” (hide the Japanese influences).  I don’t know so much about history of Kung Fu forms, but I do know some associations that train a very large number of forms yet barely scratch the surface of the applications.

Always question and always think for yourself!

Traditional Shotokan Karate Association: Annual Residential Course 2012

Having recently attended the Traditional Shotokan Karate Association (TSKA) Residential Course (12th – 14th May), I thought I’d share my experiences with you.

Being my first time at the TSKA residential course, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect, though it was well recommended by my club-mates.  So I turned up with high expectations and I have to say that I was not in slightest bit disappointed.  The 3 main instructors for the course were Sensei Pete Manning 6th Dan, Sensei John Euden 5th Dan and my own instructor, Sensei Paul Mitchell 5th Dan.

Despite the 3 Sensei’s each having their own unique approach, each of them was very practical in their application to teach the art as an effective form of self defence rather than sport or just looking good.

Sensei Pete Manning began with basics, making it clear that not only are our basics the foundation on which all Karate is built, but that as Dan grades it is our responsibility (not only to ourselves, but to those we teach) to make sure that we keep our standards high and don’t get lazy.

As we had guests from other Shotokan Karate associations, Sensei Manning also made it clear that although some of the coming course content would be different from what some people had seen before, it was still within the Shotokan system.  He explained that although some people train to a very high technical ability, they sometimes limit themselves to the grading syllabus which is not always the most effective method for surviving a real life street self defence situation.

This came into play later in the course when Sensei Manning took us through Jitte kata and it’s bunkai.  The sequence of Age Uke’s (Rising Blocks) near the end of Jitte which are often explained simply as blocks to straight punches are clearly ineffective in that application.  Firstly, why would you block one opponent, then turn to block somebody else.  As Sensei Manning pointed out, what would the first opponent do after he’s been blocked then you turn your back on him to block somebody else.  Of course they’re going to continue their attack.

Secondly, he explained that if you think our basics blocks (Rising Block, Outside Block, Inside block, etc) are just blocks, then try using them in sparring!  Have one person attack with any basic techniques and the defender can only use full basic blocks (no parries or evasions).  The defender will simply not stand a chance.

Sensei Pete Manning demonstrates a hooking punch

Instead, the Age Uke sequence at the end of Jitte was practiced as circular punches and elbow strikes which we used against focused mitts.  Emphasis was also placed on using centrifugal force.  I reminded myself as we practiced that Karate is largely based on Kung Fu (especially White Crane) which primarily relies on centrifugal force, rather than the linear force that most Karateka have become so familiar with.  Despite the earlier emphasis on technical basics, with this exercise we were encouraged to use more natural stances, in particular the heal of the back foot could come off the floor rather the technical version of our basics where the heal stays down.

I reflected as we trained that although the methodology was a bit different between the technical basics and the applied version, they both had commonality.  The technical version teaches us to rotate the hips (thus the erect spinal column) very fast.  The applied version still used a rapid hip/spinal rotation, it just took it a bit further in more free flowing manner.  Although some Shotokan Karateka may not have experienced this methodology before, I thought of the famous Funakoshi quote, “Learn various stances as a beginner but then rely on a natural posture”.

We also covered some releases from grabs, as well as some slightly unconventional (but nonetheless effective) strikes and take-downs from the opening sequence of Jitte.

Sensei Paul Mitchell continued on a similar theme with a combination of 2 crosses, upper cut and a devastating swinging back-fist strike.  Again we used natural stances and centrifugal force.  Emphasis was placed on striking right through the target.  To do this we had to leave out the usual kime which Shotokan usually relies on.  Sensei Mitchell reminded us that Funakoshi said that if you study the past to begin to understand the present.  Whereas most Karateka think that looking back is to look at Okinawan Karate; Funakoshi (being Okinawan) would have looked back to Chinese martial arts on which the Okinawan Karate was largely based.  The combination Sensei Mitchell had us doing was from a Chinese martial art, Chen Tai Chi.  It nevertheless fitted in hand in glove with Shotokan, filling in some of the practicality gaps in Shotokan’s arsenal,when only trained on a technical level.

Sensei Paul Mitchell explains some finer points

In later sessions, Sensei Mitchell took us through more conventional Shotokan punches, focusing on Gyaka Zuki (Reverse Punch) and Kizami Zuki (Extended Punch) with Suri-Ashi (Sliding Step).  After solo practice to refresh the technique, we partnered up and used focus mitts to make sure that the techniques were delivering enough real power.

Sensei Paul Mitchell’s last session drew largely from his knowledge of Tai Chi and for those who hadn’t seen it before it was quite mind-blowing.  Ki (Chi in Chinese) is internal energy and would have been a very important concept for the Okinawans as their martial arts were largely based around it.  Many Westerners do not believe in Ki/Chi and that’s fine, but it may have have been how Funakoshi would have trained.

Several evasions and takedowns were practiced which relied on complete relaxation so that we could use ki energy.  Although as Karateka we think we know how to relax in our technique, this session took it to a whole new level.  This session was not really something that could be taken away and used in isolation as the concepts take years of practice, even for Karate Dan grades.  However, it did give the students a taste of the higher levels and concepts of martial art that is waiting for them should they choose to follow that path.  For anybody who would like to understand it a bit better, Sensei Mitchell is in the process of writing a book which will be worth looking out for once it is published.

Sensei John Euden was probably the most classical in his approach, but nevertheless just as practical in his application.  His first session started with the kata Senka.  This kata he explained was created by Master Asai, and although it is not taught in all Shotokan associations it is nevertheless a Shotokan kata.  He recommended that we take it away and practice it to help keep it alive.  For the uninitiated, Senka has a lot of spinning/circular movements, utilizing centrifugal force, so again fitted in with an overall theme.

Later we did some slightly unconventional combinations of basics which tested us mentally as well as physically.  I was glad to see that I was not the only one who struggled a bit with them.  We then partnered up and practiced various striking and blocking combinations which took even more concentration (especially if you didn’t want to get hit).  This was great training for reactions and building speed.

Sensei John Euden demonstrating an arm lock

Later we practiced sequences of blocks and strikes, leading into take-downs, wrist locks and arm locks.  Some of these locks were excruciatingly painful, which in some strange way did seem to delight Sensei Euden 🙂

During some of the sessions with other instructors, several times we heard yells of pain coming from the intermediate grades that Sensei Euden was demonstrating on as he taught them alongside us.

Sensei Pete Manning demonstrates on Sensei John Euden

Other highlights of the residential included the beach training and the party.  The beach training has become a tradition now.  The soft sand makes it ideal for practicing take downs and throws learnt in the other sessions without getting too many bruises, though the wrist locks still hurt just as much.  You may get the odd mouthful of sand, but it does teach you when to keep your mouth shut!

Then somebody came up with the bright idea of going into the sea and training.  OK, this was not a new idea and is also part of the tradition.  So we went in up to about our wastes and practiced some punches and blocks.  Some people, with encouragement from Sensei Mitchell, ducked themselves right under.  I will admit that I didn’t quite find that such a good idea, though several around me seemed to think that it was.   Oh well; maybe I’ll man up enough to do it next year!

The party on the Saturday night is another annual tradition.  There was a BBQ, buffet, quiz, live singing and of course a bar.  One of the highlights was a hilarious dance display provided by an alcoholically liberated individual, which really deserves to end up on Youtube.  Overall it was a very good party where it was great to meet and mix with Karateka from other clubs around the country.

It appears that hangovers at Sunday morning training is another tradition, but I’d better not say too much about that!

To conclude, all 3 of the Sensei’s taught in an open, friendly, approachable but very professional manner and with a good sense of humour.  The course was fun, informative and hard work.  It also had a good social side to it and it was a pleasure to mix with like minded Karateka from other clubs and even other associations.   I would not hesitate to recommend it to anybody and fully intend to go back again in the future.

Diaphragmatic Breathing In Martial Arts

Diaphragmatic breathing is used in many traditional martial arts, but I don’t think that all martial artists completely realise the full extent of how important this really is.  It actually helps us on a number of different levels.

But first though for anybody new to martial arts (or this concept) lets have a look at what diaphragmatic breathing actually is.  Most adults breathe into the top of their lungs and as they do so their shoulders and collar bones rise slightly.  But with diaphragmatic breathing, the diaphragm (which is a large internal muscle at the base of the lungs) is used.  This pulls down on the lower part of the lungs, opening up the whole of the lungs and thus pulling in more air (hence more Oxygen).  When breath is pulled in this way, the shoulders and collar bones do not rise.  However, as the diaphragm pulls down it displaces the lower torso organs and the stomach area in particular is pushed outwards.

Young children and animals naturally breathe this way.

Many people say that you “breathe into your stomach”.  This is of course not physically possible, but that is how it feels.  And sometimes looking for a feeling will help you to get the correct technique, even if it is not actually possible.

So lets look at some of the many ways in which diaphragmatic breathing helps us:

Technique

As above, when you pull the breath in with your diaphragm and it feels as if it is going down to your stomach (otherwise known as hara or dan tien).  This is where your centre of gravity is, so by having your focus on that part of your body, you can start to move more fluidly.  When you movement is generated by your centre of gravity the rest of your body follows naturally, whereas if you lead with shoulders or upper torso (which is common with beginners), you drag your centre of gravity which will slow you down and compromise fluidity.

When you inhale with your diaphragm it has a relaxing effect on the rest of the body.  Again this helps with the fluidity of movement as it helps to remove tensions from the rest of the body.

When you exhale rapidly from the  diaphragm, it allows you to generate rapid muscular movement to drive your strike/punch/kick into your opponent.  As the diaphragm is connected to the core muscles, it also assists with the over stability of your body and your ability to absorb any reaction force to the impact of your blow.

Masking Intent

In a conflict situation the last thing you want is for your opponent to know what you are planning to do and when you plan to move.  It is instinctive to inhale before launching an attack.  As mentioned above, most untrained people breath into the top of their lungs and their shoulders and collar bones rise up.  When you see this, you get a warning that you are about to be attacked.

Even if you did not know this fact and your conscious mind does not notice, your unconscious mind will notice and give you that intuitive feeling that something is coming, giving you that tiny fractional bit more time to prepare or react.

When you inhale with your diaphragm your shoulders and collar bones do not rise so you don’t give away this little warning signal, so your opponent has less chance to react or prepare for it.

Calming the mind

Much is written these days about the effects of adrenaline, especially by those who are into reality based martial arts, and that is a good thing.  One of the effects of adrenalin is that breathing becomes short and shallow.  Oxygen tends to be pumped into the limbs ready for fight or flight, but the brain receives less oxygen which blunts the ability to think a way out of the situation.  This can even lead to panic or freezing up.

Diaphragmatic breathing should be practiced during pressure training.  That way when you are in a real street conflict situation you are more likely to be able to maintain diaphragmatic breathing rather than resorting to the short shallow breathing.  This in turn allows you to draw in more oxygen which will allow you to function better both physically and mentally.  It will keep you calmer.

If can use this to keep your calm when you are facing a violent assault, you can also use it in other areas of your life (problems at work, exam nerves, relationship tensions, even just stressed when stuck in traffic).

intuition

This is tied in with the section on calmness above.  As mentioned earlier, the unconscious mind can pick up a lot of signals that the conscious mind misses.  This is when we have a feeling of intuition, when we just sense or feel something but don’t really know how or where this knowing comes from.

However, a mind that is in a state of panic will not access this intuition as well as a calm mind.  This is why you can sometimes fight/spar with a very experienced person and they just seem to read you like a book and know what your moves are almost before you do.  They respond with what seems almost supernatural reactions.  But what you notice from anybody with this ability is that they stay completely calm throughout, allowing themselves to access this intuition.

Health

Firstly, we need oxygen to live.  Oxygen has great healing properties and can even kill cancer cells.  Diaphragmatic breathing pulls more oxygen into the body then just breathing into the top of the lungs.

Also, toxins always gather in the body, including in the lungs.  Those who only breathe into the top of their lungs do not clear the toxins from the bottom of the lungs.  People who are used to diaphragmatic breathing will pull the breath right down to bottom of the lungs and clear these deep rooted toxins.

Do Our Training Methods Damage Our Bodies?

We so often hear that martial arts are good for our health and well-being, but is this always the truth?  I would say in the main . . . . yes.

However I do feel that there are exceptions.  All to often you hear of the more mature warriors amongst us having hip or knee operations.  Many (who are not professional teachers) have to give up training all together.  So if martial arts are a lifetime study (as is often said) how come the people who are left training over the age of 50 is such a small percentage.

Funakoshi, who introduced Karate from Okinawa to Japan, said in his latter years that the Karate being trained at that time in Japan was very different to the Karate of his youth.

The Karate that Funakoshi would have learnt in his youth in Okinawa would have had a very strong emphasis on combat effectiveness.  It also had a strong emphasis on health.  Many masters were originally introduced to Karate training in their childhood because they were sickly children and Karate was seen as one of the best ways to improve their health.

So what happened to Karate after Funakoshi introduced it to Japan in the 1920’s?

At that time, having relatively recently been forcibly dragged out of centuries of isolation, Japan was modernising very fast.  As such the Japanese saw the modern weapons imported from the West as the way to go and saw the old martial arts as obsolete except for physical and character development.  Furthermore, Japan’s militaristic character at that time, especially during the build up for the war, meant more emphasis on toughening up and strengthening up quickly, rather than looking to the longer term health.  Physically gruelling training was good for the spirit!

Emphasis on real combat was not really necessary in traditional martial arts as Japan was far more focused on how to use the newly found power of guns, warplanes and battleships.  The subtleties of Okinawan karate would be dumbed down to make it more acceptable to Japanese popular ideas of the time.  A more physical emphasis was required.  Dumbing down also made it easier to teach to large classes.

Funakoshi focused on teaching in Universities which meant introducing Karate to the higher strata of Japanese society (hence more respectability for Karate).  It also meant that as Karate was now being taught to relatively large numbers and as students left University and moved on, they did not form the deep relationship that the Funakoshi and his peers would have formed with their masters, so the transfer of knowledge would not have been quite so deep.

Unfortunately many of Funakoshi’s top students lost their lives during the war.  By the end of the war, Funakoshi was in his late 70’s and although still training himself, was getting a bit old for regular teaching, so to a certain extent the surviving students had to work it out for themselves.

Furthermore the occupying American’s banned martial arts training.  During the war, the Japanese had displayed a ferocious fighting spirit which for obvious reasons the Allies wanted to curb.  The Japanese had to make a case that Karate was not a real martial art, but more a way for self development.  As such, they got permission to train.  However, traditional weapons like the Bo, Tonfa, Sai etc were dropped from the syllabus as the Japanese realised that they would really be pushing their luck to ask permission to train weapons (of any kind) as well.  Karate was dumbed down even further.

With Funakoshi’s influence diminishing and most of his most knowledgeable students gone, Shotokan began to evolve (or devolve depending on how you look at it) into a forceful system with a heavy emphasis on the physical side.  This led in part to the stances becoming longer and deeper placing more stress on the lower body joints.  If you look at any photo’s of Funakoshi demonstrating technique, he is always in a fairly high stance.  Shotokan was mainly derived from Okinawan Shorin Ryu (created by Yasutsune Itosu).  If you go to Youtube and search for “Shorin Ryu kata”, you’ll see that most of their movements are done in a higher stance than modern Shotokan.

Just compare the Shorin Ryu and Shotokan versions of the same kata below:-

Shorin Ryu

Shotokan

A large group wanted to hold competitions which Funakoshi vehemently opposed.  However, after Funakoshi passed away in 1957, the movement to introduce competition went full throttle ahead and the first All Japan Championships were held that year.  Again the emphasis on being fit, strong and athletic grew with the short term goal of winning competitions rather than longer term goal of life long health.

Okinawan Karate was would have expected most fights to be at relatively close range (which is how most real fights are) so it would have geared its techniques that way.  But the new competition fighting where neither fighter was allowed to grab their opponent necessitated a longer range of fighting.  This in turn necessitated being able to take long steps, to cover relatively large distances.  This again creates more stress on our bodies and joints as we get older and was absent from the original Okinawan Karate.

High kicks (which had barely existed in Okinawan Karate) become much more common place, putting even more stresses on the body (especially hips and knees).  Again if you watch Shorin Ryu kata on Youtube, you’ll see less emphasis on kicks.  Furthermore, you won’t find Side Snap Kicks anywhere.  In Shotokan kata where we use a Side Snap Kick, Shorin Ryu uses a Front Kick).  Not only that, but the Shorin Ryu Front Kick is usually no more than groin height.

Side Snap Kick is one of the most difficult kicks of all for people who have hip and knee problems.  It is also not nearly as practical as a Front Kick in most real combat situations.  So why did Side Snap Kick replace the Front Kick in so many Shotokan katas and why did it end up usually being done at head height rather than groin height?

Well at that time, the Japanese had very little understanding of bunkai (fighting applications of the kata).  Not only that, most of them were not really interested either.  Kata competition was becoming very popular too and that was the driving force.  Kata had to look good.  The head height Side Snap Kick looked much better than the mid level Front Kick.  Many techniques performed in Neko Ashi Dachi (Cat Stance) in the Shorin Ryu kata were changed to a much longer deeper Kokutsu Dachi (Back Stance) in Shotokan kata.

Much of this has improved over the years and many branches of Shotokan has change quite radically even in the time that I’ve been training.  When I first started, we had to keep the back leg straight when performing any technique in Forward Stance.  This put pressure on the lower back and hips.  Now the back leg is slightly bent, relieving the pressure.  This and many other modifications have greatly improved the way that we train today.  In many ways many schools of Shotokan have become much “softer” in their training (and I softer as in how technique is performed, not as in “taking it easy”).  However, many still train the old way and many styles (Japanese & Korean) which are derived from Shotokan still bear some of those old hallmarks.

Training can be great for health, but if you are not careful, it can be damaging to your body, especially hips, knees and lower back.

What Are The Differences Between Kung Fu & Karate?

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.

Furious 5 from Kung Fu Panda

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.

Karate Kata Bunkai: Bassai Dai

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.

What’s The Difference Between Karate & Tae Kwon Do? (Part 2)

Well my last post on the differences between Karate and Tae Kwon Do certainly got a quite a lot of discussion going (especially on the Facebook page).  So I thought that I would look at the subject a bit further.

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.

The Martial Arts Paradox: By Russell Stutely

I received the following posting from Russell Stutely as I’m signed up to his newsletter.  I thought it made such a good point that I decided to share it with you.  It emphasises the point that I keep trying to make about learning your kata bunkai and understanding what the moves are really for.  I hope you enjoy it.

“The paradox of making the MA simple yet incorporating a lifetimes of study. How can it be achieved? Has it been done before? What will happen to our system?

Of course this has happened before. It has happened with every single MA out there. Every single one has been simplified from where it was, made easier than it once was.

The knowledge of the art has become much more superficial. Lifetimes study to truly understand Kata has lost its real meaning. It does not mean, keep training till you can perform the Kata correctly all the way through and score 10 out of 10 from every judge. It means it takes a lifetimes study to truly understand why every move is made and what it is really for.

Now, maybe in the old days with slow communications it took a lifetime, but not now. We can be anywhere in the World in a day, back then it took a day to travel 30 miles.

This simplification that has happened in for example Shotokan, has resulted in a system with 3 or 4 punches, 7 or 8 kicks, a few  blocks, a few stances and a load of Kata.

Which, for the majority, is just some combinations of the above in a set order. Is that really a lifetimes study? To put this into perspective, about 15 years ago I was watching a tape with all 26 Shotokan Kata on.

My sister, a Dance Teacher, saw it and said that it looked real easy to learn. I told her she knew nothing about the MA and not to be so silly, as these Kata are known by only the very top people who have taken years to learn them.

She replied, with “I could learn them in a week”. The bet was on. I lost, convincingly.

She performed them superbly well. No in depth knowledge, but the performance of the moves was beyond reproach!

Does this sound like a watering down to you? The performance of the moves is there, but with no depth of knowledge.

A perfect singer, who is singing in a foreign language. Hitting all the right notes, but not understanding a word!

More later

Kind Regards

Russell

www.RussellStutely.com

Shihan Kousaku Yokota’s New Book – “Shotokan Myths” (More Than Just Shotokan)

Shihan Kousaku Yokota, 8thDan Shotokan Karate is releasing a new book, Shotokan Myths, which should be available from mid December.

Firstly, I would like to say that so many other styles have spawned from Shotokan, that this book should be valuable to a far wider audience than just Shotokan Karateka.

So who is Shihan Kousaku Yokota?

Yokota is an 8th Dan with 46 years of Shotokan Karate experience. He specializes in Asai ryu karate which is based on JKA style Shotokan with some White Crane Kung Fu blended in.  He also practiced Okinawa kobudo (nunchaku, sai, tonfa, 3 sectional staff and 7 chain whip).

I have read some of Yokota’s articles in Shotokan Karate Magazine where he wrote about how a number of myths have developed over the years and become ingrained into Shotokan folk lore (and from there into numerous other styles of Karate and TaeKwonDo).  He exposes many of these myths in an intelligent and well informed manner, explaining historical, social and practical reasons why certain practices have been introduced and how they have come to be accepted as “traditional” Karate practices, when in fact many of them are relatively new to the Karate world.

So on a blog that focuses largely on practical applications (bunkai) to traditional martial arts, why would we be interested in myths and the historical/social reason surrounded their coming into being?

Well simply put, if we know what is “real” from what is not, then we can make more informed decisions.  We tend to look how to apply our katas/patterns/forms, but knowing the influences that effected them can change the application.  For example, in one article in SKM, Yokota examined the myth that all kata’s should start and finish in the same place.  This was never a requirement for the Okinawan masters.  However, when Funikoshi took it to Japan, Karate started being taught to much larger numbers of people.  There was not the same small close group of master and only a few special students.  Therefore the students had to be given a way to measure their own performance.  Having katas finish on the same point that they started gave a form of measure (for example, consistent stances length in both direction).  To achieve this, some of the katas had to be adapted.  Most Heian/Pinan kata’s today follow a capital “I” shape.  However, originally the shape of the kata was more like a double headed arrow.  For example, in Kihon kata (or Heian Shodan/Pinan Nidan/Dan Gun), after doing the 3 stepping punches, instead of performing a 3/4 turn (270 degrees) it would have been a 5/8 turn (225 degrees).   This made it difficult to return to original starting position, hence changing it to the “I” shape that is so familiar today.  Many people interpret this movement as a throw.  But knowing why the change came about, gives us the clue that we do not have to spin round quite so far to execute that same throw, actually making it a bit easier to apply!

Other changes have been made to standardize katas to make them easier to judge in competition.  Knowing these things may alter how you perceive the application that put to this movement next time you examine your kata.  This is why knowing fact from myth is important to being able to practically apply your katas.  It is not just an academic exercise in learning history (though this can be very interesting in its own right).

Yokota is thorough in his research and explanation.  I therefore commend Shotokan Myths not only to Shotokan Karateka, but to all styles that have Shotokan in their lineage.
You can now get this book from Amazon