Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Enter Form, Exit Form

There is a saying in Japanese martial arts that translates as “Enter form, exit form”.  When you first see these words they don’t really make much sense as there is no context in which to place them.  However the meaning should become clear during this short article.
The phrase refers to the process of learning that we go through during our journey along the path of martial arts.
First of all we walk into the dojo on the first day armed with a sense of excitement at trying something new as well as a little bit of caution because we don’t know what to expect.  At this initial stage of our training most of us know very little about fighting but despite this lack of refined fighting skill, we possess something very useful.  We possess natural reactions because of our survival instinct as humans, we have the element of surprise because the people in the dojo have never seen us before and therefore know nothing about our ability, and we are also unpredictable for the same reason.
So we come to the Karate dojo possessing “no form” and then we are put into a rigorous program of teaching us technique after technique, form after form and sparring drill after sparring drill.  At this point we are “entering form”.  After a couple of years of this training we no longer look like, react like or move like the person who entered that very same dojo two years earlier.  In fact we have become quite proficient at executing all of the different techniques, we know several different “forms” and our sparring skills seem to have improved dramatically.  What’s more, that white belt we were given to wear has now changed color to purple or maybe even brown.  By anybody’s standards we’ve come a long way.
The problem at this stage of our training is that we are so immersed in “form” that when faced with a spontaneous attack that isn’t pre-arranged (like the sparring drills we practice) oftentimes our mind is so confused by choice as to which technique to use against the attack that our defense actually is ineffective despite our good technique.  This is a common occurrence at this level of training because of the vast amount of new material that our minds have had to take in over the past two years and unfortunately for us this process will probably continue for several more years as we continue to accumulate knowledge about the martial art and try to integrate it and assimilate it into something meaningful and natural.  This requires many hours of practice.
Finally we accomplish a higher degree of understanding and we now start to break away from “form” and we begin to slowly “exit form”.  This process of “exiting form” also lasts for quite some time and is full of inspirational moments when we gradually start seeing things on a deeper level and from a different perspective.  Simple things that we thought we already understood suddenly open up and show us something we had never thought about before, thereby giving us additional skill and knowledge.
Finally we fully “exit form” and essentially return to the beginning, to that same person who walked into the dojo on the first day possessing natural reactions and the elements of surprise and unpredictability.  The only difference being (and a big difference it is) is that we now have a very refined skill base and an extremely deep level of understanding that just reacts to whatever situation it is faced with in an appropriate manner without thinking.  Essentially all of the skills that have been practiced for years and years have now become second nature and we have finally reached the highest levels of the martial arts.  This is what I believe is meant by the phrase “Enter form, exit form.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

Truth or Belief?

I started karate at the age of eight on an extremely cold dojo floor in the North-east of England on a January evening in 1982.
My truth that night was that my feet were freezing cold like blocks of ice; my belief was that karate was extremely hard and unforgiving.  I cried after the class and wanted to quit before the next lesson.  Despite my initial experience, I stuck with karate.
At the age of 10, I passed my brown belt after failing two previous gradings.  My truth that night was that I was a tough young boy; my belief was that I was actually good at karate.  I answered my parents doubts that night and was brimming with confidence.  Thanks to my newfound confidence, I stuck with karate.
At the age of 14, I passed my first degree black belt after spending four long years as a brown belt, after failing two more gradings, after trying to convince my parents that their money was well spent on my karate training, and after almost giving up on karate altogether.  My truth that day was that I was a very stubborn individual who had reached a goal; my belief that day was that karate was in actual fact very difficult and that maybe I should quit now while I was ahead.  Instead of quitting, I stuck with karate.
At the age of 22, I graduated from university, left England and went to Japan and enrolled in Master Kanazawa’s Headquarters Dojo in Tokyo.  At the time, I was a third degree black belt in my previous style, well-versed in my new style of Shotokan and had experience in Ju-jitsu and Aikido.  My truth that month was that I finally had some bona-fide experience on which to build.  My belief was that I could actually be successful in karate.  Thanks to my fearless decision to move to Japan, I stuck with karate.
At the age of 26, I left Japan as a third-degree black belt in Shotokan, awarded directly by Master Kanazawa.  I had spent three hard years in Japan learning the art of karate and experiencing the melting pot of culture shock, intense training sessions, and strange yet rewarding experiences that I will never forget.  My truth in that moment was that I didn’t really know who I was, or what I wanted in life; my belief was that it didn’t matter because I could do anything that I put my mind to!  Thanks to the inspiration of Master Kanazawa, I stuck with karate.
Over ten years later and many many hours of hard work and a lot of help from family and friends, I am responsible for teaching well over 100 people this art of karate on a weekly basis.  As a fifth degree black belt I represent Master Kanazawa’s worldwide organization and do my best to promote his message of harmony and strong spirit through my teaching.
In some people’s eyes I have made it as an instructor.  The truth of the matter is that I have a very long way to go before I can even begin to claim some measure of success.  My own personal truth at this stage of my karate journey is that I have come a very long way since first stepping out on that freezing cold floor in England, and that my study of karate has revealed many personal weaknesses that I have had to face along the way.  The process of trying to correct these weaknesses, both physical and emotional, is never easy but it is necessary if we are to continue growing as a person.  My belief at this point in time is that I truly can achieve anything I set my mind to, regardless of how difficult it may seem at first.  Thanks to all of my experiences, I still do karate!
My instructor, Master Kanazawa, once said that one of the reasons to practice karate is to learn how to “make the impossible possible”.  This simple phrase sums up the difference between truth and belief very well.  The truth of our current situation or of a goal that we want to achieve may very well seem impossible, but our belief that we will ultimately be successful is what propels us forward and drives us through the invisible barrier in front of us.
Time and time again in my own life I have come up against very difficult challenges that seemed insurmountable at first.  Yet with determination, perseverance and self-belief, the challenge gradually changed from being impossible to being very difficult to finally becoming imminently achievable.  I suspect that all of you reading this have had similar experiences throughout your own lives.
So what have all of these different experiences and my karate training taught me.  Well, I think that after searching for truth in everything I do, I have finally come to the conclusion that it is not the so-called truth of our situation or challenge that really matters; all that actually matters is our belief and how we handle it!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Benefits of Failure

To use the words “benefit” and “failure” in the same sentence probably qualifies as an oxymoron.  Like any good lesson in life, however, the things that we are afraid of the most often give us the best insights.
I have come to realize that we all avoid failure as much as possible.  It’s almost a kind of taboo subject that gets swept under the carpet.  In our culture nobody wants to admit that they made a mistake or that they were wrong.  Why is this?  Is failure really that bad?
It seems like it is bad.  After all, who can deny the feelings of disappointment and disillusion when something doesn’t go our way, or even the harsh feeling of despair and regret when we really crash and burn.  Why does life treat us so badly?  Don’t we deserve better?
No we don’t!  We deserve absolute honesty in everything we do.  If that means failure instead of false praise, then so be it.  If that means that we have to admit that we lost, or that we were sub-standard, then so be it.  If that means that on that day we just missed out, then so be it.  Don’t gripe, don’t moan, don’t throw a fit!  Be happy that you have just received a lesson that you need to learn!!
I received this lesson for the first time when I was 9 years old.  I had been very successful at school, passing every test, getting top grades, being on the sports teams, getting praise from the teachers…
I thought karate was going to be the same...until I took my green belt test.  I stepped forwards when my sensei called my name, expecting to receive my belt.  Instead, I was shut down and demoralized with that one word, “FAIL!”
Absolute shock!  I was still an orange belt, I had to wait three more months to test again, I was not good enough!
This was the first time that I had failed at anything, and as it turned out I failed in karate three more times on my way to the black belt, before I finally made it on December 5th, 1987 (a day I will never forget based on the hardship that led up to that occasion.)
How could I fail? I thought I was better than that.  Well, as it has turned out, karate has shown me over the years that I’m not really that good at anything.  I just get ahead of myself at times and think that I know something, which basically means that I am a little stubborn, and that on occasion I can be a little too self-confident.
I needed to learn humility!  Karate continues to teach me this quality.  My failures along my karate journey were exactly what I needed, and they have definitely taught me some very valuable life lessons!  Thanks to these hard lessons, I have come to realize that failure can actually be a good thing, despite the fact that it doesn't feel very good at the time.  As long as you learn the lesson that failure brings, the experience is valuable, but if you stubbornly refuse to face up to yourself, then the lesson will have to be repeated again and again until you notice.
When I first met my most influential sensei, Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, he wrote a piece of calligraphy for me that has inspired me in my life on so many occasions I have lost count.  What he wrote in Japanese translates as,
"Never be afraid of failure, if you try your best."
I am very thankful for my sensei's wisdom and I hope that his words will inspire you too.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What's the Difference between a Martial Art and a Sport?

This article focuses on an issue that is often written about in martial arts circles and will no doubt continue to be debated for years to come.  It is the basic question about whether karate is a martial art or a sport and, if you can definitively categorize it as one or the other, then what in fact is the difference between a martial art and a sport?
The article is going to start by defining what a martial art and a sport actually is and then it will discuss the difference between the two.
So first of all, what is a martial art?  A martial art in the original sense of the words is an art that involves military strategy, sometimes weaponry and the idea of some kind of life-or-death situation that must be faced either on a battlefield, in warfare or in a personal dangerous encounter.
The ultimate risk in a traditional martial art is the loss of one’s life at the hands of your opponent and therefore much emphasis is placed on spiritual growth, strength of character and moral fortitude during the course of one’s training.  Training in a martial art is often very rigorous and demanding and is certainly not for the weak of heart.  The structure of the training is often very regimented and repetitive and requires a high degree of self-discipline and effort.
Consequently the goal of a traditional martial arts practitioner is not necessarily to win each battle but rather to not lose any battle.  Although ‘to win’ and ‘to not lose’ are essentially the same thing, the focus is different.
Moving on to the question of “what is a sport?”  A sport is an activity usually involving two or more individuals, sides, or teams, each one trying to win a game or competition as quickly and by as greater margin as possible.  Despite the strong element of competition and the emphasis on winning we should include the concept of fun as being a central factor in the overall goal of sport.  We often see high levels of intensity and passion displayed by the players, especially at the top levels of competition, but usually everybody goes home at the end of the day friends and with a feeling of refreshment looking forward to next week’s game against a different team.
These are basic definitions of a martial art and a sport and it used to be fairly easy to separate the two but over the years of development of both kinds of disciplines the differences are not so great and there is a lot of overlap between the two.  So let’s now try to address some of the differences.
First of all a sport in general is fun with a serious side to it called competition.  The competition aspect is usually hotly contested by both sides with one of the sides coming out a winner and receiving some kind of prize.  There is often a little over-exuberance, sometimes injuries, but most of the time the game or match is an enjoyable spectacle with, as stated before, everybody going home friends at the end of the day.
A martial art on the other hand is very different to this.  Although there is now the competition aspect of martial arts, this of course also includes team events, a martial art is predominantly an individual pursuit.  The goal of the practitioner is to hone one's skills by constant never-ending practice, week-in week-out, through a very regimented schedule and a very structured syllabus.  The martial artist follows a path of growth, which begins the first moment he or she steps into the dojo, and in many cases continues for the rest of that person’s life, or certainly way beyond the competitive career of most sportsmen and women.
Along this journey of self-discovery and growth the martial artist not only tries to improve his or her technical ability and prowess, but also focuses on becoming a better person in every other aspect of his or her life.  By a better person, it is meant that the path of a martial artist is one of constant polishing and refining of one’s technique, which through repeated practice develops the good habits needed to improve one’s abilities in coping with everyday life’s challenges and tasks.
The ultimate goal of the martial artist is to have mind and body unify as one, and then function harmoniously with the outside environment and surroundings, always trying to create positive values for others through leading by example and utilizing the principles of respect, hard work and effort, self-control and self-discipline.
Although a sport has many of these benefits and qualities, I think a sport is by nature too specific and focused on one dimension to adequately provide the rounded, balanced dimensions that a martial art offers.
I believe a martial art is intrinsically more rewarding than a sport and ultimately becomes a way of life for those who practice its teachings seriously.
In closing I think that nowadays karate is both a martial art and a sport but the sport aspect is just a small part of the overall martial art rather than the martial art being a small part of the sport.  For both to coexist effectively we need to recognize the importance of each with respect to the other.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How to Motivate Your Students in Three Easy Steps

If you’ve been a karate instructor for any length of time you will no doubt know that your success in retaining your students comes down to one key factor – keeping your students highly motivated to continue training.  How do you do this while still maintaining your focus on delivering a high quality program?
The majority of karate clubs have a wide range of students usually starting at around age 4 and going all the way up to 74 or older in some cases.  Often within this student base there are the highly-motivated and gung-ho hardcore students who would practice running up a wall backwards if you told them it would help give them the edge over their fellow club members.  Then there are hobbyists who approach their training from a slightly more balanced perspective.  Generally this group of students practice pretty hard and come to class regularly but karate is not the number one item on their daily to-do list.  The final group of students is made up of those who say they want to get their black belt but are strangers to the concept of blood, sweat and tears.
So how do you motivate this diverse set of individuals?  Here are three simple tips to get you started:
1.       Set your students up for success
As human beings we all need to feel like we are being successful.  We like our efforts to be recognized and we seek approval from those who we respect.  Your karate students are no different.  Positive praise produces positive progress.  There is nothing more powerful than a genuine comment from you that praises something about your student’s effort in class or your student’s recent improvement.  We’ve all heard the phrase “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Show your students that you genuinely care about them and that you truly want the best for them in their training.
2.       Disguise repetition
Repetition is the mother of skill but at the same time one definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again with the expectation of different results.  As a karate instructor your job is to make sure that your students’ skill level is constantly improving through repetition while making it seem to them as if they are constantly learning something new each lesson.  This is achieved by developing multiple drills and teaching techniques that focus on the same core competencies that are needed to grow as a martial artist.  By doing this your students will always look forward to coming to class because they will be excited to see what they will be studying today.  Doing the same lesson in the same way over and over is a sure recipe for low student retention.
3.       Implement an effective ranking system
The path to black belt is a long and arduous journey and a large majority of students won’t make it.  Therefore it is necessary to recognize the importance of an effective ranking system so that your students have regular “success stepping stones”.  These “success stepping stones” are your different colored belts.  Make sure that you have a clear belt system that students can strive for with regular testing - usually every three months.  However be careful not to overwhelm your students with multiple stripes and sub-ranks that only serve to confuse them even more.  Keep it simple and clear so that students know exactly what is expected of them.
With these three simple tips you can go a long way to effectively motivate your students.  There are obviously many ways to motivate students, so why not let me know some of the effective methods that you are using with your own students.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Some Common Karate Terminology

I remember back to my very first karate lesson back in January 1982 in Darlington, England.  I had such a hard time following the different movements.  The idea that I had to remember the names of the techniques in a foreign language too was almost too much to bear.
I often get questions on this “mysterious terminology”.  What does “oss” mean?  What is “seiza”?  Did I just do an “oizuki” or was it a “maegeri”?  What language is this?
Let me try to put you at ease a little with this “crash course” in karate terminology.

Common Terms
Karate—empty hand (literal meaning)
Seiza—traditional kneeling position
Kiritsu—stand up
Mokuso—meditation and breathing
Dojo—training hall
“Oss” or “osu” - formal greeting used to convey the meanings of hello, thank you, and, I understand (quick tip—when in doubt just say “oss”.  It’s a catch-all word.)
Basic Punches
Oizuki– front punch
Gyakuzuki—reverse punch
Kizami-zuki—front snap punch
Basic Blocks
Age-uke—rising block
Soto-uke—outer block
Uchi-uke—inner block
Gedan-barai—downward block
Shuto-uke—knife hand block
Basic Kicks
Maegeri—front kick
Mawashigeri—roundhouse kick
Yokogeri-keage—side snap kick
Yokogeri-kekomi—side thrust kick
Basic Stances
Shizentai—natural stance
Musubi-dachi—stance for bowing (heels together, toes apart)
Zenkutsu-dachi—front stance
Kokutsu-dachi—back stance
Kiba-dachi—horse-riding stance
Kata Names
Heian Shodan—White belt kata
Heian Nidan—Yellow belt kata
Heian Sandan—Orange belt kata
Heian Yondan—Green belt kata
Heian Godan—Blue belt kata
Tekki Shodan—Purple belt kata
Kumite Terms
Gohon kumite—five-step sparring
Sanbon kumite—three-step sparring
Kihon ippon-kumite—basic one-step sparring
Jiyu ippon-kumite—free one-step sparring
Jiyu kumite—free sparring
Etiquette (said at the beginning and end of each class)
Shomen ni rei—bow to the place of honor (to the front wall representing the past masters of karate and the style that we practice)
Sensei ni rei—bow to the instructor (to whoever is teaching that day)
Otagai ni rei—bow to each other (to all students who are present for the class that day)

Here is a free bonus link to a more detailed terminology list on the upcoming Shotokan Sensei member website where you will be able to view full technique lists, kata and kumite terminology, directions, body parts, etc.

Karate Terminology

Please don’t let the terminology of karate stress you out, it is just part of the overall experience of learning something new.  In the early stages of your training you are not expected to remember it or learn it.  As you progress through the ranks, the Japanese terms will probably become something that you want to learn as part of your training.
Good luck with your study of the art of Karate-do.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Seishin Shotokan Karate - 10th Anniversary

This month, my karate club celebrates 10 years in existence!  The past ten years have been absolutely great and I look forward to many more good years to come.  Thank you to all of you who have made the past ten years possible - my family, my instructors, and of course my members.  Life has been better because of all of you.
Here is a link to a slideshow that celebrates our karate club.  Enjoy!

Monday, November 1, 2010

5 Common Mistakes That New Karate Instructors Make

Becoming an instructor in a martial arts school is often a really exciting time because in many ways you feel like you have made it.  In order to teach others you must have already mastered the basic content and now is your chance to “give back” your knowledge and continue the progression of your style.  This is a great honor but it is not without its pitfalls.  As any experienced instructor knows, teaching martial arts and practicing martial arts are in many ways two completely different things.
So if you’re a new instructor listen up and pay attention because, although you are probably a competent black belt student, you are a beginner in terms of teaching.  Here are some of the most common mistakes that new instructors make.  And by the way, if you are an experienced instructor reading this please don’t forget to tell some of your own horror stories to your assistant instructors so that they can learn from your mistakes too.
Mistake #1: Showing up to class without a lesson plan and “winging it”.  This is a BAD idea for any new instructor.  Planning is critical in all aspects of life and in any job.  Being a martial arts instructor is no different.  Just because you are good at your chosen art doesn’t mean that you can instantly snap all of the puzzle pieces together and teach an awesome class without a lesson plan from day 1.  Even many experienced instructors refer to some type of lesson plan or overall structure before teaching each class.  A lesson plan will guarantee that you are organized, that you don’t “freeze” on the spot, and that you aren’t constantly thinking “OK, what shall I do next?”  If you’re thinking this, it means that you’re not focusing on your students!
Mistake #2: Trying to teach everything you know in one class.  It is very tempting as a new instructor to feel the need to stamp your authority on a class and to prove yourself to your group as being very knowledgeable.  Consequently in your first class you drill your students in every possible basic technique, all of the different forms whether they know them or not, and numerous partner work drills to the point of overload.  This causes major stress to your students as they feel completely overwhelmed and, not only that, when you go to teach your next class you won’t have anything left to give them that’s new.  There are very good reasons for a structured curriculum and a solid lesson plan.
Mistake #3: Teaching class so that you get a good workout.  There is a difference between leading by example and training with your peers.  In every class that you teach your primary focus should be on the needs of your students and not on your own personal needs.  It will be inevitable that you will get a pretty good workout just by demonstrating the different techniques, forms and partner work drills to your students and it is also important to model these things well, but you must also allow yourself to watch your students so that you know which students need help.  In this way you position yourself to give valuable feedback rather than just working up a good sweat.
Mistake #4: Being too hard or too easy.  There are very often two types of new instructors.  Type 1 is the drill instructor who wants to put the students through hell so they know who is boss, and type 2 is the friend who wants everyone to like him and is overly nervous about how well he taught each class.  Try to find some middle ground here and work your students hard by holding them to high standards but also develop strong and respectful relationships with them and show them that you care.
Mistake #5: Allowing your students to decide on the content for the class.  This is a BIG mistake because so many things can go wrong.  First of all you can’t please everybody and by asking what your students want to study you will get requests for everything possible within any group – forms training, sparring, pad work and target training, and self-defense.  You can’t possibly fit everything into one class and nor should you (see mistake #2).  Also you are setting yourself up for failure.  What would you do if they asked you to teach something you don’t know very well yet, like an advanced form or some knife defense that you may not have studied yet?  You are the leader of the class and your students expect you to know what they need to study.  Don’t abdicate your responsibility to your students and allow them to dictate the class.
These are some of the most common mistakes that new instructors make and there are of course many more.  Keep reading my blog for future articles on teaching and how to become a better instructor, coming soon!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Review: Karate - The Complete Kata by Hirokazu Kanazawa

If you only ever buy one book on the technical aspect of Shotokan karate then this book must be it!
Karate: The Complete Kata is written by one of the world’s leading karate masters, and arguably the most famous Shotokan master still alive today—Hirokazu Kanazawa, 10th degree black belt.
Back in the early 1980s, Master Kanazawa released a two-volume book set covering the 26 standard Shotokan kata.  Now in January 2010, Master Kanazawa has released a brand new version of the original two-volume book set that covers all of the 26 standard Shotokan kata plus an additional kata called Gankaku-sho aimed at more advanced practitioners who want to further their study.
Each kata has a whole new set of original photos that cover each move of every kata in the same fine detail that we have come to expect from everything that Master Kanazawa does.  In the book he is assisted by his three sons and other high-ranking instructors from his Headquarter’s Dojo in Tokyo.
The big difference between this book and the original set is that each move of every kata is also accompanied by a written explanation on how to perform the move, rather than just the name of the technique.  This is a huge benefit to anybody who is trying to polish the details of the kata and the transitions between moves from this book.
The translator, Richard Berger, has truly done an excellent job in bringing these finer points of each kata to print for the first time according to Master Kanazawa’s exemplary technique and deep understanding of the art of Shotokan karate.
In summary, Karate: The Complete Kata is already destined to become the definitive work on Shotokan kata and should not disappoint the reader in any way.  It has over 3000 high quality photos that accompany detailed step-by-step explanations to the individual moves as well as an introduction to each kata that touches on some of the historical context of the kata.  There are also several suggested applications to some of the more important moves and sequences found within the different kata.  Additional diagrams are used to explain the appropriate head movement, stepping movement and breathing for the kata.
All in all, this book will serve all practitioners of Shotokan very well for the whole of their Shotokan karate study.  It is quite simply an essential book!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Number One Reason You Should Stick WithYour Karate Training

There are many reasons that people first get started in the martial arts.  Usually the reasons are for self-defense, health and fitness, discipline, confidence, self-control and spiritual growth among others.  Most of us have heard about these benefits of the martial arts, yet despite knowing the potential rewards of karate, it is not always clear why we should stay on the path for the long term.
I would like to let you know what I believe the number one reason is for you to continue with your karate practice.  Before I do that let me give you a very quick rundown of my own personal karate experience.  I have been practicing karate for more than 25 years.  Initially my reason for enrolling in my first karate class was to learn self-defense.  After about 6 or 7 years of training my reason for practicing karate was physical strength and fitness.  Then after about 10 years of training (around the time that I was entering the adult world) I began to appreciate the more philosophical and deeper insights of the martial arts.  Later on in my training during my three years in Japan, karate was about perfecting my technique and improving my overall knowledge, and now as an instructor karate is about giving the gift of what I have learned to others.
As you can see my primary reasons for studying karate have changed with time and with my own personal development as a martial artist.  However if I were to condense all of my knowledge into one key point or reason for training then it would be this:
The number one reason you should stick with your karate training is “Self Discovery”.
Everything that I have learned about punching, kicking and blocking, everything I have learned about kata or kumite, pale in comparison to what I have learned about myself in the past 25 years plus of karate training.  During my training I have experienced the full emotional roller coaster of passed and failed gradings, successful and unsuccessful tournaments, great health and fitness as well as some cuts, bruises, pulled muscles, the odd broken bone and several doses of hurt pride.  I’ve come to realize that just because I know the moves to a kata that I don’t necessarily know the kata.  The movements are just the tip of the iceberg, there is so much more to be discovered beneath the surface.  Just because I can throw out my hand in front of me doesn’t mean I have a good punch and just because I have a black belt around my waist doesn’t make me a better person than anybody else.  Karate constantly teaches me humility and constantly challenges me to be better.  Karate teaches me self discovery.  It helps me to learn about who I am, how I react under pressure and what it is that gets my fire burning.
Over 2000 years ago a Chinese General called Sun Tzu compiled a military strategy that is still read and studied to this day.  His strategy is called The Art of War, and in it he writes:
So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and you lose one; if you do not know others and you do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
-          Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Translated by Thomas Cleary, p.82
It would seem that the importance of self discovery is timeless and the martial arts are one such path for discovering your own strengths and weaknesses on your journey to self improvement.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Blocking Myth

I have always been fascinated by languages, so much so that I majored in German and minored in Japanese for my Bachelor’s Degree.  During my studies, I had to learn translation and was given passages in the foreign language that had to be translated into English and vice versa.  What I found was that most words such as apple, road, house, dog, etc. usually translated directly from one language to another.  However, many other words and phrases could not be directly translated, as there are cultural and idiomatic differences in the way words and phrases are viewed through the eyes of the host culture and the foreign culture.
After studying Karate for over 25 years, three of which were in Japan, and after studying the Japanese language, I have found the same to be true in many of the English translations of the different Japanese technique names.  One of the most interesting discrepancies that I have found is the Japanese word “uke” and the usual English translation of “block”.  You see, the word uke is from the Japanese verb ukeru, which means “to receive.”  If we think about the English word “block” for a minute then it brings synonyms such as “stop”, “deter”, “halt” and “obstruct” to mind.
So if we now compare the word “receive” with “stop” or “halt” or “obstruct,” then doesn’t it seem like we are talking about antonyms rather than synonyms?  Doesn’t it seem like one has the opposite meaning to the other?  Why is this?
I first noticed this linguistic difference over ten years ago and initially I just thought that it was interesting and left it at that.  Since then I have started to delve deeper into the various words that are used as the technique names in Japanese and English and I have found many differences.  Through living in different foreign countries, I have realized that it is not always wise to judge everything by your own cultural beliefs.  Often it is better to be a neutral observer and to ask, what is the reason and what purpose does it serve?  So how can two words, “uke” and “block,” represent the same set of techniques yet mean opposite things when directly translated?
The answer lies in the true purpose of the technique!
What I am about to say might sound a little controversial but bear with me for a little while.  A “block” is not meant to “stop” an opponent’s attack, but instead it is meant to “speed up” an opponent’s attack in preparation for a devastating counter attack!  What do I mean by this?  How can I use the words “speed up” in conjunction with the word “block”?
Let’s go back to the Japanese word “uke” which means receive.  When you receive an opponent’s attacking move, whether it is a punch, kick or strike, what you are really trying to do is to deflect and redirect the energy of the attack so that the opponent is temporarily thrown off balance and placed in a more advantageous position for a counter attack.  So by “receiving” this attack you can now send the blow on its way in a different direction and then immediately deliver your counter with appropriate timing for the most effect.
Let’s look at a couple of different scenarios to try to explain the conceptual difference in the English word “block” and the Japanese word “uke.”
Scenario 1:  Imagine that our attacker is coming at us with a front punch to the body.  If we “block” the attack in the English sense of the word, then perhaps we use an outer forearm block (soto ude-uke) that attacks the opponent’s punching arm at a 45 degree angle away from us and stops his forward momentum.  After successfully halting the attack we deliver a counter attack such as a reverse punch (gyakuzuki) to the rib cage to finish off our opponent.  The end result of this encounter is that we used the majority of our energy in stopping the opponent’s punch, and consequently his forward momentum, and then we had to deliver as strong a punch as possible to inflict damage to a stationery opponent.
Scenario 2:  Now imagine that our attacker is once again coming at us with a front punch to the body but now we are “blocking” the attack in the Japanese sense of the word.  We are now “receiving” the punch.  So as we execute our outer forearm block we change the angle from a 45 degree angle away from us to a 45 degree angle that draws the opponent towards us and deflects his punch past our body, thus “speeding up” the attack in preparation for our devastating counter attack of a reverse punch to the rib cage.  The end result here is that we used minimal energy during our block, thus conserving the speed and momentum of our attacker towards us.  However, we redirected the punch in such a way that we placed our opponent in a disadvantageous position that put him off balance as we delivered our finishing blow.
So based on these two scenarios, we must now ask ourselves what are the main differences between the key nuances of the English word “block” and the Japanese word “uke?”
The first difference is based on velocity.  Remember that velocity defines not just the speed of an object (in this case a punch) but also its direction.  At the beginning of the attack in each scenario the velocity is clear.  The speed of the punch is as fast as possible and the direction is towards the defender’s body.  However, at the point of blocking both scenarios change significantly and this is the point at which both languages show their actual meaning.  In the English example, the velocity of the punch decreases because the block “stops” the attack and sends the punch away from the defender.  But in the Japanese example, the velocity increases because the block “receives” the attack and draws the punch towards the defender but “deflects” its momentum past the defender.
The second difference focuses on the impact of the counter attack.  In the first scenario, the impact is as if the defender is punching a stationery object because the speed of the attacker’s punch has been nullified by the defender’s block.  In the second scenario, the impact is like a head-on collision as the speed of the attacker’s punch has been amplified by the defender’s block.  So although, the first counter attack can still be very damaging, there should be no doubt as to the efficacy of the second counter attack.
The final difference is found in the purpose of the two blocks and this is what I was alluding to earlier in the article.  In the first scenario, the emphasis is on the block rather than the counter attack as the true purpose of the block is to not get hit.  However, in the second scenario, the emphasis is on the counter attack rather than the block, as the true purpose of the block is to place the attacker in the most vulnerable position so that the defender can deliver a truly decisive and finishing blow.  Therefore, the first use of a block still allows further chances of attack by the opponent, but the second use of the block coupled with the counter punch renders any chance of a follow-up attack highly improbable.  This should remind us of the classic Karate concept of ikken hisatsu meaning “to kill with one blow”.  Surely the Japanese meaning of “uke” allows for this outcome more so than the English meaning of “block.”
So as you can see, a simple linguistic translation of a technique can lead to much ambiguity in the meaning and application of a technique by its practitioners.  It is therefore very important in my mind that we do our best to research not only Karate techniques, but also the terminology and the culture behind the techniques.  In this way, we can better preserve the legacy of our respective arts and also improve our own understanding of and ability in the art.  The translation of “uke” to mean “block” is just one example where an understanding of both languages and cultures can lead to a breakthrough in understanding technique.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Interview with Richard Berger (Part 2)

...this is continued from "An Interview with Richard Berger (Part 1)

-          Are there any experiences in particular at the Honbu-dojo that stand out to you during your time training there?  Experiences that were insightful, funny, embarrassing, or simply inspirational?
-          I remember one time during a class when we were asked to pair off with a partner to practice jiyu ippon-kumite. Everyone had found a partner except for me, so the instructor headed in my direction and I took a deep breath, trying to keep my rapidly accelerating heartbeat under control. The class that day was being taught by Ichihara-sensei, a decidedly old-school instructor, well-known for his gruff demeanor and very short temper. He decided that we would focus on ushiro-geri (back kicks) and we began practicing No. 2 of Kanazawa-kancho’s number system, in which the defender responds by lunging forward into a kiba-dachi (straddle-leg stance), scoops one arm under the attacker’s kicking leg and the other below his torso, then performs a leg sweep followed by a downward gyaku-zuki (reverse punch) counterattack. Ichihara-sensei repeatedly kicked with laser-beam precision and I, for some reason, never managed to get out of the path of his attack. Three times in a row he kicked, and three times in a row his foot landed—Thud!—right into my inner elbow. After the third time he looked at me with open disdain and barked, “Doesn’t that hurt!?” In keeping with proper dojo etiquette, I responded with a sharp “Hai (yes)!” At the time it didn’t strike me as particularly funny, nor did the angry bruise that I had over the next several days, but when I think back on the incident, I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous the situation was.
There was also another incident that I’ll never forget. Kanazawa-kancho was teaching the class—it was about seven or eight years ago, so he was probably around 70 at the time—and we were practicing the kata Unsu. I recall that we had several overseas students in attendance and Kancho was giving detailed explanations for each technique. We got to the middle the kata, where you simultaneously drive the left hand downward and the right hand upward while stepping forward to deliver a downward lunge punch. Kancho was explaining that one application of the initial motion is a block, to create an opening for the subsequent downward punch. Since I happened to be nearest to him at the time, he decided to use me as his demonstration partner. He was speaking to the class as he demonstrated the move, which he performed quite casually and with no particular effort. In fact, I don’t even think he was looking at me when he did it. I knew exactly what he was going to do and anticipated it, but even so, when he raised his hand and deflected my outstretched arm, I was completely unprepared for the resulting impact. It was as if I had been struck by a sledgehammer; to this day, I have no idea how such an effortless motion could create such force.

-          There are many foreigners who are fascinated by Japan – I am one of them.  Often we go there with great ideas and unrealistic expectations and then the demon of “culture shock” strikes and we struggle for a while to find our place within our host country.  I can honestly say that I had a great time while in Japan but I know of others who were just miserable.  What were your encounters with culture shock and how did you deal with them?  Do you still experience culture shock after living in Japan for so long or is “reverse culture shock” now more of an issue when you visit the United States?
-          Well, Japan isn’t for everyone. I don’t think there’s any way to know if you’ll like it or not unless you actually go and find out for yourself. Of course individual experiences can have a major impact on one’s impression of the country. I know some people who fell in love with Japan because they met a lot of great people and had a number of wonderful encounters. But then again, I also know of people who had a string of bad experiences that negatively affected their opinion of the country.
One thing that I believe is important to keep in mind when visiting any foreign country is maintaining an open mind; that’s most likely what helped me to adjust to life in Japan and helped me to avoid any serious culture shock. Now, however, after having spent 20-plus years in Japan, I do suffer the occasional bout of reverse culture shock when I go back to the United States to visit family and friends. I’m reminded of the Japanese saying Sumeba miyako, which, essentially, means: If you live somewhere long enough, it becomes home.

-          You are the translator of several of Kanazawa-kancho’s most important and recent books, such as Karate Fighting Techniques: The Complete Kumite, Black Belt Karate: The Intensive Course, and the newly released book, Karate: The Complete Kata.  These books are incredibly valuable to the followers of SKIF, and also to the wider Shotokan community, so we thank you for helping to bring these projects of Kanazawa-kancho to fruition.  It can’t have been easy to make this happen.  Please tell us a little bit about what it takes to translate a book of this scope.
-          Well, I realize that translating may seem like a very glamorous line of work (laughs), but I can assure you it’s not. Since you are familiar with Japanese, you can appreciate how different it is from English. Because the two languages are structured so differently, rendering Japanese into natural-sounding English can often pose quite a challenge.
I view translation as a two-step process. First, you need to get the Japanese into some form of working English. Then you need to ignore the original Japanese and clean up the English so that it makes sense and flows naturally. It requires discipline and a discerning eye.

-          How long does it typically take to translate such a technical book?
-          Well, first of all, I have to confess that I’m a slow translator; I spend a lot of time mulling over each sentence, thinking of the best way to express it in English. In addition, I have a full-time job that keeps me busy from Monday to Friday, not to mention a family. So, I’m limited to weekday evenings and weekends, provided I have the time and energy. As such, completing the first draft can take around six to nine months.

-          What is the process that the book goes through from concept to translation to print?
-          All three of the books that I’ve been asked to translate had already been released in Japanese. I didn’t receive any special instructions from the publisher so, in each case, basically just used the original Japanese text as my guide and then submitted the translation manuscript. About six months later, the publisher sends me the page proofs for checking. I’ll look for typos and other text errors, and make sure that the text and photos are in agreement. I’ll also look for missing or incorrect photos, as well as photos appearing out of order. You’d be surprised at how many mistakes there can be at this stage of the layout process. If there are a lot of serious problems with the initial page proofs, then a second round of checks will usually be done before the book gets printed.

-          You are a long-time member of the Honbu-dojo and your Japanese language ability is as good as it gets.  It seems you are the natural choice to be Kanazawa-kancho’s translator in anything and everything he does.  When you were asked to be the translator of his books, how did you feel?  Was it a surprise, an honor, or a bit of a burden considering your work and family commitments?
-          I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t honored that Kancho thought I was up to the task of translating his books. I was also pleased to be entrusted with the project, knowing that whenever I do translation work, which I’ve been doing for over twenty years now, I always try to present the material as clearly and concisely as possible while making every effort to maintain the tone and feel of the original text. But, on the other hand, since I do have a full-time job and a family, I must admit that there was also a part of me that wasn’t looking forward to the amount work that I knew the job required.

-          I can imagine that being a translator of any book can be a bit of a thankless task, yet in many ways it is no less significant than being an author in your own right and this is one of the reasons I wanted to hold this interview to bring your own personal efforts to light.  Can you give us an idea of what it takes to be a translator and also of how much more you have learned about Shotokan karate by being a translator than you would have otherwise learned?
-          It may sound counterintuitive, but I think the single most important factor in being a good translator is being a good writer. If you give it some thought, though, it makes sense: if you have trouble understanding the source text, with a little effort, it’s possible to figure out the meaning, provided you get the right help. But the real challenge is translating that into the target language so the reader can understand the proper meaning, context and sentiment. No matter how good you may be at reading and understanding Japanese, for example, if you don’t have the skills to render the original text accurately, and efficiently, in English, then there’s no way that you can effectively do your job as a translator.
And to answer the second part of your question, I believe the translation process I just described has helped me to deepen my understanding of Shotokan karate. Karate training is, of course, a physical endeavor—we learn through training. But when you have to think about how to describe the physical nature of karate through words, you gain a new perspective, which often provides new insight and understanding. I believe instructors will be able to appreciate what I’m talking about, because they must give a lot of thought to explaining various aspects of karate when teaching their students.

-          Another main reason for holding this interview is to help to promote and publicize Kanazawa-kancho’s incredible contributions to the Shotokan world and to the wider Karate international community.  The man is truly a legend in his own right and has helped to change the lives of many thousands of people around the world through his own example of leadership, compassion, harmony and strong spirit.  What has it been like to work with someone of his stature and knowledge in a field in which he is without doubt one of the foremost exponents?
-          It has been a pleasure and an honor to know, train under, and work with Kanazawa-kancho. One of the things in particular that has so impressed me is his promotion of harmony, in all of its various forms: harmony of movement, harmony with others, and harmony with nature. It’s really quite straightforward, but until you really understand how these different kinds of harmony work and how to incorporate them, it’s difficult to fully appreciate their value. In karate, harmony influences breathing, the use of the various parts of the body, training with an opponent, and so much more. When we look at karate books, I think that many of us tend to head straight for the photos, looking for the “fun stuff,” but I would encourage those who have Kanazawa-kancho’s books to spend some time reading the forewords and other sections that offer his thoughts and advice on karate.

-          In closing, do you have any special message for the many fellow Shotokan practitioners around the world who are reading this interview?
-          As I touched on in my previous response, there’s much more to karate than simply the physical aspect. To anyone seeking to get more out of karate, I would highly recommend pursuing these other aspects, which can be incorporated into most every facet of one’s life. I’m not talking about anything of a spiritual or mystical nature, but—for lack of a better word—more of an “attitude,” or way of thinking. I believe this is one of the reasons why karate is often called karate-do, referring to the “way,” or “path” of karate.
And last of all, if you love karate, keep training. At the Honbu-dojo, we have men and women who began training in their 30s, their 40s, and even their 50s. We also have students who continue training well into their 60s and 70s. Just look at Kancho; he’s approaching 80 and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Richard, thank you very much for this opportunity to exchange ideas and to share your many experiences, it has truly been a pleasure to know you personally and I hope our friendship will continue for many years to come.