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.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

An Interview with Richard Berger (Part 1)

Many karate practitioners from all over the world visit Master Kanazawa’s Headquarters Dojo every year to improve their Karate and to learn from the Master himself.  I personally spent three years training at Kanazawa-kancho’s dojo but I would venture to guess that there is nobody who has spent as much time studying the SKIF system at the Headquarters Dojo in Tokyo as Richard Berger.  In addition to studying Shotokan karate for so long in Japan, Richard is also the translator of several of Kanazawa-kancho’s most important books.
In this two-part interview I ask Richard about his time training in Japan, about his experiences with Kanazawa-kancho, about culture shock and reverse culture shock, and about what it’s like to be chosen as the translator of Kancho’s books.  I am extremely grateful to Richard for his time preparing this interview and for his professionalism throughout.  I think everyone will gain something valuable from his insightful answers.

-          Richard, thank you for agreeing to this interview.  Let’s start off with a few introductory questions.  How long have you lived in Japan?
-          I first came to Japan in 1984 for a couple of weeks as a university student. The following year I came on a one-year overseas study program, which I extended for an additional year. Then I returned in 1990 and have lived here ever since. So, if you include the two years I was here as a student, I’ve spent a little over 21 years living in Japan.

-          How long have you practiced karate?
-          I started training in the early 1980s in Southern California. I trained for a few years, took a few years off, started training again, then moved to Japan and took off a few more years. I then started up again in 1993 at Kanazawa-kancho’s SKIF headquarters and have been training ever since. So, all together, I guess that makes about 21 years.

-          Why did you start?
-          Good question. I think I had always been curious about karate, wondered how it “worked.” I think everyone had heard some variation of the story about the scrawny kid that used karate to beat up the two or three big street thugs that tried to mug him. I wanted to know what karate was all about. Were there “magical” techniques that would render your opponent helpless—a twisting motion of the wrist, perhaps? Or maybe some fancy footwork? I wanted to know the “secret.”

-          What it is it about karate that keeps you going back for more?
-          Well, aside from the fact that I genuinely enjoy it—something I don’t think I could’ve honestly said when I first began training—karate is the only form of exercise that I’ve been able to stick to. I tried going to a sports gym for a while—lifting weights, running on a treadmill, that sort of thing—but soon grew bored and quit. What keeps me going is probably a combination of things: following the lead of an instructor during class; training along with others in a group, which creates an environment of healthy competition; and engaging in exercise that requires concentration, providing a diversion from day-to-day concerns. I find that in addition to the physical benefit of karate, there’s definitely an emotional benefit as well, which allows me to forget about any other worries I may have while I’m training.

-          From personal experience, training at Kanazawa-kancho’s Honbu-dojo is an incredible learning adventure.  I was only there for three years but you have been there far longer.  Can you give us your thoughts on training at the Honbu-dojo and what makes it so special?
-          I joined the SKIF Honbu-dojo in the autumn of 1993, so I’ve been training there just over 16 years now. Needless to say, one of the greatest rewards is receiving direct instruction from Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, one of Shotokan karate’s true legends and an incredibly kind and considerate human being. What you can learn from Kanazawa-kancho goes far beyond just karate. His warmth, humility, and attitude toward life and nature, not to mention his sense of humor, all offer very valuable lessons.
But in addition to Kanazawa-kancho, who we don’t get to see as often as we’d like because he spends several months out of the year teaching overseas, the SKIF headquarters has many other first-rate instructors who regularly teach classes, each with his own unique expertise and teaching style. Also, when some of the top instructors from overseas are in Tokyo for competitions or other events, they will occasionally stop by and teach a class, which is always rewarding.
Needless to say, for those of us who train regularly at the SKIF Honbu-dojo, I think we’ve got it about as good as it gets.

-          Training in Japan is not just about your time actually on the floor practicing karate but also includes many chances for socializing with the senseis and members after class.
-          In Japan, identifying with, and belonging to a group is very important. For this reason, there is a strong sense of camaraderie and kinship among the students and instructors. In many respects, it really is like a big family and it’s nice to get to know the other students on a more personal level. During my first several years training at the SKIF headquarters, there was a group of us who’d go out regularly once a week for dinner and drinking after training. Things have changed since then, but even now it’s not unusual for members to occasionally go out for dinner after a class.
We also often get visitors from overseas who will train with us for a time at the dojo, and we’ll sometimes treat them to dinner, especially if it’s someone who’s made a strong impression on us, or who we haven’t seen in a while.
Getting to know the instructors is also a treat, because there is often quite a large gap between their true personalities and the personas that they project when teaching.

-          Can you tell us a little bit about how these two aspects go hand-in-hand both in a karate setting and in the workplace?
-          Well, this ties into what I was just talking about—namely, the importance of belonging to a group. In Japan, relationships play a vital role, and this applies to the karate dojo as well as the workplace. As long as you make an effort to be a part of the group and fit in as best you can, then, in most cases, you will be openly and warmly welcomed by everyone. Of course, no one can know all of the cultural dos and don’ts, so the occasional gaffe is inevitable, but having the right attitude and always trying your best will go a long way in Japan.

-          During my time at the Honbu-dojo there were many other foreign visitors who came to train with Kanazawa-kancho.  Many of them were excellent karate-ka who were visiting for a period of a few short weeks.  Can you give some advice to foreign visitors to the Honbu-dojo in terms of expected behavior and etiquette?
-          I can imagine how intimidating it might be for someone coming to Japan for the first time or paying their first visit to the dojo. One thing I would definitely recommend is coming a good 20 to 30 minutes early to introduce yourself and ask permission to take part in the class. I can’t imagine anyone ever being turned down, but it sends the right message and will ensure that you get things off on the right foot. It’s also important to understand that there is a visitor’s fee that needs to be paid if you plan to take part in the class. I think it’s 1,000 yen (approximately 11 U.S. dollars) per class, and it would probably be a good idea to mention that up front and get that out of the way early.
As for the students that you’ll be training with on the floor, one thing that you can do to make a good impression is to join everyone else when you see them wiping down the floor before and after class. This shows a sense of humility that is very important, especially in the dojo.
And if you plan to do any training at SKIF headquarters for any length of time, I would strongly recommend familiarizing yourself with Kanazawa-kancho’s kumite number system, which appears in his book Karate Fighting Techniques: The Complete Kumite. It’s not at all unusual during a class for the instructor to say, “Okay, now we’re going to practice jiyu ippon-kumite (free-style one-step kumite) numbers two and three.” If you don’t know what he’s talking about, you’ll probably wish you did.

-          The Honbu-dojo has such a deep pool of talent to draw from for its instructors and in many lessons there can be two or three instructors on the floor in addition to Kancho, all of whom are ranked 5th Dan and above.  Also, each instructor has his own way of teaching while sticking to the same syllabus content.  How have these different teaching styles helped to mold your personal karate knowledge and ability?
-          While it goes without saying that maintaining a consistent approach to training is very important, being exposed to different instructors and new training experiences can help give you a more rounded, well-balanced perspective of what karate has to offer. As you just mentioned, because the Honbu-dojo has so many first-rate instructors, I have benefited greatly from their individual teaching approaches, training menus, technical interpretations, and philosophies.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Harmonizing with your Opponent

The process of learning kumite (sparring or partner work) in Shotokan karate can be a long and arduous path.  Usually a practitioner begins by learning the introductory kihon of our style such as punches, blocks and kicks and then basic partner work drills are introduced such as  gohon kumite (five-step sparring) and sanbon kumite (three step sparring) at the beginning level and then kihon ippon-kumite (basic one-step sparring) at the intermediate level.  By the time the practitioner has reached the brown belt level the partner work drills have progressed to jiyu ippon-kumite (free one-step sparring).  So essentially the first two to three years of a karate-ka’s practice are focused on learning set drills that progressively lead the karate-ka to a better understanding of basic technique and how those techniques can be used against an opponent.
            Many instructors introduce jiyu kumite (free sparring) in the midst of all of this drilling of basic technique to break up the monotony of set partner work and to try to encourage the practitioner to loosen up and not be so rigid.  I think this is a good idea especially at the intermediate levels of 6th – 4th kyu.  I believe there is great value in systematically introducing partner work drills through set sequences that build upon one another but it is also important to encourage freedom of movement and creativity through free sparring.  With a structured combination of these two methods practitioners can gradually be given the necessary tools at the beginning and intermediate levels to lay the foundations for rapid improvement in their overall kumite skills at the brown belt levels and beyond.
            If we look at the systematic training methods that Shotokan offers we can see that gohon kumite and sanbon kumite are essentially partner work drills that focus on repetition of offensive and defensive techniques.  Kihon ippon-kumite offers different applications of each basic technique and emphasizes the “one chance” mentality and the importance of effective counter attacks under stress.  Jiyu ippon-kumite takes kihon ippon-kumite training to the next level by introducing the concepts of distance, timing, range and the element of surprise.
            This article assumes that the reader has already mastered the prerequisites of basic technique along with set partner work drills and is looking to take his or her kumite skills to the next level through a deeper understanding of what Master Hirokazu Kanazawa, Chief Instructor and President of the Shotokan Karate International Federation, refers to as “harmonizing with your opponent.”  According to Kanazawa-sensei, if you can harmonize with your opponent you will never lose an encounter, whether physical or verbal.  At the highest level this concept essentially means that you will never be drawn into an encounter in the first place because you will be able to read the intentions of your opponent and appropriately diffuse the situation before any hostility and conflict can arise.  From the perspective of actual kumite practice, however, there are several key concepts to understand.
            Within the overall category of harmonizing with your opponent, which Kanazawa-sensei calls “wa no sen,” there are three sub-categories of defensive strategy.  These are called “go no sen” (counter attack), “tai no sen” (same-time attack) and “sen no sen” (pre-emptive strike.)
            The first of these strategies, “go no sen” (counter attack) is both the easiest to understand and also the easiest to execute from the practitioner’s point of view.  Most beginning kumite drills focus on counter attacks as the main form of defense.  This means that as the attacker moves in with their chosen technique the defender blocks and then counters with an appropriate technique.  In the simplest form, the attacker steps in with a head punch and the defender blocks the punch with rising block and then counters with a reverse punch.  This is the easiest form of defensive strategy as all the defender has to do is to get out of the way of the opponent’s attack by using footwork and an appropriate block and then counter with some kind of strike.  At the beginning level there really isn’t much need for anything more advanced than this kind of strategy but when faced with a more skilled opponent the basic strategy falls apart as the counter attack is subsequently blocked and countered again by the initial attacker causing the defender to ultimately lose the initiative.  Another problem with this counter attack strategy is that there is no harnessing of the attacker’s power and forward momentum by the defender as the blocking technique is aimed at nullifying the attack and then the counter attack must be delivered with 100% effort and power from the defender to be effective.  Essentially a ‘tempo’ has been lost by the defender.  This can be likened to a chess player putting his queen into play too early without adequate protection and having to backtrack on the move, thus losing a ‘tempo’.
            The second strategy, “tai no sen” (same-time attack) is much more effective but is consequently more difficult to pull off.  This strategy is where the defender is able to see the attack coming and counter at the point that the attacker is most committed.  For example the attacker comes in with a head punch and the defender, seeing the attack, resists the natural reaction of moving back, and instead moves in to the attack ducking the head out of the way and delivering a solid punch to the ribcage with perfect timing.  The resulting effect of this defense is twice that of the counter attack because the defender is meeting the attacker in a head-on collision thereby making the impact twice as effective.  This type of defense is one of the most useful because, as Kanazawa-sensei clearly explains in many of his seminars, “tai no sen” strategy allows a defender to conserve some of his energy by using only about 75% of his total power, but when combined with the 100% commitment of the attacker the resulting effect is far greater than a 100% counter attack against an already completed attacking technique, as in “go no sen” strategy.  The drawback of this type of defense is that you are still betting on your superior speed, timing and technical ability against your opponent.  On those occasions when you meet up with a superior opponent you will quickly see your ideas of “tai no sen” strategy revert back to “go no sen” strategy.
            The final strategy of harmonizing with your opponent is called “sen no sen,” which could be translated as “pre-emptive strike” or “advance attack”.  As the “Do” of “karate-do” suggests, we have a moral obligation to use our art as a defensive art and not as an aggressive attacking art.  Master Gichin Funakoshi echoed this sentiment with his precept of “karate ni sentenashi”, which is very often translated as “there is no first attack in karate”.  Quite frankly speaking though, would you stand still if someone drew a knife against your child and wait for them to strike first?  Would you wait for someone who was cursing at the top of their lungs at your wife to take the first shot before you reacted?  Would you allow someone with a broken bottle to take a swing at your face?  I hope not!  Sometimes the actions of your opponent require immediate action on your part without any thought or second doubts.  It is at this point that you are able to “read” your opponent and sense their ill-advised intentions and react both pre-emptively and appropriately.  This is “sen no sen”.  So back in the dojo this is characterized by that moment between two opponents when one is about to strike but the attack hasn’t yet happened.  This moment is sometimes referred to as “the gap” between intention and action.  Your job is to utilize “yomi” (reading of your opponent) and take decisive and immediate action before your opponent is able to follow through.  If done correctly it really doesn’t matter what precise techniques you use because if you deliver them in the split second of opportunity, your opponent will be completely overwhelmed and defeated.  This type of attack relies heavily on the “ikken hissatsu” (one strike, end of story) philosophy that is so often romanticized in our beloved karate legends, but as always you could add several additional counter strikes to make sure the job is done properly!
            When you have all of the above defensive strategies in your kumite arsenal you are on the way to being able to fully harmonize with your opponent.  Once again your ultimate goal is to avoid potentially harmful conflicts as much as possible but in the times when decisive action is necessary, your kumite drills should reappear as naturally as your knee-jerk reactions of bowing to your sensei, saying “osu” in class, or yelling out your “kiai” at the climax of your kata performances.  The difference is that your well-honed kumite reactions might just save your life!

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Holy Cow of Japan

I lived in Japan for three years from 1996 to 1999.  During this time I worked as an assistant English teacher.  From time to time I encountered several trying circumstances.  This article tells one such story.
It was on one of those beautiful but cool October mornings that had been brightening up my usually dull and uninteresting journeys to school.  My mood that morning, however, could not be improved by the great weather as I’d woken up to find myself lost in a miserable cold which had rapidly been developing the day before.  Sitting astride my “mama-chari” (a rather nice Japanese term for describing the piece of crap bike that I used to get to work and go grocery shopping each week) I was feeling a little bit rattier than usual at this early hour of the morning.  And so it was I set off on my 25 minute journey to work.
 As I’m sure every newcomer to Japan has noticed, and every long-term resident for that matter, the roads are a little on the narrow side to say the least, so it should be pretty obvious to everyone that anything with four wheels that is bigger and heavier than one person and a bike should be treated with respect.  However, it was not the cars, the trucks, or the motorbikes that were the main danger, not even the fellow cyclists (although I did see several “kamikaze” maneuvers during the first few months after arriving in Japan and I have to admit that I was guilty of a couple myself).  No, the main threat posed to the personal safety and sanity of a cyclist was most certainly Mr. Joe Pedestrian!
This person could without any obvious effort on his part reduce the poor unsuspecting cyclist to a heap of metal, spokes and limbs on the ground, or to a raging, sweating, nervous wreck.  Either way the cyclist felt a certain personal grievance and Mr. Joe Pedestrian just kept on walking, oblivious to the physical or mental damage he may have just caused.
For those of you who would like a clearer picture of what Joe Pedestrian was actually like, let me give you a brief rundown of his main characteristics.  Most often encountered between the hours of seven and nine in the morning and anytime from five in the evening to around midnight, Joe Pedestrian was usually dressed in a dark blue or grey suit with briefcase in hand.  Optional extras included an umbrella, a newspaper, manga (a Japanese comic - yes Japanese adults read comics!!), a cigarette and bloodshot eyes.  All of this of course sounds fairly innocent, except for the manga perhaps, so how could such an ordinary sounding person be of any danger to the average cyclist?
Well if you consider that this person probably didn’t get home from work until about ten or eleven the night before after making his way home via the local “izakaya” (bar/tavern) and that after getting up at around six in the morning and forcing down breakfast, he probably had quite a hangover from the beer and sake he was made to gulp down, it’s hardly any wonder that his mind was in quite a fuzzy state.  So what happened next?  Our man Joe would leave his house with one thought on his mind – I mustn’t be late for work!  Because if he was late of course, he would have just put a black mark on all the good effort he made in the izakaya the night before towards improving relations with his supervisor and colleagues.  So he would leave his house and head towards the station at a fairly brisk pace – nothing would stop him!
This is where I came in.  Not averse to a late night trip to the izakaya myself trying to improve my relations with my own work colleagues, I had been known (on very rare occasions I must stress) to be in a similar state of fuzziness to our friend Joe.  The only difference was that the thought of being squashed between a large truck and the scooter that was trying to squeeze through the one foot gap between my bike and the curb was a very sobering one, and therefore I woke up very soon after leaving my apartment.
Very aware of the dangers and obstacles that faced me on my hazardous journey to school, I still never failed to be shocked and surprised by the sheer lack of awareness of that man Joe, and I’m sorry to say that in those moments the beautiful English language that I was supposed to be teaching escaped me and instead my very worst gutter language came into action.  Thank goodness my mother couldn't hear me!  But do you know what happened?  My curses and screeching of brakes did not even register in robotic Joe and he just kept on walking right past me, in front of me, or anywhere that was in my way.  Remember, he mustn’t be late – nothing would stop him!
And do you know what was ironic?  That same person, who would not even utter the slightest hint of a “sumimasen” (sorry) after nearly making me pile my bike and myself into a telegraph pole, would be apologizing profusely in the office for the slightest infraction into my line of path on my way from my desk to the fax machine.  It was madness!!  Or was it just me?
So to bring this rant to an end on a slightly more serious note, if you ride your bike to work in Japan and know what I’m talking about please take care.  All you need to do is get up a little earlier so you can leave for work a little earlier.  Easier said than done, I know.  And it would have been much easier to get up in the morning if the apartment that I lived in had some insulation, which brings me to another point…