Thursday, June 27, 2013

Shihan Menkyo - Masters Licenses... Are they truly what we think they are?

Recently, with my Blog going live, I have been getting a lot of questions through personal email channels asking about Shihan Menkyo or Master's Liceneses.  The inquiries have been eye opening to say the least and I hope I can shed some light from one who has been educated in the process of how and when they are awarded.

Now before I go any further, I would like to explain and express that this post is NO way in ANY shape or form disrespecting any practitioner who was awarded a Shihan Menkyo.  I just hope that they hold themselves to the level of professionalism, dedication, and example that the licenses represent and were developed to uphold.

So now we've got that out of the way...

What exactly are Shihan Menkyo?  Well most practitioners wonder what a Renshi, Kyoushi, and Hanshi mean and scratch our head when someone calls themselves a Shihan.  First let me tell you, Shihan and Shihan Menkyo stand apart... while they are similar they are used differently.

Shihan - 師範
The biggest misconception is that the title Shihan is regularly given out to someone who has earned a certain Dan.  In Japan, there are no entitlement issues because to receive a Shihan title is special... it is usually conferred upon you becuase you are an all around model sensei, usually hand picked to succeed or be a contingent successor of the kaiha or ryuha. The Shihan title is usually reserved for the highest ranked dojo sensei who can "educate" (there is a huge difference in the actual meaning behind educate and "teach") not only technique but can be the example not only in the dojo but in life.

Shihan Menkyo are usually used as a tool by Ryuha and Kaiha to setup a legitimate succession plan and are usually hand picked by the Soke (founder) or the surviving successors to keep organizational structure alive.  Most of the time, those with Shihan Menkyo titles will be those instructors who are at the highest ranks/quality and for SMALLER kaiha's (not ryuha) there are usually only one of each. (Hanshi, Kyoushi, and Renshi).

While most of us here in the United States look at Shihan Menkyo as one of the highest awards given by a certain Ryuha or Kaiha, the spirit behind, not the award, or more so the spirit behind the conferrment is what they stand for.  The Japanese sometime explain the awards with a little more flash than they should be because it is very difficult to explain what I am about to explain in english.  Sometimes, you are told that you are receiving the award (in reality it is a conferrment) for just your contribution however, this goes beyond what you have already contributed... but what you will continue to contribute for a lifetime.  In turn, it should represent the continuing hard work, continuing dedication, and the contiuous ability to lead by example.

Shihan Menkyo and their Meanings - Conferrment Responsibilities

Renshi - 錬士

"熟錬した人。  訓練したした人"

Renshi is a title that is conferred upon an instructor who has trained rigorously and thouroughly. A Renshi continually trains hard with the dojo members being an example for the Kyoushi, especially when the Kyoushi needs an example for the dojo student body.  A ryuha or kaiha acknowledges the contributions that the instructor made not only to his seniors but as a benchmark to his students and kohai.

Kyoushi - 教士


Kyoushi is a title that is conferred upon an instructor who has committed the technique to the body and one who can teach (not educate... big difference) others. A Kyoushi has gone through the thourough and rigorus training and has close to flawless technique.  Committing a technique to body is only done to through the countless hours of repetition under a Hanshi level instructor and building the highest level of muscle memory in order to teach the same technique according to the Hanshi's instruction (not abandoning his own interpretations) for the sake of the organization.  Usually a Kyoushi will become a Hanshi's right hand man and will be his tool to set an example for the dojo student body.

Hanshi - 範士


A Hanshi level instructor is one who has the ability to use the techniques he has learned and "educate" others while being example for the dojo student body.  While a Renshi still trains and the Kyoushi teaches, a Hanshi "educates" by showing examples of technique, opens the minds of karateka by introducing his or her interpretations of the set cirriculum and how they relate to traditional training.  Anyone can teach a technique but Hanshi's should have the continual ability to eductate a karateka so their karate grows and evolves.  This title conferred for the HIGHEST level of instruction... and it is recognized by the governing body... never self-proclaimed.

While many have observed their instructors rank progression and the conferrace of Shihan Menkyo, the one aspect that must be considered is that the recipients must continue to grow and be humble.  In the homeland (Japan), while there are many sensei who achieved Karate greatness, in my experience, I have NEVER heard of an instructor refer to themself as a Shihan or by their Shihan Menkyo title.  Even the great senseis just refer to themselves as just "sensei" and respect the Senpai/Kohai system and respect the honorifics they use to speak to someone of higher stature.  Like the Japanese language, certain main topics are just understood and there is no reason to highlight what is already known.

Here in the United States, it is pretty difficult for me sometimes because I do not see the reflection of the spirit of the Shihan Menkyo in some of the practitioners I have met. Most are self-proclaimed without the knowledge of how the Shihan Menkyo System or the Dan system works. (Are there such things as 9th Dan and 10th Dan?  That's for another post) and do not understand that it is not title that is simply given out, that it is a conferred by a larger group that recognizes the talents and contributions made to the organization(s).  This could be partially be at fault of cultural incompatibilities or the lack of translators that have the experience... but any sense I have seen this go to many instructors heads rather than remain humble and continue the legacy that they had started.

While I still respect them and hold them to esteem, I just bite my tougue hope someday, if I am ever conferred with the GREAT responsibility, that I can be that example for my karate flock.

Until then keep practicing hard to become the example!

PS... good talk with my Karate bruddah +Johnpaul Williams. I will have a part 2 of this topic about how you can over do it by calling your senseis by their Shihan Menkyo titles or Shihan... pretty good insight for next time.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Kaishugata & Timing Part One

Kaishugata & Timing

A little while ago we talked about what Heishugata is all about.  I know it was just an basic overview, to which you'll learn more and more as you advance with your own sensei as well as figure things out on your own by drilling, asking questions, drilling some more to develop your muscle memory and your breathing. However, Kaishugata is another thing.  Goju Ryu Black Belts, especially those who are training for your Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF) rank must also work on the required Kaishugata depending on their rank.

JKF Requirements Besides Sanchin and Tensho
  • Shodan = Saifa
  • Nidan = Seiunchin
  • Sandan = Sanseiru
  • Yondan = Shisochin
  • Godan = Seipai
  • Rokudan = Seisan
  • Nanadan = Kururunfa
  • Hachidan = Suparimpei
Now just so that I don't upset the traditionalists or the modernists, I'd like to put out there that I used to practice competitive kata however, now I focus mainly on Shinsa (testing) kata, which is more traditional as JKF Goju Kai is trying hard to bring it back to the roots by allowing the top Goju minds, including Jundokan, to study and deciminate the information back down to its branch organizations. 

Seiwa Kai USA has some good seminars they hold in the USA by inviting certain Goju senseis who really focus on the mechanics as well as take time to break down how they are currently teaching kata in Japan. Said guests to include, Saito Sensei, who is a top competitor in the Japanese National Karate scene as well as Seiwa Kai head, Fujiwara Sensei, who are both phenomenal in how they bring the topic of Kaishugata to the table.  I, myself, have been lucky enough to translate for Fujiwara Sensei and other great senseis who have visited through our sister Goju Kaiha, Seiwa Kai.

Eibu kan, under Hamabata Sensei has had the honor of learning from our Shihan, Hisanaga Yoshihiro, and let me tell you he has been an eye opener when we have the opportunity to have him visit our dojo.  Our dojo training becomes a one or two week seminar to go over all Goju Ryu Kaishugata and sometimes we feel that we can't soak up the information enough.  While it is difficult for many of the beginners to keep pace, our Black Belts assimilate the information as much as we can and then compare notes after each of Hisanaga Sensei's visits.  Shihan's teaching always include kihon mastery.  Without it kata is a disaster.  

Each Goju Kaishugata has meaning and purpose.  I believe that if we don't understand the spirit behind each kata, we will not understand the depth of each kata fully. Unlike Heishugata which focuses on tension, Kaishugata focuses on timing of the tension depending on the techniques executed.  Transition of movement or transition from stance to stance is very important... your embusen... must not be too shallow or must not be too deep depending on the angle of attack or angle of defense.  45, 90, 180 etc degree turns require accurate timing and "kime" however that "kime" can only be determined by the application of said tension at particular points during technique execution within the kata.  This is what makes Kaishugata different from Heishugata, where Heishugata continually maintains said tension mainly throughout the kata without completely losing it, and where Kaishugata you focus on tension at particular points.

My thought is this when practicing particular Kaishugatas.

  1. Learn what the objective of the kata is.  What does the name of the kata mean?
  2. How can I apply my techniques to meet that objective?  Does the execution of my technique give the kata justice?
  3. How can I make the kata mine?  Do I understand the bunkai of the kata?
Just some thoughts that go through my head when I work out any of the 10 Kaishugata in Goju Ryu.  BTW... breaking down bunkai is great!  What's even greater is when you sit down and learn bunkai from some of the current top minds in Goju as they show you how they interpret our katas.  I suggest if you can sign up for some of the upcoming seminars through Seiwa Kai USA or California Goju Ryu Association, I would do so just so that I can experience the mastery they bring to our art.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Kumite: A Story

Kumite:  A Story

What do you think about when you think about Karate?  When I was a child, I used to get all excited when I saw old Kung Fu movies or when there were Bruce Lee specials on during holiday.  All the high kicks, jump kicks, spin kicks and nunchuku kung-foolery had me on my toes and my father had me on lock down whenever I came close to putting my foot through the wall or my mother's favorite lamp. 

Growing up, I had all the delusions of grandeur thinking that I was bigger than myself.  This continuously got worse as I entered adolescence and noticed that I was capable and that I was bigger than everyone else in my age brackets whenever I competed.  The one thing that I lacked was confidence.  If my kumite started out strong and if I had my opponent on the run, I was very hard to beat.  However, if I had made a mental mistake or if I could not figure out my opponent, there were many a time where you could literally see me sink in quicksand and not be able to recover because my self-confidence was shot.

Luckily, I had very patient senseis willing to work with me and found ways for me to work on my self-confidence so that my kumite outings were more consistent with my ability.  However, this did not happen overnight.  My senseis really had to work on my perception on what Karate was really about. 

The problem was that I was a little man trapped in a big man's body... meaning that I wanted to do little man karate in a big body.  It didn't help that my senseis, Takafumi Hamabata (7th Dan Eibu Kan / JKF) and Katsuhide Kinjo (6th Dan Eibu Kan/JKF) are both mid to high 5 feet weighing about 140, respectively.  In contrast, I am 6 feet and weighing in about 250.  Coming from an organization that does not believe in churning out students that are cookie cutter versions of their senseis, I believe it was a major project for the both of them to try and figure out how to get me to become an effective fighter, both in and out of the ring (competitive and traditional).

Looking back, I believe that their solution was brilliant.  Taking a young karateka with self-confidence issues and focusing on a reactive style of kumite so that blocking was a primary factor in the style of combat was their answer to his many Karate issues.  Lessons and drills included many blocking and intercepting drills to negate offensive momentum, working on instinctual training by focusing on timing and jamming techniques, and finally the endless drilling and repetition back and forth on the dojo floor after class until my body learned how to react without having to think (developed mushin and my zanshin through repetition).  While this worked for this Karateka, I yet to test this similar style of training with my kohai because it may not be what is necessary for them.

I now can say that I have taken what was developed and have made it my own. I can proudly say that no one in my dojo has my exact style of kumite... and I can proudly say that my senseis do not want exact replicas of each other either... they would like to see more individual growth like myself and the other black belts in my class.  When I step out on to the floor, I have the confidence to say, "come and hit me... if you can..." and be in position to go toe to toe with anyone.  This is a good feeling to have.

Have you thought about how your senseis have drawn your Karate out of you?  Do you know your own story or are you still currently figuring that one out.  Sit down and think about it.  Your Karate is continuously being developed.  What is your focus?  Traditional or Competitive?  Both?  There is a lot to think about in developing your Kumite.

ps.  While my adolescent training in Kumite was mainly for competition, the training forced me to see application of kata better because of the defensive mind set I was trained with.  ALL Goju Ryu Kata begin with blocks... and that was the start of another chapter in my Karate life.