Thursday, August 29, 2013

USA: Karate Fragmented... National Organization?

Fragmentation of Karate in the United States... is this a good thing?  No.  But is this a reality?  Yes.  This issue of non-standardization is not a new argument in the Karate community.  This is actually an age old issue that is currently being fought in legitimate and illegitimate circles of Karate regardless of what Ryuha (style), Kaiha (group within a style, example Eibu kan, Seiwakai, Ichikawa-ha, etc.) you practice.  Here in the United States, we choose not to address it sometimes because we figure that standardization is a farce... that it breaks from traditional training. Or... another good argument for not wanting standardization is that it takes away from the "martial" aspect of the Karate and therefore makes the system inefficient because it concentrates on tournament fighting.  All good arguments in my eyes, however, I think we are not seeing the benefits from standardization.

"What benefits are you talking about?," the skeptic always asks me.  Well let me go into it so that I can keep the age old argument running in style.

First... my disclaimer... In the big scheme of things my opinion is just it... it is my opinion.  However, IMHO, a practitioner needs to train on different levels. 

  1. A practitioner needs to know if his or her technique is viable in a actual situation.  This kind of training must be done in conjunction with your normal training and I consider this to be a specialized portion of your training. (Mainly for advanced black belts. Including kyusho/atemi (vital striking) and takedown to finish.  Ippon Kime (not 1 point but 1 strike finishing Kime... can you finish your opponent with 1 technique) **Life or Death**
  2. A practitioner needs to know if they can control their technique and apply this control to the given situation to protect oneself and others. **Any Given Situation**
Again, my opinion before I talk about standardization comes from the above ideologies.

Standardization vs. Specific Training
I believe that specific training, especially for traditional "martial" training comes directly from what ever lineage you pull from.  This is where "dojo" techniques are passed down, specialization techniques which are just focused by your dojo organization are passed down to those who are capable.  The Japanese call this passing on the dojo's "Tokui Waza" or specialization technique.  Some dojos concentrate on the Tokui Waza as well as the traditional application of their Kata and only do so.  While this may be old fashioned, this is not incorrect, they are just practicing on what has been passed down to them.  Can this be standardized?  I do not think so... and here's why.

Take Jeet Kune Do for example.  This was a style that Bruce Lee developed.  While this style has lived on and still continue to produce students, has the system evolved?  Many believe, including myself, that while the system is viable, the system will not grow beyond what Bruce Lee left behind in his Tao, videos, books, and other material that is being coveted by the system's practitioners.  Meaning, that a lot of Jeet Kune Do's specialization died with Bruce Lee when he passed away.  While it began as a unique system, it will eventually stay the same as many of the schools we have here in the United States, masterless and unevolving.

However, take Kyokushinkai Karate for example.  While a different style of Karate all together, the system has evolved and continues to evolve because of 2 different thoughts.  1.  The Teaching of Sosai Mas Oyama, and 2. The will to train harder and to become stronger according to Oyama's focus.  While each Kyokushinkai Dojo maintains the spirit of Mas Oyama's teachings, each Kyokushikai has individuals who continue to produce students based on #2... students who have the will to train harder and become stronger.  With the help of MMA greats like George St. Pierre, Kyokushinkai Karate continues to grow and has contributed to the arguement that Standardization does work in certain avenues.  Even though Mas Oyama's passing, the spirit of #1 and #2 continue to grow and evolve. (there is a reason for this and I will post about in my follow-up to the Fighter in the Wind article... =)

I may speak about legitimate and illegitimate schools here in the United States, however, please do not take it the wrong way.  As I have explained before in my past articles, when I describe illegitimate schools, I do not mean that they have no merit.  What I mean is that the school is illegitimate because of circumstance.  This could have been due to choice or due to circumstance.  Part of my goal is to communicate to these schools and let them know that there is hope to connecting them with their original lineage as long as the instructors can leave the egos and the $$$ at the dojo door.  While my personal journey has just begun to connect with existing American Goju schools and systems, I'd like to open my doors to those who may have questions.  This is only possible with being a part of the largest national organization in Japan, the Japan Karatedo Federation (all styles, also known as Zen Ku Ren or Zen Nippon Karatedo Renmei). 

Although, I am only officially a member of Japan Karatedo Federation, Goju-kai, it is an avenue which can open up to JKF Shotokan, JKF Wado-Ryu, JKF Ryuei-Ryu, JKF Shito-Ryu, etc.  For those who are avid tournament goers, this group is what consists of the WKF or the World Karate Federation, which is currently the leading Global Organization leading to have Karate in the Olympics.  My point is that while the school in question may not have connection with any of these organizations, there may be a chance that looking to standardize with an existing national organization may improve your Karate through this training by reconnecting with experts and deepening your resources. 

To my knowledge, there are many schools that still focus on the fact that they were developed by some of the founding fathers of American Karate (example Peter Urban or even Ed Parker), many on the eastern seaboard... these schools have a forgotten depth that they can tap into.  Many schools have grown many generations of instructors and these organizations have taken on a life of their own.  Very close to how Karate grew during the after effect of WWII.  Again, this is not something I feel is negative.  I believe that this is something that needs to be harnessed in the United States... however, I truly believe that Karate, regardless of what style, needs to build their network and increase the possible resources that current instructors here in the United States can reach out to.  Groups like the USNKF, or other schools who are affiliated with the Japan Karatedo Federation (All Styles or even the individual style) or even others like the IOGKF or IKO can be a huge part of that resource pool.  Having instructors on both sides of the ball understand this so we can help each other out will be a great undertaking for US based Karate but I believe that one day we can do so.

Note to self... Standardized training doesn't mean learning "shitei" kata or having to tone down your Karate.  It is a method to combine your dojo's knowledge with other instructors and learn from those who are recognized by the global Karate community and have the ability to learn from them and use them as a resource.  Many dojos, mainitain their training on top of the training they receive from these National Organizations... many dojos like mine, require you to rank with both the dojo and the national organization.  They are here to keep you on your toes... not to take over what your traditional dojo training dictates.  The training may not always agree on certain aspects with your dojo training... but the training will help you see things from another perspective.

Keeping the argument alive.  Love to hear your thoughts... In training as always!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Terminology: Translation Tribulations

I can already tell from some of the responses on Google+ that there are many non-Japanese practitioners who are frustrated with trying to learn a new martial art yet alone trying to learn with instruction in another language.  Wether that be Japanese, Chinese, Korean, English, Spanish, etc... I agree it can be a tweek to your brain.  Being Japanese born in the United States I can atest to that.  However, there is hope... and trust me... by learning the native terminology will also help you understand the deeper meaning of your style.

Now... first off, I know I do this all the time... there is really no mysticism behind deeper explanation.  Most of the time, we complicate things ourselves and when we train hard and ask questions of our senseis, we see that the answer/explanation is really deep but simple. 

My sensei gave me a really good example... A sensei's job is to carve or mold his or her students.  Look at a marble worker for example. He starts off with a large slab of marble and begins by using a large hammer and a large chisel to get the intial shape he wants.  Gradually, the tools become smaller and smaller until he shifts to precision tooling so he can begin to work on definition.  Our senseis are doing the same thing to us, kicking our butts with basics, gradually feeding us knowledge so that we can grow with our training, and finally working our minds and flushing out minor details with the execution of our technique.  In essence, our senseis are carving us and molding us to become better Karateka.  However, they don't have all the answers... some of the answers we have to explore and find ourselves.

You ever wonder why sometimes you try so hard to understand a concept, let's say being able to work your core, hips, and the ability to translate that into powering your techniques, and in the beginning learning how to work them is absolutely frustrating.  Asking questions isn't helping and the more you think about it the worse it got (maybe this example was just me...haha).  However, one day that light bulb goes off in your head (literally) and for some reason it makes complete sense.  Not only did it make sense but the execution was a lot easier.  I know that this has nothing to do with the title of this blog... however the spirit behind it is very much connected to it.  This is because sometimes we are not meant to try and comprehend the technique first... we must train and learn with our bodies... think of it as conditioning.  I know I'm going to get a lot of flak for this but you hear some teachers say sometimes "just do as I say."  I'm not defending this kind of teaching but sometimes we need to just mimic and just try to understand the mechanical components first before we get to the explanation... again... first we crawl, then we walk, and eventually we learn how to run... life's natural progression.

Now getting to the translation piece...

First of all, most of us thought... "how are we going to learn all the basic dojo terminology" rather than "how am I going to survive my future training..." especially those training in the traditional arts with native speakers teaching the courses.  Everything from counting, commands to be at attention, at the ready, to commands to stop, names of stances, and techniques.  Very overwhelming for anyone coming in with no foreign exposure.  First we might scramble and ask sensei if there is a packet or a cheat sheet you can use to learn the terminology. Next, ask our senpais for help, search the internet... and then finally... most of us either give up or for some of us lucky ones it just sinks in.

While I know it is a bear... it is important to learn the native terminology... especially if it is a Japanese art.  The terminology is based off of the Kanji or Japanese Characters which is based off the Chinese Character system to which some of the depth of the meaning comes from.  Take the characters at the top of this blog post.  That reads "ZANSHIN" which is literally translated as "where the heart remains." To us westerners this might not make any sense.  However, with your sensei constantly repeating its meaning, gaining experience, and constant immersion/training of your art, it starts to make sense.  Of course, you will need to have the drive to learn... when and if you do accept it then it will go off like a light bulb in your head and you will have one of those "ah-ha" moments and kick yourself because of the simplicity.  This "ah-ha" moment has been a reoccuring theme in my own training.

Don't be afraid to ask about the meaning behind a certain term or don't be afraid to ask to have it written down for notes.  Its better to ask and learn gradually than just dismiss the terms and/or learn it just in english. (us JAs - Japanese-Americans have Engrish or Japlish which is a type of pigeon english however even then it doesn't work as well as understanding the concept coming from the native language)  When you can understand the depth of terms such as Zanshin, Shin Gi Tai, Mushin, Ki Kan Shin, etc. rather than literal translation, it opens up a whole new dimension of your training.  Thinking and doing, philosophy behind different Master's approaches to Karate... especially Miyagi Chojun with his famous quote "Karate ni Sente Nashi."  To explore and do research on these terminologies by learning them in the native tongue first, I believe will help you understand the system and philosophy better rather than taking it for granted and you will see that it will help your physical training grow more deeply.

Open your mind and explore.

In translation.... Kay.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Senpai / Kohai Relationship... How does it work?

+Tony Vivolo asked me if I would do a piece on Senpai/Kohai relationships and how they are really supposed to work. This is a very good topic and I'd like to share with you what I know.

This system has actually been around in Japan since before the Segoku Period in Japan however it is not something that we are not familiar with.  In other parts of the world, there are Master and Apprentice examples that go back as far before since trade and commerce have been in existance. While the system is a lot different than the Senpai/Kohai system today... however the roots are not that different.

Modern day Senpai/Kohai system actually was improved and put into effect by the Shimazu Lords of the Satsuma Government (Kyushu - Kagoshima, Southern Japan) during the Meiji Period.  While there was a Master and Apprentice system in place for those who were born into a family within a certain trade (higher status trade such as swordsmiths, tea ceremony masters, caligraphy, ikebana, etc.), for lower castes... including Lower House Samurai, there really was no "mentoring" system that was different from the period's Master and Apprentice system.

With trade bearing from Okinawa, China, Korea, and with the Black Ships arriving along with the already existing Portuguese and Dutch, the Satsuma Government had already been working towards modernizing Japan, of course without the permission of the Shogun Family.  A good modern day interpretation of the incidents leading up to and through the Meiji Revolution and Restoration is a NHK period drama called Atsu-hime... which showed the political maneuverings of Shimazu Lords to get Japan to open its borders and catch up with the rest of the world. 

Due to southern Japan modernizing quickly, using the encroachment of the west as an excuse, they needed to be able to teach people very quickly on how to adapt and learn about western technology and ideals.  The funny fact is that this started mainly in the lower house samurai ranks becuase they were the ones who were the main work horses for the house lords.  In order to teach the ways of the new world quickly, the older and more experienced members would take it upon themselves to teach and mentor the younger inexperienced members coming on or those coming of age.  This broke all sorts of rules of ettiquette, however, with the Satsuma Government becoming more and more open minded to open trade and worldly views, while it took some time eventually this bode well with  lower castes as it helped to facilitate a core group of leaders who would not have come into their own if the strict Japanese caste system were to be in place. Famous pioneers such as Saigo Takamori, Okubo Toshimichi, and Sakamoto Ryoma are big players during this period of those who came from lower houses ended up as national leaders.

Today, the Senpai/Kohai relationship has been ridiculed by some modern day Japanese saying that it is a archane practice... however, it is still heavily practiced in virtually every social strata starting from Junior High to the work place.  Generations still give way to those who came before them because they feel that they can learn from those who are more experienced. The system has also given into some abuse of those who realize they can use the system to control their juniors. Juniors are reluctant to oppose because they don't want to stick out as a troublemaker. (Deru Kugi wa Tatakareru... the nail that sticks out gets hammered)

The abuse of this practice is something I highly oppose because it can lead to hazing and a brutal continual pattern that we have seen here in the United States, for example the Greek Franternity/Soroity system utilized by Universities and Colleges.  Also... we have seen this in High School sports programs such as American Football.  Currently, in Japan with the issues of bullying, we do hear about the abuse in the Junior High and High School systems.  Some of this does carry over to martial arts or sports especially when a Senpai has the authority and the strength to back it up... looking to abuse not foster a brotherly relationship.

It is my humble opinion that those who abuse the system do not understand the system's true intent.  In Karate we have this system because we use it to push each other.  Kohai's should have the will to try and exceed their Senpai however should still have the respect for their Senpais if they do exceed their Senpai's ability.  The Senpai should push their Kohai to exceed them and should applaud them if they do so.  The ability to share their knowledge and build cameraderie is the beauty of the Senpai/Kohai system.  The ability for Karateka to be able to push and support each other is my understanding of the true intent behind the system.  This system transcends being an instructor or a master because somewhere in the world there is someone who knows more and has more experience than you do.  Somewhere in the world, there is someone who is quicker and faster than you.  How do you become better, it is to rely on your seniors, your peers, and your juniors, regardless if you are a 8th Dan Hanshi and the founder of your system. 

In martial arts... no one is self made.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Kaishugata and Timing Part 3: Go-rei and Flow of the Kata

How many times have you caught yourself just practicing the steps to a certain kata?  Have you ever wondered why certain senseis count rhythmically during kata step practice, or does your sensei just count out the steps in monotone while you practice the steps in the dojo?  If you have ever wondered this, you are not alone.

In Part 1 and 2 we talked a lot of about the differences (mainly for Goju... but may pertain to your style of Karate) of Heishugata and Kaishugata.  In Goju Ryu, we always start with Sanchin, which is one of our main Heishugatas and close with Tensho, Sanchin's counterpart of the pair of Heishugatas.  In between we have 10 Kaishugatas which may or may not be familar to you or your style of study. Here, in this article, I'd like to discuss, regardless of which Kaishugata you study, that there is an important factor in regards to the Kata's Go-rei... or step counting is crucial to help your students understand the flow of a kata.

You may be already thinking... why would step counting be crucial to the flow of a Kata?  I'll be honest, I didn't pick up on this technique until I was in my advanced ranks.  This is probably because while you are still a novice, you are earnestly trying to focus just on the patterns of techniques and not so much the Bunkai or the application. 

Just a side note... if you are trying to figure out the Bunkai before you have learned the steps (trust me... this shows your enthusiasm but there is a gradual progression you should follow)... take a step back.  Learn the steps first then have a senpai or a Sensei gradually help you with the application... trust me... it makes a big difference.  First you learn to crawl, then to walk, and finally to run.  Natural progression.

However, Bunkai is the key.  If you do not understand the application of the Kata, then you will also have issues with the flow of the Kata.  Those who have a certain mastery over a certain Kata, understand that executing the Kata is not just on a set of monotone counts.  There is a living energy to the Kata... sometimes enough that you will have to focus on playing or executing the "pauses" or the non-active parts of the Kata so that the Kata flows the way it should be.

Many of you may know the Kata, Seienchin... this Kata is the 2nd Dan required Kata along with Sanchin and Tensho for JKF testing (Japan Karatedo Federation Goju-kai).  This Kata has a lot of changes in sequence combined with change in 4 corner (NW, NE, SW, SE) enbusen.  These transitions can easily be rushed through and the practitioner can move on to the next sequence without properly finishing the series of techniques.  I see this flaw in tournament quite a bit.  While this Kata is beautiful with its large flowing upper body techniques, for someone who understands the Bunkai or application of this Kata can easily see, feel, and anticipate the movements even just by watching someone else execute the Kata.  In Kata, Seienchin, playing the "pauses" are as important as the flow of the kata... the pauses help transition and make the kata more fluid rather than trying to push through sequences.  The pauses also help with breathing through the kata.  Learning this was the key to understanding this kata in more detail.

For those who do not practice Goju, take this back and practice with some of the Kihon (basic) kata.  Try to feel the flow of the techniques.  Remember, Kata should start with a block.  All Goju Ryu katas start with a block... and then transition to counter-attack.  This should give you the intial feel of the Kata.  Work with your senpais and your senseis to understand the flow and hopefully this will give you a better understanding of your choice kata.