Monday, 14 April 2014

Kobudo training makes you smile!

John with Akamine sensei, at the Shimbukan dojo, Okinawa - 2012
This is going to sound a bit selfish, but one of the things I enjoy most about my kobudo training is my lack of standing; that is to say, the absence of a grade or rank. It's not that I don't see some value in a grading system if it's employed properly, but the truth is, in so many karate and kobudo groups these days, rank is sought after rather than being allowed to arrive.

When I'm in Okinawa, I split my training time between karate at the Jundokan dojo in Azato, and kobudo at the Shimbukan dojo in Tomigusuku. At first the two different practises felt just like that....different! But as the years role by I'm beginning to grasp a little feeling for kobudo, and as that feeling grows, so I have begun to note the similarities that exist between karate and kobudo.

I've reached a point where I can't imagine not practising kobudo as part of my ongoing engagement with the martial culture of Okinawa. This morning, I spent a wonderful two hours training with a student; we reviewed all six kobudo kata that we practise, spent time on bo, nunchaku, and sai kihon, and finished the training with a series of bo/sai kumite drills.

Later, after I'd showered and began to get ready for the day, I found my mind was still going over the morning training: I also found I was still smiling.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Bunkai or Bunkum..?

Is bunkai...the magic bullet..?
I often used to wonder what the next great 'fashion' in karate would be, and then a few years ago it emerged..."bunkai!" Almost over night you had to be a bunkai expert, and mastery of karate was unthinkable unless you could turn every single nudge and twitch of your body in to a deadly fighting technique....oh we go again!

Bunkai, in some quarters, has become the only measure of karate skill. Forget for a moment that the bunkai is practised against another karateka using karate techniques to attack, and never mind that in the rush to master the bunkai the principles found in the kata have been thrown away, all that matters to many these days is....when he does that, I'll do this.

Let's just put something on the record here shall we....without an intimate feeling for the principles contained within each kata, knowing what the moves may, or may not, mean, is about as much use a bullet without a gun. So...get into as much clever bunkai training as you like, but please, don't think that will bring you any closer to grasping the value of karate.  

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Giving it all away...

Jon training saifa kata on his recent visit to the Shinseidokan last month
When I play the role of teacher in karate, I try to teach by example. The example I am able to provide however is limited by my experience, so, I won't teach what I don't know. Over thirty years ago I made a choice to stop practising karate the Japanese way; at the time it was a big decision to make but having experienced Okinawan karate, I knew that for me the Japanese approach to training was no longer something I could commit myself to: so I travelled to Okinawa and started over.

Early last year a visitor arrived at the dojo from South Australia for a week of training; Jon was already nidan in Shotokan karate and ran a karate club affiliated to a well established organisation. With ten years of karate training behind him he had a good grasp of the karate he was in the process of learning, but for Jon there was something missing. He knew there was more to karate, he just didn't know how to go about getting it.

After a second visit last year Jon asked to become a student, I said no; but my refusal was not because I didn't like Jon, I did, I just wasn't sure he could stop thinking about karate in the way he had been. So I asked him, "Can you stop thinking 'Shotokan' and begin thinking 'karate'...because if you can't then nothing will change."

Let me make it perfectly clear, there is nothing wrong with Shotokan, the point I was making is this; if you think of karate in terms of 'style', any style, then you limit yourself to the true depth of what karate is. I believe karate is based on principles that work rather than a series of techniques that have to be 'mastered'. Mastering karate, it seems to me, is a myth put about by ego's that are not yet mature enough to pursue karate with integrity.

One of the few things I know for sure about karate is this, the more you let go of the 'style' you are trying to 'master', the closer you will get to absorbing the karate you are learning. Jon did manage to stop thinking in terms of style, and has become a part of the Shinseidokan; he has some way to go yet, and I'm not sure he appreciates just how much progress he has made...but then, he has a lot more giving away to do.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

A final word (for now), about the power of information...

Artist impression of the Karatedo Kaikan to be built in Tomigusuku

Of the 50 million people in the world who like to think of themselves as karateka, how many I wonder look to Okinawa for guidance? I suspect it's a lot less than the number worldwide who look to Japan. I also suspect that the vast majority of the 50 million individuals who climb into a keiko-gi of one sort or another, don't actually look past their own instructor or organisation for anything!

With the Okinawan Budokan just a kilometre or so away from the proposed site of the new Karatedo Kaikan, I have to wonder why this new building is even being considered. But apart from that, I also wonder who will use it to claim karate for themselves? But, I hear you say, the new Kaikan will be a showcase for all Okinawan karate...right? WRONG!!!

According to Mr. David Chambers, owner and publisher of Classical Fighting Arts magazine: "...the upcoming karate photographic exhibition that will be presented at the opening of the World Karate Headquarters (Karate Do Kaikan) in Okinawa contains photos only of  "The Three Styles of Okinawan Karate, Shorin-ryu, Goju-ryu, and Uechi-ryu". Additionally, at a meeting of senior karate instructors I attended in Naha last Saturday night (October 19th 2013) at which the commemorative Okinawan karate book was discussed, only Goju-ryu, Uechi-ryu, and Shorin-ryu were approved for inclusion."

If this statement by Mr Chambers is true, then it raises a number of important questions; not least of which is, what was he doing at a meeting of senior Okinawan karate instructors, he's not a karateka, he's a businessman. More important however, is the apparent attempt by some Okinawa karate instructors to control the flow of information about the various methods of karate in Okinawa. Through magazine articles, a book, and now an "official" building.....those who look to Okinawa for guidance, it seems to me, are being groomed, and I for one find that not only disappointing...but very disturbing.

Friday, 4 April 2014

What is your karate based on..?

Busaganishi and the Kempo Haku
I turned the final card over and did the last of the push-ups...there were seven of them. Not so many if that's all I had to do, but this was the final card in the deck and I'd been working my way steadily through them all over the past twenty minutes. I tried to "be in the moment" with each exercise but this morning my mind was wondering; I was thinking about the article I'm working on, the one I mentioned in the previous post.

My thoughts were drifting back and forth about the philosophical foundation upon which karatedo is based, and whether or not it still exists in any real sense these days. I'm sure many believe it does, and I'd be one of them; but I just don't come across it much in people is it rare now? And if it is rare, then how come there are so many people these days who believe they're teaching/learning karate? What exactly is the philosophy behind the activity they are involved in?

It's important to remember that a philosophy that is not lived, is nothing more than an opinion; so, if karate has been reduced to selling physical movements for money, all be it wrapped in an unaccepted philosophy (set of opinions)...then is it still karate?

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Information..the hidden power within karate!

Modern technology, making it be lazy!!!
Information is powerful, people, big business, governments even, are willing to lie, cheat, steal, and even kill for it; so it stands to reason that whoever controls the flow of information also holds great power.....but, when you begin to mess with power, then power begins to mess with you! I'm using these images of me, taken from Blitz magazine, only to illustrate the inroads the media is making across all delivery platforms, and not as a comment on the magazine, its owner, or staff; many of whom are practicing martial artists.

I've been researching an article recently that poses the following question....just who exactly holds the political and financial power in karate on Okinawa right now? I know, I know, a lot of you reading this might think the answer is a no-brainer.  I too believed, or at least hoped, it was the senior Okinawan sensei, but after a little digging around, I'm beginning to think otherwise. Business, not training, now looks to be the bedrock upon which karate is standing, and while there is nothing wrong with business per say, is it good for the future health of karate?

One form of media enhancing another
There was a time when the karate world was populated only by karateka, but that's not the case these days. Today, authentic karateka make up only a tiny fraction of the estimated 50 million who relate to being involved in karate. The rest of the population is made up of sportspeople, small businessmen, big businessmen, and a whole host of folk who haven't got a clue what the hell they are doing, or why they're doing it!

When you control the flow of information, you exercise power over those who want it. Many instructors sell information to their followers, and many organizations sell recognition and status to their instructors; but a small number of individuals have found a way to exert their influence and power in the karate world without even being a karateka; these are magazine owners and internet forum operators. Not all of them of course....but you might be surprised to learn just how many have never had a gi on in their life!

When a class "A" war criminal with yakuza connections was allowed to run the World Union of Karate Federations (W.U.K.O.) from the shadows, then it should come as no surprise that he spawned others with a similar desire to control karate for their own purposes. I believe one of his protege is active in Okinawa right now. So please consider this, the flow of information within karate has a monetary value, and the power to impact your life in ways far more damaging than you might imagine.  

Saturday, 29 March 2014

When was the last time your karate was tested..?

The late Higa Yuchoku sensei of the Kyudokan: testing a student
In the photo Higa sensei is testing the form of a student. It's a situation I've been in a great many times myself over the years, especially as a student of Higaonna Morio sensei back in the 1980's. But even when I was making my way home from his dojo through the back-streets of Makishi, my shoulders and thighs burning from the fierce slaps I received from my teacher, I never thought of the training as being particularly "testing".

Looking back to that time the physically demanding training, as tough as it was, was always the least of it for me. I was young, in my late twenties and my mind was "ready for it"....I was no athlete, but I was always ready to give all I had in training, and then to see how far my body could run on empty. In the end, that's what always stopped me. My attitude was still prepared to go further, do more...but my body would reach a point of exhaustion...and I would come to a halt.

Me at 56 years old - c2011
These days my training is nowhere near as physical as it was back then, but I'm almost 60 years old now. Even so, my training is still as challenging. I understand that the limitations I impose on myself are seldom as close as I imagine them to be; and if I can find something extra, the will to continue just a little longer, then I can push my limits back further then I thought possible.

Authentic karate training is not easy, but then, only an idiot would think that it was. Authentic karate skill is not something that comes quickly, but then, only an idiot would think that it did. Authentic karate as a benchmark for life is not popular, but then, only a businessman would try to make it so.

My kongoken weights 50 lbs (23 kg)
Time in the dojo is precious, time spent training is precious too! So I think we all do well to remember that karate is a martial art, not a martial science; therefore, knowledge and a good memory are not enough to give it life. If you don't develop a feeling for karate, then all you'll have is an ability to do karate, and doing karate seldom stands the test of time. Let's face it....the world is inundated with people who used to do karate.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Books for Sale...

Hand written poem by Kanazawa sensei
In accordance with the changes I'm making in how I engage with karate, I've decided to sell some of the books from my library, starting with those dealing with Japanese karate schools. As Shotokan is by far the most popular form of Japanese karate, I thought I'd begin by offering four books, three written by Hirokazu Kanazawa sensei, and one written about him; each book contains a different hand written poem, similar to the example above.

Both books are soft bound, in good condition, and complete
The two books (above) deal with Shotokan kata, as taught by Kanazawa sensei and practised by members of his S.K.I.F organisation.

Biographical accounts of Kanazawa sensei's life
  Karate: My Life...was written by Kanazawa sensei himself, and translated into English by Alex Bennett. This is a hard back edition and in excellent condition. Kanazawa, 10th Dan: Reflections of a Living Karate Legend - The early years (1931 - 1964), was written by the renowned British karateka and author, Dr. Clive Layon; it's a paperback edition and also in excellent condition.

If you're interested, make me an offer on one or more, be prepared to pay via PayPal, and please don't waste my time by offering stupid amounts...I'm well aware of the value of all the books in my library, even when they're not signed by the author. The books will remain on sale until the end of the month. Over the coming weeks I'll be placing more books and magazines up for sale, many signed and many quite stay tuned!

Monday, 17 March 2014

Book Review..!

The best book on Okinawan karate history I've ever read
As a writer I read a lot. The truth is, if you don't read then what you write is pretty limited. I'm fussy about the books I invest my time in though, and like a good many of you reading this blog, I've graduated from reading everything I could get my hands on about karate, to avoiding most of what is now published on the subject. In truth, in spite of the vast array of material available to karateka these days, the majority of it is of little use to the serious karateka trying to learn more about their martial art.

The book pictured above, Karate 1.0: Parameter of an Ancient Martial Art. is an epic volume; an encyclopedia of historical events and characters brought to the page from the rich culture that was Ryukyu. It's an expensive book to buy but worth every penny; for this work covers ground previously unexplored by even the most famous of karate's historians. At well over 500 pages, the information is presented in such a way as to satisfy everyone from the most scholarly academic, to the casual reader wanting to know more about the evolution of today's karate.

Andreas and me on a winter's day in Okinawa, 2008, about to ascend the ishi tatami
I met the books author, Andreas Quast for the first time in 2008 in Naha. It was his first visit to Okinawa and he was going to train at the Shimbukan dojo where I practise kobudo. Since then, Andreas has spent a considerable amount of time living in Okinawa, where, when not training, he mined the historical achieves for much of the information found in his book. With considerable skill, Andreas has laid before the reader a document detailing as never before the chronological events that lead to the birth of karate as we know it today.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. In forty years of reading about karate, I've found nothing to match the depth and scale of this volume, or the level of detailed information contained within it. If you consider yourself a karate historian, or researcher, then you need to have this book on your shelf, for without it, your understanding of karate's evolution will remain flawed. Invest in the book now, and open your mind to the real world of the Ryukyu Kingdom from which karate emerged....or remain ignorant! As always, the choice is yours......

The Unreasonable Man...

Me after morning training at the Higaonna dojo, Makishi, Okinawa, 1984
George Bernard Shaw once said, "All progress is made by the unreasonable man." His point being, that if you accept the status-quo then you are destined to remain forever in whatever situation you happen to find yourself. Progress, he contended, is made by the seemingly "unreasonable" man, the individual who asks questions and demands to see the evidence. Imagine if every new karateka did that..! I reckon a great many karate instructors reading this would have to find a new hobby.

An inability to question yourself about why you think and do the things that you think and do, will fix you in place wherever that happens to be. As a kyu level student, appearing to be unreasonable will help guard against confusing conditioning for instruction. In the learning of karate, asking questions of your teacher at the appropriate time is entirely acceptable; more importantly, asking questions of yourself is absolutely necessary!

Here's a question I sometimes ask myself when I read about karate instructors teaching self-defence, or 'real' karate bunkai..."I wonder if they have any paperwork!" I'm talking about the charge sheets issued by the police when they were arrested for taking the guy(s) out. Or better still, the prison release form they were issued when they finished their sentence as a violent offender!

So, if you haven't already become conditioned into accepting the status-quo, now is as good time as any to start asking questions. But don't waste too much time asked them of others, instead, aim your questions at yourself; and when the answers start to come, ask yourself what you're going to do next.