Paul Mitchell

  • Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 134

    Issue 132




    STEPHANE CASTRIQUE 6th Dan SKIF. By Tom De Keersmaecker & Bart Laps.
    AIKYOKU SHODAN (KIHON KATA). By Paul Mitchell.
    ALAIN VAN DE WALLE 5th Dan JKA. Interview By Dave Paine.

    EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.

    You’ll see that we have two interviews in this edition both with senior instructors from Belgium, one from SKIF and the other from JKA. For such a small country, Belgium has produced some excellent karateka over the last 40 years.

    There are two extremely valid articles in this edition which focus on what you could term, close-range, practical street self-defence karate. Namely the articles by Graham Palmer and Andy Allen.

    However, it’s a pity that these days 3K’s karate and practical self-defence karate are spoken of as if they can’t be practised in unison. I think it’s all about personal preference. Some people prefer the percussive approach e.g. punches, various strikes, knees, elbows, kicks etc, (most ladies for example, would hardly want to be grappling or trying to put an arm-lock on a 200lb assailant!!). Others prefer to work on close-range self-defence, arm-locks, ground-work etc., so called practical karate (?) It’s all self-defence!

    Originally karate encompassed all the various types of training; be it individual techniques (you could term basics) using makiwara and sand-bag etc., bunkai/oyo (as kumite), close-range, long-range, grappling or whatever. It was all part of the karate whole. Nowadays, I think that people have different training preferences and it’s all self-preservation when it boils down to it. If you have to defend yourself, it’s fighting whether the encounter ends on the floor or with the first punch, it’s a veritable minefield!

    Many dojo who focus on practical self-defence karate, tend sometimes to overlook the fact that early kyu-grade students (e.g. below brown-belt) definitely need serious basic training. You could argue, that they need a heavy dosage of 3K’s training before attempting more complex close-range work. When doing very close-range kumite or kata bunkai, the average green/purple-belt and below can struggle, it’s quite obvious that it’s far too early in their karate development and education! They are not at this level yet. They have insufficient experience to do this type of work effectively.

    All the top senior instructors who are now teaching karate based on street self-defence have nearly always had a very long and very thorough grounding in basic training, e.g. what we call, the 3K’s.

    To be really effective at any physical endeavour, you have to have a strong basic foundation to work from, be it martial arts, golf, football, tennis, athletics, any physical sport/art you wish to name.

    Kata bunkai has no written rules or guidelines, there’s no definitive answer to what a movement actually was intended for, it’s pure conjecture. There are varying concepts. A good example is the analysis of the Shotokan blocks; uke waza, as described and demonstrated in Andy Allen’s excellent article in this issue.

    Paul Mitchell’s article is a gem in my opinion. His profound hypothesis of the principle involved in the so-called basic (?) kata (Taikyoku shodan or Kihon kata) is to me refreshingly original and different.

    Good health, good training. Editor.

    Taikyoku Shodan (Kihon Kata). By Paul Mitchell

    Dr Dave Hooper 4th Dan JKA
    Author, Paul Mitchell 5th Dan Shotokan
    and teacher of Lotus Nei Gong and Tai Chi Chuan

    As a studier of the martial arts for something like 35 years, many of them spent training in the Shotokan style of karate, I am sometimes amazed and often dismayed by the lack of thought that appears to me to be applied by the vast majority of my fellow followers of the way of karate-do when it comes to the analyzation of their particular style or system. I suppose some karateka may take exception to this remark, but they shouldn’t as this is only my opinion.

    I have many opinions that do not conform with the mainstream of the karate world. I dislike the notion of karate-do being what I consider downgraded to a sporting activity, from its original status as a genuine Budo.

    It is again only my opinion when I state that Funakoshi’s art was highjacked by the sporting fraternity upon its entry to the Japanese mainland and then its subsequent exposure to the wider world. I truly believe that these opinions are shared by many an experienced Shotokan karateka but their business brain and a need to pay the mortgage has the effect of keeping them quiet when it comes to this subject.

    It is, I believe common knowledge within the wider Shotokan world that our founder Sensei Gichin Funakoshi disliked the idea that his beloved brainchild be practised as a sporting activity. For the average person, this I think is a hard opinion to understand. Is it not true that it is through the practise of sport that human beings reach the highest pinnacle of achievement?

    My personal take on this subject is that sport is fine for the young but to base a subject such as karate-do on sports, when as all its founders stated “karate-do is training for life” is actually just about paying lip service to their words, almost as if they were simpletons, and people from a bygone age. Sporting activities have sporting heroes, by their nature they are young and lap up the adulation and glory that comes from their efforts. This is all well and good when what we are talking about is a sport such as tennis, cricket, or even boxing but when it is an activity such as karate-do, which is intended to strengthen, and deepen the trainee’s nature whilst giving them a good level of control over their ego, personally I am not so sure.

    As I stated, maybe this is hard for the average person to understand, but should ideals be dictated by average people? Again, only my personal opinion when I say, probably not. This is not directly what this article is about but it does have a connection. As a footnote to this section I just want to say that it is through this kind of dumbing down of our beloved art form that we have the natural progression into the MacDojo type of Karate school that is at present decimating martial art classes across the UK.

    It is I am afraid the dumbing down of our style of karate through the need for young people to look good whilst displaying their Shotokan karate, particularly kata that has been on my mind for a while. For me kata is the soul of karate. An individual that simply wants to do kumite and pay again lip service to kata is in my ever-humble opinion not actually doing karate, just exercising their ego.

    I was recently re-reading Dr Clive Layton’s book on Mitsusuke Harada, entitled Karate Master. In this book sensei Harada was alluding to the phenomena of when a karate student trains only kumite all other aspects of their karate devolve whereas if they train only kata all skill sets are kept intact. As I am damn sure someone of worth and renown stated “karate is kata and kata is karate”.

    134 2
    Shigeru Egami (circa 1936/37). Taikyoku shodan uses only two techniques, gedan barai–oi tsuki.
    Master Funakoshi said... “An expert will return to select this form as the ultimate training tool.”

    It is the first kata, that of Kihon or basic kata that I wish to bring to the fore in order to make my rather depressing case for my opinion that Shotokan karate-do has been dumbed down to an almost unbelievable level. Now this kata was either designed by or was a favourite training tool for no other than Sensei Funakoshi’s third son Yoshitaka. Now, those that knew and trained with Yoshitaka, such notables as Senseis Kase, Harada and his senior Sensei Egami always stated that the young Funakoshi’s skill level was “phenomenal”.

    Kihon kata I am sure has its charms but as a form it also most certainly has its limits. One stance, a downward sweep of the arm and a middle level punch. Important elements for the beginner no doubt, are they deep? Are they profound? Maybe not in its modern interpretation. Yoshitaka’s father, who I am sure many karateka quietly believe was a little simple, stated in his book, ‘Karatedo Kyohan’ that this kata was the ultimate training tool. I can personally remember reading this in said book many moons ago and thinking, I must be missing something. The complete quote from this book goes...

    “Because of its simplicity, the kata is easily learned by beginners. Never the less as its name implies (more on that in a moment) this form is of the most profound character and one which upon mastery of karate, an expert will return to select it as the ultimate training tool.”

    Wow! Kihon kata eh?

    Many readers will I am sure be aware that there was an older, and in my opinion (there you go I have got another one) wholly more appropriate one in the days of the Funakoshis. This Original name was Taikyoku shodan. There were originally between three and six kata in the Taikyoku series depending on where one reads but only the framework of the first has survived in the Shotokan style of karate. It was intentional for me to refer to the modern interpretation of this kata as a ‘framework’ of its older sibling as for me this describes it well.

    Again, depending on where you read it, Taikyoku shodan can either mean kata of the first cause, or I think more appropriately; kata of the first cause of the universe. I think most would agree that there was a definite dumbing down of the name, even if they don’t agree with the rest of this article. It was not until I began to do a bit of research for this article that I discovered that the Chinese kanji for Taikyoku is actually spelt and pronounced as Tai Chi. This was, I have to say, a very pleasing revelation for me and very much bares out my premise for this written piece.

    I am afraid I am going to do a bit of Nakayama bashing. I am sure he was great man but I don’t personally like his notion of Kime or focus. I think his style of karate-do was Okinawan karate mixed with western sports science. Like oil and water, I don’t think they mixed well. Maybe when teaching predominately young men at university who want to look good and develop a strong athletic build, his blueprint worked well but in the wider world where karate students as Funakoshi obviously wished when he stated that “karate is for everyone” come in all shapes and sizes, this method of power development is maybe not the best.

    So why do I think that Kihon kata is simply the framework of Taikyoku shodan? There is a clue in both the English translation and the Chinese kanji I think.

    Firstly, first cause of the universe. What can that mean? Again, only my opinion when I state that to me this is a reference to that oh so useful phenomena if one is a Martial Artist, being that of gravity. One stance, a downward blocking action, pulling or throwing motion and one middle level, right on the button punch.

    The framework of Kihon kata holds up Taikyoku kata, but in truth it does not want holding up, it needs letting down.

    This for me is the problem of modern kime as propagated by Sensei Nakayama, it keeps the karateka’s body weight away from the ground. Soft absorbing legs, body in free fall until the last instance just to stop from falling into the opponent is how I think Yoshitaka would have practised his forms.

    Secondly, the Chinese kanji for Taikyoku being that of Tai Chi and how this contributes to my belief system regarding all Shotokan kata and form. I have for a couple of decades or more trained in and subsequently taught Yang Family Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan). I have to say that Taikyoku shodan kata does not resemble Tai Chi in any external way. It seems quite obvious to me that it was the principles contained within this rather fundamental form that both Funakoshi’s had in mind when they formulated and taught this kata. In good, classical Taijiquan all connective tissues (basically anything wet within the body) sinks using gravity. It is through this method that we find the strange phenomena such as ‘fajin’. Could this have been the elusive skills that Yoshitaka was trying to find in his sadly brief lifespan. We will probably never know.

    It is obviously true that a novice karateka does not have the ability to utilize the gravitational pull of planet earth when learning and executing their techniques and kata, but an expert in their art certainly can. I think it was for this reason that our styles originator wrote that this very technically simple form was the ultimate training tool. It is a rare thing in this modern time I feel, for a person to train themselves in order to manifest the best possible version of themselves they can achieve in one lifetime, rather than attempting to glorify themselves. For me this lies at the heart of what some would call Budo karate. Me, I just think that this was what Sensei Gichin Funakoshi had in mind when he was instrumental in adding the suffix ‘Do’ to the karate that he taught. Well these are some of my opinions, maybe let me know yours on the subject.

    Author: Paul Mitchell 5th Dan Senior Instructor – Traditional Shotokan Karate Association (TSKA). Senior teacher – Lotus Nei Gong International Grade ‘A’ teacher – Tai Chi Union Great Britain.

    134 3
    Senior Shotokan and Shotokai Masters such as senseis Kase,
    Harada and Egami stated that Yoshitaka Funakoshi’s karate ability and skill level was ‘phenomenal’.
  • Shotokan Karate Magazine Issue 136

    SKM Issue 136




    SENSEI SONNY PILLAY 8th Dan SKISA-WKF. Interview By Clare Worth.
    LAYERS OF KATA. By Liam Murphy.

    EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.

    Although I don’t personally support or have any interest in WKF Olympic Sport Karate, I think it’s quite important for so called Traditionalists, (I think I’m maybe in that camp, coming from a JKA background) to try to understand the philosophy behind this WKF Olympic Sport Karate movement, out of pure curiosity if nothing else and in the spirit of being open-minded. It’s the way modern karate has gone, it’s a fact! With this in mind we have purposely featured sensei Sonny Pillay 8th Dan SKI-SA who is also a recognised 8th Dan within WKF. Sonny Pillay is an Ambassador for WKF Olympic Sport Karate. Interestingly he comes from a very Traditional background with Kanazawa Soke’s Shotokan Karate International Federation (SKIF) and is still involved with SKIF and Soke Kanazawa.

    However, as you will see from the interview, he is 100% behind WKF sport karate and the Olympic Sport Karate movement. He puts his argument across very well and of course, this is the opinion from a highly respected Indian karate-man who does incredibly important work with the development of the youth of South Africa, through his karate seminars.

    In order to see the other side of the coin, and the possible opposition to Olympic Sport karate, I have asked several very experienced karateka to answer one simple question regarding WKF Olympic Sport Karate’s inclusion into the 2020 Olympics. The question I asked was....

    “Why Karate should ‘not’ have chased the Olympic dream?”

    There are some extremely interesting answers to the question and quite diverse!

    After speaking at length with many different Shotokan senseis, I know for a fact that many professional instructors who run their own dojo/s as a business (it’s their sole form of income) are ‘sitting on the fence’ at the moment to see if WKF Sport Karate in the upcoming Olympics, actually takes off. And this applies even more so to all the various large karate groups/associations etc. Then if it is successful and takes off in a big way, they will probably have to embrace it! Simply for business/commercial reasons.

    The authentic karate as perpetrated by Gichin Funakoshi and his contemporaries, I sometimes wonder, what would they have thought about their karate-do becoming an Olympic sport? And we have to ask this question; who nowadays is really following the Budo path? Not many from where I sit!

    Which brings me onto this overly used phrase/expression we here all the time....

    “In my OPINION...” Blah blah blah....

    It appears that everyone and his uncle Fred has an ‘opinion’ these days, especially on social media! However, just because someone has an ‘opinion’ on karate (or any subject for that matter), doesn’t necessarily mean that their opinion has value or merit. In the art of karate-do, one needs many years of hands-on, practical experience, plus an in-depth knowledge of the art to have, and express an ‘informed opinion’ on the subject. And I feel that there’s a big difference between just a layman’s opinion and an ‘informed opinion’.

    Good Health, good training, Editor.

    LAYERS OF KATA. By Liam Murphy.

    Liam Murphy
    While jumps in kata such as Unsu, Enpi and Kanku sho can help to develop explosive power in the legs, they may do so at the expense of practical application.

    So when you perform a kata, what do you think of? Heroically smashing would be assailants, what’s for dinner, what’s on TV, that pain in your left ankle? And when you perform a kata, what do you get out of it? A workout, a sweat, a pain in the left ankle? For me, one of the great things about kata (and karate in general) is that within a single performance, or even technique, there are so many different layers and levels of involvement and so many challenges and benefits depending on your mood, age, energy levels, etc.

    One of my favourite techniques from any kata is the opening move from kanku- dai: raising your arms, bringing them down in a circular motion and finishing with a right shuto into your left palm – you know the one. The reason I like this move so much is that even though it is a relatively simple technique requiring no particular athleticism, flexibility or skill, it can still be performed at multiple levels with multiple degrees of interpretation.

    Let’s have a look at some of these levels. They can be applied to any technique or sequence in any kata, but we’ll refer back to the kanku-dai opening move because of its simplicity.


    At its most simple, the opening move of kanku-dai is a physical stretching and breathing movement, the kind you’d see in any basic exercise or calisthenics class. Like so many other karate techniques, even without understanding the movement in any depth, simply by mimicking it you will get some physical benefit. This however comes with the caveat: make sure that you are not just mimicking (however faithfully) someone else’s bad technique and damaging yourself in the process with their incorrect movement! Remember that practise does not make perfect – practise makes permanent. Only perfect practise makes perfect!

    Looking at other movements from a purely physical perspective, you’ve got positions and techniques that develop balance (eg one legged stances and pivots), lower body strength (eg deep stances and transitions) and explosive power (eg jumps). Increasing your balance, strength and explosive power will generally help to improve your overall karate (kata, kumite and kihon) so even if you’re doing these techniques without considering any deeper meaning or application, you can still benefit from them. Just make sure you’re doing them correctly!

    It’s interesting however, that a focus solely on the physical can alter the techniques of a kata. For example, a low-level kick that is very effective from an application or self-defence perspective becomes physically more challenging if it’s delivered at head height. Or a kick and turn becomes physically more challenging when it transforms into a leap, kick, spin and land. Then the level of the kick or the height of the leap becomes the objective, and the criteria by which the technique is measured rather than how easily and effectively it can be applied against an attacker with bad intensions.

    When you compare many contemporary Shotokan kata with their older equivalents from other styles, you can see this change in emphasis has taken place in several places. For example, the jumps towards the end of the Shotokan kata enpi and unsu are absent in their older Shito-ryu cousins wanshu and unshu where the corresponding movements are performed in a less dynamic manner.

    Taken to an extreme, this can result in the athletically spectacular but martially dubious kata you can witness performed at certain US-based open forms competitions (thank you YouTube).

    Biomechanics and body dynamics:

    The next layer should study the biomechanics involved in completing the technique. This involves looking at elements such as correct body alignment, when to relax and when to apply effort, engaging the joints in the right order to generate maximum power with minimum effort and basically moving your body as efficiently as possible to achieve your goal whether that be blocking, striking, turning or whatever. And this in many ways (moving your body as efficiently as possible to achieve your goal) is the essence of karate.

    By using the various techniques presented in kata to understand how your body works, you are also taking the first step towards understanding how your opponent’s body works, and with this understanding you put yourself in a better position to take advantage of their weaknesses and ultimately control their movements. But remember, the first step towards controlling your opponent’s body is understanding how your own body works.

    Liam Murphy
    The low stances and transitions in many kata help develop strength in the lower body.


    Next, after you’ve gained an understanding of how to perform a technique or sequence as correctly as possible and the physical benefits it has to offer, you can start to examine the possible meanings and applications of the movement.

    This in itself is a whole field of study that can generate heated debate (particularly among the keyboard warrior classes) about what is or is not a valid or practical application or bunkai.

    So let’s simplify things (I’m all for simple). From a fighting perspective, most kata techniques have a pretty obvious, straight forward meaning, even if this meaning might not be 100% applicable in a real world situation involving someone attacking you with bad intentions.

    Taking the first move of kanku-dai as an example, the upward movement of the arms could be blocking an attack to the head. The downward movement is grabbing and controlling the attacking arm while pulling your evil assailant off balance. Meanwhile, your other hand is coming down striking their head, kidneys or where ever has been exposed by you pulling them off balance.

    Interpreting the kata verbatim, this is all done without moving the feet. This is a pretty literal interpretation of the movement and may or may not work as intended depending on a number of factors such as the relative strength of the parties involved, speed, the fluidity of application etc.

    What it does however, is give the performer a framework of a basic application that he can then use for further exploration. This is a particularly important stage for lower grades when first learning the mechanics of a technique as it will assist in the recall of positions involved by giving them simple meanings.

    Masatoshi Nakayama
    Masatoshi Nakayama demonstrates the opening move of Kanku-dai in dramatic fashion on a cliff top at sunrise, emphasising the esoteric interpretation of the technique. (Photo by Kodansha from Nakayama’s Book ‘Dynamic Karate’).

    Once we are comfortable with the more literal application of a technique we can next start exploring enhancements and implied techniques that the kata hints towards.

    Coming back to the first move of kanku-dai once again, that opening move could be improved by pivoting the body while performing it, taking yourself off the line of attack and using the momentum of the rotation to assist in pulling your opponent off balance and adding momentum and power to your strike.

    Next you can look at the openings that the technique presents, even if the kata doesn’t explicitly include them. Very often you find that a kata puts you in a position that just begs for a particular technique to be done. For example the final two moves in bassai-sho put you in the perfect position for a front leg front kick after creating an angle to block and control your opponent.

    Returning to the opening of kanku-dai, you’re presented with a similar opportunity. Having pulled down the attacking hand and used a body rotation to unbalance your unfortunate assailant, you should now have them in a position where their body angle presents the perfect target for a nice compact front kick. Again, this technique is not in the kata (at least not there) but is presented to you on a plate and it would seem rude not to take it!

    Also, in addition to teaching particular techniques, kata also teach principles. In fact, I do not consider that karate teaches techniques but uses techniques to teach principles and this is what gives karate relevance far beyond its obvious kicking, punching, striking and blocking techniques.

    (Tangent alert!) To use a mathematical analogy, if you give a student the answer to a problem, every time they encounter that problem they will be able to solve it instantly. However, give them an even slightly different problem and they will be left scratching their head. Now, rather than give the student an instant solution, if you explain the underlying principles, they will be able to apply those principles to solve an infinite number of similar problems. Admittedly this will take longer but should better equip the student in terms of problem solving potential.

    Aaaaand back to the dojo! If you present information to a student in the context of “when your opponent does this technique, you do that” they can train to deal with a particular scenario. However, if you present information in the context of “these are the principles you apply to deal with an array of situations and solve an array of problems”, the student’s eyes will now be opened to the full potential of how karate can be applied.

    The principle might have been explained with the use of a long range upright technique making it easier to demonstrate and practise, but once that principle is fully understood it can then be applied across a variety or ranges, using arms or legs, upright or on the ground, and that once seemingly one-dimensional technique now has a world of possibilities.

    In fact, most martial arts are based around very similar principles (creating angles, exposing openings, using your opponent’s balance and momentum, utilising leverage, etc). Where they differ is in the techniques they use to train and demonstrate these principles. Often, when you look at seemingly different martial arts in terms of principles rather than techniques, many of the differences fade away.

    Even in the narrower realm of Shotokan karate, different groups and associations that seem or claim to be using alternative training systems are still using the same principles. They are just demonstrating and practising them using different techniques, often based on the physical attributes or personal preferences of the group’s founder or leader.

    End of tangent!


    So now you have a technique on a physical/callisthenic level, on a biomechanical level, as a direct application, as an implied application, and as a teaching tool for a particular principle. But (as they say in all the best infomercials) that’s not all! Movements can also have an esoteric, symbolic or artistic interpretation (remember we’re talking about a martial “art”). So you can have the earthy movements of sochin, the flowing watery movements of nijushiho, and the flighty, airy movements of enpi. And of course, the opening of kanku-dai is a prime example, where you’re connecting yourself to the sky and the elements through the triangular window created by your hands and then bringing yourself sharply back to earth joining them again in front of your hara.

    Linked to the artistic interpretation of a kata is its performance. By this I mean the dramatic performance often associated with modern competition kata, particularly of a WKF variety.

    These dramatic performances, often with exaggerated ……… pauses, angry furrowed brows, and elongated kiais, grate with many. Others consider this type of dramatised performance a natural progression for competition and a means of holding the judges’ and audience’s attention – a type of “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” performance.

    It’s interesting to compare this approach with more classical Shotokan competition performances from the likes of Osaka and Kagawa Sensei who looked almost inconvenienced by having to perform for the judges, but still managed to infuse technically near flawless performances with personality and individuality.

    It would be intriguing to see how these performances would fare in a modern competition and if they would be overlooked for lack of frowning.

    Either way, this dramatic performance element is something you can decide to include or exclude to varying degrees depending on your objective and personal preference. Note, if you want to see this taken to a whole new stratospheric level, have a look online at the performances from some of the aforementioned freestyle forms competitions.

    Masao Kagawa
    Masao Kagawa competing at the 1990 JKA World Shoto Cup. It’s interesting to compare his style of performance with that of current WKF competitors.

    Layering up:

    So now the question is, when you perform a kata, how many of these layers are you incorporating? Are you performing the kata purely as a physical exercise, are you trying to perfect the biomechanics and efficiency of each movement, are you visualising yourself applying the techniques against different attackers, are you performing the kata from a symbolic and aesthetic point of view, or are you creating a performance for the benefit of an external observer? Or perhaps you perform different techniques and combinations within a single kata with different emphasis. Also, are you focusing on a particular layer to the point where you’re altering the techniques in the kata, which is fine provided you realise this is what you’re doing.

    For me, the challenge is to perform every move with as many of these layers as possible (multitasking my way through the kata) but without altering the overall form. Of course as an exercise, I might specifically decide to change some element of the kata in order to emphasise a particular aspect that I am training on, for example changing a hand position or angle to better reflect a self defence application of a technique. However the beauty of having a standardised kata is that I can make these temporary personal alterations without fear of losing my way or my long term direction, as I simply hit the “reset” button and I’m back to the standard, common performance.

    Now if you think of each move in the 20+ traditional Shotokan kata (plus whichever additional kata you practise) this involves a lot of work and consideration. As a student, you’ve plenty to be training on, and as an instructor, you’ll never be stuck for material for a class again.

    The only question now, is where to start?