EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.
Over the years we have featured dozens of interviews with the most famous world-renowned Shotokan senseis which is hugely popular with SKM readers – but as you will know if you have subscribed to the magazine for some time, I also like to feature from time to time the rank and file, grass roots karateka who although not household names, their contribution to the Shotokan world is equally as important.
These men and women run Shotokan dojo all over the world and influence the lives of thousands of people and continue to do so year in and year out. One such karateka is featured in this edition, Andi Kidd 4th Dan, a British Shotokan instructor who quietly gets on with training and teaching the art in his own unique way, with the practical aspect of karate/self-protection being his chosen path. Yet you only need read his obvious appreciation and love for kata and its bunkai to understand where he is coming from.
It’s interesting to see the vastly different ideas and training/teaching philosophies that these grass roots instructors seem to have. Some dojo focus mainly on kihon and correct form etc, whilst others have bunkai/oyo as their main objective. Then we have the clubs with the emphasis on sport karate which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you have to remember that if the dojo is predominantly children and young adults then sport/competition could be high on the training agenda. The priorities seem to vary massively from one dojo to the next which seems like quite a modern idea, which you either agree with or you don’t! However, we all have our own preferential training/teaching methods. Having said that, I believe that without a good, solid grounding in fundamental/basic technique and centered movement, then progress will be extremely difficult and lack real depth regardless of which focus the dojo takes. I’ve witnessed this many times when kyu-grade students attempt more complex bunkai or perform advanced kata. Their movements often lack understanding and organisation which is obvious because they have not reached a certain level. Levels of ability apply to learning anything and learning the basics of something well, is a vital component be it martial arts, fencing, boxing, ballet, skiing or whatever. A solid foundation of basic technique is needed regardless of the art or sport, none more so than karate.
The article regarding errors in the translation of Gichin Funakoshi’s biography is quite fascinating as many people until now have accepted as fact/truth, the English translation of the book! The same applies regarding the history of Shotokan, as you could argue that there’s a lot of speculation, guess work. The history varies from one Shotokan sensei to another. For example, Kanazawa’s or Okazaki’s recollections of Gichin Funakoshi differ from Harada’s or Ohshima’s experiences. They are all around the same age (mid 80’s) and trained occasionally with Funakoshi in various Japanese universities in the late 1940s, early 50s. The history is important but there are several versions!
Good Health, Good Training, Editor.
EXPRESSION OVER PRECISION. By John Cheetham.
I don’t know who first said this, but it’s a great statement and excellent advice... “If you worry about what other people think, you will never be happy.” I can now liken this after all these years (40+) practising kata to how I feel now as opposed to when I was in my 20s, 30s and even 40s. Then of course I cared very much what people thought of my kata and I think that goes for everyone. It plays a massive role in one’s youth. Of course you want to impress with your kata performance, especially when we are young, it’s natural. I was no different. I remember taking my sandan under the late Enoeda sensei in 1984 at the Liverpool Red Triangle dojo and how brilliant it felt when Andy Sherry and the late Steve Cattle said that my Unsu was very good. It matters far more when we are younger. You care what other karate-ka think. In fact the difference is that when we are young, trying to impress is probably one of the most important aspects as opposed to when you are older you are doing kata (hopefully) for yourself.
Nowadays, I absolutely don’t care one iota what anyone thinks, it’s total liberation in terms of performing or demonstrating a kata. It’s just for me to be free of restraints and try and express the intent and feeling that the kata gives to me.
Not worrying about what anyone else thinks, applies to so many things in life, it’s a real old-school taboo. My generation and even more so the previous generation were obsessed with what other people thought. I can hear my mother now.... “Oh! What will the neighbours think.” I know it’s laughable now but it’s ruined so many lives. And it certainly applies to karate.
Doing kata now is so, for the want of a better word, ‘enjoyable’ for this very reason. When we are younger we thrive on what our peers and contempories think of our kata performance. It’s just so difficult to ‘let go’ when you are young. For me now, it’s not important if the gedan barai is a smaller action than before or the sharpness has gone when turning or spinning. It matters not if you don’t jump in Unsu or just do knee lifts rather than the two yoko geri’s in Nijushiho, freedom reigns! Most important is the intention and feeling you bring to the kata, small details are things of the past and only really matter in competition.
A good example should be the difference between the veteran’s kata competition and that of young competitors. If a 60 year old karate-ka is trying to do kata like a 25 year old, to my mind they have learned nothing about karate! I know it’s a competition but their (vet’s) kata should have far more depth and understanding.
When I watch a lot of the kata now, either live or on Youtube, it’s so obvious that the majority are overly obsessed with the details, to the detriment of the intention. Which is why so many kata look robotic! In fact I find it quite hard to watch thesedays as the general performance of kata has changed so drastically during the past 30/40 years. Nowadays, to me, they all look the same. And that is no exaggeration, be it Japanese, German, Italian or whatever nationality. Whereas 30/40 years ago every top kata performer were totally different in style, presentation and interpretation. Osaka’s kata, Yahara’s kata, Frank Brennan’s kata and many more had a real style of their own.
Many people were quite critical of Frank Brennan’s kata at the time, saying his stances were too low etc... which I think was unfair. Of course Frank’s stances were very low but he was a complete one-off, it worked perfectly for him because of his incredible flexibility and leg-strength, exactly what Dr Bill Laich talks about in his article in this issue. Not many people are blessed with this dual ability. Other people tried to copy Frank’s kata style and looked ridiculous – they could hardly move from one stance to the next, whereas Frank Brennan had no such problems!
To my mind it used to be far more interesting, absorbing and watchable than today’s technically perfect ‘kata athletes’. I think that because the young kata players of today are ‘coached to death’ that their kata has lost the individualism. Details, details and more details are crammed into what should be an artistic expression of the individual. Now, as I said previously, to me they all look identical.
I sincerely hope that older karateka have now, ‘let go’ and replaced fine details with real intention and in fact you could say, with real honesty, with meaningful replacing technical. Even for younger karate-ka, that simple advice at the beginning can set you free in terms of your kata performance. Just, ‘let go’ and express your feeling for the kata and it will flow far more easily than being bogged down by worrying what the other students think. Kata is all about, ‘expressing yourself’.
Overall technique has improved massively over the past 40 years or so. But what I feel has happened is because of this focus on technique, detail and precision in kata, something has been lost, and that something for me, is the ‘essence’ of the kata, it’s almost too perfect nowadays in technical terms, with finite detail being top of the agenda. As the saying goes... “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder” and kata is subjective, we all have our own opinions. I’m sure a young karateka would view the kata from 40 years ago as raw by today’s standards, and they would not be far wrong in that assumption. I think if students could focus more on expressing themselves when they get up infront of their classmates to perform a kata in the dojo, rather than worrying about the details of the kata or what the others might think etc... then their kata would be far more meaningful regardless of technical ability.
What I’m trying to get across in this short article is the idea of expressing yourself and not over-focussing on the details of the kata. Of course the details are important, but far more important is the ‘essence’ of the kata. Trying to express your own interpretation of the kata story as opposed to demonstrating a technical exercise, which kata most definitely is not! It’s also a good opportunity to show your karate level to your seniors. I’d rather watch a kata done with real intention, spirit and passion which may have some detail faults, than a technically perfect, cold rendition which expresses nothing.
Obviously, you can only begin to express yourself in a kata that has been studied and well practised. The key is not obsessing over the details. As I said before, technically karate and kata has moved on and maybe that’s good depending on your viewpoint, it’s certainly good biomechanically, with more care and knowledge regarding karate injuries.
Obviously, if you do competition kata, then you’d be crazy not to be as technically proficient as possible. However, at club/dojo level, most students don’t enter competitions. And I’m more focussed on dojo level kata and trying to get students to, ‘let go’ and express themselves. As I said in a previous article, the interpretation/performance of a kata is equally important as the study of the bunkai. However, sadly it seems that nowadays students tend to focus on one or the other. Both should be studied with equal intensity in my view.
I know from what I’ve been told that in the karate universities in Japan they do just this...focus solely on either kata or kumite, especially if they are involved in WKF tournaments. I wonder what the late Nakyama sensei would have thought about that?
Mentioning Nakayama sensei just made me remember seeing a video of a demonstration at a JKA Championships from about 40 years ago, of kata Jitte by Nakayama, Shoji and one other JKA senior, I can’t remember exactly who, but it could have been Asai sensei. It was quite simply ‘expression over precision’. I’m not saying it wasn’t precise but the intention and realism of the techniques and movements was something I haven’t witnessed in modern day kata.
The late Masatoshi Nakayama sensei was not really noted for having exceptional technique unlike Osaka sensei for example but Nakayama sensei’s kata was full of passion, realism and he demonstrated the very ‘essence’ of the kata.
Sadly for me the ‘essence’ has now been lost and I can’t see it returning anytime soon with the massive emphasis on WKF style kata competition. Looking at the photo’s of Osaka and Brennan here, they are rooted, centered, feet planted, grounded, unlike many of today’s kata athletes who just seem to make the precise ‘shapes’ of the kata stances, they don’t look grounded!
I think kata is a very personal experience and once you can ‘let go’ and don’t stress if you miss out a tiny detail, or if you don’t finish exactly on the same spot you started from and don’t worry about what others think, you then free yourself.
I know I’ve written about this before but don’t for one minute think that I am anti-bunkai training, for me the performance of a kata and the bunkai or analysis of that partictular kata go hand-in-hand.
They are not really seperate entities as many karate-ka perceive them these days. For me, you cannot express a kata well without understanding at least the basic bunkai of the kata. Or rather your own versions of the analysis.
It’s far too over-simplified to say that when you perform a kata you have to imagine the opponent, the kata is teaching us fighting principles, which we have to search for and that only comes from years of practise and study and some may never discover the principles and only think in terms of applying the techniques contained in each kata in a form of yakusoku kumite. That is just the start of understanding the ‘essence’ of the kata.
Getting back to the theme of this article, I believe that unless we can express ourselves through our own performance and interpretation of the kata, then it will never be more than an exercise.
As the great South African Shotokan sensei Stan Schmidt remarked in an interview for SKM Issue 105....
“Kata is a ‘moving example of self defense’. Without kata there is no karate – but kata is not karate. It is an expression of how we should handle enemies – whatever those may be. Consider this one element of kata; the ‘bow’ – rei – at the beginning of a kata. This is clearly an example of a valuable truth. We keep repeating the bow in our training, but are we applying this truth outside of the dojo – namely a demonstration of respect for others”.
Stan Schmidt also said...
“Kata is the classical element of the karate tradition”.
Just like classical musicians will have their own interpretation of a piece of music even though the music is standard for everyone, the sound, timing, dynamics and importantly the understanding of the piece will differ with each individual musician. The same criteria applies to kata, and I include ‘sound’ as well. The sound of a kata performed with smooth, fluent, centred movement and controlled breathing, will sound different from a heavy, stomping, power-based kata. We should all have our own individual interpretation of a kata. Most important is being at one with the kata and doing it for yourself. We should all look different. Then it should come across strongly to anyone watching that you are expressing yourself through the kata.