EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.
Although they are completely different, there are in some ways similarities between the cover story with Tony Schiena and in Issue 104 with Lyoto Machida. Both are non-professional Shotokan karateka but both have their roots in Shotokan and still swear by the benefits of our system. Lyoto Machida as you may know is a UFC, MMA professional fighter and former World Champion, whereas Tony Schiena is a professional Special Services Operative. It’s quite a different story, told by WTKO Chief Instructor, Richard Amos. When I first read this article I was not sure if it was right for SKM and more in tune with a MMA-Street Self Defence type publication. However, in this case there is such a strong Shotokan connection that I decided to go ahead and feature this. It will be interesting to see the reaction of our readers?
Dr Dave Hooper’s article raises the question regarding present day training and the old-school methods, as also advocated by Tony Schiena and Tomiko Mitsuoka. All the old-school karateka out there reading this will understand perfectly what Dave Hooper is talking about because we too trained that way 30/40/50 years ago both here in the UK, in the USA, Sth Africa and many other countries worldwide. That was how it was in those days – if it was better or not is debatable!
What’s interesting is that so many from those long off days are still actively training in Shotokan dojos well into their 60s/70s and even 80s! There must be something inspirational both physically, philosophically and spiritually in what we do. I like to think so.
I watch the lengthy explanations of technique by many modern instructors on Youtube with all the students stood around with their arms folded hanging on to every word and I think ‘when are these poor sods actually going to have a go at doing these techniques, do some actual training?’ That’s why I don’t think I could cope with this modern approach, I’d want to be ‘doing’ it, not listening to how it should be done. Of course there has to be explanations/demonstrations of how best to perform a technique but at my tender age it’s great because you do a technique or movement how it feels right for your own body. We may all look different but keeping to the principles is paramount. I’m sure there’s a lot to be said for the modern approach, but also there is quite a lot of sense in the old ways too. A balance between the two would not be a bad idea.
I think sometimes we need to take a step back and see where all this started from. In our case it was not Okinawa. What the majority of today’s Shotokan karateka practise has it’s roots in early JKA Shotokan from the mid-1950’s developed by the likes of senseis Nakayama, Nishiyama, Okazaki etc, and spread around the world by their students and then later by their students.
One thing that comes across strongly in Tomiko Mitsuoka’s interview is the huge cultural difference between westerners and the Japanese. It effects how karate is perceived and taught both technically and philosophically. It’s a seriously valid point!
Good health, good training. Editor.
OUT WITH THE NEW AND IN WITH THE OLD. By Dr Dave Hooper.
Last Sunday, I attended a celebration at the Emerald Hotel in Bangkok. Fujikiyo Omura Sensei was not just celebrating his birthday but, more importantly, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his stay in Thailand, as the chief instructor and representative of the JKA. Karate was virtually unknown here when he had first accepted the challenge to come and teach; now, Thailand has hosted, amongst other events, the JKA World Championships and the 1st Asia-Oceania Championships, and has been instrumental in promoting and overseeing the spread of JKA karate-do in the surrounding region.
It was fortunate that this occasion coincided with the annual Golden Week holiday period in Japan; I was able to book a seat at a vastly inflated price on Air Asia, the local ‘budget’ airline, that despite costing more than Thai Air during this period of high demand (Thai Air, needless to say, was fully booked), makes cattle class on the national airline seem positively luxurious. Halfway into the seven-hour flight from Tokyo, I stumped up the exorbitant 200 baht for a miniature bottle of nondescript plonk to help wash away the taste of the over-priced, equally nondescript, plastic food that I’d foolishly ordered at the time of booking—never book a flight on a budget airline on an empty stomach. I had also briefly contemplated a coffee, until I had spotted the cup of liquid mud that the passenger squeezed into the space next to me was sipping disdainfully. I decided to forgo the pleasure, despite it being about the only thing on offer that was free, and reminded myself that following the path of budo often meant enduring pain, sacrifice and hardship.
Omura Sensei had made a brief speech in which he reiterated his own view and outlook on karate. He is, in many ways, very ‘old school’—in my book, an accolade if there ever was one. Karate, he said, demanded respect. Victory or defeat in the competitive arena was immaterial. Jumping up and down in celebration of a victory was contrary to everything that traditional karate stood for. Showing respect and appreciation to your opponent, regardless of the outcome, was the priority, and the measure of a traditional karate-ka.
As a former All-Japan kumite champion, Omura Sensei has had a competitive career that few will ever aspire to. His philosophy and outlook, however, have been moulded by four years of training at the infamous Takushoku University karate-do-bu as a student under Katsunori Tsuyama Sensei, and his subsequent experiences as a JKA instructor under the guidance of Masatoshi Nakayama Sensei. I wondered whether some of his younger students in Thailand fully appreciated the level of instruction to which they have access. So many instructors around the world boost their credentials with exaggerated claims of lineage to this or that famous person. For the students in Thailand, however, that lineage is simple and direct: Gichin Funakoshi, Masatoshi Nakayama and now Fujikiyo Omura. Shotokan karate may have changed and developed over that time (and rightly so), but the underlying philosophy has remained, although for how much longer is anyone’s guess.
Browsing absentmindedly on the Internet the other day—on Facebook, in fact, as reluctant as I am to admit it—I came across a video of one of the WKF celebrities giving us the benefit of his training regime. Kitted out in his over-sized karate-gi, like a pair of pyjamas that his mother might have bought him in the hope that he would eventually grow into them, and sporting the bright blue plastic foot guards and matching mitts for which the WKF has become renowned, he was surrounded by three opponents who were attacking him with a variety of techniques. For the next fifty seconds or so, emitting an almost constant high-pitched scream, he lurched in all directions, delivering a barrage of kicks, high and low, with the manic frenzy of a desperado high on PCP. Presumably, the viewer was supposed to be impressed by the pumped-up, relentless display of ferocity that continued unabated for almost a minute. Measured on the MMA-inspired scale of macho fighting prowess, I can see how it might appeal to certain tastes; those perhaps who follow the Rambo school of thought where function triumphs over form every time.
This was, incidentally, the same individual who, only a few weeks earlier, had starred in another You-Tube posting in which, during the finals of a WKF championship in Paris, he had responded to some excessive contact by resorting to an oscar-winning performance of feigned injury of which a European footballer would have been proud—a brief spell lying totally immobile on the mat was followed by an exaggerated stagger, another quick drop to the ground for dramatic effect, and then a gallant attempt to appear dazed and confused for the benefit of the doctor and the referees. His remarkable return to fitness moments later, once his opponent had been disqualified, was nothing short of miraculous.
Needless to say, his opposite number, kitted out in an equally over-sized pair of white pyjamas, but with matching red mitts and foot guards, who had, until that moment, been arrogantly gesticulating to the audience in anticipation of being awarded an ippon for what he presumed was his winning technique, suddenly found himself with nothing to boast about after all. What followed was the inevitable tantrum, after which he flounced out of the area like a spoilt child, while the crowded booed and jeered like a rabble at a bare-knuckle street brawl. All very unedifying, and far removed from the traditional karate world of respect and honour.
I was intrigued by some of the comments that viewers had posted; there were plenty of “likes” and voices of approval. At the risk of seeming churlish, there was nothing about either of the video clips that I found remotely impressive or inspiring. In fact, they epitomised everything that I dislike about the direction in which karate seems to be moving.
I concede that in any kind of competitive style of karate, there has to be a degree of compromise. The Shotokan concept of a single decisive blow with the power and force to eliminate the possibility of further physical confrontation is not wholly conducive to the sporting arena. Were karate bouts to be judged entirely objectively, then the winners would be those leaving behind the dead, the disabled and the unconscious, who would, by virtue of their incapacitation, be prohibited from progressing to the next round. On the plus side, we could dispense with the army of smartly-dressed judges and referees in their clean pressed shirts and natty blue blazers who currently have to adjudicate and decide whether a foot flapped around an opponent’s ear really is the devastatingly lethal blow that would warrant a full ippon. On the minus side, however, it would probably do little to encourage a better class of spectator.
It seems to me that in the days when Nakayama Sensei was still alive, the compromise reached by the JKA regarding championships was about right. Competition was seen as an important aspect of karate that clearly had some merit for both the participants and the organisation, but ultimately was secondary to the purpose and aim of practising karate-do. Exactly what that precise aim and purpose was, needless to say, was never spelt out; the practice of karate, as in all traditional martial arts, was seen as a road of self-discovery. There were no secrets only to be revealed to a select few; there were stages of understanding that were accessible to all through constant practice, determined effort, and a willingness to stay the course.
In those days, irrespective of the type of traditional martial art or style, and regardless of the reasons that might have prompted one to embark on such a journey, all roads seemed to lead towards a common destination. One might argue that judo, with its status as an Olympic sport, has largely veered away from its traditional roots, as the ultimate prize of an Olympic gold medal has rather overshadowed those somewhat esoteric rewards hitherto offered by traditional budo. Nevertheless, as far as Shotokan karate went, it was the JKA, under Nakayama Sensei’s guidance and leadership, which prevented people from getting sidetracked and wandering off the straight and narrow. And wherever the path might eventually lead—the JKA was neither arrogant nor presumptuous enough to suggest where that might be—continuing the journey meant more than simply aspiring to a greater level of physical prowess and performance. There was an expectation that development of character was also part of the deal. As in other spheres of life, where the acquisition of power and influence are ideally accompanied by an increased sense of responsibility, so too in the karate world: an increase in physical power and ability would hopefully progress alongside the cultivation of virtues such as humility, respect and, to use a somewhat outdated concept, ‘honour’.
With all the splits, political wrangling, and bad behaviour born from inflated egos and self-interest in the Shotokan world, one might be forgiven for becoming a little cynical regarding the lofty ideals often espoused in the name of karate-do. Japanese instructors are no less fallible than the rest of the human race, and those who insist on pushing them all onto pedestals should not be surprised when some of them occasionally tumble off. That is not, however, a reason to abandon the ethos or philosophy that underlies all of the traditional Japanese martial arts.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that many parents in Japan today are still keen to enrol their young offspring into traditional martial arts dojos. Many are not motivated by the desire to have little Taro win a medal or get a badge—not every child in Japan has to always be a winner. What they do expect, however, is that young Taro will be taught manners, he will be taught how to behave among his seniors and juniors, and he will learn the importance of individual effort in achieving goals. All very old-fashioned and unprogressive, I know, but what can you do? They’ll be having the poor little blighters kneeling on hard wooden floors next, indoctrinating them with the dojo-kun—an outdated moral code of behaviour that must be recited parrot-fashion at the beginning and end of each class—and, if we’re not careful, clipping them around the ear if they step out of line or don’t keep their guard up.
Last week, I met up with a former member of the notorious early morning JKA class, who was visiting Japan from Germany. Joining us were a handful of other former Japanese members of the class, some of whom were still training. Aragaki San, the master of the Okinawan-style bar where we were drinking, reminded me that he still hadn’t forgotten the broken ribs that I had apparently inflicted upon him during one of our frequent bouts of pre-class sparring. I reminded him that it had undoubtedly been the result of an ineffectual block on his part; a point he couldn’t really refute—the customer in a Japanese bar is always right.
The conversation had soon turned to karate. Back in the day, the JKA had been formidable. We had practised each morning, not because we enjoyed it, but because that was what we did. Being a member of the Honbu in those days was ultimately rewarding, but involved considerable effort, frequent pain and, invariably, moments of fear. As strong and fast as some of the regular members of the class clearly were, the kenshusei—the apprentice instructors—were always a whole lot better. I can still vividly recall the first time I turned around to face a partner for jyu-kumite practice, only to find one of the kenshusei staring back at me. On that very first occasion, I found myself facing Sakata Sensei.
There were usually five of the apprentice instructors training along side us in the class in those days. Although they were not yet officially instructors, we generally referred to them as sensei. I don’t remember who was actually taking the class, but it was not unusual for the last few minutes to be devoted to some free-style sparring practice. This was not the competition style of sparring with the aim of scoring a point; it was a continuos exchange of techniques, with both sides looking for openings and opportunities to try out any combination of kicks and punches, which in turn might be evaded or blocked and turned to one’s advantage. That was the theory, anyway.
I was still a first-kyu brown belt, and had not been in Japan for very long. I had, however, been there long enough to know who Sakata Sensei was, and what I could expect from his karate. (It was only a couple of years later he was to win the All Japan kumite championships.) We bowed to each other and I looked directly at him, trying to adopt an expression that conveyed a determined resolution but without any hint of insolence. Sakata Sensei seemed quite indifferent to my presence.
At the command to begin, I adopted what I thought was an appropriate fighting posture and did precisely nothing. I wasn’t really sure what was expected of me. Should I throw a kick or a punch first in my opponent’s direction? What would happen if I made contact? Would that be really impolite? I had seen the kenshusei sparring amongst themselves before the instructors’ class. They seemed to start out fairly slowly and relaxed. Should I be doing the same? Maybe I should wait for him to throw a technique first and then counter once I had blocked it. (In my naivety, it hadn’t occurred to me that blocking a determined attack from the kenshusei might be a lot easier said than done.) What were the rules, and how did we learn them? I was about to find out.
I didn’t see the kick coming, but it hit me sharply across the side of the head. Not hard enough to cause any injury, but sufficient to shock me out of my contemplative stupor. Surely he hadn’t meant to kick me that hard? I looked him in the face for any indication of anger or irritation; in fact, any emotion at all that might suggest how I should react. There was nothing. I had the distinct impression, however, that he was not going to apologise. Of that, I felt quite sure.
People around me were getting stuck in and I had yet to move. Was this Sakata Sensei’s way of telling me to attack hard? I decided that that was what was probably expected, and throwing caution to the wind, I attempted to land at least one technique on my opponent. That was to prove the correct course of action.
He parried my strikes with the nonchalance of Sydney Greenstreet swatting those recalcitrant flies in Casablanca. Had mobile phones been invented at that time, and had he received an unexpected call, I have no doubt Sakata Sensei could have chatted quite happily while continuing to brush away my rather ineffectual flurry of offensive manoeuvres. My concerted effort at a spirited attack was, at worst, a slight distraction that he could eliminate any time he chose to do so. His subsequent kicks and punches were, however, all pulled short. Had I not been prepared to attack seriously, I have no doubt that I would have received more than just that initial kick to give me encouragement.
When “yame” was eventually called, I was drenched in sweat, feeling somewhat battered, but still on my feet. Glancing briefly down the line, I had the impression I had got off lightly. One of the senior Japanese students who had been sparring with another of the kenshusei seemed to be having difficulty with the relatively simple task of breathing. I soon discovered that the one serious advantage of facing the kenshusei was that whomever you came up against next would be a walk in the park by comparison.
These days, things have changed. The daily instructors’ class—now down from six days a week to five—no longer starts at midday, thirty minutes after the morning class used to finish. Nowadays, the classes overlap, so the kenshusei are no longer in the class with the regular students. There is also a totally different mind set, almost as if JKA members are now customers who need to be kept happy rather than members who were privileged to be part of a renowned organisation. The JKA never tried to compete with other organisations or affiliations; it didn’t have to. If you didn’t like the treatment you got, you didn’t have to stay. It was never a particularly friendly place in the past, and for those who behaved inappropriately or arrogantly, it could be downright hostile.
Perhaps the current change in attitudes is simply a sign of the times, or the inevitable consequence of new leadership. A huge increase in international membership has undoubtedly precipitated some of the changes back in Japan. The old grading system has been revised and updated. Where once the grade of third dan was considered the hardest physically to attempt, with fifth dan being the highest, non-honorary grade awarded, sixth and seventh dans around the world are now two-a-penny. Perhaps the JKA is feeling under threat from a host of other political groups and associations who are doing their best to capture an every greater share of the market, especially outside of Japan. Or perhaps I’m just getting old and feeling nostalgic for the days when there seemed to be a clarity of purpose, unequivocal standards, and a supreme confidence and pride in everything associated with the JKA.
I remember once walking down a flight of steps leading to the subway in Tokyo, two or three days after a particular gruelling session in the morning class. We had been reprimanded by the sensei for a lack of spirit, and following a punishing circuit of ‘bunny-hops’ around the dojo, had spent the next forty minutes on constant kicking practice, balancing first on the right leg and then the left. Just when we had thought things couldn’t get any harder, we had had to stand in a low front stance with a partner on our shoulders. By this stage, my legs were shaking uncontrollably, and when we eventually finished, it took every ounce of concentration and effort to walk. And now, three days later, the only way I could negotiate the steps was by gripping the handrail firmly, and not bending my knees any more than was absolutely necessary.
Halfway through my precarious descent I met an elderly Japanese gentleman, ascending with an equally determined reliance on the handrail. We met in the middle and both waited; a temporary impasse. I was probably suffering more than he was, but felt obliged to make way—he was, at the very least, four times older than me. Leaving the security of the rail, I shuffled a few sideways paces out of his way. He nodded politely and ascended another two steps. I shuffled back with the gait of an arthritic penguin, and lunged for the rail again.
“Are you OK?” he asked, in flawless English.
I nodded affirmatively, and then, by way of explanation, told him I practised karate at the JKA.
He nodded gravely, and wished me luck.
Back in those days, it seemed, at least as far as the JKA was concerned, everybody knew what to expect.