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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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?