EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.
I really like this interview with senseis Chuck Coburn and Cheryl Coburn. In fact this is a first for SKM. We have never done an interview or Front Cover with an actual Karate couple before. It’s just an honest, sincere interview, with no unnecessary flowering or pretence. Sensei Chuck Coburn has been around the block several times but remains humble after all these years and untold experience of karate. He’s part of USA Shotokan history. Those early days in US karate were incredibly tough, they were hard men who probably would be UFC fighters in today’s world.
Sensei Peter Consterdine’s article is interesting because although Peter no longer practises Traditional karate as were his beginnings with Kimura sensei, but he stresses the absolute importance of a solid foundation in the ‘Basics’ in whichever martial art one practises. Missing this first stage, he points out, is fatal!
I like the sentiment in Stella Vassiliou’s piece. It’s important to remember the Respect element of Karate-Do which is sometimes ignored when the emphasis is always on the reality of combat/fighting.
We know that there’s a philosophical difference between Karate-Do and Karate-Jutsu. But what I’ve noticed is, how experienced karateka can often change from the ‘Jutsu’ camp, to the ‘Do’ concept, usually when they reach their mid 60s/70s or when they reach/attain the ‘Ri’ of the Shu Ha Ri stages of Karate.... It happens!
There’s an article in this edition which many readers, (who are 95% practitioners of Shotokan karate) may have issues with. However, we are all different and have varied reasons for training. Some focus on Karate-do and others on Karate jutsu as I stated before. Some train and believe in a mixture of the two. So before you read the article I have published by Andy Allen, ‘Kihon is a tool, not a Goal’, take into account this important statement he makes early in the article....“My number one reason for practicing karate is to develop practical skills for fighting and self defense, so my kihon must help achieve that goal. Good kihon is a tool, not a goal.”
You know, I really respect this honest attitude because here is a long-serving Shotokan karateka who has decided to take a different direction/path and take the fighting, practical self-defense route, which is a huge leap after many years of 3k’s Traditional karate which most of us do.
For myself, if this is what I had wanted (when I was younger and fitter of course) I’d probably have forsaken the white karate gi and bare feet, and trained solely with the UK’s Peter Consterdine, a fighting, self-defense expert, a specialist.
However, I chose the Karate-do path and have no regrets at all. Especially now I’m much older and ‘Karate for Health’ is more important than any fighting notions. That doesn’t mean I’m not vigilant to what goes on around me; ‘zanshin’ doesn’t go away after years of constant training! If anything awareness becomes even more important. You’ll have ‘your own’ motives for training, but we can still learn from each other regardless of which side of the fence we sit. Let’s stay open-minded I say.
Good Health, Good Training. Editor.
THE IMPORTANCE OF RESPECT IN KARATE: HONOURING THE PEOPLE AND THE ART. By Stella Vassiliou.
This is probably my favourite karate photograph (opposite). These women, Kiyou Shimizu and Sandra Sanchez, are two of the greatest kata competitors on earth. At this event, the 2019 Premier League in Tokyo, they achieved something unprecedented: a tie in the final of the Female Kata event. As per the rules, they had to go on to perform a second kata to be the decider and, in the end, Shimizu just got the win on her home turf. What I love about this photograph is that it portrays the absolutely unquestionable respect that these two athletes have for each other. Although they are fierce rivals on the tatami, they admire each other’s abilities, understand that they push each other to produce their best karate, and respect the hard work that they know it takes to achieve so much at this level. Genuine, heart-felt, authentic respect. Just as it should be.
One of the things that first attracted me to karate, even at 9 years old, was the culture of respect that is so intrinsic to the art and which creates a sense of mystique for those outside it. Built on Japanese culture and tradition, karate involves lots of bowing, to keep you humble and to remind you of the fact that, in this martial art, you are always learning. Those studying karate bow at the entrance of the dojo, to show respect for the training space, to previous generations of karateka and to their teacher (or Sensei). They bow to each other before sparring. They bow before they perform a kata. They bow at the end of a class, to express gratitude to their Sensei for what they have learnt. And, over time, this becomes not just a habit to cultivate, but a gesture genuinely motivated by respect and a spirit of gratitude and humility.
But what does respect actually mean? In the case of a Sensei, I think it is about acknowledging the skills, knowledge and experience of the person from whom you are learning. It’s about having a willingness to learn from them, remembering that ‘Sensei’ can mean, “one that has gone before.” Just by virtue of being further along the road, they deserve one’s admiration, for their commitment, dedication and experience.
In the case of fellow students, or lower grades, I think it’s about remembering that we all have something to learn from everyone. Despite the importance of rank in a dojo, there is no place for egos. I would never presume to give feedback to a higher grade – unless they had specifically requested it directly from me – but I also understand that there is a lot that I can learn from students of lower rank, who have skills and abilities that are different from mine.
I grew up in a very traditional dojo and, as a result, my sense of karate’s rules of respect run deep within me. Such conventions include: never walking in front of someone (and thereby blocking their view of the Sensei or the front of the dojo) if you have to move around the training space; never walking across the space diagonally, but rather in straight lines; and never turning your back on your Sensei, when you walk away from them. They also include proper respect for those of a higher grade and turning away from the front of the dojo if you need to adjust your belt or suit. These are principles based on courtesy, politeness and propriety.
In my first club, not only did students only ever address our instructor as ‘Sensei’ (even outside the dojo), but we did not expect him to call us by name (or even to know our names). A habit that I think he had adopted from his own Sensei (Kanazawa Soke) was to address individuals – especially children – as “You! Yourself!” and we just grew to accept this. We also learnt the discipline of listening, of replying “OSS!” when we were spoken to, of trying hard and of following instructions.
Even to this day – 33 years later! – I will always, always address senior grades as ‘Sensei’ and it saddens me that this does not always seem to be common practice.
My instructor, Ben Richardson, is a good friend, whom I have known for 15 years, and is therefore a minor exception. (We were also the same grade for some time, a fact of which I sometimes like to remind him!) Despite this, he is always ‘Sensei’ in the dojo and even occasionally outside it. I always really appreciate it when senior instructors come to teach courses at our club and refer to the club instructors as ‘Sensei’, in order to model those good manners to the lower grades.
Matt Price Sensei, for instance (6th Dan JKS Senior Instructor and JKS England National Squad Coach), is consistently reliable in this (as in so many things!). It might sound like an obvious thing to do, but it isn’t universal and I really value the respect of this when instructors do it.
When people start karate as adults, this culture can seem rather strange. I remember a white belt a few years ago repeatedly calling me by my first name, when he wanted to speak to me in classes that I was teaching. Really, it would be the role of another senior grade student to take to him to one side and explain this faux pas, but the black belts either didn’t hear or didn’t feel brave enough to do this. I therefore had to face the awkwardness of explaining to him myself – fully aware of how pompous and self-important I sounded! – that in the dojo, I am Stella Sensei, thank you very much. However, this was not out of some inflated sense of my own ego, but rather because this is just how traditional dojos work.
In my other life, as a teacher, I would not expect to be addressed by my first name in the classroom and the dojo is no different. This particular student has become a friend, but has rarely called me ‘Stella’ since, and I must confess, I still cringe a bit at the memory of that conversation! But it was important. If a culture is going to become climate, then everyone has to buy into it and understand it.
If you visit a good dojo, I hope you will be struck by the etiquette. Students will be in clean, ironed gis; late-comers will kneel at the edge of the mat and wait to be invited in to the class; there won’t be any bad language; students will not be talking at inappropriate times, etc. In this way, training is endowed with a certain gravitas and with a seriousness appropriate to the study of a martial art.
In competition, respect is also vital. Just like Sanchez and Shimizu, you might face a strong rival on the tatami – and they could be younger or older or a lower or higher grade – but wanting to beat them does not mean you don’t respect them. In fact, it is my view that you demonstrate the greatest respect by bringing your best karate to every match.
I have the greatest honour as a competitor when I do my absolute best to beat my opponent. That’s why I struggle so much to watch someone like the Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios on the court. His (often) unsportsmanlike behaviour is abhorrent to me. When he served underarm to Rafael Nadal in the 2019 Wimbledon championship, I couldn’t believe how angry it made me! It’s not just that he wasn’t playing fair: he was not respecting his very worthy opponent, and this deeply offended my karate sensibilities!
Of course, the best Sensei and the best competitors are those who do not merely demand your respect, but command and earn it through their own behaviour. I have enormous respect for anyone with good karate, because I know how much effort, energy and time goes into achieving that. But I have even more respect for those with good karate who explicitly respect their students. In March this year, just before COVID-19 really took the world by the scruff of the neck, I was fortunate enough to train again with the amazing Masao Kagawa Shihan, 9th dan. (Shihan is an honorific title that roughly translates to Master or Master Instructor.) Kagawa Shihan is the World Chief Instructor of the Japan Karate Shoto-Federation and, wonderfully, comes over from Japan to teach a seminar for JKS England every year. His karate is just incredible. During this year’s course, Shihan called me out to demonstrate something. This is a common feature of his coaching style and several people were called upon in the same session, but it is difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t understand, what a huge honour this is.
Kagawa Shihan is the Chairman of the Technical Committee at the World Karate Federation: what he doesn’t know about karate technique really is not worth knowing! So, if he asks you to demonstrate, this is a fantastic privilege and endorsement. What amazed me about this interaction was that, after I had finished and people were (very kindly!) clapping, he shook my hand! The generosity, humility and respect demonstrated in this simple action blew me away. Furthermore, I remember him saying on this course that he is “always learning.” Here is a man that could have an ego the size of a planet, but instead, he chooses to be mild-mannered, patient, humble and enormously respectful of his students. Who could fail to be inspired by someone like that?
Respect, then, is a central tenet of karate and a hallmark of a true martial artist. As a Sensei myself, I strive to be someone worthy of respect, both in and out of the dojo: I work hard, know very well that I have absolutely no right to any sort of ego, and genuinely respect both my teachers and my students. I am very grateful for the example of my own Sensei (plural) and my training partners at Can Do Martial Arts, who model respectful relationships and embody the spirit of true karate every day.
Of course, that level of respect is also due to the martial art itself and nowhere can this integrity be more clearly seen than in competition karate, especially kata.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that a baker has presented an incredible work of edible art to Paul Hollywood on The Great British Bake-Off, only to be told that they have prioritized style over substance. It’s a crushing blow. The cake might look impressive, but it doesn’t taste very good. The flavours or the textures or the baking technique have been overlooked. Its promising appearance is not backed up by technical skill or a fulfilling experience of eating the final product. It’s a disappointment.
Karate kata in competition can be a bit like that. In an attempt to be faster, sharper, or more stylish, it’s possible to short-cut techniques, so that although the routine may look athletic and impressive, there is no real technical skill or serious martial intention behind the moves. As the Head Coach of the England kata squad, Ady Gray Sensei, puts it: this is just making shapes. In his words, a good kata should, rather, tell a story.
As an artistic pursuit, the appreciation of kata is subjective and there is an extent to which different people – and, in particular, different referees – will likely perceive performances in different ways. At the elite level, there is less discrepancy in judging, but at lower levels, there is likely to be some significant variation in how performances of kata are judged. This is to be expected as referees will come from different styles of karate, have different levels of experience, different levels of expertise in the art themselves and different levels of training. However, in my view there are some factors that will always characterize a brilliant performance of kata and these are the things to which I continue to aspire in my training:
I always remember a training session with Matt Price Sensei, who said that, if you were accidentally to bump into someone during kata practice in the dojo, your inadvertent victim should not come out of the experience unscathed! If your moves are technically accurate, strong and focused, they should also be effective. That means that, if they make some contact, they should do some damage!
Far too many kata athletes sacrifice full technique for speed and, as a result, strikes and blocks can end up looking short and ineffectual. Shotokan karate, in particular, is characterized by three opposites: contraction and expansion; hardness and softness; slowness and speed. The first of these is vital in the generation of power. Effective use of contraction and expansion will lead to ‘big’, strong movements: like a coiled spring, the more ‘squeeze’ you can generate in preparation (without tension), the more power you can generate in execution. This is really important if your kata is going to look authentic and deliberate, rather than like an elaborate, aesthetically-pleasing, but martially-ineffective dance.
You need a real imagination to perform kata. An understanding of the bunkai, or practical application, of the moves you are performing, can be helpful, because it gives each technique a relevant context, rather than a mere place in a sequence. Every detail of a kata should be considered in relation to the imaginary opponent you are fighting throughout.
Without this intent, again, the moves can just look like shapes. The development of practical bunkai is a real skill, which often involves a far deeper understanding of kata and of karate than many athletes possess, myself included. Although team kata events at competition often involve a demonstration of the kata’s practical application, these performances can be rather flamboyant and ostentatious, both straying from the original kata and testing the audience’s belief, somewhat. Although there is no fixed, ‘correct’ interpretation of bunkai, some ideas are certainly more plausible than others, and being open to this sort of teaching, by those who do it well, can make a level of focus and concentration easier to master, as you visualize the potential impact of your movements.
As I have written elsewhere, being ‘present’ in a kata is also crucial, so that each move is performed with a conscious integration of mind and body. This kind of focus allows the athlete to perform, even when there are distractions around, and to find a calm concentration within the kata that will look potentially terrifying to an outside observer.
When Sandra Sanchez, one of the world’s greatest kata athletes, walks on to the tatami, no-one has any doubt that she means business. In her eyes, you can see not just competitiveness, but an absolute commitment to her craft, a fighting attitude and a determination to execute every individual move perfectly and with intent. This focus is also married with ‘zanshin’ – a state of awareness or alertness – that should define kata. These psychological states enable the athlete to stay in ‘the zone’ until the final bow and the end of the kata.
In spite of all of the above, it is also true that competing in kata is a performance and therefore some sense of style is important. As a musician, I like to think of this in terms of musicality. Just as an engaging, beautiful, mesmerizing, exciting piece of music should include dynamics and variation, so a thrilling kata should include contrasts in rhythm, intensity and mood. In most forms of art, monotony is boring and not enjoyable to experience.
Some of these physical dynamics are determined by the kata itself: for instance, it makes sense for a block and a counter-attack to be ‘grouped’ together rhythmically. However, there is also space for the individual’s interpretation. I love watching the Japanese athlete Kazumasa Moto of the JKS, because his kata sings to me, but also looks incredibly strong and powerful. It is both performance art and a demonstration of effective karate. Similarly, Saori Okamoto of Japan has the most amazing kata: fluent, lethal and full of colourful contrast.
This kind of performance can only be developed once the athlete has a detailed, confident knowledge and understanding of the pattern of movement. You can’t learn a kata like this initially: one’s individual performance of it evolves, as you begin to ‘own’ the kata for yourself. You might borrow aspects of style from athletes you admire, but – within the boundaries of correct technique – there is room for individuality which makes kata a brilliant vehicle for self-expression. It is therefore possible for two athletes to perform the same kata very differently, thereby showcasing their relative strengths and natural flair.
Timing is a key element of performance and can refer both to the speed at which a technique is performed and the co-ordination of all the muscle groups involved in performing a particular movement. If an athlete’s timing is good, so many other things will also fall into place: the power of the technique, the quality of the technique and also its aesthetic appeal to those watching. Younger or less experienced karateka can fall into the trap of rushing through a kata, thereby giving it the appearance of incompleteness. An excellent performance requires both speed and fluidity and absolute completion of each individual move. This is the ultimate challenge. The skill comes not from only half-finishing techniques, but from completing each movement fully and at speed, before moving on to the next.
While kata performances should be both powerful and artistic, they should also demonstrate that the athlete is in full control of his or her own body. In other words, the karateka must display good balance; the ability to move right at the maximum limit of their speed, but without compromising or shortening technique; and the ability to minimize errors or poor aspects of form.
One clear way to test this is by looking at the athlete’s stances: not just at the end of the technique, but also transitions into and out of them. Stances should be easily identifiable, strong, agile, using correct weight distribution and – as mentioned previously – completely finished. Some of my favourite athletes use their feet impressively well. Good karate is so often generated from the ground up. Their feet tell you that they are entirely in control of their movement and that their speed, timing and power are not fabricated or the result of hidden short-cuts.
A second test is posture, as the body will naturally make adjustments and compensations – such as leaning forwards or leading with the shoulders – in an attempt to generate more power or more speed. The best kata athletes complete movements with an incredible crispness and sharpness, because they are able to take their body straight to the limit of their maximum range of motion, with control, and without the postscript kind of ‘drift’ that happens if you fail to contract the relevant muscles, simultaneously, just before that maximum is reached.
Often, you can glean some sense of how a kata will be performed by the way in which the athlete announces its name, right at the start. The announcement is a statement of intent, a declaration, a commitment. It embodies the athlete’s spirit.
The founder of modern-day karate, Gichin Funakoshi, famously said, “Spirit first, technique second.” The attitude behind your kata is, in many ways, more important than the details of excellent technique. And anyway, a courageous and determined spirit is likely to seek high quality technique. Therefore, the set moments in the kata which call for a kiai should be characterized by a strong spirit, but not only those moments. That spirit should be evident, in my view, in every aspect of the performance, including the integrity to commit to the substance over style.
There are other elements of a strong kata, of course, but I’d be here all day if I were to explore all of them in detail. I think the five principles are useful guidelines by which to train and they certainly shape my own training. I am very grateful to the coaches and Sensei who have taught, modelled and demonstrated such qualities to me over many years of training, and who continue to do so.
As I get older, I will have fewer opportunities to compete and I don’t want to be left with cheap, ineffectual, short-cut kata that does not do justice to the martial art that I love: rather, I want my kata to have integrity, for as long as I am able to train, and for people to look at my karate and say, “She’s got style, but she never confuses it with substance.”
As karateka, then, let us be those who model propriety, honour, etiquette and respect, both to the art and to its people. Let’s not seek to short-cut techniques, in order to make them look more impressive, aesthetically-pleasing, faster or competition-friendly; let’s not forget to show proper respect to those who were on the path before us, or who have overtaken us, on the way; let’s take the time to encourage and motivate the white belt, remembering that we once walked in their shoes. One of the defining principles of any martial art is respect and I believe that karate should lead the way in demonstrating how a deeper understanding will lead to a humble and courteous character. Perhaps there is no better summary of these ideas than the....