EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.
In these times of so much focus on the fighting/combat aspect of the martial arts, Traditional karateka need to ponder on the philosophical difference between Karate-Do for self-defence and self-preservation instead of solely Karate-jutsu, or ‘practical karate’ which is simply just fighting techniques and strategies mostly taken from karate kata. However, if that is what rocks your boat, fine, go for it. But have a think about this – will it be your main concern and training priority if you are still training in your 70s or 80s? I doubt it.
After reading this particular book, ‘Karate-do: the Art Beyond Techniques’ I knew immediately that I wanted to do an interview with this karate-man (the author). This was not the usual story of austere training in some Japanese dojo, originally started by the brilliant book ‘Moving Zen’ by C.W. Nichol in the early 1960s. That subject has been covered rather a lot.
This book is about ‘why’ we train in a martial ART – with ART being the operative word. It’s about the meaning of the ‘Do’ in Budo and in Karate-do. It was like a breath of fresh air after the other karate material that I’ve read in recent years. Therefore, I got in touch with the karate-ka in question and you’ll see that our featured interview in this edition is with the author, Sensei Albert Cheah, based in Orange County, California a former long-time student of Hidetaka Nishiyama sensei.
There’s also a great article by David Stackpole in this edition. What an important point he brings up by emphasising the idea of continuing training even in difficult times, making the effort, even when you don’t feel like going or don’t feel up to it.
The point being that just to be bothered to go, get past the dojo door and you won’t regret it. How many times have we all felt negative and then experienced the positive effect once through the dojo door had on our karate-do. A simple action, yet incredibly important for one’s self-improvement. With that in mind, I don’t know who said this, or made this statement but I love it.....
“We don’t get better on the days when you feel like going. You get better on the days when you don’t want to go, but you go anyway. If you can overcome the negative energy coming from your tired body or unmotivated mind, you will grow and become better. It won’t be the best training you have had, you won’t accomplish as much as what you usually do when you feel good, but that doesn’t matter. Growth is a long term game and the crappy days are more important.”
We have an interesting interview with South African sensei, Wendy Wannenberg 6th Dan JKA. Wendy has very traditional views on training. In fact the late sensei Stan Schmidt left an amazing legacy in that part of the world. And karateka like Wendy are carrying forward this mantle of leadership. This is not an interview focusing on the technical aspects but importantly, it’s an insight into Wendy’s philosophy of duty to the past and responsibility for the present and future.
My own article deals with a topic often discussed yet there is no concrete evidence for the answer.
Good Health, Good Training. Editor.
THE ART OF ATTENDANCE. By David Stackpole.
Karate offers so much: self-defense, global and local community, coordination, bone and muscular strength, flexibility, and, of course, internal personal development. The benefits are commensurate with the level of training, not without their costs, but always worth them.
I remember my first sensei was very traditional. We ended classes with bruises all over us. What made it hard is last week’s bruises, which were extremely sore, would mix with this week’s bruises. A second-degree black belt named Beverly once asked me to hit where there weren’t any bruises so she could make it through the ten count. It was a good challenge to our minds and spirit to see if we could continue to block equally hard with aching arms or kick with sore legs and ankles.
In those trainings we always felt like we were going to fall over but had to remain in our stances. I was young, drove an hour and a half for training and practiced every day. I’d often leave my security guard shift to go train, thanks to my supervisor who allowed it. I absolutely could not get enough of karate. From time to time, though, I’d briefly track the hands on that dojo clock like a vulture eyeing an injured opossum.
A great change would happen in most classes though. At the point of near-exhaustion, I’d get a “second-wind,” a rekindled fire in my belly that would make me “impervious” to my shaking legs. I felt this later after training three classes a day in Tokyo and revisited it a couple of years ago when training for six hours with Sensei Farid Amin at the Shotokan Karate Club of Maryland.
Like his father Najib, Farid is an inviting but no-nonsense instructor. “Go buy a gallon of water,” he said. The dojo was temperate if not cool. Really? A gallon? It was deep into afternoon as I groaned and buckled up for my long drive back to Virginia. Before turning the car key, I threw the empty gallon jug into the back seat. I was heartened to see that I could still summon a second wind, a bit of that early fire, thanks to the training of my first sensei, Sensei Horvath.
One day in Tokyo I was enjoying special instruction from a member of the Japan team between classes. We worked on keeping the back leg of kokutsu dachi under our hips while applying compression where the inner part of the leg meets the groin. I had a few hours of practice behind me and was packing up when Sensei Masahiko Tanaka walked in to teach the next class. Well, if you know anything about Sensei Tanaka, you’ll fully understand that I had to stay and train. I’m very grateful I did because I was about to get a gift from him.
Tanaka Sensei was extremely convivial that day and about midway through class he called me up to demonstrate tsuki. Now before I continue, allow me to interrupt with a little preamble: Though my experiences are comparably modest to those of other long-standing karateka, I’m strongly set against embellishing any story because, in my mind, it insults the art. With that off the table, I’ll continue.
In a modest, controlled way, Sensei performed gyaku zuki chudan. With relatively light but solid contact, he hit my sternum. Though he hit my front, the force travelled through my center and into my vertebrae, eventually causing my knees to buckle. It’s a feeling that can never be explained, fully ineffable. It must be felt.
Where others walked away with the visual message, mine was visceral, internal. Sensei looked me in the eyes and smiled as I bowed to him. My first lesson: there’s a vital need to feel one’s karate. My next lesson: You never know what revelation you’ll miss when you miss training or walk out early. I was minutes away from skipping a class that has seismically shifted how I train, think, and teach.
Quality attendance isn’t just about how often we enter the dojo, it’s also about how we train once we’re there. In 1987 I carried my sling-cradled arm to class so I could observe and learn. I thought, “well that’s dedication most wouldn’t have,” so I was pretty proud of myself. When Sensei Horvath saw me watching in street clothes, he asked what was wrong. I proudly said my arm’s hurt but I “…came to watch anyway.” Sensei tersely asked, “What’s wrong with your other arm?” I immediately went to my car and dressed out.
I eventually left my dojo for the College of William & Mary. There was no Shotokan club, so I made it an order of business to get one going. I’m happy to say the College club is still active today. One bonus of starting it is I met my wife Ellen there. Our current club at the University of Virginia has had two marriages blossom from it! There’s nothing like an oi-zuki to the face to make you fall in love, right? Like many other karateka, karate has had its hand in crafting my life both on and off the dojo floor. But I digress.
A few years after graduation, my wife and I moved to Seattle and became part of the men’s and women’s Northwest teams. About six months into training I began to have difficulty with a shifting knee cap. For a full year I wore a thick brace and took a very high stance. When I had to kick with that leg, I used my other instead, applying the lesson of never sitting out as long as a limb works – learned a decade ago but never forgotten.
Lift one hundred pounds twice a week, and in a year, you’ll be able to lift one hundred pounds. To get the most from our attendance we know we have to keep moving the needle. A culture of strong training gets us closer to realizing the Delphic oracle’s classic imperative: gnothi seauton “Know thyself,” because hard training makes it difficult to be less than honest with ourselves.
On top of personal growth, an advantage offered from burning muscles, bruises, and one on one drills is that each forces the mind to concede to “now” as it devotes attention to the body. Rather than thinking of yesterday’s business deal or tomorrow’s big exam, the shock from a strong blow to a bruised limb (or the interim dread between blows) yells to us exactly where we are and what we’re doing.
But the onus of attendance, you’d agree, doesn’t rest merely with the student. It also rests with the instructor. There’s no reason that students can’t train equally hard in a positive, uplifting environment versus that which is highly critical and martial. Indeed, it took me years to unmarry the idea of good standards with the “suck it up or get out” mentality. You might also agree that this mentality, when taken too far, can be costly.
Unlike some who prefer to hit the ocean waves at top speed with their boogie boards, I’m an ankle dipper. I start at the feet then get progressively deeper. There are students both training and waiting to train who might adopt a similar approach to karate. They’re uninitiated, not in proper shape, self-conscious, or even afraid. However, with the right guidance they can become extremely strong and dedicated. I’m not saying they need hand-holding, or are exempt from the rigors of class. But, a little sensitivity by the instructor while the student acclimatizes could result in a dedicated club member who otherwise might abandon his or her training.
Eighteen years ago, I had a Bulgarian student named Andriana who taught me this lesson. Put three damp gis on her and stack two five-pound weights on her head and she’d just top one hundred pounds, or about 45 kilograms. Andriana was very nervous about sparring, but with three years of support and gradual intensity she became a strong fighter and went to several tournaments.
As a relatively new member of JKA WF America, I can’t speak for all of its instructors, but I’ve seen Senseis Nagatomo, Coburn, and Wang demonstrate the sensitivity of which I write. Sensei Nagatomo, who presides over the organization in place of Shojiro Koyama and Shigeru Takashina, is quite masterful in this way. There is a palpable, unspoken integrity and respect that he affords every student from white belt to black and it clearly sets the tone for the entire organization. JKA WF America is demanding of its instructors who are challenged to observe detailed standards while encouraging its members without compromising those standards. There are other organizations doing similarly with instructors who, I’m sure, will attest that this balance is not necessarily an easy one.
Those who practice their karate with honest rigor and are mindful of their health outside the dojo, understand its clear benefits to their disposition, and life. Now if you’re early in your karate career, these are just words, the same words I heard when I was young, words straight out of ‘Karate-do My Way of Life’. You’ll take a few seconds to imagine and digest the idea but it remains deeply in the future, conceptual and prodigiously vague. It’s only decades later you’ll actually count how concrete, and measurable the art’s impact has been across your life. For this reason, it’s important for me to steer students against abandoning their training while helping them to reach certain standards. Why? Because there’s no way they can fully know the possible benefits that await. It’s a frangible recipe of guidance mixed with strong training that nonetheless attests karate is not a flavor everyone will enjoy no matter how many times they taste it.
Like Indian cuisine in the US, karate can be mild, spicy, or extra hot! You might decide to choose the mild version – good exercise, comradery and flexibility. That’s okay. Maybe you’ll decide to try the spicy version later. The spicy version I refer to is pushing yourself to exhaustion. It might include sucking up a hard kick to the stomach, getting a black eye or busted lip, but always being able to walk out of the dojo with a grin. These small pains are excellent teachers! I studied the spicy version when I was younger and often came into college classes with busted lips and black eyes. I once accidentally cracked the orbital around the eye of my friend Damon Carol. We trained like maniacs and I was still learning control. He went on to win the US college championship after I graduated. He was much better than I was.
I know several who practice the “hot version” of karate. Many have had to defend themselves with it. They practice kumite as though their hands and feet are swords with the standard bunkai of “I will ‘die’ or you will.” There is control, but control with great penetrating force. Someone usually winds up on the floor. I’ve trained alongside and been trained by Sensei Dwain Vaughns, an excellent instructor and fine example of this.
This version’s not for everyone, but it is the way many of the masters taught karate. There are hundreds of stories of it and anyone who has trained long enough knows this type of training makes karate dangerous and effective. What’s important is that really Phaal Curry doesn’t have versions of hot. There is only one. This is the way karate originally was, but it is often thought difficult for many students today.
All of this leads to a point. I and other instructors are passing down an art that was shown to us. My wife and I were graded by Master Okazaki who helped found the JKA, a direct student of Master Funakoshi (the Shotokan founder) and also Master Nakayama. Okazaki, a senior to most of the masters coming from Japan, was a very special instructor. My son is of the last generation that will have trained with these actual masters.
Now it is up to us instructors to pass what we can from them to you, but I say this with sobriety: We should not fit karate to us like a tailored suit, or we’ll sully it as an art. We’re the practitioners of an ideal and so, we’ll always be lower than the ideal. We cannot and should not expect it to reach down to us, we must reach up to it. We may never engage in “extra hot” karate and that’s okay. But we must set a baseline of standards and here is where we learn basic discipline. As human beings, we naturally strive for what is comfortable and generally eschew the opposite, but we can practice enduring what is not comfortable and learn to relish the results such practice brings. It takes discipline. Indeed, we’re always making decisions on whether to enter or stay outside the doorways to true training and to the dojo when we aspire for that “second wind.”
If we don’t have the discipline to simply make it to that actual door to train, where does that leave the legacy of these masters and this art? Getting to the door is the simplest discipline but it is challenging exactly because of its simplicity.
Getting to the door perhaps is even the hardest challenge. Sensei Greer Golden, who was one of the very few westerners to make it out of very difficult JKA training in the 60’s told us. “Just get to the door. I’ve never regretted going once I was in and I challenge you to see if that is true.” I took that challenge and he’s right (except for once when my wife and I totalled our car to see him – I was driving by the way). If curious, yes, we had our car towed and made it to training.
Life is temporary as we know, and it’s amazing how this art brings us together. How very fortunate we are to know the amazing people we teach and train with. I must try to pass to the next generation what I can, as best I can, working to not simplify, sully, or soften the message while still keeping students. (My first instructor had about six to eight students. When a visitor would come, we knew we were in for a hard class. He wanted to scare them from coming back to test their resolve.) That leads me to this conclusion:
A senior student of Asai Sensei said “Master Asai practiced every day. I try to follow that. It doesn’t matter how I feel. If I feel great or bad, it doesn’t matter. I practice regardless and that means my emotions don’t control my karate.”
When you don’t want to go and when you want to quit, you’re challenged. You’ll either be guided by your emotions or you’ll control them for the sake of principal and be rewarded with greater strength. You climb higher but there are always peaks and troughs as you climb. Your exercise in discipline is to remain indifferent to the lows, and the highs–just train. If this thought inspires you, I promise you will come down from that. Your discipline, our discipline, is to not let it matter.