EDITORIAL By John Cheetham.
We have two interviews in this edition of SKM. A much requested Part Two interview with sensei Mikio Yahara as a follow-on from the last edition, and the other with sensei Hideki Okamoto the JKAís representative instructor in the Middle East for the past 37 years.
Both men adhere to the concept of "Ikken Hissatsu" (The one finishing/killing blow). And both stress the budo spirit and come down heavily on "sport" karate.
I think SKM readers know by now that we are a serious publication and the idea of featuring or publicising a Martial Arts movie would normally not even enter my head. I have no interest whatsoever in Martial Arts movies! However, for the first time I am making an exception and here is the reason why: Kids will always do karate and of course karate training is great for children, for the discipline, etiquette and respect etc. Parents worldwide will testify to this fact. However, the simple fact is that adults are not coming into the Traditional karate styles like they did twenty or thirty years ago. Traditional karate-do does not appeal to the adults of today, they donít know what karate-do is, they only see the rubbish masquerading as karate on todayís films, T.V. or in the media.
Traditional karate training can change their lives, but the plain white karate-gi, the disciplined training, philosophy and all other benefits will all be lost if things carry on as they are. And I want to do something to avoid that if at all possible, or at least try to. I feel passionately about preserving what we do, so I make no excuse whatsoever if from time to time we (SKM) have to do something different in order to continue promoting traditional karate-do. I sincerely hope you agree.
When I was sent a sample copy of the movie, 'Kuro Obi' (Black Belt), I thought, "Oh! Here we go, another load of junk." I was wrong! This film (and it's not perfect; it's predictable and rather long-winded) portrays the techniques and philosophy of Traditional karate-do, and especially one of the main precepts of Shotokan's founder, Master Gichin Funakoshi; 'Karate ni sente nashi', "There is no first attack in karate." The important thing about this movie is that the leading players (actors) are actual practicing karateka, one from Shotokan the other from Goju-ryu and of special interest to Shotokan practitioners, the main player is JKA 6th Dan instructor, Tatsuya Naka.
However, the point is that maybe a film like this will ignite some interest in the traditional aspects of our martial art to people (adults) who see through the shallow, (and that's being kind) and often un-realistic martial arts movies so far produced. Hopefully, this film will help capture the imagination of a new generation of adults.
Shotokan's father figure, Master Gichin Funakoshi, was an Okinawan, so we need to look back sometimes into karate history and grasp, as our contributor, Anthony DiFilippo describes in his article, "The Intrinsic Concepts in the Teaching of Classical Okinawan Karate." Let's keep the tradition alive!
Good health, good training. Editor.
THOUGHTS FROM JAPAN The JKA - Very Much Alive and Kicking By Dave Hooper
I have just arrived back in Bangkok after an exhilarating 600-kilometer drive from the far northeast of Thailand, completed in a very satisfying four hours and 42 minutes; not a record, but tantalizingly close. I lost a good ten minutes just outside Nakhon Ratchasima. The police, sneakily concealed behind a clump of trees at the side of the road, had set up what was probably a highly lucrative speed trap, judging by the number of vehicles they were pulling over. The first policeman who approached me was clearly not used to dealing with a farang, and immediately called for backup. The reinforcement possessed a similarly scant knowledge of the English language but nevertheless, leaned confidently into the driver’s-side window and, amidst a stream of polite-sounding Thai, mouthed the English words “two hundred baht.”—undoubtedly the limit of his foreign vocabulary and, under the circumstances, not an unreasonable sum, I decided (approximately US$5), to atone for what was clearly an excessive speeding infraction. In true Thai style, all bureaucratic formalities were dispensed with, and the smiling officer (clearly one of Nakhon Ratchasima’s finest) was content to relieve me of the burden of having to pay my “fine” in person to the relevant authorities. Now that’s what I call consideration. As I drove off with the sun still shining and my un-inspected international license still safely in my wallet, I couldn’t help thinking that Thailand probably had the best police force that money could buy.
Back in the UK, of course, corruption is much more subtle and, ironically, on a far higher scale. In fact, the police have been all but eliminated from the equation. Speeding cameras, found on every stretch of road where any driver worth his salt will inevitably exceed the ludicrously low limit that has been imposed, now electronically capture any infringement of the law, effectively criminalising the majority of the driving population. Purportedly set up as part of the great health and safety mania with which British authorities are now obsessed, they are, in reality, barely disguised revenue generators for local governments. At least in Thailand there is a certain honesty about the whole process.
However, I am in danger of getting sidetracked here before I actually begin. This article is not in any way related to the pleasures of driving in Thailand, any more than it’s concerned with the evils of motoring in Britain; it is, in fact, about the current state of the JKA in Japan. It just so happens that I once again find myself fraudulently writing my “thoughts from Japan” when I am not actually in the country.
I am back in Thailand again for essentially three reasons. Firstly, it is currently the middle of winter in Japan. It might not be the wet, grey, damp, miserable and depressing weather that typifies a British winter, but it is, nevertheless, exceedingly cold. I really do detest the cold.
Secondly, my university back in Tokyo has very generously coughed up the money for me to attend an academic conference that, as luck would have it, just happened to be taking place in Khon Kaen, Thailand. (Actually, luck had very little to do with it.) Attending conferences is, of course, one of the small perks of working for one of the most prestigious, private universities in Japan. Another, I suppose, would be the five months off every year (when we conscientious professors are, naturally, up to our eyeballs in preparation, administrative duties, and research), not to mention a not insubstantial salary. Of course, with my parking space in Tokyo costing more than the two-bathroom house that I rent year-round in central Bangkok, these things are all relative.
And thirdly, whenever my students are on vacation, I take the opportunity to visit Thailand where the weather is hot, the food is wonderful, the cost of living is low, and I can train with Omura Sensei, the chief JKA instructor for this region, and a long-term resident of Bangkok. This trip, unfortunately, my timing was a little off—Omura Sensei has just returned for a brief visit to Tokyo. However, I have been commissioned to do some teaching in his stead. I also have an invitation to visit neighbouring Cambodia to teach karate; an offer I have readily accepted.
I find that wherever I travel in the world, I meet groups and individuals practising karate who share similar views and strive towards common goals. As part of the great family of Shotokan, they inevitably look to the Japan Karate Association for leadership, or at least, reassurance that what they are doing is recognizable and legitimate. Shotokan karate, of course, has never been the sole preserve of the JKA. However, it is the direct influence of the JKA, under the former guidance and leadership of the late Nakayama Sensei, which is largely responsible for a form, style and philosophy of karate that has gained such a following throughout the world. And the question that I am invariably asked is: “So what’s going on at the JKA back in Japan?” Many of those posing the question are not actually members of the JKA themselves, nor are they linked to any group or association that has a direct affiliation. Nevertheless, it generally doesn’t take much historical investigation to trace a line back two or three generations to a Japanese instructor from the JKA. Many are still very much aware of their roots and are naturally interested in what is happening at the source. As someone who has spent roughly thirty years training at the JKA Honbu (headquarters) in Tokyo (despite still looking incredibly young in my picture), I find it equally fascinating to see what is going on outside of Japan.
A couple of days ago, I received a phone call from a young Thai student who, I had previously been informed, was going to call to invite me to his school to teach their karate club. The call lasted almost 30 minutes, at the end of which I still didn’t know the name of the school, where it was located, what days and times they trained, and when they were expecting me to come. (My Thai is still embarrassingly awful, considering the number of times I have been here; he was yet to embark on any study of the English language.) In fact, as I replaced the receiver, I wasn’t entirely convinced that it hadn’t been a wrong number. Putting down the phone, it occurred to me that in some senses, Shotokan karate itself is like a language. In different countries there are national and regional traits, rather like dialects, and within those regions, there are groups and associations that have clearly left their mark, much in the same way that speakers might be identified by their accent.
Watching a person training (or even just warming up), it is often possible to observe characteristics that reveal their karate roots, much in the same way that a person’s speech can reveal ethnic origins. The Thai after-school club (yes, I did eventually manage to sort out the arrangements) was, in many ways, typical of what I would expect from a group of Thai students. The rather regimented, disciplined environment of the dojo that Japanese students adapt to so easily is much more alien to the Thais. Similarly, the effort that most of the students were prepared to expend on their training would, by Japanese club standards, have been bordering on laziness. Punctuality in this country also seems to be a relatively unfamiliar concept, although with an archaic system based on a six-hour clock for telling the time in their na
These are, of course, generalisations. There are exceptions to every rule. (I have no doubt that somewhere in the US there are McDonald’s hamburger lovers who aren’t obese, France is probably full of individuals without a trace of arrogance, and somewhere in the world there really are excellent women drivers.) Nevertheless, cultural backgrounds and influences are inevitable and all-too-easily recognisable.tive language, I suppose I should be grateful anybody turned up at all.
Last summer, I was back in the UK where I had several opportunities to teach karate. Many of the clubs I visited were of a high standard. Although things definitely seem to be improving, some of the British characteristics of karate were still evident. The ‘natural’ tendency to remain too tense and rigid, for example, rather than keep the body soft and fluid between movements, is still rather common. Some Japanese struggle with this problem too, of course, but generally a lighter build and smaller frame does not naturally predispose the Japanese to rely on physical size and strength at the expense of technique. Also, the habit of exaggerating breathing to create sound-effects when techniques are executed has not been totally eliminated. Mercifully, however, an encouraging number now recognise that this is not the JKA way, and realise the superficiality of such kinds of showmanship.
A few weeks ago in Japan I went to see the annual Kanto Area JKA Championships, of which Tokyo is a part. A huge arena was packed with contestants, with eight court areas in operation. I went with a Japanese family whom I have got to know well and whose two sons were both competing. Eleven-year old Yu-Kun is currently the All-Japan and World Karate Champion in his age group. His older brother, Tomo, also successfully reached the best eight in the All Japans last year. Watching the elimination rounds, I couldn’t help thinking that the standard was really quite extraordinary. If the Kanto area is anything to go by (and by all accounts, the area of Kyushu is even stronger) and this process is being repeated right across the country, Japan has a great wealth of talent at the grassroots level from which the JKA can continue to grow and develop. In schools, universities, and private dojos up and down the country, JKA karate appears to be thriving.
I should at this point placate those middle-aged, Sunday-afternoon, karate keyboard warriors who will be itching to get on their computers and complain somewhere online that Dave Hooper is repeating himself yet again, and still thinks that you have to be Japanese to be a serious contender in the karate world. Au contraire! In fact, at those championships was an Englishman whose karate is exceptional, and who will, I predict, become the first non-Japanese to win the All Japan Championships. Richard Heselton, from York, came to Japan as a teenager to practice karate. He not only joined the infamous Takushoku karate club as a full-time student from which so many senior and famous JKA instructors herald, but captained it for two consecutive years. At last year’s All Japan Championships, having successfully reached the last eight the previous year, he was pitted very early on against Shimizu Sensei, the then current All Japan Champion. (I had the rather uncharitable suspicion that that early encounter wasn’t entirely down to the luck of the draw.) Shimizu Sensei had a hard fight on his hands and he knew it.
I met Richard a couple of weeks ago in downtown Shinjuku, the entertainment area of Tokyo, for a quiet beer (or several). He has a friendly and unassuming manner which belies the speed and ferocity of which he is capable on the dojo floor—it is not for nothing that he was known affectionately in his student days as “the monster!” He is not Japanese, but fully understands the language of karate which he practices without any trace of an accent. After four years of Japanese university, his spoken Japanese is pretty impressive as well. Needless to say, I left it to him to do all the ordering!
In many ways, one of the great strengths of the JKA is one of its main weaknesses. Its resistance to change—regarding karate as nothing more then a modern-day popular sport, for example—makes it an organisation that is conservative and traditional, and thus slow to promote itself adequately outside of its native Japan. The JKA has a status and reputation in its own country that precludes any need to sell itself or its image. In the modern, outside world, however, where karate is now as diverse as the countries in which it is practiced, the JKA has been too complacent in my opinion about getting its message across.
The language of karate is no longer spoken by a select few; it has grown and developed. The JKA, like the BBC in England, was once regarded as the guardian of that language, and respected for the standards that it upheld, and the level of consistency it produced. The BBC, alas, once considered the pinnacle of correct English usage and pronunciation, where each consonant was dutifully articulated, where the perfectly-formed vowels betrayed no hint of regional inconsistency, and where, God forbid, there was never any lapse in appropriate grammatical construction or slide into colloquial irregularities, has itself become a victim of the modern world. Every type of English is now equally valid and acceptable. These days, in fact, anyone unfortunate enough to have an accent that portrays an upper-middle class background or (even worse) a decent, private education, is at a serious disadvantage should they wish to seek employment with the BBC.
I could never be accused of being a snob (ask anyone I know—at least, anyone who matters), but at the risk of sounding like Professor Higgins, I find it regrettable that standards in English seem to have fallen by the wayside. Communication, it seems, is now all that matters, regardless of how ineloquent or inarticulate that communication might be. Similarly, much of what passes as modern Shotokan karate is limited by considerations about simply whether it works in competition, or how effective it is in a street situation. These are important considerations no doubt, but not central to the underlying philosophy on which JKA karate is based.
Unlike the BBC and English, the JKA can still claim to uphold the traditions of its own unique style of karate. That tradition is being carried on throughout the world by people, regardless of whether they are directly affiliated or not to the Japan Karate Association. Anyone can learn the language, but it is important to get proper exposure.
Well, I think that just about exhausts the language learning analogy, although I have to admit that when I was first in Japan, the misunderstandings I had in the karate dojo paled into insignificance in the light of some of the faux pas I made attempting to master the Japanese language. One particular incident springs immediately to mind:
I was attending a small language school twice a week, and trying to get to grips with at least some conversational Japanese. My downstairs neighbour, an elderly woman who lived alone, would encourage my efforts by always making a point of initiating conversation whenever our paths crossed. The conversation was inevitably limited to two or three pleasantries, usually concerning the weather.
One particular week I learnt the Japanese word yu-dachi—evening rain—something new to add to my vocabulary list that I could readily incorporate into the conversation at our next encounter. The opportunity arose a couple of days later. It was, at the time, the middle of the Japanese rainy season, which lasts for most of June and often well into July. It had been raining consistently every morning. I left my apartment early that morning, and as I was going down the steps, her door opened on the ground floor. She stepped out, bowed fairly formally, and articulated slowly the Japanese word for good morning—ohaiyogozaimasu—with such precision that had I never heard the word before, I could have repeated it with ease. I bowed in return and after bidding her an equally good morning, decided to comment on the abysmal weather that we had recently had to endure. If yu-dachi meant ‘evening rain,’ I reasoned, it naturally followed that asa-dachi would be the appropriate expression for ‘morning rain’ (asa is ‘morning’ in the Japanese language).
“Saikin”, I began, “asa-dachi wa sugoi desu ne” —“Recently, this ‘morning rain’ has been something else.”
It felt good to be able to not just use the Japanese I was learning in an everyday conversational situation, but also to extrapolate so successfully. Little did I know at the time that asa-dachi, far from meaning ‘morning rain’ actually translates as ‘morning erection.’
My elderly neighbour took this unexpected pronouncement quite well. The shock induced by this rather strange foreign gentleman’s apparent eagerness to share the most intimate details of his physical condition upon waking might have seriously alarmed a lesser person. As it was, she managed a non-committal response before merely beating a hasty retreat behind the safety of her own small apartment front door.
As embarrassing as this little episode turned out to be, it was not nearly as traumatic as that experienced by an old acquaintance of mine a few years later, who I shall call Rob for the sake of this article (Rob is, in fact, his real name). Like me, he had been persevering with his Japanese for some time, but was at a level that might best be described as ‘elementary.’ It was Shogatsu (New Year), and he had been invited by a Japanese lady friend up to her hometown to spend the season with her family and close relatives. This was quite an honour, and he was determined to make a good impression.
His hosts proved to be quite welcoming. Even the grandmother, who wasn’t totally convinced that having a foreigner share what clearly should be a family celebration was quite the done thing, nevertheless decided to make an effort. She had, by all accounts, been eyeing him rather suspiciously since his arrival, but as the day wore on, became gradually more amenable. With all the family assembled, and the specially prepared New Year food spread out on the table, the grandmother suddenly surprised everyone by inquiring directly whether there was anything in Japan that Rob disliked.
As it happened, two of the foods which Rob found particularly unpalatable feature prominently at New Year: manju, a kind of sweet cake, and anko, an even sweeter bean paste.
Finding himself suddenly in the spotlight, Rob was thankful that this was a question he could answer, and there was indeed something in Japan that he disliked. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to demonstrate his Japanese ability, he amalgamated the two words manju and anko, and politely informed the assembled group in his impeccable Japanese that the one thing he wasn’t able to stomach was ‘manko’ (a vagina).
This proclamation was, apparently, received with a stunned silence. Well, at least the grandmother could rest assured that her granddaughter wasn’t likely to be in any immediate danger. However, I digress once again.
To return for a moment to the JKA in Tokyo, I can well imagine that many around the world who align themselves to this organisation and willingly offer their support nevertheless feel isolated and marginalised from what is happening at the Honbu in Japan. The Japanese language is a significant barrier, and the JKA has not always gone out of its way to safeguard its interests internationally. It would be easy to misinterpret the confidence the JKA has in its own underlying philosophy of karate and its natural conservatism, as marks of arrogance and indifference. Recently, however, JKA karate has indirectly been given something of an unexpected boost on the international stage via the big screen.
Kuro-Obi (Black Belt), starring 6th dan, full-time JKA Honbu instructor Tatsuya Naka, held its world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival last year. Naka Sensei, an ex-graduate of Takushoku University, is a talented and gifted instructor, whose foray into acting seems to have been rewarded with a considerable degree of success. I won’t go into great detail here regarding the plot of the film (just enter the title on any computer search engine, and you will find several film synopses and reviews in both Japanese and English) other than to say it is set in the 1930s in Japan, and centres around three karate-ka who each aspire to receive the ‘kuro-obi’ that can only go to the rightful successor of the recently departed dojo master. It is not your usual hi-tech, special-effects martial arts movie, patronising audiences with dazzling displays of athletic frivolity. All the ‘actors’ involved are genuine karate practitioners (Naka Sensei plays opposite Akihito Yagi, son of the well-known Gojuryu master, Meitoku Yagi). The karate is authentic and powerful. In one of the early scenes where Naka Sensei obliterates his opponent with an explosive maegeri (front kick), it brought back nostalgic memories of facing him in the Takushoku karate dojo, doing jyu-ippon kumite (one-attack sparring) many years ago.
The film deals with the moral dilemma of violence and the martial arts. The two lead characters, Taikan (Naka) and Giryu (Yagi), represent opposing views: Taikan, on the dark side, relishes every opportunity to fight his opponents with force, using the skills he has acquired through training; Giryu, on the other hand, uses karate only defensively, and refuses to strike his opponents. Their diverging paths eventually lead to their own form of enlightenment, but I won’t ruin a memorable film by revealing the end.
If you have the chance to see this film, I would highly recommend it. I am, of course, outrageously biased in favour of anything that has the support of the JKA, but this low-budget film is, nevertheless, a thought-provoking work offering a rare opportunity to see real karate on the big screen.
A few weeks ago, I showed some clips from Kuro-Obi to my students at the university. I was teaching a course related to budo and culture. I asked if the students had any comments or questions, anticipating, somewhat against the odds, some insightful observation that might provoke a little philosophical speculation and discussion (hope springs eternal). After a few moments of inevitable silence, one of the girls raised her hand. I eagerly awaited her input, perhaps the precursor to a lively academic debate.
“Sensei”, she began hesitantly, “do you really have Taikan’s phone number on your mobile?”