Friday, 19 April 2013

Blog site has moved

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Friday, 12 April 2013

Pour the wine

My first trip to Japan took place in 1998, and I spent a month there. As part of that trip, I attended the SKIF Hombu Dojo summer gasshaku. This was not the same as the universities gasshaku I attended on a later trip, which was much more intense. This gasshaku was more of a weekend away with friends, where we did a bit of training. A run before breakfast, and two karate sessions each day, before and after lunch. Eating together, and parties in the evenings, it was a great way to get to know everyone, and I have fantastic memories of this trip.

It was on this trip that Paul Walker and I met and became friends. It was also on this trip that Tanaka Sensei and I formed a bond because of piggy-back races! We paired up to take turns carrying each other on the race back after our morning runs - childish fun and great exercise.

But the part of the trip that had most impact for me, apart from the karate training, was when Murakami Sensei took the time to try to teach me some of the Japanese culture and etiquette. Of course, I had read "Moving Zen" and "Spirit of the Empty Hand" long before then, and I had spoken with Japanese people and others familiar with Japan too, so I had some knowledge before I went. I knew enough, for example, not to jump into the baths at an onsen with my soap and back scrubber! (I have heard of others who have done so though...) But there were many things that I did not know, or did not know the finer details, and it is always important, or at least valuable, to know the details.

For example, I knew that the correct etiquette is to pour drinks for those around you, but not for yourself. But Murakami Sensei taught me the correct way to hold the bottle when pouring, and how to hold the glass when receiving, and how this changes depending on the Sempai-Kohai relationship. Equally importantly, he taught me that it is considered good manners to move around in a large group and meet with as many people as possible, rather than sticking with those you know. The pouring of drinks for others helps to facilitate such social mingling, so many of these points of etiquette are inter-related.

He taught me that at meal time, no-one starts to eat until the most senior person starts. In strict etiquette, each person starts eating in order of their relationship to the others, but in a less formal setting it is ok for everyone else to start after the senior starts.

He taught me lots of other little things too, like the difference between how a Japanese person holds chopsticks compared to a Chinese person, but these lessons themselves are not the point of this article.

Why are these little things important? Because understanding different cultures is just as important, if not more so, as understanding different languages. I am not good at languages, but I can get translators to help me with that if necessary. But I cannot get a translator to prevent me from accidentally offending people with a cultural faux pas. (See how I used a different language there?)

When I have had occasion to entertain Japanese clients in my business, I can testify that knowing how to pour a drink correctly impressed them far more than my few words of Japanese. Little things like this can help to build a strong relationship, with mutual respect at the heart of it.

So too in karate. We must learn the culture and etiquette that goes with it. We must not only learn to bow, but how to bow correctly, taking many factors into consideration. We must learn that cleaning the floor before and after training is not a menial task, but a symbol of respect and humility. We learn why a karate-gi is designed and worn how it is, and why the jacket should never be folded over the wrong way. We learn about traditions and history that put many things into context and help us to gain a deeper understanding of our chosen arts. Whether we learn the language or not - and of course it would be better if we did - we can at least learn the culture and etiquette, and gain a greater insight into our karate in this way.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Stand closer to the razor

I once grew a beard. I did it because of insecurity. I had just opened my first dojo and, at the tender age of 25, I was worried that people might think I looked too young to be taken seriously as a karate instructor. To be honest, I still doubt whether people take me seriously, but that is a different story, and maybe it is no harm. After all, I try not to take myself too seriously either.

At the time, I thought a beard might make me look more mature. I was wrong. It just made me look like a too-young, not-to-be-taken-seriously, homeless person. (Yes, there are photos. No, I am not sharing them here.) After a few months, I shaved it off for charity, and that was the end of that.

From time to time, some of my students seem to go through a similar phase of growing facial hair. When they do, I am reminded of that time and my insecurities. As part advice / part joke I sometimes tell them that they are not shaving correctly, and that it will work better if they stand closer to the razor.

That how it started - stand closer to the razor. But the phrase has become applied in a serious way in our dojo as well. When students partner up, if they are too far apart, I will often tell them to stand closer to the razor. Although, when they hear it the first time, they look at me like I have lost whatever little sense I had, when they understand the meaning they get the idea fairly quickly.

Partner training in karate must take place at a realistic distance. It is easy to defend against someone who stands so far away that they could not possibly hit you. It is only when they inside the danger zone, when they could cut you, that the all-important edge becomes part of the training. (Puns intended.) For realistic karate training, there has to be an element of fear, albeit controlled fear, and risk. The student has to know that if they don't work hard to defend, then they may get hit. Without this proximity, this (razor) edge, it is impossible to prepare for encounters in the real world. It is natural instinct when facing someone to stand at a comfortable distance, but in karate training we have to force ourselves to stand just inside that danger zone - closer than arms-length. Once we get within that range, the senses become automatically heightened and we know we have to pay attention to what is about to happen. 

I have also started thinking of the phrase in a more abstract sense. For me, "standing close to the razor" signifies the importance of taking risks in life, of living on the edge (there's that pun again), at least a little. Although it is paradoxical, don't be afraid to do something that scares you. That sentence is worth repeating and thinking about. Don't be afraid to do something that scares you. 

Karate training helps us to learn to face fear all the time. Whether it is kumite with someone in the dojo that we find intimidating, or learning difficult kata, or the more formal nervousness of grading examinations and tournaments, there are many different ways that karate teaches us to be brave. It is important that we translate this bravery into the real world, and be willing to take a risk now and again, like applying for a job that you think is beyond you, or telling your boss the great idea you have that most people wouldn't dare to do, or maybe just to stand up for yourself and others. Whatever it may be, try to face your fears and even seek them out to an extent. (But I am not taking any responsibility for any injuries caused. There is a difference between facing fears and being stupid!)

The beauty of this philosophy is that, for me, I am reminded of it every morning. When I look in the mirror and start to shave, I am reminded that, although I may risk getting cut, I have to stand close to the razor.

Friday, 29 March 2013

The white piece of paper

If there is one thing that karate people love to do more than karate training, it is talking about karate training. We all do it - reminiscing about great sessions, tournaments and experiences of the past - long into the small hours of the morning. God help any non-karate-ka who happens to be in the company of a group of karate-ka, especially if the wine is flowing. Did I say "group of karate-ka"? I wonder what the appropriate collective noun should be for karate-ka. If we have a "murder" of crows, could we have an "assassin" of karate-ka? Or perhaps a "pride" of lions should lead us to a "humble" of karate-ka? Personally, I think it should be an "obsessed" of karate-ka, but that's just my opinion.  Anyway, I digress, but it shows how karate conversations can ramble...

I was sitting outside a cafe with two other karate-ka and a work colleague recently. Fortunately my work colleague is a former karate-ka and, although he has not trained for twenty years, he still has an interest in it. If it were not for this vague curiosity of what might have been if he had kept training, he would have been totally bored for the three hours that we spent at the cafe, followed by another three hours at the pizza restaurant.

At one point we were discussing kata, and I mentioned that the most difficult kata of all is Heian Shodan. While the others nodded and at least half understood my paradoxical comment, my colleague stared at me as if I had gone mad. "But that kata is so simple!", he exploded. "All the others are much more difficult."

I sat back and smiled. Of course, I had hoped for this reaction. I told him that the other kata may be more complex, but that does not make them more difficult. The more I talked, the less he seemed to understand, so I stopped and thought about it for a minute. Then I took a little paper napkin from the holder on the table. Placing it in front of me, I asked what colour it was. "White, of course", was the reply.

"I don't see a white piece of paper", I said, pointing to different spots on the paper. "I see black flecks here, here and here. This is not perfectly white. It has many imperfections."

I could see that the others were interested in where I was going with this, and one of my friends was nodding.

"Now," I continued, "if I start to write on this paper, I will start to focus more on the writing with a white background, and less on the imperfections in the paper itself. The more I write, the less of the paper, and therefore imperfections, I will see."

Light bulbs clicked on as the analogy became obvious. Heian Shodan is the white piece of paper. We cannot hide or camouflage our imperfections when we perform such a basic, simple kata. It is this nakedness that makes it so difficult. There is nowhere to hide. The more layers of complexity that we add, the easier it is to disguise the small imperfections in our technique.

When I want to work on improving some aspect of my kata, I always start by trying to apply it to Heian Shodan. Once I get a feel for it there, then I can start looking for that same feeling in other kata. In the same way as we can isolate specific muscles in weight-training, Heian Shodan's simplicity allows us to isolate specific principles and improve them, before applying them elsewhere.

Heian Shodan may be simple, in that it is the opposite of complex, but being simple does not make it easy. What my friend realised is that the simplicity is exactly what makes it so difficult.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Correct Bunkai

Kata bunkai is one of my "things". I love the applications and interpretations of the moves and sequences in the kata. It is crucial to have an understanding of these applications, because if you are performing kata, or even any moves within a kata, without knowing what it is for then you may as well be line-dancing. Kata with meaning, with intent, is a fight. It is real budo training. Kata without meaning is just aerobics.

If you perform kata while concentrating on applications for the techniques, you move from a state of mind where you are concentrating on your movements - getting the techniques right, correcting your errors, etc, - to one where you are now projecting your intention beyond yourself and on to your (imaginary) opponents. Rather than thinking "I must perform this block and then this punch", we should be thinking "the attacker is coming at me in this way", and then react with the block and strike from the kata to deal with the situation we envisage.

While this may sound difficult to begin with, it becomes easier with practice, but it is important to always try to have your bunkai in mind before even commencing your kata.

I often get asked to teach bunkai for a particular kata, or a sequence in a kata, because people hav eneen practicing a kata sometimes for years without thinking about the applications. And, just as often, I get asked to show the “correct” bunkai. When this gets asked, I usually reply with a question of my own: What do you mean by the correct bunkai?

It appears that knowing bunkai is no longer enough. Now we have terms like “standard bunkai” and “realistic bunkai”, “self-defence bunkai” or even “tournament bunkai”.

I guess I should say that there is a fundamental difference between bunkai (application) and oyo (interpretation), but we can treat them broadly under one heading of the “meaning” of the techniques, and the same issues relate to both.

So back to the question: What is the correct bunkai?

Firstly, the answer is that it depends. If you are preparing for a grading examination and are required to demonstrate bunkai for your kata, then the chances are that there is a standard bunkai that the examiner wants to see you demonstrate. If you are concentrating on self-defence or practical applications, then something else may be more appropriate. For WKF-style tournaments, you may need something a little (or a lot) more flashy and athletic.

Are any of these more correct than the others? I don’t think so. What is important is to have any bunkai that makes sense to you so that you can perform the kata with intent. Then seek more applications for the same sequences. You may find that moves develop different “feelings” and meanings depending on what you are working on. At times, all moves may feel like strikes, but at other times you may realise that they can also be applied as holds, locks, breaks or throws. It all depends on what you are training for.

For general training, the bottom line is that that the correct bunkai is the bunkai that makes most sense to you, and is most appropriate for your current training. If it does not change the kata, and helps you understand how you are supposed to move, where your intent should be, when your kime should occur, and when to use contraction & expansion, then it is the correct bunkai for you – at that time. Just always keep your mind open to other possibilities as well.

Friday, 15 March 2013


A friend of mine emailed me recently, telling me that he was worried about whether he could really consider himself a Shotokan karate-ka any more. His reason? After having knee surgery a few months earlier, he could no longer properly do the jump in Unsu.

I have spoken about the jump in Unsu (and the other jumps, including the one in Kanazawa No Bo) at a number of seminars, and even had a discussion about this topic on facebook. My opinion is that the jumps are not so important.

Don't get me wrong - we must try to do the jumps, like any other technique, if our body allows us to do so. But just like it is ok to kick chudan if we can't kick jodan, it is ok to only half-jump, or even "walk through" the jump if we cannot do it properly. It is more important to perform the movement with the correct intent than to do it with athleticism.

The jump in Unsu is only one technique of many. Yet so many people never practice the kata because they fear the jump. They miss out on some wonderful techniques and sequences, simply because they fear one move. What a shame.

At a black belt seminar a few years ago, students were given an opportunity to demonstrate Unsu. About eight people got up to do it, one after another. I was disappointed to see that every one of them did a very poor kata, with a spectacular jump. It seemed that all they worked on was getting the jump right, but neglected the rest of the kata. This is completely the wrong way around. Get the rest of the kata right, regardless of whether the jump is right or not. Which do you think is better? A good kata with a bad jump, or a bad kata with a good jump? What worries me is that it seems that the bad kata with the impressive jump will often score higher at tournaments.

In SKIF, Kanazawa Kancho says that karate must be for life, and that our training changes as we get older. For example, he introduced Seiunchin and Seipai kata to our training because they use shiko-dachi rather than kiba-dachi. Kiba-dachi is difficult on the knees when we get older, so he says we must change to different kata that make use of different stances as we get older.

This same point is shown in the Bo kata created by Kanazawa Kancho. While Kanazawa No Bo Dai has a jump, Kanazawa No Bo Sho does not. It also uses shorter stances and fumikomi-geri instead of yoko-geri. This kata was developed specifically to allow less athletic karateka to be able to continue to practice Bo kata, even if they cannot jump or perform more difficult techniques. Therefore, Kanazawa Kancho has shown that we can adapt our training (in this case the entire kata was adapted) as we get older, but we can still get the full benefit from the training.

Don’t worry about the jumps. If your body allows you to do them, then do them to the best of your ability, and enjoy it while you can! There will come a time when you will no longer be able to jump so well, but don’t let that ruin your enjoyment of kata or karate. And you can still call yourself a Shotokan karate-ka for life, as long as you keep training.