Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, August 18, 2014

To kaisai no genri or not to kaisai no genri

How many Japanese karate terms can you say in one minute? I find this annoying--the seemingly off-handed, pompous over use of obscure foreign terms--especially when it comes up in discussion forums. What's the point? Just kidding...everyone knows the point to using jargon. The point is to intimidate or at the very least to establish one's expertise in a subtle way. There are really a number of problems here. Certainly agreed upon terminology can facilitate discussion.  When I say that a poem is a sonnet, I am hoping that the use of agreed upon terms [sonnet] bypasses a lengthy explanation of form and structure. When I ask for a monkey wrench, it's a lot quicker than trying to describe what I need. But karate terminology is not standardized. What you call a te-kube-uke, I may call a kake-uke. And one can't forget that what may be appropriate in Japan may be an affectation in the West. Remember, in Okinawa they're just counting to ten--ichi, ni, san, shi.... The other problem is that what you call a nukite, I may call a shotei. When we call a technique something--anything--we begin, however unintentionally, to assign it a meaning, an explanation, and in this case a bunkai. The solution, I suppose, is simply to describe or explain what's going on. Wait. Would that make things too clear? I mean, would it take all the mysticism out of it?
1st move in Saifa--a dropping elbow.

Just picture, for a minute, the typical dojo. The smell of incense. The quiet. Suddenly a guttural growl: "Mokuso yame." The sempai calls out. "Kiritsu." Then, "Sensei ni, rei." Everyone bows to the teacher. "Shomen ni, rei." Everyone bows to the shrine. "Mon-te ni, rei." Everyone turns and bows to each other. "Mae." Pause while everyone turns to face the front. "Kiotsuke." Everyone stands at attention. Where did all this militaristic formality come from? Was it always a part of Okinawan karate or did it come from the mainland during the years leading up to World War II? But there's little time to dwell on such things, the senior student is barking out commands again. "Sanseiru kata. Yoi." Everyone comes to ready position. Again, that guttural growl that sounds like an angry ronin from an old samurai movie. "Kamae." Everyone steps forward with the right foot and brings both arms up, sort of like Sanchin. Wait, is that a ready position or is it a technique? How do you know whether it's a ready position or a technique? It must be a ready position because the sempai said, "Kamae." No, it's just always been called that...or it's called that because who the hell knows what it is!? Is that really the way someone would ready themselves for a fight, both arms up, sort of like John L. Sullivan or some boxer conforming to the Queensbury Rules??? Couldn't be. Maybe it's a technique. Maybe it actually has a function. But of course that would imply that everything in a kata had a function and you aren't just adopting a pose or performing for an audience. Whoa, that's a pretty radical thought. No, it's not. What's really radical is thinking that everything in kata has multiple functions. That's radical. Call it what you will, but don't call it a whole lot of different things.
Grabbing the head and dropping
the forearm onto the neck
of the opponent.

Actually, that's part of the problem, that we give techniques names. The first technique of Saifa kata is described as an elbow technique. So creative karate-ka (there's those terms again) use the elbow to attack the opponent's ribs or the opponent's own elbow after he has thrown a punch. But if you attack the elbow from the side, it only takes the slightest bend of the elbow by the opponent to frustrate the attack and protect the elbow. If you bring the elbow up and over the opponent's arm, on the other hand, and drop the forearm on his arm, you can easily bring the opponent's head down. The next move is to grab the head, drop back into horse stance (shiko dachi) and attack the neck with the forearm. This, of course, raises all sorts of issues, because in most dojos teachers call this technique a uraken-uchi. The kata looks the same or very nearly when it's done, but the bunkai isuraken or, as I've seen in some cases, a rap to the chest with a backfist, which is just plain annoying.
very different. Which one is right? Well, one should ask which interpretation best conforms to martial principles, which is more realistic, and which is more lethal? The first principle here is to move in such a way that doesn't allow your opponent a second opportunity to attack. It is more realistic because you are using the response of the opponent to your first counter. It's more lethal because you are attacking the opponent's neck rather than giving him a bloody nose with a

And don't call it a mawashi-uke, because most of the time in kata it's not "receiving" anything--it's the finishing technique. Of course, that would take a pretty radical shift of perspective...but it would sure help your kaisai no genri!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

It was a slow news day

I was reading the local paper the other day, and for some reason the 1936 meeting of Okinawan karate masters came to mind. I don't think the connection was with newspapers per se, though the 1936 meeting was sponsored by the Ryukyu Shinpo newspaper publisher and, in addition to the many prominent karate
masters, government officials and newspaper men were also in attendance. That in itself makes you wonder what can happen when the government, the press, and popular opinion are brought together around a  common cause.

Of course the notes to this meeting have long been available in English in a number of books and on-line, and the possible impact it may have had on the development of karate has been a rich source of speculation, written about by many practicing karate people. I have often been amazed that real karate even survived that day, as the pressures of the times seemed to push for the development of a form of karate that could be practiced by school children, a form of karate that could be used more for physical development than self-defense, a form that might, in the process, divorce karate from its very lethal and historical origins. I've always appreciated Miyagi Chojun sensei's very adamant and clear statement that, though he might agree with the development of new kata that could be used in schools, a standard uniform, and a regulation of terms, "the classical kata must remain."

The historical atmosphere that may have fed this desire to use the martial arts as a force for cultural unification or to strengthen the youth of the nation at a time when unity and nationalism were significant concerns on the national and regional political agendas has been written about as far back as George Kerr's seminal 1958 book, Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Perhaps there were earlier books or articles as well. But I wonder less about how historians saw this period than how it was perceived by the average person sitting at the breakfast table, reading the local paper just as I was the other day.

The big story on the front page of my local paper was about an invasion of water chestnuts in the local lake. There was a picture, spread across four columns, of a couple of guys in kayaks pulling up weeds. There was another story about the loss of a dachshund from a "possible" coyote attack. The story was continued on to the back page of the section with a cute picture of the dog. At the bottom of the front page there was a story about the demolition of a barn that will be put off until next summer...when there will probably be another story about the demolition of the barn. Then there was a story of a Cambodian lawmaker who was released from jail after a human rights protest...in Phnom Penh. Inside the paper there was an op-ed piece about how diverse the city streets are, a news item about a tree in L.A. planted in memory of George Harrison that died from an insect infestation, a story on Glendale St. being closed while road work continues, and a story of an untended backpack that caused the evacuation of the courthouse--suspicious because of wires that were sticking out of it--but it belonged to the contractor working on the building. Nobody had made the connection.

I guess it was a slow news day, but it made me wonder what place an anachronistic activity such as martial arts has in the world today. Why does anyone need to learn how to defend themselves with lethal force? Certainly the view of the world we get from movies and television seems pretty violent, and that view may color the way we think about the world we live in if the theories of people like George Gerbner are to be believed. But movies and television aren't real. It's not the Middle Ages.

Of course the short answer is that most people don't study a lethal martial art...even those who study martial arts. School boy karate was not lethal back in 1936, and it's not lethal now. And most people seem to be practicing school boy karate--just watch the unrealistic demonstrations of bunkai or the tournament kata demonstrations put on simply for show. Even in more traditional schools--ones who may shun sparring or tournaments--the emphasis seems to be more on the study of a certain cultural milieu or some spiritual endeavor that will hopefully lead to enlightenment. We don't study the quite lethal practical applications of kata so much as we train the body and the spirit through the practice of courtesy, breath control, awareness, posture and proper movement; training  one's kiai and me-tsuki; learning to sit in formal mokuso. I'm not saying that these things aren't worthy subjects of study. But when this becomes the focus of your training, then there's not much difference between then and now. Just remember, "the classical kata must remain," and all that that implies. And watch out for the slow news days!