Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, September 01, 2014

The structure of kata

Upper-level palm strike
from Tensho kata
Here's a thought. Miyagi Chojun sensei begins training with Higaonna sensei sometime around the turn of the 20th century, more than a hundred years ago. After fourteen or fifteen years of training, he takes a trip to China with Gokenki. While they are there, he sees some hand movements that he finds interesting enough to incorporate into a rather simple training pattern--Tensho kata. Now one can imagine that fifteen years of training under Higaonna was probably sufficient to learn whatever system it was that Higaonna taught. One can also imagine that Miyagi sensei did a fair amount of talking and training with Gokenki, by some accounts an influential White Crane teacher. So all of this raises some questions for me. What was it about the techniques we find in Tensho that were so important to Miyagi sensei that he felt it necessary to include in his Goju-ryu curriculum? The assumption is, of course, that there is no need to make a new kata that merely duplicates things that can already be found within the system. So the question is, what did Miyagi sensei feel was missing? Why is there nothing borrowed from Gokenki in Miyagi's system of Goju? What is so unique about the movements of Tensho?
Rising block from
Tensho kata

I wrote about this question in an article for the sadly no longer publishing Journal of Asian Martial Arts (Politics and Karate: Historical Influences on the Practice of Goju-ryu, vol. 16, no. 3, 2007) in an attempt to, at the very least, instigate some discussion of form and structure, and the relationship between kata and bunkai. But there is so much that gets misconstrued. In fact, I was misquoted on a number of forums and criticized for trying to fit Tensho into the mold of a bunkai-based kata--like a square peg in a round hole--instead of seeing it as it was intended to be seen, as an internal training method. I'm not sure I understand how this person--who didn't train Goju and was only peripherally familiar with its katas--was sure what Miyagi sensei intended, or how he was so quick to assess what I knew or didn't know, never having met fact-to-face, but that's the nature of the Internet, I suppose. And while we're on the subject of stuff I don't really get, why limit one's internal training to one kata?  In fact, I'm not sure I really understand the distinction many people make between hard and soft after thirty years of training--they're inter-twined really. Wikipedia tells us that "Sanchin kata...is one of two core katas of this
Upper-level palm strike
that would follow the
rising block
style. The second kata is called Tensho...." I'm not sure I even understand why fundamental but elementary kata--meant to teach stance, breathing, posture and alignment--are called "core" kata. And how can a core kata of a system be one that was created after the fact? A core kata should teach more about the principles of movement and self-defense than either of these, shouldn't it?

Which brings me to my main point here: Why did Miyagi sensei put the techniques of Tensho kata together in the way he did? Supposing my initial analysis to be correct, the first technique of Tensho (excluding the three Sanchin-like punches in the Higa version of the kata) is a right open-hand jodan block followed by a right hand jodan shuto attack. The third technique is a jodan-level palm strike. This is followed by a gedan-level palm strike. The fifth and sixth techniques are a rising block followed by a downward block. The seventh technique is a mid-level outward block, and the eighth technique is a mid-level palm strike. The question is, why not keep all of the blocks and attacks together? That is, why not follow each block with the appropriate attack? Wouldn't this be the simplest and the clearest method of transmitting intent? I know there are any number of possible explanations. Perhaps it flows better this way, etc. But the funny thing is that this sort of "interrupted" structure is exactly what we see--and so seldom recognize--in the Goju classical subjects. We see the opening or receiving technique (uke) done on one side and then repeated on the other side, but the finishing technique only tacked onto the second repetition. This is what we see in the repetition of the double "elbow" techniques in Seiunchin kata, for example. We may even see the controlling or bridging technique without the receiving technique--again, a structure that repeats in a number of the classical kata--and the finishing technique tacked onto the second side or second repetition. This sort of structure is found over and over again in an analysis of Goju kata--it's one of the key principles to analyzing kata and discovering bunkai--but if you're not aware of it, it seems needlessly confusing. If you're not aware of it, it leads to the sort of piecemeal interpretation of kata and bunkai that seems so prevalent on the Internet.
One of four "elbow" techniques
from Seiunchin kata (or is it half
of two "elbow" techniques!?)

So what's with Tensho? This is by all accounts a kata that Miyagi sensei made. In other words, we can supposedly see intentional structure. The stepping pattern and stance work is obviously taken from Sanchin. But supposing I am correct about the applications of the hand techniques--and I'll be the first to acknowledge that I could be wrong--then why put it together in a way that seems at the very least ambiguous, if not intentionally confusing. Here's a thought, though: At least it's confusing in the same way all of the other kata are. What's that tell you?

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!