Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Our Asian Infatuation

Our Asian Infatuation

My lifelong involvement with the martial arts began when I was five years old.  That’s when a kid down the street began cleaning my clock on a regular basis, and after coming home battered and bruised one too many times mom told pop that it was time I learned how to fight.
          My father, an Army veteran, had boxed and played judo while stationed on Okinawa during the early 1950’s. He once described the island as being “war torn and small, a place where there wasn’t much to do,” and for recreation he spent his off duty hours in the post gymnasium working out or in the enlisted man’s club drinking beer.
 The martial prowess dad acquired on Okinawa was passed on to me with simple, but easy to understand instructions. For instance he would say: “This is a hip throw, use it to get your opponent on the ground so you can stomp the bejesus out of them” or “this is an uppercut, hit em in the breadbasket and when they double over, you’ve really got em.” Not once did I hear him utter something mystical and profane such as “embrace the mountain grass hopper, and you’ll become one with it.”
 Dad’s style of fighting combined both Asian and Western strategies into a simple, but effect means of self- defense.  Needless to say there was little fanfare during our training, but on the appointed day when it came time to confront my aggressor everything worked like a charm. With one punch to the nose I sent the bully next door home in tears and from that day on he never laid a hand on me again.
Ten years later my Isshinryu training began at the Harold Long School of Karate.   Mr. Long was a Marine Corp veteran as well as a living legend throughout the Southeastern United States. He had studied Karate while stationed on Okinawa and after being discharged from the Marines he began teaching in Knoxville, TN.
 Like all things related to the Marines, Mr. Long’s classes were very demanding and for those who couldn’t keep up he freely encouraged them to leave. He was a tough man who tolerated no nonsense and his instructors were a mix of police officers, professional bouncers, rough country boys and college students who fought like angry bobcats. Getting hurt during training was common and once I was punched so hard in the spine that I couldn’t feel the left side of my body for a week. I never told my parents though because I was afraid they’d make me quit karate.
 Although we studied kata, much of our time was spent free-sparring which in those days amounted to bare-knuckle brawling since foam safety equipment wasn’t very popular. One exacting drill we used was called “Bull in the ring”. It involved having ten people stand in a line outside the sparring ring, while one lone individual waited on the inside. At the command of go, each of the ten people outside the ring would run in and fight the lone person for thirty seconds before being replaced by someone else. If nothing else the drill helped you develop intestinal fortitude while receiving an agonizing beating.
Despite the quality and severity of our training there was an underlying assumption that the Okinawan’s and Japanese were better karate-ka than we were.  Many of us felt this way because for one, karate was born on Okinawa and two since it was an Asian fighting art we naturally assumed the Asians would practice it better. However when I expressed this opinion to my father he always replied: “If Japanese were such great fighters then why did they loose the war?” Needless to say his answer irritated me, but subconsciously I realized his first hand experiences outweighed my Asian infatuation.
Over the course of the following decade my estimates of Asian Fighting Arts practitioners rose continuously until I was employed by a Japanese electronics firm. Then and only then was my Asian infatuation finally laid to rest.  Junk food eating karate-ka, out of shape judoka’s, chain smoking kendo practitioners, wannabe samurais, you name it the Japanese have it. In fact they’re not much different than westerners in their pursuit of martial arts. At the time it was a startling realization, but it eventually helped me understand that martial prowess has nothing to do with ethnicity.
Since gaining main stream popularity 50 years ago the Asian Fighting Arts have swept through western society like a tsunami and by doing so have spawned an unhealthy infatuation that encourages westerners to ignore their own martial heritage. For instance today the Samurai are known as the fiercest warriors to have ever graced a battlefield, yet there were others who rivaled, if not surpassed them. One tribe of warriors being the Ancient Celts who used to paint their bodies blue then run naked into battle with only a sword and shield.  Others such as the Vikings, Hoplite’s, Huns, Franks and Knights Templar also fit this category.
Another example of our blatant infatuation is that until the rise of MMA competitions Aikido, Judo, jujutsu and Chin-na were heralded as the standards for grappling arts, yet the Ancient Greeks and Romans as well as English, French, Italian and Spanish schools of Renaissance fencing also included grappling, locking, throwing and trapping in their teachings.  Similarly the illustrations found in Hans Talhoffer’s Medieval Combat could be superimposed on the densho of most systems of Koryu Bujutsu. Let us not forget that wrestling has a long standing history in the west and before the wide spread popularity of golf men wrestled as a past time sport at county fairs, family gatherings and during holiday festivities.
Similarly we evoke the old masters and speak their names with great reverence: Funakoshi, Motobu, Miyagi, Yip Man and Musashi. However in doing so more celebrated western fighters and martial legends such as: King Arthur and Homer, Donn Draeger, Jack Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Ken Shamrock are ignored, nor do we consider that in today’s arena neither Funakoshi nor Motobu would last one round against Leonard or Shamrock.
Whimsically karate-ka and kung-fu practitioners reflect about the good old days, the period before the Asian Fighting Arts were contaminated and commercialized by westerners. History though shows us there has never been such a time because when karate was introduced to Japan many Okinawans strived to open up dojos and enroll a large amount of students. Hence the reason Funakoshi and Motobu hated each other and why Chojun Miyagi quit teaching in Japan altogether.[i]  
Furthermore the political infighting and lofty organizations common throughout the Asian fighting arts are often the result of over ambitious Asians and their desire to cash in on the Western market. For instance the Japanese Karate Association was established in 1949 with Gichin Funakoshi as chief instructor while the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association was founded shortly after the Korean War. Since then both organizations and their off-shoots, have achieved international status with thousands of members’ world wide paying monthly dues. These are just two examples of many such organizations in existence today that have been founded by Asian martial artists.
Sadly despite their own heritage, knowledge and skills westerners hardly ever credit themselves for having influenced the Asian fighting arts, nor recognize their own champions in the face of Asian practitioners. A good example of the former being that Isshinryu karate has almost died out on Okinawa but is currently undergoing resurgence thanks to Tsuyoshi Uechi, a native Okinawan, who consulted with long term American Isshinryu Karate-ka in order to revive the art. And where the latter is concerned many people are unaware that both Olympic Judo and Tae Kwon Do have long been dominated by Western fighters. Similarly Mark Wiley observed about the Filipino martial arts: “This, coupled with the tremendous influence of Spanish culture, prompted the evolution of eskrima, the “classical” martial art of the Philippines.  It was the Spanish rapier and dagger systems that had the greatest influence on it transformation from kali.” (Wiley, Filipino Martial Culture, p.49) Hence there was intercourse between Asian and Western cultures and the Asian fighters borrowed just as freely from the Western traditions as their counterparts did and continue to do so today.
It is time to recognize that the world wide proliferation of Asian Fighting Arts erases a cultural monopoly that has existed for far too long.  Ethnicity is no longer a prerequisite for teaching Asian combatives because there are now as many long term Western practitioners as there are Asians.
More importantly though is that by continuing to encourage the myth of Asian superiority Westerners fail to appreciate their own martial prowess which is sad, especially when considering the enormous contributions they have made to the fighting arts. To fall prey to Asian infatuation is understandable, but to embrace it is an unpardonable mistake no one should make. Fighting is fighting and when the mystic and hype is laid aside you’ll see that the Western traditions and practitoners are equal, if not superior to their Asian counterparts.

[i] Miyagi was actually bribed by a group of Japanese martial artists to award them rank. As Higaonna wrote, “This was clearly a request for Miyagi to grant members of this group black bet ranks.  Miyagi Sensei who in any case disliked the concept of ranks, immediately pushed the envelop away stating that he could not comply with the request.”  (Higaonna, History of Karat, 89-90)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Veteran's Day

Veteran's Day

It was a busy Friday after noon when I pulled into the car wash and an older man, about 62, greeted me. He was lean and muscular, had sandy grey hair and a limp that accentuated his steady gait.

“Wait here” he said “while I scrub your tires and rims.”

While waiting, I noticed Old Glory on a flag pole in front of the car wash and beside her stood the POW MIA flag. Both waved proudly in the breeze and as I watched them my thoughts turned to friends and relatives I’d known who had served in Vietnam. Suddenly my attention was refocused by the attendant’s voice. “Pull inside the bay and when the red light comes on stop. After the wash is complete pull out and I’ll dry off your truck.”

“Okay,” I answered putting my Chevy into gear.

Rolling up the window I slowly entered the car wash, stopped then sat patiently. Ahead of me at the exit, stood the attendant with both legs planted shoulder with apart, watching intently as the oversized washing machine cleaned my truck. His gaze was tough yet kind, like that of a person who had experienced hard times, but sought neither charity, nor pity.

After the wash had finished I pulled outside, braked to a halt and rolling down the driver’s side window once more noticed the two flags waving briskly in the afternoon breeze.

“Airborne, huh?”

“What’s that?” I said to the attendant.

“I saw your license plate, said you were Airborne, man after my own heart.”

I noticed his eyes and they were crinkled around the edges and a slight grin had crossed his face.

“Where you Airborne too?” I asked.

He nodded. “Yep. 7th Cav, did 22 months in Vietnam.  Flew casualty evacuation, no one wanted the job, so I figured someone had to do it. We got a lot those boys out. Some made it, others didn’t.”

My throat tightened because standing before me was a real hero. Someone who had rode a helicopter into battle and at the risk of his own life carried wounded soldiers back to safety.

“God bless and thanks” I stammered.

He grinned even bigger, “Everyday my feet hit the ground I’m blessed.”

We shook hands and just before leaving he said to me: “Welcome home.”

With a lump in my throat I thanked him again then pulled into traffic. Driving off I saw Old Glory snap to attention then another truck entered the car wash and as the attendant knelt and scrubbed its tires I thought: He deserves better, much better than what our country has given him.

This November 11th please take time to thank someone you know who is a veteran because as the old saying goes:

If you can read thank a teacher

If you sleep safe tonight thank a Police Officer

And if you live free thank a Veteran.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Myth of Empty Hand Combat

The Myth of Empty Hand Fighting

“The first effort of human technology was probably weapon-making.  History and travel tell us of no race so rude as to lack artificial means of offense and defense”   Sir Richard Burton

Mortal combat has been fought with weapons since Homo erectus roamed the African Plains, some 1.8 million years ago.  Initially this involved using rocks, clubs, sharpened sticks and flint knives until the bow and arrow and spear were developed. More importantly though is the invention of projectile weapons (sling, bow and arrow, javelin,) allowed man to kill from a distance and gave him a measure of safety previously unknown when using shock weapons (knife, club, sword). Furthermore, with the development of firearms the distance man could kill from and his ability to do so increased dramatically. [i]

In spite of our natural propensity for using weapons there is in karate a widely held belief that empty-handed strategies will always prevail against an armed assailant. Similarly the myth of empty- handed combat is a long standing one and there are no ends to what people will do to advance it. Death touches and pressure point knockouts are commonly found, though their use in full-contact fighting is non-existent.  Kobudo practitioners will use sais and nunchakus against shotguns to illustrate their system’s effectiveness while karate instructors often portray armed assailants as buffoons barely capable of putting one foot in front of another. Sadly in each and every case myth takes precedence over reality, sometimes with deadly consequences. [ii]

The origin of karate’s empty-hand myth originated with Basil Hall’s visit to Okinawa during the early 19th century. Hall, an English sea captain, was intrigued by the Okinawans and made several noteworthy observations about their hospitality, culture and country. His most notable being that the Okinawans possessed no arms, no army and no means of defending themselves.

On his homeward journey Hall’s ship docked briefly at St. Helena, the island Napoleon was exiled on. There Hall was granted a visit with the deposed emperor, during which he spoke of a kingdom that had no arms and practiced no war. Napoleon however, remained unconvinced and as Hall later wrote: “Several circumstances…respecting the Loo-Choo [Okinawan] people surprised even him a good deal; and I had the satisfaction of seeing him more than once completely perplexed, and unable to account for the phenomena which I related.  Nothing struck him so much as their having no arms.  ‘Point d’ armes!’ he exclaimed;…”Mais, sans armes, comment se bat-on?’

“I could only reply, that as far as we had been able to discover, they had never had any war, but remained in a state of internal and external peace. ‘No wars!’ cried he, with a scornful and incredulous expression, as if the existence of any people under the sun without wars was a monstrous anomaly.” (Kerr, Okinawa History of an Island People, p. 258-259) As with other explorers Hall’s observation was based on insufficient knowledge, but the myth he perpetuated remains to this day.

The 17th century is considered an age when sword to sword combat flourished, yet in reality firearms dominated most of the world’s battlefields at this time. This was especially so considering the development of tactics which allowed drilled units to maintain a consistent rate of fire, thereby increasing the weapon’s effectiveness. With these developments, the distance at which combat was fought increased, and the frequency at which close quarters combat occurred decreased. However there was another advantage firearms offered and that was training.  Whereas it normally took three to five years preparation to be skilled enough to fight on the battlefield with sword and spear, bow and arrow, anyone could be taught to load and fire an Arquebus within a few weeks, if not days.

           Feudal Japanese armies were in many ways no different than their European counterparts and when the Satsuma invaded Okinawa they quickly swept aside all resistance because the invading force was equipped with firearms. As Morio Higaonna wrote, “On April 1, the Satsuma army separated into two forces.  One, led by Kabayama, proceeded to the port of Yomitan from which they then attacked and burned Urasoe Castle and Ryufukuji Temple. They advanced as far as Shuri Castle, the residence of the king.  Kabayama’s army was met at the bridge of Shuri Castle by defiant islanders armed with nothing more than sticks and bamboo spears.  The Satsuma force of between 1,000 and 1,500 men, armed with guns, advanced onto the bridge.  Bullets from their guns fell like rain and the islanders were forced to retreat into the castle” (Higaonna, The History of Karate, 3).

 The Satsuma’s use of firearms allowed them to unleash a devastating barrage on the Okinawans, which produced horrendous effects, physically and psychologically. And, as in Europe where the sword and spear were becoming obsolete, on Okinawa traditionally armed warriors were defeated by soldiers with guns. Hence, Okinawan styles of fighting became suitable only for personal defense due to innovations in weapons technology.

For almost 300 years after the Satsuma invasion the Okinawans developed their native fighting arts in secrecy until karate was imported to Japan. Once there it was practiced as a sport, a means of self-defense and as moving meditation. However despite karate’s enormous popularity it was of little use on the battlefield because firearms, automatic weapons and artillery had rendered the likelihood of empty- hand combat almost impossible.

When karate was transmitted to the United States after World War II, Americans whole heartedly embraced the fighting art though few questioned its historical veracity. Magazines, movies and masters all promoted the superiority of empty-hand fighting in a culture long accustomed to firearms, though oddly enough it was Chojun Miyagi who summed up karate’s role in the modern world best when he stated, “Our intention is to develop a sound and healthy body so that, in the event we are attacked unexpectedly, we are able to defend ourselves effectively.  That is to say, the fundamental principle of karate is to be able to defeat an assailant using solely our natural weapons-our bodies.

However, in situations in which an aggressor possesses superior strength or wields a weapon, we must use, in conjunction with our natural weapons, whatever weapon we may find at hand.” (Higaonna, History of Karate, 82)
 As a sport, a means of physical fitness, meditation and cultural artifact karate holds many possibilities, but as a fighting art it is extremely limited in a culture where firearms’ violence is commonplace. Consequently it is important for karate-ka to understand the difference between myth and fact and know that the instinct which originally drove us to use weapons is alive and well today.  Or in layman’s terms, two hours of firearms’ training negates twenty years of karate with the squeeze of a trigger.

[i] “On the negative side, the maximum range of shock weapons is seldom greater than a couple of meters.  Long lances or pikes can double this reach, but only at the expense of accuracy, mobility, and impact.  Moreover, these very short ranges create sever psychological and social difficulties that render shock weapons the choice among only the more severely disciplined armies of high chiefdoms and states.  These weapons are very dangerous to an opponent, but they put their wielder at great risk.  To employ them against a comparably armed opponent, a warrior must close to a distance where both parties are in maximum danger of being killed or terribly wounded.  And more important, to reach this closure the warrior must pass through the killing zone of the enemy’s fire weapons, with each step forward increasing their accuracy and their impact force.  It is no accident that the use of body armor is highly correlated with the use of shock weapons, since the former can dramatically decrease the risk of injury from missiles and can ameliorate those from close combat.  Many groups equipped themselves with shock weapons but employed them only to dispatch fleeing or captured foes after these had been routed.”  Lawrence H. Keeley. War Before Civilization, p. 49-50.
[ii] One of the more bizarre incidents involving karate and firearms that I have witnessed was while visiting an Iaido school. During the course of the evening the school’s instructor repeatedly demonstrated his ability to draw and cut an assailant before they pulled the pistol’s trigger. This delusion was based on the assumption that the assailant would hold their pistol against the instructor’s back, head or neck as he stood in a ready stance with the katana. Never mind that in daily life he wouldn’t have the sword, or that if confronted by a police officer the first thing the officer would demand after drawing their pistol at a safe distance is that the katana be thrown to the ground. “What happens if the assailant draws the pistol at a distance?” I asked. “I charge and cut” he answered. “My Kiai will scare them and buy me time to cover the distance between us.”  Although dangerous, ignorance is a blissful state of mind.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Knife Defense Fraud Will Kill You

Knife defense is a topic often talked about in the martial arts world, but never addressed realistically. Oh, we have plenty of theories, philosphies, masters and experts on the subject all of whom have confidence in their skills and are confident they can impart real world knife defense skills in their students, but truth be known is almost all of them have never confronted an armed opponent except while playing a computer game, or else watching television. Fear is a word absent from their vocabularly and death only happens to someone else. I mean after all Steven Segal, Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee never get killed so why should your’s truly? More importantly though is their master showed them this technique and its quite old and has been passed down from generation to generation therefore it should work, plus its part of their style’s teachings and everyone knows that their style of fighting is the best for street fighting. Right? Sorry, Buckwheat, but you’re wrong.  Dead wrong.
Long ago I came to the conclusion that if every student and instructor fully realized just how dangerous a knife is  they would run away like a striped assed ape, if possible that is. Similarly on numerous occasions I've asked instructors "does a knife scare you" only to have them answer "no, I have confidence in my skills." Usually I flinch when hearing these words because if the truth was known the reason they're not scared of a knife is because they've never encountered one outside the dojo.  Hence these are the people to avoid at all costs along with their youtube videos and fact filled books which are marketed by (name your publishing company). Sorry folks, but martial arts publishers are more interested in earning a buck than protecting your welfare, buts thats a topic for another day. My point being is that inexperience and missinformation lead to disasterous results.
Inside the dojo everything works, no matter how absured it might seem. Pressure points, chi,  complicated knife and gun disarms, chi knife disarms, chi gun disarms, they all work,  but then the good guys never get killed in the westerns either. Maybe shot in the arm, but never killed. Right? Right. Therefore since you’re the good guy learning karate in the dojo you’ll never get killed.  Right? Wrong.  A large majority of the knife drills presented are merely extensions of someone's empty-handed, step-punch-kick, training.  There's no fluidity, no real intent, no real threat and an over all tendency to preserve the style's integrity instead of addressing the threat and how you will react to it.  Also, there's a built in delusion that the karate-ka can easily disarm the attacker without sustaining injury because they study karate, kung-fu, Tae-Kwon Do, etc, etc.  Such beliefs and mindsets are a recipe for disaster. For instance not long ago a young man who had just started karate wanted to demonstrate his gun and knife disarms to me. "Okay, I said" and with the gun defense segment I simulated holding a pistol and stood 8 feet away, which is short range for a pistol- but long range for empty hand. "Come closer" he said, "no way" I answered then said "bang, your dead."   With the knife it was about the same thing, he wanted me to line up formal like we were bowing in, but instead I grabbed his shirt and executed a series of underhanded thrusts to his stomach, groin and lower back. Needless to say he was a bit upset because I didn't play by the rules, but that's my point.  Someone armed with a knife isn't going to play by the dojo's rules, they'll invent their own as things progress. That's why live training is so important, along with stressing the fact that if they've got a weapon and you don't, you've suddenly ended up on the bottom of the food chain. Moral of the story is there are no easy answers and beware of someone who presents one because they’ll probably get you killed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Free E-Book

A few years ago Iain Aberenthy published one of my books and I'm very thankfull he did. Comprehensive Karate From Beginner to Black Belt has been very popular and if you'd like a copy here's a link so that you can download one: http://iainabernethy.co.uk/news/free-comprehensive-karate-e-book-back-online



Wednesday, October 3, 2012

In Defense of Traditional Systems

In Defense of Traditional Systems

By Michael Rosenbaum

If you were to look up the word “traditional” in Webster’s New World Dictionary you would find the following definition: “handed down by, or conforming to tradition; conventional: also tra-di’tion-ar’y or [rare].”

Studying the traditions of one's chosen style of fighting helps us to not only gain technical insight but it also helps us understand the circumstances that brought forth a fighting art's development. But more importantly by coming to understand the development process inherit to a fighting art you also gain insights into the worldviews and ethics which were present during the system's formation. Views that often contrast the ones held today. For instance many people enjoy the sport of fencing but the contemporary fencer’s mindset is quite different than the one held by their 16th century counterpart. Today the ideal of being killed in a duel of swords is not very probable but for those who practiced the “noble art of defense” some 400 years ago it was a very real threat. To draw your sword against an opponent was to literally take your life in hand, therefore hand-to-hand combat was not something one took lightly.

Lately it has become in vogue to devalue the traditional fighting arts based on assumptions which overlook the time, place and reasons for their development. One contributing factor to this miss-understanding is that contemporary practitioners often misstake the tournament floor as being one in the same with the hostile environments for which many traditional combative systems were developed. And by making this assumption the differences between traditional and modern styles of training are overlooked. Hence we forget the tournament style of fighting is designed for use in a win or loose environment, one with established rules and regulations. In contrast to this traditional combative arts are intended for use in an environment that has no rules and is concerned with the issue of surviving a life or death engagement. For instance although a sport karate-ka may have superior kicking skills than a Filipino martial artist, if the two were to fight outside of a ring and the Filipino practitioner were to use a bolo knife, kris, or balisong then all that would be required is one well placed thrust or cut and the match would be over. Thus you have two different systems concerned with two entirely different outcomes of an engagement. One being competition, the other combat.

There also is a trend today to reinvent the martial arts based on consumer appeal, or the popularity of full contact fighting. A good example of the latter being the ever popular no holds barred fights such as UFC, K-1 etc. Without a doubt the fighters who engage in these matches train in a dedicated manner and are very skilled at their chosen style of fighting. However, full contact fighting is not something new to the martial art's world. Wrestling, boxing and pankration were all practiced by the ancient Greeks hundreds of years before Christ was born. And these traditional contests were no holds barred events in the fullest sense because gouging to the eyes, strikes to the throat, breaking an opponent's fingers, even trampling a downed fighter were all allowed during these contests in which participants fought naked, outdoors, in the hot summer sun and with no time limits. Therefore we haven't reinvented the wheel, we've only rediscovered it where as full contact fighting is concerned.

When discussing the effectiveness of traditional fighting arts we should consider that with the history of hand-to-hand combat dating back to prehistoric times there is little that hasn’t  been discovered by previous generations of fighters.  Moreover the assumption that all traditional combative systems are obsolete usually proves to be far from fact, especially for those intended mortal combat. Tradition does not mean to stop progress nor does it mean to curtail martial prowess. Tradition instead is a way to maintain integrity and keep alive a standard of training that was developed not in the light of the latest martial arts fad, but instead in the arena of life and death. It is only when the equation of combat is removed from the traditional fighting art that it becomes ineffective.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Hard, Middle and Soft Styles of Karate

Hard, Middle and Soft Styles of Karate.

A common method for categorizing fighting arts is by system and style. When someone speaks of a system more than likely they are using a broad based term to describe a fighting art and the particular geographical region from which it originated. For instance when one uses the term "Karate" this describes a form of fighting that had its beginnings on Okinawa. Likewise if one were to use the term Judo, this would apply to a system of grappling developed in Japan. When the term "style" is used it describes a particular method of teaching that falls under the broad heading of a system. Therefore if I use the term "Isshinryu Karate Do", Karate is a system of fighting while Isshinryu is a style or subsystem of karate.

However, the word "style" can also be used to categorize a fighter or fighting art as either a "hard" or "soft" methodology. Hard styles and stylists are often noted for their physical prowess and body hardening methods, which involves toughing the knuckles, shins and forearms. These are areas commonly used for striking and blocking in hard style training. Soft styles and stylists on the other hand are associated with yielding and molding actions that use an opponent’s own force as a weapon against them. Soft styles of fighting like Tai Chi and Aikido are also known for their reliance upon internal energy to generate power where as hard styles are known to rely upon external energy or muscular strength for their source of power. Although the Hard-Soft method of categorization is a useful tool, it often proves to be an incomplete analysis which fails to recognize that both hard and soft concepts can be found thoughout karate. For instance at the beginners stage most blocks are taught as force meeting force actions. However, by the third year of training these same blocks have, in many instances, become deflections, locks or throws.

Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming explains in "The Essence of Shaolin White Crane Martial Power and Qigong", that Chinese fighting arts are categorized by the manner in which they develop Jin or martial power. (p.17) However instead of two categories, Dr. Yang uses three in relation to the Chinese fighting arts. They are: Hard, Soft -Hard and Soft Styles. Hard styles use muscular power in their execution of techniques and utilize bold rigid movements as is often seen in many karate-ka’s execution of kata. Soft-Hard styles tend to be more pliable than hard styles and although they do use muscular power they remain fairly relaxed until the moment of impact with their target. Dr. Yang likens the Soft-Hard styles strike to that of Rattan, one, which inflicts both internal and external injuries. (pp.17) The third style of fighting is soft style. Soft style places much emphasis upon relaxation and only uses muscle tension for a brief instance to retract the striking limb. By doing so a "Whipping action" as Dr. Yang describes it is generated one that can cause much damage to an opponents internal organs (pp.17). Of the three styles of fighting soft form is considered by many practitioners to be the most advanced.

The categories of Hard, Hard -Soft and Soft, Dr. Yang described can be applied to other fighting arts, such as karate. In examining the Okinawan fighting arts and the roles played by hard and soft concepts in them the late Donn F. Draeger stated; "No system of ch’uan-fa, te, karate-jutsu, or karate-do is an absolutely "soft" or "hard" system, but may be categorized as being one of the other depending on the priority given to one or the other aspect in the execution of techniques." (Donn F. Draeger Modern Bujutsu & Budo pp.128) Draeger’s statement makes it quite clear that not only are there- both hard and soft elements in the Okinawan fighting arts but that hard-soft or middle concepts are also present.

Although the three styles of fighting: Hard, Hard-Soft and Soft are frequently viewed as separate entities they are in fact interlinking components that make up a complete process of evolution. More often than not, the beginning practitioner will find that during their initial phases of training, say the first three to five years, reliance upon physical dexterity while executing techniques is far easier than trying to use concepts found within the middle and soft forms of fighting. As Dr. Yang said: "It is easier to be hard, and harder to be soft for a beginner." (P.99 Shaolin White Crane Martial Power and Theory) His statement brings to light that developing Middle and Soft concepts of fighting proves to be very a demanding task.

The process of reaching the level of middle and soft styles of fighting takes many years of dedicated training and the reason is why younger karate-ka's techniques resemble the "old bull in the china shop" approach, while older, more experienced karate-ka tend to exhibit subtle skills which have devastating power and speed. Therefore when examining Hard, Hard-Soft and Soft styles of fighting the question often arises: do some styles of karate facilitate the progress from hard to soft better than others? While this argument can be made, especially when comparing two seeming diverse styles such as Shotokan and Goju-ryu, what we frequently ignore is that progression from a hard to soft style of fighting has more to do with the karate-ka than their chosen style of karate. Although the Shoto-kan practitioner may initally begin their training in a hard manner, over the course of three decades they will develop nuances and skills that will allow them to fight in the realm of softness.

During our study of karate it is important to note that how we train today will change over the course of time. It is this change, brought forth by both time and practice that is at the core of developing hard, middle and soft styles of fighting. It is not an over night process much less one that can be accomplished in a few years time. For the beginning student visualizing what their style of fighting will be like 25 years from now is an almost impossible task. Yet it is important that they are made aware of the changes that will take place during their training. Likewise, it is important that the advanced practitioner remembers where their training began, while acknowledging the transformation process they have undergone.

Michael Rosenbaum is the author of: Kata and The Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

John Titchen

Recently I intereviewed John Titchen about his training, DART and practical karate.  John is one of the new breed of instructors who approach the martial arts with a pragmatic outlook, yet respect all styles.  I hope you enjoy the interview it has a lot useful information: http://www.practicalkarate.co.uk/MRJWTI.html

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Trancendence of Kata

Transcendence of Kata
Within agrarian and pre-industrialized societies, metaphor and symbolic representation played key roles in how a person identified with world and self. An object’s worth, especially if related to spiritual or personal realms, was judged not in a literal sense, as is often the case today, but by the depth of knowledge, or inspiration, that could be plumbed from said object or ritual. Therefore, a complex ritual like kata would have been analyzed with a creative rule of measure indigenous to the Okinawan culture.
          The traditional method for analyzing and interpreting a kata began with its initial presentation to the student, which was often done in solo fashion, and then followed by the practice of pre-arranged kumite using kata techniques.  However, as the student grew in his or her karate and progressed through the apprentice ranks, the kata would take on symbolic qualities that transformed it into a medium for both internal and external forms of practice, as well as giving countless variations to its techniques. This, in turn, made the kata come to life and change as the karate-ka’s skills and insights grew. Moreover, as the practitioners achieved mastery of their art, they would transcend the kata as its techniques, strategies and rhythms came to be natural movements their body had internalized through countless hours of training.
          The process which leads to the transcendence of kata is related to the stages of Shu, Ha and Ri.  Shu is the stage where the kata is first taught and performed in an exact manner, more often than not in solo fashion to ensure the student perfects proper body mechanics, stances, breathing, timing and technique. It is only after progress has been made in these areas that the student is allowed to practice the kata’s technique with a partner. Ha is the stage during which the karate-ka, who usually at this point has spent numerous years training, begins to personalize the kata to suit their individual needs. This includes modifying bunkai during two-person practice as well as even changing the kata itself. This can and often does lead to new variations of an old kata as seen throughout karate. Ri is the point beyond standardization, and even in some instances ritual itself, for it is at this stage that the kata has become part of the karate-ka.  Its techniques are executed naturally and without thought as are the breathing, timing, body mechanics and rhythms found within the kata. 
          Transcendence of kata can only be achieved through many years of devoted practice. However, this process can also be accentuated by social customs, as well as training aids, that impart physical and creative skills in the practitioner which he or she then applies to the practice of kata.
 The impact of social customs on a fighting art is commonplace, and Okinawa is no exception to this rule. In fact, its social morals and customs are what give karate its strongest characteristics. Consequently, the influence of Okinawan folkdance both directly and indirectly helped instill kata with a depth of practice uncommon in many of today’s dojos. 
From a creative standpoint, dance allowed the karate-ka to set aside rigid guidelines and view kata with an open mindset, thereby recognizing similar principles of movement and how they complemented one another. On a physical plane, dance would have exposed the karate-ka to new rhythms, lighter, more agile movements and different breathing patterns that would aid in identifying transitional points found between techniques which are crucial for rapid change of direction during combat. This effect, when combined with kata practice, increased the karate-ka’s skill levels, enhancing muscular memory by different movements and exercises, which, in time, carried the karate-ka beyond the boundaries of kata. Dance, however, wasn’t the only medium that added to the richness of kata or helped the practitioner transcend the ritual’s boundaries. Other practices also contributed to this process and continue to do so today.

Kihon’s Relation to Kata
          From birth our bodies are imbued with natural movements that we perform without thought but in which we develop proficiency as they are executed over a period of time. Some of these are walking, grabbing, chopping and thrusting. In Hoplological, parlance such movements are categorized as either primary or secondary patterns. Primary ones are those natural movements we are born with while secondary are those actions we learn. Often is the case that our primary movements serve as a foundation for the secondary ones we learn.  Catching a baseball would be a good example of this, for it is the primary movement of ‘grabbing” which enables the outfielder to catch a high fly ball. However, along with the grabbing movement, running and correct hand placement are also needed to make the catch. Moreover, these secondary movements, when combined with the primary movement of grabbing, are what enable the player to catch the high fly ball.
          In karate, when our natural movements are refined into a technique, then a neuromuscular response is formed through constant practice, allowing the karate-ka to execute his or her technique under a host of different circumstances. Kihon, or basic technique practice, allows the karate-ka to refine primary movements into techniques at one of the most basic levels known. And, since kata is comprised of a grouping of individual techniques, then solo practice helps reinforce those lessons imparted by the kata.  Similarly, the practice of techniques not found in a kata, still refines motor skill development, timing and stamina.

Solo Practice of Kata
          Solo kata practice is, perhaps, the most preferred method in karate today and certainly the most recognized. This method enables the karate-ka to practice independently of a training partner while at the same time developing neuromuscular skills.
Thorough solo practice, the karate-ka begins developing proper body mechanics, breathing, form and proper technique. When first presented, the kata should be taught at slow speed to allow the beginner to memorize its sequential actions. Only later should the tempo be increased. These initial stages of learning occur when the neuromuscular responses, organic to a particular kata, are first revealed. Therefore practicing too fast at an early stage leads to improper development. In contrast, slow practice of kata can be used by advanced karate-ka to learn relaxation and enhance proper breathing. At medium speeds of practice, pains should be taken to visualize one’s opponents, their reactions and variations of kata bunkai. 
          Solo kata practice done fast should be attempted only after proficiency has been gained at slow and medium speeds. Practicing kata full speed is an anaerobic explosion designed to push the karate-ka to the very limit as he or she attempts to mold both mind and body into one functioning unit, attaining a Zen state of consciousness. Despite sounding mystical, these effects are garnered from an intense focus during which the karate-ka’s mind and body are completely devoted to the execution of kata.  As such the fighter is no different from the ballet dancer, or baseball pitcher who, completely devoted to their craft, performs flawlessly while being oblivious to the crowd’s applause.
Despite its merits, one fallacy of solo practice is that the karate-ka develops a tendency to “run through’ the kata without proper focus, breathing or technique. This is a common occurrence among those competing in tournaments, where speed and flamboyancy often take precedence over movements, which, although slower, have more precision. In such instances as these, it should be kept in mind that traditional kata practice is not intended to be a foot race. Skill can only be developed through precise, well executed movements.

Two Person Drills
          Kata practice via two-person drills entails the isolation of a specific technique found in a kata, which is then practiced by two people seeking greater knowledge about its numerous applications. This method of practice is not a competition but a mutual learning experience where one person agrees to play the role of attacker and the other defender. During two person practice, it is vital that both karate-ka maintain a high vigilance and that both the attack and defense be executed in a spirited manner. Although addressing kata practice in Judo, Donn Draeger in his long standing classic, Judo Training Methods, wrote about the execution of technique during two person kata practice that “A tendency in kata practice today seems to be the meaningless application of the various kata, being studied and applied only as a prerequisite to the various Dan.  Trainees enter into kata quite reluctantly, and the average approach brings little material benefit.  Instructors and trainees must employ kata in their training sessions, and should understand that the prearranged exercises are to be practiced with meaning in accordance with the principles of attack and defense and should convey such spirit.  Movements made with careless motion or those with no mental alertness become useless” (Draeger, Judo Training Methods, 87).  This also applies to the study of karate kata, in which each technique should be practiced as if it were in under actual circumstances. Moreover, such training should also include, joint locking, grappling, as well as stick and knife defense. 
          While quite possibly one of the most beneficial ways to practice kata, breaking the ritual down into isolated segments is also one of the most neglected aspects of kata today. Our hesitation to do so comes not only from lack of understanding, but also from an overriding tendency to view each kata as a sacred cow never to be butchered, no matter how hungry we are. This is a belief which overlooks the fact that progress is made only after the cow has been butchered, dissected and eaten. Kata sequences should be isolated and practiced in a realistic manner for it is only by doing so that our skill levels will grow.

Sensing Hands Kakie
          Imported from China, sensing hands practice, known as kakie, was commonplace among Okinawan fighters before Karate’s introduction to Japan. However, as karate assumed sport characteristics and with its widespread popularity in the West, kakie came to be identified as a Goju-ryu training aid. Prior to this time, kakie was not limited by stylistic boundaries given the eclectic nature of early karate. Mabuni Kenwa, founder of Shito-ryu, studied both Shuri-Te and Naha-Te and was no doubt exposed to kakie while training with Kanryo Higaonna. Tatsuo Shimabuku, founder of Isshinryu Karate also studied Goju-ryu; however, his reason for omitting kakie from Isshinryu’s teaching syllabus is a mystery.
          Push hands, sensing hands, and kakie are all terms used to describe sensitivity drills that teach a fighter how to mold with an opponent thereby gaining an edge through pliability. Within both internal and external styles of Chinese boxing, sensing hands drills are practiced with one of the most popular being Tai Chi’s push hands drill. Other Asian cultures also embrace the sensing hands concept as can be seen in the teaching formats of Indonesian Silat and softer forms of Burmese Bando.
          Kakie’s importance is that it helps the karate-ka develop a sensitivity in the arms allowing him or her to mold with the opponent’s movements, thereby capitalizing upon any openings that may be presented. The concept’s premise is one of yield and conquer, for where there is resistance, there is force, and if your opponent can exert force upon you, then in all likelihood, you will be injured. When combined with locking and grappling strategies, this feature of kata, adds a depth of complexity normally not found within mainstream schools today.
          There are many ways to practice kakie, all of which have their merits. However, it is usually best to begin with basic routines and then progress in complexity as skill levels increase. The most basic practice of kakie is performed with both karate-ka standing in a stationary position, using one hand, which, when moving in unison, travels back and forth in a straight line between the two practitioners. This can be done in a Seisan stance; however, if emphasis is being placed on lower body development, then Sanchin, Seiuchin or Nahanchi stances can be used.
          As the karate-ka grows comfortable with the forward and backwards hand movements, then other actions can be utilized such as circular and side to side actions. The key behind early kakie practice is getting the karate-ka used to adhering to, and molding with, the training partner’s movements. Proper footwork and technique will come with time; however, the student should initially strive to overcome fear of maintaining intimate contact with an opponent. Once this fear diminishes, then the ability to predict an opponent’s actions by light touch starts developing. Nevertheless, this ability can only be developed if the karate-ka is secure enough to mold with an opponent’s attack in a relaxed and flowing manner.
          After single arm kakie has been perfected then it is time for two arm kakie. This exercise is basically the same as single arm, except that two arms, instead of one, are now being used. The intensity of kakie training can be increased at this stage by having the practitioners move in prearranged sets, or else by allowing them to practice free form during which any stepping pattern or arm action the karate-ka chooses can be used, provided contact is not broken between the two practitioners.

Alternative Kata Practice, Ground Grappling and Closing the Range
          More often than not today, kata is presented to the student as a complete entity, one never to be broken apart but studied only through solo practice.  In actuality, kata is a grouping of individual techniques and strategies which, when brought together make up a cohesive paradigm. But despite the paradigm’s cohesiveness, some techniques used within  kata can be omitted during practice so as to allow the karate-ka to focus on a particular concept or technique.
          Kicks, heel stomps and knee strikes are often used in traditional karate kata to accentuate the effectiveness of locking and throwing techniques. This strategy serves two purposes. First, it allows the karate-ka to strike an opponent before executing a throw. Second it helps distract the opponent while the lock or throw is being applied.  Unfortunately, it is common to interpret kicking techniques as being the core strategies of a kata, and in doing so, incipient practitioners overlook strategies which hold a much more profound combative rational, particularly where grappling is concerned. 
          It is essential that the karate-ka be able to identify and use grappling techniques found in the kata.  Therefore, to enhance this learning experience, the kata should be practiced minus kicks during solo and two- person training. This not only helps the karate-ka recognize existing grappling strategies, but it also exposes them to a different rhythm of movement, one unbroken by a kick. Hence, the karate-ka is able to practice the lock or throw in a manner, much the same as found in Aikido or ju-jutsu, thereby helping him or her to appreciate yielding and molding with an attacker’s actions. This same principle can be applied to punching, permitting the karate-ka to perform the kata at its most base level, thereby revealing core body movements which are the paradigm’s foundation.  By doing so, the karate-ka comes to have a better appreciation for slipping, shifting and distributing weight, activities which are ever present but seldom go noticed during kata practice.
          Unfortunately, studying the intrinsic value of kata is frequently overlooked today because of tournament demands that necessitate flamboyance in performance. This emphasis on show performance often leads to hyper-fast executions, higher than normal kicks, exaggerated breathing, broken rhythms and other traits, which, although impressive to the audience, go against the grain of traditional kata. When combined with point sparring, these mannerisms lead the karate-ka into thinking that a fight begins at foot’s distance and then progresses outward, a notion counterintuitive to traditional kata practice where the engagement starts at foot’s distance, then progresses closer to the karate-ka, providing the reason for locking and grappling techniques.
As simple as the matter of distance may seem, it is one of the crucial dividing points between sport and combative methods of practice. For within the realms of life and death, hand-to-hand combat, the distinction between offense and defense becomes non-existent as both combatants try to kill or maim one another. The will to survive makes a person exhibit aggressive behaviors, putting the combatant in either a fight or flight mode. Should the person decide to fight, then he or she will be like a caged animal which knows only one route to survival: attack.  Arthur Anderson, member of the International Hoplology Society, described this behavior and its effects on combat: “Even when you surprise the enemy, they don’t just stand there.  They attack your attack in a state of startled mayhem. It’s a fumbling, bumbling mess where the idea is to be calm and control your breathing, but the reality is that you smash, crash, bash and scream bloody murder, cutting, stabbing, slashing, biting, hitting anything that gets in the way or comes within distance” (Anderson, Hoplos, Winter 2002, 12).
 The fight or flight behavior pattern is addressed in traditional kata training where most engagements begin at foot’s distance and then move towards the karate-ka, resulting in the use of grappling and locking techniques to subdue the opponent, or else holding the opponent in a position until a fatal strike can be executed. Tournament fighting differs in that one player attacks and the other moves away, a strategy that employs no close quarter’s techniques and exhibits none of the fight or flight behavior characteristics commonplace in mortal combat.
If the karate-ka is to gain proficiency in grappling and locking strategies these strategies should be isolated and practiced independently.  Nevertheless, this course of action requires a strong distinction between point-tournament and combative engagements, as well as the behaviors associated with each type of fighting. Likewise, with the influence of UFC style fighting, the differences between sport-grappling and self-defense based grappling need to be recognized.
 Sport methods used in UFC events base their strategies on taking an opponent to the ground where he or she can be defeated by superior stamina and grappling skills. This strategy is well suited for the arena where opponents fight one- on- one and unarmed.  However, during mortal combat, to stay afoot is to stay alive because numerous opponents may be encountered, some of whom may be armed; therefore mobility is essential for one’s survival.  It is this environment that traditional karate kata are designed for and the reason why techniques which require spending a prolonged period on the ground are not found within them, despite sumo wrestling’s popularity in Okinawan culture.
Most traditional kata teach a mobile form of fighting that uses locks, holds and submissions to restrain an opponent long enough until a debilitating strike can find its target. The goal is to hurt an attacker severely so that the karate-ka can get safely out of harm’s way instead of fighting a prolonged ground-grappling engagement and attracting other assailants during the struggle.
The strong emphasis placed on upright fighting in traditional kata imbues these forms with an anaerobic rhythm, rather then an aerobic one. Much of this rhythm’s purpose stems from traditional kata being designed for mortal combat where engagements tend to be short, fast, and violent. Therefore, explosive power takes precedence over aerobic endurance. Hence the reason why many traditional kata rely on quick, explosive bursts of energy to execute several well placed techniques and their practice is of an anaerobic nature, instead of an aerobic one.
Although often misunderstood today, kata is a means by which the fighter can preserve knowledge, enhance skills and develop personal insight.  Kata practice stimulates growth instead of hindering it, but often this is the case when we view kata in a one dimensional manner and practice it exclusively as a solo exercise. 
 When practiced in a traditional venue, kata is one of the most beneficial forms of training available to the karate-ka.  It is only when the traditional venues are discarded that the ritual’s message is lost.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Okinawan Kobudo: From Swords to Boat Oars

 Okinawan Kobudo: From Swords to Boat Oars
Copyright by Michael Rosenbaum 2012

“The first effort of human technology was probably weapon making,” wrote Sir Richard Burton, in his timeless classic The Book of The Sword. History supports Burton’s statement and shows us that no nation, state or tribe has ever shunned the use of weapons. In fact, Charles Darwin argued in The Descent of Man that our species as a whole owes it existence to the manufacture and use of weaponry. Darwin believed that it was our bipedal nature and enlarged brain that allowed us to make and use primitive weaponry, with which we came to rely on to hunt with instead of our canine teeth. As time passed we became more accustomed to using weapons than teeth with which to kill, leading to the development of stone spears, bows and arrows, as well as the development of strong social groups who had developed tactics for hunting and killing game.[i]
Our Paleolithic ancestors realized that it was safer to kill their game at a distance, than to engage them at arm’s length a range at which the primitive hunters could be killed during the course of the hunt.  Like humans, large game, such as wild boar, elk, bear and deer are dangerous creatures when encountered at close quarters.  Hence, to kill a larger animal at close range required explosive power during execution of attack, aggressiveness, immense physical conditioning, and, above all, a resolute mindset to face the possibility of a gruesome death.  These predatory traits would, in time, come to serve as the foundation for many latter day fighting arts.
Although much of mankind’s martial prowess would evolve from hunting, it nonetheless proved to be an activity that would not fully develop his fighting skills.  It was only when mortal combat against fellow humans occurred that the sophistication of mankind’s fighting skill increased.  And as the nature of mortal combat became more sophisticated, the distance at which an engagement was fought began to play a much more crucial role. 
Distance separated the warrior’s weapons into two basic, but broad, categories: those of the missile class such, as rocks, arrows, javelins, (plus latter day firearms), and those of the shock class such as clubs, swords, spears, tonfa, and sai. The latter items were used were used extensively in close quarters combat, provided the warrior could advance past missile range, close to shock range and then maintain the courage to fight his enemy at arms distance. Yet this practice grew increasingly scarce as the use of firearms proliferated on a worldwide scale, a change affecting not only traditional weapons training, but also its ethos and role within society.

The evolutionary process associated with the use of weapons was transplanted to Okinawa by people migrating from neighboring lands. Excavations at Prehistoric Ryukyuan shell mounds have uncovered arrowheads, harpoon points, axes, hoes and hammers.  Although the recorded history of early Okinawan culture is sparse, it is known that by the 8th century A.D., the island was filled with petty warlords who were constantly at war with one another. As Okinawan society grew more advanced, the ownership of weapons became strongly associated with the warrior class who used glaives, swords, bow and arrows and wore body armor on the battlefield. Just as on other battlefields, the Okinawan man of arms had to contend with both projectile and shock weaponry during combat.
 The manner of warfare fought on Okinawa during its warring states period mirrored that of Japan, albeit on a smaller scale, and for good reason. Many of the weapons and much of the armor used by the Okinawans were based on Japanese designs.  Mark Bishop noted these similarities, stating that, “It is known however that, apart from ceremonial weapons, which were usually of Chinese origin or design, the main bladed weapons used in Te practice were and still are of the manner and similar use to those found in old Japan.” (Bishop, Zen Kobudo, 26-27) Thus as warfare continued among the three rival states, so to did the sophistication of Okinawan Te grow.

The Satsuma’s Influence on Kobudo
With Sho Shin’s demilitarization edits and the Satsuma’s occupation of the island, the use of bladed weapons diminished significantly on Okinawa, but their ownership was not completely eradicated. Piracy was a constant threat to those who sailed the China Sea with the problem becoming so grave during several periods that the Shuri government issued arms to villagers so they could protect themselves against the sea-going marauders.  This mandate was also extended to sailors who crewed Okinawan ships and continued well into the 18th century.
 Because of the styles of Te that were preserved, weapons training did exist on Okinawa during the Satsuma’s occupation and at times was even promoted by them. This practice was not consistent, however, because of rules governing weapons, their scarcity and pre-existing social customs. Mitsugu Sakihara, writing about Okinawa during this time in history and noting such discrepancies, observed crucial national trends: 
 However, weapons do not appear to have been as abundant in Ryukyu as in contemporary Japan.  First of all, Ryukyu did not produce iron, and second, Sho Shin’s fifty-year reign minimized chances for their use.  However, it was the nature of the ruling class that was of particular significance.  Ryukyu’s ruling class was a hereditary gentry not dependent upon armed might for their status – unlike the contemporary samurai rulers of Japan.  That Ryukyu’s ruling class wore no arms was erroneously ascribed to an alleged ban by either Sho Shin or Satsuma.
      Satsuma prohibited new export of arms to Ryukyu in 1639, only in consequence of the Tokugawa embargo of arms going overseas in 1634.  Also, in 1699, Satsuma issued a regulation entitled ‘Prohibition of Those Who Travel to Ryukyu Carrying Arms.’  Ryukyuans were permitted to bring their arms to Satsuma for the purpose of repair, but export arms to Ryukyu was not allowed because these might be unlawfully exported overseas beyond Ryukyu. (Sakihara, Okinawa History of an Island People, 544)

Though his experiences come some two hundred years after the Satsuma’s 1699 regulation, Gichin Funakoshi reinforces Sakihara’s statement when he writes about his own sensei that “Azato was also a highly skilled fencer of the Jigen school of Kendo.  Although by no means a braggart, he had utter confidence in his fencing ability, and I once heard him say, “I doubt very much that I would lose to anyone in the country if it came to a duel to the death.’ This quiet confidence was later proved to be well founded when Azato met Yorin Kanna, one of Okinawa’s most famous swordsmen.” (Funakoshi, Karate Do My Way of Life, 14)
Jigen ryu kenjutsu, the preferred style of the Satsuma may have been transmitted to Okinawa as early as the 17th century by members of the clan who migrated just after the invasion. Once established they married local women, claimed land granted to them by the Shuri government and took part in village activities. And as their descendants also intermarried, these unions would have helped Jigen ryu spread, albeit on a small scale. Jigen Ryu’s linage remains murky, though, until the 19th century when Bushi Matsumura and other members of the pechin class journeyed to Satsuma where they studied this style of Kenjutsu. 
 Despite Kenjutsu’s practice being limited among Okinawans, Jigen Ryu’s concepts influenced Kobudo in other ways. Henning Wittwer tells us that “The saber of Jigen-Ryu was not the only weapon of this school which merged in the kingdom of Ryukyu.  Togo Shigemasa (2nd generation) created a fighting system relying on common tools rather than ‘real’ weapons.  This tradition bears the name Jigen-Ryu Bo-Odori  (Stick Dace of the School of Manifestation) and its purpose was to provide military instruction to as many Satsuma social classes as possible.  In this folkloric spectacle, performers imitate strikes and blocks with different kinds of weapons, and automatically carry out a fighting exercise with a partner. Wooden weapons employed in this dance are: sanjaku-bo (3 shaku long stick; about 91 cm.), rokusharku-bo (6 shaku long staff; about 182 cm.), tenbin-bo (pole for carrying loads on the shoulder), ro (oar), kai, shakuhaci (bamboo flute; about 55 cm.), and the like weapons made of wood and metal include: kama (sickle), ono (axe), suki (spade), and kuwa (mattock).  Since the Ryukyu archipelago was occupied by the Satsuma during the Edo period, it is probable that the stick dance was introduced there too.  (Witter, Classical Fighting Arts, Issue#9, 43)   Thus, contrary to popular belief, not only were bladed weapons available on Okinawa during the Japanese occupation, but Okinawan kobudo was also impacted by the Japanese fighting arts. [ii]
The word Kobudo, which literally means old or ancient martial arts, is used to describe all Okinawan weapons arts today. However, aside from the Japanese influences mentioned, karate’s related weapons traditions also drew strongly from pre-existing Te systems, as well as weapons arts imported from China.
 China’s influence on the Okinawa fighting arts dates back to when the thirty-six families of Fukien settled near Naha, bringing with them their weapons. However, this was not a singular occurrence because other Chinese strategies were introduced to the island, particularly during the 18th century when such notable fighters as Kusanku, a Chinese envoy, and Chatan Yara, make their presence known. The 19th century witnessed the influences of Bushi Matsumura, To-te Sakugawa and Ginowan Donchi upon Okinawan Kobudo, and as Okinawa entered this renaissance period, Chinese trends became vogue among the Okinawans. This resulted in the Okinawans becoming infatuated with the Chinese fighting arts and a stronger emphasis being placed on the use of plebian style weaponry, particularly amongst the commoners.
Okinawan Kobudo grew out of a process of assimilation that combined pre-existing Te strategies with Japanese methodologies and fighting arts imported from China. However, often was the case when an imported technique was applied to a common implement used by the Okinawans in their day- to- day affairs. The boat oar is one example of this phenomenon, its techniques having been influenced by both Chinese staff strategies, as well as spear and glaive techniques from earlier methods of Te.  In addition, gentleman’s tobacco pipe was another weapon in which either sword or short staff strategies could be adapted to its use. Therefore, in all probability, it was a lack of existing weapons that led to the Okinawan’s use of agricultural tools, which, in turn, gave Kobudo its distinct identity.
Despite the differing methodologies contributing to Kobudo’s evolution, once united they allowed the fighting art to draw from a diverse background that gave it a vast array of techniques. However, Kobudo’s rich heritage consists almost entirely of shock class weapons, requiring a combatant to fight at close quarters. This limitation and the Satsuma’s possession of firearms, restricted kobudo to being a self-defense based weapons system, suitable only for civilian purposes.
Taira Shinken
By the time karate had regained nationwide popularity in Japan, there was concern among Okinawans about the deterioration and loss of traditional kata. A few years later, during the 1950’s, this concern prompted many Okinawan karate-ka to take measures to preserve both the traditional kata of karate and the art of Kobudo.
 Taira Shinken (1897-1970) is considered by many to be the father of modern Kobudo because it was through his efforts that much of the fighting art was preserved. Born on Kume Jima Island, Okinawa, Taira was the middle son in a family of three boys and one girl.  As a young man, he worked in the Minami Jima mines where it was not uncommon for miners to be injured or killed while performing their duties. During one of Taira’s shifts, the mine shaft in which he was working collapsed and buried him alive. Severely injured he managed to work his way to safety despite a badly broken leg that left him with a painful limp.
 Following the accident, many of Taira’s fellow miners began ridiculing him about his limp. Some even claimed that he was lazy and useless which prompted him, in 1923, to quit his job and go to Japan. There he intended to study Judo as a way of rehabilitating his body. However, while in Tokyo Taira met Gichin Funakoshi and soon afterwards became his live-in student. Taira was impressed by Funakoshi’s demeanor and would spend the next eight years of his life training with the retired school teacher.
In 1929 Funakoshi introduced Taira to Yabiku Moden, a man who Funakoshi knew fairly well since both had been students of Itosu on Okinawa. It was from Yabiku that Taira learned Okinawan Kobudo and three years after their being introduced, Taira was given permission by Funakoshi to open a dojo in Guma prefecture. There Taira taught both kobudo and karate. Always in search of knowledge Taira also sought instruction from Kenwa Mabuni. Mabuni taught Taira for several years, and it was through this relationship that Taira expanded his knowledge of both karate and kobudo.
In 1934, Taira began experimenting with full contact sparring, making weapons out of bamboo, and wearing padded armor that allowed two fighters to go all out without the fear of sustaining serious injury. This innovation may have been a strict departure from traditional forms of kobudo training, steeped in pre-arranged drills. However, it allowed Taira to experience first-hand the impact of fighting with traditional weapons.  As such he gleaned much knowledge about timing, distance, offense and defense, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each weapon when pitted against it counterparts. Unfortunately, this practice was abandoned given a shortage of materials brought on by the Second World War. 
In 1940 Taira Shinken moved back to Okinawa where he later established the Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinko-Kai, an association devoted to the study and preservation of Okinawan Kobudo. His organization grew with its ranks including Mabuni Kenei, son of Mabuni Kenwa, founder of Shito-ryu, Hayashi Teruo, Chibana Chosin, Meitoku Yagi of Goju-ryu fame and Tatsuo Shimabuku founder of Isshinryu karate. In 1964 Taira was awarded the title of Hanshi by the All Japan Kobudo Federation for his devotion and preservation of the art of Kobudo.  He died in 1970, recognized as one of the most knowledgeable practitioners of kobudo and the person most responsible for the arts compilation and preservation. 
Taira’s efforts helped preserve Kobudo, but not to the point of its being overly regimented. The fighting arts practice retained an eclectic nature as individual taste dictated the weapons with which one became proficient.  Kobudo’s inclusion into modern karate was resolved in a similar manner as each style’s progenitor determined the weapons included in his ryu-ha’s teaching format.  Thus, each style of karate is, in essence, a case study of one individual’s likes and dislikes concerning Okinawan weaponry.
Kobudo’s Role and Practice Today
With sport karate’s popularity today, the majority of kobudo training conducted is often for competition. Many is the time when  a practitioner stands before an audience in a high school gymnasium, then executes a kobudo kata tailored to reap the highest possible score.  Although this method of execution is both physically and mentally taxing, it doesn’t approximate weapons combat. Since no antagonist is present, the threat of danger is not real, therefore the biological reactions combatants have during mortal combat are removed. As a result, the executed techniques do not exhibit the same mannerisms as those performed in the heat of battle. 
If one aspect of a fighting art’s teaching syllabus touches upon the life and death experience of combat more so than any other, it is weapons training. Throughout history man has fought bare-knuckled for both sport and honor, yet only when weapons are introduced does the scenario take on an air of mortal combat.   Consider: a warrior can kick an adversary in the solar plexus, and the adversary will survive, but if struck in the same place with a bo, kama or sai, that person’s chances are limited. 
Kobudo serves as a balance for karate’s empty-hand strategies, teaching the practitioner how to use weaponry it also provides valuable insight into the behavior patterns associated with armed combat.  Range plays a key factor in weapons-based systems where combat usually begins afar and then closes until one fighter or the other has landed a fatal blow.  Richard Kim described this ‘dance of death’ in his book, The Weaponless Warriors, when he wrote about Yara fighting the Samurai:
In a split second, Yara had the oar firmly gripped and spun around to face his enemy.  The samurai, cursing to himself over having lost his tremendous advantage, stopped and assumed a jo-dan kamai.  Yara countered this ploy by holding his oar in a dragon tail kamai, and for what appeared to be an eternity to the female spectator, the two men faced each other like statues.  Only the sound of their throats and chests heaving for air disturbed the eery musical harmony of the wind and surf.
Suddenly, the samurai struck.  Yara’s reaction was instantaneous, striking the sword at the hilt with his oar.  The blow was perfectly executed, sending the sword skyward, but at the moment of contact, Yara inexplicably jumped upward as though he had anticipated the samurai’s next move.  This was a dangerous gambit, but it worked.  As soon as the Satsuma henchman felt his grip loosen on the hilt of his sword, he immediately squatted to one knee and pulled his short sword.
Yara was in perfect position and took instinctive advantage, unleashing a frighteningly powerful side kick which connected with a sickening thud to the samurai’s head.  The kick sent him sprawling backward, at the very feet of the girl he had been molesting.  Desperately, he tried to raise himself off the ground, but Yara was soon upon him in an instant, slashing his oar downward and crushing the samurai’s skull (Kim, Weaponless Warriors, 14).

The two antagonists in Kim’s story began their engagement at a range of twenty foot, if not farther, and then closed to a distance of around six feet where the final blow was executed. Although his is a vivid account, in no part of the story does Mr. Kim make mention of acrobatic maneuvers. This is because, from a neuromuscular standpoint, the closer one gets to their enemy, the more conservative their actions become since any mistake can prove fatal. Likewise, as combat becomes inevitable, the body will assume a position similar to the hunter’s crouch with knees bent, back slightly arched, arms close to the sides and weapon held in a position to threaten the enemy. Additionally a person’s movements will grow restricted, due to an increase in adrenaline, and he or she will gaze upon the opponent, much the same as a predatory animal stalks its prey.
 In layman’s terms, what this means is that during mortal combat, or even scenarios which enact it, the restrictions we hold towards violence are cast off, along with our society’s corresponding prohibitions, as we revert to a primal state that places survival at the forefront of our agendas. This human survival instinct, born out of a predatory nature and honed over thousands of years of warfare, is the foundation for almost all mortal combat systems, particularly those that employ weapons. For it is through constant refinement of our survival responses that they become learned techniques.
Due to the biomechanical responses involved traditional forms of armed combat address range differently from what is found in sport karate arenas.  Whereas the attack scenario for the modern karate-ka begins at foot or arms distance, in traditional weapons arts the engagement’s distance is divided into three segments each one exhibiting a specific trait. Thus, in weapon- to- weapon combat, one simply does bow at the judge’s command and then step forward to score a point. Instead, a practitioner advances towards the enemy in a fluid but premeditated manner, the intended goal of which is to gain shock and surprise, thereby allowing the fighter to employ his or her weapon in a more effective manner.
 Writing about range and its effects on mortal combat Hunter B. Armstrong, director of the International Hoplology Society noted that “While the pre-modern, traditional combat training systems generally include and train approach-closure-entry as an integrated whole, most modern arts, self-defense, and recreational systems start at entry, almost always neglecting the closing phase, never mind the approach.  Regarding the rapid closing-in upon an opponent, research by both the military and ethologists show that the rushing in upon an adversary (animal or man) has a strong disruptive effect on an adversary’s equilibrium.  Rapid moving in upon an opponent is extremely effective at ‘setting up’ the adversary for the strike, allowing considerably more control and dominance in making the strike.  This is something that is inherently understood and utilized in many classical martial arts, but again is lost or neglected in the modern arts.  That neglect is likely due to lack of combative feedback” (Armstrong, Approach- Close- Entry, 1). Armstrong further divides combative range into three categories: approach, closing and entry.  Approach is the distance of around twenty feet when a threat becomes apparent to either one of both combatants. This is the phase in which tactical movement is performed by both parties as they try gaining a superior position allowing them to utilize both terrain and weapons to maximum effect. This is the point in Richard Kim’s account during which the Samurai cursed; he had allowed Yara to arm himself and gain the sandy beaches upward slope.
Closing is when the combatants make their final movements. At this time both are seeking an opening in each other’s defense. Timing, agility and perception come into play here, as does presence of mind. Should a fighter move too slow, or be out of sync with the enemy’s actions then he or she will be struck down.  Moreover, if the combatant does not have the presence of mind allowing him or her to shift direction, thereby avoiding the oncoming attack, the fighter will be struck down.  This is the instant when both Yara and the samurai stood facing one another. A brief calm shattered when the samurai attacked and Yari counterattacked, both men’s actions were performed with explosive speed and aggression.
Entry is the moment when the attack itself is complete a result of one combatant having been either to slow, unable to shift direction or else not able to make a committed attack. It was at this point that Yara disarmed his attacker and then killed him by crushing his skull with a boat oar.
When applied to empty-handed self defense, the weapon- distance relationship provides us with the reality that not all encounters begin with a simple lapel grab. Hence, our reactions may not be what we imagine, especially where mortal combat is concerned.  When speaking of Kobudo’s preservation, we are therefore describing something much more profound than just movements executed with wooden weaponry. Instead, we are delineating a complex pattern of behaviors, conveyed by mans need to survive. We can harness these behaviors through kobudo practice and then apply them to other areas of our training, particularly those where unarmed self-defense strategies are concerned.

                           Kobudo Themes and Applications
As technology and socio-political factors affect the manner in which fighting is conducted both on and off the battlefield, new weapons systems arise to replace those made obsolete by changing circumstances. This process, however, was most apparent when firearms replaced those such as the sword, staff and spear, with which mankind had used for over three thousand years to conduct battle.
 As the usefulness of traditional weapons diminished, their practice was conducted for competitive and spiritual reasons, which, with the passage of time, gradually replaced those giving birth to the fighting arts. Whereas the sixteenth century Samurai trained to kill a foe in battle, his modern counterpart usually trains for spiritual enlightenment or competition. And although contemporary exponents are skillful within a modern context, their training often falls short of the classical foundations upon which the Samurai based their skills.
This phenomenon, however, is not just limited to sword based arts but is commonplace in Okinawan kobudo, where one may find exponents practicing with traditional weaponry while giving little, if any, regard to the combative themes involved.
The study of Okinawan Kobudo can be divided into two basic categories: competitive and traditional. Competitive realms are those which gravitate towards aesthetic goals as the weapon becomes an instrument used to win contests. In this environment, it is often the case where a light-weight staff, wooden kama, or hollow nunchuakus are substituted for traditional arms, allowing the competitor to execute faster and more flamboyant routines.  While these routines have aesthetic appeal, they embrace little, if any, practical application which, in turn, negates the combative themes deemed so important to the practitioner’s physical and mental development. 
Traditional studies involve the use of real Kobudo weaponry, the purpose of which is to simulate mortal combat either in solo or two person exercises. Kata practice is the mainstay of traditional kobudo because free- sparring, even with protective equipment, is far too dangerous unless modified weapons are used and rules strictly enforced. Traditional kobudo’s focus isn’t on aesthetics but on pragmatic techniques and their application.  However, it is not uncommon for traditional practitioners to become so engrossed in preserving kobudo that they overlook the environmental demands which gave rise to the discipline itself.  And while the dojo serves as an institute of higher learning, other lessons can be gained outside its walls.

Transcending the Dojo
Although the pipe, fan and hairpin can be employed within confined areas, the majority of kobudo weaponry is intended for outdoor combat.  Practically speaking we learn to fight from a distance and then how to close that distance to defeat our opponent.
 However, outdoor training also requires the combatant to function on broken terrain, making stances and footwork essential to the practitioner. While one may perform a bo kata with relative ease on a level dojo floor, the same kata executed on a hillside, slippery path, or even broken pavement will require the practitioner to sense with his or her feet. Irregular terrain can also have a two dimensional effect on the engagement’s distance, for while on level ground, two opponents armed with staffs will be evenly matched, whereas on a hillside they will not.  This is because the fighter in possession of the high slope will have the advantage of being able to strike down upon the foe while the fighter trying to advance up the slope will have their reach of attack shortened by the hillsides upward slant. Thus, not only does the kobudo practitioner have to employ proper technique, but good tactics as well. For while one’s surroundings may be of little consideration inside the dojo, tactical use of terrain often contributes more to victory than good technique does outside of the dojo.
Apart from hillsides, outdoor training should be conducted during snow or rain squalls, in mud, amidst forests and during the dead of night. The purpose behind this is for the practitioner to experience environmental demands which evince a much more realistic fighting style. Training conducted outside on uneven terrain produces choppy and forceful actions with broken timing, and there is little about it that is aesthetically pleasing.  Even though such qualities contrast greatly with the values of indoor training, their stark nature allows the practitioner to advance beyond the dojo’s comfort zone. It is only when the student is afraid of falling on broken terrain, fingers numbed too cold to feel the weapon, or else a hard rain blurs the fighter’s vision, that the reality of armed combat makes itself felt. This is the time when the enemy assumes an omnipresent threat requiring one to focus not only on the opponent but on the battleground itself, a process which, in turn, drives the mind-body connection to its highest state and allows one to tap resources which often go unnoticed in the dojo. Other measures one can take to enhance their kobudo training are the following:
·       Striking a makiwara or heavy bag with a preferred weapon.  This will foster power, focus and control. Often when the only target we hit is empty air, then our responses do not become fully developed. Striking a hard target gets us accustomed to the weapon’s recoil- an important factor for nunchaku exponents- thus teaching us how to regain control after landing a blow has landed. This also aids in the development of wrist, forearm, biceps and shoulder muscles.
·       Prior to the Kobudo kata’s being taught, basic kobudo kihon should be presented to the student so that he or she can become familiar with their weapon and grow to appreciate its peculiar characteristics. If no Kihon are available, then practitioners should improvise. The sai, tonfa and kama can be used in conjunction with empty-handed kihon to fulfill this role while the staff’s basic repertoire of techniques can be head-block, side-block, cross strike, side strike and forward thrust.
·       Exponents should use different weapons while practicing technique to see how tactics and applications vary. If only identical weapons are employed during training, such as staff against staff, then one’s perspective is limited. Weapons should be intermixed staff against tonfa, kama against nunchaku, etc. to develop a sense of how each weapon’s particular characteristics determine the way combat is fought.   Over reliance on one weapon hinders skill of arms development which goes against traditional approaches where the man of arms was not a specialist but a generalist able to employ any weapon handed to him.
·       Kobudo kata should be practiced empty handed.  This is not an uncommon practice, and in some karate systems, there are both empty-hand and kobudo versions of the kata such as Isshinryu, where Kusanku is performed both with and without the sai.  This practice enables the karate-ka to take kobudo concepts and apply them to empty-handed fighting, adding another dimension to training and strengthening the bond between karate and kobudo.
 Despite the emphasis placed on competition today, the lessons imparted by traditional kobudo kata are still viable. Through kata we can engage in live weapons training without being injured, learn tactics that deal with all ranges of fighting, and see how combat is affected by the construction of each weapon. These traits are usually absent in competitive realms where kata is executed solo, or else contestants pair off against one another armed with identical weapons.
However, other realizations that go beyond technical expertise are imparted by kobudo training. The sai’s thrust and the staff’s downward blow prove that there are no guarantees to our survival in mortal combat. This is a valuable lesson, for when we see that death is but a footstep away then the beauty of life is magnified one-thousand fold. It is a realization that gives a deeper essence to our training than what is initially perceived.

[i] “that as man gradually became erect, and continually used his hands and arms for fighting with sticks and stones, as well as for the other purposes of life, he would have used his jaws and teeth less and less.  The jaws, together with their muscles, would then have become reduced through disuse, as would the teeth through the not well understood principles of correlation and the economy of growth; for we everywhere see that parts which are no longer of service are reduced in size.” (Darwin p.324-325)

[ii] Patrick McCarthy remarked about this martial influence  from the Japanese perspective that, “This phenomenon clearly illustrates how the principles of combat were ingeniously applied to occupationally related implements and then unfolded into a folk tradition, not unlike that of Okinawa’s civil combative heritage nearly a century before.  When I asked the eleventh-generation Jigen-ryu headmaster Togo Shigemasa about this potential link, he said, ‘There can be no question that Jigen-ryu is connected to Okinawa’s domestic fighting traditions; however, the question remains, which influenced which!” (McCarthy, Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts Vol.2, 51)