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)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Escaping Darkness

My first public job was being a night desk clerk at the Andrew Johnson Hotel, during the mid-to late 70's. I was 15 years old and the job turned into an education on street violence, crime and dysfuntional people.  Pimps, hookers, drug addicts, you name it they came into the lobby. Just recently I had a book published based on that time of my life and the violence which was part of it. The book, Escaping Darkness, is part southern lit, part mytical adventure, however all the violence within is drawn from real episodes, many of which I experienced first hand.  If you're interested here's the link: http://www.amazon.com/Escaping-Darkness-Michael-Rosenbaum/dp/1466348763/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1341236719&sr=1-1&keywords=escaping+darkness+rosenbaum

Have a great 4th of July!