Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Chambered Fist

EDIT: I've changed my views on some of the things in this article... I'll probably write an update at some point in the future... and by that, I mean a long time from now.

I am writing this entry in response to a discussion currently going on at KarateForums.Com.

We've all seen the classic karate punch, where the person brings one hand "chambered" to their side while the other hand punches. Or we've seen those ridiculous kung fu movies where the bad guy waves his hands around in the air while screaming, blocking air several times, chambers his fist and then attacks. So that's going to be the subject of today's discussion.

I've often asked instructors in other styles what the purpose of this was. They would tell me "This symbolizes your empty hand and you chamber it to the side because you are signalling your intention that you do not wish to fight but are prepared to if necessary." That, or simply "It is a chamber position" or "more power" without any deeper mechanical explanation. Even if I press them harder for information, those are the most common explanations. Of course I am very polite and thank them for their answers. On the inside, I tell myself "What a load of BS." Here's a hint for all you practitioners out there. If a teacher can not give you a convincing explanation for why it is they "chamber" a technique or even what the "yoi" or starting position is for in a kata (form), the odds are they honestly don't know. That, or they buy into simple schoolchildren explanations for their karate. There's way too much pseudo-philosophy floating out there that gets in the way of combative effectiveness.

The "chambering" was basically what they told everyone it was for. Keep in mind that traditional Okinawan (and Japanese) culture was very much centered on "in group" and "out group" relations. When karate was starting to be taught to the mainstream (in the early 1900s on Okinawa), there was a fundamental shift because karate used to be taught in very small groups of well-acquainted people or recommended students, not en masse. This then became the origin of large karate classes taught in military discipline fashion...They weren't exactly going to tell everyone all the in-depth meanings of everything, especially American GI's a half-century later who just got done devestating the island of Okinawa. They didn't even tell every Japanese or Okinawan the "good stuff" either. The mass production of karate meant less individual training time and less personal trust between teacher and student. Karate was always first and foremost a combative discipline. The deeper knowledge of which was not simply handed out to whoever showed up and trained. There are exceptions to this, but suffice it to say they were not always as open as many American instructors definitely are or as some Okinawan teachers are today.

Back to the chambering part...I do not see that as the true intent of the technique. It really does depend on the situation. In many of our kata, there are places where the hands do not automatically go back into "chamber" before performing the next technique. What's more, you have to keep in mind that with all techniques, they are set up a certain way but will be performed as the situation requires.

On to the explanation...I for one believe it is meant primarily to be a grab with the retracting hand and punch with the leading hand. It is basically a grab/parry that is performed simultaneously with a strike, which I believe technically what most of us are aiming for (simultaneous techniques along the vein of more Chinese styles).

This concept is also present on many of our "blocks" where the retracting hand/arm/wrist crosses over the blocking hand/arm/wrist. This is because the real intent is to grab the opponent's attack with the retracting hand while striking either the opponent's body (i.e. face), breaking whatever he attacked with (i.e. arm) or performing a throw (i.e. arm bar) with the "blocking" arm. There are those who say the retracting hand is there to let the person "be aware" that you can pull a person while punching if you want to. I disagree. The retracting hand is there because it is saying you SHOULD pull a person like that. It forms the heart and principle of many of the techniques of good Okinawan karate.

With this in mind, bringing the retracting hand to your waist is useful because it hyperextends the opponent's appendage, causes the opponent to lose their balance, and places it in a position where it is biomechanically strong for you to hold the opponent. It also allows more momentum into the system by making your opponent move towards you as you strike into him. At the most basic level, it also forms an easier connection between the hand and waist for most beginners, although that is probably the weakest argument for the fist chambering.

This also reflects a difference in the mindset of the practitioners. The most common detraction against the chambered fist says it leaves your face open, etc. In the more traditional schools, by which I mean traditional focus, mindset and training...NOT gi, hardwood floors, military discipline, etc., these techniques were meant to end the fight quickly. Therefore, pulling the hand back was because you were pulling the opponent into you and from that position you were simultaneously striking him/breaking something and most likely taking him down instantly to end the fight. It is my opinion that traditional karate is centered around getting in close and going for the takedown. Therefore a retraction hand technique was a set up for finishing the fight, rather than having an exchange of blows. You can see this in pictures of how most of the old Okinawan masters had their regular fighting stances, which were not one hand chambered to the side.

If you blindly chamber your fist to the side without having any idea what it is for then I will agree with those detractors who say it is useless. For them, it is.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

A day with Shiroma Jiro Sensei

Surprise! This'll be an all martial arts entry, just like the good ol' days. Writing about politics is fun and all but I could write multiple entries everday on the goings on if I had the motivation; it just gets exhausting after a while.

Yesterday I got up early and drove to San Francisco to meet Jeff, a fellow student under Ahtye Sensei. From there, we drove to Vallejo to meet up with Charlie, a senior student of Ahtye Sensei and then we drove to Elk Grove. There, Shihan Tim Evans was hosting Shiroma Jiro, 8th Dan in Okinawan Shorin Ryu. Let me give you a little background on Shiroma-Sensei...

Shiroma-Sensei's early training began at age 13 in Shuri-Te and Kendo at age 15. At age 20, at the death of his first master, he began to train under Hanshi Shugoro Nakazato, the head of the system I take. In the late 60s he also opened up a Thai boxing gym and a karate gym and basically he trained with an incredibly large number of people. As an interesting sidenote, the then-white belt Doug Perry (now Kyoshi Perry the North American director of Shorinkan Shorin Ryu) trained under Shiroma Sensei and was knocking out all his top students...At any rate, Shiroma-Sensei moved to the United States in the late 70s and has been teaching his "style" of Seishindo. His school is in Phoenix, Arizona but he travels around the US for seminars quite often.

When we arrived at Shihan Tim Evans' dojo, we got changed and introduced ourselves to Shiroma Sensei. He instantly showed himself to be a very friendly and very jovial man and he went on a humorous discourse about his iron cup he always wears after he discovered some of us (me included...) forgot to bring cups. When class began, he had us do a thousand punches and then started fielding questions about various things. Someone asked him to demonstrate applications for the kata and while he said he "was not an application man", he went through and showed numerous bunkai for various moves. He seemed to favor the short and quick moves rather than really elaborate techniques.

Watching him move was a treat. He moved and punched very similar to a boxer in many respects and had excellent grappling technique, yet I could still call most all of what he did as "karate". He then proceeded to demonstrate a lot of self-defense techniques against knives and guns which were very well-structured and believable. When demonstrating the use of the knife, his speed and accuracy practically screamed of beautiful, expert lethality and actually makes me want to take up some knifework. I was able to catch on very quickly to his knife and gun self-defense techniques because they were simple, yet effective if you did them properly and applied the necessary martial arts principles. I also liked them because the techniques they were to defend against were practical, common and deadly attacks, not the contrived downard strike you see in so many places (or In Living Color skits...). He has done much work with law enforcement and studied many cases of such attacks, and from what he says and hints at, has been in quite a few situations like that himself...

His other big thing was women's self-defense. I am usually a harsh critic of "women's self-defense" because most places that do them are not really good. However, I was quite taken aback as his techniques and explanations revealed his actual knowledge of such situations and were all very practical. He really has done his homework...One thing he really sought to emphasize was the difference between rigidly adhering to specific technique and the improvisation necessary in a real fight situation. As I think most experienced karateka agree with him, so his message was probably oriented more towards the lesser experienced folk (or those black belts who don't seriously think about these sorts of things).

The seminar was great and all, but the real fun was the dinner. Me, Sensei Ahtye, Charlie, Tim Evans, and his wife and son got to sit on a small round table at a Chinese restaurant with Shiroma Sensei. In case any of you people ever wonder where all these authors on karate history and stories and such get their info, it's usually in settings like these or when they go drinking at their homes, restaurants or elsewhere. We talked for a few hours as we ate and Shiroma Sensei would often pause and start to shadow box or demonstrate a technique in response to a question--all while sitting at the dinner table. He seemed to enjoy the fact that Tim Evans' son and I could both speak Japanese. He told us all many stories about his run-ins with gangs, how he dated the sister of a famous gangster, the vengeance of rats on Okinawa, experiences with Hanshi Nakazato and other things. Rather recurring in his conversation was his continual insistence that one should learn from as many teachers as possible and the individual nature of karate. He kept going back to the importance of an open mind and not closing yourself off to any learning experiences. He had a point, but I think all of us at the table kind of already shared that point of view before even meeting him. He tended to over-emphasize the rigidness of karate in comparison to other ways of fighting, but I think he was doing it more to make a point. While he claims kata is still more "meditation" for him, he never failed to quickly respond to any questions of bunkai. He was critical of practicing too many kata because you wouldn't be able to focus enough on them. All in all, it was a very enjoyable experience with a true master. Those are trite words very often used in these types of stories, but I found them very appropriate.

We split up around 9 pm. I would've loved to stay longer (Shiroma Sensei said he wanted to stay up all night and talk), but I had to get back (a supposedly 3 1/2 hour drive and I was someone's ride to San Francisco) so we drove back. Charlie and I mused about the seminar and the dinner and then dropped us off in Vallejo. It was still nice to talk to him as he's going to Japan for a month this summer in conjunction with his college to study Japanese. I of course recommended James Heisig's "Remembering the Kanji" book as it is the best book to learn the Chinese characters used in Japanese for a Westerner. Period. So I thought it would smooth sailing after that, but the 4 lane highway had 3 lanes closed so I had to take a detour (luckily I knew other ways), but it took forever for all 4 lanes of cars to merge into one...I got back around 1:30 am. Despite all that hassle, it was well worth it. Should any of you ever get a chance to train with Shiroma Sensei, I highly recommend it. He is definitely the real deal.

Update: Greg asked me to put up Shiroma Sensei's website, so here it is: