Sunday, December 29, 2013

Osae (The Press) and Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings

In a previous post from Dec 2009, I discussed an excerpt from Miyamoto Musashi’s classic work The Book of Five Rings which emphasized the importance of fully closing distance between you and your opponent so you do not execute any techniques before you are in proper range. I then alluded to the related concept of osae (press) that we use in OSKA, and that it would require a post of its own to do it justice. And four years later, here we are.

In the simplest of terms, pressing is a constant press forward into an opponent with the full body and body weight. That means moving the entire body without leaning, hesitance, or any undue actions which would otherwise compromise your posture and position. In OSKA, we use the press as we close distance to get into proper execution range or to engage a new opponent after finishing off the previous one. Technically speaking, closing distance doesn’t require this press, but it greatly enhances control of the situation and promotes a strong frame of mind. For more on what we simply call “the walk-in” to close distance, see this post here.

As I will explain below, however, the press is also used after closing distance and/or execution of a technique to further crowd the same opponent.

Borrowing again from Musashi, the concept of pressing is illustrated in his sections entitled “The Body of Lacquer and Glue,” “Comparing Stature,” and “Applying Glue” which I will cite below: 

“... When you have come close to the body of your opponent, stick to it without separating. When you have closed in on your opponent’s body, stick to it with strength: head, body, and feet. Often people will close in with their head or feet but will leave out the rest of their body.”

“Comparing Stature refers to the avoidance of contracting your body in any way whenever you have closed in on an opponent. Close in with strength, extending your legs, waist, and neck, and align your face with that of your opponent...”

“When you and your opponent strike together and he has checked your blow, continue to apply your sword to his as if you were applying glue, and close in. The essence of this stickiness is to make it difficult for your swords to separate, but you must be mindful not to use too much strength... do so with great tranquility and you will feel no distress. The difference between being sticky and being entangled is that stickiness is strong and entanglement is weak.”

In other words, the press is also used to move an opponent’s body after he is incapacitated, to finish him off, or to aggressively maintain control of the situation before you execute your technique or even if your first technique was unsuccessful.  In all of this explanation there was never a mention of speed. When you maintain absolute control of yourself and your own rhythm as you enter into range, you will control your opponent’s rhythm and thus the entire situation. Withdrawing from an opponent is undesirable as it provides an opportunity to be overrun. Conversely, with the press, there is no need to fear advancing into a retreating opponent; even if he is feigning weakness, you are still in control.

As Musashi would say, “you should study this well.”

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Hawaii Karate Kenkyukai Session: 8 December 2013

On 08 December 2013, the Hawaii Karate Kenkyukai studied Naihanchi Shodan, Tensho, Seipai, and the Kyan Sai no Kata Dai. Each school performed two rounds of their kata, and following their second performance, they explained/demonstrated the meanings and applications of all the kata movements while fielding any questions.

Previous writeups have explained much of the background behind Naihanchi Shodan, Seipai, and the Kyan Sai no Kata Dai. Alan Lee Sensei explained that while the Tensho kata does consist of predominantly one-handed techniques with legitimate meanings for the movements, Miyagi Chojun Sensei created it for his Goju Ryu system in order to emphasize suppleness as a complement to the “hardness” of the Sanchin kata.

During this session, there was a lot of discussion during the “open forum” portions after each school explained the meanings of the kata movements. Some of the topics brought up included stepping methods, breathing methodologies, moving off-line, stance dynamics, and understanding distance when studying the meaning of kata movements. I will get into a little of the stepping and breathing discussions below.

Stepping Methods
There was some conversation regarding stepping methods in the Naihanchi kata, as this kata is performed with only side-to-side stepping. Some schools emphasized stepping in a manner that tested the safety of the ground (i.e. rocks or glass), some used the meaning of stepping over an opponent, while others still used it as a method for stomping or otherwise attacking an opponent’s leg. In OSKA, as we step in Naihanchi we emphasize controlling the body weight in a manner that it is always centered, even as we move from side-to-side. The stance itself also has training benefits, as the flared knee is the exact same setup as our rear leg in our neko ashi (cat stance).

Breathing Methods
There was also some debate regarding how people breathe during kata (and thus fighting). Some schools proposed that like in kendo, there is minimal visible breathing, as an opponent would be able to time your breathing and strike when you are vulnerable. Others mentioned the importance of how much air should be exhaled and how much should be left in reserve, and most schools usually encourage inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. 

In OSKA, Nakata Sensei would always relate how Chibana Sensei spoke of fighting rhythm as breathing rhythm.  Essentially, we inhale to expand and relax, and exhale to tighten. Inhaling as we move allows for flow, but at the end of the move, we exhale to set our stance.  Technically we don’t “take” stances, but it is simply the position we end up in during the execution of a technique.

As we execute techniques, we inhale to smoothly start the delivery of a blow and explosively exhale to make contact. Inhaling quickly through the nose can sometimes cause a tendency to lift their shoulders, which causes stiffness or telegraphing of techniques. On the other hand, inhaling quickly through the mouth can emphasize hara (center of balance), while exhaling through the mouth allows for a more explosive exhale as we use our abdominal muscles, diaphragm, and squeezing of the back muscles. Of course, we can quicken our breathing all we want, but we must inhale and exhale with proper timing, otherwise our blows will be weak and ineffective. 

Parting Thoughts
As always, the openness of the Kenkyukai was quite refreshing. Although the dialogue brought to light various viewpoints on a wide range of topics, some of which were exact opposites, it was nice to see all ideas courteously considered and analyzed from so many perspectives. Of course, it is always easy to get along when we are so used to enjoying light refreshments and talking story after every session, right?

Performing the kata (in order):
  • Naihanchi Shodan - OSKA - Alan Yokota (with explanation), John Oberle, Grant Kawasaki 
  • Seipai - Minakami Dojo - Sean Roberts Sensei (with explanation)
  • Tekki Shodan - Island Ki - G. Hisae Ishii-Chang Sensei (with explanation)
  • Naihanchi Shodan - International Karate League - Craig Kobayashi Sensei, Steve Lodge Sensei (with explanation), Robert Matsushita Sensei, Gavin Hiramatsu
  • Naihanchi Shodan - Hikari Dojo - Charles C. Goodin Sensei (with explanation)
  • Tensho - Kyokushin - Herbert Ishida Sensei (with explanation), Dean Harada Sensei
  • Sai no Kata Dai - Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai Hawaii - Alan Yokota, John Oberle (with explanation), Steve Lodge
  • Tensho - Senbukan Dojo - Alan Lee Sensei (with explanation), Kyle Nakasone Sensei, Ryan Okata, Chie Young, Matthew Kawamura
  • Naifanchi - Zentokukai - Angel Lemus Sensei (with explanation), Judy Lemus Sensei

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Chibana Chosin Sensei: An Interview With Pat Nakata Sensei In March 2010

Below is an interview I conducted about Shorin Ryu founder Chibana Chosin Sensei with my instructor Pat Nakata Sensei, who was his direct student. This took place in March of 2010.

John Oberle (JO): Let us begin by discussing a little about the life of Chibana Chosin Sensei. I have seen many variations of the name of his birthplace, such as Torihori, Tottori-cho, toribora, etc. What can you tell us about his hometown?

Pat Nakata Sensei (PN): Chibana Chosin was born in Torihori village, which is located in the Shuri area of Okinawa. In Okinawa, I heard only Torihori and those that pronounce it as Tori-bori were usually Naichi (mainland Japanese). It is humorous when so-called Chibana Shorin-ryu practitioners say that Sensei was born in Tottori-cho, which is in mainland Japan.

PN: Before I go any further on this particular subject, I would like to say that much of my information is from Masahiro Nakamoto and his book, "Okinawa Traditional Old Martial Arts". I consider Nakamoto Sensei the foremost authority on teachers from the Shuri area, especially the ones from Torihori. Nakamoto Sensei writes that originally Torihori was called Tunjumui. Torihori was a residential area where many of the nobility lived.

PN: Around 1868, during the Meiji Restoration, the king was deposed and the nobility, which included most of the Torihori residents, were without a job or support. At the time, the neighboring Sakiyama Village was the most prosperous since they previously enjoyed exclusive rights under the King to brew awamori (Okinawan Sake). The Torihori families decided to become sake brewers. Torihori then became known for its sake brewing.

JO: That is an area known for many martial artists. What can you tell us about Chibana Sensei's family?

PN: The foremost authority on teachers from Torihori is Nakamoto Masahiro Sensei. According to Nakamoto Sensei, Chibana Chosin Sensei's family lineage was called the family of Sho Ko Toku, the fifth son of King Sho Shitsu. Chibana Sensei's father was one of the most successful sake brewers. Chibana Sensei's uncle, Chibana Choso, was a student of Matsumura Sokon and was a well-known Karate teacher.

PN: During the Second World War at the time of the American invasion, Chibana Sensei lost his wife and son. Chibana Sensei later took a second wife, but this tragedy had a lasting impact and Chibana Sensei rarely spoke of the war.

JO: How did Chibana Sensei begin his training?

PN: Chibana Sensei told me that he started training when he was thirteen years old, but I am not sure who his teachers were. As he has stated in most of his interviews, at fifteen years old, he dropped out of school and went to request tutelage from Itosu Anko Sensei.

JO: What can you tell us of his training with Itosu Sensei?

PN: I will touch on it. Talking about his training with Itosu Anko Sensei would fill a book. When Chibana Sensei started training with Itosu Sensei, he was first taught the Naihanchi no Kata Shodan. This was the only Kata that he was taught for 6 months. He was required to practice this Kata for 6 months and perform it 200 times a day. This was Itosu Sensei's way of testing his will and commitment.

JO: It is often noted that Chibana Sensei ended his formal education early. Have you heard of him receiving any other kind of education after this?

PN: Yes. Itosu Anko Sensei was a very educated man, having formerly been the king's scribe. Since Chibana Sensei was with him every day, he taught Chibana Sensei reading, writing (including calligraphy), and arithmetic in addition to Karate.

JO: How did Chibana Sensei run his classes? I heard towards the end of his life, he only taught Naihanchi Sandan and Pinan Godan. Is this true?

PN: I am not sure how Chibana Sensei ran his classes in the early days. When I trained with him at the dojo, we as a group would do the Kihon no Kata Shodan, Nidan, and Sandan, followed by Naihanchi no Kata Shodan, Nidan, and Sandan. I use the "no Kata" in Kihon "no" Kata, but Chibana Sensei would just say the Kata name such as Kihon Shodan. If it were your first night, Chibana Sensei would have you follow him as he performed Kihon Shodan, immediately after the class performed the opening series. If it was your second night, you would do the Kihon Shodan with the class, then Chibana Sensei would have you follow him on Kihon Nidan. Kihon Sandan would be the same. On the fourth night, you would start the Naihanchi Shodan and move on to the Naihanchi Nidan after a month. There was a 1 month interval for each Naihanchi Kata and Pinan Kata. For the Patsai Kata, Kusanku Kata, and Chinto, there were 2 month intervals.

PN: After the opening series with the whole class, Chibana Sensei would work with everyone individually, except for those that had completed all of the Kata. After you finished the Kihon Kata, Chibana Sensei would not correct you individually. It would be same with Naihanchi. After you completed the Pinan series, Chibana Sensei did not call on you to perform the Pinan Kata. If you wanted to review the Pinan Kata, you would join in with the student(s) at that level as Chibana Sensei called them up.

PN: After you have completed all of the Kata, you would be called to perform with the group, which would be 2 Kata selected from Patsai, Kusanku, and Chinto. On the Naihanchi and Pinan, Chibana Sensei would have you perform 3 of these Kata. If you were learning the Kata, Chibana Sensei would perform it himself and have you follow him. So, after the opening series, Chibana Sensei would work with the beginners to the advanced. Completing the round would be the group that had learned all of the Kata. Normally, there were 2 rotations, but on a smaller class attendance night, he would do 3 rotations. To complete our evening practice we would do the Kihon and Naihanchi as we did in the opening series.

PN: That I know of, Chibana Sensei taught all 16 Kata until his last class. I had never heard of him doing otherwise.

JO: Was there any difference between the way Chibana Sensei taught his classes and the way he taught privately?

PN: I am not sure what you mean by differently. There was a big difference in intensity. At the dojo, the corrections were spread among 10 to 30 people, but during the day, I was alone and each move was scrutinized by Chibana Sensei. One-on-one Chibana Sensei could really explain the application and meaning of the moves. Because of my limited Japanese, Chibana Sensei did a lot of demonstrating so I could understand. On many of the Kata moves, he taught me to perform it differently from everyone else, including himself. At the same time he would explain the reason for the different methodology. In most cases it was much more effective. I must admit though, that it took me many (10 to 20) years to understand much of the explanations.

JO: What kind of advice did Chibana Sensei have for his karate students?

PN: Chibana Sensei gave much advice, but I would like to stress that Chibana Sensei was not a philosopher. He did not go around philosophizing. Chibana Sensei was a Confucianist. He was a "middle of the roader", a moderate. He normally "preached" moderation. Like: "Train hard, but do not over do it", "You can consume alchohol, but know your limits, and stop before you reach that limit". In other word do not go to extremes.

JO: What was Chibana Sensei's attitude towards kata as a teaching tool?

PN: When I asked Sensei on how to improve my fighting skills? He said to practice my Kata. To Sensei, Karate without Kata is not true Karate. Within the Kata are the fighting techniques of the the past teachers. Through the Kata practice one discovers the true meaning of combat.

JO: To what extent did Chibana Sensei explain the meanings behind movements in the kata? Were these the meanings he learned from Itosu Sensei?

PN: Sensei always said that if the basic movement was a punch, then do it strong. If the movement is a block, then do a strong block and likewise for kicks and strikes. Normally, he taught that most movements had 3 meanings. First, there was the basic movements, followed by the grappling type techniques, and ultimately vicious use of nerve points and/or joint breaking techniques. Most of what Chibana Sensei taught came from Itosu Sensei.

JO: How did Chibana Sensei feel about making modifications to kata?

PN: Chibana Sensei often said, "Kata was created and refined by the great past masters. Who am I to change such a great tradition?" As mentioned in Shuguro Nakazato's book, Chibana Sensei tried to teach the Kata exactly how he learned it from Itosu Sensei. Chibana Sensei repeated this to most of his direct students.

JO: What was your impression of the way Chibana Sensei performed his kata?

PN: Chibana Sensei's performance of Kata was very precise and refined. There were no extras, no frills, and no unnecessary movements. His Kata was very "clean".

JO: Did Chibana Sensei ever explain things in terms of “hard and soft” or “circular and linear”?

PN: Chibana Sensei never explained techniques in the context of "hard and soft " nor "circular and linear". In fact this type of discussion are more common with modern day Karateka. In the old school, especially in Shorin-ryu, more time was spent training than intellectualizing.

JO: Did Chibana Sensei ever explain how he came up with the name "Shorin Ryu" for his style of karate?

PN: The Ti that was practiced in Shuri (Shuri-te ([ti]) was often referred to as Shorin, which in Mandarin was Shaolin. These characters were sukunai (少 "small in number") and hayashi (林 "forest"). This read as sukunai hayashi or shorin.

PN: Chibana Sensei did not use the sukunai character, but instead he changed it to ko (小 "small or young"), when he named his style. Chibana Sensei felt that the ti practiced and taught in Shuri, were techniques that had become indigenous to Okinawa or Shuri and no longer resembled the Chinese methods. The Chibana Chosin Karate can be considered as orthodox Shuri-te.

JO: How did Chibana Sensei determine his kata curriculum?

PN: When Chibana Sensei contemplated teaching Karate, he approached his teacher, Itosu Anko Sensei to discuss his Kata curriculum that he want were he to teach. He apparently told Itosu Sensei that Itosu Sensei had far too many Kata. Itosu Sensei must have agreed with Chibana Sensei and told him to teach the core Kata, which came up to 12 Kata. He instructed Chibana Sensei to retain the Matsumura Patsai and call it Patsai Dai and his (Itosu) Patsai would be Patsai Sho, which brought the total to 13 Kata. Chibana Sensei considered only these 13 Kata as "pure" Shuri-te.

PN: Chibana Sensei felt that he needed some introductory Kata, other than Naihanchi. He developed 3 Kihon Kata which brought his curriculum to 16 Kata.

JO: I notice Gojushiho was not considered a pure Shuri-te kata so it was not part of his curriculum, yet many of Chibana Sensei’s students teach different versions of this kata. What can you tell us of Chibana Sensei’s knowledge of Gojushiho?

PN: Gojushiho was not considered to be a core Itosu Kata, so it was not included into Chibana Sensei's curriculum. Yes, Chibana Sensei considered it as Naha-te (Number Kata and taught in China, then brought to Okinawa). Most of the senior Chibana students trained with other instructors and learned their Gojushiho from their respective teachers. I don't think that they teach different versions, but rather do it with slight differences in interpretations. They all do their interpretation of the Matsumura Gojushiho. Chibana Sensei taught me the Itosu no Gojushiho. He showed me the difference between the Itosu Gojushiho and the Matsumura Gojushiho.

JO: There are two versions of the Patsai and Kusanku kata in the Shorin Ryu curriculum. Where did the different versions come from?

PN: Chibana Sensei said that originally there was only one Patsai. The original Patsai was the Matsumura Patsai. How Matsumura Sensei came upon this Kata is unknown. The Tomari (Matsumora / Oyadomori) version is a takeoff of the Matsumura Patsai. Itosu Sensei's Patsai is a takeoff of the Tomari and Matsumura Patsai.

PN: Before Itosu Sensei created the Pinan Kata, the Naihanchi Kata was taught and immediately followed by the Kusanku Kata. Both of the Kusanku Kata were too long and too difficult for the younger students. This is the reason for the creation of the Pinan Kata.

PN: Chibana Sensei did not make any distinction between the Kusanku Sho and Kusanku Dai. It is believe by most historians that the Kusanku Sho was created by Itosu Sensei and the Kusanku Dai is originally from Tudi Sakugawa, with the other being the Yara Kusanku. Both Sakugawa and Yara were brother students of Kusanku.

JO: So Chibana Sensei learned both Kusanku Sho and Kusanku Dai from Itosu Sensei?

PN: Of course, Kusanku Sho and Kusanku Dai were considered 2 of Itosu Sensei's 12 core Kata.

JO: I have heard varying theories on the origins of the Pinan kata. Did Chibana Sensei ever explain how they originated?

PN: Chibana Sensei said that the Pinan Kata was created, because when Itosu Anko Sensei introduced Karate into the school system, he found that the Kusanku Kata was too long and too difficult for the younger students. After introducing the Pinan Kata, on the second year Itosu Sensei realized that another Kata (Pinan) was needed for the students who had already learned the Pinan (Shodan). Thus, the second (Nidan), third (Sandan), fourth (Yondan), and fifth (Godan) were added. This may explain the reason that the Pinan Shodan is about the most difficult of the 5 Pinan Kata.

JO: There is much talk about "traditional karate" versus the "modern karate" that was first introduced into the Okinawan public school system. During his lifetime, some would note differences between "Okinawan karate" and "Japanese karate". Did Chibana Sensei ever discuss or remark upon these differences?

PN: Chibana Sensei never discussed or made a distinction between modern and traditional Karate. Contrary to what has been written, he never made a distinction between sports Karate and traditional Karate. He strongly believed that all Karate is Okinawan.

JO: Did Chibana Sensei ever use the makiwara post as a teaching tool?

PN: Chibana Sensei encouraged hitting the makiwara to develop power and timing. For Chibana Sensei the makiwara was more of a training tool, rather than a teaching tool.

JO: Did Chibana Sensei practice any weaponry?

PN: Chibana Sensei did learn weaponry, but we don't know from who (possibly from Tawata Shinjo)? When I mentioned to Chibana Sensei that I was learning Kobudo from Nagaishi Sensei, he told me to bring my weapons so he could show me the basics. I bought a set for Chibana Sensei, since he did not have any weapons. (set: Bo, Sai, Nunchaku and Tonfa) After about 2 weeks, I suggested to Chibana Sensei that we concentrate on just Karate. Sensei agreed and he returned the weapons. I told him that the set was for him. He insisted that he had no use for the weapons and that I should keep it for my own use.

JO: What were Chibana Sensei's thoughts on sparring?

PN: Chibana Sensei cautioned that sparring may be detrimental to actual combat. For safety, in sparring we need to pull our punches, strikes and kicks, which will handicap you in actual combat. Sensei never discouraged sparring, as long as we understood that sparring and actual combat were two different things.

JO: Did Chibana Sensei ever express his wishes regarding his organization after he passed away?

PN: Chibana Sensei in 1965, told me that upon his passing that his number 2 grandson, Akira would head Chibana Sensei's Okinawa Shorin-ryu Karatedo Association and take the Chibana name (I believe that Akira's name was Nakazato [not related to Shugoro]).

JO: What kind of person was Chibana Sensei outside of his karate training?

PN: Chibana Sensei was very kindly and approachable. Whether it was at the dojo, at home, or in public, Chibana Sensei was always the same.

Monday, April 22, 2013

14 April 2013: Hawaii Karate Kenkyukai Session

On 14 April 2013, the Hawaii Karate Kenkyukai studied Kanegawa no Timbei, Wansu/Wanshu/Empi, Naihanchi Sandan, and Seipai. Each school performed two rounds of their kata, and following their second performance, they explained/demonstrated the meanings and applications of all the kata movements.

The Kanegawa no Timbei kata is said to be a longstanding weapons tradition and was preserved by Taira Shinken, the founder of Ryukyu Kobudo. Essentially a short spear and shield art, its origins are found in a simple farmer’s hat or wooden pot cover used in conjunction with a sharpened stick (potato digger) called a hira. When the stick has a metal tip, it is called a rochin. When demonstrating the meanings for this kata, I chose primarily to show applications against an opponent armed with a sword. Many kata have a distinct “flavor” to them, and this one has a strong emphasis on deceiving the opponent. This includes feints, constantly hiding the weapon with your shield, and even purposely turning your back on the opponent to draw him in. Because the opponent is armed with a sword, blocks are either jamming the opponent’s attack before he can enter the proper range or deflecting the sword at an angle if he is in the proper range. There are no attempts to block the blade directly, since it could theoretically slice through your shield, especially if it is in fact just a hat or pot cover.

The Wansu/Wanshu kata is considered by some to be the oldest of all Okinawan karate kata. The Okinawan pronunciation is “Wansu” while the more Chinese pronunciation is “Wanshu.” Gichin Funakoshi Sensei renamed it to "Empi" when he introduced karate to the Japanese mainland. The Tomari version of this kata is likely closer to the original version, as opposed to the Itosu version. It was interesting to see the variations of the throw towards the end of the kata as well as the turn/jump which immediately follows. Some schools demonstrated jumping over a low attack, while others jumped over the body of the opponent they just threw. Others have the meaning to actually jump on the opponent as a finishing move. In the Itosu Wansu, according to Chibana Chosin Sensei, the throw takes place during the turn and the opponent is stepped around rather than jumped over.

There is some speculation, although unconfirmed, that the Naihanchi Sandan was a creation of Anko Itosu. Naihanchi Shodan and Nidan, on the other hand, are generally accepted as being the creation of Tudi Sakugawa. In any case, all the Naihanchi kata served as the core kata for the Shurite schools. Chibana Chosin Sensei once explained to my Sensei that when he started training with Itosu Sensei, he was first taught Naihanchi Shodan. This was the only kata he was taught for 6 months, and he was required to practice it 200 times a day. This was Itosu Sensei's way of testing his will and commitment.

The Seipai kata is a Nahate kata, meaning it was imported and performed in Okinawa in the same way it was taught in China. Seipai means “18”, although the number itself does not appear to have any significance. 

Performing the kata (in order):
  • Kanegawa no Timbei - Ryukyu Kobudo - Steve Lodge, John Oberle (Explanations)
  • Empi (Wanshu) - Kenshukan - Ralph Sakauye Sensei
  • Empi - Island Ki - Frank Lopes and Loma Lopes (Round 1) and Hisae Ishii-Chang Sensei (Round 2 and Explanations)
  • Wanshu (Tomari) - Hikari Dojo - Charles Goodin Sensei
  • Wansu (Tomari) - International Karate League - Craig Hamakawa Sensei (Explanations), Gary Hiramatsu Sensei, Robert Matsushita Sensei, Steve Lodge Sensei, Carl Sunada Sensei
  • Wansu (Tomari) - Zentokukai - Angel Lemus Sensei
  • Naihanchi Sandan - OSKA - Grant Kawasaki (Explanations), Ted Kaneshiro, John Oberle
  • Naihanchi Sono San - Kyokushin Karate - Herb Ishida Sensei (Explanations), Dean Harada Sensei
  • Seipai - Senbukan Dojo - Alan Lee Sensei (Explanations), Ryan Okata

Observing: Alan Yokota

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Life After Sensei

“At some point, you have to train for yourself.”

I’ve said those words many times over the past six and a half years, either to myself or others. Normally, it’d be after one of us was feeling pretty miserable after an evening of Pat Nakata Sensei’s particularly harsh brand of giving corrections. He always had a way of getting under your skin and making it personal. “It HAD to be personal,” he would often explain. “Something has to break through that barrier so you can break your bad habits.” In the first several years of training, I could have literally used one hand to count the times he paid me compliments on my karate and still not have used all my fingers.

Desperately wanting someone else’s approval was a relatively new experience for me; I’ve always considered myself to be highly self-motivated and quite competitive for achievement’s sake alone.  There were many nights where I left the dojo with my mind reeling and my self-esteem knocked down a few pegs. All the same, it would always feel worth it on those rare occasions where Sensei would begrudgingly give one of his heavily qualified compliments. This would invariably result in me spending the rest of the night with a goofy grin on my face (after I left the dojo of course).

The darker side of “at some point you have to train for yourself” was that Sensei wasn’t always going to be around. That point in time began to feel uncomfortably close when he was diagnosed about a year and a half ago with mesothelioma of the heart, an exceedingly rare form of the asbestos-related cancer. Still, a large part of me believed he would miraculously shake this off like he did everything else. After all, this was the superman who had an unexplained heart attack and flat-lined in front of me one night at the dojo, and less than a month after spending 11 days in ICU, was almost back to 100% and just as fierce as ever.

But on Feb 7, 2013, Sensei’s fight was over and the time had come. The preceding weeks gave some indication, but I didn’t want to believe the signs. I didn’t want to believe I would never hear his harsh criticisms, his rare praise, or even one of those stories we’ve all heard him tell a hundred times before. This was the man who made me feel like a part of his family ever since my first day in Hawaii when he took me to his home and his wife Jeanette cooked me dinner. He was the man who would spend hours teaching, mentoring, and inspiring me at least six days a week if not more. 

And he was gone.

I took it hard. For the first few days I hardly ate, I hardly slept. I went to work, I went to practice, but it was kind of a daze. I tried to put on a good show but inside I was torn up. If I couldn’t sleep much the first few days, then the next few days were the opposite. Apart from work or practice, pretty much all I did was sleep. I just didn’t have any interest in anything else.

But, leave it to Sensei to be different. Several years ago, he had written his last wishes and left them with his wife, and they stated that he did not want any religious ceremony, memorial, or funeral. Instead, he wanted his students to hold a demonstration and perform all of the karate and kobudo kata in his curriculum. It was just like him; he would never turn down an opportunity to make us train harder and improve. What greater tribute could there be?

Like everyone else, I wanted to look good. More importantly, I wanted my karate to be strong. If my karate was strong, then it would bear witness to Sensei’s legacy. As I resolved to train even harder, it made me remember my words once more. I remembered that I was drawn to Sensei not just because of his own greatness, but because of the greatness he could develop in others. I remembered that I always trained hard because it was the path I chose for myself.

On March 16th, we held the demonstration in his honor and we all did our best. That day has come and gone, but the lifelong demonstration continues. Sensei may not be physically present at the dojo anymore, but he never misses a single practice. I am not alone when I say I can still hear his corrections as I train. I can see that amused glimmer in his eyes as he smiles, and that look of fierce concentration as he trains. And though I still train for myself, it gives me strength as I continue along my path.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Hawaii Karate Kenkyukai Session: December 9, 2012

On 9 December 2012, the Hawaii Karate Kenkyukai held its most recent study session, examining the Pinan/Heian Sandan and Godan, Kyan Bo no Kata Dai, and Gekisai Sandan and Yondan.

Historical context on the Pinan/Heian kata, the Kyan (Ufuchiku) weapon system, and the Gekisai kata can be found in the previous entry here.

We continued our new format where everyone performed two rounds of their kata, and after the second round, the meanings / applications of the kata movements were explained and demonstrated with a partner move-by-move from start to finish. Following this round, we split into pairs and each school shared one of those meanings for everyone to practice with a partner. 

One of the interesting discussions that took place resulted from a question raised whether everyone felt they should step and/or execute techniques exactly as is practiced in the kata (forms) during an actual fight, or if there is a large degree of variation and modification that should be expected. In my mind, this question deals directly with the often controversial issue of using kata to train for fighting in the first place. I can see the merits of both sides, but I personally lean towards executing the motions as close to the way they are practiced in the kata as possible. For me this boils down to the sports and physical science theory that the mental and physical benefits gained from repetitive physical training are primarily limited to the specific motions practiced, and largely only in the specific manner they are practiced. Simply put, your techniques will be strong if they are executed using the same precise motions and timing as the kata, because that is what you are physically and mentally training yourself to do.

At this point it might be worth mentioning that my general philosophy is rather than have a very large bag of tricks to address the very wide range of situations one can encounter in a fight, I prefer to have various core techniques that are widely applicable without having to modify them. For example, our blocks are structured to be effective regardless if an opponent punches high, medium or low, and with the left hand or the right. Consequently, I also believe that if there are multiple meanings to a certain movement in a kata, the technique has to be executed in the same way for all meanings. An example of this would be towards the end of our Pinan Godan kata, where a “turn and throw” also has the meaning of a block to the front and/or the side. Regardless of the meaning used, the technique is executed in a manner so that all meanings are practical. 

At any rate, it is these kinds of discussions that I find very interesting... even if there are differing views it is certainly very educational to look at some of these core fighting and training principles from multiple angles. Plus, it is very nice to be in a sharing forum where we can disagree without becoming disagreeable!
Once we finished, we all stayed afterwards to talk story and enjoy refreshments. Thank you to everyone as always for the food and drink!

Performing the kata (in order):
  • Pinan Sandan / Pinan Godan - OSKA - Alan Yokota Sensei, Grant Kawasaki (Explanation for Pinan Sandan), Ted Kaneshiro (Explanation for Pinan Godan), John Oberle
  • Heian Sandan / Heian Godan - Minakami Dojo - Sean Roberts Sensei 
  • Heian Sandan / Heian Godan - Island Ki Dojo - Frank Lopes and Loma Lopes (Round 1) and Hisae Ishii-Chang Sensei (Round 2 and Explanations)
  • Pinan Sandan / Pinan Godan - International Karate League - Gary Hiramatsu Sensei (representing Nishioka Sensei and Explanations), Robert Matsushita Sensei and Craig Kobayashi Sensei
  • Pinan Sono San / Pinan Sono Go - Kyokushin Karate - Herb Ishida Sensei (Explanations), Dean Harada Sensei 
  • Kyan Bo no Kata Dai - Ryukyu Kobudo - Alan Yokota Sensei, John Oberle (Explanations)
  • Gekisai Sandan / Gekisai Yondan - Senbukan Dojo - Alan Lee Sensei (Explanations), Kyle Nakasone Sensei, Ryan Okata

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Aug and Oct 2012 Hawaii Karate Kenkyukai Sessions

On Aug 12 and Oct 14, 2012, the Hawaii Karate Kenkyukai gathered to study the Pinan / Heian Shodan, Nidan, and Yondan Kata, the Kyan Bo no Kata Sho and Kyan Sai no Kata Sho, and the Gekisai Shodan and Nidan Kata.

As mentioned in previous writeups, Itosu Anko Sensei created the Pinan Shodan kata for the Okinawan school system in the early 1900s as a simplified version of Kusanku, which would be easier for the schoolchildren to learn both in terms of kata length and the literal duration of the physical education classes. While there was initially meant to be only one Pinan kata, Itosu Sensei created four more in successive years to give returning students  more kata to practice. Funakoshi Sensei renamed the Pinan Kata to Heian, a change which carried over into schools which had ties to Shotokan. In addition, because Pinan/Heian Shodan was viewed as more complex than the Nidan kata, Funakoshi Sensei switched the teaching order, which is why the Heian Nidan kata is equivalent to the Pinan Shodan kata. Variations of the naming convention over the years across different styles is responsible for the difference in the Pinan / Heian kata names listed further below, which are all the same kata.

Steve Chun and Grant Kawasaki performing Pinan Shodan
Sean Roberts Sensei performing Heian Shodan
Ralph Sakauye Sensei perfoming Pinan Shodan

The Kyan Bo no Kata Sho and Sai no Kata Sho refer to the bo and sai kata taught by Kyan Shinei Sensei, which he had learned from his instructor Kina Shosei Sensei. These kata likely originated from Kina Sensei’s teacher, “Ufuchiku” Kanagusuku Sensei. Ufuchiku Sensei’s bo system is often considered to be a “northern” style due to the influence of Jigen Ryu, which was popular sword style amongst the Satsuma samurai. Evidence to support can be seen via the prevalent use of the “jodan kamae” (upper ready position) where the bo is held over head in a similar fashion as the sword.

Alan Yokota Sensei and John Oberle performing the Kyan Bo no Kata Sho

[DSC_26: Alan Yokota and John Oberle performing the Kyan Bo no Kata Sho]

The Gekisai kata were originally created in the attempt to have a simple, universal kata that the many different styles of karate on Okinawa could practice and perform together during exhibitions, study sessions, or just in general. The Gekisai kata were created by Miyagi Chojun of Goju Ryu. While the goal of having a universal kata shared by all karate styles on Okinawa was never quite realized, these kata remained in practice.

For these study sessions we ushered in a newer format. Every school still performed two rounds of their kata, but after the second round, the meanings / applications of the kata movements were explained and demonstrated with a partner move-by-move from start to finish. Following this round, we split into pairs and each school shared one of those meanings for everyone to practice with a partner.

Pat Nakata Sensei explains a riding block and arm break from the Pinan Shodan kata

Steve Chun demonstrates a strike from the Pinan Shodan kata

Hisae Ishii-Chang Sensei demonstrates a thrust from the Heian Nidan kata

Robert Matsushita Sensei executing a block from Pinan Shodan

Herb Ishida Sensei demonstrates a block from Pinan Sono Ni

Alan Yokota Sensei executes a hook / disarm followed by a strike

Alan Lee Sensei demonstrates a strike from Gekisai Shodan
Charles Goodin Sensei explains a block and strike from Pinan Shodan

There was an interesting discussion on the development of karate “terminology” as we know it today, and how that in turn can affect our understanding of various techniques. Karate terminology isn’t just a matter of translation; it’s all Greek even to Japanese and Okinawans as well. I’ll never forget the time I visited the dojo of Yonamine Kousuke Sensei (Uechi Ryu) during a trip to Okinawa back in 2007. Yonamine Sensei was preparing some of his students for promotion testing, and he was quizzing them on specific karate terminology, in Japanese of course. It never occurred to me that karate terminology would be foreign even to native speakers, although now it seems to make sense.

Chibana Sensei often demonstrated techniques rather than using “standard terminology”. Upon being asked, he mentioned to Nakata Sensei that back in the old days, there was no real set terminology used in karate. Teaching was done in standard conversational Okinawan or Japanese, and most everything was demonstrated for proper visualization. It was only much later that “formalized” karate terminology emerged, largely due to the efforts of mainland Japanese to catalogue their techniques and stances. Yoko te (side of the hand) became shuto (knife or sword hand), yoko ashi (side of the foot) is now called sokuto (sword foot), and mae nagai dachi (forward long stance) is now referred to as zenkutsu-dachi (forward bent knee stance). In comparing some of the old kata to the modernized kata, it seems that when a move or stance in the old version of a kata did not fit neatly into the confines of the new terminology, then that move or stance was modified.

One of the more evident examples of terminology affecting understanding is the distinction between what are now called yoko geri and mae geri. Geri (keri) means “kick”, while yoko means “side” and mae means “front”. Therefore yoko geri is taken literally to mean “side kick” in the sense of a kick towards the side, while mae geri refers to a  “front kick” in the sense of a kick towards the front. 

Originally, yoko geri was called “yoko ashi yoko geri,” which breaks out to: yoko ashi (side of the foot) yoko geri (side kick). Simply put, a kick to the side using the side of your foot. Over time, the term was shortened to “yoko geri.” Mae geri on the other hand used to be called “tsuma saki mae geri”, which breaks out to: tsuma (toe) saki (tip) mae geri (front kick). In other words, a toe kick to the front. This too was shortened simply to “mae geri.” These abbreviations became so ingrained that soon, kicks using the side of the foot were only done to the side and toe kicks were only done to the front.

However, in some original Shorin Ryu kata such as Pinan Yondan or the two Kusanku, there is a kick that was originally called “tsuma saki yoko geri”, or in other words, a toe kick towards the side (with the body still facing forward). Using modern terminology, one would view this kick as a mix between mae geri and yoko geri. Some schools focused more on the “toe kick” aspect and altered the move so the performer turns their body fully towards the side to execute their mae geri (with a toe kick). Others focused more on the “to the side” portion and instead performed a yoko geri (hitting with the side of their foot) while still keeping their body oriented forwards. In both cases, there was a modification to the original movement and meaning, which again was having your body oriented forwards, but kicking with your toe towards your side.

To me, this goes to show that karate terms must always be specific and demonstrated fully for students to understand. Thinking about it, I suppose this would apply even to our kenkyukai study sessions, where many different schools gather together to share their techniques with one another. Sometimes it is useful to remember that our semantics can make our karate terminology a foreign language, even to other other karate schools!

Once we finished, we all stayed afterwards to talk story and enjoy refreshments. On 12 Aug these were provided by Steve Chun (C.Q. Yee Hop Co./Commercial Enterprises), Grant Kawasaki (Hanapa’a Sushi), Lee Sensei, Nakasone Sensei, Ishii-Chang Sensei, Matsushita Sensei, Loma Lopes, Nakata Sensei, and Yokota Sensei.

After our 14 Oct, we had a birthday celebration for Nakata Sensei, which Goodin Sensei helped to organize. Ishii-Chang Sensei outdid herself with a delicious and organic birthday cake. She claims to very rarely bake cakes... but if that’s true, then what a shame! We had a veritable feast, with additional refreshments provided by Steve Chun (C.Q. Yee Hop Co./Commercial Enterprises), Grant Kawasaki (Hanapa’a Sushi), Goodin Sensei, Hamakawa Sensei, Harada Sensei, Hiramatsu Sensei, Lee Sensei, Nakata Sensei, Roberts Sensei, Shimabukuro Sensei, Yokota Sensei, and Loma Lopes. Thank you everyone!

Performing the kata on 12 Aug (in order):
  • Pinan Shodan - OSKA - Steve Chun, Grant Kawasaki
  • Heian Shodan - Minakami Dojo - Sean Roberts Sensei 
  • Heian Nidan - Island Ki Dojo - Taylour Chang, Frank Lopes, and Loma Lopes (Round 1) and Hisae Ishii-Chang Sensei (Round 2 / Explanation)
  • Pinan Nidan - International Karate League - Robert Matsushita Sensei (representing Walter Nishioka Sensei) and M.J. Matsushita
  • Pinan Shodan - Hikari Dojo - Charles Goodin Sensei
  • Pinan Shodan - Kenshukan Karate Kobudo Association - Ralph Sakauye Sensei(representing James Miyaji Sensei) 
  • Pinan Sono Ni - Kyokushin Karate - Herb Ishida Sensei, Dean Harada Sensei 
  • Kyan Bo no Kata Sho - Ryukyu Kobudo - Alan Yokota Sensei, John Oberle 
  • Gekisai Shodan - Senbukan Dojo - Alan Lee Sensei, Kyle Nakasone Sensei
James Miyaji Sensei
Rodney Shimabukuro Sensei
Carl and Clyde Kinoshita
Tommy Terayama

Special thanks to Clyde and Carl Kinoshita for their photography during the 12 Aug session.

Performing the kata on 14 Oct (in order):
  • Pinan Nidan and Pinan Yondan - OSKA - Alan Yokota Sensei, Steve Chun, John Oberle
  • Heian Nidan and Heian Yondan - Minakami Dojo - Sean Roberts Sensei 
  • Heian Shodan and Heian Yondan - Island Ki Dojo - Frank Lopes and Loma Lopes (Round 1) and Hisae Ishii-Chang Sensei (Round 2 / Explanation)
  • Pinan Shodan and Pinan Yondan - International Karate League - Craig Hamakawa Sensei and Gary Hiramatsu Sensei (representing Walter Nishioka Sensei)
  • Pinan Nidan and Pinan Yondan - Hikari Dojo - Charles Goodin Sensei
  • Pinan Shodan and Pinan Yondan - Kenshukan Karate Kobudo Association - Ralph Sakauye and Shawna Carino Sensei (representing James Miyaji Sensei) 
  • Pinan Sono Ichi and Pinan Sono Yon - Kyokushin Karate - Dean Harada Sensei 
  • Kyan Sai no Kata Sho - Ryukyu Kobudo - Alan Yokota Sensei, John Oberle 
  • Gekisai Nidan - Senbukan Dojo - Alan Lee Sensei, Ryan Okata

Rodney Shimabukuro Sensei
Stephen Lodge Sensei
Robin Sagadraca