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A Review of:

“Karate, My Art”: Motobu Choki’s 1932 “Watashi no Karate-jutsu”

Translated and edited by Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy, 2002. 120 pages. (Originally published in 1932)

“Karate, My Art” is a collection from the International Ryukyu Karate Research Society featuring a reprint and English translation of Motobu Choki’s 1932 “Watashi no Karate-jutsu” as well as several related articles, essays and historical documents. This volume contains a wealth of information about Motobu’s karate, training methods, life and efforts in spreading karate-jutsu in Japan during the first part of the 20th century. Motobu, who has been the subject of renewed interest in recent years, was often the target of vilifications and rumors that overshadowed the wealth of knowledge and innovative training methods that he contributed to his study of karate. Essays by McCarthy, Nagamine Shoshin and Kinjo Hiroshi (as well as others) provide insights that effectively lay these claims to rest. Historical photographs of Motobu and several of his teachers and peers are sprinkled liberally throughout. Although slim, this collection is packed with information, including a translation of Kyan Chotoku’s (a cousin of Motobu’s) “Karate Training” which is a valuable historical essay in itself.

Several sections in particular have merited frequent return readings and earned the book a regular spot on my nightstand. The first is a reprinted compilation of Motobu’s favorite training sayings. A few highlights:

2. Kamae is in the heart, not a physical manifestation.

8. Kicks are not all that effective in a real confrontation.

12. The position of the legs and hips in Naifuanchin no Kata is the basics of karate.

15. The blocking hand must be able to become the attacking hand in an instant…

24. It is necessary to drink alcohol and pursue other fun human activities. The art of someone who is too serious has no “flavour.”

In these excerpts and in the text of “Watashi no karate-jutsu”, Motobu discusses several concepts that are generally cast as modern developments in the fighting arts (often followed by a spasmodic utterance of Bruce Lee’s name). Among these is development of awareness and control of the Center when fighting. “Mefotude” or “husband and wife hands” refers to the utility of using both hands together to support offensive and defensive movements, a skill which Motobu emphasizes as vital to his karate.

Of major historical interest is a translation of the 1925 “King” magazine article about Motobu’s victory over a European boxer/strongman. The piece describes how a 52 year old Motobu entered into an “all comers” Boxing vs. Judo match with a large foreign fighter in Kyoto and knocked him out after a few rounds of parrying. This article, while a bit sensationalistic, is important in that it established public recognition for the relatively unknown art of karate in Japanese culture. It also became a foil for the major feud of the embryonic Japanese karate scene: the accompanying illustrations of the match clearly depict Funakoshi Gichin as the victorious karate adept and not Motobu. This incident led to a bitter rift (and possibly a physical exchange) between the two men as well as many of the rumors about Motobu, whose karate Funakoshi vehemently disdained. The previously untranslated article is presented here for the reader to evaluate.

The center piece of this volume is a reprint of Motobu’s 12 “Jiyu Hon Kumite” fighting drills and the translated “Watashi no Karate-jutsu.” Dozens of clear photographs detail both the two-person drill sets as well as Motobu’s Nihanchi kata. The relationship of these drills to the Nihanchi kata is clearly visible in the photographs (for a more dynamic representation, check out “The Karate of Choki Motobu” by Tsunami Productions).The text of “Watashi” itself gives the reader a look into the mind of this supposedly “crude” karate practitioner- a detailed capsule history of karate, exhaustive notes on past and contemporary karate practitioners, references to several kata, and observations from Motobu’s checkered fighting past provide a wealth of information.

For overall content, historical value and production quality (and the fact that karate friends keep stealing it from me), TKRI gives Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy’s “Karate, My Art” :

5 out of 5 possible Bruised Knuckles.


TKRI-VA has been experiencing a bout of deltoid/shoulder injuries lately, which led me to find this case study about neuromuscular retraining of a patient’s chronically unstable shoulder (and the patient happens to be a kungfu student).

Check it out here

Mario McKenna has posted a discussion of Sanchin kata on his blog that explores the possibility of it’s arrival in Okinawa before Higaonna Kanryo’s journey to China.

Check it out here.

Here is another good article from the Sports Fitness Advisor Blog, it is called “Plyometrics for Martial Arts”.

Here is a teaser;

Plyometrics for martial arts will help to increase your explosive power, your speed and your ability to change direction quickly. On their own, plyometric drills have limited effectiveness. They are most useful when performed in conjunction with a strength training program. In fact without a strength base, plyometric training can do more harm than good.

Click Here to read the rest.

I found an article interesting on the Sports Fitness Advisor blog called called “Power Training for Sport”.

“Power training enables an athlete to apply the greatest amount of their maximal strength in the shortest period of time.

This is crucial for many sports men and women who will rarely be required nor have the time to produce maximal forces.

Most athletic activities involve far faster movements and far higher power outputs than are found in maximal strength”

Click Here to read the rest of the article.

Spend a few years in karate and you will find that there are all sorts of scoundrels associated with karate who—for all of the years they have spent talking about character perfection—are nothing more than bullies, thieves, liars, con men, or worse. There are lots of good people who train in karate as well, but in my experience the distribution of bad to good people pretty well matches the distribution in society at large; there is nothing magic about karate that makes its practitioners good people or moral exemplars.

Claims regarding the moral benefits of karate are pretty ubiquitous. These claims are everywhere from the copies of the dojo kun hung on training halls to the cheesy adverts in newspapers offering to help “little Johnny” stay off drugs, become more disciplined, to raise his grades, and turn him into Superman if his parents fork over some cash to “Grandmaster” (hold on tight to your wallet when someone starts trying to sell you morality.)

This association between karate and character does more than just line the pockets of snake oil samurai. It provides a platform for unwarranted moral posturing on the part of your friendly neighborhood shihan. If you want to find someone worth venerating as a moral exemplar, you are more likely to find them volunteering at a soup kitchen, working with special needs kids, or lending a hand at the local homeless shelter than at a karate dojo.

The moral pretensions of disingenuous karate teachers can be genuinely harmful. I remember a club that was affiliated with the same national organization I belonged to once hosted a seminar taught by a senior karate teacher. About an hour after training (ironically concluded with a period of seated meditation and recitation of the dojo kun), the group gathered at a local restaurant and the visiting instructor loudly asked the students “who is gonna f*** sensei tonight?”. This question was not meant to be funny or ironic, considering this man’s history it probably counted more as foreplay.

I had brought several of my students in a minivan to the event. Upon hearing this I politely excused myself (I still regret that I was polite about this), gathered my students, and drove off. Some of my female students were as young as fourteen years old. We never again visited any events hosted by this group.

The host club trained in a gym run by a local women’s advocacy association and many of the students who trained there found the club through this organization. They understandably assumed that any group using its facilities would be sensitive to the fact that a substantial portion of the women served by it had been victims of some form of misogynistic behavior. Several women who had trained with the group reported to the institution—and later to several higher ranking members of their karate organization—that they had been the victims of sexual harassment and other associated abusive behavior. The fall out from this essentially destroyed the club.

From conversations I had had with several of the members of this group (before all of the harassment charges came to light) I knew how important karate was to many of them. It represented a way to empower themselves. Some of them had already lived though devastating emotional and physical abuse. Karate training represented a foray into a world larger than the quaint Midwestern landscape, and it was supposed to have something to do with “seeking perfection of character”. I can not imagine how much emotional damage was done to these people. I expect that it was worse because they suffered at the hands of men whose power was underwritten by both physical power and supposed moral authority.

Forget everything you have ever been told about “fighting spirit”, most of the time the instructors using this term are bullies. It is not a moral issue or character issue. It is a matter of what an individual has learned they can take and survive. Someone who has survived by acting less dominant, by trying to avoid confrontation, or by “flinching” to protect herself does not necessarily have a character problem. The bullying instructor who—believing some self-serving and naïve semiology—equates these behaviors with some species of bad character simply reveals his own ignorance.

Learning is the key. If you show students that they have a better chance of surviving by moving in to stuff an attack, they will. Provide them with a safe environment to explore assertiveness. The degree to which they experience success will bear on how they learn and incorporate this behavior. Moralizing the natural “flinch” responses in lower ranked students is unproductive, pedagogically naïve, and offensive. If you really need to recast the flinch response for your student, turn it into something like an eye gouge. Do not turn it into a moral indicator.

Some people claim that “fighting spirit” implies a willingness to sacrifice oneself in order to realize some strategic end such as providing time for family or loved one to escape an attack. This sort of behavior may be gallant; however I have found no evidence of the rehearsal of (existentially) self sacrificial behavior in regularly practiced in karate classes. In fact most of karate training involves modeling methods of survival. I have met many people who do not train in karate who would gladly make any sacrifice for their families or loved ones. I have met bullies who train in karate and who simply hide their fears behind aggression. The correlation between preparedness to sacrifice oneself and karate practice is a loose one at best.

The primary aim of karate training is to improve the student’s chances of survival in a fight (in the real world, as opposed to within a constructed environment). All of the other benefits (real or imagined) of karate, such as focus, determination, character development, etc are, to some degree dependant on the process of striving to develop the ability to fight (in the context of a community of fellow karate learners.)

If you are concerned about developing character, model the kind of behavior you want to see in your students, including modeling the “losing” side of partner drills. Do not spend all of your time fawning over the amazing physical skills of your most talented athletes while ignoring the efforts of those who struggle. Draw attention to the importance of cooperation in training. Train hard, and proclaim less. Let the students know you struggle to improve just as they do. There is nothing wrong with reciting the dojo kun, just remember it is not a magic formula.

Moral issues are not all easy or obvious. Be prepared to have conversations with students after class. They will want to know about dealing with bullies, abusive partners, imagined street defense issues, they will want to tell you about fights they have had and all sorts of related stuff. Do not expect to, or act like, you have all of the answers to their questions. Many times they will get on your nerves and will seem hopelessly naïve. If you have the time to teach them how to hurt people you should have the time to talk to them about it. By spending the time talking about these things after class you are confirming the importance of moral thinking for your students. By acknowledging the difficulty of knowing what is morally required of each of us, and the difficulty of acting accordingly, you encourage genuine moral thinking.

For those of you following Charles Goodin’s blog, Mr. Goodin announced on Tuesday that a sizable donation to the Hawaii Karate Museum Collection at the Hamilton Library of the University of Hawaii has finally been completed. Literally thousands of rare karate books, magazines and multimedia items are now in the library’s collection, which means that they will eventually be available for inter-library loan. For book devouring karate fiends like us, this is very exciting news. Congratulations- and thanks-  to Mr. Goodin on completing this service to the international karate community!

See the full story here.

The speed bag from the Virginia dojo.

It’s recorded that Shinpan Gusukuma (Shiroma in Japan) regarded the ability to generate the force of 3-4 times one’s own body weight behind a strike as a crucial aim in karate training. It’s also recorded that he was a relatively small, light framed man, yet was capable of generating such force when he hit (This idea is not exclusive to the Okinawan/Japanese martial arts; American boxing legend Jack Dempsey and others stressed a similar idea).

I have come to feel that the other side of this coin is the ability to support one’s own body weight on any limb. Let me be clear in saying that weight training with equipment is an invaluable adjunct to karate and must not be overlooked for a number of reasons (one being to equip the body to safely continue in vigorous karate training for years). Body weight exercises, which exploit one’s own weight and structure for  resistance, develop a different type of strength that is just as important: integrated, dynamic strength.  We need to be able to handle our own weight under any circumstances: in static  conditions and in explosive bursts, on one arm or leg or a combination of either, on our backs, sides or stomachs, upside down, right side up, horizontal, etc. The utility of this kind of strength and mobility for fighting should be obvious. Weight training and body weight training should complement each other in a martial artist’s conditioning routine, not replace each other.

But to get back to Shiroma sensei, I’ve come to the understanding that the ability to support and redirect yourself quickly and powerfully on arm or leg  has a lot to do with the ability to use your whole body to generate powerful strikes. I would suspect that Shiroma did an awful lot of conditioning to achieve his striking ability, both with Okinawan free weights and body weight exercises. Aparently, one of his favorite party tricks was to pinch-grip the rafters of a house and swing himself around the ceiling from rafter to rafter – try that (such stunts are now commonly visible on YouTube).

Below is a link to BodyWeightCulture, a forum that is absolutely packed with good information for body weight training for a variety of goals and outcomes. You have to register to access the content, but the hassle is worth it. Five minutes of perusing this forum yielded many new exercises to try with excruciating-looking variations on some old favorites. In the meantime, I’ll be getting back to leaving foot stains on door frames from handstand pushups and trying in vain to love chinups…

BodyWeightCulture Forums

Every year TKRI clubs host special training sessions called kagami biraki. These roughly coincide with the Chinese New Year. We usually perform a kata 108 times and do various partner drills 108 times as well. Typically we add 108 sit ups, push ups, squats, lunges, and other miseries to the mix. I think this may be a good year for the Saint Louis club to add 108 burpees to the fun.

We usually collect food to donate to a local food bank or find some other way to help a local charity. We do this in lieu of charging a training fee. We have collected over a ton of canned goods over the years. It has always seemed to me that there is more “character” development to be realized in one food drive than in a hundred recitations of the dojo kun.

Sometimes we have special guests give presentations. Dave Lowry has been kind enough to present several times in the past. By the end of the day we are all puddles of karate goo. Exhaustion makes for great camaraderie so we often end up at a nearby restaurant to share food and beer (see we really are a karate group).

If you would like to know more about what is involved in a proper kagami biraki ( I am not claiming ours are particularly proper) follow this link to the article “Kagami Biraki: Renewing the Spirit” by Christopher Caile on the “Fighting site.

We are only beginning to plan for this coming year’s kagami biraki. Once things take shape a little more I will pass the details along. Until then, if you are thinking about joining the fun you may want to follow this link to an article called the “100 Burpee Workout” and start preparing. Click Here to see the article.

"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin


November 2008
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