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It is always a good exercise to take account of our motivations as karate teachers and practitioners. Why do we continue on, year after year, teaching and practicing karate? Yes there are a lot of easy, canned answers: cultivation of character, preserving the traditions of the past, to learn to be able to defend oneself, to confront our responses to violence, force of habit. I am sure I am leaving many out.

I don’t think most people scrutinize this carefully. For a variety of reasons, answering this requires us to consider who makes up the community of people to whom we are responsible towards. When the answer is ambiguous it becomes nearly impossible to understand the extent of our responsibilities, and thus what it is we should be doing. The ‘why’ question becomes easier to address when we are clear about what we are doing, and equally important, about what we are not/ should not be doing.

There are those who regard themselves as hard-core ‘traditionalists’ for whom preserving tradition seems to be the ultimate objective. To these people the most important obligation is to ones predecessors in these arts. Of course it is useful and proper to give credit where it is due. We have an obligation to make sure our historical claims are accurate, but that seems like the extent of our obligation to the dead.

Many times in the thirty-plus years I have been involved with martial arts, I have seen abusive and insensitive behavior justified by appeals to tradition.

As a younger black-belt level instructor, I remember struggling with ethical dilemmas that should not have been complicated, however, my judgment was clouded by the imagined relevance of some mumbo jumbo associated with tradition.

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The following is an article by David Campbell, Chief Instructor of TKRI-Virginia. Hopefully we will get the administrative issues sorted out so that we can repost it with his by-line soon. We are honored to be able to include it on the TKRIblog.

Several weekends ago, my sensei, Robert Miller presented a weekend-long seminar on Fitness for the Fighting Arts here in our provincial town of Rocky Mount, VA. While the entire presentation deserves laudable and lofty praise, that is not the intent of this work. Rather, it is to call attention to a rather unsung hero in the whole process—my student, Randy Simpson.

With the exception of a seminar Mr. Simpson planned a little more than a year ago, the responsibility of planning events through our dojo has largely been an undertaking resting on my shoulders. That is not to say Mr. Simpson, other students, family, and friends have not played enormous roles in said events coming to fruition. Quite the contrary. In fact, generally speaking, most of the events would not have come off nearly as well as they have without their generous, albeit indentured, help.

Not this past time, however. This event was one Mr. Simpson conceived, planned, and directed on his own. Again, not to negate the help of all involved, rather I wish to illustrate a feeling that came over me during the seminar—but more on that in a moment. We’ve all heard the phrase “Always be willing to surrender your mind.” Attribute it to whomever you wish—Gichin Funakoshi? OK. I attribute it to whoever said it last—as that context gives it the most meaning to me. It’s pretty much been drilled in since day one of training. For many old dogs, however, a new trick is not easily engrained. For me it was giving up the tendency to micro-manage. For those who know me—even though I try—I have a propensity to tell people what to do. Perhaps this makes me a good teacher, but at times it makes me an irritating person with whom to hang out. That being said, as Mr. Simpson went about his business in planning the event, a feeling of pride came over me.

Understand, however, Randy need not prove himself to me or the art. I look at his life, his path, his dedication, and the intent and completeness with which he not only trains but conducts himself, and no other proof is ever necessary. Still, I couldn’t help myself. As I stood there—just a member of the event, just a student—that proverbial lump made its way into my throat. No I wasn’t sucker punched. No I wasn’t about to throw up from the training. It was something with which I have struggled to sublimate all my life but this time accepted, cradled, and relished. It was pride.

Not pride in myself, but pride in my student. My student—and friend—who brought together people from different dojo and different states to learn and grow. My student and friend who can now take the slightest piece of information and make it his own. My student and friend who leads by example, has a mind of his own, and—like most tragically flawed people—endeavors to put others before himself. But enough of my poetic waxing (on or off, for that matter.)

So I stood in a room listening to my sensei, as sponsored by my student, and I got the feeling I had when we first took a picture of my son with me and my own father—three generations together, passing along what’s been learned. Hoping for the other. Proud just to be a strand in the intricate web of familial existence. And I remembered when Miller sensei first turned over the reins to me. It was a Japanese festival demonstration in St. Louis he wished for me to narrate. Then it was a tournament (of course that was before we committed karate heresy, renounced all tournaments, and resigned ourselves that if we were to burn in karate hell, at least all of our dohai would be there, too.) So I’m ping-ponging back and forth from sensei to Randy, Randy to sensei, doing the proud, folded arms thing like Mr. Miyagi at the Cobra kai tournament, and a poem by Gary Snyder called “Axe Handles” comes to mind:
Axe Handles
by Gary Snyder

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with-”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”-in the
Preface: “In making the handle Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on. (Snyder 366-367)

In subject, the poem is an honest, simply written work about a father teaching his son to throw a hatchet and make it stick in a tree stump. Thematically, however, it compares the shaping of an axe handle to the shaping of a child or person and subsequent generations. As Snyder teaches his son, Kai, how to throw a hatchet and make it stick in a tree stump, Kai remembers an old hatchet head his father has in the shop: “He recalls the hatchet-head/ Without a handle, in the shop/ And go gets it, and wants it for his own” (Snyder 366). Also in the shop, behind the door is an old, broken axe handle. Too big for a hatchet, the handle needs to be cut down to size and shaped: “There I begin to shape the old handle/With the hatchet” (Snyder 366). As Snyder and son begin shaping said handle, Snyder recalls the Pound quote: “When making an axe handle/ the pattern is not far off.” And, Snyder explains to Kai they will use the existing hatchet handle to act as model for the one they will fashion. “Look: We’ll shape the handle/ By checking the handle/ Of the axe we cut with-“/And he sees. And I hear it again…” (Snyder 366-367)

What Snyder hears is a former teacher of his quoting the original version of the reference from which Pound gleaned the adage. Snyder’s mentor, Shih-hsiang Chen, obtained the quote from its original source, Lu Ji’s “Wen Fu”—a fourth century A.D. essay on literature. In effect, we see the shaping of a lineage—and Snyder’s metaphorical “handle” is shaped by both Pound and Chen—who were shaped by Lu Ji. In turn, now, Snyder shapes his son.

What is interesting, and somewhat disappointing, is that Snyder refers to himself as an axe. “Pound was an axe,/Chen was an axe, I am an axe/ And my son a handle, soon/ To be shaping again…” (Snyder 367) The reference is understandable, in that Snyder sees himself as having been shaped by his teacher and by Pound, and he in turn is shaping his son. “How we go on” (Snyder 367). In this respect, it is understandable why Snyder refers to himself as an axe. Unfortunately, however, by referring to himself as an axe—while he does imply he is the model for his son—he also implies that his own shaping is done, that the journey is complete. Of course, in the Eastern traditions, the definition of teacher is usually translated as “one who has gone before”—implying only that the teacher is a little farther along the path than the student. It is a shame Snyder does not convey more of this. But, those are my own biases, and perhaps not Snyder’s intention. It should be noted, however, that it is somewhat difficult for a reader to not use prior experience and knowledge when interpreting a poem. We are the sum of our experiences, and our interpretations are influenced by those equations. This is particularly interesting due to the fact Snyder spent time not only in Japan but in Japanese monasteries (McClatchy 359). His Zen training and experience shines here, as he finds the beauty in the plain and helps him see “the inner world, before language, before custom, before culture” (qtd. in McClatchy 359). Still, with his obvious Zen influence, it’s somewhat surprising he lets this nuance slide. I would imagine his training and meditations would prevent him from doing so.

As far as the language used in this poem, there is nothing extremely or overtly elegant about Snyder’s choices. But, that is the beauty of it. It is plain, as are axe handles. Most do not possess elaborate carvings or inlays. They are unadorned, bare, and simple. The loftiest expression appears near the end of the work when he uses the phrase “craft of culture” (Snyder 367). While beautiful and alliterative, it is the one spot in the poem where the reader double-takes. It’s a bit out of place—out of character from the rest of the piece—but since it occurs in the conclusion, Snyder can be granted the exception in his summation. It is not difficult to become grand in thought and word when contemplating the constant evolution of one’s offspring—or in this case, one’s student.

Finally, the poem is successful in its attempt to illustrate the shaping of one person by another by virtue of using the “shaper” as a model. Part of the reason for its success—as alluded to above—is the “shaping” that has been done by sensei and with Mr. Simpson. Snyder’s poem takes me back to working with Randy, and then with my sensei. He effectively shows not only how a person is influenced, but that the person doing the influencing plays a large role, also. Finally, it serves to force “shapers” to assume some responsibility for their actions, to understand they are much of what the “shapee” will become. We shapers bear the weight of responsibility, charged with shaping not only a human, but the future. And while I still consider myself to be mostly hatchet still in need of said handle, I look at Mr. Simpson and know he is indeed ready and qualified to do his own shaping of another. For, he has not only shaped his juniors, but he has whittled away at the hard-wood exterior that is this teacher. He understands it’s not the carving per se, but the journey of being carved that is paramount. He has a good handle on that.

Works Cited

McClatchy, J.D., ed. The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. Vintage Books. New York: 2003. Print.
Snyder, Gary. “Axe Handles.” The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry.
Ed. J. D. McClatchy.Vintage Books. New York: 2003. Print.

The 3k’s Are Not Enough

I’m sure that there have been karate teachers in every generation who have tried to make karate practice as relevant to real fighting (as they understood it), and as safe to practice as possible. If you are a really concerned about your students it just comes with the territory . Those today who look outside of the standard 3k’s ( kata, kumite, and kihon) approach to training are not that different.

I have been to a fair number of dojo over the years. Most of the instructors at these dojo, if asked what constitutes karate training would reflexively give an answer that in some way that describes the 3k approach. Though I think the 3 k’s are necessary in order to call a fighting practice karate, I do not believe that the 3k approach is sufficient for developing capable fighters. This statement should not really be that threatening. In fact in even the most tightly formatted, JKA type schools I have visited, there was more going on than the 3k’s. We tend to minimize a lot of what goes on in karate learning communities when we use the default 3k description.

Reality Based Training is Worth Including

Most of the karate training I have seen ignores issues critical to success in real world encounters. Things like training on different surfaces; training to know how to, and being able to, exploit ones environment; and training to prepare for the inevitable psychological, physiological, and perceptile effects one is likely experience in a real fight are too often trumped by kata memorization. These are things that people involved in the reality based movement in the martial arts have spent a great deal of time thinking about with, in my opinion, good results. I am not claiming that karate people should abandon kata practice or that basic punching and kicking drills should entirely be replaced with reality based combat training in order to be relevant to personal defense. I am claiming that incorporating some of the lessons that may be learned from the reality based movement could be extremely valuable for karate people. If one of the functions of kata are to serve as mnemonics to help us remember and categorize techniques then reality based programs can help us imagine and practice those techniques with a deeper sense of the contexts within which they may have to be used. I do not see how this contradicts tradition.

Changes in a Tradition of Change

The conduct of most typical “traditional” karate classes; including the methods of entering the dojo; whether or not training is even done in a dojo; the practice of seated meditation prior to training; the recitation of the dojo kun; the osu(ing); the lining up; the counting in cadence; the norms determining how and when it is appropriate to ask questions, what questions are appropriate, and the methods of dress are all things that have as much to do with Japanese customs (and adopted Prussian ones) and practices as Okinawan ones. Furthermore, these customs are the customs of a Japan in the specific period in which karate was succeeding in incorporating itself into colleges and universities. This Japan was a Japan tipping towards xenophobia and militarism while fixated on what constituted a Japanese polity, literature, philosophy and art.

Karate has changed a great deal over the years. The increase in the amount of time devoted to, and the types of kumite practiced (even the development of jiyu kumite) from Funakoshi’s day to the present further attests to this process. Regardless of how one feels about sport karate it seems evident to me that training in kumite, including free sparring, improves a persons ability to respond extemporaneously to unscripted attacks. In the last few years It has become popular in traditionalist circles to deny the real world relevance of kumite, instead favoring kata and bunkai work. I think it is possible to practice kumite while simultaneously bearing in mind that it is not a fully faithful representation of real world combat.

Changes and TKRI


The group I lead practices kihon and some pretty basic forms of kumite that require more than a little suspension of disbelief (3x and 5x sparring, engagements with simple lunging attacks etc). For some folks this stuff seems like an absolute waste of time, for others it, with kata, is all that one is required to practice in order to develop as a karateka . I am not fully in either category. The basic kumite drills help us build confidence in our new students. It also give us a chance to work on posture, begin to think about distancing, targeting, shifting our weight, and angling. We also use simplified, more abstract and safer representations of attacks to allow students to work on developing explosive responses safely. This is not an exhaustive list of benefits.

Because I do not think that this sort of training is that helpful by itself in teaching students either how to attack, or how to survive being attacked, I try to transition them into more vigorous encounters as soon as possible. These usually involve less abstract kinds of attacks, and more complex reactions on the part of the person defending. Even though I do not like sport karate and feel like kata practice has a lot to commend it, I still believe that karate is better off having incorporated a wider variety of sparring type engagements. Of course there are other open drills besides free sparring that we do as well. We try to relate what we have learned from the open drills to the more tightly scripted and formated partner work and kata that we do. We also include aspects of reality based training such as role playing, affect training, and the use of props. I feel that all of the aspects of our training have been enhanced by the inclusion of free sparring into the curriculum by previous generations of teachers. I hope that my own efforts to incorporate reality based ideas into our partner work at TKRI will be similarly useful.

Changes and TKRI

Warm ups and Conditioning

Years ago one of the groups I trained with used to practice reverse butterflies (sort of a double legged hurdler’s stretch). These were done every class during the warm-up period. It hurt me to do them and they left my knees feeling “loose”. I was convinced that the instructor knew what he was talking about when he said that they would help my side and round kicks so I kept trying to do them. It turns out he didn’t know what he was talking about. This is an exercise that should never be done, especially by people who rely heavily on their knees to shift, lift, turn, and rapidly change direction. A few trips to the athletic trainer’s office of a local University convinced me that being able to count to ten in Japanese does not make one qualified to dispense fitness and conditioning advice. Needless to say the trainer did not think it was a good idea to do these, and he had a few choice things to say about the qualifications of anyone in involved in sport who recommended them.

All sorts of crazy, unscientific ideas regarding conditioning abound in many so called traditional clubs. I quit doing the reverse butterfly stretches, felt better, and recommended in turn that my students avoid them as well. I did not feel any less traditional for leaving out this little gem. In fact I felt that preserving the next generation’s health would be something that any ‘venerable ancestor’ would endorse.

It is now becoming popular to use older implements like the chishi for conditioning. I use chishi regularly and I have quite a collection of homemade ones. I feel a great deal of pride when my group is spread out around my garden banging on the various makiwara and heavy bags, pulling on inner tubes (thank you Elmar), and hoisting chishi.

I am quite certain that the chishi, if it is too heavy for the user, and is used poorly, can cause damage to the shoulders. It does not matter to me that many senior goju people and others have used them forever and report no apparent harm. Anecdotal evidence matters little in science. Goju and other similar arts that are particularly vigorous tend to be self selecting for people whose bodies can handle this sort of activity. I am not saying that chishi use is bad, I am simply asserting that this should not be a sacred cow, it deserves investigation. It is worth asking yourself what it is you are hoping to gain by the use of the chishi (or any training method), and then asking the follow up question “is this the optimal way to realize that gain in terms of risk versus benefit?”. Traditionalist should not be afraid of this kind of analysis, they should embrace it.

Changes and TKRI

Oral Traditions, Acculturation, and Historical Claims

When the veracity of historical claims are successfully challenged traditions are inevitably changed. As I was coming up I heard all sorts of tall tales about karate. I was young and gullible. I absorbed these romantic stories like a sponge. This was certainly a part of my acculturation and was arguably a part of a tradition (written however small). Thanks to some time spent reading books by authors like John Sells, Harry Cook, Mark Bishop, and others I am no longer so gullible. My students do not get told those tall tales, and they do not do reverse butterflies. They do read books I assign. Changes, see?

To me the single most important aspect of these traditions is the responsibility we have toward one another. The responsibility that a teacher or senior has toward students or juniors eclipses any responsibility she has to mimic past methods, especially when better methods and better information are available.

Brian McCormick has posted an article on the blog “The Crossover Movement” called “Basketball Tradition vs Training Efficiancy“.  The article questions the usefulness of the “training camp sprint test” that has become a part of the tradition of basketball training camps in regards to players who are in shape, but who may not benefit from this type of training.

Have a look. Click here.

Some groups feel pretty strongly about dress. I used to be in that category. Over the last fifteen years or so I have found myself training outside in my garden, in the courtyards of Washington University. or in parks more often than in proper dojo. There have been stints where this has not been true, but taken in total I think this is an accurate statement.

It is not easy to get grass stains out of a karate gi and they are not cheap. We like to throw each other in TKRI. We like to use strikes to unbalance our partners, we like to grab most any bits of cloth or flesh that happen to be within grabbing range (we are a close group), and it is not uncommon for us to go to the ground when the spirit moves us. Add to this a fair amount of falling practice, some sit ups, push ups, and who knows what else, and you have got gi hell.

It took about a decade (some of us in the karate world are evidently a bit slow) for me to discover that it was not necessary to always wear a gi when training. I found I liked it. There are a lot of advantages to training in shorts, with or without a tee-shirt. Seizing feels much different without the thick cloth of a gi’s sleeves. The sleeves both absorb sweat which makes grabbing much easier, and the material is itself easy to grab.

It is not that unusual, in our Saint Louis club, for our male students to train without a gi top or a tee-shirt, sometimes our female students will wear a sports top. This immediately reveals postural, balance, and technical problems. In yakusoku kumite it allows for much more precise targeting.

Some people may counter that a gi mimics the vulnerabilities one should be aware of when wearing everyday attire. Coats, shirts, jackets, and ties are all easily grabbed more easily than bare flesh and change the nature of many attacks. This is true of course, and I am not advocating the abandonment of the use of the gi altogether, however I have found that old coats, shirts, jackets, and even ties are also effective stand ins for coats, shirts, jackets and ties if one is interested in approximating real world encounters (the similarities truly are striking).

TKRI has several important events every year around which our schedules revolve. Both the Virginia and Missouri branches have special training to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The clubs collaborate on the demonstrations at the annual Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Gardens held over Labor Day weekend every year. The Ferrum Virginia clubs host a weekend long summer camp towards the end of June or the beginning of July every year. Each club tries to host at least one major event over the course of the regular school year. These are all big productions. We often have guests. During these sorts of activities we wear our gi (to be truthful the Ferrum group usually trains in gi) and try to make ourselves presentable.

I spend a lot less money on gis now. It is a big help. I do not want to even imagine how much I have spent over the years on karate. I am more prone to wear my gi at the beginning of a semester when we are trying to bring the group together. Mostly my gi functions sort of like formal wear (with sweat stains).

I tell my students all of the normal stuff about appropriate dress for special occasions and visiting other clubs ; wear all white traditional gi without patches and do not wear jewelry on the training floor. I tell them that regardless of their rank in our club they should be prepared to wear a white belt when they visit any other club (unless invited to do otherwise by the host).

We may get the odd student who does not have the sense not to wear “ninja” gear or tee-shirts proclaiming themselves to be a sensei, master, shihan, grandmaster, soke, or my favorite; ni dai soke, but we nick that in the bud pretty quickly. In fact there is nothing quite like working with a bunch of sweaty, grass stained, very fit, slightly bedraggled looking people who are more interested in how to knock one another down on their butts then they are in ranks, certificates, and titles, to take the piss out of any self proclaimed expert.

Admittedly about half way through the summer the group, when we are hot, muddy, grass stained and bug bitten looks a bit like Captain Jack Sparrow’s crew. I like it though (arrrrrgh).

"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 2020

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