Monthly Archives: November 2013
Monthly Archives: November 2013
This is about a small mystery that some western instructors have wondered about in the past, so I want to share my thoughts on this unique point in Heian Shodan.
The question is the 4th movement, migi jodan tate mawashi kentsui uchi. No, I am not talking about its bunkai. The question is why we do not have this technique after the first gedan barai, the first movement. In other words, some of these western instructors thought an identical technique of jodan kentsui uchi was missing between move #1, left gedan barai and #2, right chudan oi zuki. By having this technique here Heian Shodan would become truly symmetrical and complete, wouldn’t it? So, was this technique forgotten or taken out by mistake? Let us check the old textbook, Funakoshi’s Karatedo Kyohan 空手道教範. I am sure you will find the same result; this “missing” technique is not there. Let us check Pinan Nidan (our Heian Shodan) in Shito-ryu and Shorin-ryu. I find that the questioned technique is not there either. We must conclude that this kata was created that way by Master Itosu 糸洲 (in the late 19th century). If this is the case, then there is a bigger puzzle. Why did he purposely skip or neglect a technique there and made this kata unbalanced? A hint is the key word of “symmetry”. This is a very western concept of beauty, correctness or completeness. On the other hand, in Japan, believe it or not, we consider it totally opposite.
The Japanese people do not consider symmetry and perfectly balanced geometry correct or beautiful. They even consider them wrong and ugly. I know most of the readers will have an issue with my statement and perhaps disagree with it.
Let me show you some examples.
Pic 1 Pic 2
One of the Japanese arts that has been exported to the world is Ikebana 生け花(the art of flower arrangement). Picture 1 is not a diagram of kata enbusen. Would you believe this is from a textbook of Ikebana? It is to show the basic structure of the flowers or how they should look when they are arranged. Pic 2 shows the actual flowers and the arrangement and you can see the arranger has used the off balanced and unsymmetrical format as instructed in a textbook. I do not know anything about Ikebana and I have never taken any lessons but I can explain to you why this must be this way as I know the mentality or the sense of beauty the Japanese perceive. We know that nothing in nature or anything natural in this world is symmetrical. In other words, anything that is symmetrical is artificial which the Japanese consider imperfect and not pretty. Ikebana, the flower arrangement is an artificial decoration using the thing of nature, the flowers. Of course, the flowers themselves are beautiful and the flower arrangement, the artificial deed, must not destroy or decrease the beauty. To keep the beauty of the flowers the Japanese choose to arrange them in an off balanced and unsymmetrical way. Does that make sense?
Here is another example. Take a look at the tea cups below. Another famous Japanese art is Sanoyu, the traditional tea ceremony.
Pic 3 is a tea cup used in Sado 茶道. See how the shape is purposely uneven and not round and far from symmetry? Even the design or coloring looks almost like it was done with some errors. I do not have the price list on this but I am sure it is as expensive if not more than a perfectly shaped Royal Worcester tea cup shown in Pic 4.
Pic 3 Pic 4
The concept of beauty is the same. We cherish what is natural and not artificial or perfect looking shape. I am not comparing the beauty here or who (Japanese or westerners) are right or better. I am simply showing you the different concept of the Japanese that is deeply embedded in their hearts and even in their life style.
Here are two photos of kimonos. One on the left has a general design of natural scene. The flowers on the left and right sleeves are designed differently. Look at the design of the photo on the right. The imbalance or difference between left and right is very significant. I believe this concept is quite different from that of the western world particularly that of the traditional concept.
Interestingly, the ukiyoe 浮世絵 (photo below) the artists of the Edo period (17th and 18th centuries Japan) such as Utamaro and Sharaku had much influence on the western artists who are classified as the impressionists of the 19th century.
Some of these famous painters include Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Pissaro, Gogh and many more. The academic painting method was to draw as accurately as it is perceived by a painter but the impressionists “violated” the rules as they put more emphasis on the feelings and the impressions they get from the real objects and scenes. I assume, these painters came to realize that it was impossible to copy the reality perfectly with their brushes. The Japanese artists knew this for many centuries and they perfected their impressionist painting style in the Edo period.
I can go on and show you many more examples from the Japanese culture but let me share with you only a few more examples that are much bigger than a flower arrangement or a tea cup. When you visit Japan many of you wish to visit some exotic Shinto shrines as they look very Japanese and the pictures of yourself ina gi in front of a shrine looks great (though the Japanese visitors may not appreciate it). Almost all of you are not visiting there to pray but just to marvel at the beauty of the structure and maybe the famous statues of A-un 阿吽. I would say this is a perfect example of showing the concept of ying and yang. A-un literally means an inhalation (阿) and exhalation (吽) of breathing. The term is also used in Shinto and Buddhist architecture to describe the paired statues common in Japanese religious settings, the Nio 仁王 (photo right) and the komainu 狛犬 (guardian lions, left).
The concept of A-un is very interesting and deep. If you wish to learn more, read on this subject in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A-un
The concept of imbalance or unsymmetrical extends to the concept of building a large structure such as a shrine. Here is a blue print of a shrine that was built more than half a century ago (Pic 5). The main part of the building is symmetrical but you can tell the whole building is not as you take a look at the structures that extend to both sides of the main building. The right structure is completely different from that of the left. Let’s take a look at a blue print of a church (Pic 6) and see how it is planned to be built. Here is one from Saint Thomas More Church in Darien, Connecticut. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that the Japanese shrine’s name is Dairen and the location of the Church is in the town of Darien Connecticut. The similarity certainly stops there. If you can find the original photo on the web, you can expand the blue print of the church. Even from the photo below you can see that it is beautifully symmetrical. The right side structure is almost a perfect copy of the left or vice versa. The only difference is probably the restrooms (one on the left is the Men’s and the one on the right is the Women’s).
Pic 5 Pic 6
Now, do you agree with my conclusion for the imperfection of Heian kata that it was placed on purpose?
I can almost feel how Itosu felt when he created Heian Shodan more than 100 years ago. It would had been a very boring kata if it did not have that one particular technique, jodan kentsui uchi. In other words, that move was a little spice to this kata. In fact, you will find, if you examine Heian closely, that some of the key techniques are being practiced only on one side (for instance, chudan nukite in Nidan and Sandan). You will find this not only in Heian but in all kata. You may want to review all the kata you know from this perspective and you will discover that none of them are perfectly symmetrical. You would probably think, “OK I understand the concept of the beauty by the Japanese people, but this is karate kata. Shouldn’t the kata being designed so that we can practice these techniques on both sides?” This is true, isn’t it? Your puzzled thought is understandable but the Okinawan masters had the answer. Master Itosu and other masters created kata purposely unsymmetrical to remind us that the students must practice gyaku kata (mirror image). Unfortunately, the practicing gyaku kata has not been exercised by all Shotokan dojos. In my dojo all brown belts are required to practice gyaku Heian kata and one of those kata will be required at their kyu exam. I also ask the black belts in my dojo to practice gyaku kata of all 16 Shotokan kata. Tekki may not be too challenging but try Bassai dai and Kanku dai in a mirror image. If practicing gyaku kata is not a part of your training syllabus, wouldn’t you want to include at least gyaku Heian kata and get the most out of these kata?
In the past I have received questions from many people, in essence asking something like this; “When we turn, what part of our foot should we use as a pivoting point?” They specifically asked if they should turn on the ball or on the heel of the foot when they make a body rotation. We all know it is very important for all karate practitioners to be able to turn quickly and smoothly. In fact, I consider this an independent technique. Today I will attempt to provide a short essay to describe my understanding of this technique. I would like to hear back from the readers whether they agree or disagree or don’t care.
Now before we talk about turning, we need to pay attention to and understand two important concepts; “center of mass” and “center of gravity”. They are different but for our discussion they are interchangeable. I will quote some parts from Wikipedia to explain the definitions of the center of mass and the center of gravity.
In physics, the center of mass, of a distribution of mass in space is the unique point where the weighted relative position of the distributed mass sums to zero. The distribution of mass is balanced around the center of mass and the average of the weighted position coordinates of the distributed mass defines its coordinates.
Calculations in mechanics are simplified when formulated with respect to the center of mass. In the case of a single rigid body, the center of mass is fixed in relation to the body, and if the body has uniform density, it will be located at the centroid. The center of mass may be located outside the physical body, as is sometimes the case for hollow or open-shaped objects, such as a horseshoe.
A center of gravity (Wikipedia again):In physics, a center of gravity of a material body is a point that may be used for a summary description of gravitational interactions. In a uniform gravitational field, the center of massserves as the center of gravity. This is a very good approximation for smaller bodies near the surface of Earth, so there is no practical need to distinguish “center of gravity” from “center of mass” in most applications, such as engineering and medicine. So I have a choice for the term and I will use the center of gravity in my discussion. To shift the body even to take a simple step, you need to shift the center of gravity. Believe it or not, you cannot simply stand up from a chair if your head is prevented from shifting forward. Try the following experiment; have your friend sit up straight in a chair and you place the tip of your index finger on his forehead and prevent him from leaning forward. Challenge him to stand up and see if he can. You will find that it is impossible for him to stand up normally until you let go of his forehead.
First of all, do you know exactly how your foot is constructed? If you don’t know how your racing car is constructed you will never be a world class race car driver. The principle is the same with our body though our body construction is much more complex and precise than a racing car or even the most advanced jet fighter. Here is an illustration of our foot. You probably had some idea that the bone structure of your foot looked like this. However, I suspect you have not paid close attention to the finer details of the bones that make up this precise mechanism called the foot. The human foot and ankle is a complex mechanical structure containing 26 bones, 33 joints, 19 muscles and tendons, and 107 ligaments.
The precise numbers are not important. What is important is the you realize that your foot is made of a very complex construction. The muscles and the ligaments are around these bones so that you can make numerous precise movements with your foot. One of those precise movements is walking. It is not possible to do a simple walk without the harmonious workings of the muscles, tendons and ligaments of our feet. I am always so impressed and truly thankful whenever I study the mechanism of our body. Don’t you agree that it is really a work of a genius and that our body, indeed, is a master piece?
Believe it or not the first human like robot that could walk like us became possible only in the year 2000. A robot called ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, photo right) was designed by Honda and introduced in October 2000. I wanted to mention this because the precise mechanism of bi-pedal walking is unique. Bi-pedalwalking (and leaving the front legs or hands free) was necessary for the Homo sapiens to set themselves apart from the other primates. Bi-pedal walking can be easily perceived as a simple body movement but it is incredibly complex and difficult to be imitated by a machine. I have covered this topic in one of my books so I will not repeat it in this article. The point I want to emphasize is that we must never think light of the abilities of our body that were given to us.Back to the original question…What part of our foot do we use when we turn? My answer is that there are basically three different ways to turn and the part you will use will depend on the situation. One situation is a turn in position or an in place bodily rotation (photo left). In this case you will line up the center of gravity through one leg (pivoting leg), hips, torso, and shoulder area and all the way up to the center of your head. If you can line up all these parts as straight as possible then your turn can be smooth and fast. This turn is often used in dancing, figure skating and gymnastics to name a few. A body rotation technique can be found in various karate katas such as; Kanku dai, Gankaku, Junro Yondan, etc to name a few. If you are familiar with these katas you will know which parts of the kata require the rotation. In these cases, you need to use the part that is directly below your shin bones. Again take a look at the illustration of a foot (below).
You may have a misconception that the lower legs were made up of only one bone. Actually, there are two bones; the tibia and fibula. There are two so that you can rotate and move your foot just the same as we have two bones in our forearm to move and rotate our hand.
As shown in the illustration they are not positioned in the center of your foot. The ankle is the point where these bones are connected and we now know the ankle is located nearer to the heel than to the toes. We also notice that there is an arch and that the foot is concaved inward in the midsection of the foot. This means there is no protruding point directly under the ankle to turn on. This makes it extremely difficult to turn at the best point, directly underneath the ankle. So most dancers use the heel part or the contact point of the bone called calcaneus. However, it is difficult to keep the balance if the rotation is complex or multiple, so as an alternative they can use the ball of the foot, the area underneath the third joints of the toes. Turning on the ball of the foot requires much more precision but we have the tools (joints and muscles) to control the turn and balance with the front part of the foot. The area of the ball of foot is rather large (illustration below).
The senior professional dancers would use only one spot (the best spot will be under the middle toe though some may choose under the big toe because it is usually the strongest toe) but the inexperienced dancers may float the spinning point across the foot which results a slower and a poorly balanced turn.
For an in-place rotation, the area underneath the ankle is themost recommended spot as it gives the best balance for the simple rotations that are found in most of the kata. However, we have discussed and pointed out that this method is the most challenging and most difficult one to use. I propose to the readers as the best alternative is to use the heel. I recommend the readers should try to bring the turning point as close to the spot directly under the ankle.
Sorry to have started with the most challenging technique. There are two other turning methods that are easier and you are probably already doing them. To turn as you are moving forward (for instance the left gedan barai move after the first ki-ai in Heian Shodan), you will want to use the ball of the foot. As I have mentioned earlier the center of the foot (third joint) is the best specific pivoting part in the foot. In a standard Shotokan dojo I suspect that you were taught to keep our body up right when you shift your body. As you advanced in your training, you might have found that it is better to lean your upper body slightly to the direction of your turn. By doing this you found that you can move faster and smoother. The first move of Bassai dai may be an excellent example. Even though an excessive amount of incline would be counterproductive, you want to incline slightly towards the turning side. Let’s take an example of the move I mentioned above in Heian Shodan after the first ki-ai. You want to incline slightly to the right as you turn from the right zenkutsu to left zenkutsu gedan barai. In this turning you may use a different part of your foot. It is still the ball of the foot area but maybe closer to or at the edge of the right foot. This requirement is the same with any other physical activities such as football.
See the player in the photo. He is inclining to his right as he makes a quick right turn. If you can expand the right foot area of the photo you can see that the runner is turning on the ball of the right foot and at the little toe side of his foot. Football has much more complex running and foot movement requirements in its play than in the karate kata. Thus, we cannot adopt the steep incline they use but the concept or objective of quick and smooth turn is the same. This will require a fine aligning of your foot to the leg bones. You may ask why.
Take a look at the illustration of the leg bones. Just to line up the leg you have to pay attention first to the hip joint, then the knee joint and the ankle in addition to the numerous other small joints in your foot. This is only in your leg. For the entire body, you have the joints of many other parts of your body but for our discussion let’s focus on the leg area alone. What is the key for a good turn? Simply put, the fewer joints you use in your body alignment the easier you can keep the balance and turn smoothly. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand this logic. Let’s look at a top which you must have played with when you were a child. It can demonstrate a beautiful spin or rotation. As you know the axis is straight and short. But imagine if the axis was long and made of several pieces that were not lined up straight. How about if those pieces are not firmly connected? Can such a top spin?
That is almost how our body is constructed. Now you know why it is difficult for us to spin. Look at the illustration of the foot again and you can see that the bone structure of the heel area is much simpler. The front area that covers the toes is much more complex. This is natural as we normally walk forward and less frequently backward. Then, can we do a turn moving forward using the heel part of our foot? Yes, it is possible so you can. You may feel more stable by turning on the heel, however, turning on the ball of the foot will give you a much faster turn.
Then what is the third method? You can easily guess that it is a turn as you move backward. Remember the third move of Heian Shodan? After the second move (right chudan oizuki) you will step back with your right leg and turn 180 degrees to make right zenkutsu with right gedan barai. What part of your foot do you think that you will use to do this turn? Yes, this was an easy question. Most of you probably said “heel”. As you step back it is natural and easy to shift the center of gravity to the heel. One word of caution on a heel use. The heel area (calcaneus) is a simple bone structure and it is a blessing in one way. At the same time, it can make your turn more challenging. The heel area is simple without the joints and ligaments. This means you are unable to do the fine tuning that can be done with the ball of the foot area. To master the heel area turning, you will need to do a lot of practicing and learn how to be stable and well balanced during the turn.
To be able to execute the most effective body turns in your karate, you need to be able to manage all three different turning methods.
A turn may look simple but the mechanism to deliver the most effective turn certainly is not. A good turn is important in all athletic games. So I’m sure you’ll agree that it is also extremely important in karate if you happen to be serious with perfecting your techniques. Shotokan is labeled as a linear or straight movement martial art. If you look at our kihon it may look linear but when you observe the expert Shotokan practitioners perform we all witness our karate is filled with circular techniques and body movements. Asai ryu karate is a great example of this as it adopts many tenshin (body rotation) techniques.
Did I give you too much information? Maybe so, but it will make more sense to you as you read this article several times. You may think this information was written only for the advanced practitioners or the instructors. Even though I want the instructors to read the information written here, I was also thinking of the beginner and the intermediate level practitioners. It is better for the beginners to learn the techniques correctly at the early stage of their training. As you known once you form a habit it will be very difficult to change or correct later. The ability to turn correctly is much more important than most practitioners give a credit for. When you play basketball, football or tennis, isn’t a superior turning ability important and necessary? If so, then why not in karate? To improve your karate you know that you need to practice all three K elements of karate; kihon, kata and kumite. Regardless of which K element you may be practicing, one of the key requirements for your improvement is that you master the techniques of perfect turning. Good training.by Shihan Yokota More information about Karate (Shotokan, Shito Ryu, Wado Ryu and Goju Ryu) – visit the most comprehensive Karate website in the world and join the movement:KarateCoaching.com
Dr. Alex Sternberg firstname.lastname@example.org 516 652-3211 (cell) KARATE INSTRUCTOR INJURY SURVEYDear Karatekas and Friends, I am enclosing a detailed information sheet regarding the KARATE INSTRUCTOR’S INJURY SURVEY. I am asking for your help in publicizing and disseminating this survey among your members and readers. As my information sheet clearly states, this survey is completely anonymous and the privacy of all respondents are strictly protected. This project has been approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the SUNY College of Medicine School of Public Health toward my research and dissertation for a Doctor of Public Health degree. ( approval # 483426-1) Privacy and anonymity of all respondents is guaranteed by the IRB at Downstate and any correspondence may be directed to Dr. John Meyer ( HYPERLINK"mailto:email@example.com" firstname.lastname@example.org),the chairman of the Environmental and Occupational Health division at the School of Public Health. This survey is anon-partisan, non style, non organizational project, who’s only purpose is to gather information on the frequency and severity of injuries associated with long term karate practice. I hope to publicize this survey, with your help, among all US Karate practitioners and instructors, regardless of what style they practice or what organization (if any) they may belong to. Background: During the past 20 years, we have heard with increasing frequency, stories about injuries and surgeries (not sustained at tournaments) among those karate-kas who have practiced for 10, 20 or 30 years and more. Such injuries seem to be connected with training and over use. Why is this happening and how much of a problem is this? What is the cause of such over use injuries and who is most susceptible? It is my opinion, that it behooves us in the leadership of our industry to investigate this issue. Many other sports, such as boxing, football, baseball and others, once made aware of preventable injuries sidelining their athletes, took steps to control and reduce such risk associated with their sport. We, in karate must also take steps to protect our athletes and future instructors. The first step is to survey American karate-kas to determine the prevalence of such injuries. My survey seeks to answer some of these questions and to investigate the magnitude of this problem. Please write an editorial bringing my survey to your readers attention with a plea for their cooperation in filling out my survey. Feel free to include my information letter and the link to the survey. Should you want to contact me for more information, I will be delighted to work with you in order to help you to help me. Thank you Dr. Alex Sternberg For any more information, please contact me: email@example.com Karate Instructors Injury Survey (KIIS) To enter the survey please click on this hyperlink: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/KarateInjurySurvey
When you hear the term “black belt” I am sure it means more than just a black colored belt to you. For the karate practitioners it means our pride and many years of hard training. For the non-practitioners it may mean an expertise in karate or a dangerous person which we think funny.
Because of the movie, Kuro Obi, this Japanese term has become well known to many of the karate practitioners. The movie was not at a Hollywood level but a JKA instructor, Sensei Naka, co-starred. I would say it is interesting to see a real Shotokan instructor playing in a karate movie. Here is the URL to watch the entire movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urQQBsoTjfw
Whatever the color your belt may be, you certainly wear it every time you train. It is so much a part of our karate training, yet there are many facts about karate belts that you may not know. You might have wondered about something related to a karate belt in the past and maybe you are still looking for the answers. The subjects here are, more or less, only the trivia of karate but I think they are interesting. To some extent, it is important for all of us to know and appreciate some facts. For that reason, I hope this article will help you with your better understanding of karate and its culture.
The dan rank and the black belt system in karate is itself an interesting and a puzzling subject. We must look at the history to understand where this belt system came from. Many of the readers may already know that there was no belt system in the Okinawa karate that was introduced to Japan by Master Funakoshi. Did you know that Funakoshi adopted this system from judo? The founder of judo, Jigoro Kano (1860 – 1938) was a very educated man who was also very talented and successful in business and academic arena. For instance, he founded judo in late 19th century (1882 to be exact) and within a short period of time the membership of his dojo increased to several thousand members. He was also one the first representatives of the Olympic Committee from Japan. I suspect he invented the dan system about the same time he created judo from jujitsu. As you may know that judo and Kano had a huge influence on Shotokan karate at the early stage of Funakoshi teaching in Tokyo. In fact, the name of the style, Shotokan, believe it or not, shows its influence. The name of judo headquarters was Kodokan and it was a very reputable name in the martial arts society in Tokyo at that time. Thus, Funakoshi adopted the “kan” (館Hall or Building) part in Shotokan, probably, hoping to build his dojo as big as Kodokan. There was another reason why Funakoshi chose Shotokan for his dojo name. He believed in having one karate and did not want to create his style, ryu. There was only one organization, Kodokan, in judo and he liked it. This is exactly what he wanted to see with karate and he used Shotokan for his dojo and refused to use “ryu”. This is why Shotokan has no ryu at the end of its name like Shito-ryu and Goju-ryu. Some people recently (ignorant, I am afraid) are referring our karate as Shotokan-ryu which I do not think Master Funakoshi would appreciate or approve. Here is a link to Wikipedia on Jigoro Kano if you are interested in learning more about this interesting man: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jigoro_Kano
OK let’s go back to kuro obi, Funakoshi granted the first dan diploma to a few of his students as early as in 1924, two years after he migrated to Tokyo. In the early period of Shotokan karate the highest rank one could attain was Godan (5th degree) as they followed suit to the system in judo. As the population of judo increased Kodokan expanded its highest dan rank to 10th dan. Thus karate followed the rule change and the highest rank in Shotokan is 10th dan now. In some styles of karate a higher degree wears a different color belt. A practitioner of 6th, 7th or 8th dan would wear a red and white belt. For 9th and 10th dan a full red belt may be worn. These belts are also the imitation from the judo policy. Obviously Funakoshi did not like this idea so he did not adopt it. The Shotokan practitioners only use a black belt for all dan ranks.
In other styles, the stripes are embroidered on the belt to show one’s rank. It is true that you cannot tell one’s rank if his belt is plain. I personally do not like this idea to make the ranks visible. I do not wish to criticize the other styles but I do not like it. In fact, I like the idea of a black belt turning into almost white after many years of wearing. I am proud to wear an old belt as it shared my daily training for many years. I sometimes come across with a few Shotokan practitioners who wear a belt with the stripes. I am sure they are ignorant about our tradition. I want them to know that it is Shotokan tradition to use only a plain black belt.
Kendo is another budo that has a dan system and their highest rank used to be 10th dan rank. It is interesting that in the year of 2000 the All Japan Kendo Federation decided to drop the 9th and the 10th dan ranks thus 8th dan is the highest rank one can attain now in kendo.
What I will bring up next is one particular subject about the karate dan rank system that, I consider, should be discussed more frequently. This is something that you all know well but it has not been discussed openly.
In many of the sports or athletic events they have their own ranking systems. For instance, in boxing it is divided into many weight divisions or classes and in each division they have the world ranks. I am also aware that there are different groups such as WBC, WBA, WBO, etc. and each one has its own ranks but I will not go into this part for our discussion today. The point I wish to bring up is the fact that the ranking systems in boxing are fluid and not permanent. In other words, your rank whether it is first (champion) or 100 will not stay permanently (though such a record may be kept as the historical ranking). It goes down when you lose in a fight and your rank disappears when you retire from the fighting. This is not the case in karate as well as in all budo. Once a dan rank is granted a practitioner will have that rank permanently. He can get promoted but the rank will never come down. I am aware that ranking system of the sports (boxing, tennis, etc.) are different in its objective from the budo’s dan ranks. In fact, judo now has the competitors ranking system called World Ranking (by IJF) that is unrelated to the dan rank system. I believe a dan rank is given on the belief that this particular practitioner will continue his training so that his ability will not deteriorate, in fact, it is expected only to improve. But the sad fact is that many people do not continue their training and quit. Only a handful will remain and train throughout their life. In addition, at a certain age one reaches the maximum of his physical ability and the skill level may even come down despite the continuing of the practice. It is an honorable thing to receive a dan rank and we should be proud of it. At the same time, I feel that the integrity and the substance of the dan ranks must be there to mean anything to us. It is a big shame but there are too many bogus and self-promoted ranks. I can truly understand why Funakoshi sensei refused to receive any dan ranks.
Let’s move on to another interesting subject. Have you ever wondered why kyu rank starts from 8th (at some dojo from 10th) and the rank decreases down to one kyu as a student progresses? Once you reach Shodan or the first degree black belt, the rank increases as you get promoted. When I first joined JKA 50 years ago I wondered why I did not start from 1 kyu. I wondered why the kyu system would not take an increasing system like the dan system and of course I could not ask such a thing to our teacher. Many years later I found that the kyu system had been intentionally structured this way. Let me share the concept behind this system and hopefully you will see the logic.
The fundamental concept of martial arts is that a student is not expected to start a real karate training until you become Shodan (first degree black belt). Some of you may know or practice a custom of making a new Shodan to wear a white belt for a short period of time (a month or so). This custom is to let a new Shodan know that he is now starting a real karate training or he is finally at the starting point of real learning of karatedo. Until that level a student’s objective or a goal is to build the foundation and at the same time, reduce the bad habits or the “natural” ways of body movements.
This may be a difficult concept but is an important one. In other words a student will learn the basic karate ways or the conditions that are necessary to learn the real karate techniques. For an example, if you ask a street person to make a fist he can probably make something that is similar to a karate fist, seiken 正拳.However, if you ask him to show you an open hand he will show you something like Photo A (natural open hand, left above). You ask him next to put the fingers together, he will show you a hand like Photo B (right above) but never shuto 手刀(knife hand, Photo C below). It will require a little learning to make a shuto hand. It will require numerous repetition to “forget” your natural hand forms (A and B) and make this shuto hand (C) “natural” to you.
This is just a small example and the scope of the preparation (forgetting the natural ways) will extend to all those stances, body shifting, postures, breathing method, leg strength, ki-ai as well as the dojo etiquettes just to name a few. All the knowledge and the techniques, indeed, are necessary before a practitioner can “start” the karate training. Note: In a perfect world, all those “pre-requisites” should be learned in advance, but in a real situation the learning of these matters are done in parallel as he engages in karate training. This is why you start from 8th kyu and move up to one kyu as you get yourself prepared for the real karate training.
Another subject; we all know that a beginner starts with a white belt. Before he reaches a black belt there are many different colors such as yellow, blue, green, etc. When I started my karate training in early 60’s there were only two colors before black. They were white and brown. If I remember correctly I started from Mu-kyu (no kyu) and with the first exam I became 6th kyu. We were all white until we reached 3 kyu (brown belt). Now most of the dojos start from either 8th kyu or 10th kyu. Some dojo even give a stripe to show a half kyu advancement. In one dojo the chief instructor told me he would never advance a student by one full kyu. With the first exam a student will become 10 and a half kyu. With this system this student has to take 20 kyu examinations before he reaches 1 kyu to go for a black belt. I did not make any comment to this instructor (luckily he was and is not in the same organization) as he considered karate as a pure business. I am not here to make a judgment on making karate a pure business but I personally would not send my sons to his dojo. Each student is different in his development and speed of learning. Though it may not be good for a business but I do not like having so many examinations in order to receive more money from of the students (or their parents).
A popular question I receive is if the colors to the kyu ranks are fixed or if there is a universal order. The quick answer is no. The basic idea is to start from white (no color) and the belt gets darker towards black. At many dojo the next color to white is either yellow or light blue and I think it makes sense. However, some dojo start with a red belt for 10th and 9th kyu. It is indeed a very dark color but it is intentional. As we all know that the drop-out rate is the highest with the white belt. The instructors believe the red color belt will give more motivation than a yellow or a blue to the beginners and they will stay with the training longer. This may be true and that would be another business decision a dojo instructor needs to make. Incidentally I find it interesting because in judo and a few karate organizations, a red belt is allowed to 9th and 10 dan. In our organization, we have a guideline of the colors that are associated with the kyu ranks but it is not mandatory. We let the member dojo decide on the colors for the kyu ranks.
Here is another popular question. After having a lengthy absence or illness, say more than a year or longer, you may wonder if you deserve to wear your old black belt. You may not be sure what color of a belt you should wear when you return to your dojo. There is no universal rule on this subject and it is up to the policy of an individual dojo. Many dojos or organizations do not mind a member wearing his black belt even if had a long absence. Some dojos have a policy that a returned practitioner has to wear a white belt for a certain period of time. That length varies and again, it will depend on an organization’s rule or policy.
If you are a black belt but you had a long absence and today is your first day back. What belt should you wear? Ask yourself if you can perform just as good as you did right before your lengthy absence. If you are exceptionally talented and if you are confident in your performance, then you can wear your old kuro-obi. However, if you are an average person then you feel less coordinated and out of shape. You may even forget some of the kata. If this is the case, why not wear a white belt? Or does your self-pride or ego bother you? I would rather look as a great white belt than a very poor black belt. Believe me the color of a belt does not help you with your karate. It will not make you look any better or worse so why not wear a white belt for a few months until you gain back your coordination, your stamina, etc? Length of being a white belt depends on the length of one’s absence as well as that person’s ability to gain back to the black belt level. It can be only a couple of months to a half year. It will all depend on an individual and your sensei should be able to tell you when you are ready.
So, what do you think of your kuro obi now? One thing I can tell you is that even if your belt is black, it will not help you with your karate or make you look any better. On the other hand, if you wear a kuro obi there will be a certain amount of obligation and responsibility associated with your belt. For instance, you need to train not once or twice a week but every day. You must be in shape and lead a healthy life. Obesity must not be tolerated for a black belt. You also need to live by Dojo Kun and follow Niju Kun.