When I posted a photo of Master Asai (right) on Facebook, someone commented that Master Asai’s butt sticks out. The same person commented that Master Kase (France JKA) also had the same posture. I cannot write about Master Kase as I know almost nothing about him and his karate. But I believe I can present my theory on Master Asai. I will, hopefully, be able to shed some light on why he stands that way. I believe there is a good explanation for his posture. I have studied Asai karate for over 10 years and had a very close training relationship with him for the last few years of his life, between 2003 and 2006, the year he passed.
Before I go into my theory, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce Tetsuhiko Asai. Of course, most of the readers already know who Master Asai was. He was a world renowned Shotokan master who traveled around the world and awed everyone with his almost magical techniques. I am well aware of his abilities but I want to speak about Master Asai because I have a compelling reason. This will also explain as to why I started my organization, ASAI. Some people have blamed me for taking advantage of his fame by naming the organization using his name. On the surface indeed it does appear so. Hopefully by reading my explanation the readers will understand that I have a much deeper motivation to keep his name and his karate alive. Let me explain…without any exaggeration he saved my karate and in essence my karate life (I will explain the details later). I owe him so much and now it is my turn to pay it back to the karate world since I cannot do so to him. It became my conviction to spread and share the karate I learned from Master Asai. As long as I live I do not want anyone to forget about Master Asai. I want the name of Asai to be remembered. This is the exact reason why I created the organization, ASAI (Asai Shotokan Association Interantional). We are not an organization that just happened to pick up a famous name or to be part of a fad, we are an organization that intends to do the following:
Give everyone access to the Asai Karate System
Provide a home for karate ronins
Make the dan grade examination available to all organizations and styles
Unite all karate practitioners regardless of the organizational differences
Improve the karate skills of all members
Preserve the discipline of Dojo Kun
Pass the legacy of Master Asai on to the next generation
Let’s look at the history of Master Asai from his birth to his last day. I could write something from my memory but I think it is more accurate and complete to quote from the page of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetsuhiko_Asai
Here is the direct quote from the Asai page (I took out the reference numbers, under bar and different font colors):
Asai was born on June 7, 1935, in Ehime Prefecture (on the island of Shikoku), Japan. He was the eldest of seven children. As a boy, he trained in sumo. In addition, his father (a policeman) taught him judo, kendo and sojutsu. When he was 12 years old, he witnessed a fight between a boxer and a karateka (practitioner of karate); the karate combatant was able to disable his opponent with a kick, and Asai was impressed.
In 1958, Asai graduated from Takushoku University, where he had trained in karate under Gichin Funakoshi, Masatoshi Nakayama, and Teruyuki Okazaki. He trained hard and was allowed to sleep in the karate dormitory. At Nakayama’s recommendation, he entered the JKA instructor training program and graduated from the course three years later.Asai won the JKA championship in kumite (sparring) in 1961, and in kata (patterns) in 1963. He was overall JKA champion in 1961, having come in first in kumite and second in kata that year. Asai became the first instructor to introduce karate to Taiwan. Through the second half of the 1960s, he taught karate in Hawaii for five years, among his students included Kenneth Funakoshi.
Over the years, Asai advanced within the JKA, and was appointed as Technical Director. Following Nakayama’s death, the JKA experienced political troubles and divided; Asai and colleagues (including Keigo Abe and Mikio Yahara) formed one group, while Nakahara Nobuyuki and colleagues formed another group—which in 1999 was officially recognized as the JKA. In 2000, he founded the International Japan Martial Arts Karate Asai-ryu and the Japan Karate Shoto-Renmei. Apart from the ranking of 10th dan in Shotokan karate, he also held the ranks of 3rd dan in jodo, 2nd dan in judo, 2nd dan in jukendo, and 2nd dan in kendo.
Later lifeReflecting on relations between JKA instructors who had graduated from Takushoku University, Asai said, “We all pretty much get on nowadays, contrary to our official stances and federations. In saying that, some of us don’t, but isn’t that life? … I am happy to say that most of the deep rooted rivalry has gone amongst my peers. I think that the passing of Mr. Enoeda, Mr. Kase, Mr. Tabata and Mr. Shoji and so forth has brought many of us back to reality. Obviously this is not limited to Takushoku University, it is all about us international karate pioneers getting very old.”
Asai’s health deteriorated with age, and he underwent liver surgery on February 10, 2006.He died at 2:50 PM on August 15, 2006, leaving behind his wife, Keiko Asai, and their daughter, Hoshimi Asai. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral, which was held on September 1, 2006, at Gokokuji Temple in Tokyo. Asai received the rank of 10th dan posthumously from the JKS, and was succeeded as President of the IJKA by his widow. Since that time, IJKA in Europe has apparently separated from K. Asai’s IJKA. In 2013, Asai Shotokan Association International (ASAI) was formed by a former student of Asai, Kousaku Yokota, to teach Asai’s style of Shotokan. http://asaikarate.com/
In the past I have already written about how Master Asai saved my karate life. I suspect that many readers may have not read it yet so I would like to share my short explanation here.
I had been a lifetime member of the JKA and I was a godan in the mid 90′s after having practiced shotokan karate for more than 30 years and my age was approaching 50. At that moment I keenly felt that I had reached my plateau with my karate training and I could not find any challenge or pleasure in any further training. I visited different senseis and went to seminars given by the masters such as Kanazawa and Tanaka but none of them could inspire me. As a result I decided to retire from karate in 1997. This was a big move as I had always believed karate was part of my life. But I decided to do so because I could not find a way to improve myself any more. So, I decided to study Ki and hoped I could find a solution in this art.
I found a job in Tokyo where I lived for 2 and a half years and during this period I did not wear my gi, not even once. I entered a famous Ki school called Nishino ryu Ki dojo in Shibuya. To make a long story short I could not find my answer in Ki training. I came back to California in 2000 and decided to teach karate in San Jose. At that time I had already given up on improving my own karate. In 2001 Asai sensei was giving a seminar in the area and I participated. Of course, I knew Asai sensei from my JKA time and had met him several times in the past. I also had witnessed, with my own eyes, the impressive demonstration he performed in the JKA’s All Japan Championship (1981 and 1982). But until I participated in this seminar in 2001 I only considered him as one of the shotokan famous instructors and nothing more. This seminar event happened 5 years before his passing so he was in his mid 60′s. By observing his techniques and moves very closely I was simply dumbfounded by his agility, flexibility and speed. I knew immediately that he was the answer to my question of “how can I improve my karate when I am in my 60′s?” It took me a year before I finally left the JKA and became a follower of Master Asai. My close association with Master Asai was only five years before he left us all too young. He knew so much and I just did not have enough time or occasions to ask all the questions I had. I can never claim that I learned all of his techniques. He knew more than 100 katas and I have only learned 25 Asai katas. Despite this I feel I learned enough that I can share this knowledge and the techniques with all shotokan practitioners especially the advanced (technically and age wise) karateka. His karate was different and my karate became different from the standard shotokan karate. It is different because I feel my moves are more natural and smoother. I guess I have to ask the readers to watch me either in person or in the video performance to see if they think that this is true. I am convinced that the benefits to the karateka of all styles and all ages are great. I can never replace or duplicate all of Asai sensei’s techniques but it is my lifetime mission to share what I know and what I can do. This year I am 66 years old and I plan to do this for at least the next 34 years (God willing) so I will be around and so will ASAI. OK that is enough about my karate life.
If you know Master Asai’s karate you agree that his karate was not only great but it was different. You can see him in action and right away you will see the definite differences. His moves and techniques are more circular and smoother compared to the linear and somewhat ridged techniques that many Shotokan practitioners exhibit. You may ask “why his karate was so different?” this is quite difficult to explain. How did he develop his karate? The answer to this question will give you a hint to the original question regarding his butt position.
He became the Technical Director of the JKA in the 80′s but before that time, there was a very important stage of his karate life, specifically between 1965 and 1975. The JKA had dispatched him overseas to teach karate starting in Hawaii. After completing his assignment in Hawaii he went to Taiwan in late 60′s. I heard that Master Asai had some exposure to other styles of karate and even to some kung fu styles while he was in Hawaii. He was always looking for something new to try and to learn so it is easy to guess that the diversified martial arts found in the islands of Hawaii would have given him many opportunities. However, when he was sent to Taiwan he got into an intensive training with a kung fu (White Crane) style. He became a close friend with a kung fu expert, Master Chen whose sister would eventually become his wife. Master Asai was already a karate expert so Master Chen did not treat him like a student but a martial arts partner. I heard from his widow that they exchanged their techniques all the time whenever they met. Master Chen would show a new or an interesting technique one day then Master Asai would master that technique almost instantaneously which impressed Master Chen greatly. Obviously he received a lot of influence from White Crane kung fu.
OK so you may ask “what has this got to do with the butt of Asai sensei?” I believe there is a strong relationship and let me share this new idea with you.
There is an interesting finding I made as I did research into the martial arts of Japan and China. What I found is that there is a difference in the pelvis positioning between the two categories. In other words, among the Japanese martial arts the correct pelvis position is to tucked up or the tail bone to point downward. On the other hand, in the Chinese martial arts the pelvis is positioned upward or pushed out. The visible difference is minor but if you examine closely you can see the difference.
Let’s look at the photos of Judo, Kendo and Iaido.
What do you see? Can you detect the pelvis positioning? Especially in the Judo photo (far left), we can see the tucked under pelvis position. By the way, this photo is one of the rare historical ones of Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan Judo (on the right, taken early in the 20th century).
Not convinced? Look at the two photos of Sumo. Even though those sumo wrestlers are big and “fat” their pelvis position is down and tucked under. I put fat om quotation marks because the fat contents of many of the sumo wrestlers is much lower than we think and they are medically not fat. Regardless of this point, I hope you can see the pelvis position better as they are without any clothes except for their mawashi.
Next, let’s look at the photos from the Chinese martial arts and see if we can detect any differences. Here are three typical kung fu photos that are in horse stance or a similar stance.
By checking the pelvis positioning of these female performers do you agree that all three are sticking their pelvis backward and not tucked in? Of course, I showed you only a few photos so you may not see the clear differences between the Japanese and the Chinese. However, the difference is a common knowledge among the senior martial artists in Japan. I am afraid not enough research has been done yet to investigate why there is a difference in the basic concept of the pelvis positioning between the two groups.
Now what I dare to present here is my hypothesis for the difference. The base of the Japanese martial arts is kenjutsu, the sword fencing. Unlike some of the light weight kung fu swords a Japanese katana is quite heavy. If you happen to practice Iaido you know what I am talking about. Obviously, it will be very difficult to swing it around quickly let alone jump with it. Therefore, the fighting style of the samurai was almost with no moving around. The posture was very straight with their legs almost fully extended and the backbone straight to support the weight of the sword. You may have seen this in a Japanese samurai movie in which two samurai face each other in a duel with almost no moving until the decisive attack at the end. In this situation, it makes sense to keep the pelvis tucked under to support the body weight and to assist the forward movement (remember the first move in Bassai dai?). Judo and Sumo are also the same. In those arts kicking is prohibited and there are almost no jumping techniques in these arts. They need to stand firmly on the floor rather than jumping around thus the tucked under pelvis gives more balance and stability in their stance. On the other hand, in kung fu, especially the Northern styles there are a lot of kicks and jumps. To jump and to rotate the body quickly from the low kiba dachi stance I find it easier to do so with the pelvis pushed back. Please try it and see if what I am saying makes sense.
Another thing I need to bring to your attention is the difference we see in zenkutsu dachi between karate and kung fu. The first two photos are from kung fu and the last one on the right is by Yoshiharu Osaka, JKA instructor. You can clearly see the pelvis is pushed backward in kung fu front stance while Osaka sensei had definitely tucked in his pelvis.
This again comes from the difference in the concept or the use of the stance. In other words, in kung fu the moves are not always to the forward but can be to the side, back or in rotation. As you can see with the very Shotokan technique of Osaka it is a strong oi zuki going straight forward. For this move tucking the pelvis in and aligning the fist with the rear foot with the straight backbone bring the most powerful technique. Karate punch is “ikken hissatsu” or one punch one kill while kung fu attacks are multiple and each punch or an attack may not be a “sure kill” technique.
As a bonus, I will share with you another interesting point. Take a look at the photos below.
The first two photos are from Okinawan Shorin ryu. Master Chibana, the first photo, doing Bassai is somewhat keeping his pelvis tucked, but the second one shows that the pelvis is positioned more toward the back. Regardless of the pelvis position, you notice that both of them are leaning forward similar to the kung fu practitioners shown earlier. The next two photos, third and the fourth, are showing a technique from Bassai dai. They are by Shito ryu and by Shotokan respectively.
You can assume that the original Okinawan karate kept some of the Chinese influence but when karate was introduced to Japan it changed with the influence of the Japanese martial arts. In the Japanese martial arts such as kendo and even in karate we are taught to have our upper body always straight and never to crouch forward or lean to the sides. I suspect the influence to our karate in our posture came mainly from Jujitsu and Kendo. The posture of Judo practitioners has changed drastically after it was inducted in Olympics in 1964 but that is a different subject that is not related here directly so I will not discuss it here though it is a very interesting subject to think about.
So, you can probably easily guess what my theory for Master Asai’s posture is. You probably want to conclude that the kung fu influence he received in Taiwan changed his posture. However, maybe to your surprise my theory is slightly different. Master Asai was known for his Tenshin (body rotation) techniques but at the same time he was known for high and low techniques. Low means a technique he ducked for example under a kick. High means he jumps around the opponent and hit him while he is still in the air (see the photo below).
I do not believe he learned those techniques from White Crane kung fu or any other styles. The characteristics of White Crane kung fu is the open hand techniques and whipping techniques (coming from the fast wing flapping). I can easily suspect that he took those techniques in and made them into his signature techniques. However, jumping and ducking under, I believe, were his own creation.
Look at the famous photo (right) of him fighting Mikami sensei (JKA Louisiana) in the JKA’s All Japan Championship in 1961. Mikami (left) is delivering a beautiful long distance Oi zuki, very much a Shotokan technique. To this attack you can see Asai on the right jumped to dodge it (I wish I could have been there to watch it). This shows he was already jumping in his early karate career (he was 26 years old in 1961). He was a very creative martial artist and I understand that he has always tried different things and ideas that would work for him. He was a small man, even for a Japanese, (a little over 160cm and less than 50kg) so he needed the techniques that would overcome his “handicap”. He found the jumping and Tenshin techniques. To jump and to rotate his body quickly having his pelvis not tucked in worked better for him. He probably developed his unique posture early in his karate career but his peculiar pelvis position was not that noticeable then. With many years of training including the kung fu techniques his posture became more prominent and noticeable.
Finally, here are two more photos (below) of Master Asai at two different stages of his karate life. One on the left is a young Asai in his 20′s and the right one is a legend in his 60′s.What do you think? It is true that he went to Taiwan and he had a close encounter with White Crane kung fu, but there were, I assume, many other Shotokan practitioners who went to China and Taiwan. In fact Master Nakayama was stationed in China for several years during WWII. Only Asai picked up many ideas and techniques from the Chinese styles. This proves my point that his body was far more adaptable to the Chinese method because of his own unique training and his own style.
I am not sure if my theory about his pelvis position has successfully convinced you but one thing I can tell you confidently is this. Master Asai needed his pelvis position in that specific way to deliver his unique and fast techniques. He was the one and only true master of Asai-ryu karate and his posture is a signature of his style.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas especially if you are a sports scientist or your expertise is in kinesiology.
Today I will discuss about the art of shaving.I am not joking about the art part of this activity most men need to engage in it daily. Yes, I am very serious that there is an art to the handling of a razor.If you happen to use an electric razor then this may not apply as well as a regular blade razor. One high ranking western sensei commented after he heard about my idea, said that “Shaving is only shaving and there is no art in it”. I am afraid he does not understand the depth of the art that could extend to small actions such as shaving. Here is a photo of my razor (left).It is a popular brand and an inexpensive two blade razor. I do not know how long you can keep using the same razor but a friend of mine told me his razor lasts barely one month before he tosses it. Believe it or not, mine lasts for more than two years (yes “years”) and I suspect that is probably longer than the time of most if not all of the readers. The razor I am showing here on the left is more than a year old now and is a little dirty but it will continue to give me a nice shave at least one more year. My beard is stiff and coarse so my razor gets normal use. I use the same razor for a long time, certainly not because I am stingy. I do throw one away, but only when it stops giving me a good shave. Any razor can last that long if you use it correctly. Needless to say that I am not sharing the art of perfect shaving so that you can save money. I am sure that may not motivate you enough to read this article. Then, why am I doing this? Let me tell you that the techniques that are used in a perfect shaving are connected to the core concept and the techniques of martial arts, certainly including karate. Now I hope this statement will capture your attention. My claim may be difficult for some of you to believe right now so I ask that you continue to read till the end of this article. At the end you can decide if what I am telling you makes sense or if it is a bunch of BS.
Obviously the razor I have is something I bought in a common drug store and it must be very similar to the ones you use. So the difference is not the tool itself, but it is the method or the technique that is different. The first secret of perfect shaving rests in how you hold a razor. Pic 1 (left) shows a standard holding method which I suspect similar to how you hold yours.The way I hold my razor is shown in Pic 2 (two finger method, below right). I hold the end of the handle only with my thumb and the index finger.This is an expert holding method and I know it will be very difficult for you to get any shaving done with this method. To start the perfect shaving lesson I recommend that you hold the razor as depicted in Pic. 3 (three finger method, below left) where you will hold the end of the handle with your thumb and the middle finger and put a small pressure on the back of the handle with the index finger. Once you get used to this method of holding the razor, believe it or not, you will have a better control of the razor with this method. Just try it!
Before we go into the actual technique of shaving, let us look at other arts and physical activities that are both Japanese and non-Japanese. Here I wish to elaborate the correlation of the holding techniques between the razor and other tools.
The first one is the Japanese writing brush.After looking at some of the artistic Chinese writing I am sure you agree that you will see an art when you look at the brush writing with beautiful strokes (an example on the right).
So, how do you hold a brush? Onestandard holding method is shown with Pic A. You keep the brush vertically and write the letters. The holding method here is similar to how you hold a pen or a pencil so you are not surprised with this. However, when you go into more artistic or sophisticated writing an artist may hold a brush in the way shown with Pic B. Isn’t this similar to the holding method of a razor I suggested earlier? Interesting, isn’t it? （Pic A left, Pic B right)
Many of the readers probably like Japanese food such as sushi and tempura, and you may frequent Japanese restaurants. There you have an option to eat with a knife and fork or a pair of chop sticks, hashi or ohashi.
Pic C Pic D Pic E
The degree of skillfulness with chopsticks seems to indicate how much a person likes the Japanese food. If you are a first time visitor you may have to resort to a crude method (Pic C) so you can eat (survival mode, I guess). Eventually you will develop the skill of holding a pair of ohashi in an acceptable manner (Pic D). Take a look at another photo (Pic E); this is a photo of a Japanese tempura chef, a professional in the art of Japanese food. Notice that he holds the very top part of the chop sticks. We just saw the way to hold a brush pen and here is a way with a pair of chop sticks. Wouldn’t you agree that to do a fine job with a small tool it is better to hold it at the end and work it from the end? I hope so but it is ok if you are still not fully convinced. You can experiment with a pair of chop sticks, a brush pen or a razor. They are all cheap and very common so the experiments are easy to do.
While you are experimenting with these small tools I want to move on to other tools that are somewhat larger and heavier. As I am trying to tie this subject to the martial arts let’s look at a Japanese sword, the katana.
Now I confess that I have never learned Iaido or Kenjutsu. Thus, I am not an expert in this matter. However, I have trained with Kobudo weapons such as Sai, Nunchaku, Tonfa, etc. thus I know that the fundamental method of holding a weapon is similar. Here is a photo showing how to hold a sword. Notice the front hand (photo right). Pay very close attention to the thumb and the index finger. As you can see they are not holding tightly, a key point. By the way, do you remember when you first learned how to make a fist when you joined a karate club? If the instructor taught you correctly he must have told you to start bending the little finger first and tightly, then the ring finger then middle finger (see hand photo, left). After those three fingers are held tightly you will bend your index finger last then complete a fist by placing the thumb over the index finger lightly. I hope the instructor told you to squeeze the little finger and the ring finger tightly but not so tightly with the middle finger and even loser with the index finger and the thumb. Of course, this is a fist you make at kamae or yoi. When you punch an opponent or a makiwara you will tighten all the fingers but only at the impact time and the fist will be held loosely again after the impact. The concept here should be similar or the same when handling a sword. Hold a sword tightly with the little finger and the ring finger. The middle finger is here to give support. The index finger and the thumb are used for managing or handling the sword. If you are a kenjutsu or iaido expert and if my understanding of a sword holding is incorrect please let me know. However, I assume I am correct as that is the way in my kobudo training.
I want to bring in another interesting fact with a very popular sport called golf. The photo (right) shows how to hold a golf club. I am not an expert in this sport either. I suspect some of the readers may be very experienced in it and they can tell me if what I am saying here is correct or not.I understand that you are supposed to hold the club tightly with your left hand but not as tightly with the right one. As you can see in the photo, you are to hold the club ever so gently with your right hand. Take note that your thumb and the index finger are positioned very similarly to the right hand that holds a sword (photo shown earlier). Is this a coincidence? No, I don’t think so. Though the motion of the arms are quite different between those two arts (I am daring to call golf an art as it can be), the basic concept of holding the tools, a sword and a golf club is the same. This suggests an art of swinging a long object in a precise manner requires the same physical positioning and control.
I believe the basic concept of holding other long objects, such as cue stick (billiards), a violin and cello bow must be the same or similar as the mechanism of our body is the same no matter what activities we may do (see the photo left). Here the little finger is not used much to hold the bow as it is not heavy. I suspect it is used more for a balance and the control of the bow. If you are a violin or a cello player maybe you can send me your comments if my understanding is correct or incorrect.
As the golf swing is totally different from a sword handling let me bring out another art (?), Chopping wood or cutting. I believe this will be an excellent comparison as its mechanism quite resembles that of sword cutting. The wood cutting activity is not very popular in the warm regions of the US such as California but I understand that it is a very popular and important part of normal life activity in the cold countries such as Canada, Norway and Sweden. I love to hear feedback from those who chop wood regularly after reading my article.
So here is the tool, an ax (right). The weight distribution is different but its average weight is closer to a real sword than a bokken (wooden sword) or shinai (bamboo sword) used in kendo. A while ago I had thought this might be an interesting subject to investigate if there is any co-relationship of this activity to kenjutsu, the art of Japanese sword. So, here is what I found. The wood cutting I am discussing here is not used to cut down a tree but to chop a large wood piece into the smaller pieces for a wood burning purpose.After identifying the tool, we need to discuss how to hold the tool which is a part of the art and I have mentioned this before. It is important as it will help you get the best or, should I say, the most efficient cut by holding the tool correctly. What do I mean by “best” and “most efficient” cut? It means you hit the center of a wood piece every time and cut it in one strike. Of course, you will not miss any chop as it is a waste of your energy. “Best” also means that you will not get tired even if you continue to cut the wood all day long and moreover the efficient activity does not give you a sore back, shoulders, legs and arms. If you can do this then you can say that you raised this activity to an art level and it will no longer be a chore but something you will enjoy doing. OK so you understand the objective. Let’s go back to holding an ax. Some people hold it above a shoulder like the photo above. The stance shown in the photo right is called hasso no kamae, one of the main kamae in kenjutsu. So, you may want to believe that holding an ax in a similar way is the best. I am sorry but I do not believe that is the case for chopping wood.
It is very obvious when you think of how you will cut the opponent with a sword. The typical sword cutting line is diagonal. Why? Obviously it is better to cut one’s neck than hit him right on top of the head. So, in most tameshi giri (cutting demonstration) you see the bamboo stick or a bounded straw stick positioned in a vertical manner and the demonstrator cuts it diagonally (Photo left). But do they not have a tameshi giri with the sword cutting straight down? Yes, in fact at one of the shrines in Japan, Nakamura Jinja, a demonstrator cuts a cinder block (Photo below right).
OK if you cut it straight down how would you hold a sword? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you hold it straight up above your head. In one of the famous kenjutsu styles, Jigen ryu (popular in Kyushu), they practice the sword swing by striking a log like we punch a makiwara. The only difference is the log is held horizontally (Illustration left) while our makiwara is up vertically as you know.(Note: this kenjutsu training method is believed to be the origin of makiwara that was invented in Okinawa.) Now notice the position of the sword in the drawing (left) as it is important and I wish to go further on this particular subject. If the kamae of kenjutsu is in this manner, am I suggesting that we should hold an ax in the same way? Yes, that is exactly what I am proposing. I know it is a daring proposal as I am not a sword expert but also have never studied kenjutsu in my life before. In addition, my experience in cutting wood is very limited. Then, how can a person of an amateur background in these fields like myself propose something like this?
Am I just guessing or BSing? I certainly hope not. I am quite confident about this and I am explaining how it should be performed from the understanding of kinesiology as well as the budo requirement that demands the most effective body movements. What do I mean by the most effective body movements? It simply means a technique must not only be fast, powerful and accurate but also it must also be most energy efficient. In other words, swinging a sword only with a brutal force is not considered a budo approved movement. The beauty or the art part of kenjutsu comes from an efficient body movement that utilizes the minimum amount of muscle power leveraged by the help of gravity and balance/off balance mechanism. I have already written a separate article on balance/off balance mechanism under the title of Unstable Balance so I will not go into this area at this time.
Here let us look at some of the examples of the inefficient or poor wood cutting techniques. First, look at the photo on the right and compare to the illustration above; how a Jigen ryu sword practitioner would hold a sword. Very similar, isn’t it? Let’s examine this guy’s kamae on the right. The stance is good as the feet are placed about a kiba dachi distance. However, holding position of the ax is not the most desirable as it is not held straight up and the handle is leaning backward. Why is this bad? From this position he needs to lift the ax to the highest level before he can bring down the ax to the wood which is an unnecessary move. He needs to use the muscles of the shoulders, back, arms and all other related body parts. Therefore, he needs to hold the ax upright like a kenjutsu drawing (earlier illustration). This is a very accurate drawing as it shows the man holding his sword vertically. The sword itself is quite heavy despite it is not top heavy like an ax. Holding it vertically like this is most efficient.
If you look at the next photo, Pic F (a young guy on the left), you quickly realize why this kamae is not in accordance with budo method. You can easily guess that this person will run out of his energy after 30 minutes of wood chopping. In addition he will probably wake up next morning with soreness in his shoulders, arms and back. OK what is wrong with the guy in Pic G (below)? It is obvious as you can guess he will have a sore back. As he chopped he leaned his upper body forward. He was in fact too far away from the wood piece. He used lot of his arms, shoulders and back muscles to bring the ax down. After one hour of this exercise he will have a bad pain in his lower back and possibly in his right shoulder when he gets up the very next morning. Let’s look at Pic H (a lady with a hat). How is she doing? She is doing much better, isn’t she? I assume at her kamae she had the legs stretched and she brought the ax down using its weight and she went into a shiko dachi as the ax hit the wood piece. Comparingher to the man in Pic G her right arm is much closer to her body (good point #1) and her hands were closer to each other (good point #2). Of course, I do not know if she held the ax straight up at her kamae but her chopping action is much more effective and energy efficient. If she did not bend her back that much I would call her wood chopping art an expert level. If she continued chopping all day she will have the pain in the lower back the next day. In addition, her feet are pointing outward (shiko dachi) which means the falling energy would dissipate to the other direction instead of focused to the target, the wood piece. Apparently she is not a Shotokan practitioner so unfortunately she did not know the benefit of kiba dachi.
In the photo (Pic I on the left) you can see an excellent kamae with a naihanchi stance (a bit shorter than kiba dachi) with the knees slightly squeezed inward and the ax handle seems to be held up very vertically. The hands are held with some distance but I assume she will bring them closer as she drops the ax down. Yes, she will almost literally drop the ax as she will not use too much of her arms and shoulders muscles when she chops the wood piece. In other words, what she will do is to just let the ax fall towards the wood piece. During the process she will use her hands and arms only to guide the ax so that it will hit the wood piece accurately. The photo on the right (Pic J) shows exactly how you want to drive the ax through the wood by bending your knees deeply as you can see in this photo. You notice that the wood cutter’s stance looks like an excellent kiba dachi. You also notice that his back is not bent forward too much and that his hands are held closely together. I can assume he just did an expert level of wood cutting by leveraging the gravity of the ax. As a result he used a minimum amount of his strength or his energy. Using this method he can probably cut the wood pieces all day long without getting ever tired and he will not have any back or shoulder aches the next morning.
When you become a real expert you can get down to this depth shown in Pic K (on the left) and use the full gravity of the ax as well as the body weight. Look how straight his back is. He will not have any backache afterwards for sure. He can continue to chop all day long without getting tired. Of course you must have the strong legs to do the expert level of Pic K but most people can develop their technique to Pic I and J level.
What do you think of this method? If you regularly cut wood I would like you to try this and get back to me if this method made any difference in your activity.
The budo method of efficient moves can apply to almost all the bodily functions in our daily life. I suggest that you will re-evaluate how you walk, sit, drive (read my article of “Jidosha Dojo”), play golf, play any musical instrument, etc. and see if your moves are in accordance with the budo method. Wouldn’t you agree that most of the time we can tell if a driver is an experienced one or a student driver by looking at the way he sits and holds a steering wheel?
We have digressed a lot so let’s go back to the art of perfect shaving. You heard that the method of holding a tool is important. You saw the pictures of how a razor can or should be held but you would wonder if this is the end of the technique. No, I have not covered the actual technique of perfect shaving yet. Holding a razor correctly is only a start.
Finally, let me explain the shaving method. Not to disappoint you but it is quite simple. You remember that you need to hold your razor very lightly with two or three fingers. Now here is the secret. You will go over your face with it like you would pet your face with a feather. It almost sounds like a commercial. In fact, there is a company with that very name that produces razor blades for the older type razor (right). Using “Feather” for the company name, I suspect that the founder of that company must have known how to shave correctly. However, you may complain that you can’t shave your beard well if you do it as I explained. That is true but that is exactly what is expected. The idea here is not to chop the beard from the root with one stroke. You are expected to go over the face surface many times and to cut the beard little by little in a gradual manner. Why is this necessary?Both shaving methods; crude or artful will give you a shave but the artful method will not cut your face. After shaving have you ever had to put the pieces of tissue on your face to stop the bleeding? I suspect you have. Now is this a big deal? It should be if you claim yourself a martial artist. I do not know about you but I consider it as a part of self-defense. Maybe my definition of self-defense is much broader than yours but it includes preventing or avoiding all accidents from a simple shaving cut to a serious car accident. I also include avoiding sickness and illness as a part of my self-defense objectives. From this perspective, a perfect shaving will not draw blood and moreover it will not give you a skin irritation or a rash after shaving. If you shave close to your skin with much force the blade will shave not only your beard but also your skin. Even if you do not shave off your skin the root of your beard will be pulled with your shaving action and that causes an irritation as your face skin is very sensitive. You can check this by applying some after shave on your face. If it burns your face skin then you shaved too hard.
Even if you do not agree on the self-defense part, just think of a consequence of having the cuts and the rashes on your face daily. I certainly think that will age your face skin much faster. I guarantee that a perfect shaving will help you stay looking young and healthy. It is up to you to decide if this benefit is good enough to motivate you to learn the art of perfect shaving.
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?