Monthly Archives: June 2013

June 28, 2013

Why we need to preserve our kata Part 2


In Part One I presented to you with a long introduction to explain the different levels of the complexity that are associated with the physical and mental requirements in various types of competitions or sports events. I concluded that the requirements and the complexity of bujutsu are most complex and challenging.

My explanation may not have been full or comprehensive enough but I hope the readers had agreed to the basic concept.  Now I expect that you would ask, “OK bujutsu may be the most complex physical activity but what is this got to do with kata?”  I will explain but the key point is there. I would like you to remember this (most complex) so that you will understand what I will explain next.

Asai sensei vs Mikami sensei 2

Let us look at our (karate) training and I need to cover the area of kumite first.  I will start with a statement that jiyu kumite is not the training tool to improve jiyu kumite.  Many instructors may disagree with this as they believe in order to improve kumite you have to do a lot of kumite. What I am stating is completely opposite of what they believe.  Some even dropped kata as kata techniques do not work or cannot apply in jiyu kumite. I have seen a few instructors would put the white belts to jiyu kumite.  One instructor insisted that it was a necessary thing for a white belt to learn this “natural” fighting techniques rather than the rigid and “un-natural” moves called waza (technique).  How wrong could he be!  I felt sorry for the white belts but they seemed to have enjoyed it (whatever it was). Then, why is it wrong?

Let’s dig into this concept of learning jiyu kumite through doing jiyu kumite and see what it does.   First, if you are brown belt and above I suspect you have done jiyu kumite before. Please recall how your techniques were in your jiyu kumite.  Didn’t you find it extremely difficult to deliver a clean or good technique in the fast exchanges of jiyu kumite? How were your combinations or the exchanges of attacks and blocks?  Were they anything close to perfect?  I suspect your answer would be no.  I know it is almost impossible because your opponent will interfere by attacking, blocking and doing other actions while you are trying to throw a technique.  You cannot have an undisturbed condition in jiyu kumite that a golfer can expect. Under this condition, your “simple” technique becomes far from a perfect one.  Your punch or kick may be blocked or you may be off balanced, etc.  Now we are talking about one technique here.  In an actual fight, there will be multiple techniques and maybe with multiple opponents.

You agree that when the fighters are going at the full speed it will be impossible to throw the perfect or even decent techniques.  The techniques become sloppy, unless you happen to be an expert in jiyu kumite already.  I know you can deliver a technique in jiyu kumite somehow but can we really expect to practice the techniques in jiyu kumite?  No it is impossible because your moves are all reactions.  Your techniques are not perfect or near perfect and you would be repeating those bad techniques in jiyu kumite.  By this training method you will continue to repeat the sloppy techniques. And what will result from this training method is that your sloppy techniques become your best techniques.  This is the concept I refer to; “the more you practice the worse you get”.

Here is an example of bad kumite by the black belts;

By watching this, I hope you will agree that his techniques will not improve no matter how much more jiyu kumite this person will engage.  This is why karate (most complex structural form) cannot be trained in the same manner found in golf (simplest structural form). You now understand that we, human, can normally focus on only one major physical or mental activity.  To be able to do multiple tasking you need to have some special training.  In kumite a fighter’s movements are only the reactions.  With the reactions you have no time and you have to be able to throw the techniques without thinking.

Bruce 1

Bruce Lee said in one of his movies, “Don’t think, feel….”  It sounds good and impressed the viewers but he was only half correct.  If he was talking to an experienced practitioner (black belts) maybe he was correct. But in the movie he was talking to a young boy who looked like a beginner.  He was incorrect to give a boy such an instruction.  It is the same as telling him “Don’t do ippon kumite.  Do only jiyu kumite.”  It is true that there are many things you can learn from doing jiyu kumite such as distance, timing and body shifting but this training is appropriate only for the black belts and I will explain further on jiyu kumite later.  Now back to the training for a beginner, he must think and monitor his movements so he can learn the good techniques.  The ultimate, of course, is the “feel” stage where your reaction can be a near perfect (if not perfect) technique in jiyu kumite.  But it will take many years for a beginner to get to that state and he needs to seek out and engage in the proper training to get to that stage.

You may agree that jiyu kumite is not the best training method to improve kumite. It is true that we could modify jiyu kumite to make it better as a training method. You could force the fighters to reduce the speed of all the techniques in kumite considerably so that the fighters will move very slowly. In this way they can give much more attention to their techniques.  As they improve and get better at that particular slow speed they will speed up gradually.  This idea may sound good, however, I tried this myself and with my students many times. What happens (and you will find it yourself if you tried) is that you cannot keep the motions slow for so long.  The fighters may start with the slow moves initially, but they will still have to react to each other’s moves. Pretty soon both of them will end up going faster and faster. Consequently, their techniques get sloppy very soon and it becomes like a regular jiyu kumite.  On the other hand, if you force them to move slowly all the time then there is a frustration of not being able to practice at the faster speed.  This is the catch 22 of practicing kumite.

Kihon kumite

It is true that there are other kinds of kumite training. Let’s take a look at them. After Shotokan was brought to mainland Japan in early 20th century, yakusoku (agreed) kumite was invented.  There are different kinds of yakusoku kumite so let’s take jiyu ippon kumite which we call free one attack.  This is an excellent training method and recommend it to any intermediate and even the yudansha. As you know in this training menu, an attacking side can throw a technique without a disturbance by his opponent.  It is good for a defending side too as he has much vital information such as which technique the attacker is going to throw (oi zuki, mae geri, etc.), at what target (jodan, chudan, etc.) and the attacker will not (supposedly) engage in more than that one attack (i.e. no block to the defender’s counter attack, second attack, etc.).  There are many variations of jiyu ippon kumite but unfortunately at most dojo I know they practice only one standard kind.  Practicing only the standard jiyu ippon kumite is definitely not sufficient. However, I do not blame them.  If you begin to expand the jiyu ippon kumite you may end up with several hundreds of different kinds.  This is the limitation of jiyu ippon kumite.  The other yakusoku kumite are all good for the beginners and intermediate but they are not sufficient.  The ancient martial arts masters knew all these short comings of kumite training thus they invented a different way of practicing to improve fighting skills and that is what we know as kata.


In Part Three (3) I will write more on the learning theory and why we need to preserve our kata.

June 24, 2013

Why we need to preserve our kata:


Discussing the concept of kata is a huge task and an extremely complex one because it involves almost every aspects of physical and mental functions.  I am always amazed by the beauty of the design and the capability of human being. I cannot help but to thank God for the master piece he had created.  Our body (physical and mental) is far more complex and precisely designed than any machines or mechanisms we have been able to create.

Now let us talk about kata. According to Wikipedia kata is described as a Japanese word describing detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs. The term form is used for the corresponding concept in non-Japanese martial arts in general.

Most of the readers already knew that much but probably you may not know that the kanji for the word of “kata” has not been agreed in Japan.  Two kanji: 形 and 型 are used for the same pronunciation but two different though similar meanings.  The first kanji, 形 means form or shape and the second one, 型 means model, mold or pattern.  So, the meaning of 形 is more general and describes ambiguous concept of form or shape.  On the other hand, the meaning of 型 seems to be more specific as it means a mold to make a certain form or a pattern.  As I wrote earlier that there is no consensus among the Japanese karate styles and organizations.


Depending on which karate style different kanji is used and even that is not 100% accurate as these two kanji are used interchangeably. Here is a book cover of Karatedo Kata Kyohan (photo left) published by Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF). They used 形 and Shotokan also tend to use this kanji.  Another book (photo below) published by Okinawa Gojuryu, shows 型 in its title “Karate no kata”. Okinawa styles seem to prefer this kanji. This is historically interesting because the pure Japanese martial arts such as kenjutsu (fore father of kendo) and jujitsu (that of judo) have their kata and they use形.

型 の本

Okinawa definitely had a unique history and did not receive much cultural influence from the mainland Japan until as late as mid-19th century. Therefore, the Okinawan people may have a different understanding or feeling about these kanji.

OK that is enough with the kanji lesson.  I assume that many of the readers will agree that kata is a very unique component of not only karate but also of all Japanese martial arts or bujutsu. The training method of kata really separates bujutsu from the western fighting arts (i.e. boxing and wrestling) and the sports events.  Now you know this, then why did the Japanese masters developed and adopted the concept of kata?  What is the true purpose of kata? It is true that kata is a perfect training method when you are alone or when you do not have a training partner.  With kata you can train any time and almost any place. You can also train secretly if you want to keep your karate training confidential.  All these reasons seem like the good enough reasons why the ancient masters created kata.  However, some of you already know that they were not the real reasons. The training had to be alone even though some kata were made (for instance in jujutsu) for the multiple practitioners to perform as tori (attacker) and uke (defender). There is a real secret of bujutsu and the depth of its teaching. I hope my article will help you to appreciate the wisdom of the past masters.

Let me explain why the Japanese masters of bujutsu believed in the necessity of kata (mostly solo performance).  First of all, in order to start discussing this subject we must understand the complexity of the body (including mind) mechanism in martial arts. In fact, it happens to be most complex and most demanding out of all physical activities. I am not saying this because I am a proud karate instructor.  This is not a biased statement and I will explain exactly what I am saying below.  By the way, as far as I know, the theory I am going to present here has never been discussed or mentioned by any instructors in the past.

No Olympic karate

To illustrate the complexity of the physical/mental mechanism of bujutsu I will compare it with some of the popular sports. In fact, I will list from the simplest (mechanical) structure to the most complex (with bujutsu).  A few sports events such as boxing, wrestling, fencing and archery originated from atrial arts.  The sports events were invented and created for the pleasure and leisure.  To maximize the pleasure many of them take the form of competition.  This is why we can put kendo, judo and karate in sports category.  Those who want karate in Olympics feel very comfortable with the idea and those who are into bujutsu feel very unhappy with the recent movement which did not succeed for the 2020 games.

Before I go further into the comparison I want to stress the true intention of my action so that the readers will not misunderstand the point I will try to make.  What I will present here is simply that the complexity of physiological and mental mechanism of the martial arts is higher and more complex than that of the sports events.  What I want to emphasize is that I am not looking down on the sports category nor claiming bujutsu is better or more valuable than sports events. Such comparison is futile and meaningless as those two are two totally different animals. Let me restate that the comparison I present is only from the mechanical (both physical and mental) structure and complexity perspectives and not from the value perspective.

That’s been cleared hopefully, I want to start with the simplest or easiest competition structure of the sports events.  The good examples in this category may be the track and field running and the swimming competitions.

100 meter sprint

Let’s take a 100 meter sprint as the first example. In this event, you will have only a few rules and the requirements such as react to the starting gun and you have to stay in the given track but not too many more.  With those rules only thing a competitor has to do is to run as fast as he can.  First of all, a competitor does not need to learn a new technique.  Almost everyone knows how to run naturally so what he needs to do is to improve his running technique to go faster.  What is more important here is that the other competitors will not bother you or interfere with your running.  If someone does this then that runner will be disqualified immediately. In other words, in a normal track and field sprint event a runner can focus all his attention to his running.  These are the key factors that make this event the simplest event.  This means the performance of the runners will mostly depend on the runner’s natural talent.  Of course, to run faster he has to train his body, run a lot and also he needs to improve his running style.  However, the amount of the new techniques he must learn or acquire is extremely small.

Olympic swimming

Swimming is a little more complex because the ability of swimming is a learned or acquired one unlike the ability of running which is given and unnecessary to learn (of course a toddler must learn this ability).  In a swimming competition, there is little interaction between the swimmers and the only objective is to swim as fast as he can or faster than any other swimmers in the same race.  From the structure wise this is pretty primitive and you can see why I say it is the simplest.

TennisThe second level of complexity is an event that involves some interactions between the competitors. The simplest of this category includes tennis, ping pong and badminton where you play only against one opponent (I will mention about doubles later).  You can easily see that the biggest difference from the previous category is that your opponent will directly affect and almost dictate your actions and reactions.  In other words, if he hits a ball to the right side of the table or the court you have to run there to hit the ball back.  If he hits high then you have to reach out high to catch the ball.  It gets more complex as the number of the players increases. Playing the doubles is of course more complex than playing singles in ping pong and tennis.  For the same token it gets more complex in baseball and volleyball.  The events in this category share the similarity that they have an offensive and a defensive teams.  However, baseball is simpler than volleyball as the most of the interactions are between a pitcher and a batter.  The rest of the players are basically standing still and waiting until the batter hits. Volleyball is a little more complex as the volley or hitting of the ball to each other will continue as long as the ball stays in the air.   Both of them have the rule that will keep all your opponents in their court or off the field while your team is playing. The opponents are not allowed to come into your court or field to disturb you.

Baseball pitcher and batter

Another rule we must pay attention to in baseball is that the offensive side is fixed. Until the pitcher throws the ball the game does not start. Of course there is a rule and limit the time to get ready so the pitcher cannot spend one hour before throwing the ball. But he can basically take his good ole time to get set before he throws the ball. This means he will be, though under the stressed condition, able to prepare himself in the best condition for his attacking action (throw the ball). In this category, the more complex structure can be found in football (soccer) and basketball.


It is more complex because the offensive and defensive sides are not fixed and they can switch very easily if the ball is intercepted.  In addition, there is basically not off limit in the field for the players. Even though the players of the opponent team cannot harm you intentionally but they can block or even tackle you (in rugby) which means not only you have to carry the ball but you also have to defend yourself by running away or dodging from the pursuing opponent players.  This is a huge key factor that makes the game faster, more unpredictable and complex, and challenging to play.  The players must learn and acquire more and different kind of techniques to play in these ball games than tennis and baseball. On the other hand, there still exists many rules that would keep the game fairly simple.  Let me list a few.  There is always only one ball to play in the court or the field.  Can you imagine if there were two or three balls in a basketball game? The goal or the hoop belongs to one team and you have to get the ball to the other side.  In basketball a player cannot carry a ball like in rugby, he has to dribble or pass it to one of his team mates.   In rugby a player can carry the ball but he cannot throw it forward. Interestingly, the more rules you have the simpler the structure of a game becomes.

Once again, I am not saying all these ball games are inferior to martial arts or claiming it is easy to become a top player.  For instance, in basketball and volleyball a player needs to be able to jump high so those players are definitely much better at jumping than the average martial artists.  I am sure most of the football and basketball players can run faster than the martial artists.  They may even have more stamina and possibly endurance as they have to run for many minutes in their game.  These things are all true but still the difficulty and complexity of the game or the competing structure are simpler than those of bujutsu.


Now the last category before bujutsu is the martial arts like sports.  I want to list boxing, kendo, judo and sports karate (both full contact and non-contact karate) and compare them to bujutsu.  The martial arts like group has the much more complex structure.  Once a fight or a competition starts there is no offensive or defensive side. After a bell or hajime your opponent will attack whenever he can and you will do the same. This means you will have to assume the offensive and defensive sides at the same time.  Please note that this fact is the key point that has a deep relationship to the creation and adoption of kata.  This I will explain further later.

Full contact karate

Out of these four events I listed earlier, boxing and full contact karate are probably most brutal as in those two events the competitors really hit each other.  The fear factor must be also considered and it is very important though often times being ignored.  Though it is a very interesting subject I will not go into this at this time.  From the structure wise this group must perform under the most complex and challenging fighting or competing condition.  However, they still have some rules such as a game time and a fixed fighting ring or a mat.  And the rules prohibit or limit some actions due to the safety reasons.  For instance, in boxing they cannot use their legs for kicking.  In full contact karate, for instance the punches to jodan or gedan are prohibited.  They certainly do not allow eye poking, kicking in the groin, pulling the hair, biting, etc.

In the concept of bujutsu/martial arts there are no rules and anything goes (though in the actual training, there are some rules and limitation in a kumite part).  In bujutsu training one must practice for all possible situations and scenarios.  This very fact or requirement puts martial arts into the most complex and demanding environment. The fighting time extends to 24 by 7 and 365 days per year.  All the places you go could turn into the fighting site and everyone and everything you meet or see could be your opponent or enemy.  In bujutsu there is no clear separation of offense and defense sides. You may have to, often times, perform both functions at the same time. Another big difference that sets bujutsu far more difficult is that there are infinite number of situations and possibilities of attacking and defending. First, the physical characters of the opponent/enemy are all different.  They come in all sizes and they may even have the weapons in their hands.  They may attack you, unlike in a tournament, from behind or they may be hiding behind a door, a car, etc. Therefore, there could be millions of different bunkai situations.

Of course, the techniques of their attacks will be infinitely different too.  Most of them may punch (but almost never like a karate punch) and some opponents may be the experienced street fighters or the boxers.  Some may swing a stick or a knife at you.  Some may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  I worked as a bouncer in a bar when I was training in Philadelphia many years ago so I know a drunken man can be a monster.  He does not feel pain and can be totally unpredictable.  I have also fought against a group of thugs in a parking lot that was covered with snow.  I was not smart as a mawashi geri came out of me naturally as one guy pulled up his arms up to strike me.  I was lucky that I did not slip and fall down.  I could not knock him down with that kick as I was off balanced but they gave up and ran away after realizing that I was a karate practitioner.

In your bujutsu training these variable environments, situations and requirements (mental and physical) must be considered and also practiced accordingly.  In essence no rule fighting of bujutsu brings the most complex and challenging situation and condition you can have and engage.

I spent a lot of space and time to explain the concept of complexity levels of fighting/competing structure of different physical activities. This was necessary before I explain why kata is necessary.  I am not sure if I was successful in making myself clear on this concept but I needed to do this before I can dive into the real subject of kata and learning process which is intricately combined and associated between the physical and the mental.

So the big question is “How will you be able to practice that is feasible for no rule fighting?” I will cover this in Part 2.

June 18, 2013

Which direction must we line up? What are Kamiza 上座 and Shimoza 下座?


I am afraid some of the dojo have discarded the traditional line up ritual before and after the training. I am sure there is a “good” reason why they did this but I am not going to discuss why we should keep the ritual in this article. I hope most of the readers here are still exercising this important ritual of seiza line-up.

I have received some common questions from many practitioners that are related to the line-up ritual.  This ritual is a cultural matter so I can understand why many people are uncertain or confused about some of the things they are supposed to do. Let me share a couple of common questions and explain how it should be done and the reason behind it. Hopefully this information will be helpful in your training.JKA line up 2

The most frequent question I receive is, “Should the senior students line up from left to right or the other way around? This is an excellent question as I have seen this done both ways around the world including Japan. Look at the two photos here that are the line-up done by the JKA instructors.  The first photo with Master Nakayama (taken in 80’s) shows the line starting from left to right (facing front). The second one with Ueki sensei shows the line starting from right to left. So it is no wonder that some conscientious practitioners would get confused.  Let me explain why this happens. To do this we must learn a little about the ancient Japanese culture and its heritage that is affecting the life style of Japan.JKA line up right to left

The ancient (samurai time) Japanese culture consider left as higher or more important. In the middle ages there used to be two prime ministers to support the emperor. Their titles were 左大臣Left Minster and 右大臣Right Minister. As I said earlier Left Minister was the higher rank position than Right Minister.  Japan was in feudal period until Meiji restoration (1868) so it held all the traditional values and culture right through Meiji period, 19th century.   However, this ruling was intentionally changed some one hundred years ago when the western culture was introduced to Japan.  As Japan “opened its door” to the western world it adopted some western “etiquette” or culture such as clothing and seat positioning.  meiji emperor 2

Look at the portrait of Meiji emperor (明治天皇, 1852 – 1912, the 122nd emperor) and empress (photo left). As you can see the emperor is placed on the right side in the photo which means he is positioned on the left of his wife.  In late 19th century, Japan was still keeping the old tradition of having the higher person on the left as you saw in this photo.

For Meiji restoration see Wikipedia:

But by the time his grandson, Hirohito Showa emperor (1901 – 1989) became the emperor in early 20th century the position changed between the emperor and empress (photo right).  Emperor_Hirohito_and_empress_Kojun_of_japan

Some royal advisors told them that this is the way the western monarch would position. I do not think this positioning is such an important factor among the western monarchs as I quickly search through the official photos I see the photos of Queen of England and her husband and the positions do not seem to be consistent.  I am not sure if such a positioning rule is not clearly defined or exercised in Europe.  Maybe the readers in Europe can send me their understanding about this matter for my education.  Regardless, “correct” positioning is a very important matter in Japan so the change was made within the imperial household.  As this is the model to follow for all the Japanese many did, except for some of the martial arts practitioners.  For a samurai left side is safer (easier to draw sword and cut someone on the right and the reverse) thus we must remember that fundamentally left side is a higher position, kamiza 上座. There are synonim Joseki 上席 (upper seat) and Masseki 末席 (lower seat) but we will not go into this in this article as their meaning is very similar and the difference does not matter to the subject I am discussing here.

Kamiza or upper position is often difficult to determine in a room or a dojo, sometimes even for the Japanese.


Therefore, the concept of upper side of a dojo may be a difficult one to understand for the westerners.  This is not a religious matter and only a cultural etiquette but it is good to know if you are a serious karate practitioner.  Here are two easy ideas that will help you when you need to determine kamiza.

To know the high position in a dojo is fairly easy because there is a kamidana神棚 (portable shrine, photo above) or tokonoma 床の間

tokonoma(alcove, photo right) or a photo of Funakoshi sensei or other sensei. There is also a key factor to determine the lower position (shimoza 下座). That is the entrance or a door. It is interesting why the Japanese consider a door a lower position.  It came from the samurai time that an area near a door was considered less safe as you will face an intruder there, thus it is a lower position.  This explanation should easily make you understand why a door or entrance area is considered as shimoza.  OK it would be easy if the entrance is one side and if you can find a kamidana or a photo of Funakoshi on the other side.  However, often times a door may be placed in a different part of the dojo building.  Here is a blueprint of a certain dojo in Japan. You can see an illustration of a tokonoma and a photo in the middle of the right side wall.  So it is easy to determine that the right side of this dojo is kamiza, higher position.

Dojo blue print

Where is the door or the entrance to the dojo?  It is placed at the bottom of the blueprint. So the bottom part of the dojo is shimoza. Therefore, in this dojo, the senior students would probably line up from the left facing to tokonoma or top of the blueprint and the junior students will sit to the shimoza direction (the door or entrance).

Again, this is the general rule and it is possible to find a dojo in Japan not paying an attention to the joza and shimoza concept.  However, most of the Japanese sensei are from old school and most likely there would be a strict rule in their dojo about this matter. So I suggest you to know this concept if you plan to visit Japan to train.

I receive another common question related to the line-up so I will share the answer to this question too. They say, “I have no problem in my dojo. Everyone knows exactly where he or she should sit. The problem is when I visit the other dojo or when I participate in a mixed school seminar.” Let’s look at the situation when you visit a certain dojo for the first time and if you do not have time to ask around and find the ranks of the students there. The best guideline is to sit at the end of whatever the color of belt you wear. For an instance, if you are a brown belt take the last position of brown belt. If you are a black belt go to the end of black belt line. It should not make too much difference even if you assumed a wrong position but by knowing this guideline you will probably feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar dojo and focus your attention to the training itself.

One thing I need to add here is a particular etiquette not too many people know. If the visitor happens to be the highest rank in black belt students, where will he sit? If he is a certified instructor then he will sit in the assistant instructor’s line which is in front of the students’ line. If you are, say, nidan or sandan but not a certified instructor. All the visiting dojo’s students are junior to you, will you sit at the top of the line? I have seen this to happen but this is not considered as a good etiquette according to the Japanese dojo culture. Let me explain why. According to the Japanese etiquette the job of making ritual command such as “Seiza”, “Mokuso”, etc must belong to the head person of that dojo. This role must not be taken over by any visitor regardless of his rank. In fact, this particular case has happened in my training days in Japan. I was sandan and visited one dojo where the highest rank of the students was nidan. I sat next to him (on his right or junior side). He offered me to move to his left side. I thanked him but politely declined. With this cleared everything went smoothly in that training. If you did not follow this rule would it be a big error? Of course, it isn’t if it is outside of Japan. However if you plan to visit Japan to train knowing this rule may save you from an embarrassing situation. You may think this situation will never happen to you but if you are a yudansha do not expect that there would be always a higher rank student in all Japanese dojo. If you choose to sit at the wrong position of the line, the sensei of that dojo may tell you to move which would be an embarrassing situation for you. Sometimes they may not correct you as you are a foreigner but they will consider you as ignorant and ill-educated. It may save your face by knowing this etiquette.

This seating position is a very important matter in the Japanese life and is very pervasive.  When you have a business meeting or if you attend a party or a dinner in Japan, you must know exactly where you are to sit.  I am sure you have experienced this if you have visited Japan on a business trip. This kamiza and shimoza concept applies to not only a meeting room or a restaurant but it expands to almost all occasions and places.  It applies not only in the rooms and places but also in a car, a bus, a train and even an elevator.  You may not believe this but you are expected to stand at the “right” position in an elevator if you are with your boss, guest, etc. Not only the particular about the place or position, would you believe there is a specific order to enter and exit a taxi or an escalator?  I will cover this interesting customs in a longer version of this article but I will not spend any more space here.

At the end of this article I want to add an interesting fact about the origin of one Japanese custom.  If you visit Japan you will notice that the most Japanese people would always walk on the left side of the street.  This happens no matter which city, town or a village you may visit in Japan.  This happens to be the same with the automobile traffic direction.  This is not because the Japanese followed the English traffic rule.  Once again, it came from the long custom of the samurai, believe it or not.  As you all know that samurai used to hold two swords on their left waist.  If you had practiced Iaido 居合道you know this but the tails of the swords would stick out to your left as the handle parts would be kept slightly inward (easier to draw, photo right). 幕末侍一人What would happen if two samurai waked across each other to their left side?  The streets in Japan (especially in the feudal time) were very narrow so the tails of the swords may hit each other.  If this happened then there would be a life and death fight as samurai considered their swords more important than their lives.  If a merchant or a farmer accidentally hit a samurai’s sword then that samurai was permitted to cut this poor person to death. So, in order to minimize this kind of accidents all the Japanese citizens in the feudal time walked on the left side. The people walking towards you would pass your right side and you would also pass their right side. This unwritten law was exercised over many hundreds of years all over Japan so it almost got ingrained in the DNA of the Japanese people.  When you go to Japan next time check it out.


The photo here (left) shows the side street in Tokyo. The people are walking on the left side of the street. If you are interested you can also watch a short video of a street in Ginza (the most fashionable district in Tokyo) in which you can see how the pedestrians actually walk.  There are many non-Japanese in Tokyo but yet look at this video. You can clearly see that the people in Tokyo want to walk on the left side of the street. Escarlator in Tokyo

Don’t you think it is amazing? Here is a photo (right) of the escalators in Tokyo and here again you will go up on the left side and come down on the right side.  Notice that the people on the left escalator are standing on the left side and keeping their right side open so that a passer-by can walk up the steps on their right side.

I guess I made my point that left side is very important in the life of Japan and how the samurai traditions have the lasting effect on the Japanese.

The concept of kamiza and shimoza is very complex but yet pervasive in Japan so I will write a longer version of this article that will include many different situations (taxi, elevator, a round table, etc) so that the readers will have a better understanding of Japanese culture. The long version will be included in my next book, Shotokan Rediscovered (2014).

June 14, 2013

You want your name in Kanji 漢字?


Kanji brush paint

Most of you know Kanji 漢字 are Chinese characters and they are used in the modern Jpanese written system.  I receive quite a few requests from my karate colleagues how their names would look in kanji. I suppose they believe it looks cool to have their names in this writing format.  If you want to learn more about kanji you can check it at Wikipedia here:  I sort of understand their thinking but I find this (western names in kanji) to be strange and sometimes weird.

Let me explain why.

First, each kanji has its own meaning or multiple meanings.  For instance my last name is Yokota and is written as 横 (yoko) 田(ta). The first kanji, 横 has many meanings such as transverse, horizontal, sidelong, across, etc. The second one, 田 is simpler as it has only a couple of meanings; field or farm.  It is obvious my ancestors must have lived near a field or a farm.  Now I understand that most of the western names also have meanings and many of them are related to the occupations their ancestors had such as Taylor, Smith, Hunter, Baker, Tanner, etc.  Now if I translate a name according to the meaning of it and if he shows it to a Japanese they will think it is a joke and besides the Japanese will not pronounce your name such as “Taylor” but say the Japanese word, “Shitateya”.   So this does not work unless you want to adopt a new Japanese name.

More commonly a western name is converted by its sound.  There are at least two problems here.  One is we do not have some sounds in Japanese such as L, V and TH.  Taylor will be written as Tei Ra.  Voss will be Bo Su and Smyth or Smith will be Sumi Su.  Then the second problem can be the meanings of the kanji that are used for a name.  Let's take Taylor again as an example.  For the sound of Tei there are many kanji (20 or more) so you have many choices. Let me give you some examples; 低 means low and 体means body so you probably would not want them. There is another kanji, 艇 and it means craft so you may pick it if you like boating. 帝means emperor or Mikado so you may like it but probably no Japanese would use this kanji in a name.  Then the second one Ra has only a few choices. You will not want 螺 which means snail or screw. You don’t want 裸 either it means naked.  The last one may be a possibility as 羅 means only “from”.  So, I hope your Japanese friend will not translate your name, Taylor as 帝裸 (naked emperor) or 低裸 (low and naked) or 体螺 (snail body) as a joke. You need to find someone you can trust or a reliable vendor.  (Please do not come to me and ask for any translation or suggestions as I am too busy to get mingled with this.)

It is your name so I don’t care if you chose this path and try to find kanji for your name. However, I strongly recommend that you will avoid it. There is a big risk of having a “funny”, “strange” or “embarrassing” name and I am sure you do not want your Japanese sensei to point this out to you.

OK does this mean you cannot have your name in Japanese writing? No, there is a standard way the western or non-Japanese names are translated.  We use three different writing methods; kanji, hiragana (or hirakana) and katakana.  Hiragana is one basic component of the Japanese writing system.  The complete hiragana “alphabet” consists of 48 characters and are mainly used for conjuncture between kanji. We do not use this writing system to write the names except when kanji is difficult and needs hiragana for pronunciation help. For more about hiragana see Wikipedia here:

Katakana is another component of the Japanese writing system. The word katakana means "fragmentary kana", as the katakana characters are derived from components of more complex kanji. Katakana and hiragana are both kana systems; they have corresponding character sets in which each kana, or character, represents one mora (one sound in the Japanese language). See Wikipedia on Katakana:


One of the reasons Katakana was invented was to write the western objects and concepts for that we did not have Japanese vocabulary.  A good example is how we write “computer”.  We write it like this; コンピューター and the sound of this word resembles the English pronunciation.  The Chinese do not have katakana so they write 電脳 means electronic brain. We think the translation is sort of strange so we did not adopt that and translated it with katakana.  I recommend that you will use katakana to translate your name in Japanese.  Taylor will be テイラー and Smith will be スミス. 外人ハンコ

Yes, it looks simple and may not be too “cool” but there is no risk of a strange or weird name.  Once again it is your name so you can do whatever you want and it is totally up to you.  (Again, do not come to me for the suggestions.  I am sorry but your request will be ignored.) OK, if you made a mistake and your “friend” gave you a strange or funny kanji name.  All you have to do is to change it so it is true that it is only a short term embarrassment and not a big deal.

A while ago I brought up a subject of a bunch of T- shirts designs with really funny and strange kanji.  I will not show those funny T-shirts again as I have done that once. Anyway, if you happen to wear one it can be very embarrassing when you find out what is written on your T-shirt. But all you have to do is to take it off and give it away to your good (?) friend back home.

ASAI Hanko Official

You want to be more careful when you decide to purchase your hanko (seal).  A good seal creator (Left: the ASAI seal by our vendor, Azami Press, who understands Japanese can warn you if your name does not look right but most of the vendors including the ones in Japan will not say anything if you place an order with your name already translated in kanji.  You cannot blame them as they don’t want to spend their time to discuss the kanji and it is your problem if the name on a seal is funny or whatever.  They want to make it and get paid.  A lot of western sensei want to have “Sensei” with their names in their hanko.  Unfortunate for them, according to our taste it is a little strange and bad taste.  Go to Azami Press and talk to Scott, the owner and he can give you some recommendations that suite your case.  It is well worth a call before you invest your money in creating your own hanko.

OK even with a hanko, you can still change it and all you lose is only about a hundred dollars, but the damage is not permanent. The problem becomes almost permanent if you have your body tattooed with wrong or embarrassing kanji. Believe it or not there are many who made that mistake.  Here are only three samples and I will explain what the problems are with those tattoos.

No 1:

Wrong tatoo Mirror

Two kanji character says(?) “True Love”.  So far so good but it is written reversely or a mirror image.  I do not know how it happened but maybe it is ok as the owner, this girl, will never be able to see the back of her neck unless she sees it on a mirror.  Don’t show her the picture.


No 2:

tatoo Cow

The owner of this leg wanted a kanji for “Ox” but he got “Cow” here.  I guess it is close enough (?).






No 3:

I have a serious problem in figuring this out what this person really wanted when she got this tatoo.  What it is written here is “Female Genitals”.  How is she going to take this off?

Tatoo genital





There are many more funny and embarrassing ones but three of them is enough on this subject as the main theme is “your name in kanji”.



Kanji may be cool but it can be very tricky.  Using kanji requires a lot of knowledge not only on the kanji itself but more importantly on the culture that is associated with it.  Therefore, I suggest again that you will find a trustable Japanese friend or a reliable vendor who specializes in translation when you want to put your name and/or your dojo/organization’s name in kanji.  I recommend Azami Press ( if you are interested in Hanko, certificates and diplomas.

Lastly, please do NOT come to me asking about the translation or suggestions.

June 7, 2013

7 Tips for Your Health 健康 Part 3

OK here are the last two tips and these are much more difficult to control or exercise. For most readers Tip #6 is not an issue, I hope.  If it is then it will require much more time and commitment but for your health benefit I hope you will consider.  I know Tip  #7 will apply to many practitioners. I visit many dojos around the world and have seen both the practitioners and the instructors and many of them are on the heavy side.  OK let’s start with #6.


6)     Smoking and alcohol


I do not need to waste our time to debate on the ill effect of cigarette smoking. Everyone knows including cigarette manufacturers that smoking harms nearly every organ of the body. It causes many diseases and reduces the health of the smokers.

US government office of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphatically states “Smoking causes death”.  If you are interested in learning the details of its ill effects to your health read here:

Most of the karate practitioners especially the instructors I know are non-smokers.  But I have met some practitioners who were addicted.  I want to use this article to suggest that they will stop smoking.  If you are an instructor, think of the poor image you are projecting to your students through your daily action.

Nishiyama with ash tray

Unfortunately in the past, many Japanese sensei have demonstrated this bad habit. Sadly my sensei in Japan, Master Sugano also had this unhealthy habit which surely shortened his life. He was in his early 70’s when he passed. He had a few heart attacks and his doctors warned him but he did not stop smoking and drinking. As it is an addiction we all know that it is hard to kick but there are many methods including the drugs and acupuncture to help you to do it. It can be done if you are serious and decide to kick this addiction. What it takes is a commitment and I hope you will make that important commitment today if you are a smoker.

(Photo: Nishiyama sensei with an ashtray on his desk)


Alcohol drinking is not as harmful as smoking but large consumption could result in many diseases.  My suggestion is to minimize your alcohol intake and keep your brain safe and stay healthy.

There is a myth that drinking alcohol kills brain cells.  The medical research determined that it does not kill brain cells, however, it can damage them.  Here is an article published on July 9, 2012 in News Medical which describes further:

According to a recent article in Scientific American Mind, drinking alcohol does not kill brain cells although it can damage them. Specifically, it can damage the dendrites of neurons. Dendrites are specialized protrusions of neurons which bring information into the cell body. Thus, damaging the dendrites can cause problems in the relaying of information between brain cells. This damage particularly occurs in the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain concerned with learning and motor coordination.

Drunk samurai 2

According to Dr Petney, however, this damage is not permanent; yet it can cause changes in neuronal structure. Dr Petney also stresses that losing entire brain cells isn’t necessary to disrupt brain function. In fact, brain cell damage will also have a disrupting effect.

So, perhaps the question we should really be asking is not does alcohol kill brain cells, but what damage does drinking alcohol do to the brain?


Here is a link to read the entire article in News Medical:

To learn more about the ill effects of alcoholism read Alcohol Alert from National Institute:


7)     Body weight

     Healthy body weight

This is another controversial topic but we must not ignore this subject as it is a global epidemic. According to the 2012 report by FRAC (Food Research and Action Center), two thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. This means more than 66% of the adults in this country are facing health problem.  For the full reading of this report go to the following site:


herbal-weight-chart-I listed this subject as my last tip for your health because it takes much longer time and a lasting commitment.  Here is a chart provided by Herbalife ( that shows the recommended weight in relationship to your height. Body Mass Index (BMI) is the standard measurement of choice for many health professionals. BMI is based on a weight to height ratio. Take a look and see if you fit in the correct weight range. The chart is a guideline, of course, as each one of us are different in our built and ages.  If you are way off from the numbers shown in the chart then I am sure your doctor will advise you to lose weight so that you can avoid the negative implication you may face from overweightness.  My height is 170cm and the weight is between 70 and 72kg with my waste size at 76cm. I feel best when I am at 70kg.


I have written an article about this subject before and I upset many readers particularly the senior instructors. This, I considered, was the proof that overweight problem is so pervasive that some people truly believed they were healthy even with a pot belly on them. My stance for an instructor of karatedo is that we have an obligation to be a model by how we behave and also look.  This obligation is mandatory and we are not off the hook even if we can teach how to punch and kick.

     Keep the weight steady

If you are in the proper weight range or successful in coming down to the range (congratulations), there is one more thing you need to do.  Your next task is to keep it steady not only for a few years but for the rest of your life.

The figures I shared earlier about my height and weight have been very steady and not changed over last 40 years.  It definitely takes a commitment of long time to achieve this but I consider it well worth my effort.


You must ask yourself; how serious are you with your wish to improve your health and find yourself healthy when you are in your seventies and eighties? Master Funakoshi wrote the following as one of Nijukun: Karate is a lifelong pursuit. If you made your decision to pursue karatedo then why not try to be healthy for the rest of your life?

7 Tips for Your Health 健康 Part 2

Today I will cover 3 more tips: Physical exercise, Sleep and Diet.

3)     Body and physical exercise:

I am aware that training karate five or even three times per week is difficult for many readers.  The challenge is the same with the idea of going to a gym or a YMCA facility to exercise or swim every day. So, I am advising you two things you can do daily without a membership at a health club.

Walk more

Most of us drive or ride a car daily. When you park your car in a parking lot, do you not look for a space that is closest to the store or an entrance?  Do you drive even if a store or your destination is closer than a mile (1.6 km)? It is recommended by many doctors that we should walk 10,000 steps daily.  Take a look at this site and learn more about the benefits of walking, The Walking Site:

I recommend that you will walk to a store rather than driving your car so that you will be walking more. If it is too far then use a public transportation so that you will walk to a bus stop or a train station.  Strong legs or the foundation is one of three Asai karate requirements (namely flexibility, balance and foundation) but it is also necessary to have a healthy life style.

Stay flexible

Flexibility old man

Look at a baby and you are amazed of its flexibility. As we get old we become less flexible. I heard the slang for adead body is “stiff”. To avoid being stiff too soon I recommend that you spend only 5 minutes of your time right after you get up in an easy flexibility exercise. There are many, in fact a few hundreds, joints in our body and hip joints is typically emphasized as important in karate.  A practitioner who can kick high is admired. There is more important group of joints than the hip joints for the health.  It is a group of back joints or the spines.  I will not go into the details of the exercises I do. I only tell you three easy exercise that are good for the starters.  One is to bend your upper body forward and backward.  The other one is to bend sideways.  The last one is to rotate your upper body while you stand (or sit) in a fixed stance (shizen tai is OK).  Do those exercises one to two minutes each.  That will be a great way in the morning to start a day.


4)     Sleep:

Everyone must sleep and this is another important physical function and activity. This is also a complex subject and I can go into the improvement ideas on how well you sleep but I will save it for the longer version of this article.  In fact, it is difficult some times to control your sleep so today I will give you two ideas that you can exercise to improve your health.

Sleep less

All of us have only 24 hours a day and many of us daily spend more than 8 hours, one third of our day (lives) sleeping.  Do you know that the sleep cycle comes every 90 minutes? So by using this cycle you can shorten your sleep and attain a more efficient way to sleep. For instance, the five cycles of 90 minutes gives you a sleep of 7.5 hours.  If you feel you need 8 hours of sleep then try to set the alarm clock at the time you will have 7.5 hours of sleep instead of 8 hours.  If you get used to sleep only 7.5 hours, I suggest you try for 6 hours.  The sleep amount is totally up to what you are used to and it can be changed.  I can operate normally with a daily sleep of between 4.5 hours and 6 hours.  When I am not busy then I sleep 6 hours and I will cut down 90 minutes off my sleep when I have some urgent matters or when I am in a different time zone. We all have only 24 hours a day so why not gain some time by staying awake (your active life) a little longer?

Sleep regularly

If you cannot reduce your sleep time, you can try this.  Be sure to fall asleep before midnight.  Between midnight and 2am is the time when we have the deepest sleep and it will make a big difference when you wake up.  It is also good for your health to have a steady schedule to go to bed and wake up.  Our body is controlled by Circadian Rhythm whether you like it or not.  Most of the people with the odd shifts like a doctor, policemen, pilots and stewardesses tend to experience physical malfunctions.  Take a look at Wiki on this subject and learn about it if you do not know:


3)     Diet


One of the most important factors to keep you healthy is diet and this is also a very controversial subject. You already know that you need to eat right, etc.  If I write what is the correct diet then this article can be very lengthy so I will write a separate article on this important subject. Today I will list four suggestions that you can easily do.


Eat less

I suggest eating less than what your body wants. In Japan we have a popular saying, Hara hachibunme.  This means 80 percent of the stomach and our ancestors were advising us to eat somewhat less than what you think you want to eat.  My diet consists of yorgurt in the morning, some rice for lunch and a bowl of soup or a dish of salad.  I am not a vegetarian but I eat very little meat and I do not need it.  Though I am Japanese I do not like fish so I have a little desire to go to a sushi restaurant.  I have a funny story about a sushi restaurant but I will save it for the long version of this article.

Chew more

One thing that will help you while you are trying to eat less.  By chewing your food more you will take more time to eat your meal and you will feel more satisfied with what you eat even with less amount.  It takes some time before the signal from the digestive system reaches to your brain.  If you eat quickly then you will always eat too much as your brain does not get a “stop” or satisfied signal.  In addition, well chewed food will digest faster and better which is good for your health. How many times should you chew?  It depends on the food but minimum 50 times per your mouthful.  If you swallow before 10 to 20 times you are eating too fast.

Reduce microwave oven use

Microwave oven with no mark

Our life is busy and I know a microwave oven is a useful kitchen tool. However, if you study how it cooks the food you will understand why I suggest you to reduce the use of this machine.  If you need to defrost something frozen then take it out one or two hours before cooking.  If you want to heat up your cold soup do not be lazy and use a microwave oven.  It take a little more time but your soup will retain the important nutrients if you heat it up with a regular range.

Drink good water

Every day you lose water through your breath, perspiration, urine and bowel movements. For your body to function properly, you must replenish its water supply by consuming beverages and foods that contain water.

So how much fluid does the average, healthy adult living in a temperate climate need? According to Mayo Clinic, the Institute of Medicine determined that an adequate intake (AI) for men is roughly 3 liters (about 13 cups) of total beverages a day. The AI for women is 2.2 liters (about 9 cups) of total beverages a day. For further information access the following URL:

I am sure you already know that you should drink sufficient amount of water as advised above.  I want to add that the water you drink must be both clean and good.  As I suggested earlier, do not use a microwave oven to heat up the water for a cup of tea or coffee you drink.  I will include more details about this subject of water in the longer version of this article.


More than 2 thirds of all American people are either overweight or obese.  I consider it as an epidemic and will touch this subject slightly in the final part which will be posted before the weekend.

June 4, 2013

7 Tips for your Health 健康

              健康が一番Part 1

I happen to be one of the healthiest persons I know and have met in my life.  I am not bragging here. I am simply stating the fact. I rarely got sick throughout my adult life and I continue to be extremely healthy even at my age (66 this year).  In fact, I cannot remember when I caught a cold the last time. I do not suffer from any allergies either.  So far, thanks to God, I have never suffered a serious illness in my life even an appendicitis or a gall bladder infection. I even surprise myself that I can stay healthy despite of all the international travels I do around the world with the different local water and variety of dishes in different countries.

It did not happen by an accident. First of all, I must have received the healthy genes from my parents. My father lived to 85 and my mother to 88. They were healthy most of their lives but they got sick like a normal (?) person. That is, of course, not the only reason why I can stay healthy.  I follow some heath rules that are keeping me healthy. One of them is of course practicing karate and exercising Ki but that is not what I will present here.  There are a lot more things I pay attention to, and today I want to share those ideas (7 tips) that I exercise daily.  I do this because I believe in those tips and I can tell you that they work for me.

I must call your attention that this is not a medical advice as I am not licensed in the medical field. So, you need to evaluate what you read here and make your own judgment if anyone of them is good for you.

Here are the seven tips to improve your health and keep you healthy:

I am confident that exercising the seven things that are described below will be good for your health. If you are convinced that any of them is a viable choice then there is one condition; you must try it at least for 3 months.  You must commit and have that much of patience if you want to see any positive result.

There are, in fact, more than seven ideas and tips to improve one’s health but I picked the most important and easiest ones. There are fundamentally two types in the tips. One is something very simple and you can exercise immediately. The other will require more time and some planning.

Let us start with the ones that you can do immediately and easily:

1)     Breathing

Breathe through your nose

This one is probably one of the easiest ones to do out of all the tips here.  We all breathe but most of us do not pay attention to how we breathe. One important tip I share is that be sure to breathe through your nose at all time.  I am particularly talking about inhalation and it is ok if you exhale through your mouth especially when you are exercising. If you know that you snore or keep your mouth open while you are asleep, you can try to sleep on your side though it is almost impossible to control your body position once you fell asleep. The reason why you want to inhale through your nose is simple. If you inhale through your mouth you are not only taking in air but also all those germs. On the other hand, if you do through your nose, its passages will filter a lot of them. Even if you do not take care of your breathing while you are asleep, by paying attention to this while you are awake will have a positive result.


Deep breathing

Once Deep_Breathing_illustrationyou believe that you are regularly breathing through your nose, you can add the deep breathing to your daily exercise.  To be able to do the proper deep breathing it will require some training. Without such training it will be difficult to reduce your breathing cycle to 2 per minute or less.  However, you can always start from 4 or 5 breathing cycles per minute.  I have already written an article about this subject and its health benefits. If you want to learn the precise way to do deep breathing, read my article on “Deep breathing” which can be found in Karate Coaching blog.



2)     Mental or mind set

Positive thinking, smile and laugh

This could be a controversial subject but I dare to add this because I believe in the positive results that can come out of these ideas. This tip is also very easy to exercise and can be done immediately.  However, it may require some mind switch.


I recommend positive thinking not because it will surely bring you some rewards (though it may) but rather it will give you more positive feelings or healthier outlook in your life which will result in good health. It is a used up cliché but when you smile the world will smile back at you. In fact, the how the world is perceived by you is only a reflection of yourself.


Laughing will give you not only a better mental health but also a positive effect on your body. There is a group of doctors who believe laughing can cure cancer and there are many clinics that offer this alternative cancer treatment. Look at the following site and read about laughter therapy by Cancer Treatment Centers of America:

Laughter therapy

Even if you are not suffering from cancer you can get the health benefit from your own laughing therapy by renting a comedy DVD for your weekend entertainment. Try to have a meeting with your friend who is funny so you can laugh more instead of staying home and being bored.


One thing I can tell you is that we Asian believe in the holistic approach to our body.  I am sure you understand this as I assume the readers are karate practitioners.  We train karate not only for our physical health or improvement but also for our mental and spiritual health and improvement.  Therefore, by having positing thinking, smiling and laughing more we will not only improve our mental health but it will surely have the benefit to our physical health.

(Part 2 will be up in a day or two)