Monthly Archives: January 2014
Monthly Archives: January 2014
During an interview with Masatoshi Nakayama, late headmaster of the Japan
Karate Association, I tried my best, in the staid tradition of Western
journalism, to get him to say something controversial. Something that would
raise a few hackles and sell a few magazines. If only he would say something like those folks say in the National Enquirer, we would have our famous cover: "KARATE GRANDMASTER SAYS FULL-CONTACT JOKE." But Nakayama disappointed me. He didn't criticize anybody or anything. (For the record, he said that full-contact karate is fine for people who want to do it, and that it certainly has a place in the world of karate, just so long as
everyone understands that it is a sport and not budo. And he also said,
ending my dreams of fame and notoriety, "...and there's certainly nothing
wrong with making contact.") So much for trying to trick the master.
Over the course of several days of interviewing, only once did I see
Nakayama shake his head in disgust and shoot a little bit of fire out of his
eyes. We were talking about the history and development of karate in
America, and during a lull in the conversation, he leaned over, close to my
face, gritted his teeth, and said, very sternly, "You know what's really
wrong with our karate?" he asked.
Our karate? I thought. Isn't it the other guys who are screwed up?
"What's really wrong with our karate," he continued, "is that people train a
few years, make first or second dan, and then right away open a school and
try to make money from karate. They're not qualified to teach by themselves and, besides, it's impossible to make money quickly from true karate-do."
He didn't have to convince me on the money factor. Over the years, I have
seen many, many instructors open commercial schools and then make the
mistake of teaching their students true karate-do, in the traditional
fashion. Invariably, these people quickly learn that the traditional ways
are not, by and large, easily marketable. Oh, it's easy enough to attract a
fair-sized student body‹with skillful advertising and promotion‹but
boy-oh-boy, is it ever hard to keep them! The main problem, as I see it, is
that we are offering our customers something they don't really want.
Gichin Funakoshi warned us of the problem in one of his famous "Twenty
Precepts." He said, "Karate no shugyo wa issho de aru," which means, "Karate practice is lifetime work; there is no limit." An equally accurate
translation is, "it will take your entire life to learn karate."
For those of us who try to follow Funakoshi's precepts, the road to mastery
is long, arduous and fraught with disappointments. What we are saying to the prospective student, really, is, "Join our dojo, pay your money, and we will push you, humiliate you, discipline you, and make you work harder than you have ever worked in your life. If you continue training, we will demand that you pay more money for harder and harder work, stricter discipline, and
Clearly, we place ourselves in the middle of a harsh, inflexible paradox: We
are marketing karate-do, but karate-do has little to commend it to the
A colleague of mine says that we are asking people to enroll in school for
their own betterment and then shocking them with the news that there is no
graduation day. He's right.
There are a number of traditionalists around, of course, who are supremely
successful, and they have hundreds, even thousands, of students. But not one of them was an overnight success. Each one of them, to the best of my
knowledge, had to work long and hard, enduring many hardships and setbacks, to "make it" in the business world. Every one of them that I know had to endure terrible frustrations and poverty on the way to business success. Frankly, in the spirit of karate-do, this is the way it should be, because the benefits derived from serious pursuit of the ideals of karate-do are too valuable to be priced and sold. How much should be charged, for example, for good health, good appetite, good digestion, blissful sleep or boundless energy? How much is it worth to have confidence, self-assurance and mental clarity? Can a price really be placed on being happy with yourself and happy with others, no matter how they act? Probably not, but these things are clearly by-products of hard, daily training under a good instructor.
And, yes, we traditionalists really believe that correct training will bring
all these assets to the serious student. But the problem remains, as my
friend so aptly put it, that we cannot tell the student when graduation day
will be, because we know it will never come. As long as the student keeps
training, he will improve‹continuously until the day he dies.
Many years ago, Sensei Shojiro Koyama of Phoenix, Arizona, was showing us
some of the physical benefits of daily training, and he inadvertently hinted
at how long it might take to get to "graduation day." Facing the wall, about
one foot away from it, Koyama spread his legs straight to the sides, heels
and toes touching the floor, and performed a complete split, his crotch
touching the floor. He then invited two husky black belts to grasp his
ankles and lift him into the air. "Just lift straight up," he said, and he
kept his hands on the wall for balance as they hoisted him high above their
heads, his crotch now a bit lower than his legs. When they put him down, he
sprang to his feet, turned to us and said, "I am 46 years old, but karate-do
has made me able to do this kind of thing. You can do it, too. Don't say no;
just practice a little bit every day, and after 10 years, you will be able
to do it, too. Every step of karate-do takes at least 10 years, but when you
get to be my age, you will realize that it's worth the effort." Worth the effort, but not easily marketable.
Of course, the bright side to all of this is that traditional karate-do
offers a solid philosophy based on physical education, sport, and self-defense, and more and more people in our society are being attracted to all three. The here-today-gone-tomorrow studios of the Bruce Lee era are not much in evidence now, and the public is discovering that the old, plain, run-down place on the corner, that was there before the modern studios moved in and out, is still there. It still has the same instructor, and he appears to be doing the same old things. His students in their white uniforms are still doing the same things they were 10 years ago, and even though they look stern and serious and sweaty, they genuinely seem to be enjoying what they are doing.
I hope instructors and students alike will meditate on the words of the
ancient sage, Mencius, who said:
When Heaven is about to confer
A great office upon a man,
It first exercises his mind with suffering,
His sinews and bones with toil.
It exposes him to poverty,
And confounds all his undertakings.
Then it is seen if he is ready.
Or, as Master Funakoshi warned, "It will take your entire life to learn
One of the things all serious martial artists aspire to attain is the
ability to sense sakki, which literally means "air of murder." Sakki is a
word used to describe the feeling, or vibration, that comes from an attacker
just before he is about to attack. It is said that if one can learn to sense
this feeling, a counterattack can be applied before the actual attack
In Japan, people will even say that certain swords or works of art emanate
this mysterious force, and it is very common to hear references to swords
that have an air of murder, a la King Arthur's famous blade, which he
plucked from the rock.
In the West, almost everyone has sensed a sakki at one time or another. It
is the vague feeling of uneasiness that permeates the mind and body for no
particular reason when we walk into a room full of unfamiliar people.
Sometimes we just get the feeling that "something's not right here."
Mothers are renowned for their uncanny sense of sakki, which manifests
itself in them in late night calls to children far away. "I just had an
uneasy feeling about you," they say. Mothers call this intuition.
But no matter what it is called, the ability to sense sakki is a high ideal
of the martial arts, and if a person could actually develop the ability to
sense things in this manner, he or she would be taking a giant step toward
After decades of training, I have come to believe that it is possible to
develop this sense, but I also think it takes a lot longer than a mere
couple of decades to get the gist of it.
In the Japan Karate Association, one tale of sakki is told by virtually
every master to virtually ever black belt holder, and while the story is
ascribed to Masatomo Takagi, the Vice Chairman of the JKA, all Takagi would do when questioned about it was smile, nod, and say, "Yes, that's true. It happened to all of us."
The story goes that before World War II, when Gichin Funakoshi was traveling around Japan giving demonstrations to promote karate, he would take along a senior student or two to assist him. It was the duty of this assistant to help the instructor with the demonstrations and to tend to his personal needs. When they visited a university club, Funakoshi would sit on the side in a state of deep concentration and direct the actions of the assistant who was teaching the class.
Funakoshi one day told his senior assistants that it was difficult for him
to train consistently because he was traveling so much. Therefore, he said,
the seniors should help him train so that he, too, could progress in his
"The way you can help me," he told them, "is at any time, under any
conditions, simply punch me or kick me. If you can hit me, it will mean that
I'm not aware enough and that I must train harder."
The seniors had no intention of doing such a thing, of course, because they
loved the old man, and they were afraid they might hurt him. But as time
went by and no one attacked him, Funakoshi became irritable. "I told you to
help me train, and you have disobeyed. I want you to try to punch me and
kick me. It is the only way I can progress."
So the seniors decided they would abide by his wishes, but would use control
so he would not be injured.
One day as Takagi was teaching a class, he noticed that Funakoshi, who was
sitting on the edge of the training floor, had dozed off and was snoring
"Now's my chance," Takagi thought. "I'll punch his face lightly, and he will
see that this is a silly thing for us to be doing."
Continuing to talk to the class in his normal tone of voice, Takagi
gradually positioned himself within striking distance of the snoring
Funakoshi. When he was convinced that the teacher's snores were rhythmical
and genuine, he suddenly snapped around and drove a blindingly fast punch at the old man's head.
Without opening his eyes, Funakoshi leaned his head to the right, deftly
avoiding the punch with at least three inches of space to spare. Opening his
eyes, he looked at the startled senior and said, simply, "Not good enough,
Takagi. You need to train more." So saying, he closed his eyes and was soon snoring again.
As Takagi told and re-told this story to the other seniors, he was scoffed
at and teased. "Sensei was tricking you," they said. "He wasn't really
sleeping. He was just playing cat and mouse with you. Nobody can defend
himself when he's asleep. Try it again when there is no chance that he's
awake, and then we can be done with this nonsense."
Takagi's chance came not long after, while he was accompanying Funakoshi on a demonstration tour. After a demonstration and lecture in a village in the country, Funakoshi retired to his rented room, and Takagi took the
instructor's clothes to wash them. When he returned, he peered into
Funakoshi's room and saw that he was lying on his back, snoring, with his
arm across his eyes.
"This is perfect," Takagi thought. "Even if he's awake, he can't see through
his arm. I'll get him for sure this time."
When Takagi entered the room and laid out Funakoshi's clothes, the old man didn't stir. So Takagi crept stealthily toward the old man and stopped about four feet away. Sensing no movement in Funakoshi, Takagi began thinking that this really had gone too far. He didn't want to hit the defenseless old man, and besides, he decided, he could simply tell his teacher in the morning that he had stood beside him, punched close to his face, and that would be that.
While Takagi stood there clenching his fists and thinking about it,
Funakoshi suddenly said in a clear, loud voice, "Takagi, if you're going to
punch me, please do it and get it over with! I'm an old man, and I need my
It is said that Masatomo Takagi, then fifth degree black belt, backed out of
Funakoshi's room at great speed and never again tried to attack his teacher.
This article is written by Randall G. Hassell, copyright 2006.
All rights reserved. Available at: www.empirebooks.net
Sensei Hassell is also the chief instructor of the American Shotokan Karate Alliance: www.ShotokanCentral.com