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A Non-Profit Karate Dojo (But We Didn’t Plan It That Way)

A Non-Profit Karate Dojo (But We Didn't Plan It That Way)

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
continuing self-sacrifice."

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
American market.

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

This article is written by Randall G. Hassell, copyright 2006. 
All rights reserved. Available at:
Sensei Hassell is also the chief instructor of the American Shotokan Karate Alliance:




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:
Sensei Hassell is also the chief instructor of the American Shotokan Karate Alliance:

December 27, 2013

Kara and Ku – How to empty your mind

Kara and Ku: Emptying the Mind

JKA line up right to left

More than 200 years ago, the Zen master, Kosen, wrote the calligraphy for
"The First Principle" on a large scroll. This scroll was used by carpenters
to trace the characters on a large piece of wood, which was then etched and
draped over the gate of the Obaku temple in Kyoto. This plaque still hangs
over the temple gate today, and is often referred to by modern calligraphers
as "the great masterpiece."

When Kosen was working on the original calligraphy, one of his senior
students, an audacious lad who thought more of himself than others, happened to pass by. Examining Kosen's work, he boldly proclaimed it "terrible" and "unfit as a pattern for a plaque."
Somewhat irritated by the criticism, Kosen tried again.
"Awful," said the student. "The first one was better."
In a controlled rage, Kosen proceeded to produce character after character,
until more than 80 large sheets of paper lay scattered about, none of which
was good enough to receive the approval of the student.
Driven to the brink of distraction by the young man's impertinence, Kosen's
calligraphy began to look amateurish.
"I can't take it any more," sighed the student. "I'm going out for a drink
of water, and then I'll be back."
"Now's my chance," thought Kosen. "I'll do this calligraphy without that
young smart-aleck's approval!" Turning to the paper, Kosen dipped his brush
in the ink, and with a mind completely free from the distraction of his
pupil, quickly wrote, "The First Principle."
Just then the student returned. Looking at the calligraphy, he bowed deeply
to Kosen, saying, "That is a great masterpiece!"
This famous story of Kosen and "The First Principle" has probably been told
by more Zen masters to their pupils than any other over the past 200 years.
This is not surprising, since it is a simple and perfect illustration of
mushin-the clear, empty, unaffected state of mind sought after by devotees
of Zen. In a state of mushin, it is said, one can respond naturally to any
situation or action, intuitively feeling the true sense of the situation or
act, without consciously thinking about it.
For the samurai warriors, the idea of responding naturally, calmly, and
efficiently from a mind unencumbered by distractions or thoughts of fear,
was obviously a very attractive idea. It enabled them to face their enemies
boldly and, they believed, to move in accord with the flow of the universe.
In short, it made them invincible.
When Gichin Funakoshi was about to pass on, he left his pupils with 20
precepts which, he told them, contained all the "secrets" of karate. What
his followers have learned is that the 20 precepts are timeless, sometimes
confusing, and always challenging. Funakoshi, of course, is the man who
lived his life by the motto, "The ultimate aim of the art of karate lies not
in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its
Clearly, Funakoshi intended for his followers to seek deeper meanings in
their art, and not to be satisfied with mere physical skill. His precept,
Kokoro wa hanatan koto wo yosu, or, "Always be ready to release your mind," is a good illustration of one of the "secrets" of karate-do which is not
always evident in modern tournaments and exhibitions. It is, like the story
of Kosen, an illustration of "The First Principle."
Prior to 1936, the Japanese characters representing karate were written with
a character for kara that could also be pronounced "T'ang" or "to," and
referred to the T'ang dynasty of China. Te means "hands." Thus, karate was
the art of "Chinese hands." But Funakoshi decided that the Okinawans had
been too anxious to call the art Chinese, and that now it was clearly
Japanese in nature. In addition, Funakoshi steadfastly maintained that
karate was a do, a path to follow for a correct, rewarding, and fulfilling
In an effort to correct the misinterpretation of karate as a Chinese art and
at the same time to more clearly indicate the nature of the art as a way of
life, Funakoshi changed the character for kara from T'ang to ku. Ku is also
pronounced kara, and is found in the Hannya Shingyo, a Buddhist sutra
containing the phrase, Shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki. In this phrase is
contained the essence of karate-do, the way of life of the empty hand.
Literally, it means "Form becomes emptiness, emptiness becomes form."
Shiki is the visible, physical form of a thing. It is the outward appearance
of anything, such as a technique or a kata.
Ku is a term similar to the mu of mushin, and it means "emptiness." But mu
is a specific term relating to the thinking processes of the mind, while ku
refers more generally to the state of being, without any regard to form. Ku
acknowledges existence, but describes an absence of form in that existence.
Ku is difficult to describe, but easy to feel. For example, as we go about
our daily business, concentrating on our work or studies or whatever, there
is a larger process occurring all around us, which we never examine, but
which we notice and accept. That larger process is the change of seasons. As
spring turns to summer, the weather becomes warmer, and one day we notice that it is uncomfortably hot outside. As summer turns to fall and then
winter, we become aware of the changes in temperature, and suddenly we
realize that it is cold. If we go to bed on a clear night, we may be
surprised to awaken in the morning and learn that a heavy snow has fallen.
This change from season to season is ku; the seasons and the changes clearly exist, but they do not rely on conscious action. We do not contribute to the changes of season with our consciousness, nor are the seasons themselves "aware" of their own changes. The process of change from one season to another has no shiki, no visible form, but this process still clearly
In karate-do, the meaning of kara (ku) is the same. For example, when
students first learn a kata, they must concentrate on the movements,
immersing themselves completely in conscious attention to every detail. A
great deal of conscious thought is required, and complete attention must be
given to shiki, the physical form of the kata. After many repetitions,
however, the students do not consciously think so much about the physical
nature of the movements; the movements become more natural, and the body remembers the sequence. The form (shiki) is becoming emptiness (ku). Shiki soku ze ku.
After thousands of repetitions (Funakoshi believed that at least three years
of solid practice was necessary to master a kata), the kata becomes part of
the nature of the student. When we watch masters perform a kata, we
sometimes feel that they are moving in another plane of existence. They are no longer doing the kata; the kata is "doing itself" on their body. No
conscious thought is given to the physical form of the kata. This complete
emptiness (ku) is the same emptiness involved in the change of seasons. No conscious thought is involved, and the shiki (the different seasons or the
techniques of the kata) is expressed through this emptiness. Ku soku ze
In the kata, Kanku Dai, the first movements are visual representations of
shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki. The hands move together and raise above the head to look at the sky, then break apart, moving in a wide arc to come together again in front of the center of the body. Together they are form; apart they are emptiness. Then they come back together. Form becomes emptiness, emptiness becomes form.
In the Zen tradition, pupils are taught that shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze
shiki means that positive becomes negative, hot becomes cold, gain becomes loss, and so on. The phrase is an exposition on the belief that the universe is dynamically balanced and in a constant state of flow between its
In karate-do, the expression of form through emptiness can only be found in the process of repeated performance of the techniques. Modern fighters are often heard to say, "Practice this or that technique until it becomes 'your
second nature.'" But in its ultimate manifestation, the technique that has
been practiced thousands of times is not a "second nature" technique at all.
It is, in fact, an outward representation (shiki) of the manifestation of
the emptiness (ku) of the performer. Ku soku ze shiki.
The benefit of this state of mind in free sparring, or in a real fight, is
that the mind does not have to think about the situation nor devise a
strategy for one kind of opponent or another. Indeed, in time of crisis,
students who have trained rigorously to achieve this state will simply
"release their mind," throwing out all conscious thoughts, allowing the
techniques they have practiced so often to be performed through their body.
No matter what the opponent does, the response of the student will be proper and strong, and it will often appear that the response comes before the attack. We have all heard about masters who "seem to know what I'm going to do before I do it," and shiki soku ze ku, ku soku ze shiki is the reason.
We can no more successfully attack such a person than we can stop the snow
from falling by punching at the sky.
It is impossible to attack emptiness.
This article is written by Randall G. Hassell, copyright 2006. 
All rights reserved. Available at:
Sensei Hassell is also the chief instructor of the American Shotokan Karate Alliance:
December 20, 2013

Why does Asai sensei’s butt stick out? 浅井先生、骨盤の位置の謎

Asai kiba dachi 1When 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 Masai_logoaster 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:

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.


Karate career

Kanazwa & Asai Sensei 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. Asai demo jumpFollowing 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 life

Reflecting 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.


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.

Nishino Ki

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.

Demo shuto uchiHe 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.

Judo Kendo sonkyoIaido






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).

Sumo 2Not convinced? Look at the two photos of Sumo. Sumo 1Even 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.

Kung fu stance 2

Kung fu stanceKung fu hips





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.

Kung fu zenkutsuShaolin kung fu 2 JKA前屈立ち




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.

Shorin ryu inclineShorinryu bassai






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).

Asai Tobi


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. Asai-sensei-vs-Mikami-sensei-2

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.

asai (2) Nijushiho young








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.

Karate master explains how to shave the right way

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. ShaverHere 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. IncorrectPic 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. ExpertTo 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. Shaver holding 3Once 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).漢詩 1

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. How to hold a brush 1However, 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?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA (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.

Holding ohashi wrongHolding ohashi correctly How to hold chop sticks by a chef

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.刀の持ち方 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). 拳の握り方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.

Golf club no mochi kataI 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.


how-to-hold-violin-bowI 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). Ax no mochi kataThe 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter 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. jigenryu kamaeSome 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). 試し斬り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).ブロック斬り

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.) Jigenryu illustrationNow 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.

Makiwari kamaeHere 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.

Worst kamaeIf 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)? Makiwari 1It 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). Makiwari black beltHow 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.

Let me show you some photos, I believe, that demonstrate expert wood chopping.Makiwari

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. Finish cuttingDuring 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.

zanshinWhen 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. Feather shaverIn 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. shaving-cutsNow 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.

A Small (?) Mystery of Heian Shodan 平安初段

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. kentsui tate uchiThe 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.

Ikebana blue printIkebana 4    

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.


Royal Worcester tea cup



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.

Kimono 2Kimono design





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.ukiyoe


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 () and exhalation () 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).

Koma inu


The concept of A-un is very interesting and deep. If you wish to learn more, read on this subject in Wikipedia:

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).

Dairen Shrine

St Thomas More Church





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). gyaku kataUnfortunately, 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?

November 22, 2013

Jidosha Dojo 自動車道場 (Automobile studio)

Many of you agree that karate practice does not stay only in a dojo. Where do you practice outside the dojo? Some of you are lucky to have a big back yard or a large garage where you can do your practice. Some may go to a park or a school gym. What do you practice at those places? You can certainly practice kata and kihon. Can you practice kumite? Yes, only if you can find a partner. But most of the time you will have to practice by yourself so no kumite.

Dojo bus

Today I propose an idea of training in your car that includes makiwara and kumite practice. I call this “automobile dojo”. No, I am not proposing that you buy a bus or a big van to train inside. This idea does not include a loud ki-ai to the driver who is in the car next to you, or pounding your fist against the steering wheel to toughen it, or swinging your back fist to the passenger side head rest, either. In fact, what I will share with you will not propose any techniques and movements that are not related to driving itself. What I am proposing is only your normal driving but I will ask you to incorporate karate training to your driving and I will describe what and how.

Many people drive to and from work daily. Some of you may spend more than an hour in a car each way. This means you spend more time driving than training in your dojo every week. Wouldn’t you agree that it would be wonderful if you can add those hours to your karate training? You may say “I sometimes think about kata or other karate techniques but I cannot continue thinking about it because I am too busy driving”. It is true, and it may be too dangerous if you were day dreaming or paying attention to something other than driving. What I will explain is completely different from what you are probably expecting. In fact, what I suggest will improve your driving performance if you follow it correctly.

There are several different training syllabuses or menus. Let me share some of the main ones that you can include in your driving habit.

Menu #1: Distance practice

Little man syndrome truckOne thing you must remember is that your car is an extension of yourself. Now, this is a very important concept and I want the readers to fully understand this. So I will spend some time on this subject first. You already know that a meek person may feel braver when he is in a large truck than when he is in a smaller car. In his big truck he will not be intimidated by a small car even if its driver may be a big and muscular guy. This is one example of a concept of a car being an extension of yourself, but, I am not talking about this emotional feeling that can be created by what kind of a car one drives. What I am talking about is connected more to the physical aspect of your body when I say “extension”. In fact you must believe that the end of your body does not stop at the tip of your finger or your skin but it goes or extends further. It is true that there is a certain amount of space around you that you would consider a part of your “territory”. I am sure you have encountered a situation in your life more than once when a person passes you in front of you without saying “Excuse me”. I suspect you felt somewhat offended or invaded by this person or his act. If the distance between you and him was 100 meters or even 10 meters, you would not have cared. But you felt it was a very close distance so you expected a common courtesy of “Excuse me”. Why did you feel that courtesy was needed? It is simply because we all have a space around us that we feel it isproxemics diagram 2 “my” personal space or territory. In fact, there is a study called proxemics; the study of the cultural, behavioral, and sociological aspects of spatial distances between individuals. The amount of this distance varies a lot by the personal feelings and also by the cultural custom. In some Asian countries the distance tolerance is very close. For instance, a person behind you will stand very close to you when we are in line in Japan. I have been living in the US for many years so I often find myself feeling uncomfortable in the subway ticket line or a post office line when I visit Tokyo. Even within a same country the distances vary if you are in a city like New York or in a small village of a wide open state like Idaho. Of course, the distance tolerance is much higher in NY and a visitor from Idaho will probably feel very uncomfortable in a crowded New York City subway. If you are interested in learning more about proxemics you may want to access the following site;

So there is a space you recognize that is a part of you or you consider your space. What I will ask is to go further with this feeling. If you drive a small car in your daily life and if you have to drive a larger car you will feel uncomfortable especially when you have to park or drive through a narrow road or a bridge. You would feel even more uncomfortable or insecure if you have to drive a big van or a truck. This is a good example of body extension when you drive. An experienced bus driver or a truck driver has no problem even with a parallel parking and driving through a narrow bridge. He can “extend” himself to the outside of his bus or truck and knows exactly how far he (or his truck or bus) can or cannot go. He has the longer body distance than we (small car drivers) do. This is definitely a learned skill and a professional truck driver must go to a special school for this. This extended body distance ability can also apply to the use of a weapon such as a sword, a bo and a nunchaku. I will not go into this subject here as we are focusing our discussion with automobile driving right now but I am sure the readers can guess how it applies. We also talk about a long distance fighting method which is the characteristic of Shotokan karate compared to a short distance fighting method such as Goju-ryu. I believe the training method I will share will help both fighting styles but I think the benefit is bigger for the Shotokan practitioners as it will expand the territory or space that will be controlled by you.

I will present two types of training here that you can use to train in your car. One is automobile makiwara training. The other one is automobile kumite.

Makiwara tireBy automobile makiwara training I am not suggesting you to run into a post or make a makiwara with an old tire (though it is nice to have one). It is only a metaphor and I am suggesting you to pay more attention when you park your car in your garage or in a public parking lot. Your training is not to hit the front or the side (particularly the passenger side) of your car on anything around you. This is totally opposite of makiwara training as you are not supposed to hit anything in automobile makiwara training but it is still a distance practice. You must be able to extend yourself to the outline of your car. tight_squeezeThe obstacles in your garage or other parked cars can be your “partners”. If you are skilled in this training, your car will stay scratch free for many years. In addition, you will be an expert in parallel parking. Check your skill and see if you need more training or not.

In automobile kumite, I am not proposing to bump your car against another or attack the other cars or drivers. In fact, it is better called “automobile taisabaki” as you keep the correct distance from all the cars around you. The first thing you must do is to stop being a tailgater if that is your habit. tailgatingI will discuss more in Menu #4 but having sufficient distance between you and the car in front of you is very important. It may be easier on a highway or a freeway but it will take much more practice and close attention in a busy city street but that is the best kumite situation for you. In a dojo kumite you typically have only one opponent. You are lucky if your sensei puts you in a multiple opponent kumite but I am sure you will not usually face more than 2 or 3 opponents. On the other hand, what you can train on here is the distance training with many opponents (cars) around you, not only the ones in front of you but also the ones beside you and even behind you. I will talk more about the rear side training in Syllabus #3 as it requires a different technique. We will focus on the cars in front and beside. You will have at least three separate distance training here. With the car or cars in front of you your training is to keep the same distance with it or them. If it or they slow down check how soon you will react to the difference in the distance. The driver in the car in front of you may not pump the brake to alert you. Your training is to detect the distance difference by visual observation. This visual check from a car that is running at even moderate speed of 30 or 40 miles per hour will help you with your eye judgment in real kumite. The training with the cars on your sides will require more than a distance practice so I will further explain this in Menu #2.

Menu #2: Perceiving the other drivers’ intentionsParistraffic

Your training with the cars on your side or sides is to develop your alertness for a car that may turn into yours by mistake or cut in front of you without warning. If this happens you need to be ready to either swerve away or put on the brakes to avoid an accident. This is almost a training of reading the mind of the drivers in other cars around you. If you have a mind set for this training then you can develop a skill to detect a movement by the other driver and you can almost read his mind if he is thinking of turning in or not. A lot of time your car may be in a blind spot of the other driver and this is a dangerous moment. If you are alert then you can avoid an accident. Certainly, you need to pay attention to the other cars that may get into the blind spots of your car. You must not depend on a rear view mirror when you change lanes or turn corners. You must turn your head and verify with your own eyes that it is clear to the side you are turning into.

You must also be alert to the car in front of you. There are three cases; (1) a car or cars going the same direction, (2) coming towards you, (3) waiting at an intersection to cross the street. Let’s look at case (1), the same direction. You must always expect that the driver in front may have a sudden need to brake hard and stop. If you have a sufficient distance this action will not bring you into a scary situation but being ready all the time will give you a faster reaction and you will not need to brake hard yourself. This (not braking hard) will alleviate the possibility of getting hit by a car from the back. To avoid this type of accident it is better to have several separate pumps on the brake to let the other driver know that you are putting the brakes on. I will go further on the driver who is driving behind you but here again you must not assume that this driver is alert and is a safe distance away from you. Paying attention to the back is very important though you may not be the cause of the accident but who wants to be in an accident regardless of who is at fault.

In the case of (2), coming towards you, you also need to pay full attention as this driver may decide to turn in and cross the street in front of you. It is amazing but sometimes the driver in that car does not see your car or he may misjudge the distance and timing. You need to be ready for any sudden moves by a car that is approaching you. Do not assume the driver in that car will see you or will make a safe and proper judgment. This can apply to case (3), a car that is either merging into your lane from another lane or a car that is waiting at a cross street or an intersection that may suddenly get into your lane or cross the street in front of you. The key point here is “Never underestimate your opponent or situation”.

All these situations are taught at a driving school but we easily forget. Paying attention all of the time for all possibilities and be ready for them is the martial art mind. Driving a car is a perfect training opportunity to train and develop this attitude or mindset and after the training hopefully this will turn into an ability of being able to perform almost unconsciously.

Menu #3: Watching your back practiceWatch-your-back

Even though it will not be your fault when you are hit from behind but no one wants to have an accident so you must learn to keep the distance with the car that is behind you. If a car behind you likes to tail gate you the best option for you to change your lane. If there is no other lane then stop and let him pass you. This is common sense but not too many people follow this advice. What some people do is to step on the brake to scare the guy behind you. Sometimes it may work but other times it irritates or angers the other driver and may develop into a more dangerous situation. So, I strongly advise you not to use a braking action to your tail gating opponent.

Cop-In-Rearview-MirrorThere is another exercise you want to do for your backside training. A rear view mirror becomes very important here. Of course, I am not referring to its use to put your lipstick on or to fix your hair. This is to watch out for a police car. Most of the time you get caught by a police officer that was trailing behind you. By training this ability you will have less chance of receiving a traffic ticket and your automobile insurance will not go sky high. Seriously, a karate expert must not receive any ticket not just by observing the rear view mirror but by observing all the traffic laws and keeping them.

Menu #4: Controlling your emotion practicebut-you-didnt-have-to-cut-me-off-gotye-in-a-car

This training is a part of automobile kumite. When a careless or impolite driver may cut right in front of you, do not honk or get upset. What you need to do is to let off your accelerator so you will slow down and allow more space between your car and his. As the driver in front of you is either careless or impolite he is not a safe driver. Pay more attention to this car and exercise Syllabus 2. When you are having a bad day this small incident may upset you. Of course you need to train your feelings so that you will not let the feelings dictate your reactions. In addition, you need to work on Syllabus 2 more so that a surprise move by a car next to you will not happen. If you can detect the feeling that this car is getting into your lane, you will let off the accelerator a little and make a space in front of you.

There is another situation when you need to control your feelings. You either cut in by mistake or drive too safely (slowly) and get another driver angry. If you offended another driver by cutting in by mistake then the best thing to do is to signal your apology. Most of the time the other driver may be upset but he will forgive you if you wave your hand and apologize. However, there may be a driver who gets so upset and who needs to show his anger by retaliating. This person may want to pass you quickly and cut in front of you. If this happens the best thing to do is to go slower and let this person pass you. Keep the distance from this person and the best strategy is to ignore this unhappy driver. There are many unhappy or upset drivers who are looking around for an emotional outlet. You do not want to get caught by a person like this. There is no reason for you to be a target of this negative feeling and you should not let this person risk your safety as well as that of your loved ones.

This is a very good training to keep yourself calm in a conflict situation. Interestingly a person becomes impolite or rude in a non-face-to-face situation like a car incident. This seems to be truer with a male. If you happen to meet him in a supermarket or in a library this person may offer to open the door for you or may say “After you” to let you go first. This non face to face situation in traffic encourages a person to be less polite or considerate. This situation is probably less common with a woman. Whether you are a man or a woman, avoid those impolite people and keep a good ma-ai from those people who are looking for a trouble.

Menu #5: Driving with minimum brake action

142991_pollute_ALS_Now I will complete my article with the most challenging training syllabus for Jidosha Dojo. The idea is simple and clear but doing it correctly and safely can be very challenging. Driving with minimum braking action is fairly easy on a freeway where you have a little traffic. You can set your car on a cruise control and just drive. However, once you are in a town or a city and if you have to drive on a city street it will not be so easy. Why am I adding this as a syllabus? Is this something a retired person with a lot of time but not enough excitement wants? No, this syllabus will require a lot of mind work and discipline. One is distance perception involving the other cars, traffic lights and other traffic signs and obstacles. Another is time perception when to step on a brake and when to release it. You will also have to fight against your desire to speed up some times but you will need to make a judgment if that is required or advisable. In the end your driving will improve and your car will perform very smoothly. The passengers in your car will not feel any jerky and quick stopping movements. They will also feel very safe as your car just glides through the traffic like a flying carpet. It is true that some of the drivers behind you may not like the way or the speed you are driving. Your driving style may be different and unusual. They may honk or yell at you. I advise that you will let them pass you quickly so you can keep you smiling.

There are, of course, other syllabuses you can incorporate in Jidosha Dojo training such as breathing, stretching, reaction, etc. But if you get good at these five exercises I listed here your car performance will change and you will drive differently. It will A-Happy-Drivercertainly be much safer. You will most likely avoid receiving any traffic tickets. You will have much less chance of getting involved in a car accident. Initially you may find it challenging but once you get used to it or when you master the art, you will enjoy your driving much much more. In addition, you will realize that the Jidosha Dojo training will help you with your karate in both physical and mental aspects.

One thing I can confidently say is that what I am proposing here will increase the safety of your driving experience even if it does not help you with your karate. Another thing I want to add is a controversial statement. If you claim that you are a karate or martial art expert then you must be able to prove this by your driving history. A diploma that may show a high rank is not good enough for a true qualification. One qualification a karate expert must produce is a clean traffic history and record since the time he began to call himself a karate expert. I consider what I am stating here is very fair. However, I wonder how many karate experts can share their driving history to satisfy this qualification.

Whether you wish to try out my training ideas or not, Jidosha Dojo, is your choice and I do not expect all the readers will do it. But think of your life without any accidents and traffic tickets. Isn’t it worth giving it a try even for a short period of time and see if it will make any difference?

November 15, 2013

Karate Instructors Injury Survey (KIIS)

Dear Karateka around the world. I want to ask anybody who has a true passion for Karate and has more than 10 years of experience to help collect data for this survey. Please read more below:

Dr. Alex Sternberg
516 652-3211 (cell)

Dear Karatekas and Friends,

I am enclosing a detailed information sheet regarding the KARATE INSTRUCTOR’S INJURY SURVEY.

I am asking for your help in publicizing and disseminating this survey among your members and readers.

As my information sheet clearly states, this survey is completely anonymous and the privacy of all respondents are strictly protected. This project has been approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the SUNY College of Medicine School of Public Health toward my research and dissertation for a Doctor of Public Health degree. ( approval # 483426-1)

Privacy and anonymity of all respondents is guaranteed by the IRB at Downstate and any correspondence may be directed to Dr. John Meyer ( HYPERLINK"",the chairman of the Environmental and Occupational Health division at the School of Public Health.

This survey is anon-partisan, non style, non organizational project, who’s only purpose is to gather information on the frequency and severity of injuries associated with long term karate practice.

I hope to publicize this survey, with your help, among all US Karate practitioners and instructors, regardless of what style they practice or what organization (if any) they may belong to.



During the past 20 years, we have heard with increasing frequency, stories about injuries and surgeries (not sustained at tournaments) among those karate-kas who have practiced for 10, 20 or 30 years and more. Such injuries seem to be connected with training and over use.

Why is this happening and how much of a problem is this? What is the cause of such over use injuries and who is most susceptible?

It is my opinion, that it behooves us in the leadership of our industry to investigate this issue.

Many other sports, such as boxing, football, baseball and others, once made aware of preventable injuries sidelining their athletes, took steps to control and reduce such risk associated with their sport. We, in karate must also take steps to protect our athletes and future instructors. The first step is to survey American karate-kas to determine the prevalence of such injuries. My survey seeks to answer some of these questions and to investigate the magnitude of this problem.

Please write an editorial bringing my survey to your readers attention with a plea for their cooperation in filling out my survey. Feel free to include my information letter and the link to the survey.

Should you want to contact me for more information, I will be delighted to work with you in order to help you to help me.

Thank you

Dr. Alex Sternberg


For any more information, please contact me:

Karate Instructors Injury Survey (KIIS)
To enter the survey please click on this hyperlink:

November 15, 2013

Kuro Obi 黒帯 (Black Belt)

When you hear the term “black belt” I am sure it means more than just a black colored belt to you. For the karate practitioners it means our pride and many years of hard training. For the non-practitioners it may mean an expertise in karate or a dangerous person which we think funny.

Kuro ObiBecause of the movie, Kuro Obi, this Japanese term has become well known to many of the karate practitioners. The movie was not at a Hollywood level but a JKA instructor, Sensei Naka, co-starred. I would say it is interesting to see a real Shotokan instructor playing in a karate movie. Here is the URL to watch the entire movie:

Whatever the color your belt may be, you certainly wear it every time you train. It is so much a part of our karate training, yet there are many facts about karate belts that you may not know. You might have wondered about something related to a karate belt in the past and maybe you are still looking for the answers. The subjects here are, more or less, only the trivia of karate but I think they are interesting. To some extent, it is important for all of us to know and appreciate some facts. For that reason, I hope this article will help you with your better understanding of karate and its culture.

The dan rank and the black belt system in karate is itself an interesting and a puzzling subject. We must look at the history to understand where this belt system came from. Many of the readers may already know that there was no belt system in the Okinawa karate that was introduced to Japan by Master Funakoshi. Did you know that Funakoshi adopted this system from judo? The founder of judo, Jigoro Kano (1860 – 1938) was a very educated man who was also very talented and successful in business and academic arena. Gigoro KanoFor instance, he founded judo in late 19th century (1882 to be exact) and within a short period of time the membership of his dojo increased to several thousand members. He was also one the first representatives of the Olympic Committee from Japan. I suspect he invented the dan system about the same time he created judo from jujitsu. As you may know that judo and Kano had a huge influence on Shotokan karate at the early stage of Funakoshi teaching in Tokyo. In fact, the name of the style, Shotokan, believe it or not, shows its influence. The name of judo headquarters was Kodokan and it was a very reputable name in the martial arts society in Tokyo at that time. Thus, Funakoshi adopted the “kan” (Hall or Building) part in Shotokan, probably, hoping to build his dojo as big as Kodokan. There was another reason why Funakoshi chose Shotokan for his dojo name. He believed in having one karate and did not want to create his style, ryu. There was only one organization, Kodokan, in judo and he liked it. This is exactly what he wanted to see with karate and he used Shotokan for his dojo and refused to use “ryu”. This is why Shotokan has no ryu at the end of its name like Shito-ryu and Goju-ryu. Some people recently (ignorant, I am afraid) are referring our karate as Shotokan-ryu which I do not think Master Funakoshi would appreciate or approve. Here is a link to Wikipedia on Jigoro Kano if you are interested in learning more about this interesting man:

Red & White BeltOK let’s go back to kuro obi, Funakoshi granted the first dan diploma to a few of his students as early as in 1924, two years after he migrated to Tokyo. In the early period of Shotokan karate the highest rank one could attain was Godan (5th degree) as they followed suit to the system in judo. As the population of judo increased Kodokan expanded its highest dan rank to 10th dan. Thus karate followed the rule change and the highest rank in Shotokan is 10th dan now. In some styles of karate a higher degree wears a different color belt. A practitioner of 6th, 7th or 8th dan would wear a red and white belt. For 9th and 10th dan a full red belt may be worn. These belts are also the imitation from the judo policy. Obviously Funakoshi did not like this idea so he did not adopt it. The Shotokan practitioners only use a black belt for all dan ranks.

belt with stripesIn other styles, the stripes are embroidered on the belt to show one’s rank. It is true that you cannot tell one’s rank if his belt is plain. I personally do not like this idea to make the ranks visible. I do not wish to criticize the other styles but I do not like it. In fact, I like the idea of a black belt turning into almost white after many years of wearing. I am proud to wear an old belt as it shared my daily training for many years. Old beltI sometimes come across with a few Shotokan practitioners who wear a belt with the stripes. I am sure they are ignorant about our tradition. I want them to know that it is Shotokan tradition to use only a plain black belt.

Kendo is another budo that has a dan system and their highest rank used to be 10th dan rank. It is interesting that in the year of 2000 the All Japan Kendo Federation decided to drop the 9th and the 10th dan ranks thus 8th dan is the highest rank one can attain now in kendo.

What I will bring up next is one particular subject about the karate dan rank system that, I consider, should be discussed more frequently. This is something that you all know well but it has not been discussed openly.

In many of the sports or athletic events they have their own ranking systems. For instance, in boxing it is divided into many weight divisions or classes and in each division they have the world ranks. I am also aware that there are different groups such as WBC, WBA, WBO, etc. and each one has its own ranks but I will not go into this part for our discussion today. The point I wish to bring up is the fact that the ranking systems in boxing are fluid and not permanent. In other words, your rank whether it is first (champion) or 100 will not stay permanently (though such a record may be kept as the historical ranking). It goes down when you lose in a fight and your rank disappears when you retire from the fighting. This is not the case in karate as well as in all budo. Once a dan rank is granted a practitioner will have that rank permanently. He can get promoted but the rank will never come down. I am aware that ranking system of the sports (boxing, tennis, etc.) are different in its objective from the budo’s dan ranks. In fact, judo now has the competitors ranking system called World Ranking (by IJF) that is unrelated to the dan rank system. I believe a dan rank is given on the belief that this particular practitioner will continue his training so that his ability will not deteriorate, in fact, it is expected only to improve. But the sad fact is that many people do not continue their training and quit. Only a handful will remain and train throughout their life. In addition, at a certain age one reaches the maximum of his physical ability and the skill level may even come down despite the continuing of the practice. It is an honorable thing to receive a dan rank and we should be proud of it. At the same time, I feel that the integrity and the substance of the dan ranks must be there to mean anything to us. It is a big shame but there are too many bogus and self-promoted ranks. I can truly understand why Funakoshi sensei refused to receive any dan ranks.

Let’s move on to another interesting subject. Have you ever wondered why kyu rank starts from 8th (at some dojo from 10th) and the rank decreases down to one kyu as a student progresses? Once you reach Shodan or the first degree black belt, the rank increases as you get promoted. When I first joined JKA 50 years ago I wondered why I did not start from 1 kyu. I wondered why the kyu system would not take an increasing system like the dan system and of course I could not ask such a thing to our teacher. Many years later I found that the kyu system had been intentionally structured this way. Let me share the concept behind this system and hopefully you will see the logic.

The fundamental concept of martial arts is that a student is not expected to start a real karate training until you become Shodan (first degree black belt). Some of you may know or practice a custom of making a new Shodan to wear a white belt for a short period of time (a month or so). This custom is to let a new Shodan know that he is now starting a real karate training or he is finally at the starting point of real learning of karatedo. Until that level a student’s objective or a goal is to build the foundation and at the same time, reduce the bad habits or the “natural” ways of body movements.

Open handThis may be a difficult concept but is an important one. In other words a student will learn the basic karate ways or the conditions that are necessary to learn the real karate techniques. Open hand 2For an example, if you ask a street person to make a fist he can probably make something that is similar to a karate fist, seiken 正拳.However, if you ask him to show you an open hand he will show you something like Photo A (natural open hand, left above). You ask him next to put the fingers together, he will show you a hand like Photo B (right above) but never shuto 手刀(knife hand, Photo C below). Shuto handIt will require a little learning to make a shuto hand. It will require numerous repetition to “forget” your natural hand forms (A and B) and make this shuto hand (C) “natural” to you.

This is just a small example and the scope of the preparation (forgetting the natural ways) will extend to all those stances, body shifting, postures, breathing method, leg strength, ki-ai as well as the dojo etiquettes just to name a few. All the knowledge and the techniques, indeed, are necessary before a practitioner can “start” the karate training. Note: In a perfect world, all those “pre-requisites” should be learned in advance, but in a real situation the learning of these matters are done in parallel as he engages in karate training. This is why you start from 8th kyu and move up to one kyu as you get yourself prepared for the real karate training.

BeltDisplayAnother subject; we all know that a beginner starts with a white belt. Before he reaches a black belt there are many different colors such as yellow, blue, green, etc. When I started my karate training in early 60’s there were only two colors before black. They were white and brown. If I remember correctly I started from Mu-kyu (no kyu) and with the first exam I became 6th kyu. We were all white until we reached 3 kyu (brown belt). Now most of the dojos start from either 8th kyu or 10th kyu. Some dojo even give a stripe to show a half kyu advancement. In one dojo the chief instructor told me he would never advance a student by one full kyu. With the first exam a student will become 10 and a half kyu. With this system this student has to take 20 kyu examinations before he reaches 1 kyu to go for a black belt. I did not make any comment to this instructor (luckily he was and is not in the same organization) as he considered karate as a pure business. I am not here to make a judgment on making karate a pure business but I personally would not send my sons to his dojo. Each student is different in his development and speed of learning. Though it may not be good for a business but I do not like having so many examinations in order to receive more money from of the students (or their parents).

A popular question I receive is if the colors to the kyu ranks are fixed or if there is a universal order. The quick answer is no. The basic idea is to start from white (no color) and the belt gets darker towards black. At many dojo the next color to white is either yellow or light blue and I think it makes sense. However, some dojo start with a red belt for 10th and 9th kyu. Red belt 2It is indeed a very dark color but it is intentional. As we all know that the drop-out rate is the highest with the white belt. The instructors believe the red color belt will give more motivation than a yellow or a blue to the beginners and they will stay with the training longer. This may be true and that would be another business decision a dojo instructor needs to make. Incidentally I find it interesting because in judo and a few karate organizations, a red belt is allowed to 9th and 10 dan. In our organization, we have a guideline of the colors that are associated with the kyu ranks but it is not mandatory. We let the member dojo decide on the colors for the kyu ranks.

Here is another popular question. After having a lengthy absence or illness, say more than a year or longer, you may wonder if you deserve to wear your old black belt. You may not be sure what color of a belt you should wear when you return to your dojo. There is no universal rule on this subject and it is up to the policy of an individual dojo. Many dojos or organizations do not mind a member wearing his black belt even if had a long absence. Some dojos have a policy that a returned practitioner has to wear a white belt for a certain period of time. That length varies and again, it will depend on an organization’s rule or policy.

If you are a black belt but you had a long absence and today is your first day back. What belt should you wear? Ask yourself if you can perform just as good as you did right before your lengthy absence. If you are exceptionally talented and if you are confident in your performance, then you can wear your old kuro-obi. However, if you are an average person then you feel less coordinated and out of shape. You may even forget some of the kata. If this is the case, why not wear a white belt? Or does your self-pride or ego bother you? I would rather look as a great white belt than a very poor black belt. Believe me the color of a belt does not help you with your karate. It will not make you look any better or worse so why not wear a white belt for a few months until you gain back your coordination, your stamina, etc? Length of being a white belt depends on the length of one’s absence as well as that person’s ability to gain back to the black belt level. It can be only a couple of months to a half year. It will all depend on an individual and your sensei should be able to tell you when you are ready.

So, what do you think of your kuro obi now? Asai Dojo kunOne thing I can tell you is that even if your belt is black, it will not help you with your karate or make you look any better. On the other hand, if you wear a kuro obi there will be a certain amount of obligation and responsibility associated with your belt. For instance, you need to train not once or twice a week but every day. You must be in shape and lead a healthy life. Obesity must not be tolerated for a black belt. You also need to live by Dojo Kun and follow Niju Kun.


Why we need to preserve Kata: Part 4

This is the last chapter of this article and I will conclude this article with the answers to a few of the popular questions about kata. 

best karate nakayamaFirst, let’s review what kata is again.  According to Wikipedia katais a Japanese word describing detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in pairs.  There are many different kata and they represent the samples of the fighting sequences.  We have covered, in the previous chapters, the reasons why the ancient masters created kata.The most important message of this article is that they created not only for the solo practicing purpose, but more importantly they believed kata was the best training tool for bujutsu karate, the most complex physical-mental activities.

Hopefully you agree that our kata must be preserved. At the same time, I am sure you are aware that there are so many unanswered questions with kata.I listed several of them in the last chapter and I feel strongly that they should be answered.If I did this here it would become a book so, for this article I will select the following three questions and share my thoughts with you. In the future, I may need to write a book just for the answers to those unanswered questions. 

      OK, let us start with the first question.

      1. Why kata techniques do not work in kumite? 

Here is a great question that many people wonder.This is true that many techniques you practice in kata cannot apply or they are not usable in your jiyu kumite.In fact, some people have given up kata because they could not find an answer that made sense to them.I will attempt to provide the answer here.Believe it or not, the answer is not that difficult or complicated. 

If you try to apply the kata techniques into the competition kumite, you are figuretively trying to plug a square into a round hole.In other words, you are not comparing apple to apple.Kata techniques are the techniques to maim, hurt or kill an opponent.You may say that the techniques that are used in a competition kumite could hurt or maim the opponent. That is true but there is one big difference here. Nihon nukiteThe purpose or the objective of the techniques you use in a competition kumite is to get a point.If you happen to knock out your opponent or break his bones, you will be disqualified. In addition, there are too many techniques of kata that are not allowed or permitted. For instance, stabbing your fingers into an eye (nihon nukite), kicking the groin, grabbing the hair, etc. are the key techniques in bujutsu but they are prohibited from competition kumite. 

Some of the short distance techniques such as enpi uchi, knee kicks, kagi zuki, and ura zuki are possibly allowed in a tournament kumite. However, how many times have you seen anyone getting a point with one of those techniques? Not too often or never, I suppose.The reason is obvious and simple.It is extremely difficult to make a visual if such a technique is effective in a non-contact tournament.A judge needs to see a long distance technique such as a straight punch or a kick to determine if such a technique would be effective. A short distance moving of an elbow or a knee is much more difficult for such a judgment so the competitors will not try those techniques even if they are allowed. 

Then you may ask “Do those kata techniques work in a real fighting?” Of course they do and that is what you train in bunkai. To be able to use those techniques in a real fighting situation, you must go through the kata training correctly.Let me define the word “correctly” here.  Remember the various processes I have covered in the previous chapters that are needed in learning? You need to learn and acquire the techniques first.Then you need to do a lot of bunkai training to understand how those techniques are used and applied.With bunkai training, you need to learn how to use the techniques.There are so many different bunkai to each technique so it is almost impossible to practice and learn all of them.It will take much time meaning years to learn one kata and its bunkai. This is why the ancient master said you need to spend 3 or 5 years with one kata. 

How do we really know that we are capable of using those dangerous techniques?The only way is to test it in a real fight.However, I cannot recommend it to anyone to start a bar or a street fight just to test this.  The samurai of the ancient time faced the same dilemma with their sword skill. They either challenged to a duel or practiced a lot of kata and other solo training such as swinging the sword thousand times per day.As the real sword was too dangerous to use in a daily training with an opponent.They used bokken, wooden sword, but there were many serious injuries including death.So, they came up with another solution in the 19th century that was an invention of shinai, bamboo sword and the full protectors.                                                           kendo promo photo

This method became very popular and you can see this in the modern day kendo. Though kendoka may disagree, kendo is no longer bujutsu as it lost most of the real kenjutsu techniques. Why and how kendo lost bujutsu part is an interesting subject but we will not touch it here. 

One thing I want to add here is that the samurai believed kata was the best training tool to improve sword fighting skills. The idea of inventing a shinai and a full protector method was not conceived all through the medieval time when they had many wars and fights.It was invented only at the end of the feudal time of 19th century.

2.  Can kata be changed?

Here is a heavy and also a controversial question. 

The ancient masters (as well as the modern day masters) told us not to change the kata, however, many of us know that most if not all of the kata have been changed to some degree since the time when Funakoshi brought karate to main land Japan.

In fact, Funakoshi himself changed the kata, some slightly (such as Chinese sound names to Japanese sound names, switching Heian Shodan and Nidan) and the other greatly (i.e. nekoashi dachi to kokutsu dachi, mae geri to yoko keage, etc.). So, was it ok because he was the master who brought karate to Japan? 

Let me share my thoughts and personal opinions on this subject.  空手道教範

A wise-man said in the past that there is nothing that does not change except for the change itself.I believe the kata is one of the cultural products that include languages, dances, etiquette, customs, etc. No matter how hard we may try to keep these things unchanged but I am afraid it is impossible. Kata is no exception.I already mentioned that our Shotokan kata have already experienced many changes and many of these changes came from Funakoshi himself.Even though I may not be qualified to judge the decision making of Master Funakoshi, after examining the challenging situation he was immersed while he was trying to propagate karate in Japan in early 1920’s, I concluded that these changes had to be made and were acceptable changes if not improvements.I wrote an article on this particular subject and it was included in my recent book, Shotokan Mysteries (available from Amazon bookstore). If you are interested in reading further in this subject I suggest my book, Shotokan Mysteries.

I am not encouraging nor supporting, in general, the idea that kata can be or should be changed.In fact, my stance is that we must keep the kata we have exactly the way they are.As kata is a textbook and the model that means it is a standard form from which we practice our fighting method.We must have the uniform base to learn and teach among the millions of practitioners around the world. All of us forget or remember incorrectly as we practice the kata for many years.As our body make ups are all different so we naturally perform the same kata differently to some degree.If any of us whether students or instructors change the kata according to their liking or preference, we will have thousands of different version.Here is a good example of how kata should not be practiced:

So the conclusion to this question is that only a few masters who truly understand the art of karatedo, can change the kata. The average instructors and practitioners or almost all of us must not.Who are those few masters other than Funakoshi?One may be Kanazawa and another may be Asai (see the next question).

3.    Asai sensei created many new kata.Why did he do this?

There are two schools of thoughts on the number of kata one needs to learn. Motobu_Choki_kamaeI will not debate which is correct or better. I will only mention the brief description of the two schools. One school’s belief is that it is better to concentrate on only a few kata and master them thoroughly. This school is headed by Choki Motobu who was said to have practiced only Tekki or Naichanchi.The real story is that he, of course, knew other kata but he did not teach too many kata in his class.He emphasized more on bunkai and applications. Apparently, he used the techniques from Tekki kata mainly so the people incorrectly believed Motobu knew only one kata.    

Another school is headed by Master Asai who knew and practiced 150 kata. The belief of this school is to learn many kata to widen the variety of the techniques. Demo jump The following statement is very controversial but he believed the JKA 26 kata was not enough to cover all the necessary techniques.He was the technical director of JKA for many nears through 80’s until the breakup of JKA in 1990.  After passing of Masatoshi Nakayama (then Chief Instructor of JKA) passed in 1987.He wanted to change the syllabus of JKA and it met a very strong opposition from many JKA instructors.After the departure of Asai in 1990, many of the JKA dojos reduced its kata menu down to 25 or 24 by taking off either Wankan or/and Ji-in from the list. 

Of course, it is up to the individual organizations to decide how many kata they should choose to practice. My stance is to keep the number of kata small to the beginners and intermediate.Once a practitioner become a dan rank, I recommend he will gradually increase the number of kata and not to stop with 26 kata if you are 3 dan or 4 dan and above.  How many more is a difficult question.I know all together 50 or so kata.It is extremely difficult to keep training all those kata and remembering them.My memory is poor so maybe the younger practitioners would have no problem but I do not know.The upside of knowing many kata is that it forces you to practice them otherwise you will forget.Another benefit is that you will be able to practice the additional techniques that are missing in 26 JKA kata. 

However, there are some downsides too.You will have to spread your time over many kata thus you will have less time to focus on the key kata unless you increase the amount of training time.  If you are a Shotokan then there are many instructors who can help you or teach you with the JKA kata.There are only a few who can teach or coach you with the Asai kata.If you wish to practice the kata from Shito-ryu or Goju-ryu then you have to belong to another style and another dojo.It is possible to learn a kata from a video clip and I met many practitioners who do this.I say it is good that they are motivated to learn a new kata despite lacking a proper instructor and instruction.I respect that but on the other hand, I find many are practicing incorrect techniques.There are three major problems with this learning method.One is the video is limited in showing the techniques and the viewers can easily misunderstand some of the moves.For instance, sometimes it is not clear if a stance is sochin dachi or zenkutsu dachi.Tateken zuki (vertical punch) can be viewed as seiken zuki (regular straight punch). 

I find an important and possibly a serious flaw for an Asai created kata is that many of the video demonstrations are done by the non-certified instructors who learned the kata incorrectly. Asai sensei published a kata textbook for Junro (I also published the English version of Junro) so for Junro there is no problem. You can check the textbook and you can be sure of the techniques. 

Bunkai photos FunakoshiIn addition, the video clips of Junro by JKS are done correctly and I recommend to use them as your training tool. For the other kata we have video in which Asai sensei himself performed the kata but there are many other we do not have his video performance or an official textbook that we can go by. The biggest and most serious problem with a video learning is that you will not learn the bunkai which is the heart of kata.Without knowing the true applications from the senior instructors who know the bunkai, the kata you learned will be only a karate dance.


There are many other interesting questions about kata and most of those questions have not received the logical answers. One day I will list those important questions and attempt to provide my thoughts and understanding to shed the light on the mysteries of kata. 

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