ONLY AVAILABLE ON CD
ISSUE 46 FEATURES
Shotokan, J.K.A. and Takushoku. By Dave Hooper.
Manabu Murakami. Shotokan's 'New Generation'.
By Mike Clarke.
Letters to the Editor.
Shotokan News and Reports.
'Kata Training'. Talking to Hitoshi Kasuya.
By Mike Clarke.
Contraction - Expansion - Contraction. By Lee Scott.
Tomiko Mitsuoka & DR. Steven Bellamy course.
By G. Beckford.
'Blast from the past' the JKA magazine from '64.
By J. Cheetham.
Yahara & JKA Instructors class. By Bob Bamgboye.
SHOTOKAN, J.K.A. and TAKUSHOKU:
A FEW THOUGHTS ON KARATE
By Dave Hooper
If you were to meet somebody who claimed to be a rugby player, you'd have a pretty shrewd idea about the activity in which that person was engaged. True, you wouldn't necessarily be able to guess at what level that person played, nor might you be aware of the subtler differences between say rugby union and rugby league. You would, nevertheless, have a fair idea of what "playing rugby" actually entailed - trying to get that rather odd-shaped ball to the opposite end of the field, despite the fifteen fearless members of a determined opposition who are intent on using every means available to prevent you from doing so. These days, it seems, you are far more likely to run into someone who "does" karate (or, as is often the case, "has done a bit" of karate), than someone who has any experience on the rugby field. The range of activities, however, that are now subsumed under the term "doing karate" means that such an admission conveys very little about the nature of the activity in which that person participates.
What we need, of course, and to some extent we already have, are more selective terms and descriptions which more accurately identify and distinguish one kind of activity from another. Named styles of karate do just that: the term "Shotokan" karate, as opposed to "Goju ryu" karate for example, makes the clear distinction between two differing styles, each of which have their own distinctive characteristics, points of emphasis and, by implication, differing methods and forms of practice. Simple! So when you meet someone who informs you not merely that they "do karate", but that they "do Shotokan", all becomes perfectly clear. In theory that may be the case, but in practice, the term "Shotokan" now covers a multitude of sins. Indeed, the only resemblance that one Shotokan karate group may have with another is that all participants are similarly clad (although even on this point there are those more progressive and innovative karate groups from across the Atlantic who are opting for something with just a little more flair and panache!).
Articles and letters occasionally appear in publications such as this from Shotokan karate-ka, expressing strong opinions about aspects of "Shotokan" karate which, they feel, need to be addressed. When criticisms are put forward, they are often directed towards groups and factions whose training has in some way deviated from what the writer perceives as the "true" or "appropriate" way. Sometimes such arguments become polarised, and people talk in terms of "sports" karate versus "traditional" karate, or perhaps "practical" or "effective" karate rather than "technically correct" karate. Sometimes the issues raised are fairly superficial: a point of technicality over a given move in a kata; the pros and cons of a specific training methodology; or perhaps discussion of a point of etiquette. Other times the issue is of a more fundamental nature: the goals and objectives of training; the fundamental principles behind basic techniques; or, perhaps, about the very ethos and rationale of karate.
A few years ago I submitted an article to this publication entitled "Karate-do - The Way versus the Cul-de-sac" in which I attempted to point out differences in Shotokan karate that I perceived to exist between Japan and Great Britain. The article was based on many years of training at the Japan Karate Association's Honbu Dojo in Tokyo, several years of training with the late Nakayama Sensei, and a year-and-a-half stint at the renowned Takushoku University. The aim was to initiate some debate about a number of issues that the article raised, and encourage us all to engage in a little self examination and introspection. In actual fact, the article caused something of a storm, and whilst I fully expected and welcomed challenges to my own opinions and views, many of my observations and comments were interpreted as direct attacks on specific organisations. I was surprised at how extreme some of the subsequent reactions and responses turned out to be. While I make no apology for being controversial (indeed, worthwhile debate depends on some degree of controversy), and stand by my view that in general clear differences do exist between training inside and outside of Japan, there is a strong case for arguing that it is becoming increasingly inappropriate to make such generalisations. That is to say, rather than talking about "Shotokan" karate in one country versus another, it might be more realistic to talk more specifically in terms of "JKA" karate or "JKF" karate; or "KUGB" karate or "SKI" karate. The list could go on almost indefinitely. This does not imply necessarily that each association and organisation is fundamentally different or incompatible. However, where important differences do clearly exist, it enables Shotokan karate-ka to identify with and recognise a particular ethos and approach to training.
While I recognise that much of the Shotokan karate practiced in both Japan and Britain differs in many, sometimes quite fundamental, respects from "JKA" (Japan Karate Association) karate, that in itself is not something that should necessarily be criticised. After all, "Shotokan" and "JKA" are hardly synonymous, and indeed there is no reason why they should be. When Funakoshi introduced "Shotokan" to Japan, the JKA was not even in existence. Admittedly the JKA was largely responsible for introducing Shotokan karate to the world, but the JKA has had, to its detriment and no doubt regret, very little direct control on karate outside of Japan. Karate has developed and progressed both at the JKA in Japan, and abroad. These developments have not always followed a parallel course: a factor which I believe began to concern Nakayama Sensei in the last years of his life. There are probably many that would argue that this divergence has been a healthy thing for karate in general, and there are certainly many renowned karate-ka around the world who have never set foot in Japan. I have to confess, however, to being totally biased and partial when it comes to JKA karate. I make no attempt to justify this. Having trained at the JKA for so many years, it is JKA karate that I am interested in, and it is JKA karate that I would like to see promoted.
So what exactly is JKA karate, and how is it distinguishable from any other form of Shotokan karate? It would be naive to think there's a simple answer to this question. Karate is not by its very nature static. The karate that Funakoshi first introduced to Tokyo, the karate that was first practiced at the JKA in Japan in the 1950's, and the karate that Nakayama set out in his Best Karate series (and subsequently in his JKA Kata videos) and which is taught today at the JKA in Japan, are not identical. Techniques have been refined and modified. Greater understanding has resulted in change. There are, however, fundamental principles that have remained constant and intact. And it is this, I think, that is the key point. The adoption in kata of a kiba-dachi stance in preference to a kokutsu-dachi stance for example, or the substitution of a side snap kick in place of a thrust kick, are not significant changes. It is true that such developments may place a new interpretation on the meaning or the flow of the kata, but such changes are not in any way contrary to established fundamental principles. Nor are such changes introduced at the whim of "senior" grades, leaving students with contradictory instructions about how techniques are to be performed. Basic techniques and kata have been standardised for many years at the JKA, and JKA karate is easily recognisable in Japan. It is not by any means the only Shotokan karate in Japan, nor does it automatically follow that only the JKA has, or should have, a monopoly on Shotokan karate. Nor should this standardisation imply that all JKA instructors are going to have identical karate. Different body types, personalities, training experiences and countless other influences produce JKA instructors who are quite individualistic. What it does mean, of course, is that their teaching will be the same. No matter how varied their teaching styles and points of emphasis might be, it is the consistency in the teaching of basic JKA principles and JKA fundamentals that identifies them as JKA. In this sense, JKA karate has remained unchanged and it is this that has been the JKA's greatest strength.
As influential as the JKA has been in the past, it is, as a political entity, somewhat in decline at the moment. Even the JKA has not remained immune from political in-fighting, and with the death of Nakayama Sensei, the JKA has split into two factions. I am certainly not in any position to make any judgements about the rights and wrongs of the case, and it would be very presumptuous of me to do so. What is clear, however, is that the disagreements are not about karate per se. Both factions still teach and practice JKA karate, and I would recommend anybody to train with either faction if the chance arose.
Regarding the JKA's declining influence on the international scene, my own personal view is that they have largely themselves to blame. If the JKA in Japan had retained some element of direct supervision and control on affiliated organisations around the world, rather than the indifference they appeared to show to anything that occurred outside of Japan, then the situation might be very different today. This was, I believe, a situation that Nakayama Sensei was hoping to rectify, but his untimely death left a vacuum which is not easily filled.
I should stress that these speculations are purely my own. Other people, both inside and outside the JKA, may see the situation quite differently. Furthermore, this article is not intended as any kind of veiled criticism of any particular organisation or association outside of Japan.
As I stated earlier, each individual or groups of individuals practising Shotokan karate are free to make their own decisions about their training within the parameters that Shotokan karate permits. There are associations and organisations around the world that teach forms of Shotokan karate indistinguishable from that of the JKA. Those, however, who present themselves as JKA, have a duty and a responsibility to conform to JKA karate.
This is not a whinge about insignificant variations of technique or emphasis. It is about basic principles of movement, and about an ethos and rationale which identifies the karate as JKA karate.
A number of Shotokan karate groups exist in Japan. They may on occasions get together for different events, but they are, nevertheless, separate groups with their own identifiable traits. One such group which has, of course, had a profound influence on karate is Takushoku University, and many (but certainly not all) of the senior JKA instructors are graduates from Takudai. (Takushoku is often refereed to as "Takudai" for short - a mixture of its name "Takushoku" and the Japanese word for university - "daigaku"). The link between Takudai and the JKA is long established, and Nakayama, the late head of the JKA was also director of physical education at the university. Takushoku was always one of the strongest karate clubs in Japan, and until the club's forced closure by the Japanese Ministry of Education a few years ago (as a consequence of the death of one of the club members), it enjoyed a formidable reputation. So what kind of training went on at Takudai?
Although Takushoku was not strictly speaking JKA, in that it had its own grading system and syllabus, the karate at Takudai was one hundred percent JKA karate (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that fundamentally, JKA karate is one hundred percent Takushoku).
When I was first invited to train at Takushoku several years ago the club consisted of about fifty or sixty students, from first years to fourth years. Tsuyama Sensei was the coach, and Aihara Sempai (now a JKA instructor, and frequent member of the JKA national team) was the captain. Each training session was three hours long, and in the year-and-a-half in which I trained, it remained virtually identical in format. Most days, in fact, Tsuyama Sensei was not actually there (having many other commitments), but the lesson proceeded as scheduled, with the sempai at the end of the line barking out each subsequent command. It was unnecessary for anyone to "teach" from the front -- the format was fixed, and everybody knew what was coming next. The first-year students lined up at the front, the second-year students behind them, and the third and fourth years made up the last two lines. Within each line, each person was ranked, with "sempai" (seniors) up one end, and "kohai" (juniors) down the other.
The first hour consisted of basic techniques with third and fourth-year students counting repetitions of ten (first-year students were not allowed to count because counting with the correct spirit and in the acceptable manner was something that had to be learned). Basics were kept very simple, and the longest combination I ever practiced was uchi-uke, kizami-zuki, gyaku-zuki (inside block, jabbing punch and reverse punch). The second hour was "kumite" (sparring), with most time devoted to basic five-step sparring, followed by a period of basic one-step, semi-free one-step, and finally "nandemo sanbon" (three unspecified single attacks from a freestyle position). The final hour was spent in a variety of timing and target training practices.
Space prevents me from going into great detail about the precise composition of each class, but suffice to say, certain clear principles emerged which had a great influence on my own personal training. It struck me that karate (Takushoku style) was essentially very simple. By that I mean that from the day the students entered the club until they left four years later, the whole of their training was a natural progression upwards. To give an example, front stance was taught from the word go, and great emphasis was placed on correct balance and posture. When I say "taught", very little was ever actually said with verbal explanations always in very short supply. (Sempai, however, were not adverse to giving kohai a little physical "encouragement", especially with the strong sense of responsibility that they felt for their kohais' development).
What Tsuyama Sensei would do would be to introduce training exercises that necessitated a correct stance. Switching feet from a left stance to a right stance in quick rapid succession without any extraneous movement on completion of each move can only be done if the stance is balanced. Performing a front snap kick immediately upon switching stance cannot be done if the stance is incorrect (or at least, not without wobbling and making corrections). Such a simple exercise is by no means a great revolutionary innovation, but it ensures a complete understanding of the fundamental movement. This is not so much an understanding at any kind of intellectual level: after sufficient practice your body understands the movement and you begin to perform it quite effortlessly. I have seen many karate-ka with comparatively high grades unable to perform front stance (in Japan as well as Britain), and who are forced to make compensations to all their other techniques because their hips are not aligned or balanced, the front knee is pushed out too far, or their legs are locked straight -- none, however, from Takushoku.
The attitude towards kumite at Takushoku further illustrates this emphasis on natural progression upwards. The reason that so much time was spent doing basic gohon-kumite (five-step) was that any mistakes or weak points in either timing or technique could be easily spotted and worked on. Jyu-ippon (semi-free one step) introduces a whole new dimension -- distance. To expect students to make progress in the fundamental elements (timing, accuracy, focus) by moving too quickly on to more complicated practices that already assume a higher understanding of basics than many students have, seems to me to be approaching the problem from the wrong direction. I realise that the analogy is not perfect, but it seems rather like giving a piano student one of Rachmaninov's piano concertos to grapple with prior to ensuring that the student can adequately read music, let alone do scales, (Admittedly there are always those who play by ear and seem able to forgo the practice and training that everyone else requires, but such people are more likely to be found on the pub piano circuit than in the classical concert hall).
I remember on one occasion, Takudai was defeated in a major national competition by a rival university club. It must be remembered that to a large extent, universities gain their status by being successful in competition. The following day, another coach from the club spent the first twenty minutes giving the students an earful. Twenty minutes is a long time to be shouted at, and while my Japanese was insufficient to pick up everything, I certainly got the gist. The main point was that with the reputation that the club enjoyed, they were beginning to believe themselves that they were better than they were. The reason they had lost, so they were told in no uncertain terms, was because their basics were still useless, and if they thought they could make any significant progress in competition without getting things right where they really mattered, they'd better think again. For the next week, training would consist ONLY of basic five-step kumite: the reason -- because that was where their mistakes, weaknesses and problems would show up. If they couldn't get it right at that level, any other more advanced practice would be a meaningless waste of time.
As I listened to this tirade it occurred to me that so many other clubs in a similar situation would take the exact opposite approach: if you want to improve your free-style and have a better chance of winning competition, practice more of it. (Indeed, the Japanese university club where I am training at the moment spends much of its time doing competition-style training because they are so concerned about beating a particular rival university). Not so Takushoku.
It may be that other strategies can and do work, and I would accept that Takudai's way may not be the only way. There are clearly naturally gifted athletes who begin their karate training with an ability which, for the rest of us, takes years to achieve. Stifling that natural freedom with rigid, conforming basics may, at the beginning, seem counter-productive. The key issue, I think, is that those who rely solely on their natural ability and youth, can only "do karate" for a limited period. When they no longer have their youth, and their natural speed and timing start to suffer, there is nothing left. They invariably end up in the "I did karate" category -- although one has to wonder whether that was what it was at all. Equally, there are many who do begin to build up a strong foundation which becomes the basis for life-long karate (and my own feeling is that it is never too late to start to do that). Takushoku-style karate (and JKA karate) is a hard slog. I don't think there is any short cut, although some people do seem to start off with something of an advantage. For those who choose never to do anything more than a very superficial form of "karate", I think that's fine, as long as they don't try to convince anybody else that it's anything other than that. (I do just wish that when such people can no longer "do it", that they wouldn't start teaching!)
I have had many long discussions with British karate-ka who are forever telling me that making comparisons with Japan, and particularly with a place like Takudai, is inappropriate and unfair. British people would never put up with endless repetitions of basics, I'm told. Most people don't have the time to spend two or three hours training every day. The whole bases of the two cultures are quite different.
I think to some extent all these points are quite valid, and there may well be equally effective strategies and methods of training which at the end of the day reach the same objectives. But as I said at the beginning of this article, I'm unashamedly biased and partial. Japanese style training, particularly university style training, appeals to me. I never "enjoyed" training at Takudai (I remember turning up for training one day to find that it had been cancelled because the previous day there had been a competition - I felt as though it were Christmas!), but it profoundly influenced my karate, and I greatly value the experience.
When I returned to Britain for a four-year period and taught karate at the University of Wales, Bangor, we instituted a programme of training modelled entirely upon that of Takushoku. Between thirty and forty students trained at least once a day, six days a week. In many ways their level of commitment exceeded that of the Japanese - they, after all, were quite free to quit the club at any time without any repercussions.
Since that time I have taught quite extensively around Britain in many different clubs and within any number of organisations and associations. Karate-ka train hard in Britain without any doubt. Many are quite receptive to "Takudai style" training, and I'm sure with an appropriately structured programme of training would make tremendous progress. As things stand, however, there are many dedicated students who waste an awful lot of their time in training and expend a great deal of effort which ultimately leads them nowhere.
At the moment here in Japan I am training at another university club because my current work makes it very difficult for me to get to the JKA on a regular basis. Although the club is a Shotokan club, it is far removed from the likes of Takushoku. The club makes no pretence at being JKA, and in fact, in my early days, I was even instructed to remove a JKA mark from my karate-gi. There are some quite fundamental differences in training which to my mind are far from superficial, and I find it disappointing (but not surprising) that for all the effort the students put in, they have comparatively little to show for it. I still benefit from the training (training after all is training), but I am not prepared to make what I consider to be compromises. While I personally would love to see this club make changes to their style of training, I would never argue that it is not a legitimate Shotokan club.
I have a clearly stated preference for a particular style of Shotokan karate. Many clubs do not conform to that preference either in Japan or Britain, but they nevertheless exist under the same Shotokan umbrella.
I have avoided in this article digressing into areas such as karate for competition or karate for self-defence. I have also tried (but perhaps not that successfully) to refrain from making judgements about aims and objectives, or what is right and wrong in training. Osaka Sensei was my first source of inspiration and his karate epitomises for me what JKA and Takushoku karate is. Similarly, when I returned to Britain for the first time and trained with Kawasoe Sensei, there again was the type and form of karate that had taken me to Japan in the first place (I mention Kawasoe Sensei simply because he is the only Japanese instructor under whom I have trained extensively outside of Japan).
The original JKA kata Series of nine video tapes, (advertised in this issue - back inside cover. Editor) that Nakayama Sensei produced before his death (with instructors from both factions performing) has a quote from Nakayama Sensei on the front of each cover:
"This completes my system that I finished once in my life with all my enthusiasm."
The translation leaves a little to be desired, but the feeling is quite clear. I fully accept that it's not the only system, and I'm willing to discuss that it might not be the best system. But for me, it's what Shotokan is, and with no apology, it's the system I favour.