I read once that a karate kata could be called a dance of death
Now, I am not talking about some of the highly sensational “stuff” that has come out over the years. There are many books out there by such prolific “martial arts” writers as Ashida Kim talking about Count Dante and others, claiming that The Dance of Death is the most deadly collection of “poison hand” techniques known to man. There are also several “martial arts” genre movies that have been released using versions of the phrase “Dance of Death” in their titles. All I am going to say about that martial arts “pulp fiction” is, buyer beware.
But in general, I think you could consider a kata to be a form of dance. It is a series of movements combining concepts such footwork and stances, proper posture, presence, balance, flow, relaxation, dynamic tension, etc. They have a certain rhythm which can vary as skill grows or even depending on what the practitioner is thinking technique-wise. And, you could easily receive a description such as this from a karate instructor – or a ballroom dance instructor.
Ballroom Dancing and Karate-do
Ballroom dance and karate both require years of practice to achieve real skill. Both require the study of and understanding of body mechanics, timing, breathing, distance, technique, and posture.
Both require a great deal of time spent practicing basic techniques, simple patterns, and advanced choreographed movements, the mastery of which later allows the skilled practitioner to forget the patterns and to allow his own expression of technique or dance to flow.
The similarities do not end there!
For both karate and ballroom dancing, a good instructor can make all the difference in the world. I first started out learning basic steps from instructors that were essentially a few lessons ahead of me. Having studied karate with a few excellent instructors, I soon became bored with this level of teaching. I wanted more.
Then I met Mark and Rhonda Becker at Champion Ballroom in Knoxville. This husband and wife team are both great instructors. They did not teach steps – they taught you the art of ballroom dancing.
That was when the similarities between karate-do and ballroom dancing began to really show.
So, are karate kata really a dance of death?
Well, if you consider that a traditional karate kata has so much in common with a dance, and then take into consideration what a kata contains, I would say the answer is – yes.
What is a kata? It essentially is a collection of effective and proven combat techniques distilled down to their purest form. Like a dance, they require balance, breath control, timing, focus, proper body mechanics, and flow.
They also require understanding. Many of the techniques, while they certainly can be modified, if executed to their fullest potential, have disastrous effects on the human body. Many can, indeed, be fatal.
So, from that perspective, I guess they could be called, “The Dance of Death.” But they are so much more than that.
Preforming kata is a great form of exercise. And depending on how you work them, you can achieve a great variety of results. You can blast through them as a good cardio workout, or you can perform them slowly to work on balance and strength. You can work on timing your breathing to techniques or utilize dynamic tension. Then kata can become moving meditation and help you improve your focus, or relax and reduce stress.
Working on kata will improve your ballroom dancing – and working on ballroom dancing will improve your kata.
It’s almost like a Yin Yang relationship, isn’t it?
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So, what does a rusty Ford tractor have to do with karate?
Well, nothing really. But then again, everything. Hey, that’s kind of like a Zen riddle isn’t it?
Several years ago, say late 90s, at one of our post seminar workouts, Sensei Harrill was working with me and a couple of my senior students on Sanchin Kata.
Now first let me say there are several versions of this kata and while they have commonalities, they are not the same. A version of Sanchin can be found in several Chinese and Okinawan styles including Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, Uechi-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, and Isshin-ryu. There are certainly others as well. Tam Hon taught a style that was called “Saam Jin” which is Cantonese for “Sanchin.”
At its essence, Sanchin is taught to help the practitioner understand body mechanics and condition their body, while learning to deliver properly focused techniques from a stable platform.
It is also, unfortunately, a kata about which a prodigious amount of “bullshit” has been has been propagated. But that is not the subject of this post.
Isshin-ryu Karate’s Sanchin
The Isshin-ryu version of this kata is really quite difficult in its simplicity. It consists of only five steps (three forward and two backward) and there is a great deal of repetition. But, like an onion, there are many layers to this kata and as your understanding grows, and the more layers you peel away, the more you realize there is to learn. It gives a new level of understanding to the idea, the more I learn the more I realize how little I know.
I had been working with Sensei Harrill for sometime now, and had made a lot of changes in how I trained, and this included Sanchin. I now practiced Sanchin most often with the vertical fist (which I liked because it fit our basics). I still, on occasion, will practice with the corkscrew punch as I had originally been taught, and sometime I will mix it up. At that time, I was trying to get a handle what the kata taught as far as body mechanics, as well as the many different breathing patterns found in the kata (none of which, by they way, resembled a gasping pressure cooker about to blow its top).
However, there was one movement in the kata that always gave me a fit. I practiced and practiced, trying different ways of executing the movement, and nothing seemed to work for me. I had once seen Sensei easily demonstrate the use of that movement at a seminar on a pretty big guy, but I was not even getting close. And of course, as I demonstrated my Sanchin Kata while Sensei watched, that was readily apparent to him.
You’re not doing that properly …
I probably felt like that was the “understatement” of the year. I was painfully aware of that fact. especially seeing what he had done with that very same movement.
I am sure that I replied with something to the effect of, “I know, Sensei. I just can’t seem to get it right.”
And I remember him saying something like, “You don’t have the right focus.”
The hook …
So, how did I change my focus? By listening to what my Sensei told me!
He said to imagine a rusty old red Ford tractor that’s been sitting in the field for awhile. Now you’ve got to crank it up and plow that field. You finally get the tractor started, climb up into that seat. and reach for that big old shift lever with your right hand. Then you squeeze and give the lever a strong tug. And what happens? It doesn’t budge. It’s pretty much rusted into place. What do you do?
I thought about it a second … stand up and give it a real yank, I was thinking.
Then he added … but, you have to keep your butt in the seat.
Now that’s an altogether different proposition.
Which muscles would come into play and when? In what order would you use them? How would that feel internally? Think about it.
And over time, that earlier “movement” that had previously been using the muscles of my arm changed. It began to originate at my core. It employed the rotation of my hips, my abdominal muscles. the lats, the shoulders, and finally … the arm. The pull became a properly-focused, mechanically sound whole-body movement. And after working on it awhile, when I tried it in the dojo, people began to move.
And that is what an old rusty red Ford tractor has to do with my Isshin-ryu Karate.
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If two hands meet in the air, can you “suddenly enter?”
This post is a continuation of the thread started in my last post, No First Strike. If you are unfamiliar with my thoughts on this idea, you may wish to read that post first. And again, there is no right or wrong here. This is just one of my understandings and interpretations of these concepts after many years of training and research into Okinawan Karate. And, in no way do I imply that I am the originator of these ideas. They are things I learned from many other karate practitioners I have met on my journey.
In the Kenpo Gokui (also known as the Isshin-ryu Code), we have line #6, whose kanji can be translated as, Hand : Meets : In the air : Suddenly : Enter
The more common interpretation of this idea found in the U.S. is, the time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself. As mentioned in the previous post in this thread, I prefer the more exact translation of the kanji.
First, a quick example of understanding body mechanics.
Try this exercise with someone strong.
Have someone get into a solid stance, make a fist, and extend their arm. Stand in front of them and ask them to resist the pressure you apply to their arm.
First, press down on their fist. Can they resist that?
Second, lift or press up on their fist. Can they resist that?
Push their fist to the left. Can they resist?
Push their fist to the right. Can they resist?
Now holding their fist with your thumb and second finger, move their fist in small circles. Can they resist that? Not so much…
There are muscles in place that allow your body to resist the up, down, left, and right pressure pretty effectively. Of course, to what extent does depend somewhat on how strong you are. However, there are no muscles, specifically in place to resist those small circles. That is a simple example of understanding and applying the concept of body mechanics.
So, let’s think about this for a few seconds.
If that same arm was being extended toward you in an attack, and you met that arm with your own, could you use that understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the arm structure to redirect the attack and suddenly enter with your own counter? … as in
Hand Meets In The Air, Suddenly Enter
In the above illustration, arm A. is the punching arm. Arm B. has met arm A. in the air. There would be several options open to arm B. at this point, one of which might be the basic Isshin-ryu low-level block.
They’re not blocks! They’re really Ninja Delayed Death Strikes!
First, let me just go out on a limb here and say that I do not subscribe to the idea adopted in recent years by some Isshin-ryu Karate practitioners that there are “no blocks in Isshin-ryu Karate;” that the blocks are actually ” some kind of top-secret pressure point, Ninja delayed death strikes.”
It is much more likely that nobody ever showed them how to properly practice and employ these blocks in technique. The blocks do, in fact, work extremely well for me and several practitioners I know quite well.
So, the answer to the above question is …
Of course, you can. In fact, this is one of the key elements of blocking in Isshin-ryu Karate. A second is that Isshin-ryu does not typically employ linear blocks. They are designed as circular blocks. However, the circles are tiny. Can these blocks be used linearly? Of course, they can. But many of the Isshin-ryu kata techniques are set up through the use of this “two hands meet in the air” concept combined with circular blocks and then followed up with an aggressive counter-attack.
However, it is important to remember that combat is fluid and ever-changing, so as soon as you understand a concept, someone tosses in an exception. This, too, is also fine. That is where years of training, experience, and flexibility come into play.
Experience and Flexibility
As an example of this experience and flexibility, the third seminar we held in Clinton, Tennessee, with Sensei Sherman Harrill was on Seisan Kata. The opening technique in that kata is essentially a mid-level block followed by a reverse punch. We probably spent the first two hours of the seminar exploring variations of those two basic techniques. And nobody was bored! Two hands would meet in the air. The entry would vary with each version, and therefore the counter-attack would target different areas of the attacker’s body. But the technique was the same.
Then, of course, there would come the “those are the things I do with these techniques. What Sensei (for him that was Master Tatsuo Shimabuku) showed me was this …
It would be a simple block/punch karate technique. But it would also be very effective. Two hands would meet in the air, a sudden entry, and then – the fight is over. Ikken Hissatsu
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The popular interpretation of this guiding principle of karate is that karate is for self-defense only. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this interpretation, especially if you are just getting started on your martial arts journey. Teaching this maxim to your students helps instill the rule that karate techniques should not be misused. But is that truly all there is to it?
There is no first strike in karate.
Hmmm. Okay. This phrase does not say, “Karate is for self-defense only.’ It clearly says, “There is no first strike in karate.” Why is that? If they meant to say, “karate is for self-defense only,” why didn’t they just say that. Part of the problem is that these maxims were not coined in English. Most were probably originally written in Chinese, then translated into native Okinawan languages such as Uchināguchi, then possibly Japanese, and finally into English.
Another consideration is the translation itself. Chinese and Japanese languages are rather different from their western counterparts. One-to-one translations of characters into letters can be problematic at best. Thus, the age, knowledge, and life experience of the translator becomes a translation factor.
To provide an example of what I am talking about, I will use the Isshin-ryu Code, which is basically a streamlined adaptation of “The Eight Poems of the Fist” found in the Bubishi.
The Isshin-ryu Code
A person’s heart is the same as Heaven and Earth
The Blood circulating is similar to the Moon and the Sun
A manner of drinking or spitting is either hard or soft
A person’s unbalance is the same as weight
The body should be able to change direction at any time
The time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself
The eyes must see all sides
The ears must listen in all directions
Man’s spirit, heart, mind : is like (same as) : Heaven : Earth
Blood, hope, range, pulse : is like : Moon (day – date) : Sun (month)
Stiff – hard, strong. stubborn, inflexible : Soft-gentle, mild-tender, mellow : Take in (soak in) : Throw out
Fear, horror : March : Past (pass) : Leave : Meet
Directions : Any : Time : React (respond) : Flexibility (change)
Hand : Meets : In the air : Suddenly : Enter
Eyes : Should : Watch : Four : Directions
Ears : Laterally placed : To listen to (to comply with) : Eight : Directions
Clearly, the two versions of the Isshin-ryu Code are pretty similar. Version 1 would certainly be easier to “read” for most English-speaking Americans. Version 2 is definitely much more cryptic and makes you want to scratch your head. But beyond that, there are some notable differences. I like to highlight #6 and #8 as the first differences for my students to explore.
Version 1 is found in most books on Isshin-ryu Karate. I have no idea where it comes from. Version 2 is a direct translation of the code’s Kanji by an elderly Chinese gentleman known to my instructor. It is the translation his students use and has shaped our training a little differently.
So, where is all this going?
First, if differences in translation can occur in one text, they can occur in another. Second, phrases that mean one thing to a beginner often mean something else to an intermediate, advanced, or long-time student. As an example of this, take The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. If you have read this book more than once, say at different times over your training years, you will understand exactly what I mean. While the words themselves have not changed, your understanding of them will have.
So, here is an alternative “understanding” of the phrase, there is no first strike in karate.
The words could say, there is no first strike in karate because, quite literally, there is no first strike in karate. By way of explanation, here are two examples.
A traditional story
There is an old story of two early karate masters in nearby villages on Okinawa. Each village was very proud of its resident Sensei, and therefore talk soon began around the topic of which was better. Over time, this argument grew to such a fevered pitch that a match became inevitable. Finally, the two masters met on neutral ground and squared off. The residents of both villages gathered to watch. The villagers waited in breathless anticipation for the action to begin. The two masters calmly faced each other, each waiting for an opportunity. It never came. After what seemed like an eternity, the match was called a draw, and the disappointed villagers went home, grumbling to themselves.
A student from one village, following his Sensei back to their village, finally worked up the nerve to ask, “Sensei, why did you not fight? What was settled by this?”
The Sensei smiled, “We settled the fact that we are both excellent karate-ka. Each of us understood that the first one to strike would surely lose. Therefore, neither of us was willing to strike first.”
From the sport side of things
While over the years, I left sport karate behind, there were many years I did participate. I was never a “Hall of Famer,” but I was a solid competitor. I won some and lost some. Eventually, I refereed matches and judged the kata competitions. I also hosted the Tennessee Valley Karate Championship on the Tennessee Karate Circuit for about seven years. I am not sure that circuit even exists anymore.
In my experience, there are basically three types of tournament karate fighters: 1) the charger, 2) the runner, and 3) the counter-fighter. Which fighter is harder to beat?
The charger comes right at you, straight on, fast and hard. However, if you get fairly adept at working angles, you can do well against the charger.
The runner runs, and you have to chase him all over the ring and try to pin him in a corner. Typically, they get a lot of warnings for running out of the ring. However, if you can learn to control the ring and cut the runner off, you can do well against the runner as well.
The counter-fighter sits and waits patiently for you to attack. When you do, he simply shifts position, parries, or blocks, and then counter-attacks. And, for my money, this is the toughest competitor to beat.
You cannot initiate an attack with out creating an opening
If your opponent simply has the patience and skill to take advantage of the opening you have just provided them with, you will lose. Perhaps, this is another reason there is no first strike in karate. Especially when losing might be a matter of life or death.
Just food for thought …
That is the beauty of art. It is open to interpretation. And karate, after all, is a martial art. I am just sharing one of my interpretations with anyone interested. It is neither right nor wrong. It is simply another avenue to explore. And, for those who want to argue, I leave you with a few additional thoughts from Mr. Miyagi …
“The answer is only important if you ask the right question”
“Only root karate come from Miyagi. Just like bonsai choose own way grow because root strong you choose own way do karate same reason.”
“First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule Daniel-San, not mine.”
Then, of course, if you do understand the point I am making, and when you pair this take on “There is no first strike in karate” with “Hand meets in the air, suddenly enter,” pretty cool things begin to happen. But that’s a subject for another day.
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I hadn’t gotten too far along on my Isshin-ryu Karate journey when I heard rumors of something called Master Tatsuo Shimabuku’s “Secret Scrolls of Kumite.” I envisioned Master Shimabuku walking over to a dusty intricately carved old chest in the corner of the dojo and opening it. After the dust had settled, he’d reach in and take out a dusty old cloth wrap containing a traditional scroll. With much reverence, he’d remove the cover, unwrap the scroll and share some of its ancient and mysterious knowledge with a chosen few.
Imagine my disappointment when someone told me they were just listed on the dojo wall in plain sight. The reason they were so secret is that they were very cryptic. Most Marines were not stationed on Okinawa long enough to get to a point where they would learn these techniques. A typical tour for a Marine on Okinawa might be 14 to 18 months. That is barely enough time to get a thorough grounding in a system’s basic techniques, never mind lessons from the “Secret Scrolls.”
From discussions I’ve had with my Sensei, Sherman Harrill, and others, It has become clear that these techniques were mostly taught to his Okinawan students. This was simply because they lived there and therefore trained long enough to have a base of knowledge sufficient to make practical use of them.
But we got lucky …
First, Sensei Sherman Harrill was lucky enough to be in Tatsuo Shimabuku’s dojo when he was teaching his Kumite techniques to a group of his Okinawan students. Sensei was drafted to be “uki,” meaning Shimabuku’s students practiced these techniques on him. I guess Master Shimabuku figured if they could make them work on a big, strong U.S. Marine, they understood them properly.
Second. Sensei Arcenio Advincula made repeated trips back to Okinawa. This was for several reasons. He remained in contact with Master Shimabuku’s wife and his second son, Shinso. He also visits his in-laws, having married Michi Nakamashi in 1961. And he continued to train and research Okinawan Karate and Kobudo. Because of his additional time on the island of Okinawa, Sensei Advincula did learn Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite.
Sensei Harrill would often incorporate these Kumite techniques into his classes in the dojo, depending on what he was teaching at the time, and did not “separate” them out for special classes. At one point, he did compare notes with Sensei Advincula to ensure what he remembered from being on the receiving end of these techniques jived with what Sensei Advincula was taught. Once satisfied, they were both on the same page, he began teaching them more openly as Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite.
One of the early seminars Sensei John Kerker did for us in Clinton, Tennessee, covered Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite. John was Sensei Harrill’s Sempai and inherited the Carson Dojo when Sensei Harrill passed away in 2002. This seminar, held in March of 2005, was a real eye-opener for many Isshin-ryu folks who attended because they had not seen these “secret techniques” before.
So, what are these Kumite all about?
Essentially, they are keys to understanding Tatsuo Shimabuku’s karate. From my experience, they are multi-faceted in that they are solid techniques on their own. They also give examples of how Tatsuo Shimabuku viewed the techniques in the kata he taught, and perhaps why he modified them as he did when incorporating them into his system.
There are fifteen Kumite Techniques. The last five are knife defense techniques. I will list these below. When you look at the list, I think you will understand why they were “secret.” If someone did not actually show you what each technique was, you would be hard-pressed to figure it out on your own.
Also, several have multiple variations, so the fifteen expand to about forty-five if you look at the “official” variations. Personal variations are really only limited by your level of knowledge, your imagination, and, of course, the rules of body mechanics.
Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite
The lefthand hold the right wrist
Outside block, punch inside
Punch back of the hand
Knuckle block for kick, counter kick
Hold arm, use against a punch
One handhold gi, grab, twist, kick
Full nelson, karate cut groin
Bear hug waist, hands-free, grab one finger, break, or hit back of the hand
Devil’s handshake, grab your fist, pull, kick.
Two-hand straight choke, break, grab adam’s apple
Straight stab, grab hand and writs, twist kick, trip kick.
Ice pick stab, block across, kick.
Straight stab, both hands up, karate cut block, kick.
Straight stab leaning forward, grab the hand with both of yours, pull. trap at elbow
Two knife straight stab, squat kick
Well, there you have them, or at least the primary fifteen. The Secret Scrolls of Kumite is not so secret anymore. I do think, however, you can see why a new Marine standing in Master Tatsuo Shimbuku’s dojo might look at this list and say to themselves, “what the heck is this?”
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This morning I had the opportunity to visit a traditional Uechi-Ryu dojo in Knoxville run by Sensei Bob Noel. I was invited by a former student who, since I moved to Raleigh, NC, started training with him. Lucas and I had discussed this over the years I was away, and Lucas had mentioned that he felt comfortable with Sensei Noel because of how he taught and that the things he had learned from me about body mechanics and technique allowed him to understand what kind of an instructor Sensei Noel is. And I will say that Lucas chose well.
I have often stated that Okinawan systems of karate have more in common than they do have differences. Of course, the early karate pioneers on Okinawa had “favorite” techniques and preferred training methods that created differences. However, you must remember that Okinawa is a tiny island and many of the early masters knew and, at times, trained together. In fact, Kanbun Uechi (the founder of Uechi-Ryu) and Tatsuo Shimabuku (the founder of Isshin-Ryu) were good friends and often trained together. Add to that the fact that good technique is determined more by body mechanics than anything else, and you should be able to see the logic in my statement
Adding to the visit’s pleasure was that I learned that Sensei Noel grew up in Williamstown, MA, which borders North Adams, MA. I studied Uechi-Ryu for a brief time while still in high school in North Adams with an instructor who was one of Sensei Frank Gorman’s students. It bothers me that I can’t remember my instructor’s name. I only remember that he also played guitar in a local band called Steele. But it turns out that Sensei Noel trained with Sensei Gorman at Williams College while we worked there.
Then I discovered that Sensei Noel was in Boy Scout Troop 70 in Williamstown. I had a good friend, Camden Pierce, for many years who was in Troop 70. Don Gilbert (no relation) was the scoutmaster of Troop 70 at that time. I was in Troop 88 in North Adams, and Douglas Filkens was our scoutmaster. Camden and I did a lot of backpacking and canoeing together over the years. And we had an annual New Year’s Eve campout on the top of Mt. Greylock, which is the tallest mountain in Massachusetts. It was cold, and the snow might be up to your armpits, but it was a blast. I guess we did that three or four year in a row.
Sensei Noel has an efficient and straightforward approach to how he teaches and a deep understanding of his art. Lucas did a great job of choosing him as an instructor.
It really is a small, small world when you are dealing with those who practice traditional Okinawan karate.
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I have had a long-held interest in the martial arts. One Christmas, I received a book called Best Karate, written by Mas Oyama, when I was 13 or 14 years old. I spent hours in my bedroom trying to learn from the book.
When I began attending the Charles H McCann Technical School in North Adams, Massachusetts, I was invited by a friend to a Uechi-ryu Karate (a very traditional Okinawan system) class in nearby Adams and started attending. But once I discovered cars and girls, that pretty much ended that … as well as my interest in scouting.
When I was stationed in Korea (12/81 to 12/82), I studied Tae Kwon Do with the battalion instructor. He was excellent. I earned a red belt, which, in that system, was the equivalent of a brown belt in the ranking system used by many styles. When I got back to the U.S., I started competing in tournaments and did okay. However, I discovered these Isshin-ryu guys who had a wicked reverse punch. They would slide up your extended kicking leg and nail you with it. I decided I needed to see what they were doing and so sought out an Isshin-ryu dojo.
Years later, I was running my own dojo and hosting tournaments. But I was very disappointed in the way things were evolving. I was never that wild about sport karate. I just did that to keep students. I saw limited techniques being used in sport karate; it was more like a game of tag. The rules seemed to violate the karate “maxims” I was trying to adhere to.
For example, in Okinawan Karate, all kicks are targeted below the waist. Step into the ring, and now all kicks must be above the waist. That seemed odd!
And kata, especially with the advent of musical kata, quickly devolved into breakdancing with some kicks thrown in.
Note: Let me just say that full-contact karate and MMA fighters of today are great athletes and some damn tough individuals. They are very good at what they do and deserve respect. It is just not “karate” as I had come to understand it.
The problem was that I do read a great deal, and I had read a lot of history about Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate, and the early pioneers of Tang Hand, which later become known as Empty Hand … or Karate. I was simply not seeing the Karate I’d read so much about. Either the stories were all lies, or there was nobody around who could do that stuff anymore. I was actually ready to throw in the towel. Then I met Sensei Sherman Harrill.
Sensei Harrill was from a cross-roads in the cornfields called Carson, Iowa (near Council Bluffs). He was an ex-Marine who trained with the Isshin-ryu system’s founder, Tatsuo Shimabuku, while stationed in Okinawa in the late 50s. And he was the real deal.
Everything I had ever seen paled when stacked up against what he did. No matter who you were, how big, how strong, or what you knew … he would effortlessly show you the error of your ways. Organizations, rank, who you knew did not matter. It was what you could demonstrate on the mat that counted.
So, I started over. I traveled all around the country to seminars for years to train with this guy. It was a humbling and memorable moment when I asked him how I could become his student. He laughed and replied. “well, most folks just ask.” So, I asked. And he replied, “Darren, I have seen the changes you are making in your Karate and how you train … so welcome aboard.”
That was the beginning of the journey of a lifetime.
The origins of JD’s Nguyen-ryu
Nguyen-ryu is an indigenous martial art found in Vietnam. Mai’s father, Ang, was a village elder, and in the book Serpents Underfoot, a well-respected practitioner of this art. Ang taught this art to both his daughter, Mai, and the son of his old Montagnard friend, Dish. Dish and Mai both taught the art to Curtis Cordell, Mai’s American husband, and JD’s father.
Curtis tried to teach Nguyen-ryu to his son, but that old father-son thing interfered. Eventually, Curtis took his son to a dojo run by a friend of his. That Sensei taught a very traditional version of Isshin-ryu. JD did learn a great deal of Nguyen-ryu from his mother, which blended well with the Isshin-ryu.
It has been my experience that most “real” martial arts have more in common than differences. That is because when you get past all the marketing hype, it is body mechanics that determine what works … and the human body only moves powerfully so many ways.
My exposure to Nguyen-ryu
Enter Charlie Taylor, a good friend, a Vietnam veteran, and a damn good martial artist. He just showed up at my dojo one day and started helping out.
Charlie had served several tours in Vietnam as a medic on Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols in the region of Vietnam my books focus on. He was a quiet guy, but when the mood struck, he had some fantastic stories to tell about his experiences in Vietnam. I am sure he embellished them a bit to make them more fun to listen too, but there was something in the stories and his eyes when he told them that led you to understand that there was an element of truth to each one.
Charlie was also a highly-skilled martial artist, and there was nothing “superfluous” in what he did. I remember spending time training what was essentially a “silent sentry removal” technique with him and being shocked and a bit disturbed at the ease with which it worked. I still remember asking him, rhetorically,
“And, you’ve used this before.”
He just looked at me kind of funny and replied, “On a few occasions.”
While he knew a few of the kata, Charlie didn’t practice Isshin -ryu. In fact, many of our workouts consisted of me teaching him more Isshin-ryu kata. He practiced what he called Nguyen-ryu. Charlie claimed he’d learned it from his grandfather, who’d married a Vietnamese girl while stationed in Japan after WWII. This girl’s father was a skilled practitioner of the style, and after a suitable period of denials, consented to teach it to his daughter’s round-eyed husband.
I know it sounds like a movie plot. And maybe it is. I can neither prove nor disprove Charlie’s claims. However, I can definitely vouch for his abilities. Charlie could be damn scary when he was “in the zone,” much like my former instructor, Sensei Harrill. Those who have trained with Sensei Harrill will understand what I am referring to. We called it “shark eyes.”
Charlie did have an honorary 5th-degree black belt in Isshin-ryu Karate signed by Harold Long. However, he always claimed it was not worth the paper it was written on. It seems Charlie had impressed Harold Long with his abilities while training for a period at Long’s school in Knoxville, Tennessee, but, as mentioned earlier, had only learned a few of the kata. He held no official rank in Nguyen-ryu, so he always wore a white belt.
I will say that the kid’s classes loved it when Charlie regaled them with stories of his early training days. He always referred to them as “Papaw Days.”
Unfortunately, Charlie passed away a few years ago from a combination of medical conditions, several of which I am sure originated with his tours of duty in Vietnam. Some of the threads in Serpents Underfoot and Montagnard are based on past discussions with Charlie. And I think Charlie may be resurrected from the dead for a character in the next book in the series titled Reciprocity. I think he would like that.
Martial Arts scenes in the two books …
I have seen a large man knocked unconscious with a punch to the shoulder. I do not know too many people who could do that. Sensei Harrill certainly could. And, his “fence post punch” was something to behold. You did not want to get hit with it.
On more than one occasion, MMA fighters or cage fighters from the casinos in Council Bluff would make their way to his dojo after hearing about this karate guy who had a reputation for being a badass. Every one of them left with a new appreciation for karate … well, at least Sherman Harrill’s version.
The technique JD uses to take out the drug smuggler on the trail from Laos into Vietnam is simply one of my variations on Charlie Taylor’s sentry removal technique.
Putting it all together
I like to think my stories are written to entertain, but there is so much more to them, at least for me. They are ways to remember, record, and share the people I have known, places I have been, things I have seen, and the stories I have heard, as well as the possibilities those things can combine to create.
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Advanced techniques are nothing more than applying a thorough mastery of the basics.
I remember meeting Sensei Sherman Harrill for the first time in 1983. He was a guest at Wheeler’s School of Karate in Powell, Tennessee. I had just been discharged from the U.S. Army and had a red belt (equivalent to brown in most systems) in Tae Kwon Do. But I was not too happy with Tae Kwon Do.
Not being overly flexible, I was looking for a style that didn’t require me to be like Gumby. I discovered Isshin-ryu Karate. Sensei Harrill taught a few classes I attended at the dojo … and then disappeared. I did not know enough about Isshin-ryu at the time to understand exactly what was going on, but the man really impressed me.
I again saw Sensei Harrill sometime later at an Okinawan Karate-do Union seminar where he did a bo bunkai session. He took the first movement out of the bo kata, Tokumine No Kun, and spent two hours astounding us all by what he could do with just that first movement. Bo’s went flying everywhere, and many fingers were pinched or smashed. It was glorious.
I did not see Sensei Harrill again until the mid-90’s when he and Sensei AJ Advincula gave a benefit seminar in Michigan for Sensei Don Bohan, who was battling cancer. By this time, I was a black belt, had my own dojo, and thought I knew something about karate. However, to put it mildly, when I saw what he was doing, my jaw hit the floor. I had never seen any karate instructor anywhere do anything like what he was doing. It didn’t matter who you were, how big you were, or what you knew. You hit the floor when he put his hands on you. It was the kind of karate you read about in karate history books but never saw on the dojo floor.
What was the difference you might ask? I quickly came to learn it was a thorough understanding and mastery of the system’s basics. Prior to that time, I had trained with just three other world-class instructors who had that same kind of mastery of their art, and who were true masters. They were Remy Presas (Arnis), Joe Lewis (Full-Contact Karate Champion), and Wally Jay (Small Circle Jujitsu).
All advanced techniques are made up of combinations of basic techniques.
If this is not true where you train, I suggest you hunt for another dojo, dojang, or school.
And I am not just talking about the basic Charts I and II of the Isshin-ryu curriculum followed in most Isshin-ryu dojos. Understanding basics, body mechanics, stances, distance, timing, etc. transcends any particular art or style. It is the key to real success in any technique, method, or system.
I remember returning to a dojo I had not visited in some time. Upon entering, I spotted one of the head instructors on the floor going through Isshin-ryu Chart 1. He was performing the techniques precisely the same way I was shown when I was a brand new white belt. How’s that for consistency? Great, huh?
I’m going out on a limb here and say, “No, not really.” If you are still practicing the basics today the way you did 20 years ago, what did you learn? Could you not have improved them over that period. Twenty years and this man had never gotten off the porch (most serious Isshin-ryu practitioners will know what this refers to).
Here is an analogy. I remember in elementary school being taught to write. We were given lined paper and shown how to form the letters. You’d make a row of A’s, a row of B’s. a row of C’s. etc. Do you still write that way today?
Before you say, “but that’s how I show a new student …,” I am not talking about working with a new student. I am talking about your own personal workouts (which is what this guy was doing. Sunday morning workouts were restricted to black belts).
A difference in basics …
The first year I brought Sensei Harrill to Tennessee for a seminar, it was great. Friday night and Saturday, I got mercilessly pummeled in a very instructive sort of way. However, I loved it. Each pain, each loss of breath, or loss of balance was a light bulb going off in my brain. It was effortless, almost casual on Sensei’s part, but totally disruptive to me. And there was nothing I could do about. They were all simple techniques. However, they were executed in a very advanced manner; nothing like I had ever experienced before.
Sunday after the seminar, we had several hours before I had to get Sensei to the airport for his flight back to Iowa, so we hit the dojo to train. I remember it being just Sensei, Charlie Taylor, and myself. But one or two others may have been present.
Sensei asked, “What do you want to work on?”
I replied, simply, “Whatever I have to … to understand what you do.”
The sad but straightforward answer was that I had to start over with how I did my basics. Many trained with Sensei over the years, mostly at seminars, and would sometimes mimic his techniques successfully while at seminars. Often, however, this was with cooperative attackers.
But they never changed the way they practiced back at their own dojos. Therefore, they could never really make the techniques their own and would eventually give up. It’s just the same old adage: You can’t train one way and fight another way!
We went through Chart I, one technique at a time. First, I would demonstrate a technique from the chart. Sensei then showed me how he did it and why. He never told me what I was doing was wrong, but there was no question in my mind after we finished each technique which way was better, and more importantly, WHY!
You cannot learn basics from a book, a website, a blog, or even a videotape or DVD. You need practice time, one-on-one interaction with an instructor who understands all of these things, and enough repetitions to create CORRECT muscle memory.
However, here are a few tips that might help
Stand on stakes
Never violate the principles of body mechanics
As your understanding progresses and your basics begin to smooth out, your hands should start to NOT cross the body’s center line.
Always use crescent steps when you move forward or backward (or even sideways).
Each technique is a whole-body movement.
The “snap” in the “snap punch” comes from your waist (Understand that the knot in your obi is not just to tie your belt around your waist. Pay attention to how it moves).
If the knot’s not moving, you’re not doing it right.
Sensei would always say, when sizing up a new opponent or training partner, watch the knot on his obi. It will tell you whether you want to let them hit you or not.
Isshin-ryu Karate Charts I and II
Practice at least 10 repetitions to each side, several times a week.
RFF / RH Straight Punch
RFF / RH Upper Punch
LFF / LH Straight Punch
LFF / LH Upper Punch
RFB / LH Low Block – RH Reverse Punch
RFB / LH Mid-Level Block = RH Reverse Punch
RFB / LH Open Mid-Level Block – RH Gouge (Nukite)
RFB / LH Open Arc Sweep – RH Upper Punch
RFB / LH Upper Block – RH Reverse Punch
RFB / LH Bridge of Nose – RH Reverse Punch
LFF / LH Low Block – 3 Punches
LFF / LH Mid-Level Block – 3 Punches
LFF / LH Strike to Mid-section – RH Strike to Base of Neck
LFF / LH Palm Heel Block – 2 Hook Punches
RFB Bear Hug Break
Bend Forward / Touch Floor
Back Bend – 5 Exhales
LH Hold Right Heel – RH Push Knee Down
Side Kick (Heel and Edge)
Side Kick (Ball of Foot)
Toe Rip Kick
In Chart I, 5 – 15 repeat to the other side.
In Chart II, 3 to 12 repeat to the other side.
RFF = Right Foot Forward. LFF = Left Foot Forward
RFB = Right Foot Back, LFB = Left Foot Back
RH = RIght Hand, LH = Left Hand
Remember, simply practicing does not make perfect. It takes proper practice to make things perfect. If you practice incorrectly 25,000 times, what have you gained?
The body moves powerfully in a finite number of ways
Muscles can only contract or relax back to their non-contracted state. For example, the biceps and triceps work in conjunction to bend and straighten your elbow. That is all they do.
Though human bodies come in all sizes, we are all built the same. We all have two elbows and the corresponding team of controlling muscles. While some may have stronger muscles than others, these two muscles still simply bend and straighten the elbow.
Understanding body mechanics means understanding how the human body was naturally designed to move and moving in a way that keeps it stable and balanced, utilizing its natural strengths to generate power, while at the same time protecting its inherent vulnerabilities.
Karate techniques seek to utilize these natural strengths while taking advantage of those inherent weaknesses in our attacker.
Principles of body mechanics include
Center of Gravity
Line of Gravity
The proper adherence to each of these principles should be part of every karate technique you execute. And this is not specific to karate. Every “legitimate” martial art in the world adheres to these principles. That is why most traditional martial arts share the same powerful movements. They may just apply them differently. Often, to the casual observer, this makes them look like different techniques.
Body mechanics in karate technique
The proper execution of a karate technique should result in two things.
The attacker should find himself off-balance, in a weakened position, and unable to defend against the strike should its delivery become necessary.
The defender should be in a strong and balanced position, safe, and with several options available for proceeding to the next level if it becomes necessary.
This is much like a defensive shooting scenario!
It’s just a bit off the subject, but it illustrates the point.
We have all heard the phrase “never take your gun out of your holster unless you are going to shoot someone.” Sounds cool, I know. But it’s essentially macho-cowboy bullshit.
Any trained shooter will tell you that there are two separate decisions involved in the use of a gun for self-defense. The first is to pull your gun from its holster. The second is to actually pull the trigger.
If you pull your gun on an attacker, and the attacker ends the attack and leaves, you have protected yourself without ever pulling the trigger. If the attacker ends the attack and you shoot them anyway, you probably are going to be tried for murder.
If however, you pull your gun on an attacker and the attacker continues the assault, you might now make the second decision to pull the trigger.
Back to body mechanics
Look at this picture. What do you see? That is me about to be in some serious hurt. And yes, I was the attacker for the purpose of demonstration, and threw a punch.
I am off-balance and leaning back, my entire abdominal area is extremely vulnerable, and I have no viable weapons with which to defend myself.
Sensei John Kerker is essentially in what a karate practitioner might can a mid-level block position … balanced, stable, safe, and with several options to proceed should I try to continue the fight. For example:
Draw his left fist back striking my liver or floating rib.
Punch across with his right into my liver.
Take my rear supporting leg and drop me to the floor.
Punch down with his right into my quadriceps.
Or any combination of the above, and these are just the more obvious options. There are many, many more.
Some rules for beginning to understand body mechanics …
All movements in karate should be natural, meaning they should not ask your muscles to do things they were not designed to do.
Maintain good posture … even in karate.
Economy of motion. The tendency is to make movements too big.
Keep your center of gravity between your feet. Do not overextend.
Never cross your own center.
Never take your elbows above your shoulders.
Never completely lock a joint.
Most karate techniques mimic movements you make naturally every day. If something feels off, it probably is.
There are real differences between what I call “classical karate” and sport karate. Before you sign up, just be sure you understand what you are signing up for.
The intent here is not to disparage either version. I am only saying they are different, and you want to be sure the instructor will be teaching you what you are paying to learn.
Understand too, that I am focusing on karate. It is what I know. There are other martial arts such as Aikido, Jujitsu, and Kung Fu, each which may have a different focus in doctrine and technique. And, I have dabbled in Aikido, Tai Chi, Arnis, and Escrima over the years … really just enough to get me in trouble. But, also enough to understand that all these systems or styles often offer the prospective student the same choice … the classical approach or the sport approach.
Some would argue there is a third approach, one of seeking self -improvement. To me, that is simply an integral part of the classical approach, and unfortunately, these days is too often missing on the sport side of things.
In addition, the martial arts industry is very much a “buyer beware” industry.
Why the term “classical karate?”
I use the term “classical karate” in an effort to distinguish it separately because, from what I have seen, the term “traditional karate” has been kidnapped by suspect karate schools who have finally figured out adults aren’t buying what they are selling.
Often times, these are daycare centers masquerading is karate schools because they have learned that it pays much better. Schools like this typically have huge kids classes, but a noticeable lack of adult students.
This is because most adults are not stupid, and after a week or two, can figure out what they are being taught is nonsense. However, the unsuspecting parent who just wants a healthy activity for their children and doesn’t actually participate may never uncover the truth, and some may not even care.
Some of these instructors, in an effort to lure adults back, have gone back to white gis and greatly exaggerated displays of “traditional” behavior.
Just understand that seeing the students all running around in white gis and screaming “Ossss” all the time, does not mean it is a good karate dojo.
But, I digress …
Back to Classical vs Sport Karate
Classical karate is the original karate with a history that is over two thousand years old. It is a uniquely Okinawan art that was influenced by Chinese martial arts. Since Okinawa traded with China, Chinese officials would often teach their art to members of the Okinawan ruling and business classes.
The myth that karate was some kind of a peasant’s fight art is just that, a myth. Karate was taught to the eldest sons of upper class Okinawan families who often served as the palace guard to Okinawan kings. There were rare exceptions.
For example, Motobu Choki was the third son of Lord Motobu Chōshin, and as such, was not entitled to learn the family style of Te (an earlier name for karate). However, Motobu Choki was fascinated by the art and from an early age, began training on his own. He eventually was able to train with such karate legends as Matsumura Sōkon, Ankō Itosu, Sakuma Pechin and Kōsaku Matsumora. Motobu Choki was a strong advocate of proper makiwara training in karate. He was also one of the three notable karate masters Tatsuo Shimabuku, the founder of Isshin-ryu karate, studied under.
In those days, karate was a fighting art, a system of personal combat that was very much founded in scientific principles such as the laws of physics, a keen understanding of body mechanics, and the strengths and weaknesses of the human body.
Sport karate primarily evolved as U.S. Marines were stationed on Okinawa and began seeking instruction from local Okinawan instructors. Due to the competitive nature of U.S. marines, they wanted a way to try out what they were learning on each other. To facilitate this, instructors like Tatsuo Shimabuku put their Marine students into what was essentially kendo armor, and let them go about bashing each other.
Voilà … you now have sport karate!
It is important to consider that the average tour for a Marine on Okinawa was a year to eighteen months. That is barely enough time to achieve a thorough understanding of the basics of karate, much less explore real application of kata techniques or advanced principles. Everything was rushed and there was little depth to the training because of time constraints and the fact that Marines spoke little Okinawan and the Okinawans spoke little English.
While the Marines certainly learned the kata of the system they studied, there was simply not enough time to explore what was in them. And, they probably preferred sparring with each other much more anyway.
Many of these Marines later returned to the U.S., opened karate schools, and taught what they knew and loved. Basic punching and kicking skills, with an emphasis on bashing each other in the ring.
But to say that this is the sum total of karate is simply untrue. Fortunately for us, some Marines, such as AJ Advincula, went back for more, and others like Sherman Harrill followed the Kenpo Gokui (topic of a future post) and just kept working.
However for now, as a means to illustrate some of the basic differences between Classical and Sport Karate, I will list a few of the more obvious ones here.
Emphasis on mastery of basics and exploring the application of techniques from kata.
All kicks are executed at or below belt level.
Strikes executed with many weapons including fists, forearms, elbows, specific knuckles. knees, heels, toes … etc.
Goal is to not lose the fight.
Because of the “no rules” nature of combat and the risk of injury during training, as well as the need for continued training partners, courtesy, control, humility, and respect for life become an integral part of training.
Most of the techniques practiced would get you disqualified in the ring.
Emphasis on conditioning and developing good sport appropriate techniques.
All kicks must be above the belt. (Certain traditional tournaments allow limited groin kicks.)
Strikes executed with padded fists and feet.
Goal is to accumulate points to win the match.
Training is much like training for any sport such as boxing with a focus on developing techniques allowed under the rules of the game.
While these techniques can be effective in the street, you can’t train one way and fight another.
One of the fundamental building blocks of classical karate is an understanding of body mechanics. This understanding should begin to grow on your first day at the dojo. Therefore, it will be the topic covered in the next post.