Tag: Okinawan Karate

No First Strike …

Karate is for self-defense only.

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

Version 1

Version 2

  1. A person’s heart is the same as Heaven and Earth
  2. The Blood circulating is similar to the Moon and the Sun
  3. A manner of drinking or spitting is either hard or soft
  4. A person’s unbalance is the same as weight
  5. The body should be able to change direction at any time
  6. The time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself
  7. The eyes must see all sides
  8. The ears must listen in all directions
  1. Man’s spirit, heart, mind : is like (same as) : Heaven : Earth
  2. Blood, hope, range, pulse : is like : Moon (day – date) : Sun (month)
  3. Stiff – hard, strong. stubborn, inflexible : Soft-gentle, mild-tender, mellow : Take in (soak in) : Throw out
  4. Fear, horror : March : Past (pass) : Leave : Meet
  5. Directions : Any : Time : React (respond) : Flexibility (change)
  6. Hand : Meets : In the air : Suddenly : Enter
  7. Eyes : Should : Watch : Four : Directions
  8. 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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Traditional Okinawan Karate: It’s a very small world.

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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Pareto’s Rule and Isshin-ryu Karate

I was doing a little spring house cleaning and came across a few old articles from the time when I ran a karate dojo. This was from 1994 until 2007. These articles appeared on the dojo website or in our dojo newsletter. I thought a few of them were fairly interesting, so I will share them here. This first one deals with Pareto’s Rule and Karate. An old student of mine, Lynn Hodges, wrote this article.

Pareto’s Rule and Karate

rule

One of my older students, Lynn Hodges, after a night of working on the basic techniques of our system and the development of Chinkuchi in the techniques, went home and could not sleep until he had written these thoughts down to get them off his mind. This article is the result of that mind purge.

Ramblings and Reasoning on Pareto’s Rule and Karate
by Lynn Hodges

In many business and non-business situations, the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 Rule, emerges as a statistical constant. Dr. Arthur Hafner* provides a succinct overview of Pareto’s work:

Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was an Italian economist who, in 1906, observed that twenty percent of the Italian people owned eighty percent of their country’s accumulated wealth. Over time and through application in a variety of environments, this analytic has come to be called Pareto’s Principle, the 80-20 Rule, and the “Vital Few and Trivial Many Rule.”

Called by whatever name, this mix of 80%-20% reminds us that the relationship between input and output is not balanced. In a management context, this rule of thumb is a useful heuristic that applies when there is a question of effectiveness versus diminishing returns on effort, expense, or time.

Sensei Sherman Harrill often said “There’s not much I can’t handle with a good mid-block and reverse punch!” This suggests that the 80-20 rule might be at play in Isshin-ryu Karate. 80% of situations can be handled by 20% of our techniques. The key is figuring out what 20% are those ‘vital few.’ While the remaining 80% of our techniques would never be called trivial by any serious karateka, most would agree that there are techniques that rate as the most effective or at least the most fundamental in our empty hand arsenal. In conflict, we’d choose these vital 20% of our techniques about 80% of the time.

What are the vital few? That is the key question for karateka, and especially the Sensei. Logically, the basic physical moves must be part of that 20% since they underpin all of the techniques. These would include the sweeping step, the stances, the launching of the punch with hips rotating, the “opposite reaction” force, the Isshin-ryu fist and the fundamental bio-mechanics of balance, leverage and movement. Since the basics of Isshin-ryu karate also include punches, blocks and kicks, those are likely in the 20% and are described by the upper and lower charts. Therefore, it could be argued that the basic physical moves and the upper and lower charts make up the vital 20%.

Mastery of the vital 20% does two things. First, it allows us to handle 80% of the conflicts where we rely on karate for self defense. Secondly, it stages us with a firm foundation to engage the remaining 80% of the empty hand and weapons techniques that comprise our martial art style. Perhaps that is why the old masters insisted on learning the vital 20% first. One recalls stories of a single stance being the single lesson for a whole year!

Unfortunately, since the basics and charts are fundamental and seldom spectacular, a beginning karateka is anxious to rush through them, and get into the ‘real karate’ seen as the kata or sparring and competition. Reflection on the importance of these vital 20% will bring the serious karateka back to them for betterment and mastery. As one masters the basics and engages the remaining 80%, a lifetime cycle of continuous improvement begins. What we observe as “Improvement in the vital 20% results in considerable improvement in the remaining 80%!” It’s Pareto’s Rule at work in the dojo 

How is that for a scientific look at the built-in efficiency of karate techniques?

While most often talked about in the business world, Pareto’s Rule applies to many other aspects of our lives. This 80-20 rule seems to very accurately reflect the effort, performance, and efficiency of many human endeavors. Think about it! Where can you see Pareto’s 80-20 rule in effect in your life?

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Do You Smack the Mak?

motobu_Makiwara
The Makiwara

Choki Motobu working ippon-ken (single knuckle fist), commonly used in traditional karate, on the makiwara.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about the use of the makiwara (or striking post) in traditional Isshin-ryu Karate training. I thought I would try to clear some of it up … at least as much as you can in a short blog post.

Japanese and Chinese styles certainly have some similar training equipment. For example, the Wing Chung style has the Wing Chung dummy. Karate styles have several different types of Makiwara.

However, the use of the makiwara in traditional Okinawan Isshin-ryu Karate is very different from what I have often seen portrayed in photographs or videos on the web or in books, etc. I have seen photographs of bleeding, badly deformed knuckles and arthritic fingers that could no longer hold a pencil or work a pair of chop sticks. I once saw a video where a Japanese instructor with horribly deformed looking hands was repeatedly pounding them into a large boulder!  Folks, this is not the way it was or should be done.

Anyone who has had the life-changing experience of being hit by Sensei Sherman Harrill before he lost his battle to cancer, can attest to the power in his strikes. Sensei Harrill could hit you in the shoulder and pile-drive you right into the floor. It bordered on being a religious experience. I have had the same experience being hit by Sensei John Kerker. There are a few other students of Sensei Harrill running around who can make a true-believer out of you. All that being said, Sensei Harrill could still hold a pencil, sign his name, or shake hands. When you looked at his hands, they looked … you know … normal. You might say they looked like “working” hands. But, by no means were they swollen, deformed, bruised, red, misshapen or otherwise ugly-looking. The two large knuckles of his hands did not look like some kind of mutant walnuts or purple ball bearings. But, those hands were truly deadly.

It has often been wrongly stated by many that the purpose of makiwara training is to build up calluses on the knuckles. Really? Is the purpose of playing the guitar to build up calluses on the fingertips? Or do the calluses build naturally as your fingers become stronger and more dexterous, and the music begins to flow? Has anyone seen a guitarist whose fingers were so deformed he could not hold his pick or quickly change a chord?

What the makiwara offered the karate practitioner was a means to strengthen his strike from the ground up. It offered progressive resistance. The more you moved the punching post, the more it pushed back. You would start by pressing into the post with the two large knuckles of your fist. You would set into your stance, place your knuckles against the post and press. Typically, the first time, the post would not move much. You would feel some weakness somewhere in your stance, or your lower back, or your shoulder, or wrist. Something would feel out of whack. You would make an adjustment to your stance, your posture or your alignment, and try again. After awhile you begin to feel more solid, and the post began to move just a little. Over time, you would continue to press into the post focusing on your improved stance, adding hip rotation, shoulder extension, proper elbow and shoulder alignment. Little by little, the post begins to move more and more. You add breathing … exhaling into your strike.

After a time, you add distance and throw a controlled half-punch, then move to a controlled full punch. Now you are smacking the mak! You try different strikes and striking surfaces. More times passes and you are throwing solid properly aligned punches and strikes and the post is really moving now. You are now also controlling the return of the post. Offering it resistance as it pushes back into your strike. Then one day you look down at your hands and notice the skin is a little tougher on your striking surfaces … harder. But not purple, or black and swollen, or otherwise deformed. They still look pretty damn normal.

The real difference … you are now striking with Chinkuchi! You hit your target with the entire body moving in perfect orchestration. The bone, muscle, sinew are all strengthened, honed, and working in proper alignment. Your strike is now intently focused with a surgical-like precision. It flows seamlessly and effortlessly from a dynamically relaxed movement into a concentrated, well-focused explosion of kinetic energy … which, instantly after impact, returns to a dynamically relaxed state … ready to strike again if needed. It seems effortless and flowing for you. It is natural and a part of you.

The person on the receiving end, however … probably wishes your hands were swollen, bruised, bloody and deformed.