Thoughts From Japan - Back to Basics
David Hooper PhD. David moved to Japan from England in the 1970s to practice karate at the leading JKA dojos of the era, notably the notorious Shotokan dojo at Takushoku University that produced such well known instructors as Keinosuke Enoeda and Hirokazu Kanazawa. In the fullness of time he became a tenured professor at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo where he teaches to this day.
Mondays are my day for teaching English outside Tokyo, in a small university in the neighboring prefecture. I was sitting in the teacher’ s room last week, having just completed my first class of the day, and enjoying a cup of green tea. I still had at least ten minutes before my next class. An American teacher was giving vent to his frustrations at the adjacent table. The volume was sufficiently loud as to make eavesdropping unavoidable. “They just don’t seem to understand,” he was saying, “that if they’d just do the homework and learn the stuff, they might actually enjoy some of the activities I plan for their class. As it is, they all sit there like zombies, and half of them can’t even put a sentence together.” His colleague nodded in agreement and made a few sympathetic noises. As I got up to leave, his following remark “If they’d just get the basics under their belts, they’d realize how much they’ve been missing” set me thinking. I’ve met many people teaching karate in the West who seem to spend much of their time worrying about keeping their students interested. Yet, despite their efforts, the drop out-rate remains high, particularly around the level of shodan.
Of course, there will always be those students who realize early on that karate is not what they had hoped, and these students rarely make it beyond the first couple of gradings. Why should it be, however, that such a large proportion of students who train hard for two or three years suddenly can¹t be persuaded to continue? Many even take their shodan, and then are rarely seen again. Part of the answer, I believe, lies in the fundamentally different approach to teaching karate adopted by such Westerners, compared with the traditional JKA approach. One of the things that epitomize karate training, JKA style, is its preoccupation with basics. From my first day¹s training at the JKA Honbu in Tokyo, and later, perhaps even more so, at Takushoku University, the format was always the same: basics, basics and then more basics. The more advanced the class became, the more basic it became, an anomaly that I will subsequently explain. Even the instructors¹ class regularly began with all the senior Japanese sensei performing sets of repetitions of basic, fundamental techniques.
On my initial return to the UK after my first couple of years in Japan, one of the things that struck me was how little emphasis was often placed on understanding basics. Oh sure, clubs would inevitably start with the students charging up and down the hall doing “basics,” and some would even limit these to single techniques. The rest, however, would soon progress on to long, complex combinations of a dozen techniques or more. Considerable time would be spent explaining the sequence of movement, and after perhaps several practice attempts, the barrage of techniques would be performed at “full speed and power.” Speed, spirit and aggression seemed to be the key focuses of attention, attributes that certainly weren’t lacking in many of the clubs I later visited. Teaching points, however, would often relate more to these factors than to the finer points of technique. This is not to suggest, of course, that things are always any better in Japan. Indeed, the university club where I often practise in Tokyo (not Takushoku, I hasten to add), spends the major portion of each training session on activities which it short-sightedly believes will assure it success in the next competition against its main rival club. The coach is forever telling the students that it doesn’t matter whether their technique is good or bad, only that everything must be performed with the correct attitude, by which he means with spirit and aggression. Whilst I agree that these things are extremely important, I wonder when he imagines the students at the club are actually going to learn karate. It’s all very well developing the correct attitude, but unless the time is taken to gain a fundamental understanding of karate, then there’s going to be no real progress. Perhaps he expects the students to do the real training outside the dojo, in their spare time. Certainly, with the amount of time that is wasted in the dojo on superficial point-scoring strategies and competition training, at the expense of karate, the students will need to do something if they ever want to improve. I do not want to give the impression that I’m against competition, or indeed, specific training for competition. Competition has its place in karate, and I fully appreciate that university clubs in Japan gain their recognition by being successful in competition. It’s a great pity, however, that not more clubs treat competition in the way that Takushoku University used to do, as a good excuse for extra training. And it’s no surprise (at least, to me) that they were renowned for their success in competition. What I do find astonishing is that other clubs don’t stop to consider why it was that Takushoku¹s students were so much better than anyone else, and why so few seem to make any attempt to imitate the way they trained. I do not, however, want to get side-tracked at this stage into a long discussion about the merits of competition.
This is a topic best dealt with in more depth at some future time. What do I mean, then, by a fundamental understanding of karate? I mean, quite simply, an understanding of the principles of the basic movements. This does not necessarily imply an understanding at an intellectual level: one¹s body must learn how to move. Eventually, these natural basic movements provide the foundation upon which everything else is built. How is it that Yahara Sensei can spin 180º executing one technique in competition, and then completely reverse the direction with another technique, without losing his balance? How is it that Kawasoe Sensei from Britain can generate such incredible power in a combination of techniques that flow so effortlessly together? How is it that Osaka Sensei can perform the second downward block of Heian Shodan (involving a 180º turn) with more power, strength, speed and stability than most “advanced” karate-ka can muster from the shizentai (natural stance) position? It’s no great secret, and it certainly has nothing to do with the fact that they were all born Japanese. It is simply that they have a thorough working knowledge of basic, fundamental karate, which has provided the foundation for every subsequent level of performance. Yahara Sensei can perform his spinning back-fist strike first one way and then the other for exactly the same reason that he can perform the spinning downward block in the first of the Heian katas. The movement is fundamentally the same.
Being unable to perform the kata at any real level, by definition, precludes the execution of such advanced techniques in kumite. When Osaka Sensei tells his Japanese students that there is no distinction to be drawn between kata and kumite, he is not trying to be deliberately esoteric or misleading. He’s simply pointing out what the JKA regards as an indisputable fact, without an understanding of basics there¹s no foundation upon which progress can be built. It thus comes as no surprise to his students when he spends more than half the time in his special advanced kata class at the JKA referring back to the five basic Heian katas. The spinning high outside block in Jion Kata that finishes in back stance, for example, is fundamentally the same movement as the first spinning downward block in Heian Shodan. If students can’t do the latter, it should be no surprise that the former seems so difficult. The constant reference to basics can be somewhat misleading. The word basic implies simplistic, easy, or elementary, the very opposite of advanced or complex. Perhaps it would be less confusing to substitute the Japanese word kihon: the practice of kihon can be very advanced, and is anything but easy. There are probably few people reading this article who would argue that kihon practice is unimportant. However, how many people regularly practise kihon effectively? Repeatedly performing incorrectly executed techniques, individually or as combinations, does not make for better karate. In fact, with time, ingrained habits (good or bad) become increasingly difficult to eradicate. It is important to understand that karate, JKA style, is fundamentally simple. That’s not to say that it’s easy, but that every subsequent movement is based on a prior movement. One thing stems from another. A misunderstanding at the basic level cannot be corrected higher up the chain. Let me give a specific example: (For those readers who are likely to become bored with a foray into the more technical aspects of technique, please feel free to skip the following four paragraphs.)
The basic stepping punch oizuki relies first and foremost on an understanding of the use of the hips in chokuzuki, the straight punch from a natural stance. When punching with the left hand, it is the right hip initially rotating back.
If shizentai is performed correctly, then zenkutsudachi can be, too. Practising thrusting forward from shizentai into zenkutsudachi, by bending the knees and then driving off either the right or left leg, is an excellent half-way measure to understanding the feeling of moving forward in front stance. Feeling the weight and force on the back heel and outside of the back foot is something that takes a lot of practice. Understanding the feeling in the rear leg (which, incidentally, is not locked straight) is only made possible if it has already been felt in the correct execution of chokuzuki. The hip movement in oizuki is essentially the same as that of chokuzuki. It is, however, much easier to learn the movement in the more basic of the two techniques before trying to understand it in the advanced. This process of continually referring back and studying the technique in its most basic form, and thus at greater depth, is essential to making progress. I have been in numerous classes where senior grades, after watching a lower grade perform a basic stepping punch, have spent the next goodness-knows-how-long analyzing the technique and criticizing the shoulder position, the course of the punching hand, the extraneous movements of the feet or the ineffectiveness of the delivery. All these points may be valid to a greater or lesser degree, but the problem that needs to be addressed first is far more fundamental: the hips aren’t being used or, more likely, are not correctly aligned. Everything is thus “put out.” All other errors spring from this. The simple and correct solution is to make the correction one stage back: correct the hip position in chokuzuki and then affirm that it is correct in zenkutsudachi. If those more basic techniques can’t be performed, then trying to make superficial changes to a more advanced technique is like pumping up a tire on a wheel that’s buckled. Until the first thing is sorted out, nothing else will, in the long term, make much improvement in the ride. There is, then, no short cut. Charging up and down the dojo doing stepping punches accompanied by the most blood-curdling kiais does not constitute practising kihon. Kihon practice needs to be directed and focused: what is the correct feeling in the back leg? Which muscles actually tense, and when? How should one breathe? What does Osaka Sensei mean about being rooted to the ground at the end of the punch, with the weight and force driving down on the heel of the back foot? Finding the answers to these questions may take many years of training, but the pay-off is worth it.
Those that take the time to practise kihon at an advanced level develop their karate. The remainder, at best, maintain a superficial level and inevitably have trouble maintaining any enthusiasm; at worst, they maintain a superficial level and then start to teach. Karate is thus simple in the sense that there is not much new in karate beyond that which must be learned to perform the first kata, Heian Shodan, at an advanced level. I remember a course a few years ago in Britain to which Osaka Sensei had been invited as a special guest instructor. He had spent some time in the class on the kata Tekki Shodan. I had been acting as a rather superfluous interpreter.
A second example perhaps illustrates this point of simplicity and progression even better. I had been training at Takushoku University for a few months when an important championship was held in the Kanto region of Japan. Takushoku met Kokushikan University in the final. These rival universities both enjoy formidable reputations that are well deserved. Takushoku lost. At the following day’s training, the assistant coach spent at least twenty minutes bawling out the students. Much of this tirade was lost on me. The message, however, was abundantly clear. The students weren’t nearly as good as they thought they were, and the reasons were quite evident in their basics. The following week’s training would not be spent on more advanced sparring training. On the contrary, each three-hour session would consist of only kihon gohon kumite (basic five-step sparring). Why? Because all their weaknesses could be spotted in this basic practice. It was here that corrections could
To return, then, to my initial question: Why is it that so many students give up in such a relatively short time? Many start out open-minded, receptive and enthusiastic, but quickly become disillusioned. It soon becomes evident that the clubs they are attending have little understanding at any depth of the most basic of techniques. The whole practice of karate thus becomes superficial. This superficiality ensures that sooner, rather than later, the more perceptive students come to the realization that karate has little to offer. Despite a lot of hard training, there’s nothing to show at the end of it. If you happen to be in the small minority who are regularly winning trophies at competition, fine, if not, then where¹s the motivation? If you are already in your thirties, or even older (God forbid), then it¹s going to be downhill all the way, not a very encouraging thought, and certainly not a boost to motivation. In fact, by the time a student has spent three years or more only playing at karate, it amazes me that there are any at all who continue to stick at it. Surely, there must be more exciting ways of having fun? For other students who, perhaps after years of training, suddenly encounter the likes of Osaka Sensei, or one of Takushoku’s Karate-bu’s students, the effect can be quite overwhelming. A sudden realization that so much of your training has been wasted can be devastating. Anger, despair, even renewed enthusiasm and determination are emotions that might surface. It does, however, take a special kind of person who is prepared to start learning again.
I remember talking to a karate instructor of quite senior rank in the U.K. who said that he felt cheated by the karate organization to which he had belonged for so many years. We sat and watched one of their professionally produced instructional videos in which the first basic kata was being demonstrated. As the first 180s turn was made for the second gedanbarai to be performed, the heel of the demonstrator’s foot lifted from the floor until the movement was completed. Now before everyone rushes for their pens to write and tell me how trivial or nit-picking this is, let me explain why it is so important. In that “simple” movement, it is precisely that supporting leg which is so crucial. It is because of the fact that the weight is transferred back on to the leg and the back heel that it is referred to as jikuashi (the supporting leg). As the body turns, pivoting on the heel (not the ball of the foot), it is from this movement that the following techniques power is derived. Driving off the back heel is the whole object of the movement, and it is the use of the supporting leg, and the subsequent tensing of the muscles in the back thigh, that enables the power to be generated. The fact that a major British karate organization can release a video with such glaring faults still intact raises an interesting question: is it that they do not have a sufficient knowledge of basic karate to recognize the fault, and this, from an organization who have made it abundantly clear that they have nothing more to learn from the Japanese, or do they recognize the fact that the movement is wrong (or at best, very poorly executed), but figure that people will buy the video anyway, so what does it matter?
Whichever is the case, it is ultimately the hundreds, if not thousands, of students within the organization, who suffer. I’m not suggesting that I would necessarily do much better on such a video, but then again, I wouldn¹t make one especially not when Nakayama Sensei, the former head of the JKA, had already produced the definitive series (in English), with the same kata superbly demonstrated by Osaka Sensei. For all those people genuinely interested in JKA karate, there are still many opportunities around the world to train with people from the JKA who are still learning and progressing, and thus have something to pass on. Admittedly, here in Japan things are a little easier, at least a dojo claiming some affinity with the JKA here will have some direct contact with a genuine instructor from the JKA. In the end, however, one has to accept personal responsibility for one’s own training. If your own training is focused and directed, then the most basic of classes can be as advanced as you choose. Is real karate “fun” or “enjoyable?” I’m not sure that it is, nor necessarily should be. It is, however, rewarding and addictive. Moreover, the payoff is worth all the effort. Real karate doesn’t require justification. Those teachers who compromise the art of karate in order to keep their students interested will, in the long term, fail. Those that concentrate on their own progress and take their students along with them will not need to resort to patronizing or superfluous gimmicks to sell themselves. “So why do you do karate, and what do you hope to achieve?” is a question I’m often asked. The first part is difficult to answer, but the latter part easy: like all the top JKA instructors and the best of the competition fighters in Japan, I too would like to be seen as someone who was beginning to “get the basics under his belt.”