Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sensei Doesn't Love Me Anymore

Waah! Like a verse from an old country song, I remember when Sensei stopped loving me. Or, so I thought at first. After joining the Meishi ha Mugai Ryu group as a member of the fledgling American crew, the first of its kind, I had a sense of pride; importance. Here I was training in a 300 year old art directly from the Headmaster. I had been to Japan twice, Canada once, and California once all in the first year to train in the art. We were welcomed with open arms. Gosoke was the opposite of all the images in my head of the prototypical Grandmaster. He was kind, always smiling, and always helpful when it came to our development. His attention to detail was overwhelming, his technique flawless. I was finally learning the intricacies of something phenomenal; beyond me. After my second visit to the Honbu Dojo in Tokyo, I realized that I was missing some things. We were always accommodated when issues of culture or the language barrier hindered our learning. I learned from my western brothers who lived and trained there that we got a "get out of jail free" card. If we made an error in etiquette, protocol, or language, we were immediately forgiven and corrected. I first realized the importance of addressing the language issue when I was training in the dojo and I kept being corrected. The broken English wasn't quite getting through my thick skull and finally Soke said, "Good," with his thumbs up and that addictive smile. I knew immediately it was NOT good and that he was simply tired of trying to explain it to me. Thus, I started to try to expand my linguistics a bit. One thing I have learned is try to speak the language whenever possible, even if you think you will be laughed at. Ultimately, most Japanese martial arts students and teachers enjoy the fact that we try and will help. I certainly got laughed at(still do) but was helped all the same. As I studied and learned, some of the cultural nuances and etiquette protocols I had been missing became more and more obvious. I worked hard to try to become "a little more Japanese" than I was. During one trip to Japan, I arrived at the dojo unannounced and peeked my head in. "Shitsureishimasu!" "Hai," came a voice from the other room. I walked in and Gosoke smiled. But the person with him did not. If you saw the dojo, you would see that the dojo office area and the dojo training area is separated by a piece of wood trim on the floor. Although I was in the office area, right next to the shoe shelf, I had not taken my shoes off. My senpai, or senior, the gentleman who looked at me as if I had just pissed on the floor, pointed at my shoes. "Oh," I said feeling like a complete idiot. So, I don't know to take off my shoes in a dojo? Embarrassing. So I started to take my shoes off when the embarrassment intensified. "Iie," senpai said, as he grabbed my arm and led me to the shoe rack. "Ko." Got it. Don't take shoes off in front of Gosoke or others, go back to the shelf, off the floor, take shoes off, place in shelf, return to Sensei... completely mortified. We talked a bit, me in my broken Japanese, Sensei in broken English. We worked out the particulars of training that evening and I was off to the hotel. At the hotel, I reflected on how this screw up (I had never been reprimanded like that before in the presence of Gosoke and could only imagine the displeasure he had for my insolence) was going to affect the rest of my trip. "He doesn't like me anymore," I lamented. So, I set forth to earn my way back into his graces. I would train harder and mind my etiquette a little closer for the duration. It was of course a great trip, but I couldn't help notice that the more I tried to use my new cultural skills, the more standoff-ish Sensei would be. Not in a rude way, but just not in the ultra-attentive way I was accustomed to. It wasn't until a couple years later I started to realize what was happening. In my efforts to become more like a Japanese martial arts student, I had become just that. Gosoke took my study and dedication for what it was. I wanted to REALLY learn the art. And if that was to happen, he was obligated to teach me in a more REAL way. I started to recognize and respect the way he would NOT single me out in training, correct me, or speak English to me. He had become serious with me, which I realized is what I truly wanted but was not alert enough at first to comprehend the implications. Despite what Black Belt Magazine or YouTube will have you believe about the martial arts, the arts, especially koryu disciplines, are about the propagation of the art. Just as the sword is my tool in learning, I am a tool for the ryu to continue into the future. The ryu does not care about me, have sympathy for me, or want me to succeed. The ryu must simply survive and maintain its traditions into the future. The benefits I receive as a member of the ryu are secondary to the benefits the ryu gains by my dedication to it. The by-product of all of this is the relationships we as members of the ryu develop as we travel on our chosen path. In that, because the ryu will continue and because I am becoming a better person by being a part of it, I know that all of us are bound in this unconditional love of something outside of ourselves.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Kata is NOT the Soul of Karate

Holy Crap! Did he just say that?

Yes I did. But don't get too bent out of shape. I don't really mean it.

But, for the purpose of presenting a little philosophy about kata, I have to exclaim this. This way, some of Karate's detractors and Karate's dedicated followers can put a few things in perspective.

In surveying several different martial disciplines: Brazillian Jujutsu, MMA, Defensive Tactics, Krav Maga, Firearms, and Knife Fighting; I propose to an instructor that the most basic techniques be explained so that a beginner can understand them.

The overwhelming response is a well thought out, organized, and systematic approach to introducing the concepts of the technique to the student.

However, when asked how this most basic of techniques might be used in real life, the answer is ALWAYS, "well, you have to put it together with other combinations, and more importantly, practice using it in real life in order to be proficient enough with it to make it work."

I have found that most modern martial arts teach in this progressive, building-block type methodology. However, traditional karate's implementation of the same methodology seems to be frowned upon. The idea of doing kata and practicing basic; seemingly practically ineffective techniques, is perceived as archaic and a waste of time. Yet, everyone else is doing it. It puzzled me for a while until I came to grips with the problem.

The problem is the karate practitioner. He/ she takes traditional maxims such as "Kata is the soul of karate" completely out of context. You see, the karate person inevitably believes that this means, "kata is the only thing you have to practice." Ahh, there is the issue.

What is Kata?
Kata is an exercise where one repeats a prearranged movement to establish muscle memory, strength, flexibility, and a source of solo practice when a partner is not available. While modern martial artists think they are not doing kata because they do bag work and work on fighting combinations with a real person, they would be wrong. The moment one practices the same technique twice or more in a row, he is doing kata.

In karate and other traditional Japanese martial arts, kata also serves as a historical record of the primary philosophies and techniques of a system. So, in karate, what is kata?

Kata is a way of boiling down everything one needs to live a long and healthy life into one simple set of exercises. Kata being the foundation of a healthy life is the reasoning behind kata being the "soul" of karate. But we have to understand that knowing a kata; or even being proficient with kata has nothing to do with fighting prowess. Fighting prowess is only ONE byproduct of practicing kata.

Fighting prowess comes from being able to transition from the learning of the basics, putting them into the combinations, applying them to a partner, to applying them in an unrehearsed application, and then to revisiting the basics to get an understanding of more advanced concepts such as timing and position, and then altering the basic techniques to reflect those new concepts.

This is the methodology for everything else! Of course it is the same with karate!

So, lets put it in perspective. These are the elements of practice listed above:
1. Learn Basics
2. Put Basics together to make combinations
3. Making them work with a partner
4. Practicing them unrehearsed
5. Advancing on the basics

Kata is item 2. I know there is more to kata than just putting basics together, but, in perspective, we have to go through all 5 steps and then come BACK to #1 and then revisit kata with the newfound principles and concepts. NOT try to use kata ALONE to discover these elements.

Sooo... with each of those 5 elements being a percentage of your training, each is 20%. That's right! Lets take a 100 minute class twice a week: That's 40 minutes a week or 20 minutes per class on kata... as an example.

Yet, how many of us spend an entire class on kata. How about half of EVERY class on kata. The bottom line is, doing this brings a deficit in the beginning student's comprehension of the SYSTEM! THIS is why the general public's perception of karate is centered on what kata is (to them as an untrained observer) and the basic application from the kata they see demonstrated by the beginners.

You MUST partition your training schedule differently if you are to properly transmit the principles of traditional karate correctly and for kata to truly be experienced as the soul of karate. Let me give you another anecdote that has similar implications but gets misconstrued all the time. "Victory lies with the sword remaining in the scabbard" referring to swordsmanship and the thought of giving life and taking it. This does not mean we practice swordsmanship without EVER taking the sword out in order to learn the art!!

From another perspective, saying Kata is the "soul" of karate is like saying the holster is the "soul" of gunfighting. Without context or true involvement in the art, it actually means nothing.

I have also found that most advanced teachers of traditional Karate know this. Through their experiences in the world and their learning of karate from leaders in the traditional karate community, they know what I am saying is true. However, there is this odd apprehension about doing something about it! Perhaps, there is too much stock placed in the mind of a beginner...they can only internalize so many things and it is probably better for them to spend most of their developmental time on only practicing the basics. Perhaps it is also too hard to take on the task of reworking a standard curriculum of teaching and learning to allow for the implementation of some of the above concepts. Well, my only advice is, if you do what you always did, you will be what you've always been.

Here's some help to ease what I can only assume is guilt over changing what one might think is the traditional method of learning. Its not. If you look at the context and history of the training of westerners in eastern arts, you will inevitably find that information is transmitted differently to us than it is in Japan and Asia. What made the masters of the classical era so good and maintain such legendary reputations? Well, let's just say its NOT by practicing kata all day.

So, back to the beginning. Kata IS the soul of karate... for me. But that's because I get it. It is for many of Karate's present day masters who have gone beyond typical western classroom karate and looked into the past a bit. But don't just use the "soul" statement as a cheap catch phrase. Get out there and mix things up. Trust the beginners, the black belts, your staff, and the tradition to be able to adjust and excel with a more classical view of training. Somebody 200 years ago said that kata is the soul of karate. We can't understand that with our modern mind. We have to literally go back in time. It takes time. It takes money. Its frustrating. Its degrading.

Its life-changing.

This is of course where I should shamelessly plug my seminar series on the subject... but I won't:)

Happy Training

Monday, April 4, 2011

Kem(n)po Karate

The title looks odd doesn't it. People ask me, referring to the name of my dojo, the Academy of Kempo Karate, what is the difference between Kempo, Kenpo, and Karate.

Well, it can be an easy answer, but we can also make it really complicated. How about easy?

As an aside, Kenpo, with the ken being used to mean "sword" is used in the old sword disciplines of Japan to simply describe ways of using the sword. "Po" means method. However, kenjutsu, iaido, battojutsu, and kendo are more popularly chosen when referring to the style.

Ken, when using another character, means fist, so, Kenpo means methods of using your fist. In Chinese, the same characters are pronounced "Chuan Fa".

Okinawa has cultural ties to China. When Chinese martial arts were introduced to Okinawa, the term Kenpo was often used to describe what they were doing. But, Di, Ti, and Todi in the Okinawan dialect were also used. Todi means "China hand" and the implication is similar to that of Kenpo, ways of using your fist or Chinese hand techniques. However, it is not denoting a style... it is simply a way of describing a martial art in general.

The characters for Todi are pronounced "Kara Te" in Japanese.

So what is the difference? Nothing. Typically, the difference is a time period. At some time in Okinawa's history, certain terms were used to describe the martial arts.

As far as pronunciation goes, Kenpo and Kempo are the same. As an example "number 1" is "I Pon" and "number 4" is "Yo Hon". The P becomes an H depending on how the word sounds... kinda like how we use "a" before a consonant and "an" before a vowel.

Additionally, when not using kanji and using hiragana (using characters organized by syllables and not by idea) there is no "m"... but there is a "n". So, the word Kempo would be written in hiragana as "Ke N Po" instead of trying to make the m work like this: "Ke Mu Po". Again, there is no "M" syllable in hiragana. So "mu, ma, me, or mi" would have to be injected.

That's the easy...they are the same. Different teachers like using Kempo to imply or more classical approach with the word Karate being a more modern term.

It gets complicated when we start talking about Karate's migration to Hawaii in the early 20th century. They preferred to use Kempo, and further William Chow chose to use Kenpo to differentiate his art from the Kempo of James Mitose. Ed Parker, a student of Chow's, used Kenpo, thus the terms "American Kenpo" was founded. American Kenpo is different in many ways that Okinawan Kenpo, which leads to the confusion and the question "What's the difference?"

Notable Okinawans who chose to use the term "Kenpo/Kempo" are Choki Motobu, Shuguro Nakamura, Shinsuke Kaneshima, Seiyu Oyata, and Seikichi Odo.

The terms Kempo, Kenpo, Karate, and Kempo-Karate are used all over, but cannot today be distinguished from the other based on name alone as they used to be.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How "Motobu" Is Your "Motobu ha?"

What I will be discussing concerns the art of Motobu ha Shito Ryu. It is a style of karate stemming from Master Choki Motobu and extends to his student Master Kosei Kuniba (Kokuba), Kuniba’s son Master Shogo Kuniba, and to the different factions carried on by Successors and Shihan of Master Shogo Kuniba.

The name “Motobu ha Shito Ryu” comes from the fact that Shogo Kuniba studied the Motobu Ryu Karate his father learned from Choki Motobu and the Shito Ryu he learned from several Shito Ryu exponents, including the founder, Master Kenwa Mabuni.

From my expererience in other classical traditions, the terms “Motobu ha Shito Ryu” are actually a little odd... it implies the Motobu faction of Shito Ryu, implying further that Motobu was a student of Shito Ryu, which he wasn’t. Shogo Kuniba was attempting to give tribute to the influences of Motobu and Mabuni Shito Ryu on his branch of the karate tree. I am certainly not one to critique a Japanese martial arts Master with his use of the Japanese language, so I’ll just leave it as... it just sounds a little odd in this combination of terms. Regardless, I, and thousands of others all over the world, enjoy practicing this unique version of traditional karate.

Motobu ha Shito Ryu, and its organizational umbrella under Kuniba, Seishinkai, has had a wild history of development since the death of Master Kuniba. Organizational rights, familial rights, and stylistic rights have plagued the style. Today, no less than 5 different organizations represent Motobu ha Shito Ryu, all with legitimate “paperwork” to teach the style. While many choose to focus on political issues, myself and my peers choose to positively promote the style and its unique place in karate history to the students of the style who will one day carry the torch.

The idea for this little excerpt came from a topic I have discussed at clinics, seminars and camps for years now. That is, there’s a point in some martial artists’ career where a sort of identity problem materializes. I personally have wrestled with the question, with regards to Motobu ha Shito Ryu, what did I “really” know about the style? Is it really just a matter of doing a kata a certain way or holding my middle block at a certain angle. Certainly, there’s more to the art I study than this! After pondering and pondering, I boiled it down to several concepts that I needed answered in order for me to be an authority on the subject. One question in particular, that I had sort of saved for last due to its overwhelming elusiveness was “where is my “Motobu?” It is the first name in the style nomenclature, yet, nobody seemed to know anything about how the name truly identifies our style.

The reason for this realization is that when it came down to it, most of the emphasis of the Karate Do facet of Motobu ha Shito Ryu was the execution of kata, and this execution revolved around Shito Ryu methodology. Kata is one of the primary training practices of all training in Karate Do...Karate’s “soul,” if you will. While there are some stylistic differences between the different styles’ execution of kata, most kata, regardless of style, are more similar than they are different. In fact, some instructors within the same style execute their kata differently. Additionally, different students who studied with the same instructor but at different developmental stages in the Instructor’s career tend to do things slightly differently and even argue about who is more correct...when in fact they are all correct.

So I decided to forego trying to figure out whose version is right, who has the rights to what name, whose picture to put on the wall, and whose history lesson to believe and find out for myself... What does the “Motobu” mean? You see, everyone lays claim to Master Motobu being in their lineage, but who really knows... who has researched extensively... the history and training practices of Master Motobu.

The answer was, apparently, nobody.

Until one day my good friend Tom called me to say that he had made contact with Chosei Motobu’s organization and he is interested in meeting us. Chosei Motobu (formally “Soke”) is the son of Choki Motobu, our style’s namesake. If we were to find out real answers, this was a great place to start.

Fast-forward. We have since brought Master Chosei Motobu to our dojo on two 8 day trips constituting about 50 hours of training in the root art of Motobu Ryu. I even have taken the study of Motobu Ryu a step further and began studying the Kobudo of the Motobu family. I have lots of pictures, lots of “paper”, and lots of memories. But most of all, I found my “Motobu.”

My love is truly for Karate Do, styistically the Motobu ha Shito Ryu, and specifically my kai. There is no better group of practitioners who are willing to put the politics of everything aside and only worry themselves about good training, character development, and the welfare of the member students. I took up the study of a nearly forgotten discipline, Motobu Ryu, to enhance my understanding of the discipline I love, Motobu ha Shito Ryu.

So, for the benefit of Motobu ha Shito Ryu practitioners everywhere, regardless of whose flag you fly in the dojo or whose patch you wear on your chest, here are some suggestions for adding a little more "Motobu" to your repetoire.

First, when it comes to trying to understand the Karate of Choki Motobu Sensei, there is no higher authority than his son, Chosei Motobu, Sensei. He is 2nd Soke (Headmaster) of Motobu Kempo and 14th Soke of Motobu Udundi, a rarely seen Okinawan Budo. Material provided here can be found in Choki Motobu’s “Watashi no Karate” as well as articles preserved in the Motobu Ryu archives, available on the Motobukai web-site. Other information was provided to me (and others present during the visits) personally during interviews and training with Chosei Motobu, Soke here in Virginia.

The Differences

Motobu Kempo (Motobu Sensei’s prefers the term “Kempo” to “Karate”) utilizes, at its core, only two kata; Naihanchi Shodan and Naihanchi Nidan. Paraphrasing Choki Motobu Sensei, all one needs in order to understand the principles of Karate are in these two kata. This is of course, the greatest contradiction to the almost encyclopedic collection of kata boasted by Shito Ryu practitioners. Kenwa Mabuni, Sensei preserved many old fighting styles as a responsibility to the art, thus, the numerous kata contained in the Shito Ryu syllabus. While remembering all of the kata is a daunting task, it is a noble one. In no other faction of traditional karate are so many Karate based fighting principles, theories, and techniques preserved than in Shito Ryu.

Motobu Kempo utilizes “irimi” more so than Shito Ryu. Irimi means that, instead of side-stepping or angling in techniques, Motobu Kempo moves straight in whenever possible. Angling, as traditional training professes, is a compromise between moving away from an attack with a blocking sequence, only to have to move back in and moving straight in on an attack which presents a timing issue. This is not to say that I personally am against moving at angles, I am a huge proponent of it, but, it is not consistent with Motobu Ryu methodology. Choki Motobu, according to his son, taught that it is better to practice hard and get good at moving straight in, than practicing to be “safe” and moving at angles.

Motobu Kempo is not as circular as Shito Ryu. Shito Ryu contains the Naha te element of Okinawan karate which uses effective circular techniques in the execution of defense. Blocking, striking, kicking, and tuite (grappling) are very “straight,” attacking the closest target available with the closest weapon available in the straightest path possible.

Motobu Kempo utilizes a posture called “Miutudi,” meaning husband and wife hand. This would translate into orthodox kata techniques as the “Morote Uke.” Many styles call this block a “reinforcing block” but in Motobu Kempo, it is used entirely differently. The principle is that wherever one hand goes, the other is linked to it.

The position of the “middle block,” or chudan uke, is different in Motobu Kempo. The forearm is vertical rather than the approximate 45 degrees that most karate styles employ.

The range, or “ma ai” of Motobu Kempo is different. This is demonstrated in the kamae (posture) and hand position of techniques. Motobu Kempo techniques are done much closer to the opponent.

Shito Ryu contains several dachi (stances), whereas Motobu Kempo contains only a couple.

The way in which the Naihanchi kata are performed are significantly different.


Similarities lie in the fact that the basic waza of both arts have their roots in traditional Okinawan Karate and therefore share certain characteristics in form. However, the nuances of each art, particularly in the execution of kata, are quite different.

They both have the Naihanchi kata in their curriculum.

They both place an emphasis on practical applications of kata and self defense, particularly in the softer side of the arts such as grappling, joint locking, and throwing techniques.


Master Choki Motobu was the teacher of the Seishinkan founder Kosei Kuniba and the progenitor of the systems that bear his name. Yet, nothing other than informational “tidbits” such as Choki Motobu’s birthdate and nickname (Saaru, which is also incorrectly explained as “monkey...” saru is Japanese. It means something different in the Okinawan dialect...) are taught within the curriculum of Motobu ha Shito Ryu.

People ask me and my peers, “Did you study under anyone from the Kuniba family?” The answer is no, I did not have the privilege. There are many practitioners in the world that I would recommend as absolute authorities on the subject of Master Kuniba and his teaching methodolgies. Master Kuniba is succeeded by his family and his Shihan, all of whom share(d) the burden of promoting Motobu ha Shito Ryu. But, I have studied under the Motobu family...

In my years of exposure to this art, most who consider themselves authorities on the subject end their level of expertise with an understanding of Master Kuniba’s and his successors’ deepest philosophies, and from these teachings, students of Motobu ha Shito Ryu have a lifetime of practice ahead of them. I appreciate their efforts, but have been personally plagued with the idea that so little was known about the technique of the art’s namesake. My hope is that this will, at the very least, promote some interest in getting to know more about this great karate Master.

For a mere blog topic, this entry contains just enough information to aggravate... on purpose. If there is continued interest in the topic, I’ll keep the ball rolling.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Squish

You Budo yes, you Budo no, you Budo maybe...you get the squish, just like grape.

This is a modified quote from the Karate Kid.

When I see martial arts that are just not to my liking (through a lot of therapy and shock treatment I have learned not to say "those martial arts that suck") I have conditioned my brain to reflect on something that Niina Gosoke said once:

As long as they are having fun...but it's not Budo...

At the time he was watching a video and the participants were clearly enjoying what they do. He said nothing negative. He smiled and said it looks like fun!

But, it was not Budo.


In reading "Musashi: His Life and Writings", I've learned something interesting about the training methodology of our completely unrelated Motobu Udundi.

In the book, there are excerpts of a Kendo Sensei's writings on how he relates the study of Musashi's "single cadence strike" to kendo. The author then does his best to translate some of the esoteric material into English.

Regardless, the talk of the relationship between your right and left sides, how the cadence is different with only a single hand weapon in your right hand, how that translates into having a two handed weapon, how the diagonal tension between the upper and lower body relates to cadence, maai, and speed/ timing, and the tanden/ koshi is all quite eerie when considering the esoteric training practices of Motobu Udundi. This will require some time and thought. I love finding something new to dive into.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Black Belt

Shodan, what is commonly referred to as black belt, 1st degree, does not mean first degree black belt. Black belt would be "Kuro Obi".

Shodan literally means 1st level. It implies that a student is officially at the first level, one is NOW ready to learn.

Too many young people receive their black belts and think they know enough to comment on martial arts. They think that the black belt is a huge accomplishment. It is only the beginning. These people need to just keep their mouths shut and train. As a shodan, you're not even shown anything of substance let alone have any authority to offer an opinion on anything.