Budo Karate West
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In part one of this post on Kyokushin-Kan and its efforts to unify Kata within Kyokushin-Kan worldwide, I mentioned the parallel between Kyokushin-Kan’s introduction of its Shinken-Shobu Rules tournaments (with head punches) and its push, through its 2013 World Kata Tourament, to standardize kata within Kyokushin-kan, and also to influence all of Kyokushin worldwide, even beyond Kyokushin-Kan’s borders. Both are demonstrations of a concentrated effort to re-introduce into Kyokushin Karate, elements that were lost as Kyokushin gained its enormous worldwide popularity through Mas Oyama’s World Tournaments. Kyokushin-Kan’s philosophy in this particular case: Bigger is not always better. Kyokushin got huge, but it did so at some cost.
Lets look at a couple Youtube Videos of Mas Oyama. As you watch consider this point: Should we not endeavor to experience some of what our founder knew when he began his practice of karate? Kyokushin Karate was a synthesis of many different styles. Is not the best way to understand it fully to ALSO reach back to its roots, and experience what our founder experienced that led to the original Kyokushin synthesis?
In this first video, let’s watch a young Mas Oyama practicing Naifanchin Shodan, a kata that most of us never practiced during the final decades of Mas Oyama’s life, one that nevertheless Kyokushin-Kan’s Okazaki Shihan declares (on the behalf of Kancho Royama), along with Sanchin, to be the kata that is most integrally related to self-defense.
And how about this one, below? How awesome is this footage of the young Mas Oyama striking a mikiwara! Note the “spring” to this striking surface? Yet we know from Mas Oyama’s autobiographical accounts that his standard striking surface was the makiwara mounted to a tree trunk (and sometimes just the unprotected tree trunk itself!). The point here to consider is Mas Oyama’s use of hard striking surfaces. We’ve grown up in an era influenced by watching video of young Japanese and European tournament champions training by striking kick mits and punching bags, and wearing “bag gloves,” no less, while doing so. Sure some of us are aware of makiwara (and sandbag) training, but there can be no doubt that the popularity and frequency of this type of training that was CENTRAL to our founder’s training is, at the very most, SECONDARY to our own.
In this third video clip, below, we can see Mas Oyama practicing Tensho. We know that just 3 years before his death, it was this kata that the 70-year-old Mas Oyama demonstrated at his 5th World Open Tournament in 1991. Yet, how much do we really know about Tensho (and the so similar Sanchin)? Our training has all been centered around the Pinan Kata, yet Okazaki Shihan has said that “Pinan Kata are not really real Kata. They should rather be thought of as practice for beginning the study of Kata. Why? Because there is no deep meaning to the movements and their applications. They are not fighting kata”
The Pinan kata, and I can attest that Mas Oyama personally taught us all of the Pinan kata as well as Yantsu, Tensho, Saiha, and the Pinan Kata Ura in our special uchi deshi trainings at Honbu 20 years ago, are nevertheless kata for the masses. Sure one should learn them to approach shodan level, but have we not heard the expression that “real karate training doesn’t even begin until black belt level”? There’s a reason why we learn these before we begin our “real” kata training after reaching black belt. There’s a reason why we continue to battle for perfecting even the basics, and even those basic kata.
Kancho Royama is very strict with his stressing of the importance of Ikken (chi energy) training in all of Kyokushin-Kan’s international instructor’s seminars. “Take what you learn here back to your countries, and introduce it to your students,” he says time and again. After eight years of practicing Ikken (to the limited extent that I have) we have begun, in North Carolina, practicing Taikyokuken (Tai Chi) as a natural supplement to the Chi training offered by Ikken (only because we have better access to a high-level Taikyokuken teacher). I was struck, recently by this photograph, below left, because this is a Taikyokuken posture after all, not one that students of my generation were accustomed to seeing, ever, in our own training. I realized a mistake in understanding that I’d made for many years: When I saw photographs of Mas Oyama in postures like these, I assumed that they were being performed with the same kind of diaphragm-based destructive power that we are used to seeing (such as in the video of makiwara training above). Yet now, having practiced some Ikken and Taikyokuken, I question that assumption.
Kancho Royama has been stressing now for years the extent to which Chi energy training (Ikken) had been a part of Mas Oyama’s training and we know that Mas Oyama was a colleague and student of the Ikken Master, Sawai Sensei, who also taught Kancho Royama and our Vice-Chairman, Hiroshige Shihan. I recall a story told me by IFK’s head instructor, Hanshi Steve Arneil. We were in Budapest at a restaurant and he told me how he’d seen an aging Mas Oyama tear the side out of a free standing beer bottle without toppling the bottle.
We’ve all seen Mas Oyama break the neck off of standing beer bottles, but in this case Hanshi Arneil told me how Mas Oyama had struck the bottle palm first, and then withdrawn his hand so fast that he actually grabbed a broken piece of glass out of the hole in the bottle he’d smashed. The beer, rushed out the side of the still standing bottle, and Mas Oyama opened his hand to show the crowd the broken shard of glass. Note the picture at left: I don’t know if he’s smashed it with ura-ken (back first), or weather he’s torn the side out of it with a shu-te (palm heel strike), withdrawn into a fist. Yet, I’m immediately drawn to a recollection of a verbal exchange I had with our Vice-Chairman Shihan Hiroshige.
I had practiced to break beer bottles myself, Hiroshige Shihan watched a video of my efforts, and he told me that it was completely different from what Mas Oyama had done. “You’re using your bone-muscular system,” he said. “Mas Oyama used Chi. It’s much faster, much more minutely destructive.” Hiroshige Shihan, too, was a great practitioner of Ikken.
So . . . 1. Kata and its Bunkai (application), 2. defense and application of head punches, 3. the striking of hard surfaces rather than soft, and 4. training to develop an awareness and control of Chi energy. Add to this training 5. the traditional weapons of Japan (bo, sai, tonfa, jo), which are stressed in Kyokushin-kan seminars to re-introduce into Kyokushin a better understanding and application of stance, and we have a complete list of the major elements of training that are being stressed within Kyokushin-Kan, NOT to replace the training methods we all learned to fight in tournaments, but to deepen our understanding of it, and regain some of what was lost as Kyokukushin (through the World Tournament rules and popularity) drifted, ever so slightly, towards the sport end of the spectrum.
Let’s watch one more video clip of Mas Oyama, and I will comment below:
When I first saw this video clip as a teenager, I actually wondered, because of that first “KO” in which Mas Oyama drops his opponent with a single knuckle to the solar plexus, whether or not that opponent was “accommodating” Mas Oyama for the sake of the video. Did he drop intentionally without a true KO? The sound-effects the film editor added were no help. I watch the collection of clips today, however, and realize how ignorant I was then. The next two KO’s, a straight punch to the jaw, and then a haito (opposite edge of open hand from shuto) to the jaw, are clearly authentic knock outs. Watch them in slow motion and you’ll see this opponent’s heads react to the impact. Yet, do those strikes land with the same diaphram-based destructive impact of the images of Mas Oyama striking the makiwara above? Do they fall like we’re accustomed to slamming our fists into our opponents in tournaments? Do they fall like our blows do against punching bags?
Of course they don’t. We, in our generation, are accustomed to learning that kind of destructive power, because we’ve been limited in our competitions to hard, defensible targets, such as the thighs and body. We don’t strike the dangerous, vulnerable, soft targets such as the face, groin, neck, kidneys, and joints. Through my training with Kyokushin-Kan it has become crystal clear to me that, even training as a personal student of Mas Oyama, I was leaning during an era of intense popularization of Kyokushin during which everyone trained for the competitions, and rarely studied the lethality of what Kyokushin had originally been, a karate which was based on the life-and-death of self-defense, rather than relative care-free of tournament competition. Everyone walks away from tournaments, after all. Of course (!!!) tournaments are a critical tool to learning Kyokushin karate, and of course (!!!) the Budo Karate attitude is present in the “win at all costs” attitude, but it is a recent (and Western notion) that tournaments are the goal.
Kyokushin-Kan’s philosophy: Kyokushin is still great, but some things have been lost that originally defined it, and it’s time to get them back. It’s time for the students to re-discover them, to return a sharp edge to something that has become somewhat blunted. It is thus that we come full circle, and arrive where we started: Kyokushin-Kan’s standardization of Kata.
Note, above, the Japanese competitor that took 2nd place in the men’s division, and below a competitor from Bulgaria, who did NOT win in kata, but who also won the day’s Shinken Shobu karate tournament in the heavyweight division. The Japanese karateka won the kata, and the Bulgarian won the kumite, but showing them, side by side, is not an inappropriate depiction of Kyokushin-Kan’s intent. Imagine if we could bring them together into one fighter? Kata, after all, and its companion Bunkai, are the science upon which the brutish of the slug fest in the tournament is based. One can train for competition and win tournaments with rules, but take the fighter who’s mastered the art, like Mas Oyama, who can handle a true self-defense situation (multiple armed opponents trying to kill him), and put him/her into a tournament and just think what kind of fighter would result? Kancho Royama, when he fought in the 1st World Tournament, was accustomed to training in the dojo with punches to the head, grabs, throws, arm-reversals, and kicks to the groin, knees, eyes, and neck.
Remember that kata is integrally related to karate if we study it, learn its application, and how to apply what we learn during kumite. Remember that kumite is merely an exercise we employ to learn self-defense; it’s not self-defense by itself. Consider what defines correct kata:
You are practicing by making your kata match the kata shown in Kyokushin-Kan’s DVD’s? Great, that’s a good place to start, but if you’re learning the kata from the kata, you’re learning to dance better. According to the spirit of Kyokushin-Kan, you have to learn the kata through its bunkai, and then you will have something that means something to your fighting ability. What defines the correct kata? One might say, “the DVD,” or “my teacher,” or “the way my teacher does it.” Okay, so what defines the correct kata for those who made the DVD, or those who taught your teacher? The answer is simple, but often missed:
The perfect motions of the kata are also the perfect motions that you might use to defend/counter against the intended attacks. The beginner complains, “but when I do it like the kata, it doesn’t work; it works better if I do it my way!” But that’s the beginner. Consider this: There’s a reason why the motions look like they do. There is a reason why the masters who created them, created them that way. That reason is that those motions are the best motions to expertly defend and counter against the intended attack in a lethal situation. Therefore, we have to continue to refine the motions, and study the effective application of the movements, until the two merge. We have to practice them more until we realize that they are, in fact, the superior movements. Is that not a perfect parallel to the comparison I made above between the Japanese competitor who won in kata, and the Eastern-European who won the Shihen-Shobu tournament? Would either one of them be perfect in a self-defense situation? I think not yet.
Kancho Royama regularly makes the point that in order to teach one point effectively, we have to know the 10 points that support it. It’s the same for the fighter. Yes, you can become strong for tournaments with punching bags, sparring partners, barbells, sprints and kcik mits. But what if behind every punch, the fighter, thus trained, knew even half of those 10 points that lie behind on the road to mastery? One thing is sure: Kyokushin-Kan is moving ahead with the conviction that all that Mas Oyama created was fantastic, but that if we don’t work on refining these points, generations will pass, and it will cease to be quite so fantastic. If you are a Kyokushin-Kan member and you don’t get on board, if you don’t work on refining the kata and understanding the bunkai, you’ll be left by the wayside. Should you do it at the expense of all your current tournament-era training? Of course not. But it’s a mistake to ignore it.
Perhaps I’ll write a 3rd part to this post. There is still information to add about the event itself, about the Americans who participated, and about the kata seminar that was held the following day at Honbu for the foreign competitors. In the mean time, if you are a student or instructor within Kyokushin-Kan and you want to please Honbu, work very diligently to refine your kata, and your understanding of its bunkai.