Building on Foundations

Ever since I started karate I’ve been fascinated by the rich history of this intriguing practice, and the stories of karateka past and present who have paved the way for the modern practices we have today.

As a teenager I ‘bought in’ to the grandiose stories of feats and near miracles performed by many of the past masters. Leaping bridges, walking on the ceiling, piercing meat with the finger tips and the defeat of countless armed attackers by a single unarmed karateka were just some of the stories that I devoured keenly.

Ultimately I started coming to the view that the grand masters of past were extremely talented and insightful bugeisha of their times, but would likely be comparable to mid-level black belts of the present. I say this not to denigrate them, but to respect the foundation they laid that has allowed following generations to build on their vision.

John Titchen made a brilliant post about this back in January (I know I am a bit slow on this, but I’ve been traveling for work) called ‘The Giants are Pygmies’

Matsumura, Itosu, Funakoshi, Motobu, Kyan, Miyagi, Mabuni, Ohtsuka to name but a few… these names ring loudly in training halls across the world. Their thoughts on karate are still read and studied. But these men are not giants by today’s standards, in fact in the modern world they are pygmies compared to many of the teachers with whom you could study.

His post reflects the thoughts I’ve long held. We should respect and honour the masters past for the amazing foundation they laid, and the best way we can honour it is to reinforce that foundation and continue to build on it.

We know a lot more now than our past-masters did. Science has moved forward, and we no-longer need woo or mysticism to explain things when our knowledge of physiology, biomechanics and physics can now explain that which was once unexplained.

The worst insult we can pay to the heritage of the forebears in lineages is to assume that was is complete, perfect and unchangeable.

The second worst insult would be to change things thoughtlessly, without fully understanding the foundation.

This is in many respects what the tradition of shu-ha-ri is about.

Shu-Ha-Ri reminds us that learning is a gradual process that includes the need to first learn the fundamentals (shu), to then explore and innovate on those fundamentals (ha) and finally to transcend them (ri).

In other words:

  1. Shu – learn how the foundations were laid, and fully understand their strengths and limitations.
  2. Ha – reinforce the foundations so as to extend their strengths and offset any limitations.
  3. Ri – build on the foundations your own unique construction.

The foundations are common to us all, we respect those that have gone before by fully understanding the foundations and then adding to the collective wisdom, before making our own unique expression.

Titchen sensei makes another great point about a tendency we have of putting people on pedestals.

We should respect those that have gone before us. But do not put them on pedestals or treat everything they said or did as gospel truth. Many of them had less experience and knowledge than either you or the person you train with. Honour their memory by carrying karate forward as they did and pay them the courtesy of respecting the reality of their humanity and fallibility.

I continually see even senior budoka putting seniors on pedestals. A high ranking karateka I know believes that his own teacher is “beyond reproach”.

This is delusional thinking, and quite dangerous. Certainly, we should respect the abilities of our teachers, but no matter how widely experienced, travelled and studied those teachers might be, they are just human and their knowledge has limits. This teacher is undoubtedly a karateka of great talent with over 50 years of study. This man is a human, expert in some aspects of human study, but as we all are, wonderfully normal in most areas of life.

Our role is to respect the foundations that bugeisha of years past have laid, and the reinforcements that have been added by subsequent generations, by learning these foundations completely, and perhaps one day adding to the collective wisdom through providing our own reinforcements to the foundations. This is the proper respect, not blind obedience and not-questioning.

Upcoming book – Mike Clarkes Redemption

Mike Clarke Kyoshi has posted about the forthcoming publication of his book Redemption, the story of his mis-spent youth and the redemption he found in the form of karate.

As the book has four chapters, each month leading up to publication in May he will post an excerpt of one of the chapters. The first post is titled When I was a young man, I did young man things….

my take on life back then was pretty basic. I solved my problems with my fists (as well as my head to several soft targets), and because of that found myself on the wrong side of ‘the wall’ just days before my eighteenth birthday.


The book is a complete re-write of his original autobiography, Roaring Silence. I have had the opportunity to read a preview of the manuscript, and there are a lot of important lessons to be learned in Mike Sensei‘s journey from troubled youth to a man very much shaped by his extensive and indepth study of Okinawan karate.

I am looking forward to reading the final work in May.

You can pre-order Redemption by Mike Clarke with free worldwide shipping.

Karate is for Life…

Karate is for Life…

How often does a karate teacher emphasise that karate is for life or that karate-do is a way of life?

I would hazard a guess that somewhere in the world – at a dojo, training camp or seminar – a karate teacher has made that very statement within the last hour.

But, what does that mean. Gojuryu’s founder MIyagi Chojun is said to have emphasised that one’s priorities in life should be:

  1. Family
  2. Work / study
  3. Karate

I think Miyagi sensei was at least partially right, but that the third priority should be something along the lines of ‘activities to promote physical or mental health’.

As the saying goes “two out of three ain’t bad”.

I enjoyed a post of Charles Goodin’s recently revitalised Karate Thoughts blog today that touches on this very topic, in which he related his pride in a One of his Student’s Recent Accomplishment outside the dojo (emphasis mine):

And, for me, Karate should not be the best thing that you do. If you are good at Karate and bad at everything else, then what kind of Karate student are you? But if you are great at everything else and good at Karate, then what a Karate student you are!

I think Goodin sensei gets it just right here. A student who is doing well in their karate and is doing at least as well in their other aspects of life, especially family, work and study, is the best role model we can have.

To quote one of Patrick McCarthy sensei‘s sayings:

Breathing by Jesse


Jesse Enkamp talks about the best way to breathe in karate, a topic that can be quite controversial.

Jesse’s conclusion is a simple one, and it reminds me of the most important rule in scuba diving – breathe continuously and never hold your breath.

On a side note, I’m looking forward to meeting and training with Jesse in Sydney in January.

Wallace Smedley’s Five Points on Self Defense

Wallace Smedley, author of the book Slapping Dragons has posted a great article regarding Five Things to Remember About Self Defense.

In this article, Wallace paints a realistic picture about the reality of self-defense, the role of awareness and avoidance, the importance of health and the potential legal and psychological consequences of acting in self defense.

Well worth a read.

Mario McKenna Sensei on Correct Practice

Mario McKenna on “Correct Practice”

Mario McKenna Sensei (guest on episode 13 of The Applied Karate Show podcast) on the importance of correct practice in karate and kobudo training:

So what is correct practice? Correct practice for beginners means focusing on fundamental exercises that create a strong base for more specific ones later on.

My former teacher, Masayuki Hisataka Sensei always emphasised that it wasn’t enough to turn up and train, but that you had to have:

  • Correct mind
  • Correct practice
  • Correct technique

Hisataka Sensei used always emphasise that the starting point was the correct mind. This mindset lead you to practice correctly, which was the only way to develop correct technique.

I liked that in McKenna Sensei’s post he emphasised that the three fundamental aspects of correct practice in Naha-te based systems like Gojuryu are junbi undo (preparatory exercises), kihon gata (fundamental kata) and hojo undo (supplementary exercises).

In the Shorinjiryu Koshinkai Karatedo practiced at the Kengokan Dojo junbi undo and kata are clearly common elements of our correct practice. The third element would undoubtedly be futari geiko (two person practice) exercises, including yakusoku kumite (pre-arranged drills) and bogu kumite (kumite utilising body armour).

It’s important to consider the foundations of your training. What are the fundamental aspects of your system?

The End of 24 Fighting Chickens?

24 Fighting Chickens is a long standing blog and forum that has served to challenge many of the common perceptions about karate’s methods, applications, practices and history. The publisher of the site, Rob Redmond kicked off the in 1995, at a time when the web was hardly known, and when karate related websites were few and far between.

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the site, and Rob has posted that the 24 Fighting Chickens is coming to an end.

I’m looking around, and I think we’re done here. Time to lower the flags of discontent, and move on to other projects.

I am saddened to see this, but wish to recognise Rob for his achievements in fighting the mainstream beliefs of karate. His efforts have caused many karateka, particularly those in mainstream Japanese styles, to analyse the roots and purpose of karate with more of an open-mind. I have agreed with many of Rob’s perspectives and opinions, and disagreed with others. I applaud his efforts to challenge people’s thinking.

Thanks Rob. Best wishes for your next endeavours.

The Rise of Karate Tourism

There has been a rise of what can be called karate tourism of recent times, driven by providers both on Okinawa and in the USA who arrange seminars, logistics, hotels, translators, etc. Former guests on The Applied Karate Show podcast Mike Clarke Kyoshi (interviewed in episode 4) and Mario McKenna Sensei (interviewed in episode 12) have both recently posted thoughtful articles on this trend.

Both of these gentlemen have done things the hard way – taken themselves out of their comfort zone and travelled to a foreign culture and sought and received admission to a dojo so they could train under a teacher who they saw provided value. They didn’t look for a third party to make the arrangements for them. In many respects the journey was as important as the goal.

Mario McKenna Sensei expresses his thoughts beautifully:

IMHO, if you’re using a company or service to arrange your travel, accommodations, and training on Okinawa or Japan, then you’re doing kanko (sightseeing).

There’s nothing wrong with sightseeing, but it is important that we don’t confuse it with true keiko (training). I’ve had the opportunity to undertake both in the past, and enjoyed different experiences in each.

In 1991 I moved to Japan for two years where I trained with the hereditary head of Shorinjiryu Kenkokan Karatedo, Hisataka Masayuki Hanshi. I had already been training in Shorinjiryu for 8 years by that stage, and had previously met Hisataka Sensei on several occasions. Nonetheless, I made my own arrangements (travel, work and accomodation), and armed myself with letters of introduction from our then chief instructors in Australia. Although I had sent a letter to Hisataka Sensei in advance, I made my own way to the dojo on my first day in Tokyo, and started my personal experience.

For the next two years, I had many wonderful experiences in budo. I was very fortunate to have others guide and include me in those, including people like Hisataka Sensei and Patrick McCarthy Hanshi (who I had met early in my stay), as well as other friends and colleagues I met in the dojo and at various events. This is the way of budo – it is not a solo journey, but one that you must undertake yourself in the company of teachers, seniors, peers and, eventually perhaps, students.

These two years were a personal journey, and involved many challenging events. For each challenge faced there was a corresponding personal victory. As another of my former teachers, Watanabe Shunji Hanshi likes to say.

Karate shugyo wa ningen shugyo. Ningen shugyo wa karate shugyo

Although hard to translate, shugyo can mean the “warriors quest or pilgrammage”, but I like the definition from the Shugyo Center that describes it as “dedicated and authentic physical and spiritual training”. So Watanabe Sensei’s quote means that something like “the dedicated and authentic physical and spiritual training of karate is the dedicated and authentic physical and spiritual training of being a human, and vice versa”.

In 2006, my wife and I had the opportunity to spend a few days on Okinawa. Although I had lived in Japan for two years and had researched the history and practice of Okinawan karate and bukiho (weaponry, a.k.a kobudo) for many years, this was to be my first visit to the island. I made the decision that there would be insufficient time to train in any meaningful way, and thus decided to be a tourist.

Of course, I would be more of a karate tourist, visiting historic sites and dojo that were meaningful in karate history, absorbing the culture and perhaps meeting a few key masters.

We didn’t consider having anyone else organise this for us. We arrived on Okinawa and checked in to our hotel. Then each day we visited various locations. Of course, we visited the Shuri Castle and surrounding areas, the Okinawan Prefectural Museum, the markets, Tomari waterfront, various grave sites and monuments and Kudaka Island (my former teacher, Hisataka Sensei’s name is pronounced Kudaka in the Okinawan language, and his ancestors were feudal lords of this island). We visited Hokama Tetsuhiro Sensei’s Karate Museum and dojo, and visited many dojo to pay respects. A highlight was meeting the late Nakazato Joen Sensei at his Kyudokan Dojo.

From a research perspective, this was a wonderful trip, and there was a mental/spiritual element of shugyo to it. But it was not a training experience – I made a conscious decision to have a tourist experience on that occasion. On my next visit to Okinawa, however, I will be looking at a trip that is predominately training. I will still do some tourist things (there are still many sights unseen for me on Okinawa).

Mike Clarke Sensei has a wonderful view on the nature of (Okinawan) budo:

Okinawan karate and kobudo are very special activities, and in my opinion, neither should be given away lightly

Karate tourism provides a “50,000 foot view”, but real karate happens on solid ground. Tourism has it’s place, but don’t confuse it with training. A true teacher will only give superficial instruction to tourists.

I agree wholeheartedly that karate tourism should not be seen as karate training. But it does have a place, and perhaps the big part is that perhaps a small percentage of those who undertake karate tourism will have their eyes opened, and will go back to one day explore more deeply.

Chiishi, Kettlebells and Strength Training

Following my earlier post discussing Joe Berne sempai’s article about the importance of strength training comes a thoughtful piece from Mario McKenna sensei [guest in episode 12 of The Applied Karate Show podcast) about the value of the chi-ishi for strength development in traditional karateka.

Chi-ishi on the right. Image by Dormis

Mario sensei compares the relative advantages of the chiishi versus tools like the kettlebell and Indian clubs, stating that chiishi are

heavier than Indian Clubs and allow the development of strength, but lighter than Kettle bells to allow more variation in the exercises that can be done. Chiishi design is similar to the Indian club which allows a greater range of motion. So to me I find Chiishi the “best of both worlds” as they say.

Mario sensei explains his own approach to strength training:

I alternate between modern weight lifting (barbell, dumbbells, & machines), body weight exercises and traditional weight lifting using Chiishi, etc.

I agree that body weight exercises are a staple exercise for the karateka, and in an ideal world I would alternate body weight exercises with traditional hojo undo equipment. I set out to do just that a decade back or so, and found that there was virtually no supply of products (in Australia), a very ill-defined training regime (outside select Gojuryu schools), a scarcity of instructors and a scarcity of books or videos on the topic. I wish that Mike Clarke sensei’s book The Art of Hojo Undo: Power Training for Traditional Karate was available then!

In my own search I came across the Russian Kettlebell. With an excellent training regime based on the approach from the pioneer of kettlebell training in the west, Pavel Tsatsouline (guest in episode 10 of The Applied Karate Show podcast), his books and videos and a ready supply of kettlebell products, I “got into the swing”. I undertook training (and later a kettlebell instructor course) with Don Stevenson.

I think that the kettlebell continues to be an awesome tool for a martial artists. The grip development, the off-centre centre-of-gravity, the range of compound exercises and the development of explosive power from the core make it suited to the needs of a karateka. These reasons are, as Mario sensei outlined, similar with hojo undo tools like the chiishi. But for me, the availability of product and the availability of quality instruction and instructional resources make the kettlebell my preference for strength training.