Sempai

Scot Mertz wrote a very interesting post about the use and misuse of ranks and titles in Japanese martial arts, particularly karate. I tend to agree with most of his comments, which highlight the tendency we have in the West to sometimes draw more meaning into something that was originally intended. As a rule of thumb, titles in particular are overused in the West, in my experience.

During my time in Japan, my former teacher was the head of the dojo, and the hereditary head master of the school of karate in which I trained. His formal title was So Shihan, meaning something like general chief instructor, and he held the title of Hanshi, with the rank of 9th Dan. In the dojo, he was always referred to as “SenseiI”, and it was only the foreigners who called him by the title of Hanshi. Yet in the West, we commonly use Hanshi, Kyoshi, Renshi, etc to address people. While this is not necessarily wrong, its not reflective of the way those titles would be used in Japan.

One area that I disagree with Scot Mertz’s piece is in his discussion about the title “sempai” (sometimes spelt “senpai“). He makes the comment:

In a dojo there is a Sensei, and ONLY ONE Senpai. The Senpai is the MOST SENIOR STUDENT of that Sensei

This is not reflective of my understanding of the term sempai. The term comes from the Sempai-Kohai System, which is ubiquitous throughout all aspects of Japanese society. Sempai basically means “senior”, and kohai means junior, and the terms sempai and kohai describe a relationship between two people. The system is common throughout the Japanese university system, workforce and sporting activities, as well as budo.

As it describes a relationship between 2 people, one person can be a sempai to some people, and a kohai to others. In rare instances, they might be dohai to people who are their equal in age, rank, time of training, etc. These terms are not rank dependent, so even as a relatively senior instructor, I have several sempai, and some kohai.

They are terms, not titles, and in my experience in Japanese, it would be highly unusual to refer to someone as “Sempai John”, and you would NEVER hear the term kohai used as a title.

As sempai-kohai are terms of relationship, the terms bring obligation. As someone’s kohai, it is my responsibility to work hard, take on board their comments and suggestions, and try to anticipate their requirements when training together. As someone’s sempai, it is my obligation to be a role-model and mentor, to guide the person, and to help them correct any mistakes. A kohai is not the lackey or slave of the sempai.

Some organisations, mostly in the West, do tend to arbitrarily use the term sempai as a title for black belts, particularly those that aren’t instructors of roughly shodan and nidan levels (this can of course vary). It would of course be appropriate for mudansha (non-black belt holders) to address junior yudansha (black belt holders) in this way, but it seems in many organisations this has morphed into a formal title for these ranks.

So I can’t really agree with Mr Mertz’s opinion on the term sempai. I do agree with his perspective that the term is overused, and generally misused, and I for one would prefer to see its use minimised, and used to express relationship rather than title.

Oh, one more thing, in Japan it would be unusual for a senior person to address a junior with any title. They would simply use the person’s name with the suffix -san (or sometimes -kun). This doesn’t reflect any negativity. A senior instructor of, for example, 8th Dan level would rarely call someone “John Sensei”, even if John was a 7th Dan! But this would not be an invitation for lower ranks to address John by his name.

I guess the problem is that terms, relationships and titles are well understood in Japanese culture. But in the West, we have perhaps superimposed the Japanese titles and terms with the ranking system found in modern militaries.

Latest Iain Abernethy Podcast: Funakoshi’s 20 Precepts

Iain Abernethy Sensei has posted his latest podcast, a discussion on the 20 Precepts of Gichin Funakoshi, the pioneer of karate in Japan.

Iain does a great job of discussing each of the 20 precepts, and providing his own insight into them.

I always find that Iain’s works are thoughtful and insightful, and well worth the read/listen. Enjoy!

Redoing Sai Handle Grips

One of the Okinawan weapons we use at the Kengokan Dojo in our buki-ho (aka kobudo, kobujutsu or bukijutsu) practice is the sai (iron truncheon). Whilst traditional sai came were wrapped with rope or occasionally leather, or simply had a bare handle, most modern sai are wrapped with the same material often used on cheaper tennis racquets.

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For a long time, I’ve wanted to get a pair of sai with a rope grip, but these are (to my knowledge) only available from Shureido in Okinawa, and a quite expensive to import to Australia. Plan B was to re-wrap my existing pairs of sai, and as the old grips got worse and worse, the time finally came to do just that.

Not being a handy-man sort of guy, I stumbled across a wonderful Youtube video on re-wrapping sai by Ernie of Ernie’s Budo Lab. So I set aside a weekend afternoon, and got on with the job of stripping the remaining tennis grip handle off 2 pairs of sai, and replacing with a rope grip handle.

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It was pretty straight forward. I got some rope, superglue and some of that non-slip stuff you put at the bottom of kitchen draws and tool boxes. After a couple of hours, I had two pairs of sai that have wonderful new wraps. Apart from feeling more “authentic”, these rope handles are great to work with. They feel better in the hands, and are a much firmer grip.

Until I can next get to Okinawa to buy some Shureido sai, any new sai I get will immediately have the grip removed and replaced by rope. Its better all round.

Hard to Find Books Direct from Okinawa

The Kenshikan Dojo of Hokama Tetsuhiro, Sensei (Hanshi, 10th Dan) has long been a great source of information for foreign visitors to Okinawa. Apart from having an incredible museum of karate and kobudo, there are a number of hard-to-get books (and other media) by Hokama Sensei and others available in English and Japanese.

Hokama Sensei has long wanted to make it easier for overseas karateka to obtain these books simply, so he has asked one of his students, Chika Azama san, to setup a way to do this.

Chika-san has commenced a project called Lequio Project. A selection of books (and later other media) will be progressively added.

Lequio Project was established on December 13, 2011 to support HOKAMA, Tetsuhiro Sensei (Okinawa Gojuryu Karate-Do Kobudo Kenshi-Kai) and his dojo. This internet shop is anuthorized by Kenshi-Kai and help Kenshikai with sharing the knowledge on Okinawan traditional karate-do/kbudo and the culture with karatekas abroad through DVDs, books, etc.

Project Lequio will initially be managed through the Lequio Project Facebook page, and later a standalone website. Payment is completed through PayPal, and prompt shipping is done through EMS.

I was the first (test) customer for this, having purchased the new book in English about Kyan Chotoku (review coming soon). The process was very smooth, and the books arrived 2 days after shipment from Japan to my address in Sydney, Australia.

Project Lequio is a good way to obtain some hard to get material direct from Okinawa, and in so doing, support Hokama Sensei in his efforts to allow all people to learn more about Okinawan karate and kobudo.

The Applied Karate Show Episode 15 – Joe Berne Sempai

Applied Karate #015 (mp3 – 40MB – 84 mins)

DOWNLOAD EPISODE 014 OF THE APPLIED KARATE SHOW

JoeBerne

Well folks, my intentions about getting a monthly podcast out were pure. Following on from the September episode with Chris Denwood Sensei, I recorded the October episode in plenty of time, only to have a bunch of gremlins strike. They seem to be resolved now, so hopefully we’re back on track.

Our guest for Episode 15 of The Applied Karate Show is Joe Berne, Sempai, a Seido practioner and blogger behind the Karate Conditioning blog.

Joe began training in Seido Karate in 1988 at the Karate Club of his college, the State University of New York at Buffalo.  The class was taught by Shuseki Shihan Christopher Caile (who went on to create Fightingarts.com, a well known website with content about a variety of martial arts).  He trained there, and at the style’s New York City Honbu dojo, through 1994, at which time he earned his shodan in Seido Karate.  A variety of injuries and life issues kept him away from training, but he returned in 2006.  Then living in Maryland, he began training under Jun Shihan Kate Stewart, and has remained there since then.  He recently earned his sandan at the 2011 Gasshuku in upstate New York.

Joe began studying strength and conditioning informally in high school in a vain attempt to qualify for the (American) football team.   He resumed his studies with a vengeance after taking up karate again in 2006 as he tried to use science to make up for the damage done by over a decade of a sedentary and hypercaloric lifestyle.  He has made a part time job out of reading and viewing everything available in the field of strength and conditioning that can relate in any way to martial arts performance.

The wide ranging discussions with Joe covered such topics as

  • Joe’s introduction to, and background in, karate
  • Strength tools (including the wonderful kettlebell)
  • Training for martial arts skills
  • Stretching for karate
  • Training for injury avoidance
  • Nutrition tips and the Paleo diet

This was a fascinating interview with a karateka who has clearly invested a lot of time and thought into his training and the strength and conditioning program required to support it. I heartily recommend you visit and subscribe to Joe’s blog Karate Conditioning.

Applied Karate #015 (mp3 – 40MB – 84 mins)

DOWNLOAD EPISODE 014 OF THE APPLIED KARATE SHOW

KarateLovers Website Launches

Karatelovers logo

KarateLovers.com is a new network for, as the name says, lovers of karate. The brainchild of Jesse Enkamp of the KarateByJesse blog, KarateLovers.com is an online community exclusively for practitioners of Okinawan and Japanese karate.

KarateLovers.com is described on the site with the following blurb:

KarateLovers.com is a social community for likeminded karate enthusiasts all over the globe – with the ultimate goal of sharing, discovering, connecting and exploring all aspects of karate, in an intelligent and respectful manner.

Despite being a forever free and open online community, Karatelovers.com is a platform based upon the original values of traditional offline karate: respect, honesty, self-control, harmony, justice, propriety and awesomeness.

In KarateLovers you can enjoy friendships with fellow enthusiasts in the Community section, watch Videos, peruse various Karate Blogs and keep up to date on the latest News in the karate world. There is also a live chat facility. There is an Ask Sensei section, and I am already becoming a fan of the Bunkai Wiki.

One of the premises behind KarateLovers is to provide an opportunity for karateka to share in an open community of like minded people, without the criticism of form or the constant slanging match of “karate sucks, MMA is better” so often found in open networks. Any Karateka who has ever posted a video to YouTube will appreciate the opportunity to share kata, bunkai and other videos with other Karateka, rather than the whole world!

At the time of writing, KarateLovers is relatively small. Like any community, it will certainly only get better as the community grows, and as one of The Founders of the site, I look forward to this! I can certainly see that there is great promise for KarateLovers.com, and encourage all open minded Karateka to join in and share!

Become a member of KarateLovers.com today!

Ground Fighting and Bystanders…

A criticism often pointed at karate and other empty handed arts is that they don’t cover enough ground fighting. This has lead some to the conclusion that MMA is “better”.

Its perhaps a reasonable criticism, but ground fighting is also something that should be avoided, especially outside the ring (or cage), for the simple reason that when you’re on the ground, your vulnerable. Friends of the opponent, or sometimes bystanders, can throw in a cheap shot that you may be unaware of and/or unable to defend.

This video is doing the rounds on Youtube and Facebook, and illustrates this point precisely.

 

New Website on Okinawan Karate Launched

OKKB Logo

The Okinawa Traditional Karate Liaison Bureau has announced the launch of their new website Karate and Kobudo at the Source: The Okinawa Traditional Karate Liaison Bureau at http://okkb.org. From their press release:

Karate is a cultural heritage of Okinawa. It is characterized by the importance of developing a proper spirit and valuing martial attitude.

Established in July 2011, the Okinawa Traditional Karate Networking Executive Committee, headed by Nashiro Masaichiro, intends to promote Okinawan traditional karate to the world, reaffirming and establishing the international status of “Okinawa, birthplace of karate”. So doing, we aim at contributing to the further industrial development of Okinawa through tourism activities and related business.

Aiming at promoting Okinawa Karate and kobudo worldwide, the website “Okinawa Traditional Karate Liaison Bureau ?okkb.org? was released November 28, 2011. Information is available in English, Spanish, French and Japanese.

Already the site has quite extensive information on the various styles of karate (sorted into Shuri-te, Naha-te, Tomari-te and Uechi-rty) and kobudo schools in Okinawa. There is information on events and seminars, and access to interpreter services.

Sponsored by the Okinawa Prefecture Government, this website is aimed at assisting karate and kobudo practioners who may not have existing connections with Okinawa karate circles but wish to train in the birthplace of karate. The site will also provide regular news updates and daily information about Okinawa and its most valuable cultural asset, karate.

The Okinawa Traditional Karate Liaison Bureau has also established a dedicated phone line for matters related to karate. The number is +81-98-934-4334 from outside Japan. The new website is located at http://okkb.org, and you can email their office at desk@okkb.org.

I applaud this initiative of the Okinawan Traditional Karate Liaison Bureau, and look forward to the growth of this potentially valuable web resource.

Shin Gi Tai: New Book By Mike Clarke, Kyoshi

ShinGiTai

Shin Gi Tai: Karate Training for Body, Mind and Spirit (aff.) is a new book by Mike Clarke, Kyoshi (guest on Episode 4 of The Applied Karate Show podcast).

Mike Sensei is a classical karateka of the Okinawan Gojuryu line who emphasises the complete development of the individual, looking at aspects beyond the physical skills emphasised in many dojo. In his own Shinseidokan Dojo in Launceston, Tasmania (Australia), Mike Sensei accepts and trains only a small handful of students who focus on traditional karate methods.

Shin Gi Tai follows on from previous books, the latest of which was the excellent work The Art of Hojo Undo: Power Training for Traditional Karate (aft.).

The following text from the back cover of Shin Gi Tai provides an excellent overview of what the author is emphasising in the book:

Prepare to have your beliefs challenged about what karate really is.

Within these pages, you will discover traditional karate; along the way, perhaps many of your own beliefs about karate will be confronted. You might have a body capable of mastering karate’s physical techniques, but do you have a mind with a level of awareness that is able to grasp the true spirit of karate?

For adults only. Regardless of how many people you can defeat in combat, the deeper aim of karate has always been to conquer your own ego, and by doing so, you increase the likelihood of avoiding conflict. When you can control your ego, you have a chance to establish peace in your life: this is the tradition of budo karate.

Shin Gi Tai has a literal translation: mind–technique–body. A karate-ka’s mind (shin) must be developed ahead of his technique (gi) if he is to discover a sense of balance within his body (tai). While the mental and physical aspects of karate are daunting and causes many to stop training, if you can just endure the early years, say–the say – the first decade–then there is opportunity for real and lasting benefits.

Budo is a concept more often discussed than put into practice, and yet, as part of traditional karate training, it has the capacity to dramatically change lives for the better, but only if you are prepared to move past the obvious and strive to understand the philosophy and the morality of budo.

Your life is yours, your karate is yours, accept ownership of both and reap countless rewards.

The concept of Shin Gi Tai is a personal favourite of mine, as I believe that what separates karate (and other classical forms of budo) from pure sport-oriented fighting systems is the emphasis on developing a strong general knowledge and knowledge of the theories and principles of the art, and an open-ness towards introspection and self-discovery.

Shin Gi Tai: Karate Training for Body, Mind and Spirit (aff.) is available now from Amazon and other sources in paperback. I am not sure if it will be released as an eBook, although there is a Kindle Edition of The Art of Hojo Undo (aff.), so I am hopefully we will see this soon.