(Shaun Banfield) Could you please tell us how and why you started karate?
(Elmar Schmeisser) As an only child and an immigrant, I was a loner, bookish and non-athletic, heavily into science fiction - the quintessential geek. I was the 87-pound weakling the 98-pound weaklings beat up on. There was a karate demo I saw in high school, that looked interesting, and that sparked the interest. It just looked "neat." As I recall, two students, one a "kempo" type and the other a more shotokan type (in retrospect) did some basic techniques, a kata and a bit of friendly sparring. Since it wasn't a team sport, but a piece of individualistic esoterica, it fit my mind perfectly. So in 1968 I went to the closest local school, Tracy's Kempo Karate, and did the introductory lessons, which I found enthralling. That Fall (1968) I went to UCSD, and started in the shotokan club there. The rest, as they say, is history.
(SB) You spent many years training under the legendary Nishiyama Sensei. How would you describe his karate and what was the biggest thing he brought to your karate?
(SB) Actually, that is a pretty hard question to answer. Since I really started serious karate with Mr. Nishiyama, I have no real comparison that makes him "stand out" - I had no preconceptions, so what he did was what I simply expected any karate teacher was supposed to do. In retrospect, I'd have to say that what he did differently from subsequent teachers I have been exposed to was that he actively "taught" us as opposed to simply training us. That is, he tried as well as he could to explain his idea of the "why" of what we were doing along with the "how" so we could do it better. Many other instructors I have found seem to be limited in their teaching to "more, harder, faster" with no clue as to how to actually impart the technicalities that would enable this. Of course, it doesn't help that many of these trainers are gifted athletes, and "naturals" at the sport of karate, so they really couldn't be expected to understand how the majority of students have to struggle. To answer the second part of your question, I think what he brought was two things: first, that karate could be understood intellectually, and thus could make sense; second that there was a mental "place" in which one could reside that allowed the entirety of one's competence to express itself, or in other words, that mental/perceptual training was at least as important as the physical training. These two concepts (intellectual rigor and psychological methodologies) have underlain my entire approach since then to the martial arts in general.
(SB) You talk about a “mental place”. What methods in your teaching do you have to help students understand the mental state they need to be in for effective karate? Do you have any training methods our readers could use in their training?
(ES) The ability to trust one’s training, and let the body actually move “by itself” is a difficult hurdle to overcome, since one must “invest in loss” (phrase quoted from the book, “There are no Secrets” by Lowenthal). You have to be willing to fail, to do wrong, again and again, in order to learn. Everyone usually attempts to not do wrong, which results in over-controlling and in hesitation due to over-analysis. Many of these concepts are well laid out in Daisatz Suzuki’s classic book “Zen and Japanese Culture”, and specifically his chapters on Zen and swordsmanship. A training solution is to arrange the exercises so that there are too many free variables to permit over-analysis. One of my favorites is progressively undefined one-step sparring. In this the attacker, round by round, gains attacks from which to freely chose, and which require diametrically opposite movements for defense, e.g. a roundhouse kick or a stepping in counter-ridge-hand strike. So the defender has to be able to “guess” the right direction in which to shift so as to not run into the attack. The resulting batting average provides the feedback needed to gauge how well one is doing. As the attack set grows larger, the task becomes more difficult, and in fact is much more difficult than free-sparring, since the defender may not pre-empt the attack by launching one of his own.
(SB) In what ways do you think the “mental place” is different in kumite to kata?
(ES) This is a hard question since ideally, there is no difference; the mind place is one’s center. In both kumite and kata, an individual should place themselves “in between” the two partners. In kumite, there is an actual one; in kata there is an imagined one. So there is some similarity in that in both cases, one must trust the body to “do its thing”. But there is of course a difference: Kata doesn’t hit back. Further, there is one rule in kumite – don’t get hit – that is only theoretical in kata, since the movements are pre-defined. Kata also has a performance aspect that is both esthetic and internal. In kendo, the term “kigurai” (in essence, noble bearing) is often used to speak of how one should execute the kata. Now a real street scuffle has very little of noble bearing about it, but even so, the kata, even though derived from and applicable to street defense, should demonstrate such a bearing. In kumite, that bearing should also be there, but it is subsumed by sportsmanship, respect for the opponent and courtesy. In kata, there is no respect for the opponent, no courtesy, nothing except the attitude one takes when putting down a rabid rat – respect for its dangerous power, true, but that’s it. One doesn’t let the act itself sully ones bearing, nor demean the world. In summary, one should be centered, awake and aware, but not self-conscious or putting on a performance (in the sense of fakery) in both kumite and kata. The difference lies in that kumite demands a winner and a loser; kata has only a winner. So I don’t really know how to answer your question.
(SB) You say “Many other instructors I have found seem to be limited in their teaching to "more, harder, faster". Does this mean you don’t engage a degree of this type of approach into your teaching? Do you think this type of training is positive in regards to building spirit?
(ES) There is always a need to push oneself, and to have help in so doing. But there is this caveat – one should never train so that the movement is wrong. By wrong, I mean that it either damages you, or is ineffective, or inefficient. Doing 10 correct counterpunches is better than doing 100 bad ones. This concept is hammered home in Kyudo (Japanese ceremonial archery), in that it is known that just hitting the target doesn’t mean that one did everything right. Your errors simply may have compensated for each other. Further, the ideal is to find the least taxing way to do something, i.e. the most efficient. One way to get there is to fatigue oneself, and then to keep going. But again, it should be limited so that bad training does not occur. If you want to go to the blackout point, the training must simplify. The other point is that one should not seek only quantitative improvement, one should seek qualitative change. To make this kind of breakthrough, one has to be awake and aware, which is almost impossible when one is seeing stars and feeling woozy. I will push my classes, but not to the point of either damage or incorrect movement. Spirit comes from within and is demonstrated socially in the dojo, so as to become habit outside the dojo. It can be grown, albeit more slowly perhaps, but without the attrition that attends more hard-core training. From my point of view, I wish to train those who most need the training, not those who don’t need karate to be competitive athletes, i.e. the naturals. Let others make champions with all the discarded people that this implies; I prefer to work with those less fortunate in the physical attributes.
(SB) Nishiyama Sensei is also commonly known for his controversial opinions on certain areas of karate training. How closely do you now follow Nishiyama Sensei’s teachings and in what ways have you developed your thinking beyond the boundaries of JKA Karate?
(ES) Most of his physical teachings, at least as I learned them (he may have altered them in the intervening years) I consider not only physiologically wrong and physically flawed, but also dangerous. For example, the emphasis on excessive pelvic tucking which damages the lumbar spine, the outward lateral pressure on the knees in side stance which can damage the knee itself, the useless and impossible concept of "pressure into the floor" as if attempting to "grip" a smooth floor with your toes did anything other than to break your contact with that floor and weakening the stance. Further, Nishiyama's karate, and karate of the JKA in general, developed from a kendo mentality and was the first sport form of karate. The result is an emphasis on the terminal appearance in techniques rather than on the trajectory, and in a misapplication of the concept of "kime" (translated as focus) which results in a complete cancellation of impact by absorbing the entire shock of a technique into the joints and back, to the detriment of both effectiveness when actually hitting something and to the anatomical areas involved. So my karate has actually reconnected with shotokan's shorin-ryu roots and added in quite a bit of goju-ryu as well. Additionally, aikido and koryu kenjutsu have influenced my way of moving, and what I do no longer looks in detail like JKA karate or much like Nishiyama's karate as I was taught it.
(SB) Nishiyama Sensei places much emphasis on the body’s relationship with the ground during the execution of karate techniques. Could you please explain to our readers what is meant by this?
(ES) There is only one relationship with the ground possible, that of gravity. Nothing an individual can do via muscle tension will affect this relationship in any way but detrimentally. In order to maximize the use of this force, one has to relax rather than attempt to "do" anything, in other words become heavy rather than tense. This is a goju and aiki thing, not a shotokan/Nishiyama thing. A simple example: stepping punch. As I recall, Nishiyama karate would have you kick off with the back leg; my karate has you relax the front knee forward. The first way results in both a delay in starting and in an obvious signal to the opponent. The second way shows no starting jerk and accelerates using gravity, thus allowing one to snap the back leg forward faster. As I see it, Nishiyama is correct in that the relationship with the floor, or more accurately gravity, is important; I just see him going about it incorrectly.
(SB) You are also the author of the popular ‘Advanced Karate-Do’. Why did you decide to write this book?
(ES) Now that is a story. In 1974, I had just completed my Master's degree at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I had been training in Springfield with Mr. Noriyasu Kudo, who was friends with the late Mr. Shigeru Kimura (Tani-ha Shito-ryu/Shukokai karate-do) who lived in Hackensack NJ. I was a shodan at the time and wanted to push for nidan. Mr. Kudo told me that he would write a letter of introduction to Mr. Kimura for me and on my departure from Massachusetts, I went via Mr. Kimura's dojo. There I spent a terrifying and extremely educational week, living in a very low-cost motel near the dojo, and training essentially full time under the tutelage of his live-in student, a big South African whose name escapes me now. The beating I received through heavy pads convinced me that this man had something real here, not just air technique but the mystical thing called power. I had precision, etc. in plenty (having just been captain of the UCSD karate team in 1971 and ’2), but I had no way to hit that hard. That week culminated in 6 pages of coded notes, with terse phrases and diagrams to remind me of how this was done. That was the genesis of the book. Then there were several years involving my training with Renshin-kan and Shorinji-ryu folks before I went to Florida and taught at the club there. In the year before I left there (1980), my senior students wanted notes from me to guide their future training, so my 6 pages become some 50 pages. Across the next 6 years, that became 25,000 words, each edition going back to my students for comment. The comment was invariably "too dense." Finally I started looking for a publisher. Ohara turned me down, as did Tuttle and several other martial arts publishers, with the comment that their readership was more interested in the flashy "how" rather than intellectual "why" of karate techniques. Finally Randall Hassell took a chance and the book expanded to 50,000 words and was pitched for the karate teacher, in the belief that this would also pick up as a readership those wanting to be instructors. It basically worked out that way, and the first edition sold some 2 or 3 thousand copies, before I revised and expanded it to the second edition, which is just going on sale now.
(SB) Why did you decide to use such heavy use of scientific language and terminology considering that most people, even advanced karateka, are not scientists? Do you think the book is accessible to all advanced karateka?
(ES) There are not a few academics and highly educated folk practicing karate - what is there for them? Science is not hard; if you are interested in the topic area, you can learn the minimal levels of science needed. I think that it is accessible to anyone who really wants to understand their karate. For those that simply want something to do or simply want to compete, the book is not particularly appropriate.
(SB) Do you have any ambitions to write an “Advanced Karate-Do” the sequel?
(ES) I wouldn’t know what more to write. I have revised the book, and the 2nd edition is now out. The other two books, on Tekki and on the Heians (Channan), basically complete my “brain dump” of how I view karate. Working through the remaining kata of the JKA curriculum would be very duplicative, and anyway, the principles of kata analysis via the physical technique vocabularies of aikido and jujutsu are well enough laid out in the earlier books for anyone to apply. If I have any ambition, and it is only a mild one, it would be to build a single, hard bound volume containing all 3 of the books, so as to present a more coherent picture of where I have come to in my understanding of karate. But I doubt that this will ever happen – it is too much work, there are multiple publishers with restrictive rights to the works, and there is essentially no return, fiscally or otherwise, as the audience is a limited segment of a limited market, and I am far from being famous or having a best-seller. I still have a normal day job to put bread on the table; karate can thus remain a passion. I will not make my hobby my job, for then I lose a hobby but gain a job.
(SB) As a scientist you have a firm understanding of the way the human body works. How do you integrate the many concepts such as ‘KI’ into your karate, considering that it has not been explained in the scientific fields?
(ES) "Ki" can be understood on several levels. In specific it can be understood as a description of an internal feeling, and it can also be conceived of as an externally perceptible "force" independent of the forces available to current physics. This second definition I reject as there is no evidence for it, and everyone who has submitted their production of this force to scrutiny has failed miserably to perform at any but the carnival belief induction level; the 1 million dollar prize offered by Randi is still awaiting a claimant. So it is not true that (external) ki has not been "explained" scientifically - it has, and been discovered to be fraudulent. However, that said, internally it is a different matter, and I devote most of a chapter in Advanced Karate-Do to the concept. In fact, I wrote an article for Jon Keeling on the topic. Suffice it to say here that "ki" is useful in both a pedagogical sense and in a training sense, in that it encapsulates a way of feeling your own dynamic balance (kinesthesia) to optimize your technique.
(SB) Does this knowledge of the human body benefit you in regards to the targeting of your techniques? Does your knowledge of the human structure, and indeed its vulnerabilities, influence how and where you deliver your techniques?
(ES) Certainly – I believe that much of the “vital point” information is actually empirical, with medieval medical theories bolted onto it after the fact. The points work, but the theories don’t, in the sense that there are more free variables in these “theories” than there are effects. The “TCM theory” adds no information to the cookbook of point combinations that actually do work. In fact, by appropriately combining, ying-yang polarity theory, 5-element theory (all 4 cycles: creative, destructive, thief and insult) and throwing in random variables such as time of day, etc., one can not only “explain” why any random point combination should work, but also develop an explanation of why it wouldn’t work. If on the other hand, one examines postural reflexes, and the neurophysiology behind “blood gates” and “nerve gates”, one finds readily understandable mechanisms for the observed effects, along with an understanding of the human variability that modifies these affects. As for personal training, I no longer target “chudan”, “jodan, etc., but instead tend to target much smaller patches in specific places.
(SB) It’s been said that Westerners should not practice karate in the way the Japanese do, as the Western human-body is built differently to a Japanese body. Could you please describe what differences there are, and how do you think we should alter our training to suit the Western body type?
(ES) I don't believe that "body type" has any bearing on the matter, but social "type" may. After all, knees are knees - they are hinge joints in people on both side of the Pacific Ocean; bending them sideways is simply wrong. There are small people in the West just as there are large people in the East. Would you make the same argument for Sumo? Now how the Japanese practice karate may in fact differ from how the Occidentals practice karate, and that comes from the different pedagogical and scientific cultures, the West being more "scientific" (questioning and experimental) and the East being more feudal and traditional (e.g. this is THE way, and any deviation is by definition a bad thing). Many in Japan also practice karate not to get "better" in any objective sense, but they practice just to practice - the activity is its own reward. Now some in the West do that as well (myself to some extent for one), but I don't believe the majority of Westerners approach martial arts in this way. Since the motivation is different, the practice must also be different. As has been written elsewhere (Rob Redmond's website as an example), "karate" has no purpose or meaning - people have purposes and build meaning into their practice of karate. So the physical training in a technical sense need not change except to avoid physiological or anatomical harm, but how we implement this perhaps should change from rigorous conformity based on an assumption of homogeneity to consensual conformity with room for variation.
(SB) You also place great emphasis on bunkai training in your karate. Could you please give your own personal opinion about how effective Shotokan karate really is to realistic street situations?
(ES) "Shotokan" karate can be defined at least two ways, that of the testing curriculum, and that of the principles of movement. If you define the style by the testing curriculum, shotokan karate is worthless in the street. Street altercations start at 6 inches, generally involve a grab, and have no "yame." Standard shotokan karate is optimized in its testing curriculum for a duel between two essentially equal protagonists, using only percussive karate techniques pulled short of the target, aware of each other, on a smooth floor and using limited weapons, essentially empty-handed kendo. On the other hand, if you define shotokan karate by the fundamental bases that underlie the generation of impact, the control of balance, the establishment of stance, the awareness of interval and the commitment of technique, then shotokan karate is eminently suited to developing the wherewithal to survive in the street, even if it is not a complete curriculum. Kata bunkai makes up the missing pieces, since they imply the aikido/judo fundamentals that cover the closer range aspect of the street fight.
(SB) Could you suggest ways to help make your karate more suited to deal with street situations without losing the traditionalism of our karate?
(ES) I usually attempt to kick my new shodans out of the karate dojo and tell them to go learn aikido or judo for 6 months to a year in order to not only put them back into a beginner's mind, but also to round out their technical armamentarium with grappling techniques and developing comfort at close ranges. When they return to their karate practice, it is with a far different mind and much improved body movement. Kata then really opens up to them, and style boundaries fall away. As Funakoshi Gichin said (paraphrasing), there is no limit to classifying styles of karate, but in the end it is all simply karate. Karate is larger than the punch and kick world of the tournament. Now to keep the "art" requires that your practice grow large enough to not only understand the street, but also not lose touch with the sword, which embodies the clean methods of the tournament, as this may be the closest that the majority of students ever get to a "fight." So I teach aikido and judo basics to my advanced kyu students, and I also offer then training in the Japanese sword. Kata may be at knife distances, but formal kumite is at sword distances, and having both can only improve your art.
(SB) With your understanding of street situations, is this to say that you have experienced situations where you have had your karate put to the test?
(ES) I have endeavored to do the best self-defense possible: never to be in a place where physical conflict is inevitable. So I am somewhat proud to say that since high school, I have never been in an altercation, nor have I strayed into situations where fisticuffs even became a consideration, despite traveling on business through major cities in the US and elsewhere. So my “understanding” of “street situations” is, and with any luck, will remain theoretical. I practice karate-do, not goshin-jutsu (self-defense methods); there are schools enough where that kind of thing can be practiced. As for testing my karate, it has been “tested” in tournament and against the occasional know-it-all strongman who comes by the class, but that is all. And I am happy for it. Iaido and Kyudo have even less “testing”, yet remain excellent martial arts, both mentally and physically. I do not see why karate-do should be less authentic for not being tested by brawling in the streets. The Japanese certainly don’t normally “test” their karate in the street. Thugs in any culture, on the other hand, will.
(SB) Through your analysis and research into kata, Shotokan kata in particular, are there any secret concepts, techniques, methods etc that are overlooked without a thorough analysis into the kata?
(ES) There are no secrets, merely people with myopia (short-sightedness). The data is out there, if you have the technical vocabulary to read it in the movements of the kata. Kata were developed before JKA style long-range tournament dueling; kata distance is within arm’s reach. At that distance, grabbing and being grabbed is part and parcel of the techniques in kata. It takes no “thorough analysis” to get these – simply a year or so in aikido, judo or jujitsu, and then doing the kata without labeling the movements as being anything in particular. Techniques are verbs (movements), not nouns (postures). From the throwing arts, one gets imbued with the attitude that techniques are movement trajectories. In many karate schools, the emphasis is on the terminal posture, with some fussiness involved in adjusting minute angles of the toes, etc. Once this attitude is broken, and with a sufficient technical vocabulary in place, kata reveal themselves automatically.
(SB) What do you think are the weaker points of Shotokan in comparison to the other styles of karate, and how do you think we should train in order to truly benefit from our art?
(ES) In general terms, shotokan is a “long-fist” art. It was the original tournament style, after all, designed by Nakayama and company to produce competitive athletes. Its main weakness is in not recognizing this, and in maintaining that it is a complete self-defense system all by itself. The kata are divorced from the kihon and the kumite of the style; in fact the simple and clean kihon and the dynamic kumite have begun to infect the kata, polishing away the small movements in the combinations, lengthening and deepening the stances, and over dramatizing the tempo, all for aesthetic purposes. The kata especially have been relegated to being “weird kihon in funny patterns” and while there is lip service to the idea that without kata there is no karate, rarely do you see a shotokan dojo that places at least 30% of its time and effort into kata and especially into kata practice with an opponent against realistic close in attacks. That said, I would hate to give up the clarity of the shotokan kihon – in my view, there is no better foundation for learning anything else in the martial arts. My training in aikido, judo, iaido, kyudo and kendo all benefited by and were accelerated by having the shotokan foundation first. The main weakness essentially is in remaining white belts, even after 20+ years, even if you have been given a certificate that says 5-th degree black belt. It has been written that no-one can stand in front of a JKA counterpunch. Perhaps true, but what else can they do? The world of karate is much larger that just punching and kicking.
(SB) What’s your favorite kata and why?
Favorite to what purpose? For close in self-defense training, I'd have to say the Tekki series (all three). For overall review of shotokan fundamentals, there is nothing beyond the pair comprised of Kanku-Dai and Bassai-Dai. For intermediate distance training, I'd look at Nijushiho. For elegance, I'd look outside the shotokan curriculum at the Aragaki kata (not Aragaki Seisho's, but Aragaki Ankichi's Niseishi, Sochin and Unsu, which don't resemble their name equivalents in the JKA set at all). For hardening, I might use Sanchin; for hand sensitivity Tensho, both from the goju curriculum. For esoterica, the Kitamura no Semporai and the Gogenki no Hakutsuru are the two I'd practice. So, to answer your question, it depends.
(SB) Thank you so very much for this wonderful interview, it has truly been very enlightening!
(ES) Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your questions. Good luck in your training.