As many people know, the modern Karate was introduced to Japan mainland from Okinawa only less than a century ago. The introduction to the US and Europe happened after WWII or barely over 60 years ago. Despite such a short history Karate is now practiced by millions of people around the world and this number is no exaggeration. Considering Japan is famous for exporting manufactured products such as electronics and autos, as Japanese I am very pleased to see a Japanese culture, karate, has made a big contribution to the world. At the same time, I am not fully satisfied with the current status of the karate “world”. There are several important issues and one of them is the topic I am going to discuss in this article.
I have been practicing karate nearly half a century, and I have noticed that there are many myths and misconceptions about karate persisting even to this day. Of course, some are ridiculous and most karate practitioners would laugh them off.
A few examples of those myths are;
· Fighting a big (police) dog is a Dan examination requirement
· A black belt must register his fists at the police (like a gun)
· A technique exists called “three year death” and a victim will die in three years after he receives a secret punch
Unfortunately, there are other myths that are well known among the practitioners and they believe in most of them. Some myths are only misconceptions and may have little negative impact to karate practice or improvement of karate skills. On the other hand, there are others that would prevent the practitioners from achieving true karate techniques. I am clearly aware that some of the points are controversial and expect some people to disagree with my opinions and explanations. I believe it is good to bring these points out to an open discussion where we can review them and think carefully about these important subjects. I definitely do not claim to know all or to have mastered all aspects of karate and martial arts. I am still searching for the truth and hoping to learn something new every day.
I credit my two instructors for my knowledge and understanding of karate. I am indebted to the following masters.
Master Jun Sugano (9th dan JKA, Vice Chairman of Japan Karate Association: 1928-2002)
He was my first instructor at JKA Hyogo-ken headquarters in 1963 and also the Chief Instructor of Kansai region when I went through a Kenshusei period (1981-’83). He shared much in depth knowledge of Shotokan karate and its history, not as much in the dojo, but more frequently in a bar (he owned) where he used to take his assistant instructors for a drink. He was a very well known karate-ka in Kobe. I heard (from other instructors) that he had very short temper when he was young and was in a fist fight often. He lived in a town where a big Yakuza group (Yamaguchi gumi) had a headquarters. When they came across with Sugano sensei, they stepped aside and let Sugano sensei walk through and they bowed to him as he passed by them. Sugano sensei was a big man for Japanese at 5 foot 10 inches and weight of 200 pounds. He probably did not need karate to fight. Though he had a scary face, he was a gentleman. He was respected and liked by all his students. It is unfortunate that he smoked and drank too much. Those bad habits shortened his life.
I was a member of JKA for 40 years (had a life time membership). After Master Sugano’s passing in 2002, I switched my affiliation to JKS (Asai sensei’s organization).
Master Tetsuhiko Asai (10th dan JKS, the founder of JKS and Asai style karate: 1935-2006)
He is a world renown karate-ka and martial artist. He was Technical Director at JKA for many years, and then founded Japan Karate Shotorenmei (JKS) in 2000. He passed away in 2006 from heart failure. He did not stop training and going on overseas trips even when he had some serious illness. He overworked himself and his body could not catch up with his activities. He was one of the last samurai and he died of and for karate.
He taught me many things that are beyond the knowledge of what I had learned when I was a JKA practitioner. He does not need an introduction of his karate history, however there are several things that are not widely publicized yet, like the most important points that affected his martial arts style.
· White Crane style kung fu
Asai sensei lived in Taiwan for many years. While he spread Shotokan karate there he took up White Crane kung fu from various masters. One of the kung fu masters who exchanged the techniques had a younger sister, a famous movie actor in Taiwan and Asai sensei ended up marrying her. He practiced more than 150 kata. Some of them were created by him and many of them came from White Crane kung fu. This is why his style is more circular and has a lot of open hand techniques. You also notice that the body spinning movements are common in JKS kata.
· Tenketsu (Dim Mak)
He studied tenketsu, an art of the critical nerve points of a body. He knew the points of a body where he could inflict a severe damage (possibly death) as well as paralysis and nerve damage. He said by applying pressure to those points he did not have to depend on strength to make his attack and block effective.
· Weapons (nine section chain whip)
He practiced many different weapons including said, tonfa, bo, nunchaku, etc. but what he liked the best was 9 section chain whip as this weapon taught him how to use his arm like a whip.
· Flexibility and joints
Flexibility was very important to him. He spent a lot of time doing stretches to keep his flexible body intact. His body was like rubber, not only flexible but also springy so that it bounces right back. He also emphasized the importance of joints use. He used to say “You do not block with your forearm or wrist. You use elbows and use shoulder joints.” It was a difficult concept but it made sense as he demonstrated his blocking techniques.
· Relaxation and Ki
His moves are whipping actions and this came not only from flexibility but also from total relaxation of his body. He also studied the Qigong for Ki and breathing exercises and his wife is a master in that art. Wikipedia explains that “Qigong (or ch'i kung) refers to a wide variety of traditional “cultivation” practices that involve movement and/or regulated breathing designed to be therapeutic.”
Even though there are many articles about Master Asai, there is no comprehensive book that covers his experiences in karate and martial arts in a comprehensive way. After the passing of Asai sensei, Mrs. Asai became concerned that his name and contribution to karate would be forgotten. I hear that Mrs. Asai is currently making a movie of Asai sensei which is slated to come out in 2009. I believe this is true as Mrs. Asai was an actress herself and she now runs an institution for the movie actors in Tokyo. She also told me that she plans to write a biography of Master Asai some time in the near future. It is good news as Mrs. Asai knows a lot of the things that are “behind the scenes”, especially his involvement in White Crane kung fu and the training he had with the Taiwanese masters.
Most of the ideas and concepts written in the future articles are based on the knowledge and wisdom I gained mainly from these two masters.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the introductory article to a series of articles on the issue of Myths in Shotokan Karate by K. Yokota, which will be coming to TSW throughout 2009)
Yokota Sensei can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
JKS Americas website: www.jks-americas.com