Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Road to Nowhere...

Karateka - or - Kaicho's?
When I look at images from karate's past, I often ponder the reaction of the people in them, and what they would think of the things being done in their name these days. Would they even recognise the karate they practised in anything they saw today? Who knows for sure?

I think there's a misunderstanding about karate, people seem to think it's a product, like a car or an expensive pair of sport shoes; at any-rate, there is a firm belief today that you can buy or sell karate for cash. And even though there is no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that the exchange of money will result in skill and knowledge, most karateka today still believe in paying cash for karate.

Good news for the sellers...right? But here's the thing, I've yet to meet anyone who is happy to admit they're making a good living from selling karate. Even though they often maintain a mortgage, and run a car, pay the rent on their 'dojo', and in some cases send their kids to private schools, yet they still insist that they are making very little money. I've always figured that's the kind of money I wouldn't like to be making too!

Karate wasn't always practised in a designer dogi
You have to hand it to the budo business men, they know how to create a market for their product, and how to sell it too. Branding, marketing, celebrity, and the cultivation of dependency, have all become part of karate over the past fifty-years, all of which have found an eager audience, happy and willing to buy what's on offer from the humble master selling it.

The number of FIFO (fly in - fly out) sensei in Okinawa and Japan has risen substantially in recent years, with each calendar month witnessing any number of seminars being held around the world. The number of package-tour karate holidays to Okinawa is steady, although a consistently low participation rate suggests that they may not last much longer, unless the sales campaign expands into Japan.

When you use the term 'the way of karate', do you know where that 'way' is leading you? Do you have a destination in mind...or are you content to hide behind the misconception that 'it's the journey that counts'. Well that's fine if you are, just so long as you don't apply the same logic to the rest of your life; otherwise, you're going to die having spent your entire life on the way to somewhere other than where you missed your own life!

From time to time it's good to check that your 'way of karate' hasn't become a road to nowhere.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Wanting Recognition...but as what?

A class 'A' War Criminal - or head of the World Karate Federation?
Researching the way karate has been selling itself to an unsuspecting public over the past 30 years, one of the big selling points to emerge is 'recognition'. That is to say, no matter where you might live in the world, if you become a member of a particular gang, then you'll be recognised....but as what? Another prominent claim made by karate is the development of ones there's irony for you!

Let's take a look at one of karate leading lights of the past century, former head of the World Karate Federation no less; depending on the circumstances in which you encountered the late Ryoichi Sasagawa, you might have 'recognized' him as a man of good character: or a monster. Certainly the karate world elite welcomed him with open arms, but I'm not sure his reception would have been quiet so warm in certain parts of China.

No one is perfect, I'll grant you that; but you are a karateka...right? And if that's the case then you're obliged to try to better yourself, become a person of integrity...right? So why the addiction to the superficial; the external trappings of karate what were once meaningless, and only became important after the colonisation of karate by commerce and sport. If you can develop a karate body, what's stopping you from developing a karate mind as well?

Observing what some do in the name of karate, (thank goodness the K has gone away!), I have no problem recognising many karateka for exactly what they are....

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

More about Promotion and Progress....

Another example of seiyunchin kata (?) from Jundokan New Zealand
Since my recent post discussing the relationship between promotion testing and making progress. I have received a number of  "disappointed" emails from New Zealand. Apparently, it has been just fine for the Jundokan affiliates in that country to use my blog posts over the years without asking, but my recent use of images from their web page without their express permission has been taken as an outrage!

Nevertheless, this question of rank, gradings, and the addiction to promotion that so many seem to have nowadays, is something worth discussing further. I read a wonderful post on the Kodokan Boston web page addressing the role of rank in karate. Fred Lohse sensei has articulated a great deal of how I feel in regard to the subject, and I'm providing a link to the post here in the hope that you will take the time to read it.

Promotions say as much about the person granting them as it does about the person on the receiving end.When you promote someone, you're making a personal statement about your own level of skill and understanding. You simply can't issue rank to others without taking responsibility for it; but if you think you can, then perhaps you're conducting gradings for the wrong reasons. These days, there are a lot more 'wrong ($) reasons' than there used to be.    

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

L'Arte dell'Hojo-Undo

My book on hojo undo, with a touch of Italian style
Just in time for Christmas, my book introducing hojo undo (kigu), has been published in Italian. Since the original English language edition was published in time fly's....the book has been helpful in reconnecting karateka to some of their tangible history, and I'm very glad to have played a small part in that.

The cover may look different, but inside you'll find all the same content, including photos and the drawings that have proven so popular. A Shinseidokan student from Singapore was surprised to find her self on the cover, but I was more interested in how she managed to levitate the weight of the chi-ishi off the top of it's handle!

You can find purchasing information here..... 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Making Progress.....?

How accurate are dan gradings as a sign of progress?
When karate instructors band together to form associations, they inevitably loose sight of why they came together in the first place; and soon, they begin to invest their energies, not in preserving or protecting the karate they practise, but in building up the numbers. One of the first obstacles to overcome in the building process however, is quality.

It's strange I know, but the truth is, if karate organisations insist on quality over quantity, as so many like to imagine they do, there would be a lot less karateka in the world today, and of them, far fewer wearing black belts, boasting high rank, and using grand sounding titles that have little or no meaning.

Seiyunchin kata?
Karate organisations like to believe they own karate, or at least have a lease on it. They advertise endlessly for new members, and when they get you, they waste no time grooming you for dependency. They, and they alone, will tell you where you stand, when progress has been made, and when it hasn't. As a member, your role is to follow, to do as you are told, and to accept the wisdom of those who have gone before you. Which would be far more acceptable if only your instructors didn't ask more of you than they ever did of themselves.

Shisochin kata?
In many karate groups today, no one ever fails a grading. and why would they, let's face it, you wouldn't have much of a karate organisation if all you had was a couple of yudansha and a bunch of kyu grades; hence the need to grow the numbers even if the skill levels don't quite match the ranks being issued. In truth, formal grading tests have little meaning if the outcome is predetermined or divorced from the skill displayed by the candidate... but that doesn't stop some groups.

Saifa or Seiyunchin kata?
In over 40 years, I have never once come across a karate organisation willing to admit their karate is rubbish; but, and the irony has been breathtaking at times, I have spoken with countless karateka over that time who know of such groups. So who are they, these bastions of tradition and authority who talk big and act small? Well they're not the gang you're in, obviously!

I'll have more to say on this subject, but for now, I'd like to thank Jundokan New Zealand for the use of the photos borrowed from their web page.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Questions & Answers...

Miyazato Eiichi sensei with his teacher, Miyagi Chojun
Last month I ended a couple of posts with a question. Since then I've received a number of emails, some providing 'answers', and some asking me what the answers are. Sorry, but everyone who wrote kind of missed the point.

The first question was, "What kind of an education are you getting?"

When addressing the question, it's important to understand that not all karate is the same, nor are the people, or groups, that teach it. Depending on what you're expectations of karate are, it would be prudent to ponder 'why' karate is being taught, and not just 'how' and 'who' is teaching it. If you fail to come up with a good answer to 'why', the other two (the who & the how) won't provide much information that you can rely on.

The second question I asked was in relation to the lack of moral education in the learning of karate these days. In truth, this question has been asked for some time, decades in fact. Nevertheless, with each generation of karateka I feel a clear answer becomes more necessary.

The question was, "Who do you think is responsible for all this?"

Rather than point the finger exclusively at others, I believe the answer lies with me...oh, and you too! In fact, anyone who teaches karate has, I believe, an obligation to provide as complete an education as possible. So, not just the physical stuff, but the moral and ethical parameters within which karate operates. If providing such an education is beyond you, then make no mistake, you are partly responsible for diluting karate.

Here's another question; "How long did it take you to decide that you're not part of the problem?" 

Thursday, 27 November 2014


My final Jundokan training - Montreal, May 2014
Held aloft as a sign of strength and authenticity; large gatherings of karateka (seminars) have become the measure by which karate associations now judge their success. The myth that because they are large in number they are also 'doing the right thing' by karate is a deeply held belief among association leaders, and even more so among their followers.

The juggernauts now clambering to own karate, while impressive in what they can achieve in terms of public display, suffer from the same basic flaw: an inability to be consistent. The very process of building a karate association, sets the groundwork for it's eventual failure. Values are inevitably abandoned in favour of 'making progress', and 'like minded' karateka soon find themselves at odds with each other. Not one single karate association I am aware of has ever survived intact for more than a few short years....not a single one!

Names of karate associations may remain unchanged, but even the most cursory look into their history reveals the often cavernous cracks and splits that have been papered over in an attempt to project consistency; for without the impression of unchanging guardianship the argument associations make, that they have something of value to offer the karate world, becomes untenable.

Budo karate exists as a result of ideas like 'ingyo' and 'kenson', that would, if karate were still practised widely as budo, lead to Intoku. Karateka would simply go about their training without fuss or fanfare and pass on their karate to others without charging ridiculous amounts of cash. They would give more than they take; and refuse to share their karate with people of questionable character.  A karate sensei would be recognised, not by the huge number of followers he has promoted, but by the small number of students able to meet his standards of behaviour.

Okinawa Budokan - 2008
The image above fits in well with the idea of  'success' in karate these days, and yet the individuals making up the gathering are only allowed to be karateka at the discretion of their leaders. Dependency is so deeply built in to the mind set of karateka and karate associations now, that neither seem able to exist without the other. As associations have assumed ownership of karate and that assumption has gone unchallenged, the bedrock of karate, the dojo, no longer stands at the centre of learning for karateka.

A reluctance to change, even when the situation is toxic to the learning of budo, only serves to underwrite the authority karate associations assert over their members. And yet, how many adults reading this would admit to being 'owned' by their karate association? Uncomfortable as that may feel for many, every time a wrong is excused or a falsehood is left unchallenged within your association, you give your leadership a stronger grip on their authority over you.

As a student of human nature, and karate, it has become clear to me that history often fails to credit the really important figures responsible for our evolution; and instead, merely records the exploits of those who made the most noise.... 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The gathering place.....

Ippon Kumite, it's karate's answer to everything
It's fascinating to stand back and watch what others make of karate; how they move, how they some don't think much at all and are happy to leave that part to others. With so many people these days standing up to be counted as karateka (reminds me of that scene from 'Spartacus'..."I'm a karateka! I'm a karateka!"), it's kind of ironic that so many individuals put their efforts into controlling the 'business' of budo, rather than learning to use budo to control their own nature.

The level of long-term dependency now built into karate, by individual instructors and associations, is a huge contradiction of the 'tradition' the very same instructors and associations claim to be preserving. There is nothing 'traditional' about karate associations, in fact, the early attempts in Okinawa to form them never lasted long, and usually ended in acrimony between the 'founders'. Miyazato Eiichi sensei tried being a member of a couple in his day, but he tiered of them quite quickly and left, telling me..."Too much talk, karate is about just do." and yet......

The Shinseidokan - Oct 2014
If you had no students would you still practise karate? If there were no grades or titles to be had, no status to be gained within a particular group (gang), and no money to be made...what then? Is karate practise enough for you? I dare say, given all the nonsense a great many use to justify the things they do in the name of karate, the money they make, the adoration they receive, and the belief that their karate ancestors would be proud of what they're doing...leaves little time for self-reflection, self-doubt, or even self-respect.

Karate was always a dojo based activity, even before formal dojo existed. It was a pact between you and your teacher; you promised to work hard and conduct yourself properly, and your teacher promised to teach you what he knew. The dojo, (the gathering place) is a fundamental idea for the passing-on of karate, and yet this has been left behind by the formation of the multi-national, global, karate empires we see today. It's a development that speaks more to the selfish desires of a few, than it does to the hopes and dreams of the many.

Empires are made up of individuals, and so is can chose to be a part of either or both, but not at the same time!

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Okinawan Experience....

The late Nagamine Shoshin sensei
In Okinawa in 1992, I met and interviewed Shoshin Nagamine sensei, the founder of Matsubayshi Shorin ryu karatedo. During our conversation we touched on the subject of changes in karate over his lifetime. Nagamine sensei was 84 years old at the time of our meeting, and had practised karate for 68 years; this is some of what he had to say…

        “In karate we have a principle called Shin Gi Tai. Shin means your spirit, Gi means your technique, and Tai means your body. To do karate well and to understand it properly you have to harmonise these three things within you. Today in karate training there is an over-emphasis on Gi and Tai, the techniques and the body. The Shin, spirit, of a person is often left behind. Technique and power seem to be the reason why some people are doing karate these days, but this was not the case sixty-years ago. Today there is a tendency to forget the building of a student’s spirit and character, but this kind of maturity is very important and I want to emphasise this point. 

         The development of karate as a sport or business is the reason for this decline. To adopt the principle of Shin throughout your karate training is very hard, and to be successful takes a long time. It is much easier to train your body without the discipline of Shin. Your ability to do karate techniques comes from your body and your knowledge and practise of them, but wisdom comes from your mind, and your heart. Your ability to make the techniques work comes from you feeling for karate, not only your knowledge of it. I would like to see more attention put on education, we must educate students on the importance of achieving a good feeling for karate through the development of Shin.”

No longer in existence, Nagamine sensei's Kodokan dojo
When this conversation took place over twenty years ago, many of  the leading sensei I met in Okinawa's were worried about the impact sport and business was having on karate. Nagamine sensei was from the last generation of Okinawan karateka to have experienced the learning of karate with the emphasis on Shin first. He was not alone in his view that too much attention was being paid to the physicality of karate. Over two decades on and it's clear Nagamine sensei's concerns were well founded. But it's interesting to note that he was not talking about foreign karateka, he was actually voicing his concerns to me about the state of karate in Okinawa.

Recent visitors to the island have nothing to compare how karate was conducted twenty or even thirty years ago: but I have. And let me tell you, the seminar related karate on offer in Okinawa today bears no resemblance at all to the dojo training of times past. The "building of a students spirit and character" has long since fallen by the wayside in the mind of many karate instructors; replaced by the notion of 'collecting' students in ever larger numbers, and as a result, Nagamine sensei's observation that..."The shin, spirit, of a person is often left behind." is now more obvious then ever.

The emergence of karate associations, and their business plan encouraging dependency rather than independence, has been the catalyst for karate's moral and spiritual decline. The dojo, once the hub of karate learning has been relegated to 'club' status, and karateka have become mere members. Instructors seek celebrity, and new students arrive with a list of expectations. So, who do you think is responsible for all this.....?

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Making connections.....

Hokusai's most famous print
The famed artist, Hokusai Katsushika, although a prolific artist, is best remembered today for a series of prints viewing Mt Fuji from various locations. The image above is perhaps the most famous of them all; but he produced art all his life from the age of just 6 years old. Once he began drawing, he never stopped.

His skill was not only technical, for Hokusai had real insight into how an image was made, as well as the power of suggestion. For example, one day he was summoned to the palace of the Shogun, Tokugawa Iyenari, there, he and another famous artist of the day were set against each other in competition by the Shogun. Iyenari was determined to find out who was the best artist. Hokusai was aware of his opponent's skill and knew he would have to make a real connection with the Shogun if he was going to win.

Each artist had to create a  work right there in front of the Shogun, but instead of reams of paper, brushes and ink, Hokusai asked for a large piece of paper, some blue ink, a small pot of red ink, and a chicken! As his opponent worked hard to produce something truly wonderful, Hokusai simply ran a swathe of blue ink across the paper, dipped the chicken's feet in the red ink, and dropped the bird in the centre.

When the allotted time was up each artist was asked to explain their creation. The intricate work of Hokusai's rival was an impressive example of the artist's skill, leaving everyone present in awe of his technique. Compared to Hokusai's piece it seemed the likely winner. When Hokusai was asked to explain his piece, he said..."It's the autumn leaves of a maple tree floating down the Tatsuta river." Hokusai was declared the winner!

If you measure your progress in karate by your level of technical skill alone, then you're missing out on how it really works.....