Thank you, Mixed Martial Arts, for saving traditional Karate!
After 20 plus years of studying Okinawan Karate, it is safe to say that I have heard A LOT of stories about how training “used to be.” I can remember being quite small and listening intently to retired Marines, and other military personal, speak about their time stationed on the Island of Okinawa; sweating profusely in the dojo during marathon-long training sessions, sparring full contact, pounding the makiwara until the skin on their knuckles fell completely off, crawling to bed covered in bruises only to do it all over again the next day…and they loved it!
I was very fortunate throughout my training to have had an instructor that took me all over the United States to train with “first generation” students of their respected Okinawan masters and learn from them. Now let me tell you, those training sessions, those sessions were tough. I will spare you the folklore of my “the old days” fairy tales, but I feel as though since those days, even since the 90’s, the quality of karate and martial arts in general, across the board, has dramatically been watered down and improperly taught by individuals that have self promoted themselves to positions of importance, or by governing associations that have been created by even more egotistical members than themselves. Moreover, these people have indoctrinated their students by hiding the “secrets” of “their” (oyo) bunkai (applications) until the students have reached that important level … in which they have to pay for their next belt test, which will include having to get a new gi, and new chevrons on their sleeves to show their parents, spouses, or friends what they have learned.
I am reminded of a story that I read that involved the late Hanshi Sokuichi Gibu, a true Okinawan karate Master (Hanshi, founder of the Butokukan Shorin-ryu Karate Association) and his answer when someone asked him about a bunkai (application) to a move in a kata that most people identify with a “ready position.” His response, quoted from a “trip diary,” penned by his American student, Kyoshi John Spence, Nanadan, is quite profound:
“Gibu Sensei gave us a long question and answer session about kata, kobudo and applications. He is very quick to point out that there are too many people that think that all of the moves in the kata have applications. He said that many of the bunkai were carried over from China or applied to certain situations long ago but had more historical meaning than actual application. He said that it is okay to analyze what movements could be however it is wrong to think that there are hidden meanings to every move. Some are just kamae or movements so that the kata can be completed in a pattern or sequence. This is the same explanation that I have heard from other Senior Okinawa sensei. He used the turn on Pinan Sandan as an example. (When you turn around and bring both hands up to your side to begin the final sequence with the empi uke and uraken) I have heard this explained as a throw, as a break, etc. When I asked him about this, he looked at me like I had two heads and said ‘Kamae only.’"
Now, for those who don’t know, the Kamae position is a ready position for Kumite (Fighting). The Yoi position is a ready position for Kata (Forms). Sometimes one is used to replace the other, same-same.
It is my personal opinion that most people are more interested in learning the possible bunkai (applications) that could be found in kata than conditioning themselves and their bodies to be able to execute the actual technique.
Knowledge is power, but skill is in the application.
Moreover, most people are under the impression that their kata practice is enough to help them be combative on the street while they are defending themselves. This is just not the case. I am reminded of a student of mine who was once shy about kumite. This person stated, “I think that I will be able to defend myself in the street, like, my body will just know what to do!”
…yeah, I don’t think so. Since this statement, this student is a feared fighter for their age in our club!
Where am I going with all of this?
I am making the point that because of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and its insurgence into mainstream media, most people are familiar with the sport and the techniques. Some know what positions are on the ground: half-guard, side-control, full mount, full guard, etc. Some know what sprawling is, some know what armbars are. They know what a jab and hook and an uppercut punch looks like; they have seen boxing in the Olympics. They know what a throw is; they have been watching Judo in the Olympics. Some know what leg locks and triangle chokes are, and others are avid fans of the sport and have become amateurs in commentating; they can figure out what a fighter needs to do in order to defend themselves and win, submit, or knock out their opponent. Simple observations.
None of these individuals are thinking about wrist grabs, cross wrist grabs, over hand strikes etc. I assure you!
As my best friend and long time training partner put it, “you can’t sell snake oil to people anymore, not since the internet and the recent age of immediate access to information.”
That being said, these people are having kids or starting to have kids, or they are thinking about starting to have kids, and they want to get their kids into mixed martial arts and well, this is what the new generation of kids fighting in school will look like:
Yeah, I know. Scary, right? Okay, so, what are we going to do?
Well, it seems to me that we are looking at a resurgence of the traditional dojo; the hard focus, not just the philosophical theory or the loose applications. Pushups, sit ups, running, kicks for hours, bag work, takedowns, continuous kumite (fighting), conditioning…all the lessons instilled in the “first generation” students stationed in Okinawa 50 years ago! Don’t get me wrong, I think that the “soft” part of karate and martial arts is important, but we can’t forget about the “hard.” I feel like the “hard” has been replaced by the “useless.” Let me explain…
Kata: No longer can we just dance at the dojo anymore.
(Now, before someone freaks out and starts sending me emails about how kata is important, blah, blah, blah, I agree with you! Kata is awesome for exercise and conditioning etc. No one is knocking kata practice. I love kata, so do you, so it’s cool. I am just saying we need to practice other stuff too).
It’s not like it was back in the day, watch someone do an impressive kata and think to yourself, “That person KNOWS karate!” There is a big difference between fighting, defending yourself, and doing kata. Before the insurgence of MMA, I think that people in the west gravitated towards eastern martial arts because of the mysticism and magic; making the smaller guy subdue the more powerful guy. That is true; martial arts will teach you that, but that smaller guy has to TRAIN his/her body to be as STRONG as it can be so that the techniques found in kata or not, will actually work! This isn’t The Matrix; you can’t download information and expect to be able to retain its value. This is not how it works! Watch below:
Kids aren’t stupid anymore and now, if they aren’t taping their friends fighting and posting it on YouTube, they are going to sites and watching amateur fights there. Or they are watching MMA on television, the internet or HBO and they know what’s going to work and what won’t because even if they aren’t actually fighting themselves, they are watching people fight all the time! PS, I am a high school teacher, and I can tell you that when kids fight now, other kids film it. Yeah, truth. Go ahead; go to YouTube right now, I’ll wait…
They aren’t stupid, they’re educated.
I can remember there being a time in the dojo when you weren’t “allowed” to watch people perform advanced kata because, “you weren’t there yet.” Please, give me a break. What a joke. It’s not like people will pick up advanced technique by watching. You see, the ultimate aim of kata is to prepare your body for combat, to harden your body through stance work and conditioning, while you demonstrate an understanding of how your body moves when you are working certain techniques and applications...that’s it. Throw some moving meditation in there for good measure too. Now, after watching the video above, do you think those kids are practicing kata? Nope! They’re fighting! And I have to tell you, there is no kid their age taking "karate" or "tae kwon do" that stands a chance against them if they aren’t learning to also fight and protect themselves as well. Period.
Let’s do a test. Place the kids in the above video against the kids in this video and think to yourself which group of kids are more prepared to defend themselves:
…cough, cough. Okay, let’s continue.
You have to think to yourself, why don’t we practice ground fighting at our dojo? Why don’t we practice more joint locks, holds and applications? Why don’t we do more throws and takedowns? Everyone else is doing them, why aren’t we hitting the bag or makiwara? Again, why aren’t we hitting the bag or makiwara?
Those are good questions. Why don’t you ask them?
The answer is: Your teacher probably doesn’t know how to.
Most martial arts teachers, especially "karate" (sigh) or "tae kwon do" will work from a wrist grab, or a cross wrist grab, which would be great, if people actually fought like that, but they don’t. Last time I checked, that isn’t the way to start a fight, or end one. It’s insane to think that people are still teaching all the bunkai (applications) from wrist grabs or cross collar chokes. News Flash: This isn’t feudal Japan, and most people don’t carry swords anymore, they carry guns, or knifes, but not swords. So maybe we should be teaching people how to grab another person’s wrist to prevent them from grabbing their gun or knife, but for the love of God…
The point is, you can teach all the technique you want from wrist grabs, collar chokes etc. However, if you aren’t being taught how to defend someone punching you in the head and trying to throw you to the ground, then you aren’t learning to defend yourself from the majority of people who will most likely attack you in your life. You are training to release yourself from the grasp of your parents’ grip when you are throwing a tantrum in the mall, your friend’s grasp of you as you dangle to your untimely death below, or some idiot at school or work that still play pranks, slapping you, when you go to shake his hand. Sigh. Note: this guy actually exists.
So, maybe you should change some stuff up a little, what do you think?
Technique found in Bunkai: PRACTICE!
Oyo Bunkai (Partial Understanding) is something anyone can do, it’s an interpretation. That’s it. Like Hanshi Gibu said, it is okay and encouraged to think about what the application might be. Even so, that “real” application might not be “combat effective” in the modern era. It’s alright if it doesn’t make sense, the point is you found it. This means you are beginning to think combatively about your kata at least and this is a good thing. However, these techniques alone, traditional or modern, useless or effective, become useless unless you can put them into practice without being smashed into the ground. If you see a throw in a kata, practice that throw, but not just from the movement in the kata, from all positions, from all angle, grabbing different parts of the gi and the body and whatever! I know, I know, the world was a better place for you when it was just wrist grabs etc. As Hanshi Doug Perry,9th dan in Shorin-ryu Okinawan Karate, retired Marine Major, former Golden Gloves Boxer, retired Karate Champion once said, and I am paraphrasing here, that all those locks and holds are great but if you knock your opponent out, they are a lot easier to apply.
The man’s got a point here… and so do I.
The truth is. No one can sell the snake oil forever, and sooner or later, all these McDojos, all these terrible martial arts clubs/day-care centers, all these fakes and phonies will have to disappear. And the only thing that will be left will be quality, traditional, martial arts clubs…like Okinawan Karate Schools. Pumping out quality martial artists that train and condition themselves; their arms and legs are like iron, their spirits strong and their techniques sharp. That is it my friend. They look like this…
… This, my friends, is what a traditional karateka looks like and what he/she should be trying to accomplish. They should be trying to make their arms and legs as strong as swords and spears so that if they do have to punch or kick in a conflict, they will BREAKDOWN their opponent. And I can assure you, no one is grabbing their wrist.
You see, traditional Okinawan Karate is a brutal art. There are punches and kicks of course, but there are also throws and joint locks, fish hooks and skin ripping, pressure point strikes and elbows and head butts… the list is endless. There are no rules; it is self defense at its finest.
With the creation of a fight culture emerging out of MMA, there will be no room for foolishness in the dojo anymore and schools will have to start thinking about teaching again and not running homework clubs and birthday parties. Teachers will have to be legitimately certified from reputable institutions and they will have to teach in their dojos even more. They will have to show what they can do to their new students because, well, this new generation of student will have some questions about how to apply the technique or escape a position, and the old charming, “you are not there yet, Grasshopper” line is not going to work.
In conclusion, MMA has become a decoder ring that one can wear to see through all the nonsense technique that some schools pass off as “self-defense or combat tested.” As a karate enthusiast, I can’t stand looking at the quality of some schools in my area, let alone getting on the internet and doing a search. However, things are looking up and maybe; just maybe, we can run these places out of town for good.
The problem is when Lyoto Machida, WKF Karate Champion, Shotokan Karate Black Belt, and MMA fighter won his last fight by a head-shot reverse punch in a zenkutsu-dachi and in a previous fight from a jumping front kick a-la- Kusanku Dai, EVERY black belt said, “See, it works!”
The difference is guys, Machida is a fighter, who trains every day and has built his arms and legs to be “swords and spears.” He does not run a daycare center. He is a legitimate black belt (yudansha).
My teacher once said, “There are black belts, and then there are black belts.”
…Sigh. Here we go again.