Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Monday, August 18, 2014

To kaisai no genri or not to kaisai no genri

How many Japanese karate terms can you say in one minute? I find this annoying--the seemingly off-handed, pompous over use of obscure foreign terms--especially when it comes up in discussion forums. What's the point? Just kidding...everyone knows the point to using jargon. The point is to intimidate or at the very least to establish one's expertise in a subtle way. There are really a number of problems here. Certainly agreed upon terminology can facilitate discussion.  When I say that a poem is a sonnet, I am hoping that the use of agreed upon terms [sonnet] bypasses a lengthy explanation of form and structure. When I ask for a monkey wrench, it's a lot quicker than trying to describe what I need. But karate terminology is not standardized. What you call a te-kube-uke, I may call a kake-uke. And one can't forget that what may be appropriate in Japan may be an affectation in the West. Remember, in Okinawa they're just counting to ten--ichi, ni, san, shi.... The other problem is that what you call a nukite, I may call a shotei. When we call a technique something--anything--we begin, however unintentionally, to assign it a meaning, an explanation, and in this case a bunkai. The solution, I suppose, is simply to describe or explain what's going on. Wait. Would that make things too clear? I mean, would it take all the mysticism out of it?
1st move in Saifa--a dropping elbow.

Just picture, for a minute, the typical dojo. The smell of incense. The quiet. Suddenly a guttural growl: "Mokuso yame." The sempai calls out. "Kiritsu." Then, "Sensei ni, rei." Everyone bows to the teacher. "Shomen ni, rei." Everyone bows to the shrine. "Mon-te ni, rei." Everyone turns and bows to each other. "Mae." Pause while everyone turns to face the front. "Kiotsuke." Everyone stands at attention. Where did all this militaristic formality come from? Was it always a part of Okinawan karate or did it come from the mainland during the years leading up to World War II? But there's little time to dwell on such things, the senior student is barking out commands again. "Sanseiru kata. Yoi." Everyone comes to ready position. Again, that guttural growl that sounds like an angry ronin from an old samurai movie. "Kamae." Everyone steps forward with the right foot and brings both arms up, sort of like Sanchin. Wait, is that a ready position or is it a technique? How do you know whether it's a ready position or a technique? It must be a ready position because the sempai said, "Kamae." No, it's just always been called that...or it's called that because who the hell knows what it is!? Is that really the way someone would ready themselves for a fight, both arms up, sort of like John L. Sullivan or some boxer conforming to the Queensbury Rules??? Couldn't be. Maybe it's a technique. Maybe it actually has a function. But of course that would imply that everything in a kata had a function and you aren't just adopting a pose or performing for an audience. Whoa, that's a pretty radical thought. No, it's not. What's really radical is thinking that everything in kata has multiple functions. That's radical. Call it what you will, but don't call it a whole lot of different things.
Grabbing the head and dropping
the forearm onto the neck
of the opponent.

Actually, that's part of the problem, that we give techniques names. The first technique of Saifa kata is described as an elbow technique. So creative karate-ka (there's those terms again) use the elbow to attack the opponent's ribs or the opponent's own elbow after he has thrown a punch. But if you attack the elbow from the side, it only takes the slightest bend of the elbow by the opponent to frustrate the attack and protect the elbow. If you bring the elbow up and over the opponent's arm, on the other hand, and drop the forearm on his arm, you can easily bring the opponent's head down. The next move is to grab the head, drop back into horse stance (shiko dachi) and attack the neck with the forearm. This, of course, raises all sorts of issues, because in most dojos teachers call this technique a uraken-uchi. The kata looks the same or very nearly when it's done, but the bunkai isuraken or, as I've seen in some cases, a rap to the chest with a backfist, which is just plain annoying.
very different. Which one is right? Well, one should ask which interpretation best conforms to martial principles, which is more realistic, and which is more lethal? The first principle here is to move in such a way that doesn't allow your opponent a second opportunity to attack. It is more realistic because you are using the response of the opponent to your first counter. It's more lethal because you are attacking the opponent's neck rather than giving him a bloody nose with a

And don't call it a mawashi-uke, because most of the time in kata it's not "receiving" anything--it's the finishing technique. Of course, that would take a pretty radical shift of perspective...but it would sure help your kaisai no genri!