Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Who says so? Understanding kata technique in context

The final position of the
mawashi-like technique.
I was watching a video the other day of a guy explaining three ways to use a mawashi uke or tora guchi--can't remember whether he distinguished between the two or not. But anyway, I was a bit surprised, since I believe that the style he practices is Shotokan, though I suspect his interests are more widespread since he calls himself a "karate nerd." Now when I was young, I practiced a Tae Kwon Do style that was based on Shotokan--same forms and all. In fact, I think the Korean teachers had practiced Shotokan during the Japanese occupation of Korea way back in the early part of the twentieth century. But I also trained a year of Shotokan in England back in 1976-77. And in all that time, I don't remember ever doing a single mawashi uke or even anything that remotely resembled one. So I'm thinking, how can this guy presume to explain the function of a mawashi uke? And the guy's YouTube video had over 29,000 views!

But I've seen this happen over and over again; that is, people whose primary style is something other than Goju trying to explain the applications of Goju kata. It seems to me, however, that if you can divorce the technique from the kata--and there are frequently disclaimers stating that the kata under analysis is not one that they personally practice--then the technique can mean anything...or nothing. You have taken it out of context. It's like trying to define a word without seeing the sentence or even the paragraph it is used in. That's why crossword puzzles are often so hard; the words are not always given a context. Context changes meaning or more precisely, I suppose, actually determines meaning. Dr. Johnson, that particularly idiosyncratic lexicographer who gave us the first dictionary of the English language, set about first defining words by making note of how they were used in the books that he read. Unlike a word, however, a solo technique--like mawashi uke, in this case--could literally mean anything you want it to mean, out of context. After all, you're just waving your arms.

I suspect that this teacher is simply providing three conventional applications for mawashi uke that he learned from a Goju teacher or practitioner. In fact, they are pretty standard interpretations. One mawashi uke trapped the arm and then attacked the opponent's trunk and head with two palm strikes. The second example he illustrated was used against two punches, one after the other, and then he attacked the same way with the two palm strikes. And the third mawashi uke began with a same-side wrist grab, broke the grab, and then was used to apply an arm-bar against the opponent's elbow.

So the question is: Could the mawashi uke technique be used this way--that is, in any or all of these ways? It's really a question of grammar or, more properly, verb tense. Could one use a mawashi uke to block and then attack with palm strikes? Could one use a mawashi uke to release a wrist grab or apply an arm-bar? Anything is possible (particularly with a compliant partner, though that's another story for another day). Could aliens have built the pyramids? Could have, I suppose, but in the context of what we know, is it likely?

Mawashi-like technique at
the end of Seipai kata.
In the context of the Goju-ryu classical kata, the mawashi uke can be seen in Sanchin, Tensho, and Suparinpei. A mawashi-like technique occurs at the end of Saifa, at the end of Seipai, at the end of Seisan, and in the middle of Kururunfa (and, in my heretical opinion, three times in the middle of Suparinpei). The mawashi-like techniques all have one thing in common, other than the circular rotation of both hands--they are all done in cat stance (neko ashi). The mawashi uke we see in Sanchin, Tensho, and at the beginning of Suparinpei are all executed in basic stance or sanchin dachi.  The context, it seems to me, determines how they were originally intended to be used. In each of the mawashi-like techniques, it is at the end of a sequence of moves which have allowed you to seize the attacker's head, and in each case the head is twisted with the rotating arms or hands and then, because the defender is in cat stance, a knee kick is executed to the opponent's head. In the case of the mawashi uke techniques, there is little context other than the fact that they are all executed from the double-arm kamae posture--a posture akin to the beginning of a grappling position, which would argue for each of these mawashi uke techniques to begin with a release from an opponent's two-handed grab.

Mawashi uke at the
beginning of Suparinpei.
But the question is: Are the techniques found in a kata meant to be understood within the context of that kata or can they be interpreted independent of their context? This raises much larger issues, of course. Are the kata of a system merely random collections of techniques--in which case, one might ask, why put them into kata form?--or are they part of application (bunkai) sequences? If they are part of sequences--and the easiest way to see this is in the realization that all of the techniques in a kata do not function as ends in themselves--then how the techniques are used in any given sequence illustrates the principles of the style or system. To understand the self-defense principles of the system, then, it is important to understand the applications of the techniques. Some of the creative interpretations of techniques people have tried to apply, taken as they are out of context, seem to violate fairly sound martial principles.

Of course, if you believe that someone created kata (long ago and far far away) with movements that were so generic that they could be understood and applied in a variety of ways, often too numerous to even grasp a fraction of the "application potentials," as some like to call them, then there's little to reasonably argue. And there seems to be a lot of support for this sort of position. As one noted author quoted a legendary teacher: "'None of the movements is restricted to only one application...each application is unlimited.'" The author himself goes on to say that "Anyone who says differently simply does not understand what he or she is talking about." End of discussion....though I would agree to disagree.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Seminar in Italy

View of Florence
About 20 years ago, I stopped teaching the karate club at the university and started training in the barn dojo in back of my house. We put in a 3/4-inch plywood floor and covered it with an old wrestling mat from the university, put up a couple of makiwara posts and a heavy bag, a couple of nigiri game jars, some pictures and scrolls from Okinawa, and began training. At first there were six to ten black belts from the university that were either still around or decided to live nearby for the summer, but eventually, since I had no interest in advertising and trying to run a commercial dojo, it dwindled until there was just me and Ivan. Since there was just the two of us training most nights, we found little need to talk or count out basics or kata. We just trained. Generally, we warmed up on our own and then did a round or two of kata, from Sanchin to Suparinpei and Tensho. Then we would work on bunkai, but again there seemed to be little need to talk. We were both conversant enough with the techniques and observant enough of each other's movement to see what was going on just from the constant repetition of ippon kumite drills we did from the techniques in the classical kata. I don't know how else to say it, but we got to a point where we could almost tell what each other was thinking simply from how we were moving. We varied it a lot in those days when we were first trying to understand the classical subjects.

I was reminded of that sort of silent communication last week, watching my son Noah play soccer or "futbol" as they call it in Italy. We were staying at a hotel near the airport in Rome on our last night in Italy, since we had an early flight home the next morning. We needed to head to the airport at 4am if we were going to catch our flight home to Boston--a grueling 27-hour exodus, counting layovers, that took us from Rome to Istanbul to Boston.

Noah discovered a small fenced-in soccer pitch in back of the hotel and went down to unwind and kick a kid-sized soccer ball around that he found in the bushes nearby. A few minutes later, a group of Italian polizia came by with their gym bags and soccer balls, dressed in shorts and soccer cleats. They came after work to play five-a-side games, only this evening they were one player short. They motioned Noah over and invited him to play with them. There were no words really. The only language they shared was the language of soccer. When I came looking for him, the game was well underway. There were smiles and laughter and high fives. They were good, but the game was played for fun. When Noah had to leave, there were fist bumps and handshakes.

I'm reminded of that camaraderie as I sit here a week later and think back to the seminar I gave a couple of weeks ago in Villadose, Italy. It was the same sort of thing. I don't speak Italian and few of the people at the seminar would be able to understand me if I tried to explain things in words. Certainly Andrea, who initially contacted me after reading this blog and the articles I had written years ago for the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, could translate for me, but I didn't think lengthy explanations and sentence-by-sentence translations was what anyone was there for. I thought back to the times I had trained in Okinawan dojos where, for the most part, the only instruction that was actually verbalized was, " Kori wa ko, desho'," and it was always accompanied by a demonstration. (I think a rough translation was something like "it's like this, isn't it.") Anyway, I had been invited to give a seminar there by the Villadose karate club (Gruppo Sportivo Karate) with the sponsorship and support of FEKDA (Federazione Europea Karate Discipline Associate). The students were all different ages, from old to young, and from all different styles of karate. But we trained together, shared concepts and techniques, and enjoyed ourselves for two days.

If soccer has its own language and is indeed international, as my son reminded me after his game with the Italian polizia, I think the same might be said of martial arts. There is the silent language of a shared experience and a common understanding, and it is fostered and nourished, I think, through courtesy and respect. And it seems to be something we share as martial artists, regardless of school affiliation or style. So often in these situations, I am reminded of things my teacher, Kimo Wall sensei, would say. I heard them so often that they have become something of a mantra, and in some ways they all have come to mean the same thing.

Open mind, joyful training.
Replace fear and doubt with knowledge and understanding.
Train hard, train often.

Thank you to everyone who came to train. And especially to Andrea and Luigi Ferrari who went out of their way to make us feel welcome! Grazie Mille!