Friday, October 08, 2021


Lately, on martial arts threads I see online, it seems that traditional martial arts (TMA) have fallen out of favor. Apparently if you're not training for life-and-death or the Octagon, you're spinning your wheels. But in the idealistic past we've had TMA heroes gracing the big or little screen that seemed larger than life. Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and the TV show Kung Fu inspired us. It was David Carradine's portrayal of Caine, the Shaolin monk turned cowboy that inspired me to bug my parents to enroll me in my first martial arts class. Carradine was not really a kung fu practitioner of note, but that didn't matter to me. Norris once quipped that Carradine was about as qualified a martial artist as he (Norris) was a gifted stage actor, but I digress. Both of them presented martial arts in a very positive way. I miss that. And in its place we have to witness internet squabbles over full-contact sports like Muay Thai and judo, versus aikido, wing chun, tae kwon do, karate, or any other TMA du jour that's on the radar of these basement-dwelling chat-room pseudo cage fighters when they should be out looking for a job. To be fair, not all critics fall into this category. But then, the qualified critics, those with real combat, security, or fighting experience, (usually) can't be bothered airing their grievances on reddit. 

In 1984, The Karate Kid movie became a surprise hit. And in its wake, martial arts schools flourished. Enrollment doubled and tripled overnight, especially with kids, but what made this movie unique was the feature of the tournament. So between charging for lessons, belts and tournaments, karate school owners raked in the bucks. It's my opinion that kata and point-matches for trophies and colored belts have been both good and detrimental to karate. By the early 90s MMA came to the US, courtesy of a Brazilian clan's rendition of jiu-jitsu. A corner was turned, and there was no going back. 

In the old days, TMA were held as magic. We believed, because we had Kato and Lone Wolf McQuade and Mr. Miyagi there to give us faith. They were the good guys. I believed, because I wanted to believe that the style of karate that I espoused gave me a chance to be something greater than I was. Maybe I was naïve. I was young, what did I know? 

Today, critcal thinking reigns, so when we see a video of a "master" knocking out his student via hypnotic gaze, we know better. But these cringey clips, along with qi strikes and 7-year-old black belts, these things by default get relegated to TMA. And that's a shame. Still in spite of it all, the karate that I know, somehow, still possesses something magical.

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Sunday, June 07, 2020

Unpopular Opinions

  • Karate and other martial arts often have little street value. Want to really defend yourself? Get a gun and learn how to shoot.
  • Running away from a fight isn't always cowardly. Sometimes it's just smart.
  • Learning pre-arranged forms or kata will not make you a better fighter.
  • Training with traditional weapons such as sai, or nunchaku have no practical utility. Like weapons? Learn a live stick fighting art, like Escrima.
  • Punching a makiwara (striking post), or shin striking hard objects to toughen your limbs is self-mutilation.
  • There are no "good" styles, only good teachers. And truth be told, there really are some bad styles.
  • A high ranking instructor once told me that the more skill you have as a fighter the less you'll want to fight. My observations of some highly skilled karateka through the years leaves me to conclude: if only that were true.
  • Masters and so-called luminaries in the martial arts are not life coaches. In matters unrelated to training, do not ask them for advice. Ever. They are not equipped to help you deal with your personal problems.
  • Colored belts do more harm than good in developing competent practitioners.
  • Realizing all the aforementioned items doesn't make you a pessimist. It makes you a realist. Enlightenment is not cosmic consciousness, but the rare ability to see things as they really are.

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Legend of the Fist

Just came across a fine work by the renown karate historian and philosopher Patrick McCarthy, Legend of the Fist. With help from his wife Yuriko, McCarthy Sensei has painstakingly translated dozens of newspaper and magazine articles from Okinawa and mainland Japan beginning in the late 19th century to modern day. More than thirty years in the making, this collection of essays and interviews not only reveals the true spirit of karatedo, but also the social mores and customs of Okinawan and Japanese culture that served as the impetus in the development of karatedo⁠—karate as a way of life.

The book is full of axioms and advice from the early masters about fighting techniques and decorum when outside the dojo. One interesting account depicts the intense rivalry between Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan in Japan, and Okinawan street-fighting expert Choki Motobu. Motobu's views on his aversion to using kicks in a real fight, his pursuit for drinking and having fun, and his time spent with a certain crime lord make Motobu an outlier in the chronicles of karate history.

Translated from Japanese to English, articles include stories about mixed matches featuring exponents of karate and judo, commentary on Western boxing, and a brief discussion of the classical text, Bubishi. The author has written a previous book on the "Bible of Karate."

Patrick McCarthy (Hanshi, 9th dan), a true devotee to the traditional fighting arts, believes that the way of karate transcends the mere physical; that the training and cultivating of mind, body, and spirit form the triumvirate essential to the development of the aspiring karateka. At just over 300 pages, Legend of the Fist is a worthy, concise read, and the author promises a Volume #2 is in the making.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Fake Martial-Arts Documentary

Here's a project that should see the light of day: A full-length feature film exposing fraudulent "martial artists" that con those easily deceived. We're told that some of the frauds themselves will be confronted, so get your popcorn ready. Exposing and confronting fake martial artists is great fun that I've showcased here and here.

Sometimes though it's not fun or funny at all, as one of the creators of this project has received death threats from exposing these people online, whether it's from their cult-like followers, or from the fake masters themselves. As an American diplomat said today, "you can't promote principled anti-corruption action without pissing off corrupt people."

The indie producers are trying to pitch the idea of this documentary to Netflix. Since the executives at Netflix are all big fans of my site, maybe they'll like this. Let's make this happen.

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Saturday, October 12, 2019

Another Rant About Kata Training

Karate Obsession has a well-written post on what defines traditional karate. Among other things the article discusses the history of karate's ranking system, views on cross training, and modern notions such as loyalty to one's teacher or style and the urban legend of one-strike-one-kill. What caught my eye in this concise essay has to do with kata, solo forms found in karate that date back to antiquity. The author takes a dubious look at utilizing kata applications with multiple attackers (!) in heavily scripted attack-and-defense scenarios.

These are characterized by having multiple attackers arrange themselves so that they surround the person performing the kata (typically standing in a front stance with their lead arm down as if they had just done a gedan-barai) in such a way that they will be lined up to attack the performer along the enbusen (performance line) of the kata, and then attacking with strict, sterilized karate strikes. The defense is similarly sterilized, consisting of techniques that are used in ways that are unrealistic and tactically poor, hikite (pulling hand) being pulled to the hip without anything grasped in it, postures used as formal “setups” for other techniques, and a general reliance on knowing exactly what kind of attacks the attackers will use. These can be very dynamic and precise performances, but they are merely that — performances. The only thing karateka get better at by practicing this way is performing.

I've seen this before. Somewhere I have a VHS tape from the 80s with Angi Uezu of Isshinryu karate performing these drills with his black-belt students students working bunkai (components of kata) from all the forms found in the style's syllabus. After a fine demonstration of a kata as a solo form, the narrator would ask, "What is the master doing?" Then the secrets would be revealed! He would have his people surround him, two to four at a time, and then repeat the same kata to fend off off the advances of these "attacks." Performances indeed, and truth be told they were meticulous and impressive. In my experience I've never practiced this type of kata drill anywhere, ever. Bunkai was always trained in a one-on-one fashion in whatever dojo I was in. In time as you get better, some spontaneity and creativeness should be encouraged so the drill doesn't get stale or feel rehearsed. Ultimately, making these drills feel real is imperative.

I've heard the theory that kata represents fighting attackers from various angles, but that's a misunderstanding of why kata was created. It's more like a primer for techniques. It's not meant to mimic an actual fight, let alone with more than one assailant. From another source, here's a more holistic view:

In reality, from a street-fighting point of view, it is pretty much impossible to use the moves of kata to fight against multiple attackers at once. The vast majority of kata techniques are designed to deal with a single attacker who is directly in front of you. Although there are a few movements in certain kata where the imaginary enemy strikes from behind, there is always one opponent at a time. Defense against a large group is generally handled by strategically engaging one person at a time in a manner that confounds the other's ability to reach you.*

Regardless of how you train them, I have mixed feelings about kata. To be sure, learning kata without understanding them is meaningless. Bunkai as self-defense could be taught without ever seeing the whole kata by itself. I've seen oyo (applications) so heavily modified from the kata to make it usable for self-defense that it bears little semblance to the original form. In the end, it's really about the quality of instruction and the manner of how kata is taught.

* Lawrence A. Kane and Kris Wilder 2005. The Way of Kata: A Comprehensive Guide for Deciphering Martial Applications. YMAA Publication Center, Inc.

† As I see it, kata has survived for three reasons, none of them having anything to do with efficacy or even tradition: 1. Kata training takes up class time. 2. Kata is used for promotion. 3. Kata is an event at tournaments.

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Friday, July 26, 2019

The Dojo Is My Universe

When you look out of your eyes at nature happening out there, you're looking at you. That's the real you. ⁠— Alan Watts

In a recently published research paper titled Sense of Coherence and Connectedness to Nature as Predictors of Motivation for Practicing Karate, 127 karate practitioners were examined to determine the connection between nature and motivations for training. The gist of the paper is that mental health and a sense of well-being is associated with karate training done in a natural setting. It's not surprising that people enjoy practicing outdoors on a nice day. Male and female trainees were observed and findings showed that feeling emotionally connected to the natural world was important for the physical fitness objective for both sexes. The study was undertaken, in part, due to a "pandemic of physical inactivity" and also because...

Martial arts belong to a particular group of sport disciplines which are very rarely practiced outdoors, especially when it comes to tournaments and competitions. Therefore, carrying out at least some parts of the training process in natural open spaces is justified, which would make it possible to use natural environmental elements as part of the training. The idea of harmonizing the training of martial arts with nature is also hidden in the well-known Japanese calligraphy of old warriors under the name “Sekai-dojo”―My “dojo“ (my gym), is my universe. All budo (martial art) students eventually realize that their behavior has changed and has been greatly influenced by the martial art discipline they practice. They become more conscious, braver, more careful, more attentive, and more respectful of others. They are able to better acquire natural principles in their philosophical context. They are able to exercise greater willpower, frankness, and generosity. This is followed by the next step: Introducing these virtues into ordinary life outside the dojo (gym). After this happens, the whole world becomes a large, wide dojo. Research shows that this attitude is particularly visible in athletes who engage in traditional forms of karate, which place an emphasis on values. Outdoor physical activity also provides more opportunities to achieve states of mental relaxation, which is so important in fighting sports that some even consider it fundamental.

The study goes on to show the relationship between Eastern philosophy and traditional martial arts. The connection to nature, however, was highly correlated to physical fitness goals associated with karate training. The paper also delves into the different goals of men and women for training in karate.

It's an interesting work that examines the karate way, it's unison with the natural environment, and ultimately, the path to overcoming one’s weaknesses.

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Friday, July 05, 2019

Neat Tricks

Eric Shahan, a martial arts practitioner who specializes in translating classic Japanese texts into English has translated a treatise on acquiring supernatural powers in a new book, Twelve Rules Of The Sword, that was passed down verbally from a 17th century samurai school. Among other things, the rules for prevailing in combat involves saying two prayers and writing Sanskrit characters on your palms. Could be a tad time consuming when the heat is on. But supposedly the book also discusses some practical strategies for combat, similar to those found in The Book Of Five Rings, which deals more with the psychology of fighting than physical techniques. Training, attitude and situational awareness, while paramount in the martial arts, are far from magical concepts.

In Okinawan karate, performing the kata Sanchin over and over is supposed to develop otherworldly stamina and strength. The ancient form, of Chinese origin, is akin to a dynamic-tension routine that was hawked in comic books by bodybuilder Charles Atlas in past decades. It's a slow motion punch-and-block sequence that mimics pushing and pulling a heavy weight with isometric contractions and forced breathing. Entire books have been written on the single topic of Sanchin. The kata is a staple in many schools of karate, especially Goju-ryu. Its founder, Chojun Miyagi, made his students perform Sanchin many times each day, with the idea that it would transform them mentally, physically, and spiritually. Miyagi himself was built like a bull and purportedly could perform superhuman feats. In one public demonstration in 1924, he...

[T]hrust his hand into a bunch of bamboos and pulled out one from the center. He stuck his hand into a slab of meat and tore off chunks. He put white chalk on the bottom of his feet, jumped up, and kicked the ceiling — leaving his foot-prints on the ceiling for all to see. Spectators hit him with long bo (staffs) with no effect. He tore off the bark of a tree (with his fingers). And with his big toe he punctured a hole in a kerosene can...He did many more feats which had to be believed.*

These types of feats today are rare. Most modern demos involve crowd-pleasers like self defense moves and board breaking. Gymnastic feats like tricking or parkour (the latter which is derived from military obstacle course training) flood the internet. Most recently we have the Bottle Cap Challenge, originally uploaded by Farabi Davletchin, a champion taekwondo fighter from Kazakhstan. The trick involves setting up a bottle of some beverage roughly chest high, and executing a variant of a spinning hook kick which grazes the pre-loosened bottle cap, spinning it off the top while leaving the remaining bottle untouched.

Everyone seems to be getting in on the action with their own clips, including famous martial arts actor Jason Statham (see above). Pretty impressive for a guy over fifty. If Chuck Norris were a bit younger he would have a go at this. Hell, maybe I'll give it a shot. Still, Miyagi would probably outdo everyone with his barefoot hole-in-the-kerosene can move. Then again, Miyagi also said at the conclusion of his demo, "Karate is a total commitment. I have not done anything that someone else cannot do, or, for that matter, you. There is no halfway measure. Either you do it or you don't. Nothing is impossible."

Indeed. There is no magic.

* Richard Kim 1974. The Weaponless Warriors. Ohara Publications. (Originally written by journalist Tojuda Anshu.)
† Want to feel old? Norris will be eighty next year. Can you believe it?

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