Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Trump Gets His Black Belt

Yesterday at Mar-a-Lago, the former US president Donald Trump received an honorary 9th degree black belt in the Korean martial art of tae kwon do. It should be noted that Trump is not the only world political figure to be bestowed such an honor. In 2013, Russian president Vladimir Putin was awarded the same honor  during a visit to South Korea. 

Though neither man has actually ever practiced tae kwon do, Putin does hold a black belt in judo, an art he has been training in since he was 11. 

As an Okinawan karate practitioner, my articles on tae kwon do have been comparatively limited. So here is a good opportunity to list the philosophical tenets of the martial art:

 

  • Courtesy: Politeness and respect for others, behaving in a well-mannered and civil fashion.
  • Integrity: Showing good character, honesty, and decency.
  • Perseverance: The willingness to continue to struggle against all odds to reach a goal.
  • Self-Control: Keeping one's emotions, desires, and impulses in check, particularly in difficult or trying circumstances.
  • Indomitable Spirit:  An attribute shown when a courageous person and his principles are pitted against overwhelming odds. Unconquerable.

 

Like other arts, tae kwon do endeavors to make not just good fighters, but good people who possess inner strength and moral rectitude. These are attributes anyone should aspire to. 

While one could only hope an 'honorary' black belt can produce such a result on its own, I respectfully have my doubts.

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Saturday, October 30, 2021

Spinal Health, Meditation, and Aging Gracefully

Recently an attorney admonished a high profile political figure for not having the "courage and spine" to commit to what could be construed as a treasonous act. This is relevant, as being upright is considered moralistic, a hallmark of martial arts philosophy. Notwithstanding the clever use of metaphors, having a strong spine is essential for overall physical health. I found this out at my job about two months ago when I attempted to lift a modestly heavy container onto a hand truck causing excruciating pain in my back. An MRI has revealed two herniated discs causing nerve impingements that make work (for now) impossible. In the meantime, a pair of steroid epidurals has eased some of my pain, hopefully with lasting results.

In a previous post I've talked about my earlier diagnosis with scoliosis (spine curvature) in a positive way; how the spinal rotation in my back may have actually aided my efforts to perform spin-kicks. When I tell other practitioners this, I'm usually met with incredulity. They think I'm nuts. I'm just trying to look on the bright side. It's a coping mechanism. But as I enter my 62nd year on this realm, making lemonade out of lemons is becoming trickier. I have scoliosis, herniated discs, and an arthritic spine, something I don't relish as I approach my retirement years. Forrest Morgan, author of Living the Martial Way, divulged in an interview that degenerative arthritis is the reason for his cessation in martial arts training, though he still enjoys low-impact cardio and weight training for fitness. I'm currently doing neither.

When I told a fellow karate-ka about my blown out discs, he said to me, in all sincerity, it likely occurred because when I meditate I may be concentrating too hard on my hara. The hara (or dantian), considered the seat of power (ki) in Japanese martial arts and the site of the third chakra in Indian mysticism, roughly corresponds to the physical location of the lumbar spine injury that is wreaking havoc on my ability to go to work or basically do anything else.

Who knows, maybe I am meditating the wrong way. Is that even possible? When Western medicine first encountered meditation in the early twentieth century it was posited that seizures, psychosis, and even death could occur to the overly eager neophyte navel-gazer. I have no plans to give up my regimen of meditation, however, my future is uncertain. One euphemism for karate is "self-defense"; I need to take care of myself. We all do. I have bills to pay, but I need to tend to my health, and I find myself at a crossroads. I'm not even sure what that means for me. Time will tell. I'll have to pick some destination, no matter how uncertain it may be right now. As Yogi Berra once offered, "When you get to the fork in the road, take it."

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Friday, October 08, 2021

Magic

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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