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Shorin Ryu Karate

Educating the masses - looking to the old to understand the new

entrevista con Shihan Oshiro
Este artículo fué publicado por primera vez en American Samurai tomo 7, julio 2002

American Samurai Queremos discutir algunos de sus preocupaciones eacerca del entrenamiento.
Toshihiro Oshiro Algunos artistas marciales clásicos están en desacuerdo con la manera de que se practica el karate hoy día. Desde una perspectiva de 'bujutsu' estricta se pueden ver ciertos aspectos que parecen ser preocupantes. Algunos tradicionalistas de otras artes han ido tan lejos como decir aún que el karate parezca de ser un arte marcial de segunda clase.  Estos sentimientos son compartidos por ciertos instructores de karate inclusos. Para poder entender su reacción tenemos que mirar primero To better understand their reaction, we must first look at traditional karate as it was practiced long ago in Okinawa and contrast that with the karate of today. A good dividing line would be to examine the karate that was widely practiced before and after Itosu Anko brought karate into the public school system in Okinawa.

Karate was modified to fit the public school physical education program in 1901 when it was first introduced as part of the school curriculum at Shuri's Jinjo elementary school. In 1905 Itosu Anko created the 5 Pinan katas to further facilitate this process.
In the early 1920', Gichin Funakoshi brought karate to mainland Japan and was soon followed by other karate greats such as Choki Motobu and Kenwa Mabuni. But by the time karate crossed over to the mainland it had already been fully transformed into a physical education/sport type of regimen.

When the mainland martial arts experts saw this Okinawan art for the first time, they reacted with a certain degree of skepticism. They felt it wasn't a first class martial art. But they were reacting to the version adapted for P.E. and not the original karate that was practiced before the modifications made by Itosu Anko.

AS. What influenced the change and what would make it first class?
TO. One must first look at the 'Zeitgeist' of the time. This was during the Taisho era (1912 - 1926). It was a time of great change in Japanese history. The Meiji restoration had just ended. Japan began modernizing and looked to Britain, Prussia, France and the USA as role models for their financial, military and educational systems. The samurai warrior class was forbidden to carry the sword and was no longer allowed to wear the topnotch. Japan's current political system was established in 1885. Nationalism grew side by side with the industrialization of Japan. This had a direct affect on the martial arts. The leaders of the country were interested in creating a society of young people who were physically and 'morally' strong. The ideals of Budo were brought to the forefront during this time. The martial arts were viewed as a means of strengthening the body and spirit of the Japanese youth. Jujitsu, under the influence of Jigoro Kano, became Judo. Kendo was derived from various schools of kenjutsu. The 'revised' karate fit the bill perfectly. Of all the different types of martial arts, karate was the easiest to convert into a more sport like activity. Sport in and of itself is not a bad thing. This is the very reason karate is so widespread today.

We need to make a distinction between martial arts, military training and modern day karate. The older traditional karate of Okinawa was first a martial art for self-defense. Modern karate, which spread around the world, evolved as it was taught to the masses. Without modern karate it is unlikely that karate would have become so popular. Modern sports karate as we practice today is only maybe 20 years old. This type of karate is different from what your Sensei may have learned and taught originally.

The method in which the older traditional martial arts is taught is not suited for modern day military training. Traditional martial arts are based more on a one on one transmission of instruction and are not something that can be taught simultaneously to a large group of people. Also, in the military, it is important for the unit or battalion to move as a whole. When each soldier moves in a haphazard way the unit or battalion will not have strength. The military has strength in unity.

The karate of today is geared towards group instruction in a PE type of format. Because of this it was easy for karate to spread all over the world. As karate traveled across the globe, people who encountered this art began questioning the effectiveness of kata. Does it really work? What are these movements for? What are the applications? To understand kata one needs to take kata back to its original form before it was turned into a PE type of training. In other words, one has to look at the kata that was done nearly 100 years ago, before karate departed from Okinawa.

AS. Is it possible to bring the old ways back?
TO. Take it back to where it used to be? That would be difficult and perhaps not really necessary. If you teach people the original meaning and movement of a kata, they can then integrate that into their training and come to a new level of understanding. Through this process of combining the old and the new, something greater can be created and modern sports karate can thus become enriched. This synthesis is achieved by looking to the older traditional karate of Okinawa.

Today the bunkai (application) of a typical practitioner is mostly for show. The real intent of the movement is not present. If one integrates the original ideas into current format then things like 'heighten awareness of their seichusen' and 'understanding embusen' will come into play and this will add flavor to the new development. We can improve the new by combining it with the old for a better understanding. We can respond to the people today who say "the kata does not work" and show them that it really does.

AS. What is seichusen?
TO. A simplified way of explaining it is 'line of attack' or 'line of defense'. 'Seichu' in Japanese means 'exact middle'. 'Sen' means 'line'.
It is the path that the opponent's attack has to traverse in order to reach you. By the same token, it is the path that your attack must travel in order to reach your opponent. By defending your seichusen and attacking through his seichusen you can conquer your opponent. Seichusen also has to do with body posture. If you stand in heisoku or heikodachi relative to your opponent then you are presenting a large surface area for your opponent to attack. Instead of squarely facing your opponent, if you shift your body position so that you are now in a hanmi position (45 degrees relative to the front), the body now has less surface area exposed to the opponent. In other words you just made your seichusen narrower, thus making it easier for you to defend your seichusen.

AS. Can we speak a bit about Embusen, balance, and movement?
TO. When people say embusen, they immediate think of the performance line of the kata. Embusen is more than the performance line. People also think that the kata must start and end at a precise location on the embusen. There is must more to embusen than that. Integrating embusen in true fashion with the movement of the kata is actually the soul of the kata. The act of moving along the embusen is an art in itself and that is what is important. Right now you are asking a technical question. Moving along the embusen takes a lot of skill, in fact, it is a major skill. The way people originally moved their body along the embusen is totally different than the movement that is taken for granted today.

For instance, one needs to go forward without raising one's heel or leaping forward without kicking off the ground. Imagine stepping backwards on a straight line. If you raise your back heel as you step back, there is a slight delay in the backwards movement of your torso. In Japanese we say that 'your body remains in place'. If you need to move back it is because an attack is coming and you are either trying to avoid it or draw it in. So the instant you start to move back, your entire body has to move immediately as one unit. There cannot be a time lag. Raising the heel causes a lag. When you move forward in the kata, if you raise the heel of your front foot that is going to be the new back foot during transition, you cannot move forward with your entire body weight.
If you kick off the ground as you go forward, again there is a delay in the movement of the torso. Learning to move with the entire body is an acquired skill.

On balance - people talk a lot about the importance of maintaining balance. But the balance that most people think about and the balance we talk about in martial arts is totally different. In martial arts when we talk about balance, it is that moment in time when you are about to lose your balance. In martial arts, balance is actually the beginning of imbalance.

If we want to move from point a to point b and we are standing 'balanced' with our weight 50/50, then in order for us to move forward we have to first overcome inertia.
If on the other hand, we are standing in such a way that our center of gravity is shifted slightly forward of center, then we will be able to move forward easier because we will have less inertia to overcome. In other words, going from point a to point b from a point of imbalance or leaning forward means less inertia to overcome. The end result is that you move forward more 'naturally' and smoothly with less energy expended and a minimal amount of telegraphing of movement.

Some people focus too much on 'moving the feet' but using your legs to move is slow. By feeling your center of gravity and developing an awareness of its position, you will be able to move your body much more quickly and efficiently. We call it 'moving from the center'.

AS. Can we talk about sport karate?
TO. Karate has attained world wide acceptance and popularity because of sports karate. If we had maintained karate as a true martial art, it would never have spread the way it did. If people begin integrating martial arts principals into their karate, it will further enhance their karate.

AS. What would you like to see karate become as a whole?
TO. The bottom line is this - I want to see everyone have a greater appreciation of what karate is really about in terms of techniques. If karate has hit a technical plateau, then getting to the next level is not so much an issue of coming up with new ideas but researching old ideas and integrating them with the present.

When you think about it, only a relatively small percentage of students actually compete. The rest of the students train for the dojo. The majority can greatly benefit by learning how to move, how to use their body. And for the minority that compete, winning is important for them. And the question that needs to be asked is 'why does a given kata win today in competition?'.
It wins because the judges believe it is a winning kata. If we can influence the thinking of the judges then the outcome will change. The competitor is no dummy so he will naturally adjust to the criteria set forth by the judges. So the challenge is to reeducate the judges, to help them understand and see the subtleties of movement. Can we influence their thinking to change what they think about and what we do in training?
When someone judges kata and does not understand why one should move in a certain way, the properly educated competitors lose - and you feel sorry for competitors. We need to reeducate those that are teaching. Being on the Technical Committee Chairman for Kobudo (weapons) I feel that it is my responsibility to find a way to educate the officials. In the final analysis, it is the officials who decide what is' quality in kata'. The question that remains to be answered is how to best do this.

Karate comes from Okinawa. You cannot view karate in isolation but must see it in its cultural context. Unless you can understand the culture of Okinawa, you cannot develop a full appreciation for the art and it will become difficult to understand.
For example, weapons have strong influence from China. In goju ryu you can clearly see the strong Chinese influence. Shuri-te, on the other hand, has some influences from China but the way that you move your body is identical to the body movement of the traditional Japanese arts of the mainland. The problem is that the karate that came to Japan was not the original Shuri-te but a version modified for PE. So the mainland martial arts were not impressed and thought, 'ok I guess that's karate', but that's not real karate. If you really want to understand what is true Shuri-te karate technique and kata, instead of going to China, go to mainland Japan and study traditional martial arts. The same core elements of Japanese martial arts are found in karate, jujitsu, kenjutsu, and the other arts. From my personal experience with Yamani-ryu bo, movement in that style of bo share similarities with the art of the spear when you thrust the bo and with naginata or kenjutsu when you swing the bo.

When you see the photos of the traditional Okinawan masters you can see the stance of the traditional martial arts from Japan. So the roots of shuri-te are found in mainland Japan.

AS. What thoughts on the term budo?
TO. Let's speak first of bujitsu. Budo is a set of ideals. Bujitsu is more the technical end and the part which we are concerned with here. Budo is an ideal that we should aspire to. The method of karate, the technical aspect, lies in the realm of bujitsu and not in the ideals of budo. Because the word budo is thrown around so casually, people really don't get it and don't have the respect for it because the word has become so commonplace. Learning just bujitsu itself is a formidable task. Learning bujitsu with your body takes years of training and discipline and that type of discipline and perseverance are the components of budo. Still, budo is something we ought to aspire to in our study of bujutsu.

AS. Reeducation seems to be needed but when and how?
TO. Reeducate teachers, this is the task at hand. We need to create awareness and peak the interest and curiosity of the instructors and the practitioners. We need to have more seminars. At the recent referee course we stressed what to look for during competition. For example I contrasted the difference between striking the bo with just the arm versus striking the bo using the entire body. I showed the difference between carrying a wide versus narrow seichusen. By demonstrating the finer points of kobudo, I am hoping to influence their thinking about not only kobudo but about karate in general. The principles of kobudo directly relate to karate. They are one and the same.

AS. Can you explain or give an example as to how techniques have changed?
TO. There is a distinct difference in the way a gedan barai (down block) is performed today. The way you use you arm is different. You can strike with your bone; your vital areas are covered as you keep you elbows in tight; your lats are tight as well as your arm pit and the elbow faces back. These details are difficult to convey to groups of 50 or more, so perhaps they may have been left out in an effort to teach the masses.

Another point, "Use your hip", this term has a different meaning as the Japanese hip region is different from the American hip. A person, by preloading and turning their body as they move along the line, will be protecting their vital areas and at the same time will be moving quickly. Using your hip means using your back, throwing your shoulder forward, relaxing, using what I call the "floating body" and being ready to move. Your stance is not a static but dynamic.
There is a difference in real speed and perceived speed. This is the Old fashioned way.

I think it is important to 'feel' the techniques. The pain is different upon impact - the type of damage and feeling is different in the traditional method. In modern karate, the energy is released into the target and the energy bounces back. Modern karate has concerns for safety so this is a good thing but the old way also takes safety into consideration. With the traditional punch our hands are relaxed until impact and then we focus kime and send energy through to our opponent. In the modern punch, they are decelerating instead of accelerating upon impact because they are over tightening their muscles. As they hit the surface, the technique has started deceleration. Another way of saying this is that in modern karate the punch is stopped instead of released. One needs to learn to release the energy. This is very apparent in the makiwara training of today. They are holding back their energy.

The purpose of kata is to teach you how to use your technique, how to move and how to release energy. Kumite teaches us distance and timing. That's the purpose of one versus the other. When you learn both then your karate comes alive.

In modern karate we step and punch. In reality, the foot plant of the step and the impact of the punch must be simultaneous, occurring in one motion so the energy will go with the technique. If you step first and then punch, some of the energy dissipates into the floor and not into the target. You must learn to strike with the body. Kata and kumite should be the same. You can not learn this from a video tape. You have to get hit to understand and the instructor has to feel that you can do the technique.

People's curiosity has to be peaked when they attend Oshiro seminars. There is so much to teach but in many ways it is different from the way many have learned. Don't push off with your feet. Bring your center of gravity forward. You never get stuck - it flows from one to the other. Too many are obsessed about stance. What is the proper stance? The stance is the finished product. It's the in between movements that are important. You are not supposed to show what you are doing. His arm is like a whip and there are no excessive movements.

Thanks to modern karate this art has gained terrific popularity and spread around the world. To understand the meaning we will need to do some re-education. That's why you cannot learn by yourself. It needs to be shown. We can take what we have now and reintegrate the meaning from before. Real karate is a first class art.

AS. So to understand the new we must look to the old? - to be continued




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