Crane Stance, No Can Defend

Hakutsuru, the secret crane kata. Hidden knowledge, supposedly reserved for the highest level students of the Okinawan arts. Rare, deep, powerful. And yet, for all its vaunted rarity there is a plethora of “crane” in Okinawa. Seems every dojo or group has their “secret” crane form. I’ve seen dozens. Really. The forms have names like hakutsuru, kakuho, kakufa, hakkaku, paiho, hakucho, and so on, all essentially meaning “white crane” or “crane method”. Many seem to lead back to Gokenki, most likely a Ming He (Singing or Calling Crane) practitioner. (I recently wrote a little about him here.) Others are of less clear provenance. But really, it doesn’t matter. Why not? Because there is no crane taught in Okinawa. Yes, there are “crane” forms in Okinawa, but none are any different in how they are performed than the rest of the systems they are part of and none of those systems are crane.

Seems like a pretty strong position, given the status the “white crane” seems to hold in the Okinawan traditions. Especially in those systems like Goju or Uechi that claim a direct lineal connection to crane systems this connection takes on a power that is disproportionate to its historical weight;  having a connection to “Chinese” roots can be a powerful piece of both social capital and historical validity in Okinawa. But there it is. Really. Regardless of the stories told, there is no crane taught in Okinawan karate. Perhaps I should explain why this is true. The answer is pretty simple. Energy and power.

Fujian’s White Crane systems use particular types of power generation and specific body energies. That sound esoteric but it isn’t, it just means they train one to move and hit in certain ways. Two of the most common of these are whipping and shaking. They are not present in Okinawan karate. Both of these in general require elements of movement that break fundamental karate rules. To whip you have to move your arms in curves, not lines, extend 100%, no holding back that little bit at the elbow, and drop all power at impact, so no kime. To shake you often have to lift your elbows instead of protecting your ribs, again use 100% extension, and you cannot chamber or “lock in” with kime. There are plenty of other mechanical reasons, those are just examples. There are also technical and strategic examples, as well as postural and movement examples, as well as training method examples, but this is enough for now.  There are similar terms used- some Shorin schools “whip”, for example- but it is not whipping in the Crane sense.


Crane Stance, No Can Defend

The point is (with the possible exception of Matayoshi Shinpo, a discussion for a different post) I have yet to see an Okinawan crane form being done with crane energy. Without the energy it is simply not crane. I think one real issue here is a basic misunderstanding of the place of kata, form. The reason the Okinawan crane forms are called crane is because they conform to certain ideas about what crane is. They look “crane like” with the open “wings” posture and finger tip and wrist techniques. Perhaps they are done “softer”, and usually contain one-legged “crane stances”. But the issue, at least from a crane practitioner’s perspective, is that these things have little to nothing to do with crane. Crane is about the power generation and strategy. The techniques in the forms are based on that, the crane is not based in the techniques. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it matters how it is done.

So no crane. Okinawan karate with crane names, but not crane. To be clear, this isn’t bad. That would be like saying a Ferrari is bad compared to a Lamborghini. Both are pretty nice cars. They are just not the same car. Using Ferrari parts to repair your Lamborghini would not work well. Using karate energy to do crane technique works equally well. And vice versa. Thinking about The Secrets In Kata in this light, I think most of the “crane” forms in Okinawa are rather disappointing, at least if you are expecting special secret knowledge that will make you a more powerful martial artist. They don’t hold anything more than the karate systems they are a part of. They don’t really seem to add much. Except some cool factor, I guess. (Never underestimate cool factor…)

Of course that doesn’t take away from these systems! I love my Goju. It is a powerful and effective art. To return to the car analogy, I would be pretty happy driving a Lamborghini, and someone else driving a Ferrari doesn’t take away from how nice my car is, it just tells me there are other nice cars on the road. Okinawan karate has its own fundamentals, methods of power generation and movement, things that make it unique (in all its variation). Crane isn’t karate either! One is not better. But unfortunately that is part of the secret “crane”, the idea that it is somehow better. (An ancient Chinese secret.) Turns out this is an idea that is hard to defend, particularly when that crane is the same karate in a slightly different shape.



This is a saying from Ming He, Singing Crane. It roughly translates as: if it doesn’t shake/whip, it’s not Crane. It refers to the way Singing Crane (and, in my experience, Feeding Crane, albeit slightly differently) generates power, through variations on a shaking or whipping energy that is both highly distinctive and quite effective. The saying means that regardless of any other elements of practice, if you are not using this shaking/whipping you are not doing crane.

Some Thoughts on Tensho

I did some experimenting with Tensho quite a while back and came away with a look at the kata that I thought might be interesting here. Concepts of structure, pedagogy, and encoding are interesting to me, as is the process by which some people move more deeply into the art and others stay in what seems like the same place for decades. Some of the structural and pedagogical ideas I see in Tensho provide at least one version of what a path onward might look like.

Tensho is, perhaps, the most mythologized kata in the Goju Ryu syllabus. Stories of its creation abound: Miyagi sensei created it from a now-lost Chinese form called Rokkishu; he created it from the deepest secretes of the White Crane system; it is the “soft” accompaniment to the harder Sanchin; he created it from the Rokkishu in the Bubishi; he learned secrets in China when he traveled there that inspired it. These are all good stories, and they play into the myths of our art perfectly- secret knowledge, information from China, the past holding deeper knowledge than the present. But to me, while these stories are great Tensho is actually the perfect vehicle for both embracing and deconstructing the myths of our art.

While all these stories are fuzzy at best, we actually know more about Tensho than many of our kata: we know Miyagi sensei created it in the early 1920’s. While for many the “secret knowledge” that supposedly went into it is the core of its meaning, I see something else. I don’t see secrets and stories, I see a deep understanding of structure and systematized content. A closer examination of the kata, plus some slightly more detailed background, to me explain a lot of the mysteries this kata supposedly holds.

The structure of Tensho is simple. If you look carefully, break it down, it is simpler still. Why did Miyagi sensei relate it to Sanchin? Because it, like our art, begins and ends with Sanchin: the first 3 punches most versions start with and the ending moriote nukite and mawashi uke in sanchin dachi are right from Sanchin. But the rest certainly holds some secrets? Perhaps, but if you look closely you see something else. The mawashi uke that is central to many of our forms is, in Tensho, simply broken down. Take a moment and look at it, do it. Each hand does the mawashi uke in its parts- first kake uke, then soto uke, then the upper palm strike. Then the outside sweep and lower palm strike. Just a mawashi uke but done in pieces, all one handed on one side. Simple. But what about the next movements? Well, in the To’on Ryu lineage there is a stand-alone sequence of techniques called, tada!, Rokkishu. It was passed down by Higashionna to Kyoda, and it would be surprising indeed if Miyagi had not learned it from their teacher. It is identical to the next 4 movements- koken up, shuto down, koken out, palm in. (It was also popular with other Okinawan martial artists- Uechi Kanei included it in Kanchin for example.) So simple again. Then the kata finishes with a complete mawashi uke to tie together the ones that were deconstructed, reinforcing the lesson.

Simple. But also genius- it does everything Miyagi sensei talked about; compliments sanchin, opens the body in a different, softer if you want, way, and reinforces the core of the system. It also incorporates “secret” Chinese knowledge- the Rokkishu his teacher passed down. So all the various stories are true, if you look at them a certain way. (The similarity of the movements to those in many Fujianese arts is also no surprise, at least if there is any truth to the stories of a Fujianese connection at all. They are common movements in so many styles trying to find an “origin” of them is a fool’s errand.)

But while these stories are good, to me the presentation of organized knowledge seems more powerful, more complete. It shows a deep and thorough mastery of the material, and a structured approach to examining it and passing it on. It takes what can become a mysterious practice and turns it into a work of art, and into something we can use, both as a kata and as a concept, to grow our own practice.

Sakai Ryugo and the Ryushinkaikan

One of the people that has had a profound influence on my practice is Sakai Ryugo. He is relatively unknown and so I thought it might be nice to share a little more about him and his Ryushinkaikan dojo.

Fred Lohse, Sakai Ryugo, 1992

With Higa Seiko, Toguchi Seikichi, Yagi Meitoku, and Yushun Tamaki

With fellow students, including Kanei Katsuyoshi, Toyama Zenshu, and Masanobu Shinjo

With Matayoshi Shinpo, Kanei Katsuyoshi, and Miyahira Shoshin

Sakai Ryugo was born in 1932 in Kagoshima prefecture. He moved to Okinawa with his family in 1949 and began studying Shorin ryu with Omine Chotoku in 1950. In 1952 he entered the Goju Ryu Karate Do Kenkyukai dojo. The head teacher and president was Higa Seiko sensei and he was assisted by a variety of people at that time, including Fukichi Seiko, Takamine Chokubo, and Toguchi Seikichi. (Miyagi sensei was still alive then, but I have no idea if Sakai ever trained with him. Neither does his son.) Though he maintained his training with Higa sensei, when the Shoreikan was founded by Toguchi sensei in 1954 he went with Toguchi and acted as an assistant instructor. Some of his juniors in the early years were people who later became famous in the Goju community and started their own organizations- Kanei Katsuyoshi, Shinjo Masanobu, and Toyama Zenshu, among others.   His wife said she thought he helped design the Hakutsuru no mai in the Shoreikan, and also thought that he and Toguchi at one point were going to work on a tiger kata but I don’t have any other information on this. During the years he was on Okinawa he also became friends with Matayosh Shinpo, studying kobudo and some empty hand with him.  They remained friends throughout his life and he considered Matayoshi a strong influence on his training. (In the demo photo for the 25th passing of Matayoshi Shinko he is seated next to Kina Seiko and in the demo photo for the 1999 memorial for Matayoshi Shinpo he is seated at the front, next to Kinjo Kenichi. (Photos annotated by Viet Ha Quoc.) He remained in Okinawa training and teaching until 1962.

Shoreikan, 1958

In 1958 he began traveling periodically to Amami Oshima and started what may have been the first karate and kobudo dojo there, a Shoreikan dojo in Naze city. He started teaching full time at Oshima High School and in the Amami Shoreikan dojo in 1962. For the next 5 years he taught all over Amami and and laid the foundations for the Amami and Naze City Karate Associations.

Still shot from the set.

In 1967 he moved to Kagoshima city and began teaching in what is now Kagoshima International University. While he maintained the dojo in Amami his main dojo was in Kagoshima from this point on. He opened up the first Ryushikaikan dojo in 1969 and founded the Kagoshima prefectural karate association in 1970. In 1971 he formally founded the Amami and Naze karate associations and one of his students opened his first Shibu dojo, in Miyazaki. In 1972 he demonstrated at the ceremony in Kagoshima to celebrate Okinawa’s return to Japan, with Matayoshi Shinpo. His dojo was a founding member of the Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei and remained part until the passing of Matayoshi Shinpo. He founded shibu in Fukuoka, Kansai, Kyoto, Tokyo and around Kyushu over the next 15 years, did demonstrations on NHK, TBS and Nippon Television and had a small role in a Tohei films movie with Sonny Chiba, The Power of Aikido (Gekitotsu Aikido激突 合気道) as a kama wielding fighter. Starting in 1980 he began having an annual Goju Ryu gathering in Kagoshima city. The honbu dojo moved to Shiroyama in 1981 and to the first floor of the house he built in Tagami Dai in 1984, where I trained and where it remains today. Sakai Ryugo sensei passed away in 2002, leaving a legacy of excellent students and a reputation as a gentleman and a dedicated karate and kobudo practitioner.


With Toguchi, Anthony Mirakian at far right, late 1950s.

I met Sakai sensei essentially by pure luck. A couple of weeks after I moved to Amami Oshima in 1990 I went to Okinawa for the first time. While there I asked Nakasone san at Shureido for some advice on a dojo near me. He suggested I get in touch with Sakai sensei, in Kagoshima city. The first time I visited the dojo I went with a fellow English teacher, Ann Denion, who was training there. I had a great time and returned to train every time I visited the city, roughly monthly, sometimes more. As an amusing aside, during that first visit I noticed a photo on the wall of a young Anthony Mirakian at a demo in the 50s, from when they had trained together in the Shoreikan. I had trained with Mirakian sensei 2 months earlier, visiting his dojo with Kimo sensei before leaving for Japan, and even more recently, completely coincidentally, we had had lunch together in Okinawa on the same trip I got Sakai sensei’s contact information. Sakai was pretty surprised, and so was Mirakian when he found out! Goju is a small world… I  didn’t succeed in getting them in touch until a number of years later but after I got back to Massachusetts Mirakian sensei shared some photos and some wonderful stories with me, including one about Sakai having to forcibly evict two rather impolite marines from the dojo one evening. He had a great deal of respect for Sakai sensei and I was happy I could put them in contact after more than 30 years.

After the visit, on Amami I got in touch with a two former students of Sakai sensei’s. I trained in Nishi sensei’s Shindokan and Toguda sensei ran a small Shoreikan dojo primarily for kids and gave me a key so I could practice on my own when I wanted. The following year I moved to Kagoshima city and trained in the Ryushinkan full time. Sensei also gave me a dojo key and I wound up there some off nights, when I was not doing Ufuchiku kobudo with Masada Kei’ichi or Jigen Ryu. Training was fantastic. Sensei ran most of the classes and was both a great teacher, as evidenced by the caliber of his students, and a fantastic technician. My other main teachers were his son Sakai Ryuichiro and, most importantly, Nagata Ryudo, who treated me with great patience and worked with me hour after hour. The seniors were in incredible shape, and had a balance of hard and soft and an ability to move that I was astounded by.

Sakai Ryuichiro, Fred Lohse, Sakai Ryugo, Nagata Ryudo, 1992

When I returned home I stayed in touch but after a stay in 1995 while doing research for my masters’ I was unable to visit for about 10 years. Unfortunately before I could get back Sakai sensei passed away. His son and another senior student, Miyagi Tatsuhiko, took over the dojo. I have brought a couple of students to visit over the years and they have enjoyed training and have also remarked that they could see where some of my technique comes from, which I take as a real compliment.

Sakai family, 1991

Miyagi sensei is the main teacher there now. He has also been the first person to create any on line presence for the dojo, primarily through his Facebook postings. He is a fantastic technician, and I can’t think of many people 30 years younger (he is in his mid 60s now) stronger, more flexible, or in better overall condition. But the lack of public notice of the dojo is, in some ways, a real shame. Training there has had a profound impact on me. Not only did I learn a great deal about our karate and kobudo, but I learned even more about how to build and keep alive an adult dojo, keeping up high standards and doing so in a way that was very demanding but also very respectful, with a place for blood and sweat but also for humor.

I could tell a number of stories of course- Sakai sensei chiding the class for not listening when he had me teach Sepai, because since he had asked me to were they thinking he didn’t know who could teach?; Sakai sensei lecturing us in seiza for 45 minutes and the whole class’ legs falling asleep and none of us being able to get up and do soji afterwards;  him (much to everyone’s surprise) giving me a hug after my sayonara party; hours and gallons of sweat; getting knocked and choked out; sharing watermelon on the dojo floor; his making sure I was as comfortable as possible sleeping in the dojo during my visit in 95. So many more, vignettes mostly but they stick in my mind. But those are really about me, not him, so I will stop there.

Eating watermelon

after training.

As for what was taught in the dojo, it was the classical Goju Ryu kata, of course, and some of the fukyu kata (geki sai san, geki ha, etc.) that Toguchi sensei had created, though done in a looser fashion. I did many of the same subjects under Kimo sensei and when I asked Sakai about the 2 man bunkai and kiso kumite, he told me that while he had done them for many years he felt they did not represent Goju Ryu well for a variety of technical reasons. Instead he used the kata as training tools and focused pair work on applications of the classical kata, kakie, and some drills he had developed- including seated, ground, and weapon-countering techniques- from what he had been taught by Higa and Toguchi. He taught Matayoshi kobudo as well, and was particularly good with the kama. His small weapon kata were a little different but when I asked about that he told me “Sensei was working on many things in the old days and I wanted to keep certain techniques that I liked so I adapted the kata, kind of like sensei did.”

The seniors were all in incredible shape but interestingly enough we rarely did any type of calisthenics in class. We would occasionally do a few but most of the work with the hojo undo and daruma-taiso esque exercises the seniors did, as well as makiwara and bag work, was done before or after training, or at home. “Up to you to be ready to do karate” sensei told me. Luckily I was working with the chishi before class at the time, not coming in late and out of breath….

Goju gathering 1992

Class was always demanding. Lots of kata, body conditioning, kakie, solo and two person basics, stepping, and application of kata. The standard was very high, but the atmosphere in the dojo friendly. I remember going to get water from the hose I had seen outside the dojo door on my first visit. One of the students went to stop me, and Sakai sensei yelled from across the room for him to let me go. Water was usually not allowed until training was finished but there was a huge puddle around where I had been, mostly because I was not used to the Kagoshima summer heat, and sensei told Shinji “if you have a puddle like that you can drink too!”.  The rules were for reasons, not just because that was how it was always done, and that went for mechanics and application as well.

After training 2008.

That included the rules for both doing and applying kata. Principles are a buzz word today, but they were certainly present in our practice then. In addition to some colorful traditions around the four animals of Goju- the crane, tiger, snake, and hawk, Sakai had some very clear ideas about how to apply kata, including what angles to use and why, when it was appropriate to strike vs. grab, when to use one or two hands, off balancing and kyusho as a part of any application, what is useful at different ranges, how to control range, turning and slipping as shown in the kata, and adapting to the situation, among other things.  I remember a great moment doing applications from Suparinpe when one of the seniors was too close for the jumping kick and so backed off; sensei “asked” why he didn’t just knee: “application is based on the opponent, you should be able to do whatever needs to happen, jumping knee, flying side kick, whatever the situation requires”. His dojo is the first place I heard the term “fajing”, Japanized as “pachin” (his short power was excellent) and we had clear, non-elusive, discussions of kyusho. Most importantly he structured our application training to demonstrate and include all this information. It was great fun, and very demanding training.

But technique is only part of what he taught. The most important thing I took from his teaching, and the dojo he developed, was a strong sense of respect. Yes respect for the art and our lineage, but mostly for people. It started internally- you had to work to grow and when you were pushing yourself both you and everyone else knew it. But he also demanded that everyone in the dojo treat each other with respect. He insisted on students treating each other as just karate ka, not men and women, Japanese and gaijin, doctors or delivery people, or whatever else they were outside the dojo. Roles outside the dojo were just not important inside it. (Though the purpose of this discipline was not a kind of post-modern social enlightenment; the rigor of training was supposed to help you have the proper fortitude to fulfil your given role in the larger society. To be a good citizen.) He made sure everyone was working hard and that no one was treated poorly. Go and Ju, as it were.

After training, with Sakai Ryuichiro, and Miyagi Tatsuhiko, 2014

There was a lot of sweat in the dojo, but a lot of laughter too. I could see how close many of the people had become and I still wish I had had more years to train there. I consider myself lucky for the experience and every time I go back I am happy to feel welcome, and to train together again. When I visited for the first time in 10 years I remember seeing my name still on the nafudake and how that affected me, but that was how the dojo was run. Once part of the group you were treated like family, both welcome and having certain expectations to live up to.

It is too bad, though not surprising, the group has gotten so little notice. Sakai sensei was a little slice of an earlier time training in Okinawa, before the organizations and fragmentation of today. The karate taught there is definitely not a sport. It is also some of the best karate I have seen, in or out of Okinawa. Training there has had a profound effect on how I train and teach to this day and I would welcome others having that chance. (There have been a few foreigners through the dojo over the years- Ann, whom I mentioned, Julia Henker, Glenn Forbes, and Michael Hazel have all trained for extended periods of time and besides a couple of my students my friend Mario McKenna and some of his students have visited a number of times.) That said, there is no easy path. Kagoshima is not Tokyo or Okinawa, and there is no one in the dojo who speaks English (or any other foreign language). No one is going to get quick rank or even quick access to information. Most all of training time is spent on what might be

After training with Miyagi Tatsuhiko and Tania Tzelnic, 2012

considered “basic” training. The first 4-5 months I was in the dojo the only kaishu kata I got instruction on was saifa, even though I knew the rest of the system. Until my mechanics in saifa were up to snuff I could follow along but got no feedback on anything else. Once there things opened up, but the standards were the standards, and anyone who wants to train should be prepared for “a little light training”, as Miyagi sensei has a tendency to say before a 3 hour pre-training run through hoju undo, stretching, makiwara, and basics. Only one way to get good, I guess.

In any case, famous or not, I miss Sakai sensei. He was an amazing teacher and martial artist, and was a real gentleman. I can’t think of anything better to say, so I will end with that.

At the Sakai family tomb, 2017

Thank you to Sakai Ryuichiro, Miyagi Tatsuhiko, and the late Anthony Mirakian for information and photos, and of course many thanks to the late Sakai Ryugo.

So Far Away From Me….

Take a look at this video, posted by a close friend of mine:

It is in general excellent Okinawan martial arts. Powerful. Precise. Fast. Displaying the mechanics and tactical choices of the system. I like it. But I do have one small problem with it, the distance between the participants. On the first attack of each set the attacker has to take a full step in. Then, if you watch closely, you will see that many of the attacks at their full extension fall short. (The counters are then set at proper range- they can penetrate.) This is an excellent range for demonstrating, which is what is happening here. It is a good range for seeing what is coming, and for working prescribed counters. It is a good, or at least common, starting range for various types of sport fighting, for dueling. It is a good range for practicing entering and for maintaining distance. It is not, in my opinion a good range for practicing self defense.

Why? At this range I have a better solution for dealing with the incoming attacks: run away. There is time and space for it. Yes, I am aware you can create a scenario where that is not possible. But at this range there are a lot of movement options open. For self defense, these should be the first options. To me, this looks like mutually agreed-upon combat. A duel or a fight. In other words, unnecessary.

Physical self defense is a last resort. You didn’t see the set-up, you were not able to evade the situation, you were not able to escape the attacker. You were forced to fight. If you are both agreeing to fight it is not self defense, it is just fighting. This, I believe, runs contrary to the principals of Okinawan karate. Our art is a civilian self defense system, geared towards dealing with close range personal assault. To practice for close-range defense I believe most drills like this should start inside striking range, and stay there. By this I mean two things: start attacks close enough to hit and make sure attacks can penetrate.

How can you make sure you are doing this? When doing paired work of any type, before starting have the attacker just reach out and place a palm on the defender’s chest to test range. If they have to move their feet, turn, or lean in to touch, they are too far away. Starting this close runs contrary to a lot of martial arts training. It certainly is very different from any type of sport sparring or fighting. But it does a number of important things:

First, it gets you close. If you do not train this close, at first it may feel uncomfortable. This is good. It is actually teaching you something. It is teaching you what someone’s effective striking range feels like, and teaching you to feel comfortable being at that distance with another person.

Second, you have to pay attention differently. You can’t rely on direct vision, you have to use your peripheral vision and your sense of touch. You have to pay attention to your opponent’s entire body. Since any attack can land right from the start you can’t relax mentally. If you are going hard you also have to deal with the nervousness or fear that comes with potentially being hit right from the get-go.

Third, you have to move differently. You can’t do wide blocks or big movements fast enough. Speed in defense will come in large part from technique and position. You can’t effectively retreat in a straight line, you have to angle or enter to defuse attacks. You also quickly realize you have to prevent follow-up attacks with your first defense.

Fourth, your techniques will actually be different. You may start to see where elements of the system that seem more stylistic come into play. Things like controlling the center line, keeping your elbows in, how you use your hands in tandem, not bouncing when you move, shifting quickly to angles, all make more sense at this range.

At the same time, applying counters is very different when attacks can penetrate. You wind up with more energy to work with and in essence more options. For example, it is pretty hard to do an effective throw or joint lock when your attacker is at arm’s length, unless they just let you do it. (You might also find that certain techniques will not work…)

Finally, you should stay in range throughout. Otherwise the attacks and blocks are really more of a dance. Practicing with attacks and defenses making contact outside hitting range is a common occurrence, especially in weapon work. But if your attacks can’t reach they are not attacks, no matter how fast and powerful they are just waving a weapon, or your arms and legs, around. And your defense, no matter how quick and clean is only a defense if it is protecting you from something that might get in. With weapons, if you are not trying to hit the weapon to disarm or create an opening the target is the person. With empty hands it is always the person. If attacks cannot reach the target, there is no need to block or otherwise pay any attention to them. They are not really attacks.

This does not mean hit with every attack you can. You don’t want to be smacking sticks into each others’ heads. It means to practice so attacks are in range and able to hit, and then decide when and how hard to actually make contact. That way you are doing martial arts, not dancing.

So try practicing at close range. Practicing to defend against attacks that come from out of range and cannot hit is actually less productive than not practicing at all. It gives the illusion of martial practice without any of the intent.