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.

Dojo Kata

You never know who you will bump into in Shureido. Nakasone san has been at the hub of the Okinawan martial arts community since the 1960s, and at one time or another every karate and kobudo teacher on the island comes through his shop. This time, while I was sitting having coffee with Nakasone san in came Ishiki Hidetada. Ishiki sensei is one of the senior students of Matayoshi Shinpo. I trained with him in the Kodokan in 90’s but had not seen him since Matayoshi sensei passed away. He is a very nice man, and an excellent kobudo (and karate) ka. After a few minutes of talking he remembered me, and he invited me out to his dojo the next day.

Training was great fun! Ishiki sensei not only does karate and kobudo, but he is also a teacher of Okinawan folk dance and Eisa and his kobudo group does a lot of demonstrations. An example of one of his shows is here:  What I particularly liked about training with him was that he has taken complete charge of his dojo, and his training. He has created a “warm up kata” that takes a few minutes to do and includes elements of Shorin, Goju, and Matayoshi tode kata, among other things. It is very mobile, and he sometimes does it to music. Trying to follow him through it left me impressed at his speed and agility, as well as general fitness level- he is in his 60s but moves like a much younger man!

We did some warm ups, including walking through Matayoshi lineage tode forms and his warm up kata, and worked for a while with the sansetsukon. Then we spent some time with the version of Tokumine no kon he does. It is a dojo kata, and I was impressed with both its content and the comfortable way Ishiki sensei has with teaching it. I was only visiting his dojo, and only there two nights, but he made sure we had as much time with it as we wanted. “I want to share it”, he said, “so let’s make sure you have it!”

In Ishiki Hidetada sensei's dojo. Ishiki san, Fred Lohse, Neil Stolsmark sensei, Ishiki sensei, Yakashiro Kenichi sensei, Beruto san (spelled incorrectly- sorry!)

In Ishiki Hidetada sensei’s dojo. Ishiki san, Fred Lohse, Neil Stolsmark sensei, Ishiki sensei, Yamashiro Kenichi sensei, Viet san

Tokumine no kon is not one of the base Matayoshi kata. I have seen in it some kata lists from at least as far back as 1970 and people I know who trained with Matayoshi at the start of the 1960s say that they used to go through 10 or 11 bo kata at times, and it was one. However, along with kata like Ufutun bo and Ufugushiku no Sakugawa no kon, it is not an official kata. The version Ishiki sensei does he calls Tokumine no kon sho. He and Yamashiro Kenichi developed it out of what they now call Tokumine no kon dai, the base Matayoshi version that is very similar to the other Kyan lineage versions around the island. The kata is in that demonstration above, if you are interested in seeing it.

It is quite a bit more elaborate than the standard version, and some people might question its value, as it is not an “old” kata. But that, I think, is where the value of dojo kata lies. They are new. They allow teachers to be creative, to express their own thinking on the system and their practice. They can also simply be fun, something that gets left out of some peoples’ training. Ishiki sensei was not trying to say it was an old form- he immediately introduced it as his own interpretation of the older form. But he teaches it to his students as their first bo kata, and I like that. He is taking responsibility for directing his students in his dojo, and has faith in his knowledge. He has a vision and is working towards it. While dojo kata often fail, in my opinion because the teacher is not actually experienced enough to develop one, when a good teacher puts one together they demonstrate something unique about that person’s experience and shed light on the system as whole. I like the form. I may keep practicing it. And I am really glad I got the chance to see Ishiki sensei again and have the opportunity to see where he has taken his practice. My thanks to him and his students for sharing with us. It was fun, and I was very pleasantly impressed with both the technique and the welcoming atmosphere!