A Keiko Gi is “a symbol of your preparation for life” writes our columnist TD McKinnon in his latest article for Karate Essences. Like many traditional elements the Keiko Gi has also become challenged in recent years. However, there are many good reason why we should stick to the classic plain white Karate Gi for training.
The Origin of the Keiko Gi in Judo
Keiko Gi (稽古着) is the Japanese name for the karate training uniform. The origin of the uniform or training kimono starts over 100 years ago in Japan. Its introduction as a martial arts uniform is generally attributed to Kano Jigoro, who developed judo from jujitsu, in the early years of the 20th century. Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo, decided that he needed to create a uniform for his students. He wanted something that would show uniformity; also something able to take a beating from the constant throwing, pinning and choking techniques of the art.
The story goes that Kano based his uniform on ancient jujitsu training attire, which was made of unbleached linen and cotton, a kind of coffee colour fabric. Apparently, due to the effect of sweating, intense rubbing of the training practices, plus repetitive washing, they would eventually turn white. So Kano decided to start with a bleached white Gi; and, using a thick, reinforced weave – a style of weaving that was mainly used for farmers’ or firefighters’ garments – and the modern long-sleeved Judo Gi was born in 1906.
The Introduction of the Keiko Gi to Karate
Kano Jigoro and Funakoshi Gichin were good friends. In 1922 Kano invited Funakoshi to mainland Japan, from Okinawa, to demonstrate Karate to some assembled dignitaries at Kano’s Honbu dojo. Funakoshi was persuaded to wear a Judo Gi, to present a more professional demonstration. Thereafter, Funakoshi adopted the Judo Gi as training apparel. Generically known as a Keiko Gi, it was soon universally adopted as the official training uniform of most Japanese martial arts.
Sharing a common origin, the Karate Gi is somewhat similar to a Judo Gi; however, the material and cut of the uniform is much lighter, with a looser fit. The heaviest Karate Gi being 16 ounces compared to the 35 ounce Judo Gi. Because of the nature of Karate training compared to Judo, emphasising striking and kicking over throws and grappling, the Karate Gi has evolved in a different direction.
Is the Traditional Karate Keiko Gi Still an Essential Item?
Since its early inception, the Karate Gi has morphed many times in cut and style as well as in weight and functionality. Now, in certain sporting organisations, there is a Gi for Kumite and a different Gi for Kata.
The competition Kata Gi is more like the old style, traditional heavyweight Gi; made from a heavy cotton, light canvas style cloth. The main reason for this, it appears, is to utilise the swishing and snapping sounds (for effect) during the stylised, competition kata performance.
The competition Kumite Gi is very different: made from an acrylic fabric, it is a super lightweight Gi, and with (because of the manmade fibre) lots of venting devises. The reason for this design is aimed at less resistance and more ease of movement, supposedly endorsing more speed for competing. Personally, I think this style of Kumite Gi makes a mockery of the traditional Gi; however this adaptation is not surprising. Training for competition Kumite has taken some seriously different directions too.
There are various Dojos, some styles of karate, and some organisations that do not lend themselves exclusively to the traditional white Gi. The International Sport Karate Association, for instance, do not insist on the use of the traditional white Keiko Gi. There are many debates fuelling arguments for and against the traditional white Gi.
During my own martial odyssey, following whichever martial system I was studying: for instance, I have worn the black cotton Keiko Gi and Hakama of Iaido, and the hand wraps and loose satin shorts of Muay Thai. However, for me, when practicing traditional Karate, nothing is more appropriate than the white Keiko Gi. Washed and ironed, fresh and clean, it mirrors the fresh and unencumbered frame of mind (Shoshin) that assists the Karateka to derive the optimum from their Karate-Do.
Keiko Gi: A Symbol of Your Preparation for Life
Any competing event, or indeed any training or learning event begins with the mental and spiritual preparation. Part of that mental and spiritual process is preparing the attire that will be worn for that event. This concept is not exclusive to karate or even the martial arts in general; it applies to life.
Prepare your own Keiko Gi
When I began the traditional Karate chapter of my martial odyssey I intuitively understood this concept. As a member of my high school gymnastic team, as a boxer, and as a British Parachute Regiment soldier it had already become an intrinsic part of me. Most people can relate to the kind of mental preparation that the physical preparation prompts.
Every Karateka should, themselves, prepare their Karate Gi. Even the very young Karateka should be shown how, with the view to eventually conducting their own preparations. It helps to cultivate humility as a human being, while developing pride in the art; encouraging a healthy, lifelong habit. For instance, by the time my sons were 7-8 years of age they were ironing their own Keiko Gi in preparation for training, competition and grading. I believe that preparation discipline was part of what later assisted their achievements of becoming World Champions in their chosen combat sport of Muay Thai Kickboxing.
Keiko Gi Preperation as an Exercis in Mindfulness
For more than fifty years now I have prepared my Gi: for training, for competing, for receiving instruction and knowledge from those more knowledgeable than myself, and for teaching others. At the start of any Karate event, my Gi is spotlessly clean, scrupulously ironed and prepared for the event, even as my mind, body and spirit is prepared. Preparing the Gi is a symbolic representation of the ongoing process of mindfulness: a constant preparation for life.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
One can never be complacent about preparation. Complacency, in life, can mean the difference between smooth success and painful failure.
You can get away with being unprepared for a time; here, I am referring to being generally unprepared for life. I could cite many instances, especially from the early part of my life, as an example of unpreparedness… However, preparation is an ongoing thing, like readying your Keiko Gi for each occasion.
So, I will cite an event that took place at a time I should have known better; a time I should have been entirely prepared:
I had been working as a bouncer for years; and this was just another night at work.
Earlier in the evening there had been an altercation: a powerfully built, six feet plus guy in his twenties, after yelling at and hitting his girlfriend, had knocked out a security operative who tried to restrain him. I put a sleeper hold on him, and evicted him.
Later that evening, while I was controlling the front door, ‘girlfriend-hitter’ tried to enter the premises again and I stopped him.
“I’ve already been in…” he said, irately, “My girlfriend is in there!”
“Yes, I know,” I said, “I evicted you for hitting her and assaulting one of the security personnel.”
He immediately attacked with a head-butt, but I tucked my chin and he broke his nose on the top of my head instead. He was tenacious, and obviously had some boxing training. As he took an involuntary step back he threw a fairly useful right cross… but, simultaneously, slipping inside his punch, I dropped him with mae-empi (Sen no sen).
“Come on, young fella, I think it’s time you went home before you get yourself really hurt…” and I reached down to help him up… That’s when he grabbed my privates in a vicious, steely grip.
During my time as a working bouncer, most of the time I had worn a groin guard, but there was the odd occasion that I forgot to wear the said piece of personal protection equipment (PPE). On those occasions I had assured myself that it was fine because I’d never had an occasion to be thankful I’d worn it; wearing it was just a precaution… tonight I had forgotten to wear it.
A gedan barai broke his grip and then I broke his jaw, but I was in severe pain. I spent the night in a hospital bed, sedated on pethidine, with an ice pack between my legs, feeling very sorry for myself.
It all Begins with your Keiko Gi
I never forgot to wear that particular protection device, or any other PPE, again. More importantly, I was never again negligent with any preparations. Over the following years, my obsession with preparation saved me from injury many times. In fact I have no doubt that it saved my life. It all begins with the mindfulness of preparing your Keiko Gi.
Breathing in Karate plays an odd role. On the one hand, every Karateka agrees on its importance for vitality, great technique, speed, and power. On the other hand, most Karateka do not know much about breathing in Karate or how to breathe correctly. Neither do they know much about how to train it and what exercise to utilize to breathe better. In this article Punito Aisenpreis is going to give an extensive overview about the Dos and Don´ts of breathing in Karate and how one can become a better Karateka through breathing.
In Karate a specific type of breathing is necessary. Then in training and in competition the same rule applies: When we lose our breath we lose ourselves.
Thus, this article deals with breathing in Karate and the many possibilities to use it consciously. I intend to give the Karateka guidance to train more efficiently, more easily, more consciously, and with more motivation through apply effective breathing techniques.
There is no first breath in Karate!
We breathe about 500 million times between our birth and our death. Since our phylogenetic ancestors came ashore, pulmonary breathing has been essential to generate energy. Our breathing is slow when we are relaxed or asleep, and fast when we are moving or become emotionally – positive or negatively – aroused.
The breathing process runs automatically. Only in thin, sticky, hot air, when we “run out of breath” during exertion, or when we suffocate we really become aware of our breath.
In Karate, on the other hand, we try to establish a consciousness for our breathing. When beginners start Karate training, they often become overwhelmed by instructions regarding breath control. Their unconscious patterns of “stress breathing” emerge, learned early in childhood, and over steer any well-intentioned attempt at “the right” breathing in Karate.
General Breathing Mechanics and Physiology
“Understand first your own breath, then the breath of the opponent.”
Before we go into the specifics and techniques of breathing in Karate we have to clarify first some general breathing mechanics and the physiology behind breathing.
Outer and inner Breathing
When we understand, how our breathing works and how it gets out of rhythm, then we can control it more efficiently.
The outer breathing, for instance, works simplified as follows: When we inhale, special nerve cells of the breath center in the brain become activated. They stimulate peripheral nerves that initiate the contraction of our diaphragm and our deep lateral neck muscles (MM. scaleni).
The contraction of the muscular diaphragm moves it down towards the abdomen and pushes the liver, stomach, spleen, kidneys, and intestines towards the pelvis. The chest space (thorax) above it becomes enlarged. The lung fill with air due to the resulting vacuum.
From a mechanically standpoint on can say: A pump handle movement describes breathing at best. As more relaxed the fascia and muscles of the thorax are as more the lung can inhale (up to 5 liters).
The inner breathing happens as gas exchange between the pulmonary vesicles (alveoli) and the blood of the pulmonary circulation. Fewer environmental toxins, dust, and tar on the fine alveolar membranes of the lung mean better transfer of oxygen to our muscles, organs and nerves.
Cell Breathing and Energy Supply
Breathing, however, has a chemical reason. Red blood cells transport O2 molecules to cells because they require oxygen. At the cell membrane the oxygen diffuses into the cell and is replaced with CO2, the waste product of cell respiration, which then becomes transported back to the lungs. In the cells the mitochondria, our so-called cell batteries, metabolize sugar and O2 into CO2 and water.
In doing so, energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is generated. ATP is our cell fuel, which is needed and used up in all cells. During Karate training ATP is mainly utilized in muscles, the heart and the brain. Thus: as higher the O2 uptake of the body as more energy can be provided. Nourished, regenerated and connected cells mean better body performance.
The Role of the Autonomic Nervous System
At rest, relaxation and in sleep, adults breath between 5 and 18 times per minute. If we are positively or negatively aroused or physically active or stressed, we breathe up to 30-60 cycles per minute. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our breath rate and breathing volume, which consists of the three components:
The sympathetic (activation, fight-flight),
Parasympathetic (relaxation, regeneration) and
the “Old Vagus system” (digest, freeze).
As more aroused we are, e.g. in a combat situation, as more the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the respiratory center. This, on the one hand, provides more energy, on the other hand, it poses the risk that we breath too fast and “get out of breath” and “lose our head”.
Breathing Disorders and Breathing Therapy
“Karate begins and ends with proper breathing!”
Understanding Breathing Disorders
In one of the basic works of traditional Karate, the Bubishi, the authors discuss vital points and the accumulation of “Ki“. Itosu Anko, the teacher of Funakoshi Gichin, warns about breathing too much “Ki” in the head, as it can result in a red head and high blood pressure. The breath should be directed down into the “field of Vermillion” in the lower abdomen (Hara).
Early childhood breathing disorders with an overactivation of the “freezing-system” of the ANS can, for example, lead to asthma and restrictions during inhalation. A Karateka, who tends to have asthma, has difficulties to exhale the air completely, because his or her bronchial system tightens.
Even a rigidly inflated chest, which looks powerful and tries to show domination, leads to movement restrictions. Especially during rotational movements it makes the throat and neck immobile. So, during the execution of a Kata the Karateka has to spend way too much effort and yet it will look strenuous in succession. Instead, of the abdominal press, without fine perception of the abdominal organs, the “lip brake” will have to be used for the accumulation of the breathing air, which does not allow for powerful techniques.
When present, a respiratory dysfunction is best treated play with a respiratory based therapy. After thorough analysis of the body structure, the fascia system, the oxygen uptake of the metabolic system in volume and frequency (spirometry) and the respiratory mechanics of a Karateka are used in various forms in the therapy:
Fascia therapy for diaphragm, intercostal muscles, Scaleni muscles, abdominal wall and the ancessorial breathing muscles. The ribs, the sternum, shoulder girdle and spine are treated osteopathically to create more balance and mobility. Respiratory therapy detects unphysiological breathing patterns and induced physiologically correct breathing. In the Dojo, the trainer has to perceives the breathing patterns of the students and if pre sent, can detect respiratory dysfunction. He/she should then be able to give assistance to the students, as to correct and induce performance-oriented natural breathing patterns.
Exercise: Bodhidharma Heart-Hara Breathing
Before we dive into breathing in Karate, let us do a small breathing exercise while you read this article. So, breath slowly with abdominal and chest breathing by counting to “four”. Imagine the oxygen from the breathing air entering your heart area. There you hold it approximately two seconds and then let it flow slowly over the back, counting to “six”, into your lower abdomen while exhaling. Feel how the entire abdominal and pelvic space fills up with energy. Let your center of gravity slowly sink into your Hara (belly).
Breathing in Karate
What is breathing in Karate about? The first concept, I want to describe is: Kokyu also know as breathing power.
Kokyu: Breathing Power
“Hard and soft, tension and relaxation, slow and fast, – all in combination with the right breathing”
Breathing and karate are firmly interwoven. At the center stands Kokyu: breathing power. Karateka know the concept by heart. When a techniques becomes executed Karateka exhale with force. The effective use of a Karate technique depends to a large extent on the right breathing and the appropriate breathing rhythm.
In Karate inhaling leads the air deeply into the abdomen by lowering the diaphragm. When exhaling, the diaphragm arbitrarily tightens in accordance with the abdominal muscles and thus stabilizes the trunk. This stabilization creates together with the muscle groups of the back, the possibility to connect the upper and lower body to an effective and stable unit.
Through increasing the pressure in the lower abdomen it to support the acceleration of a technique with muscle strength, the weight and movement of the total body. The body, thus, becomes a “projectile” with which the Karateka strikes at the opponent. When inhaling the body should then fully relax again.
Kime and Kiai
If Karateka can coordinate all muscle groups involved in breathing they also achieve a stable posture. Another important effect is the direction of energy. If the optimal tension of the abdominal cavity is given, a Karateka can transmit the energy generated at the pressure point of the heel through all necessary fascia, bones and joints into the fist. The force follows, therefore, the intended direction.
With the snapping of the stretched fascia system, breathing also comes to an abrupt stop. Thus, it amplifies the chain of action of the body structure and stabilizes the power transfer to the endpoint. The battle cry (Kiai) naturally comes from the depth through the belly, when the air escapes at the moment of Kime. Moreover, letting flow the breath freely allows a better kinesthetic sense of all the body fascia and allows to unify the body perception into a continuation from toe to head.
Karate Warm-up Exercises for Breathing Muscles
1. Spinal Twist
The spinal twist works as follows:
Both sit bones touch the ground.
The right leg is placed on the sole of the foot over the outstretched left leg.
The body turns to the right.
From here the left elbow presses from the outside against the right knee.
The right hand touches the left knee while the right arm supports it in a stretched out and straight line to the ground.
The head turns further to the right back.
The spine stretches up right while being twisted.
The lateral abdomen and the intercostal muscles are stretched.
The large chest fascia is stretched in continuation with the hip and pelvic fascia.
2. Knee Seat
The knee seat is another warm-up exercise for better breathing during Karate training. It works as follows:
The body turns backwards.
The arms go backwards over the head and leave the lumbar spine long and uncompressed while, stretching the entire front fascia system.
The front chest and trunk muscles as well as the intercostal muscles are stretched as well as the anterior diaphragm attachments.
3. Zenkutsu Dachi Hip Stretch
Zenkutsu Dachi can also be applied for a breathing warm-up. The hip has to show towards shomen. The heel is puched back and both arms are stretched up. The Lateral fascia system is stretched as well as the intercostal muscles, the lateral neck muscles and the fascia.
Patterns of Breathing in Karate
But Karate offers several breathing patterns and approaches:
slow exhalation when performing a technique,
slow inhalation while reaching out,
rapid inhalation and slow exhalation when performing a technique,
slow inhalation and rapid exhalation when performing a technique,
half breathing out with two consecutive strike techniques.
In addition, the air is exhaled either until Kime and then stopped. Or Kime takes place exactly after the complete exhalation.
However, different areas of Karate also require but also offer distinguished breathing approaches. The concepts of breathing in Jiyu Kumite differ from the ones in Kata, for instance.
Breathing Techniques in Jiyu Kumite
In Jiyu Kumite breathing can be utilized in the following ways:
One can attack while the opponent inhales and has thus difficulties to react.
One can also can breathe to be more insensitive to the impacts of the opponents attack.
A strong exhalation ends with Kiai to make the belly press even more effective or to irritate the opponent.
“Let your breath be thin,” says an unknown Chinese quote (so that the enemy cannot discover your breath and act on it).
In case of nervousness self-control can be restored by a long exhalation.
Find it out for yourself: Inhale, exhale, and ask yourself what makes a technique slow, what makes it fast, weak or strong? Then try to reflect about the question: What is best breathing pattern during an attack and during defense?
Breathing in Karate Kata´s
Kata´s, on the other hand, offer a different set of breathing patterns. Hangetsu, for instance, is a Kata with 41 techniques from Naha-te, called Seisan, which originally comes from China. Actually, this is a Kata for practicing the stances (Hangetsu dachi) and unusual techniques.
However, it is also excellent for breathing training (Kokyu ho). Then it comprises different breathing patterns.
To reach a deeper understading of breathing in Kata Karateka should ask themselves the following questions:
How long, short, and how loud is the Kiai in the different Kata?
What are breathing techniques and breathing rhythm that the kata dictates through its respective techniques?
Mindfulness Breathing in and outside the Dojo
When greeting and closing (Mokuso) the conscious breathing is usually carried out too short. Our thoughts often wander around. In Kata, in Kihon and in Rei the appropriate way of breathing to the technique can be trained. Breathing while practicing combinations (e.g. Sanbon Zuki) can lead to interesting insight. Thus, breathing can be seen as the fourth factor of an effective Karate technique – Yon ten riki ho (four areas of power) – in addition to the compression of the joints, the hip rotation, and the shifting of weight.
Breathing is special in many ways. It is the only body function that can be executed both fully aware as well as unconsciously. Thus, it represents a bridge between mind and body. Such a connection between the unconscious and the conscious emerges when one contemplates about ones own breath without controlling it.
Breathing can be a key to health and well-being. Karateka have the opportunity to learn to regulate their respiratory function and to develop and improve a physical, emotional and mental well-being. However, only a few Karateka learn how to use their breathing.
In fact, breathing patterns can be controlled. Karateka with foundational breathing techniques can reduce stress, lower their blood pressure and regulate many physical systems without medication. Breathing has direct connections to the limbic system (emotions) and to the ANS (auton omous nervous system).
Following I present some breathing techniques that are prominent in different Karate styles.
“Ibuki” Breathing of Gôjû-ryû vs. Shotokan Breathing
Ibuki breathing is the name of the forceful “pressure breathing” of Goju-ryu Karate. To do so Goju-ryu Karateka close their voice box to let only a small portion of audible breath in and out at a time. This practice aims at strengthening the breathing muscles, ventilating the total lung space and leading to a high air- and blood pressure in the body.
The effect of this breathing method stimulates the vagus nerve through the pressure receptors in the aorta and the carotid sinus. However, it might also lead to a permanent high blood pressure if overdone.
Andre Bertel talks about the difference between Shotokan Karate breathing and “Ibuki” breathing of Gôjû-ryû especially in the Kata Hangetsu:
“It is important to note here, insofar as breathing is concerned, that Hangetsu does not encompass Ibuki style breathing that is audible; like, for instance, in Sanchin Kata. Nevertheless, some instructors have incorporated this element into Shotokan-Ryu (of ten via Hangetsu). That being said, it is claimed that “…the original version of this kata, in Okinawa, did not feature audible breathing” but, rather, the breathing was done in a stealthy manner. This method is what is maintained by the JKA. – One point, which his Master Asai Senseistressed, was that “The breathing in the Nihon Karate Kyokai (J.K.A) Hangetsu must not be audible like that of the Naha-te Sanchin, it must be deep and undetectable.”
Buddhist Karate Breathing vs. Daoist Tai Chi Breathing
Abdominal breathing can be executed it two different ways: in the Buddhist and the Daoist one. The Buddhist way is usually practiced in Karate. The underbelly gets inflated when inhaling and deflated when exhaling.
Daoist breathing, on the other hand, works the other way around: while inhaling the underbelly is drawn in, when exhaling it is ballooned out. This kind of breathing is preferred by experienced Taijiquan practitioners. In a personal exploration the two different ways were measured with a HRV scanning device in order to detect and quantify the autonomic regulation effects. At least in my personal trial the “Buddhist” Karate breathing produced overall about 10% more autonomic nervous system response than the Daoist breathing.
Breathing, Heart rate and Regeneration after Training
Breathing and heartbeat are interdependent. The heart rate variability describes changes in heart rate over a period of time, controlled through the ANS (autonomous nervous system). As stronger the short-term changes of the heartbeat, controlled by the parasympathetic Vagus nerve, the more adaptable the organism is.
One could compare the overall regulation of the ANS with the “Ki”. The graphic on the left shows that slow breathing with 5-6 cycles per minute achieves the best regulation values. Breathing with 20 cycles per minute is the worst. At 5-6 breaths per minute the body relaxes fast and regenerates after a strain. Breathing and heartbeat control can be used very well with “HRV Biofeedback Breathing Training”. Both can be executed after training or after work. It also works for training and load control of competing Karateka.
I would like to add the 4711 formula. Scientists have found out that daily 11-minutes of breathing exercises with 4 seconds inhalation and 7 seconds exhalation can stimulate the vagus nerve in such a way that body and mind are immersed in a very special state of deep relaxation and regeneration. That can bee seen as the counterpart to stress responses. If this breathing exercises is performed over 9 weeks, it can lead to a change in the brain structure to more stability, relaxation, and awareness.
If the bodies oxygen uptake at rest falls below a certain value, the cell respiration can no longer function correctly. The metabolism must produce lactate even at low loads to meet the energy demand. This leads to a great loss of performance and an increasing acidification of the body, which results in pain, stiffness, and other problems.
In this case, a training at artificial height with reduced oxygen exposure comes into play. Such a training situation forces the body of Karateka to alternately breaths reduced amounts of Oxygen and intermittently breathes over saturated air. This will improve cell respiration and metabolic capacity. Even in preparation for championships, this procedure already showed in some studies its power-enhancing effect.
Breathing in Karate: Between Technique and Natural State
Breathing training has been around for centuries. It was already used in India in the Vedic Scriptures (1500 BC), the Upanishads (700 BC), and mentioned in the Yoga of Patanjali (200 BC). There, breathing exercises and meditations are adequately described as “Pranayama” (prana = Ki (breathing). From there, the path of breathing and awareness training went to China (Bodhidharma, Chan, 500 A.D.) and came with Zen Buddhism to Japan (Dogen 1200 A.D.).
Breathing training and mindfulness training are inextricably linked throughout Asia. Through the mindful observance in Zen (Shikan Taza), a transparent and shapeless sitting, the breath-counting (Susokan) or the breath-observing sitting (Zuisokan), the body relaxes and Ki can be accumulated in the lower abdomen (Hara).
Karateka, who practice the above breathing training also outside the dojo, sharpen their mind, improve their responsiveness, increase self-regulation and regeneration and develop their character. They learn how to be strong and happy through breathing.
That is why Karateka should take away the following five summarized statements of breathing in Karate:
Conscious breathing strengthens and stabilizes the center for transmitting Kime from bottom to top;
Conscious Breathing initiates and strengthens regeneration (via the Vagus nerve);
Conscious breathing controls and moderates emotions – fighting spirit, penetration;
Conscious breathing relaxes, sharpens and soothes the mind.
Punito Michael Aisenpreis: Born in 1958, coach, therapist, researcher and trainer in Munich and Murnau, martial arts and meditation teacher. Fascia therapy since 1981. Shotokan Karate since 1975, currently 4th Dan JKA and DJKB Trainer. Ki Aikido with Koichi Tohei. Regular karate training in Japan. 1994 Founding of the German Society for Myofascial Release e.V. Since 2013 Bodhidharma Karate Dojo Murnau at DJKB. Mail email@example.com; www.bodhidharma.de.
Jukuren Karate, elderly friendly Karate, is not very prevalent yet. But demographic changes and the growing interest of elderly to learn and keep practicing Karate make it necessary to develop a Jukuren Karate that fits the needs of senior practitioners. Then especially Shotokan Karate focuses on athletic movements and military-like classes. But does this approach suit elderly? Do they maybe need a different training regime? How should this look like? An analysis and proposal by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert
Jukuren Karate for elderly barely exists
Nowadays, many Dojos have kids classes or beginner courses for children. Hardly do I see “classes for the elderly” or “beginner courses for seniors” advertised on Dojo websites. This is remarkable. After all the overall population in industrial countries is over-aging and the age of Karate practitioners is also rising.
The reason for this is that Karate was introduced to the USA and Europe in the 1960´s and boomed with the Bruce Lee craze in the 1970´s. Therefore, many Karateka from this early period still train actively Karate, compete in Master classes, and teach in Dojos. They are well in their 60’s, 70’s or even 80’s. With 60 I consider myself part of this generation although still on the younger side.
Jukuren Karate: The Aim of this Article
But what about our training? Has it adjusted to our increasing age? Do we still practice the same routines in the same way as we did when we were in our 20`s? And how should a Jukuren (熟練) Karate for elderly Karateka look like? What must change in order to make it more suitable for seniors, so that they can still train despite their advanced age? I will propose some answers to these questions in this article.
As a caveat: I will generalize many of my observations (some laudable exceptions might exist) and mostly speak about Shotokan, since this is the style I practice and I am most familiar with. The setting to keep in mind are seniors (beginners and veterans alike) training together in a group. In fact, I teach an open lecture at my university called “Karate-dô for Health and Fitness” for more than eight years (see opener picture). The median age of the participants is around their mid-sixties. This course is my laboratory to reassess traditional concepts and develop Karate and Quigong (Taijiquan) exercises appropriate for people of an advanced age.
Why Jukuren Karate? Insights from Hirokazu Kanazawa
The late Kanazawa Hirokazu, an eminent teacher of Shotokan Karate, has in his autobiography and numerous interviews talked about how Karate training should change over ones lifetime. Let me pick out his statements made in an interview with Seamus O’Dowd in 2002:
“… everyone’s personal training should change as they go from youth to being an adult and then again as they get older. It is natural for training to change.
If a person is always training the same way all their life, then this is not natural. For example, for people up to thirty or forty years, physical power is the main power, generated through the muscles, with the power of the internal organs and power of the spirit working in harmony to support the physical power.
After forty the muscles start to become weaker, but the internal organs remain strong, now these become the main source of power … After sixty the internal organs also become weaker. The human body has limits, and it is natural to become weaker. Nobody can live for 150 or 200 years, so this is natural and should be accepted. But your spirit can always remain strong and even become stronger indefinitely, if people train correctly every day.
Therefore, after sixty, the power of the spirit is the main power in the body, with the power of physical muscle and internal organs used to assist and channel this power. Therefore, as we get older we must adapt our training to utilize the correct power sources in our bodies. Techniques must change and training methods must change.”
Shotokan Karate Magazine 143/2020: 10
In another interview Kanazawa jokingly remarked:
“… I think training from baby to grave is something that I must do, but for other people it is as I have said before, one must train as one grows in different ways. If I did not do this then when I reached 70 or 80 years old Unsu and Enpi will be impossible. Maybe I could do some Shito-ryu or Goju-ryu kata, maybe, but I know I could do Tai-Chi until I die. Because it is more internal than physical. If I only did Shotokan, after 70 or 80 it would be ‘Bye, bye.’”
Shotokan Karate Magazine 143/2020: 7
In his autobiography Kanazawa states:
“ Sure enough, when I reached my sixties I noticed that my physical condition had deteriorated and ki-ryoku had become the driving force for my karate. I let this development take its natural course and continued to develop it further. Muscular strength, and the strength of your innards certainly decrease with age, but mental and spiritual strength can be increased as you get older.”
Hirokazu Kanazawa 2003: 293
Kiryoku is written 気力 in the original book (Kanazawa 2002: 344) and thus means the strength of the subtle energy Ki. I would figure that the gist of these statements is: training should be adapted to ones age and physical condition. Then it is “natural” and in accordance with ones stage in life. But do most of the older Karateka follow this advice?
The Need for Jukuren Karate
I am quite sure that on an individual level Shotokan Karateka adapt their workout to their aging bodies and physical capabilities. However, when it comes to collective training it is different. If you attend international Shotokan Karate seminars with many participants, groups are frequently formed along grade or skill level (beginners, mid-level, advanced etc.).
Training, that addresses senior Karateka, rarely exists. Kihon lessons usually take place for all in the same way: from teenagers to septuagenarians – everybody performs the same techniques and is supposed to do this in the same way.
Teaching usually Focuses on Younger Karateka
The same goes for home training videos that circulate on the internet. They obviously address and focus rather on younger athletes than seniors. Some create the impression that the instructors want to show off their skills, like how fast they can perform difficult combinations or how high they can kick. Not only elderly, but also the average Karateka might struggle to follow these instructions. It illustrates that teaching in Shotokan focuses on young competitors rather than the casual and physically less able enthusiast.
To run through fancy combinations like Mawashi Geri Jodan, Ushiro Geri, Gyaku zuki dozens of times is not quite easy for the beyond-60´s. Indeed, it is “unnatural”, if not harmful.
Karate for Elderly has to take Body Changes into Account
I am aware that there are some hard-boiled elderly Karateka around who desperately want to keep up with the sportsmen in their twenties or thirties. A few are physically still capable of doing so. I let them have their way.
But I would contend that the vast majority of older Karateka practice the art in order to maintain their health and agility. This implies that one is more likely to listen to the voice of ones body and to avoid unwholesome exercises. Joints become more fragile, particularly the knees, hips, elbows or shoulders. To feel slight pain in them is quite common among senior people. So are degenerative afflictions like gout, arthritis, osteoarthritis, cartilage atrophy or other wear and tear.
However, this should not preclude anyone to practice Karate Do. Everybody should be able to perform Karate with the very body one has and all the flaws coming with it. That is why we even have Karate for people with special needs. Thus, it would be desirable to develop a Karate that fits older people.
What has to change in Karate to become Jukuren Karate?
Such a Karate must change in two ways:
in a physical/somatic way and
a practical way.
I will start with the latter one: the practice of Karate. I want to characterize the necessary change with two words: de-militarization and individualization. To understand what that means we have to look at the history of Shotokan Karate that still coins the way we practice Karate in Dojos in a manner most Karateka are not fully aware of.
De-militarization of Karate
Shotokan has a background deeply entrenched in militarism. This has shaped our Karate and the way we train. For instance:
standing in rows,
movements in unison obeying commands shouted by (usually) a man in front,
who struts up and down like a general inspecting his army.
This had already begun in Okinawa in the first decade of the 20th century, when Karate was introduced as physical education into schools. In fact, it replaced “military gymnastics” (heishiki taisô) and Itosu Ankô (1831-1915), who was the driving force behind this, explicitly stressed the respective benefits in his Ten Precepts. In the second precept he recommends that children start with Karate (Tôde) while in elementary school, because “then they will be well suited for military service.”
In precept ten he reiterates that Karate should be taught in elementary schools, because “this will be a great benefit to our nation and our military.” Itosu wrote these principles 1908 in form of a letter addressing the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of War on the main island. Karate was, thus, annexed to a nationalistic and later imperialistic agenda.
When Karate became a real Military Exercise in Japan
Two assistant’s of Itosu, Yabu Kentsû (1866-1937) and Hanashiro Chômo (1869-1945), were both military men. They joined the army in 1891 and were noticed for their exceptional physiques in the medical exams. It was ascribed to their Karate training. That was the reason why Karate caught the eye of the military for the first time.
Yabu Kentsû reached the rank of a lieutenant, although his lifelong nickname was gunsô (“sergeant”). He taught at Shuri’s Prefectural Number One School and was known for his discipline and doing Karate “by the numbers” and with endless repetitions. This was in tune with every athletic training on the main island, which became heavily militarized in the 1930s and 1940s.
On Honshû, the main island, it was Funakoshi Gichin, his son Yoshitaka, Egami Shigeru, Okuyama Tadao and others who taught Karate to special forces at the Nakano military school during WWII. The political climate of the 1930´s, when Karate began to spread on the main island of Japan, was one of ultranationalism, xenophobia, Tennô-totalitarianism and mobilization for war.
The Okinawan and Chinese roots of Karate were eradicated and erased. Karate was streamlined along Kendô and Jûdô and transformed into a Japanese Budô and thus due to the zeitgeist militarized. It became infused with Bushidô-ideals, which were perverted for military goals and emperor-worshipping.
Elements of this fateful ideology were:
exaltation of death and sacrifice,
glorification of dying for the fatherland and the Tennô.
Benesch calls this kind of indoctrination the “imperial bushidô” (cf. Benesch 2006: 200-213).
To become a martial art that follows modern ethical standards all remnants of this ideology should be eliminated from Karate. However, it seems as if quite a bit of it lives on in an attenuated form. Westerners, who entertain fantasies about Bushido and want to emulate it, should be aware of this history. And it also has an influence on the possibility of an adequate Jukuren Karate.
De-militarization of the Dojo
De-militarization in the Dojo mostly pertains to the training in soldier-like fashion. Particularly elderly people do not have to be commanded around. With the high value put on fitness until the grave nowadays, elderly people are increasingly interested in beginning to learn a martial art. For the mature novices the techniques should be thoroughly explained. They can then be performed within the group. Thereafter, the practitioners should be able to experiment, explore the moves, repeat them according to their own taste and pace. This goes for Kihon combinations or Kata sequences, even for Kumite exercises. Once the practitioners are comfortable with the new techniques one can go back to training on command.
This alternation between group drill and free experimentation loosens up the atmosphere, brings a playful element into the Dojo, gives room for laughter about ones clumsiness and provides the chance to learn on ones own terms. Strict group drill always risks to leave some people out, who cannot follow the tempo or grasp the moves in a short time. This only leads to frustration.
Individualization of the Dojo
“Individualization” means to give the participants time and room to exercise and study by themselves. The instructor can take turn to watch them and give advice. A well balanced alternation between individual and collective training during one session is a good way to give elderly Karateka a chance to train in accordance with their capabilities and physical condition.
It also gives them space to recuperate and take a breath if needed. It takes older people longer to recover after intense physical activity and a good regime for rest is as important for them as adequate training as such. Karate training around twice a week will suffice. The other days they can do some walking, weight training, fascia loosening, yoga, tennis, gardening or the like or just rest.
Some older Karateka have issues with their circulatory or respiratory system or other ailments. You cannot put them through the same regime as the athletes in their twenties. We should give up the boot camp mentality of Shotokan. It is good to go to ones limits, but they should be determined by the practitioners themselves (particularly when they are older!) and not a commander in chief.
Seniors are more likely to introspectively scan their bodies and avoid discomfort. Physical exercise of any kind should be for their well-being and not bring them to the brink of a heart attack. They should be totally in charge of the tempo and the degree of exertion they want to undergo. Training should be highly individualized and fine-tuned to ones physique.
The Physical Part of Karate and what has to Change for Jukuren Karate
This brings us to the physical side of Jukuren Karate. That means in a nutshell:
moderation in effort and
no acrobatic jumps.
In a way, this equals to going back to the roots.
When the Physical Education Dimension of Shotokan Karate developed
There is one more historical development Shotokan underwent, which we ought to scrutinize. If we look at the photos of Funakoshi Gichin in the 1920s, we can see that his stances were very high compared to the way they are done in modern Shotokan. The fact that most of his instruction was done at University clubs had an effect on the training and techniques.
His third son Yoshitaka aka “Waka-sensei” (the young teacher) took over most of the teaching in the 1930s. Students in Japan spend four years at University until graduation. During the war, the military drafted students even before they finished their studies. It is said that Yoshitaka was interested in a physical regime that would enable the students to become tough and strong as fast as possible. Deeper stances meant immediate strong muscle development. His favorite stance was the rooted, powerful low Fudô dachi.
The Issue of Deep Stances
How deep one stands, should depends on body type, flexibility, muscular strength and age of course and should be individually calibrated. Not everybody can stand as deep as Frank Brennan or Osaka Yoshiharu in their prime time. Even many youngsters, who copied them, looked awkward, because they did not have their stamina and elasticity. If one does not stand as deep as it became usual in Shotokan, this does not mean it is not Shotokan anymore!
“When Master Funakoshi taught us he never said copy his form. Because of his weight and body type he made it that way. He explained for instance, that there is no particular length or width for a stance, it depends on each individual’s body type.’ Obviously as far as Funakoshi was concerned stances could be high or low, according to the student’s physique.”
Shotokan Karate Magazine 1998:22
Many instructors will agree with this and recommend the same thing.
Sometimes this remains lip service. As far as I see, in Shotokan there is a strong adherence to textbooks and the standards set down in them. They almost have the status of dogmas and incontestable orthodoxy. In many textbooks stances are precisely delineated with ruler and compasses and weight distribution is specified in percentages. Usually you are corrected, if you do not fit into these templates.
Do not misunderstand me: age is by no means an excuse to get sloppy. The strengthening of the thighs and abdominal region is the goal of assuming (deep) Karate stances and is also good for the health of the elderly. But everybody should find his own depth and width of the stances the way one feels comfortable and maintain a good inner tension and muscular stimulation. As far as alignments of the knee to toes or tailbone and spine are concerned, they should be bio-mechanically absolutely correct and not compromised.
Funakoshi, Kanazawa, and the Deep Stances
The following anecdote by Kanazawa Hirokazu illustrates this notion. Because Funakoshi Gichin read his mind during some classes. In his autobiography Kanazawa Hirokazu reports:
“Even during training sessions, similar things happened. While we were practicing the kanku-dai kata, I copied his every move exactly the way he was doing it.
‘Kanazawa san, spread your legs out further and drop your hips down.’
I dropped my hips down as I was told, but thought to myself ‘I was doing it exactly how sensei was …’
Then he got me again.
‘Kanazawa-san, you’re still young. You have to build up strength. Young people should do young people’s training, and not copy old men.”
Kanazawa 2003: 87
What does this anecdote tell us? Adapt your stances (and Karate) to your age.
Many Okinawan styles have rather high stances in the first place and only low kicks. Hence, adjusting your stances is like going back to the roots. And indeed in Okinawa you can see many older Karateka, even octogenarians doing fine Kata performances. Their movements are relaxed, tension is low and there is no exaggerated Kime. The notion that Karate should be an endeavor for a whole lifetime comes from Okinawa and should apply to Shotokan as well.
Quality over Quantity! Physical Limitations and Jukuren Karate
With increasing age come physiological limitations. The heart muscle contractibility diminishes and maximum attainable heart rates decrease. Too much cardiac exertion should be avoided. In training this means lesser repetitions – quality over quantity! It is not natural, when people in their sixties, seventies run through the same program as young athletes in their twenties. The point of exhaustion is different and endless repetitions do more damage to an old body than bring benefit. Again: no boot camp for seniors.
Water Drinking during Training
Sweat cools the body, but even perspiration changes with senescence. Dehydration occurs quicker when one becomes older. Therefore, it is vital to replenish the body with fluids, minerals and electrolytes: before, during and after workout.
Japanese summers can be cruelly hot. Nowadays, it is common sense in sports and Budô-circles to rehydrate, i.e. drink something during breaks in the training. A generation ago, indeed, it was usually not allowed to drink something during workout in Japanese sports clubs (even in schools and at universities)! Even now, every summer, legions suffer heatstrokes in Japan, particularly children (doing sports like baseball in the open) and elderly, who have no air conditioning or due to insensitivity (which comes with age) do not notice that their bodies need liquids.
During heatwaves you are daily admonished in the prime news to drink water regularly, stay in shadowy places or inside and get your air conditioning working. Elderly Karateka should therefore frequently take a rest and consume some water or sports drinks.
The outdated Taboo in regard to rehydrating during Karate Classes
In this context I want to tell you an anecdote or cautionary tale which also tells something about the history of the transmission of Shotokan Karate to the West.
It happened just a few years ago in Europe. I was in my mid fifties and came as a guest into a dojo in Vienna. Although, I was the oldest and highest in rank, as a guest I just partook in the training like everybody else. It lasted a good two hours and was led by a guy in his early thirties.
Shortly before a line up to do some Tsuki in the group at the end of the session, I dared to reach for my bottle in my bag and gulp down a few swigs of water. I was immediately approached by the trainer and heavily reprimanded. It is forbidden to drink anything during training, he shouted, and I would give a bad example to the younger students by doing so. I was quite put off and inquired why this should be so.
The answer was, that this was the stipulation of the Japanese Sensei “So and so”, who sadly passed away a few years ago. It was an order of his, there was no drinking in the dojo, basta!
Well, this is pure old school! I attended a JKA-dojo back in the days, where the same rule was observed. You were supposed to nurture perseverance, patience, endurance, self control, gaman in Japanese – a highly valued virtue. But times have changed. Even in Japan. Not so in Austria. Why? Be sure that after the training I started quite a diatribe and lambasted the young guy for his “faschistoid, toxic loyalty, blind obedience, cowardice and inability to criticize the Sensei!”
The ultimate point of the story is that this young man was a doctor, a medical doctor. I told him that he of all people should know that I as an older practitioner was more prone to dehydration and not getting replenished with liquid was harmful to my salubrity. As a physician it would actually have been his duty to inform Mr. Sensei that his directive and this ascetic practice were hazardous nonsense and detrimental to the health and also diminishing the performance and ability of his pupils!
What showed here, is a pathology in Shotokan which was rampant in its early days in Europe: the deification of the Japanese Sensei, total subservience, a wrongly understood “loyalty”. Nobody ever dared to criticize the (Japanese) Sensei. Sometimes this was encouraged by the very Sensei under the (misguided) guise of “Bushido”. Rigid hierarchies and authoritarian attitudes are out of place when teaching the elderly. They deserve respect for their life experience and unique personality. Instructor and student should meet on the same level. Even more so, when the teacher happens to be (much) younger.
Jukuren Karate: The “Why” of your Training Counts!
Seniors have no time to do meaningless things. As the violinist Isaac Stern said about his art: “to play good music is not about how to play, but why you play!” And every single note counts. Thus, you exercise fully concentrated, purposefully, mindfully.
Once you know the how and shift your attention to the “why” training acquires a different quality. You scan your body, ask why you stand this way and not otherwise, feel what it does to your body and if it enhances your well-being. You make every technique your very own and become aware of its characteristics. This “why” does not necessarily look for an intellectual answer. It rather denotes an attitude of inner awareness, heightened body-consciousness, introspection, and mindfulness.
Kata in Jukuren Karate
Kata can be trained in slow motion or in Shotokai-style in a continuous flow without Kime. This also serves to realize one of the objectives Kata were invented for in the first place: the regulation and harmonization of the Ki-flow. According to the understanding in Chinese traditional medicine this leads to health and inner peace.
The incorporation of softer martial ways like Qigong and Taijiquan is also highly recommended and improves coordination and balance. The older you get, the more Karate should be “internalized”. You pay attention to the inner energy flow. It is Ki or Kiryoku – as Kanazawa Soke put it -, that directs your Karate. Health in the Chinese understanding means that Ki can flow freely and without blockages or occlusions. Latter occurrences lead to sickness and indisposition.
Jukuren Karate should focus on Energy flow
Acupuncture, moxibustion, massages, gymnastics and meditation (visualization) were developed in ancient times to guarantee an unimpeded Ki-flow. The martial arts were practiced in this context. Good martial art practice is said to open the energy channels, eliminate blockages and harmonize the flow of Ki. Ki is virtually sent through the whole body from head to toe, thus one feels refreshed after a good Karate training session, even if one is physically exhausted. Ki flows best, when the body is totally relaxed. Therefore meditation also leads to health and well-being.
In Chinese martial arts there are meditations done in a standing position (called ritsuzen 立禅, the character 立 means “to stand”; 禅 = Zen). Sitting meditation (zazen 坐禅, 坐 denoting “to sit”) has the same effect. Sitting with legs crossed and upright, the arms and hands forming a circle, the spine straight, the crown pushed up and chin slightly tucked in is a compact way to sit completely relaxed. Combined with natural gentle breathing and a calm mind the Ki finds its perfect equilibrium.
Benefits of Jukuren Karate and How to Achieve them
The benefits of Karate for seniors are undisputed and manifold, just to name a few:
higher energy level,
bodily and mental agility,
increase in bone density,
decrease in muscle loss,
good coordination and sense of balance (prevention of falling!),
better overall health,
disease prevention etc.
How to Conduct Jukuren Karate Classes?
In order to earn these rewards of Karate training for the elderly, let me sum up. Here are the desiderata for a meaningful training and learning process for seniors:
less military drill, more individual practice,
less power/muscular strength, more relaxation,
less repetitions, more awareness/mindfulness,
higher stances, lower kicks, no acrobatics,
alternation in tempo, slow motion, fluid movements, no unnecessary tension,
breathing exercises, soft style martial arts practices (e.g. Qigong, Taijiquan),
less cardio, more rest,
lots of stretching, fascia release work,
fostering of body consciousness.
Spirit First, Sport Second
To engage in Karate training in old age can help to grow spiritually. Frantzis argues, for instance:
“Many Eastern physical exercise systems have at their core a spiritual tradition. … In both, yoga and quigong, physically-based internal exercises are preparatory phases of their respective spiritual paths. However both can be practiced with only the goals of enhancing health, reducing stress and quieting the mind.”
Frantzis 2006: 66
With the transplantation of these Eastern disciplines to the West, their spiritual roots have been clipped. Yoga is practiced as gymnastics for health, so is Tai chi or Karate. There is nothing wrong with this. It seems that the more popular these practices become, the more competitive and acrobatic they get. In Yoga ever more complicated contortions are added to the basic simple postures (asanas). Taijiquan has become an acrobatic performance or show in Wushu competitions. Even the way Kata are executed in Karate championships has become more and more theatrical and athletic. The reduction to sports is literally visible.
If one is not spiritually inclined, one can leave this aspect out and still benefit from the many good effects of the purely physical exercises. These however have to be adapted to age and ability. The focus may change from body to mind/soul. The older martial artist will likely put more emphasis on the spiritual core of his discipline. It will then unfold its full potential and richness.
To age means to have to let go
To age means to have to let go. There is much half-baked parlance about (Zen)Buddhism in martial art circles. Let me put it into a nutshell. The revolutionary message of the Buddha was: there is no permanent self, no soul (sanskr. an-âtman, Jap. Muga無我). This was blasphemy for the Hindus, but only consequent thinking in Buddhist terms: should there be an eternal soul, one would cling to it and this would hinder liberation.
Nothing is permanent (Jap. Mujô無常). So, do not attach yourself to anything. Your personality (ego), your thoughts and memories, your emotions – it is all fleeting and evanescent. To cling to them means suffering. Let go and you will be free. To die means to have to let go of everything. To age should teach us to let go step by step. Strength, speed, flexibility are inexorably on the wane with age. We have to let go e. g. of our high kicks and jumps.
One more consideration: time. The older you get, the more precious it is. And this connects to Buddhist concepts as well: every training, every movement, every breath could be your last. Therefore you give it your full attention in the here and now. You do it mindfully, as it is now fashionably called. Training becomes a blessing and fills you with thankfulness. This gives rise to compassion – another Buddhist virtue which should always be coupled with detachment.
What we can Learn from Buddhism for Jukuren Karate
To make it clear: I am not a Buddhist, but I want to show that if the influence of (Zen)Buddhism on martial arts is to be taken seriously, it implies more than just an unfettered, clear, “empty” mind (no-mind, Mushin 無心) or “lingering mind” (sustained attentiveness Zanshin 残心) to enable you to succeed in combat. These concepts have unfortunately been ideologically misinterpreted in order to legitimate killing enemies in a non-attached state of mind.
In the conclusion of his book, in which he exposed and analyzed the role of Zen-Buddhists during the second world war in Japan, the ordained Zen-monk Brian Victoria writes:
“Experienced Zen practitioners know that the ‘no-mind’ of Zen does in fact exist. … But they also know, or at least ought to know, that these things, in their original Buddhist formulation, had absolutely nothing to do with bringing harm to others. On the contrary, authentic Buddhist awakening is characterized by a combination of wisdom and compassion – identifying oneself with others and seeking to eliminate suffering in all its forms.”
Victoria 2006: 230-1
In China, meditation (be it Daoist or Buddhist) usually is an integral part of martial arts training. The Mokusô (黙想) at the beginning and the end of a Karate training session is a remnant of this practice. With the “internalization” of Karate the mental and spiritual aspect becomes more central. The focus can even completely shift to introspection.
Grandmaster Wan Lai Sheng said, for instance: “People who are too old and weak to practice Gongfu (or Karate for that matter, W.H.) can meditate in order to preserve health.” (Kozma 2013: 57)
In the Chinese martial arts it is the “internal” ones (like Taijiquan) which “are unique in that they seamlessly fuse exercise and meditation.” (Frantzis 2012: 5) Exercises can be found on a continuum from “meditation in motion” to “meditation in stillness”. With ageing comes a continuous reduction in the range of movements you are able to execute. In the martial ways you may give up the hard styles in favor of soft, internal practices. If these become too cumbersome, you may change to “immobile” or on the spot practices like Qigong, breathing exercises, meditation and self-inquiry.
The ultimate martial art might be the motionless one: to just sit, get absorbed and dissolved into pure consciousness, being, bliss. One may get a momentary taste of infinite emptiness (sankr. śūnyatā; jap. Kû 空), nondual suchness, the ground of all being and form, a timeless, formless eternal presence, the absolute reality. These are just helpless attempts to describe the indescribable. This insight is the apex of Buddhist wisdom.
Conclusion: Jukuren Karate as Kara Te
Let us be clear that Funakoshi Gichin had this meaning in mind, when he sought to change the character for “Kara” from 唐 (“China”) to 空 (“empty”). The decision was also politically motivated, since in the 1930s anything considered to be Chinese was not welcome to say the least. Funakoshi however explicitly referred to the most famous line in the Heart sutra 色即是空、空即是色 (shiki soku ze kû, kû soku ze shiki, form is emptiness, emptiness is form) on choosing the character 空. Could Karate-dô 空手道 in the deepest sense be the way (道) via the body (pars pro toto: 手) to the selfless Self, the incommensurable and inexpressible Absolute (空)?
For Funakoshi Gichin Karate was a way to stay healthy, an art for self-defence and a “method to cultivate the spirit” (精神修養法 seishin shûyôhô, see: Funakoshi 1922/2006: 5).
In Jukuren Karate we, therefore, should not strive mainly for physical prowess. The integration of the body and the mind, the original aim of (Shotokan) Karate, should stand at the center of our efforts. Then, elderly Karateka will benefit much better from Karate training. And it will also have a huge effect on your Dojo. Because a Dojo is a community that should comprise all generations and bring together the wisdom of the old and the energy of the young to be vital.
Benesch, Oleg:Inventing the Way of the Samurai. Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushidô in Modern Japan. Oxford: Oxford UP 2014.
Frantzis, Bruce:Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body. Quigong for Lifelong Health. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlanctic Books 2006.
Frantzis, Bruce:Bagua and Tai Chi, Martial Arts, Meditation and the I Ching. Berkeley, Calif.: Blue Snake Books 2012.
Kozma, Alex:Warrior Guards the Mountain. The Internal Martial Traditions of China, Japan and South East Asia. London & Philadelphia: Singing Dragon 2013.
Shotokan Karate Magazine: “The development of Shotokan”, Shotokan Karate Magazine 55 (1998), 20-22.
Shotokan Karate Magazine: Special Tribute Edition: Stan Schmidt (1936-2019). Hirokazu Kanazawa (1931-2019), Issue 143/March 2020
Victoria, Brian Daizen:Zen at War. 2nd ed. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield 2006.
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Herbert holds the chair of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Tokushima, Japan. He obtained a degree in Japanese Studies and Religious Science. In 1975, he began to train Karate and can look back on a successful career as athlete and instructor. His last major victory was the 1st place in Kata at the 39th SKIF All Japan Karate-dô Championship Masters II (50-59yrs) in 2019. His Karate has been coined by Hirokazu Kanazwa, who also promoted him to 5th Dan in 2016. Beside Karate he also practices Taijiquan.
Yoshihide Suga did succeed Shinzo Abe as prime minister of Japan on September 16, 2020. He was sworn in by the Emperor of Japan Naruhito in the Imperial Palace as 99th prime minister. Before taking over office as PM Suga was the Chief of Staff of Shinzo Abe and prior to that hold several cabinet posts. In 2019, he revealed the current era of the Japanese calendar stipulated by the Tenno.
In an interview for JKFan in 2014 PM Suga commented on his Karate experience: “The things I developed through karate-do have served me well after I entered politics. I am keenly aware that the mental strength to endure difficulties was forged in the karate-do club.” Even today he does 100 sit-ups every morning to stay fit.
Yoshihide Suga promoted Karate for Olympics
That he is still committed to the martial art of Karate Do shows his political engagement for it. In 2014, became the President of the Parliamentary Federation for the Promotion of Karate-do. The aim of the federation was to establish Karate as an Olympic sport.
Whether the new Prime Minister will still has Karate as a priority can be doubt. Japan, like many countries, suffers from the immense economy downturn due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The top priority of PM Suga will be to mitigate the negative consequences of the pandemic and bring back Japan into a more stable economic condition.
However, for the global Karate community the election of PM Suga is already a great success and a fantastic promotion. To have a Karateka in the Japans highest office will give Karate a global exposure. And we are sure that Yoshihide Suga will serve as an excellent role model for the way of Karate.
In this month’s ‘Karate Essence’ column, as I answer the question, ‘what makes a Budōka?’ I will be revisiting some of the philosophical Budo themes I have previously examined in depth. While I allude, briefly, to an aspect of a Budōka I will reference a previous article or column for those readers not fully conversant with that characteristic. By TD McKinnon
Budōka: The Etymology of the Word
Budo (武道), of course, is a Japanese term; literally translated, it means the ‘Martial Way’, and may even be thought of as the ‘Way of War’. Budo is a compound of the root Bu (武:ぶ ), meaning War or Martial; and Dō (道:どう) meaning, the way or the path. However, in this modern era, it has become a reference, describing the spiritual foundation of most Japanese martial arts. In that perspective Budo becomes an idea. Modern Budō needs no external enemy. The enemy is within; it is the ego that must be defeated.
The suffix, ka (家), with its kanji character meaning ‘family, house, home’, is recognised in Budōka (as in Karateka) as meaning ‘student’ or, perhaps more accurately, a devotee of the aforementioned, Budo. The Budoka follows a path of self-improvement, formulating propositions and subjecting them to philosophical critique.
What is a Budoka?
According to the hypothesis that Budo is the spiritual foundation of Japanese Martial arts, and that Ka is a student or devotee of said spiritual foundation, then a Budoka is, quite literally, one who studies or practices the art of war. In other words, it could be said that it is a warrior.
For the Budoka, it is not about winning or losing a competition, as in Sport Karate for instance. I am not saying that the Budoka cannot also be a sportsman, just that the Karate sportsman is not necessarily a Budoka.
Originally, for the Budoka, the idea was to safely learn techniques that would lead to victory on the battlefield, or in any hostile encounter. The trophy on offer, of course, was surviving; as opposed to being killed or maimed by an adversary.
In everyday living in today’s environment, the practical importance of technique has become less vital for actual physical survival. However – while other aspects, including spiritual, aesthetic or competitive may come to the fore – it is still essential to the Budoka that there remains a realistic practicality to their training and teaching.
So far, I have talked about Budoka as an exclusively Japanese concept. I would like to add here that, the more I have learned about the meaning of the term, the more I realise that I have been a Budoka for most of my life. You do not have to be a Karateka, as such, to be a Budoka. I have already stated that not all those who practice Karate (Karateka) are Budoka; being a one involves a certain spiritual element, which not all Karateka embody.
In my humble opinion, those who merely go through the physical motions (as an exercise or for sport) may be Karateka but they are not Budoka. Those Karateka who embrace Karate-Do (the way/path) as a way of life, to be better each day (holistically) than they were the day before, are Budoka.
I have trained in the art of war (of fighting in all of its aspects) since my earliest memories. My rational was not to be able to hurt and dominate others; my goal has always been to defeat the fear, in me, of being hurt and dominated.
The true Budoka does not strive to be undefeatable but to be fearless. True fearlessness is a spiritual quality that the one acquires, eventually, through the acquisition of Zanshin, Mushin, Shoshin, Fudoshin and Senshin.
1. Zanshin (残心): ‘the lingering mind’ is aware of everything, without distractions.
2. Mushin (無心): ‘the uncluttered mind’, without judgement and emotion, deals with situations from the moment point.
3. Shoshin (初心): ‘the open, eager mind’, with its lack of bias, sees all options.
4. Fudoshin (不動心): ‘the peaceful, determined and courageous mind’ provides the confidence to endure, no matter the odds.
5. Senshin (洗心): ‘the enlightened mind’, striving to protect and be in harmony with all life, completes the five spirits of Budo.
Embracing the five spirits of Budo – the full Mantle of the Spiritual Warrior – endows the advanced Budoka with fearlessness; thus rendering that him, virtually, undefeatable.
Long before I had heard of the philosophical terms, of Zanshin, Mushin, Shoshin, Fudoshin and Senshin, I was on the path. And, while walking the long and winding road of the spiritual warrior, I have had the great honour and pleasure of the company of others; some were Karateka and some were not. In fact many of them, and at one time that would have included myself, had never even heard the term. Let alone the above Japanese terms for the five spirits of Budo.
So, what does make a Budōka?
I do believe that a thorough understanding of the five spirits of Budo can help the devotee on his path to enlightenment. However, I personally, firmly believe that an innate knowing and empathetic appreciation of the philosophies behind the labels is much more important than an intellectual verbatim of the philosophical labels themselves.
I will finish with a quote from lifelong martial artist and prolific writer, 88 year old, Bujinkan Soke Masaaki Hatsumi: “There are three kinds of Budoka: ones that try to look strong, ones that try to perfect there technique and ones that try to gain a good heart.” For me, being a Budoka, is about what is in the heart.
Souji (掃除, also Soji, Sōji) literally means “cleaning”. Everybody, who dives a little bit into the Japanese culture, realizes that cleaning, cleanness, and tidiness are of utmost importance. This also applies to Karate and Budo. Cleaning shall teach virtues like respect, humbleness, mindfulness, diligence, and a sense to be part of a collective. In addition, the practice of cleaning shall also lead to spiritual purity and enlightenment. How this works and why you should clean your Dojo regulary explains Dr. Christian Tribowski.
Souji, cleaning, is serious business in Japan. For instance, Japanese families organize a O-souji (大掃除), a big cleaning before the end of the year in order to welcome the New Year God, Toshigami-sama, in a nice and tidy house.
No wonder that the global queen of cleaning is from Japan. Marie Kondo aka KonMari is a 35 year old organizing consultant from Tokyo who has turned tidying into a million dollar business. According to Celebrity Net Worth her TV shows and books about how to get rid of clutter and how to make your apartment tidy and keep it this way have gained her $8 million so far.
But even at most unexpected places the Japanese show an incredible desire and urge to clean. For instance, after sports events. While this has long been reported to be the case in Japanese baseball stadiums, where fans and even the teams go through the rows and clean behind them after the game. Japanese football fans have brought this habit to a global stage. They also cleaned up their block in the stadium at the last world championships in Russia in 2018. Footage of cleaning Japanese fans first appeared on social media after the game against Colombia and the world was weirded out.
But the biggest surprise happened when the Japanese lost 3-2 against Belgium and had to leave the tournament. Right after the game and before they left the stadium, the Japanese national football team cleaned their locker room. According to The Independent, it was spotless and contained a thank you note.
Souji in the Dojo
The Dojo is also a place of constant Souji in Japan. After or before the training, students come together and clean the floor and also other parts of the Dojo. The traditional approach of Souji works the following way:
Little children, adults, and elderly all do the cleaning together.
The students line up with dry mops in their hands and go on the floor.
Then, they push the mop firmly with their hands on the ground and shove it through the Dojo.
Once they have reached the opposite side of the Dojo, they turn around and shove it again to the other side.
The floor has, thus, been mopped two times.
Modern Souji can also be done with a mop on a stick and in fun ways. While the most cultures perceive cleaning as cumbersome, Japanese Dojos show us how entertaining it can be. In the video below the Dojo turns Souji into a small competition.
Shinto and Zen: The Roots of Souji
But what are the roots of Souji? One hypothesis says: The school system in Japan teaches students right from the start of their education to take care of their classrooms and the school in general. Every student must take part in collective cleaning sessions. Therefore, cleaning is taught in schools as a important virtue.
One answer can be found in the ritual practices of the Shinto religion in Japan. Shinto is a natural and animistic religion where the practitioners believe in so called Kami. These are gods and spirits that inhabit all material things. Shinto is unique to Japan and understands human beings as pure and clean.
To become pure again the worshiper must go trough so called Harai (祓い): rituals of purification. Most of these rituals involve symbolic washing of the hands and mouth (Temizu, 手水). Some also require the Shinto practitioner to take a bath in a in a stream, a river, a lake or the ocean in a purification ceremony (禊 Misogi).
Shinto put, therefore, a tremendous weight on cleanness and purity. It also associates uncleanness and impurity with guilt, sin etc. That is why Japanese tend to avoid unclean situations where ever possible. As a consequence the Shinto and its notion of purity have a strong influence on Souji.
Zen and Cultivation
Another source responsible for the Japanese urge for cleaning lies in Zen Buddhism. Originally from China Zen flourished in Japan and has been one of the central cultural paradigms of the country. Especially the arts, craftsmanship, and the aesthetic of Japan have been shaped by Zen. But also Budo was highly influenced by the religion.
For instance, Yagyu Munenori (柳生 宗矩, 1571 – 1646), one of the formative figures of Kenjutsu (swordsmanship), stood in a close correspondence with Takuan Sōhō (沢庵 宗彭, 1573 – 1645) a central figure of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism and advisor to the Shogun. The most prominent result of the intellectual exchange between the swordsman and the monk has been the book The Unfettered Mind (不動智神妙録, fudōchi shinmyōroku) written by Takuan for Yagyu Munenori. In his book he applies Zen concepts and terminology to analyse Budo. Since then, a close relationship between the religion and the fighting arts has grown closer and closer.
But what does Zen teach about Souji? One of the most practical and contemporary accounts of this relation is the small book A Monk´s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukai Matsumoto first published in 2011. In his book he gives a very concise explanation about the relationship of Zen and Souji.
Cleaning isn´t considered burdensome, or something you don´t really want to do and wish to get over with as soon as possible. They say that one of Buddha´s disciples achieved enlightenment doing nothing but sweeping while chanting, “Clean of dust. Remove grime.” Cleaning is carried out not because there is dirt, but because it´s an ascetic practice to cultivate the mind.”
Shoukai Matsumoto shows: cleaning is a sacred act of self-cultivation in Zen. This becomes clear when he writes: “The people and things in your life are what makes you who you are … People who don´t respect objects don´t respect people.” (p. 4) The treatment of the outer world, therefore, directly influences yourself and your soul. To clean your surroundings means to clean your inner self and to cultivate yourself.
Shinto and Zen
If both approaches of Souji – Shinto and Zen – become combined they offer a plausible explanation why Japanese take cleaning so seriously. Because the practice of cleaning means, on the one hand, to get rid of trouble and bad karma (Tsumi and Kegare) through purifcation. On the other hand, it also promises self-cultivation and enlightenment. That means that everybody who cleans avoids bad and receives good within the same action at the same time – a strong tandem. The Zen notion of the interconnection between the world of the objects and the world of the subjects (spirits) links this approach to tangible places like shrines, temples, a house, a company, and also Dojos.
Why is Souji good for your Dojo and your Karate?
The Dojo is the place for the practice of the Do, the Karate way. Cleaning in the ritual Shinto and Zen sense comprises features that foster the ethical and spiritual development of Karatekas. Because rituals create and change perception, when they are constantly practiced. So, what can Souji teach us?
Respect: To clean something, like Shoukai Matsumoto writes, means to learn to respect it. When you regularly clean the Dojo it will change its meaning to you. You start to take care of it. It turns from an anonymous and functional place like a public gym into a place you connect with. Your perception of its change and condition becomes sharper. And you learn to not take it for granted. From here Karatekas can develop a sense of respect for others. Because the cleanness of a Dojo depends on everybody. Only when you work as a team the Dojo stays clean. So, when everybody must clean on a regular basis a sense of respect for the efforts of others emerges.
Purification: We are the world we live in. Therefore, we are also the Karateka of the Dojo we train in. A purified Dojo lays the foundation to become a purified Karateka. Dirt, shabby walls, filthy locker rooms etc. reflect on the soul. They increase the chance that somebody lets himself go mentally and spiritually. Thus, an unclean Dojo undermines its actual purpose: to serve as the place for the practice of Do.
Humility: To understand the efforts of others like cleaning also means to understand how dependent we all are. Joint cleaning turns peasants and lords into equals. We cannot live without others and nobody is an island. Therefore, we have to be humble and take a step back from our claims and our sense of entitlement. Instead, we should just clean the floor.
Evanescence: To clean means to connect and to deal with the evanescence of the world. After a hard Keiko, the floor is dirty. It is the natural process of deterioration and pollution. Souji requires to acknowledge this evanescence and to work against it. Instead of giving up against an unbeatable enemy, the evanescence, the cleaner chooses life and resistance in order to recreate the former pure status.
Joint experience: Like in every joint ritual the aspect of a collective experience is important. To Souji together means to bond, to share, and to show solidarity. A Dojo is a place of people. While everybody must go the Karate Do by himself, we all need fellows, who accompany us, help us, criticize us, pick us up when we are down, on who we can rely on, who push us, give us feedback, and have a drink together with us every now and then. Celebrating together creates a strong foundation for a group. But to get on the knees together to take care of the Dojo and working for its purification is practiced Karate Do in a collective action. That will lead to a real bond and a Karate family within a Dojo.
Do you regularly clean your Dojo? If not, the Souji Do might we worth trying.
Karate-Do Kyohan is one of the foundational works about Shotokan Karate Do by Gichin Funakoshi. Last year, Laurent Poliquin published a new facsimile reprint. Gichin Funakoshi expert Henning Wittwer reviewed the book for us.
Karate-Do Kyohan Facsimile Reprint
Some time ago I was asked by The Dojo to review a “new” book by Gichin Funakoshi (1868–1957). I thought my task would be to check the Japanese to English translation and share my opinion on that matter, since I wrote earlier about some translation problems in Funakoshi’s biography. However, when I received the book, I was baffled. While the cover is in English, the content turned out to be Japanese. I found that strange. Would it not be more logical to publish a Japanese work with a Japanese title?
The cover proclaims that the book is a “facsimile reprint of the original 1935 edition” of Funakoshi’s 1935 Karate-dō Kyōhan. I made out an English “foreword” by Laurent Poliquin, who identifies as “senpai” and a member of a karate organisation, which turned out to be one of the many derivatives of JKA. The reason he wrote the forward is unclear to me. Is he the person responsible for the facsimile reprint copy? The copyright of the book refers not to him but a company in Canada.
Objections to the Forward
In the “foreword” Poliquin tries to connect the facsimile reprint copy with the previously published English edition by Ōshima Tsutomu, and a translation done by Harumi Suzuki-Johnston in 2005. Poliquin is quick in pointing out that the two English versions did not have the benefit of a “revision by the author.” He wrongly claims that some of the content of Ōshima’s English edition has been altered. While this seems to be true when we compare it with the early editions of Funakoshi’s Kyōhan one has to understand that Ōshima translated a 1958 version of Funakoshi’s work that was finished during the lifetime of the author. Ōshima decided to include some parts of the 1935 edition to enhance the content.
Another uninformed claim by Poliquin is that the Suzuki-Johnston edition is a close reproduction of the 1935 version of Kyōhan. While this is what the advertisement states, in truth it is based on a Japanese reprint from 1985, not identical to the first edition as it claims.
The Page Order of Karate-Do Kyohan
First, the pages were “adapted” so that one can turn over the leaves in the “western” way, which means one reads the left page first and continues with its facing right page next. This works in theory only in this case, since the Japanese version is an old-style book intended to be read from the right to the left page. This reversed order of the original Japanese pages results in creating an awkward reading experience. To give an easy to understand example I simply refer to the photos for the kata Heian Shodan, which are presented side by side in the order of the kata. In the Japanese original the order of the photos is:
4 – 3 – 2 – 1 ←
This makes perfect sense if one reads it as intended from right to left, which everyone able to read Japanese would do. However, in the facsimile reprint copy the order of the photos from left to right is:
→ 2 – 1 – 4 – 3
So even if one is able to recognize the Japanese numbers for the sequence of the photos, one has to concentrate in order to understand the intended flow of the illustrations, which is mixed up now. In fact, already looking for the original page numbers turns out to be difficult since they are in the middle of the fold, just one example of how the printing quality of the facsimile reprint reminds me of cheap photocopies.
The Digital Version of the Karate-Do Kyohan
Since I was asked to review this book, I have to emphasize one important point. Years ago, a digital version of Funakoshi’s Kyōhan appeared online, which is what the publisher of this facsimile reprint copy appears to have copied, although the publisher does not mention this.
For example, Ogasawara Naganari (1867–1958) presented Funakoshi with a beautiful calligraphy. A photo of it appears in Funakoshi’s Kyōhan. In the digital version two little paper marks can be seen in the upper part of this picture. Naturally these paper marks are absent in other exemplars of the Kyōhan. Yet, one can see them in facsimile reprint.
Similarly, the photo illustrating the hand weapon “ippon–nukite” in the digital version shows a scratch on the back of the hand as well as a white circle bottom corner. The same signs appear in the facsimile reprint.
Finally, notice to the seals at the imprint of the book. If one compares the position of the seals in the digital version with the facsimile reprint copy one notes that they are identical.
This means that the editor of facsimile reprint copy simply makes profit out of an initiative to advance academic research in karate. The result of such behaviour is that other researchers or institutions will be more hesitant to share the fruits of their labor in the future.
About the Author
Henning Wittwer took up his karate practice in 1992. From the beginning he followed the Shotokan current, initially in the more sport and tournament orientated organizations. Since 2005 he published his translations of old Japanese sources and his research regarding karate in German as well as in English journals and magazines. Wittwer is the author of many books. For his English books please see Amazon.
TAISEI belongs to the most popular Karate Gi brands in Japan. However, the premium Karate Gi manufacturer is almost unknown in the West despite famous brand ambassadors like Tadashi Ishikawa (8th Dan) from JKS. The Dojo is going to change this now. “Together with our distribution partner SaikoSports are we going to offer three of TAISEI´s premium Karate Gis in our The Dojo Shop: KAZE, MIZU, and HI“, says Dr. Christian Tribowski, managing director of The Dojo. Read here the full story about TAISEI and what makes their Karate Gis so special.
TAISEI: The Story
In Japanese Dojos we see TAISEI’s karate suits everywhere … serious and disciplined Karateka in perfectly fitting Keikogis. We could feel the tension in the air. And the aesthetics of their movements is still persistent in our mind.
Dr. Philipp Lang, Managing Director, SaikoSports
TAISEI means “peaceful life,” said Kenzo Takasu, smiling but firmly. Mr. Takasu is the owner and master tailor of TAISEI. He started karate over 40 years ago and still trains himself. But right from the start of his Karate life, Mr. Takasu was confronted with a major problem for Karatekas: bad fitting Keikogis. Luckily Mr. Takasu is a master tailor by training. So, he decided to utilize his skills to solve this problem.
For several years, he improved his own Karate Gis by changing their shapes and sizes in order to make them more comfortable and visually appealing. During that time, he gained a lot of experience about the optimal cut and the perfect material for a Keikogi. He learned what it takes to create a Dogi that fits well, has an elegant and traditional design but is yet robust and long-lasting.
His improvements and redesigns of his Karate Gis even caused the interest of his Senseis. Therefore, he started to alter their Karate Gis, too. Not long after that, he also took care of the Keikogis for his fellow Karateka in his Dojo.
The demand for his alterations grew significantly. Due to this success and and because of his wish, to design own Dogis, he opened his own workshop in his home prefecture, Aichi, in central Japan. Here a very traditional Japanese building he designs and sews all Dogis by himself. For Mr. Takasu traditional designs and most comfortable but elegant cuts are of paramount importance.
His Karate Gis even caused the attention of Karatekas far beyond Aichi. Today, TAISEI officially supplies one of the biggest Karate associations in Japan. Renowned grand master Tadashi Ishikawa (8th Dan) of the JKS is one of the most prominent ambassadors of the TAISEI Karate Gis.
Mr. Takasu is very happy about the endorsement of by Karate grand masters like Shihan Ishikawa. He says that his craft, like karate, is one of the few constants in our fast paced life’s. The master himself, however, is at rest. He sings songs during his work and still using his JUKI sewing machine. Seeking always perfection and premium quality in his work he puts the values of Karate-Do into every handmade Dogi. The new owner should feel the spirit in every part of the Keikogi.
What makes TAISEI different!
The key to optimal Karate training lies, on the one hand, in the execution of techniques. On the other hand, the fabric and cut of the Karate Gi is also very important. It must perfectly fit, give enough freedom to move, and must look good. It also must be manufactured under humane and ecological sustainable conditions. Then, a Karateka can fully concentrate on karate training. “
Dr. Philipp Lang, Managing Director, SaikoSports
Three major features make TAISEI Dogis special and different:
Triangle Cut: It makes the Karate techniques faster and more precise without resistance.
Japanese Blue-White Effect: The Karate Gi stays longer white.
180° Movement of Legs: Guarantees absolute freedom for the legs in Karate training.
Beside that, TAISEI Keikogis distinguish themselves from other brands through some more features. The traditional Japanese cut of TAISEI is the result of decades of experience by Mr. Takasu. He has compared cuts of other brands to find the best fit for Karate training. The different Karate Gis, TAISEI offers, differ mainly regarding their fabric thickness: HI (13 ounces), MIZU (11 ounces), and KAZE (9 ounces).
The special cut enables absolute freedom of movement for the arms thanks to the high seam under the armpits. How high the level of craftsmanship of Mr. Takasu is can be observed at the seams of the suits. They are processed from the inside out and have a barely noticeable inner web. Every Dogi comes with an integrated inlay in the upper back area.
All Karate Gis are made in Japan and from 100% pure and high quality cotton (original canvas cotton). That gives the suit an impressive and inimitable sound.
No Difference between Kata and Kumite!
Another major feature of TAISE GIs is that there is no difference between Kata or Kumite Gis. All Karate Gis come with a traditional cut.
However, heavy Karate Gis are often preferred for Kata. Light ones, on the other hand, fit better to Kumite. TAISEI offers Karate Gis between 9 and 13 ounces.
Karate@Home has filled a void. Online classes have long been a taboo in Karate – especially in traditional Karate. Serious instructors did not teach online. That was the common sense until recently. Karate would need physical contact and online classes would lead to the McDojoization of Karate. The result was a wide field of dubious online Karate providers in the internet but no serious and professional supply of seminars and classes. Some McDojo´s even advertised their seminars with absurd promises like “Black Belt in 100 Days!” For the wast majority of Karateka online classes were, therefore, off-limits.
However, the global COV-19 outbreak and the official measures to deal with the pandemic like social distancing and prohibition of contact sports made it impossible to train together in a Dojo. Within a few weeks and sometimes days Dojos had to shut down their operations and cities and whole countries went into lock down. Joint training sessions and classes became unthinkable for month. And nobody knew when the Dojos would reopen again.
How has Karate@Home emerged?
Instead of waiting until the end of the pandemic, some proactive instructors and Karateka took the opportunity and moved their classes online. They wanted to offer their students and members at least a bit of training and relief from the uncertain and stressful situation.
So did Martin Buchstaller, 5th Dan from the Cologne, Germany, former member of the German national team and former president of the German JKA branch DJKB. He streamed his first online class on Facebook on March 19, 2020. It came as a surprise for him that besides his students many of his Karate friends from around the world joint the training while they were locked in their homes.
Among them was a friend of Martin, Nadja Koerner, 3th Dan, also former German national team member and currently based with her husband in the USA. Due to the positive feedback Martin received both teamed up and decided to create an online Dojo on Facebook. The name Karate@Home suggested itself because most parts of the world had to stay at home. Therefore, the living room, the home office, or the bed room turned into a Dojo for the desperate Karateka.
Martin and Nadja described their motivation for the creation of Karate@Home as follows: “We’re trying to help in his challenging time of the virus. People have to stay at home and they are afraid of loosing family members and friends.” Their online classes, therefore, offered a relief and kept Karateka training despite the hardship of the pandemic.
How does Karate@Home work?
Today, Karate@Home offers a Facebook page, a Youtube channel, and Instagram account. Interested Karateka can watch previous training sessions and discuss their most favorite hobby: Karate. The center of gravitation, however, is the Karate@Home Facebook group with more than 15,600 members from over 110 countries. Here Karateka can find a calendar for the daily online Karate classes, further information, and the watch parties in which the training sessions take place. Everyday, one 1-hour session is offered. The instructors, who lead the seminars, come also from all over the world. Talented but less prominent instructor teach classes as well as prominent instructors like Shinji Akita, Yoshinobu Ohta, Don Sharp, and Shane Dorfman.
After deciding to start the Karate@Home project Nadja and Martin reached out to their vast network. “We rallied our network and had soon a full schedule of top instructors (former world champion from Canada, chief instructor JKA England, Sweden, Norway, etc) till the end of the May.” Since May, the network has grown. Talented but less prominent instructor teach classes as well as prominent instructors like Shinji Akita, Yoshinobu Ohta, Don Sharp, and Shane Dorfman. They even managed to organize an online class with Lyoto and one with Chinzo Machida.
The Costs of Karate@Home
Nadja and Martin conceive Karate@Home as a Shotokan-only, non-political, non-profit, and despite the JKA logo in their official brand logo “Karate@Home” non-association based community. That means that both handle the whole work and project just by themselves without external money or manpower. And yet: all classes can be taken for free.
Therefore, Nadja and Martin shoulder the costs like tremendous work hours and expenses of Karate@Home by themselves. Martin commented, for instance: “I only slept 3 hours per night during the first 4 weeks. After I arrived home from the office, I had to announce the instructors online, took part in the sessions, said thank you to the instructor and went back to the computer to organize the next day class.” The amount of passion, determination, and the readiness to make sacrifices to start and run Karate@Home has been enormous.
And Nadja and Martin still show there gratitude. Every instructor, who has taught a Karate@Home classes, receives a certificate in a classical Japanese look.
Faster than the Big Associations
But their determination and willingness to go the extra mile during a global health crises has paid-off. On the one hand, Karate@Home gave many Karate practitioners hope, relief, a community, and a sense of doing something during the difficult times at home.
On the other hand, it has proven that a serious online Karate concept can work. While, of course, it cannot replace real life interactions in a Dojo, it makes it possible to train with instructors from all over the global without the burden of flying and high expenses for airfare, accommodation, seminar fees, and food. By utilizing the means of digital media. All it requires is a strict sense of quality or, as Nadja and Martin say: “certain standards”.
By doing so Karate@Home has even shown the big Shotokan associations what is possible. Especially the JKA has set up its online program only recently. Without a doubt Karate@Home started quick-and-dirty (a common phrase in the world of digital startups). It had the advantage that it did not have to consider established structures like associations have to. It could start from scratch. But to utilize this advantage and to make things like an online Dojo possible it takes courage, ingenuity, pragmatism, and team work – and very little sleep.
What are Future Challenges for Karate@Home?
But will the success story go on? Karate@Home has established itself as a serious player in the online Karate field. Like every organization or social movement it also faces some challenges which it has to overcome or, at least, has to manage. What are these challenges? We think there are at least three.
Will the Interest in Online Karate be the same after COV-19?
Time will tell. But Karate@Home did not require large investments. So even when the curve of interest flattens the losses will be small. A small poll among their members in their Facebook group suggests that their will be Karateka interested in online Seminars even after COV-19. How big this group will be is uncertain and has to be tested.
However, Nadja and Martin have already plans for the post-COV-19 era. One is to visit every instructor, who taught a Karate@Home class. Considering the roughly 100 instructors they hosted so far, this will be a challenges in itself – but a rather nice one. Beside that they plan 3-day Karate weekend boot camps. One boot camp took already place. The concept behind the boot camps is to bring instructors and students together. So, every camp will host a few instructors. Hence, Karate@Home will branch out into the field of offline seminars in real life.
Will Karate@Home stay Non-Profit?
Today, Karate@Home is not a non-profit. It is simply for free. Martin and Nadja do not charge money. Thus, they question must be: Will it become a non-profit? The difference between a non- and a for-profit organization is the following: A non-profit charges only as much money as it needs to maintain its structure and operations. A for-profit organization also charges that amount of money and everything else it can get.
Considering the time and money Karate@Home has spent for the global Shotokan community so far, it seems legit and necessary that it becomes a non-profit in order to to grow and to maintain the professional standards it has established.
Will the Big Associations tolerate Karate@Home?
The market for real life Karate seminars was already saturated before COV-19. Japanese and non-Japanese instructors offered regularly seminars. The amount of seminars was so high that in some cases even overlaps took place where one Japanese instructor taught in the same country or state on the same weekend as another Japanese instructor. Conflicts about the best dates took place and angry instructors and organizers blamed each other to behave unfair by not informing each other upfront.
The market for online classes has only recently emerged and Karate@Home used its first mover advantage and established itself as a serious player. However, one can doubt that the incumbent instructors and associations will give away shares of the tight seminar market to a new challenger voluntarily. We can only hope that Karate@Home does not enter unintentionally a realm it actually wanted to stay away from: politics.
What are Future Chances for Karate@Home?
Despite the challenges Karate@Home has even more chances and opportunities. What are those?
Opening up to other Styles!
At first, Karate@Home could include other Karate styles. This would consequential because its name is not Shotokan@Home. While many Karateka might hesitate to visit a Dojo or seminar of a different style they might be willing to take part in an online seminar. The barriers of entry are much lower online than offline. Karate@Home could, therefore, become an integrative Karate seminar platform that offers the full range of styles and brings the global Karate community closer together.
Second, Karate@Home could offer special seminars for special purposes and aims like Kumite, Kihon, Kata as well as test and competition preparation. The specialization offers a good way to serve the needs of Karateka. And it also makes the seminars more predictable for students. They know upfront what to expect and can prepare themselves for the class.
Last but not least, Karate@Home could become a non-profit organization with a structure and operations. This would give Nadja and Martin the leverage to develop a professional system with a division of labor and volunteers who seek to engage. To keep it free of politics the organization could adapt the form of a foundation with a clear aim and structure. Then it could also collect member fees, apply for public funding, and would have a legal representation. It would also release Nadja and Martin from the burden of managing and organizing everything because many more shoulders could carry the foundation.
On the other hand, it would guarantee the future of Karate@Home. Because social movements have the the advantage of being fast. But there are to sides of the same coin. They appear very fast and they disappear fast. A selfsustaining organization would, therefore, be a next step worth to consider.
However, we wish that Karate@Home has come to stay and we say thank you to Nadja and Martin for they service to the Karate community!
Violence prevention is a major part of Karate. The one who trains in Karatebecomes less prone to be violent. The reason for this is that Karate comprises of two aspects other sports usually do not offer: The experience of controlled violence as an attacker and defender as well as the regulated setting for learning how to deal with violence. A good Karate education with regular Kumite makes children, adolescents, and adults less violent. Therefore, more fights in the Dojo means less fight in the streets. By Thomas Prediger
The Violence Prevention Paradox of Kumite
From a violence prevention standpoint this may sound odd: more fights in the Dojo leads to less fights in the street. But every experienced Karate teacher will make the same observation. Let’s say, for example, that an aggressive and violent adolescent joins a dojo. The young person has difficulties controlling his anger and gets into fights on a regular basis. But after some months or years the adolescent calms down, gets more control over himself, and starts reacting less emotionally and more rationally in stressful situations.
One school teacher reported to me recently: “We can clearly see which students attend the Karate group in our school, and which do not. The ones who train Karate twice a week have become calmer, even when they are provoked or bullied. Even when another student hits them they maintain their cool and do not let the situation slip out of their hands. One year ago, they would go ballistic.”
No child, teenager, or adult from an unstable and challenging background with many years of experiencing violence will become Gandhi over night. But Kumite helps them to understand themselves and violence in all its facets. Eventually, they learn life-skills “that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life” (WHO 2012: 29) and which aggressive and violent people lack most of the time.
Kumite: Violence in a Structured Environment
What is the concept of violence in Karate and Kumite? At first, one experiences violence through physical pressure and contact. When two Karateka face each other even in the simplest form of Kumite like Gohan Kumite, the Uke (defender) has to defend his or her position. Tori, the attacker, has to put pressure on Uke by attacking with speed and power. The more advanced the Karateka become, the higher the likelihood that an unblocked attack will cause pain and injuries.
However, Kumite takes place in a very structured environment, unlike a street fight. Adherence to rules prevent the Kumite from becoming a brawl. They are structured in a way to evoke certain actions.
Kumite as Role Play
Gohon, Sanbon, Kihon Ippon, and Jiyu Ippon Kumite are all settings for role play. One plays the role of Uke, while another plays the role of Tori. Both roles are equally important. One has to execute violence in order to understand what happens when one does it. Especially in Kihon and Jiyu Ippon Kumite one also has the role to take and to cope with violence inflicted on oneself. In such a situation one cannot act based on raw instincts. First, Uke has to analyze and understand the situation. Second, Uke has to react within a prescribed set of techniques.
This role play offers an interesting insight: The Karateka cannot avoid the situation. Thus, he or she has to deal with it. Through this pattern, Karateka learn to deal and experience both roles: Being an attacker and being a defender.
The outcome is twofold: They see what happens when they apply violence, and they experience what happens inside them when they become a recipient of violence.
Introspection and Self-reflection
To master this inner state of uncertainty, any Karateka will need Kihon training. During Kihon, which requires introspection and self-reflection, they become aware of their own physical and mental processes.
But the prerequisite for the deeper understanding of violence is physical contact. Tori must step into the physical comfort zone of Uke. One must learn to deal with the intruder, and not become stressed by the opponents behavior. Especially at the beginning, Gohon Kumite requires courage. One must stand and wait until Tori attacks. Uke is not allowed to retreat or flee. So, Tori sets the pace. Thus, Uke must control his or her impulses and reactions. Maybe the intuitive reaction would be to run away or to attack. Both are prohibited.
The highest form of the role play is Randori like Jiyu Kumite. It increases the complexity and degrees of freedom for both Karateka. It is a double-role setting where both Karateka are Uke and Tori at the same time. Depending on the rules, dangerous punches and kicks are allowed. Hence, Randori requires experience and skill to manage one’s emotions and impulses to be successful. It is not a brawl. The winner will be the Karateka who manages the unpredictability of the fight, not the most aggressive one. Literally translated, Randori means “chaos taking.”
During training the Karateka will become acquainted with different violence situations. The exposure to violence in a controlled setting trains their understanding of violence.
The Role of the Instructor in Kumite Training for Violence Prevention
What is the role of the insctructor during the process? Karate is rule-based, but not self-structured. Thus, the instructor has at least two functions:
First, the instructor must be trustworthy and a role model. Students will follow when they believe that the instructor has experienced what he or she teaches.
Second, the instructor must recognize when situations become too intense. Then, the instructor has to intervene immediately. That does not mean that the instructor stops the exercise. Rather, it means to redirect the rising tension. The instructor has to create situations that push the students out of their comfort zone so that they experience some stress. That requires some experience and education on the part of the instructor.
A good Karate instructor is, therefore, somebody who knows situations of high emotional and cognitive uncertainty for Karate students. That counts even more for students with a history of violence as an aggressor and/or victim.
Kumite teaches Life-Skills, which lead to Violence Prevention
What actually happens to a Karateka during Karate and Kumite training that leads to violence prevention? They learn, improve, and strengthen their life skills. In its briefing about Violence Prevention from 2012 the World Health Organization ranks life skills as one of seven major factors for the reduction of violence. But what does the phrase “life skills” mean? According to the WHO they mean:
“abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” (p. 29)
The list of life skills that prevent violence:
Self-Awareness: self-esteem and confidence building, self-monitoring, self-evaluation, goal setting, etc;
Self-Management: anger and stress management, time management, coping skills, controlling impulses, relaxation, etc;
Social Awareness: empathy, active listening, recognizing and appreciating individual and group differences, etc;
Responsible Decision-Making: Information gathering, critical thinking, and evaluating consequences of actions
Karate is one piece of a larger puzzle. All these life skills become habits during Karate and especially Kumite training. But it further depends on the social environment where a student is embedded, relationships to parents and caregivers, etc. But through Karate’s focus on etiquette and ethics, as stipulated in the Dojo kun and Niju kun, regular training can have a specific effect on violence prevention. Karate has the potential to create a value system for students in how to behave and abstain in violent situations.
Children and Adults Learn to Cope with Violence
Karate training has a high education value for children. They are a tabula rasa and must learn to judge their own feelings. The concept of violence is abstract for them. They know that violence in any form is uncomfortable.
But it also holds a high value for adults and violence. For Adults, who have had already experienced violence as a victor or aggressor, can also gain a more productive relationship to it. Most of the time they are blocked to talk and reflect about it because societal rules declare violence to be a taboo. This attitude leads to a counterproductive effect: It creates enormous inner tension that can lead to more physical violence. However, this tension has to leave the body and mind. Karate offers a relief and teaches the life skills to cope with it. Hence it has a huge effect on violence prevention.
Conclusion: Kumite and Violence Prevention
Violence stems from, among other factors, a lack of life skills. Karate teaches these life skills, and does so in a structured and controlled violent setting. Karateka learn through their education to deal with violence, to feel empathy, to understand the consequences, to control their fears and aggression, and to resist pressure.
In Kumite they develop these skills in actual violent situations in order to control and tame the violence. They training of Kumite mitigates violence instead of increasing it. Therefore, Karate has a huge potential for violence prevention and is a active means to help individuals to “deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” Hence, the paradox of more fights in the Dojo leads to less fights in the street dissolves. Violence prevention does not mean eradicating it, but rather, civilizing and developing an educated relationship to it.