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Makiwara Monday: The Makiwara Pad to-go

Usually, a makiwara is a stationary thing. However, a little bit of ingenuity and robe can turn a regular punching pad into an efficient and mobile makiwara solution. The advantage is that a training partner can hold the makiwara and constantly change angles, resistance, distance etc. Thus, makiwara training becomes more flexible and exciting.

How such a solution could look like can be seen in the following video by Dojo Takahashi Kazuo.

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Makiwara Monday: A Variety of Techniques from Kazakhstan

We have featured Adios Underbayev in the Makiwara Monday section several times before. Aidos has a passion for the Makiwara and his splendid technique shows who familiar he is with the tool.

In this video series he presents us several makiwara techniques. His routine thereby goes far beyond Gyaku-zukis.

Which techniques do you train on the Makiwara? And which of Adios suggestions do you like the most?

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Makiwara Monday: Board Breaking with Ippei Kamae

Board Breaking at its best. Who ever questioned the reward of makiwara training should be invited to watch the following video by Ippei Kamae. Ippei is a makiwara enthusiast and trains regularly on it. This constant training has given him huge punching power combined with tough nucles.

As a result, he to break wooden board poses no challenge for him. To test his strength he accepted the challenge in the Aoyama Karate Club to break two thick wooden boards during training a few weeks ago. The thickness was judged by his cat, named Oss.

Oss judges the board, Ippei Kamae is about to break.
Oss judges the thickness of the wooden boards. “Thick enough”, he commented.

As you can see in the video, Ippei Kamae has no difficulties to break the two boards. After a brief preparation and positioning, he goes strait to the punch. Two karateka had to hold the boards so that he could break them. He punched from a very relaxed posture with a smooth gyaku-zuki. Without much force the punch hits the target with high efficiency and accuracy. His constant makiwara training has, therefore, resulted in an excellent punching technique and power.

Congratulstions, Ippei!

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Makiwara – The Return of the Karate Tool

The makiwara is an important tool for karateka. But most have it almost forgotten. However, it seems to on the verge to return to the dojos. By Michael Ehrenreich

The Makiwara is a piece of wood with padding. This is what a makiwara consists of: a post and some padding, which is traditionally a roll of rice straw attached to the top of the post. In addition, this is also where the name derives from, maki for roll and wara for straw.

What is a Makiwara?

The makiwara originated from Okinawa where, with very little natural resources, they do have wood or rice straw. The length and the width of the posts vary but ideally reach about head level and are at least 12 cm (about 5 inches) wide. The resistance of the posts varies also, from not giving at all (good when hitting combinations) to flexing on impact. For the post oak, cherry, maple, walnut, or just plain pine are the most common types of wood. The padding is usually foam rubber covered with leather or wrapped with duct tape. Some people still go with the traditional straw pads. The posts are than attached to a wall or driven into the ground.

My Beginnings With the Makiwara

Over time and through the length of my karate career, the makiwara had vanished from most dojos. That is true for western countries as well as Japan. At least when it comes to Shotokan karate. As a result, the makiwara became almost a myth. The first generation of karateka in Germany still hit this wooden post, but it had long disappeared when I started with karate in the late 1970s. Then one day this guy showed up at our dojo, Siegfried Trapp was his name, and he had brought with him a makiwara. His goal was to market his version of a makiwara and he gave us one to try it out. Well, that was in the mid-1980s and you can image his success rate. I never saw him again. But at least our dojo had its first makiwara.

It was the time when sport karate started to get more popular. With weight classes, protection gear all around the body, and a multiple point system, there was clearly no need for this kind of training equipment. And who needs a makiwara for belt tests anyway? As a result, the makiwara was plainly uncool. When people saw me hitting the post, they would only give me a pitiful smile. Maybe even try to get me some professional help. I kept hitting the makiwara anyway; I was hooked for life.

Limited Knowledge and an Okinawa Master

Back then I practiced the only way I knew, by throwing gyaku zukis with both sides and a lot of them. A regular karate class would run 90 minutes and so I would hit the makiwara for almost that long, after warming up a little. In the early 1990s Sakumoto Tsuguo, a former kata champion from Okinawa, was staying for one year in Cologne. Ochi Hideo, the German national trainer at that time, told me to take care of him and so I did. We practiced almost daily together at our dojo, the Sportcenter Bushido in Cologne, headed by the late Horst Handel. We lifted weights and, of course, hit the makiwara.

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First thing Sakumoto did, though, was change the padding. He bought a wooden board, about 30 cm (about 12 inches) long and wrapped a rope around it. That was our pad. Imagine my knuckles after the first practice.  (After Sakumoto had left Germany it took months to get them back into their original shape.)

Techniques From a Short Distance

However, the other thing he introduced me to were techniques from a short distance. Punches, but also strikes. I wasn’t convinced at first. You know, he was a rather short man from Okinawa, a kata guy. So, he was thankfully very patient with me. Firstly, he gave me a demonstration. He had me tightening my abs and then hit me with his flat hand from a distance of about 5cm (2 in.). Now he got my attention and for the next few days I would witness all imaginable discolorations appearing on my stomach. So, I started hitting short techniques as well.

Why I Changed My Makiwara Training

As a result, I had changed the intensity of my makiwara training. Instead of hitting non-stop for 90 minutes, I went with 10 repetitions and varying number of sets. As a sports major I took some inspiration from weight and athletic training, especially from track and field coaches. I was also competing in the shobu-ippon-system. So, I focused on punches and hit 10 gyaku zuki alternating right and left and repeated that a second time. Then I took a 1-minute break.

The idea behind the breaks were that I was able to hit at 100% until the very last punch. These two rounds made one set, with 10 sets in all. After gyaku zuki I hit tate zuki (straight punch from a shorter distance with a vertical fist) with the same structure but only in 5 sets. That resulted in a total of 300 punches for each side. I did this program 3-times a week. My goal here as a competitor was to be able to stop any opponent, also much heavier ones. I was part of the JKA-group and we didn’t have weight classes. Meaning, I would encounter heavier fighters, the biggest I faced off with was about 40kg (90lbs) heavier than me. This program worked well for me.

A Variety of Techniques

As I mentioned above, Sakumoto also introduced me to strikes. After retiring as a competitor, I added those to my program. All kind of strikes, shuto uchi (knife hand strike), teisho uchi (palm heel strike), haito uchi (ridge hand strike) etc. I also kicked with mae geri, added combinations and did some techniques gliding towards the makiwara. I added different punches, yama zuki and kage zuki for instance, hook punches from above or a different angle.

Less Repetitions But 100% Focus

Over the years I have been doing less repetitions. But I still hit the makiwara 3-4 times a week. I still go with the 10-repetition structure but usually only with 3 sets. With 7-8 different techniques each time, that makes 200-250 punches or strikes with each side. Working on my hitting power is still my goal, so I hit each time with 100%. But I also want to include more muscle groups in my workout with the makiwara. Training in a more balanced way. So I hit from different distances, angles, and with a bigger variety of techniques.

How do we get the most out of our makiwara training? The characteristic of the makiwara is the increasing resistance on impact. That means, the best way to use this karate tool is to hit with thrust techniques. Techniques that go deep into the target. We would therefore hit from a distance that allows us to hit deep.

Makiwara Gives You Direct Feedback

The makiwaras’ big advantage is its direct feedback. It tells us immediately if there is anything wrong with our techniques. Positioning of the joints, hitting with the wrong body part (hitting too much with our fingers instead of the basic joint when doing haito uchi), unstable stance, etc. To make use of this immediate response of our wooden coach, we stay a little longer than usual on impact. This gives us the necessary time to control our posture. With more experience we shorten this time on impact. With more experience we also look behind the target, in the distance. This prevents us from looking only at the target and helps us make use of a more peripheral vision. Adjusting the vision behind the target will further help us hitting deeper into the target.

The most important aspect of a karate technique is that it must hit an opponent in order to eliminate him, the opponent who doesn’t want to get hit and even fights back. If the opponent sees our technique coming, we are not fast enough! So, we always focus on an explosive acceleration first and a strong technique at impact. This is important, also when working with the makiwara! We need to stay sharp! Until the last strike.

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Always start with lightening speed and then hit with a strong impact! We call this power, speed and strength. Don’t fall into this rhythm that works with an even, rather slow speed. Sadly, that is the one we often witness. That is a rhythm that relaxes us more than it forces us to work harder. So, stay sharp and stay focused the whole time! Use speed and strength to increase your hitting power. Especially when working with the makiwara.

Hitting From a Fighting Position

Most beginners will go through the whole range of movement and start their techniques from the hips, as in basics. There is nothing wrong with that. But eventually we should advance from that starting position and hit from a fighting position. When doing so, and especially when hitting from a very close distance, make sure to hit directly towards the target, do not wind up.

Some advice for more experienced karateka. Hit the makiwara with the intention to do some damage. Hit target oriented, don’t be concerned with technical issues. If you do punches, think about your knuckles and the target. Knuckles – target, knuckles – target…Then get the knuckles as fast and as strong as possible into the target. That also means starting the attack from your fist, not from your hips! This is an important point. The fist starts first, and the rest of the body needs to catch up and unites at impact. If you start with a hip motion you will give the opponent more time to react.

The Focus Must be to Eliminate an Opponent

Remember, the makiwara is only a training tool to increase our hitting power in order to eliminate an opponent. The makiwara is a means to an end. It doesn’t help us to hit hard if an opponent sees it coming and is able to react. What I said here about punches is true for all techniques.

Further, add hitting while out of your ideal position, or when off balance. For instance, when you have a wooden floor, put on socks. Add movement to your strikes. Strike from an angle that might not allow the perfect support of your body. Change the time of day when working out. Hit the makiwara after your normal class, just when you’re exhausted. And if you are a competitor, add short punches. Even when you are not using those in competition. But as with sprinters who practice a lot of 10-30m (10-30 yard) sprints, your long punches will benefit from practicing short punches as well when you make sure to focus on a rapid acceleration.

Makiwara Will not Lead to Arthritis

Let me also touch here very briefly on a reappearing myth in karate. “Makiwara training is dangerous and will lead to arthritis.” This is nonsense! Makiwara training is no more dangerous than other work out programs. Just use common sense. Move forward progressively, start slow and easy with an increasing intensity over time. That way you will maximize your hitting power and toughen the body parts you hit with, without getting injured.

In my first book I also have a chapter about makiwara training. When working on it, I talked to several physicians, all karateka, about makiwara and arthritis. Turns out, there is no correlation between these two! There is a strong genetic correlation though. If your parents and grandparents have or had arthritis, you are more likely to suffer from it too. There is also a correlation between joint injuries and arthritis. That is why it is so important to work out in a progressive way and stay focused throughout our workout. But this is true for all different kinds of workouts.

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The Renaissance Of The Makiwara

For a long time and for the past few decades, the makiwara was a tool that the karate world would despise. As mentioned before, it was considered uncool. I am not saying that working out with the makiwara is being regarded as cool now. We are not quite there yet. But the makiwara is being taken seriously again as an important training tool. I don’t know of any other tool to strengthen our hitting power as effectively as the makiwara. In addition, the makiwara increases our overall strength, without damaging the joints (like when hitting without impact).

The Makiwara Is a Honest Tool

In Japan, they say that hitting the makiwara will increase the density of our bones. If lifting weights increases our bone density, than it is likely that makiwara training does the same. The makiwara is an honest tool. It gives immediate and blunt feedback about the quality of our techniques. If we ask the right way. Maybe we karateka are ready for this kind of honesty again. The makiwara is a simple tool, just a piece of wood with some padding. It is a solid tool. In this time of rapid changes and constant stream of information, it is maybe this simplicity and solidity that will make a comeback for the makiwara. The makiwara is loyal. It is always there for us when training partners are absent. Honest and loyal, simple and solid – the makiwara, a traditional karate tool for our modern times!

More and more dojos are adding the makiwara to their equipment. I was even invited to teach a clinic solely on makiwara training the other day. People may still look at us confused (like my neighbors do) when they see us hitting the makiwara, but they don’t laugh at us anymore. So let’s keep hitting!

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“I beat the Makiwara 5.000 times per day”: Koichiro Okuma About his Daily Life and Favorite Hobby

We all admire Karate Instructors like Koichiro Okuma. Their excellent technique, fighting spirit, and charisma give them a superhuman aura. But who are Karate Instructors? How much do they train? Do they have other jobs beside Karate? How does a regular day in the life of a Karate Instructor look like? The Shotokan Times had the chance to interview one of the most renowned and world-wide known JKA Instructors: Koichiro Okuma. We talked with him about his morning routine, the long days of traveling, and his most favorite hobby. Learn more about the life of a Karate Instructor. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Morning Routine

Today, we would like to talk about your daily life as an JKA instructor, Okuma Sensei. May we start at the beginning: What do you do when you start your day?

Koichiro Okuma: I usually wake up at 5 am. In bed, I already begin with my preparation. I stretch and twist my body. I do little Mae Geris and relax my shoulders. After that, I go jogging.

How many kilometers do you run?

Koichiro Okuma: Not so many. My running starts more like walking into the park. That is not so hard. Then, I do intervals of 300 meters – fast, slow, fast, slow. I always speed up a little bit from interval to interval. In the end, that sums up to round about 3 kilometers. It is just a way for me to start the day, to wake up, and fix my body. It has no specific training purpose.

After that, I walk home. Back home, I have breakfast and drive to the JKA headquarter.

How long does it take you to go to the headquarter?

Koichiro Okuma: It is only 20 kilometers to the headquarter. We live a little bit outside of Tokyo. But you know, the heavy traffic in Japan. So, that is why it takes me one hour and a half by car. However, I do not want to take the subway (laughs). It is just too crowded with too many people.

Arriving at the JKA Headquarter

When do you arrive at the headquarter and what do you do then?

Koichiro Okuma: I arrive at 8:30 am. I open the headquarter because I am usually the first to arrive. Immediately after that, I start beating the Makiwara. Now, we have the hot season in Japan. Usually I beat the Makiwara 5.000 times every morning. 1.000 Ura-Ken, 3.000 Choku-Zuki in Kiba-Dachi, and 1.000 Gyaku-Zuki in Zenkutsu-Dachi. That is my Makiwara training.

JKA Headquarter in Tokyo: Okuma Sensei is usually the first in the morning to arrive.
JKA Headquarter in Tokyo: Okuma Sensei is usually the first in the morning at the headquarter.

You said, you do 5.000 punches in the summer. How many do you do in the winter?

Koichiro Okuma: More than 10.000 every day. Because in Japan, the summer season is very hot and wet with a high level of humidity. Even doing only 5.000 Zukis causes me to sweat a lot. I have also a big event every day, where I must attend: the instructor training. Therefore, I have to stay energetic and cannot exhaust myself.

  • Okuma Sensei: The myriad years of Makiwara training have made his knuckles hard like stone
  • Koichiro Okuma relaxes in a Cafe in Düsseldorf after the interview.

But between punching the Makiwara I also do snap routines for Mae Geri. I do 200 to 300 repetitions. Of course, not continuously. I always do sets of ten and squeeze them between the Makiwara punches. Because I have a knee problem. When I stay to long in one stance during the Makiwara routine, for instance, Zenkutsu-Dachi, my knee becomes very stiff.

Right after the Makiwara training, I also punch the heavy bag and do some Kata training. Some days, I practice Tekki Shodan, Nidan, and Sandan. On other days, I do the 15 mandatory basic Katas. Or I practice all Katas with a Dai and a Sho version like Gojushiho Dai and Gojushiho Sho. I decide about the Katas on a daily basis. I do not have a fixed routine.

Finally, I do a Kata with a stick sometimes. My master, Sensei Tatsuya Naka, gave me some instructions about stick fighting. That is why I also practice the Kata Shushi No Kon. Sometimes I also add a little bit of Kumite movements into my routine.

In sum, my whole morning routine, including the Makiwara and everything, takes 90 minutes.

Although he requires a lot from his students he also likes to have a good time during training. Koichiro Okuma in Germany.

10 am: Office Begins

What do you do after that?

Koichiro Okuma: Office starts at 10 am. I start to beat the Makiwara at 8:30 am. Right after my workout, I have to be in the office. The instructor training starts at 11 am. Before the instructor training, I need to finish some work. Thus, I need to go downstairs to the office.

I am in charge for the Department of International Affairs of the JKA. That is why I need to check emails and give instructions to the staff members. I have to advise them how to solve problems and how to execute tasks.

Okuma Senseis profil on the JKA website
Koichiro Okumas profil on the JKA website

Do you also have to take part in meetings etc.?

Koichiro Okuma: Yes, of course every now and then. If we hold a big event like a big tournament, I will take part in the planning. For instance, this year we are going to organize the Asia tournament. Therefore, I have to gather all the lists and we need to create a tournament program. We have to setup a schedule. But this goes not only for the tournaments. We have to come up with a schedule for the Gasshuku, too. So, we must create a system to execute these events. Of course, I cannot do all that by myself. That is why I give the orders to my employees in the department. One clerk and one young instructor support me with all that.

Instructor Training

And at 11 am, the instructor training start, right?

Koichiro Okuma: Yes! It takes between one and one and half hours. If it is shorter, then it will be even more intensive.

Ueki Sensei teaches the class sometimes. Sometimes, Imamura Sensei, Kobayashi Sensei, or Taniyama Sensei do it. They become appointed by the Chief Instructor.

Koichiro Okuma training at the Hobu Dojo

All the instructors, who are in Tokyo at that time, must take part in the training. The only reason for not joining the training is, if somebody is abroad. So, we train together every day. On average we are 15 to 20 people.

The training, by the way, is very hard. Very tough. Sometimes we only do Kihon, Kata or Kumite but it is always very tough.

Giving Karate Lessons

What do you do afterwards? It must be lunch time then, right?

Koichiro Okuma: After the instructor training, I take a shower, have lunch, and sometimes I take a nap. Then, I go back to the office.

At 3:30 pm I leave the headquarter to teach at Dokkyo University Karate Club, my alma mater, or at my own Dojo. My week goes like that: On Monday, I go to my University Dojo. On Tuesday, I teach in the headquarter. Wednesday, I teach at my Dojo in Tokyo. On Thursday, I am again in the University and on Friday I teach in my Dojo. Saturdays and Sundays are off. But sometimes I go to the University or I must judge at a tournament.

  • Okuma teaching the bunkai of Kanku Sho in Germany
  • Okuma Sensei The Ashi Barrai hits unexpected
  • Traveling abroad can become exhaustive but is also enriching
  • Okuma Sensei right in the middle of the training
  • Okuma Sensei: Constantly explaining techniques and educating his students
  • Okuma Senseis emphasize lies on quick techniques
  • Okuma Sensei shows the differents between Zukis
  • The Tekki Katas are among Okumas Senseis favorite Katas
  • Okuma Sensei with a some participants of the seminar.

When do you get back home on a regular day?

Koichiro Okuma: May be around 10 pm after the instructions. After the University, I will be at home at 8:30 pm. If I give training at my Dojo in Tokyo, I will be at home at 10 pm. Then, I have dinner and chat with my wife. And at 5 am I wake up again.

Traveling Abroad

But you also travel abroad a lot during the year, right? How many days do you travel?

Traveling abroad also means to meet good old friends: Koichiro Okuma Sensei with Keigo Shimizu Sensei.

Koichiro Okuma: Usually, more than 100 days per year. For instance, I was in Miami in January, in Greece in April, now Germany, right after that Morocco, Spain, and Belgium. Next month, I will be in Czech Republic. In August, the Asia tournament will take place in Thailand. From end of September to the beginning of October, I will be in South-Africa. In November, I will be on Mauritius and the Indian Ocean Islands. At the end of November, I will be in the Netherlands, too. After a short break in Japan, I will immediately fly to Mexico in November. That is the travel schedule for this year.

Do you have a golden frequent traveler card?

Koichiro Okuma: Maybe I will get it this year. But sometimes I get very cheap tickets. Thus, I cannot collect a lot of mileage. But this year, I will get the star alliance golden card! (smiles)

His Most Horrible Trip

As I can imagine the traveling is very exhaustive, right?

Koichiro Okuma: Yes! But I have a very funny story about my most horrible trip. 5 years ago, I had to travel around the globe. I had to travel to Norway first, then to Kenya and South Africa and finally Australia in one trip. So, I requested a world-tour ticket. Because they are cheaper than the single tickets. But the problem was that the ticket itinerary did not send me directly from Johannesburg to Australia. Instead, I was supposed to go first to John F. Kennedy Airport, New York. That took 15 hours from Johannesburg. Then, I had 3 hours transit until I had to catch a flight to Los Angeles. The flight was 6 hours from NYC to LA. But I had 11 transit in LA.

Look, my destination was Melbourne. Instead of going to Melbourne directly I also had a stop-over in Sydney. However, the flight from LA to Sydney was the most terrible one. I was seated in the last row. Left and right of me, were two very massive guys chatting and eating chips. I was squeezed between them. In order to survive this, I did the whole flight the beginning of Tekki Shodan. (laughs) That was my worst flight ever. In the end, it took me 2 days to go from South-Africa to Australia.

Koichiro Okuma teaching Heian Shodan in Germany.

Portable Makiwara

I can imagine that it is very difficult to maintain your daily schedule under such circumstances. What do you do in order to keep it at least a little bit?

Koichiro Okuma: Eventually, it is impossible. When I travel too much and start the Makiwara training again at home, my fists have become week in the meantime. Therefore, I cannot execute 5.000 punches at the Makiwara. Because of that I like to use a portable Makiwara. Either I punch the knuckles of both hands together or I use a stone. I have a small flat stone that I carry with me. I hold it in my palm while doing punches. Maybe I should get a Lava stone in the future! (laughs)

Fishing for Recreation

I guess that even an internationally renowned JKA instructor has spare time every now and then. What do you do then?

Koichiro Okuma: If I do not have any appointments, I will go fishing! (smile) My hobby is fishing. I am crazy about fishing. I have a small inflatable boot with a small engine. Of course, I will stay at the shore-line. I do not go very far out to the ocean. But I very enjoy to be on the ocean.

Aji (あじ) or Japanese horse mackerel is the favorite catch of Koichiro Okuma

I haven caught many fish so far. However, not the big fishes. I focus on Aji (Japanese horse mackerel), as we call the fish in Japan. Aji means “taste” in Japanese and the fish tastes very good. The fish is not that big – maximum 30 centimeters. That is why I use a very sensitive line and fish with a rod. All fish, I catch, I put into a cooling box with ice and seawater. I do not touch it. I use special equipment and put it right into the box. So, then the fish stays very fresh.

Sometimes, I prepare the fish for myself and my family. I turn it into Sashimi. If I catch a lot, I give them to my mother in law or University friends.

We wish you to catch many more fish in the future. Thank you very much for the interview, Koichiro Okuma Sensei!

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Classic: Keinosuke Enoeda and Fighting Spirit

Keinosuke Enoeda belonged to the generation of Shotokan masters, which understood karate as budo. Fighting and the spirit of Ikken hissatsu stood for them in the center of their karate do. Here I pay tribute to Keinosuke Enoedas fighting spirit. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to have a look into one of the books of Michael Ehrenreich. He argues in his book that the Karateka of the 50´s and 60´s were not the best technicians. However, their fighting power and spirit were much more advanced than today.

Rigorous Training as the Foundation for Fighting Spirit

The reason for this difference was the training regime. Makiwara training, self-defense and randori as well as a rigorous Kihon were the foundations of very tough fighters. The attitude towards fighting was also different. Ikken hissatsu, “killing with one blow”, was the dominant fighting strategy and philosophy. Practicing Shotokan Karate was a serious business and its purpose was to prevail in a street fight and to withstand several attackers at the same time. This rough training routine create very consequent and focused Karate personalities.

Happo Kumite with Shihan Enoeda

The following Kata and Happo Kumite demonstration by Shihan Keinosuke Enoeda shows this sort of mental focus and attitude towards fighting. His movements are powerful, consequent, and overwhelming. He does not play games. He fights for his life. That is how Shotokan should be taught!

Budo as the State of Mind for Shotokan Karate

Old masters stressed the budo aspect of Karate way more than today. In a recent interview, Soke Hirokazu Kanazawa also underlined the necessity to understand Shotokan as a “martial way”. Only such an approach leads to the positive and civilizing effects training can have. The mental state of Karateka and the way they deal with the constant changing circumstances of life stand for him in the center of Shotokan. Shihan Enoeda depicts this type of Karateka in an excellent way.

Full Biography of Keinosuke Enoeda

For a full biography of Shihan Enoeda visit the website of the Karate Union of Great Britain (KUGB). Shihan Enoeda was the chief instructor of the KUGB and had a sustainable influenced on British and European Shotokan Karate. He was among the  direct students of grand master Funakoshi and helped spread Shotokan Karate Do all over the world.

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We Fight the Way We Practice! Shotokan Karate as a Fighting Art

Is Shotokan karate a fighting art? It depends. Because the way we fight depends on our training routines. Therefore, Shotokan karateka must choose the right way to practice fighting. By Michael Ehrenreich

You can only fight the way you practice

Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy

If we travel through the Shotokan world we will observe a very common picture. All over the globe, Shotokan Karatekas commit to a very high level of technical skills. This commitment reflects the emphasis of the early (Japanese) instructors. Teaching proper techniques was at the center of their agenda. Over the course of the decades, it has been increasing. The reason for this development is the standardized set-up and structure of Shotokan classes. A strict regime like the trias of Kihon, Kata, and Kumite leads to technically highly skilled Karatekas eventually.

Our ability to fight, on the other hand, has been declining for decades. This is not a mystery. It is the direct outcome of the focus of Karate Training. Because we fight the way we practice!

What does fighting mean?

Fighting in Competitions

What do I mean by “fighting”? Firstly, there are different types of fighting in competitions. Different associations apply different fighting rules. I competed in the JKA-Shobu-Ippon system for over twenty years and I still like that way of competing the most. But there are many other forms and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. As a competitor, you need to practice depending on the requirements of the rule-system of our associations. While all systems share similarities, an athlete needs to focus on the distinct arrangements of his competition model or he will face disadvantages. Just as there are commonalities between football and rugby, the corresponding athletes will focus their practice towards the requirements of their discipline.

At the 1994 World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich in the 3rd round of the individual Kumite competition.
At the 1994 World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich in the 3rd round of the individual Kumite competition.

Fighting for Belt Tests

Secondly, we have “fighting” requirements for belt tests. The whole procedure is predetermined. Both partners know exactly what to do and what the other will do. Distance, timing, and often the techniques become defined up front. Distance in traditional competitions, means that the opponents are about one leg-length apart. The roles of the attacker and the defender determine the timing. The announcement of the attacker takes place in advance. We are usually required to apply a single attack, maintaining our position after the action and also keeping the distance. More often than not, the defender needs to move back a whole step, while blocking with one arm and countering with the other. This basic pattern is the same for all belt levels.

Michael Ehrenreich fighting against JKA Instructor Katsutoshi Shiina at the JKA World Championship
Michael Ehrenreich fighting against JKA Instructor Katsutoshi Shiina

Fighting for Self-Defense

Michael Ehrenreichs book "Selbstverteidigung" at Amazon
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Lastly, we have street fighting or self-defense. The situation here is unlike the ones previously described. It is dynamic and we do not know much in advance. The variables are always different; scenarios are constantly changing, and there are no rules.

In general, self-defense comprises four aspects. First, the distance in a self-defense situation includes the close-quarter (arms-length) distance. Second, hitting power is essential. Third, decisive action is an important asset. Fourth and foremost, there are risks for us of getting seriously injured or worse. Hence, the requirements of real fighting situations must have consequences for our karate practice.

For instance, the training distance must change. Physical action usually happens at very close striking distance, which would consequently require a certain set of techniques, such as close-quarter-strikes with the palm heel, elbow strikes, and strikes with our fingers, to name a few. When was the last time you practiced those with impact or in Randori?

Randori stands at the center of Michael Ehrenreichs Shotokan Karate. Only through Randori Karatekas learn to fight.
Randori stands at the center of Michael Ehrenreichs Shotokan Karate. Only through Randori Karatekas learn to fight.

When people come to Karate, they are only interested in the third form of Kumite. Very few are thinking about a career as a competitor. And even fewer will find it appealing to become an expert in Gohon Ippon Kumite.

Impact Training and Ikken Hissatsu in Shotokan Karate

Speaking of impact training, I’m very happy to see that regular training with Makiwara and pads is becoming common in practice once again in many Dojos. But there is more to Karate than just punches. Shotokan Karate gives us a variety of different techniques. For instance: Shoto Uchi. But a technique like this requires forging and strengthening by hitting the makiwara and pads.

Michael Ehrenreich on the right: Self-Defense must have a higher importance in Shotokan Karate or it will not be a fighting art.
Michael Ehrenreich on the right: Self-Defense must have a higher importance in Shotokan Karate or it will not be a fighting art.

Most experts agree that those who strike first in a real-life encounter have a higher chance of walking away as winners. If we accept this (and there will always be exceptions), then we need to take this into consideration for our Kumite practice. Fortunately, we already have the relevant guiding principle at hand in Shotokan Karate: Ikken Hissatsu – one strike, certain kill.

What is Ikken Hissatsu? The Foundation of a Fighting art

The idea behind this principle (which derives from the art of Japanese sword fighting and was adjusted to Karate by changing the character from “sword” to “fist” without changing the pronunciation) is that we need decisive action to be successful. That means attacking fast and furiously, surprising an attacker by attacking first and powerfully, and by putting all of our physical and mental strength into one attack. Of course, we cannot be sure that we finish off an opponent with one strike. But that is our ideal and guiding principle when establishing a Kumite program. Only then, Karate becomes again a fighting art.

All that has to happen in front of an uncertain situation. The German military strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his book “On War” that war (or a fight in general) is a field of uncertainty. Things always change and we must prepare to adjust to these ever changing situations. This is also something we need to include in our Karate curriculum.

At the Shoto World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich fighting against Junior Lefevre
At the Shoto World Cup: Michael Ehrenreich fighting against Junior Lefevre

Fighting Spirit in Shotokan Karate

The most important aspect in a fighting situation is our fighting spirit, i.e. our mental fortitude. All experts and instructors agree on that. But is fostering up a fighting spirit really part of our Karate practice? Do we purposely create programs to build-up something as essential as fighting spirit? Do our students possess the self-confidence required in a real-world encounter? Are they able to deal with a situation in which their heart-beat rises to 180 or above? Are they able to handle the stress of the situation, while keeping their ability to act?

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Self-confidence is just that: being able to act when under stress. It grows out of the assurance that you have gone through adequate training and figured out for ourselves how to handle a challenge or an opponent. Self-confidence emerges through realty-based scenarios practiced in Karate classes and a step-by-step program in learning how to deal with a threat. As closer a training resembles reality, as more likely we will succeed in building self-confidence and ultimately our fighting spirit. We fight the way we practice! So, as instructors we need to analyze the situation we have been training for and create a progressive Kumite program.

Michael Ehrenreich explains impact training
Michael Ehrenreich explains impact training

Not a Fighting Art: Gohon and Kihon Ippon Kumite

Karate classes and self-defense classes are two different things. That does not mean, however, that our Kumite practice should be totally removed from the reality of a fight. Why do we stick to Kumite drills that not only have nothing to do with reality, but form habits that put us in danger? For instance, stepping backwards, freezing after one step, maintaining the same distance, sticking to techniques we would not apply in a real fight, practicing always in the same, prearranged way. The idea that Kumite drills like Gohon Kumite or Kihon Ippon Kumite will eventually lead us to develop real fighting skills collides with reality.

How many advanced Karateka do you know that are proficient in those drills, but unable to deal with an opponent in real fights or even in free sparring? That even black belts are forced to go through these drills, just proves a serious loss of reality in parts of the Karate community. The areas in our brains, which become triggered by those basic drills versus those required for real fighting skills, occupy different places. It is not possible to transfer one set of skills, where drills have no connection to reality, to another that is reality based. That is impossible.

Efficiency is a sign of quality for a Karate teacher. Teaching drills that do not lead us to the results needed is inefficient. So, we need to get rid of certain drills and focus on those that get us further towards our main goal in Karate as a fighting art: being able to fight under real conditions.

Randori got Eliminated from Training

When I started with Shotokan Karate in the 1970s, Karate classes were still rather simple in structure. No matter what Dojo I practiced with or what seminar I visited, Randori was always part of the class. We did usually for the first thirty minutes of the class. Then in the mid-1980s, things became more sophisticated. Karate Teachers eliminated Randori from most practice sessions. Why? Because they deemed it as too raw, primitive, and unsophisticated (and of course some instructors were concerned about losing students). They looked for more refined ways. For short-cuts, maybe? As it turned out, there are no short-cuts when it comes to build up real-world fighting skills. It is still based on blood, pain, and sweat and necessary for a fighting art.

While it is important for a martial artist to develop further and to seek for ways to get better and stronger. We should not forget the nature of combat and the core of a martial art. “Karate derives from the battle fields of Japan” said my late Karate teacher, Horst Handel. The core of Shotokan Karate Kumite is to finish an opponent, an opponent who wants to hurt you, in a situation, where you have very little control over. Everything we do in our Kumite practice needs to be based on these requirements.

Michael Ehrenreich leading a class and guides through randori
Michael Ehrenreich leading a class. For him, randori must be part of the Shotokan Karate curriculum

The Necessity of Randori for Shotokan Karate as a Fighting Art

Randori used to be a big part of our karate tradition. I recommend that we reconsider it as a main tool for Karate classes and to strengthen our fighting skills. Karate practice and self-defense classes are not the same. But with Randori we possess one training tool to strengthen our fighting skills and work on certain virtues as fighters: toughness, resilience, reflexes, adaptability, for instance.

There are different levels and ways to conduct Randori. But think about the requirements of real-world encounters and you will find ways of making Randori a meaningful tool for Kumite practice. Add the close-quarter distance and do not limit yourself to competition rules. Consider a variety of techniques (different strikes, low kicks), practice with responsible contact to the body. Practice without protective gear, and use the principle of Ikken Hissatsu in Randori. It is a proven mean to make Shotokan Karate a fighting art again.