The Sundomei and the Full-Contact. Kyokushin-Kan and Budo Karate Part 2.

As we continue our discussion of Kyokushin-Kan’s role in the development of Japan’s Budo (derived from the Japanese warrior code) karate, let’s look at training methods that we associate with what Karate was before Mas Oyama founded the Kyokushinkaikan, and what training methods we associate with the modern era of Kyokushin. In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the divide between full-contact karate (many styles that all derived from Mas Oyama’s split from all that went before) and Sundomei karate, the traditional styles (such as Shotokan) in which the destructive force we’re accustomed to seeing in competitions hadn’t yet been introduced (i.e. by Mas Oyama).

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Shihan Hiroto Okazaki’s lessons focus on “the Science” of Budo karate, often lost in an era of punching bags, and less-than-full-contact sparring partners.

The easiest contrast to illustrate is the makiwara (or sandbag) vs. the punching bag. Mas Oyama’s generation, and Kancho Royama’s , trained by striking hard surfaces (makiwara and sandbag), but many of our later tournament-era generations trained by using soft surfaces (punching bags, kick-mits). Mas Oyama’s generation focused on striking the body’s vulnerable parts (head, face, groin, neck) where as our tournament-era generation focused so heavily on the body’s enforceable targets (thighs, abdomen, chest) that it almost forgot how to defend itself from head punches. Mas Oyama’s generation focused on Bunkai and kata and “the science” of the Art, from which “the self-defense” of the Art was simple by comparison. Our generation focused on the “self-defense” of the art as a derivative from the “sport” of tournament competition, often at the expense of kata and bunkai, which is the Art’s core “science.” Mas Oyama’s generation incorporated the spiritual, and the energy-training of Zen and Chi, where our generation focused on the physical of the punching bag and the body building gym. Mas Oyama endorsed training more hours per day than one sleeps. Our generation trained, in many cases, . . .  well, a lot less than that. Mas Oyama’s generation was lethal . . . our generation is much less so. One was defined by the Budo-ka, the other by the sportsman.

Now, please don’t panic. All of our training with kick-mits, punching bags, barbells and sparring partners is all valuable too, and yes, of course, that’s where Mas Oyama wanted us to go, too. Mas Oyama’s Kyokushin is/was Budo karate. Don’t misunderstand that point. It’s not all a waste. The important point to consider, however, is that different times require different methods to keep the art at the front of the curve. Consider the following example:

One instructor outside of Kyokushin-kan in the US, who had been a student of one of the 1st world tournament era Japanese greats to introduce Kyokushin to America, told me how when his teacher broke from Mas Oyama in Japan, he started de-emphasizing training with long, deep stances, and based all of his karate on the shorter fighting stance. After all, none of us use the long stances in kumite, right?

Well, students of that great fighter from that earlier era began to wonder why they weren’t developing such great technique like their teacher had, and it occurred to some of them that even though long stances weren’t used in competition, the great skill that their teacher had while fighting (control of balance and footwork) came from his training, outside of competition, in deep low stances. Here is an example in which a great practitioner of an earlier generation whose foundation was in deep stances, became a champion without them, and then, therefore, propagated a style of karate in which he didn’t push what had been part of his foundation. Now let’s consider Kyokushin:

Kyokushin, arguably became the world’s strongest karate during its boom to popularity in which a new generation took shortcuts to win competitions that had rules (like no head punches), but lost some degree of what had made Mas Oyama lethal. Consider how the tables have turned:

In the 60’s and 70’s full-contact was revolutionary, so it could defeat the existing karate in Japan. But how about now? Isn’t the case now, that full-contact is the new status-quo? Of course it is! Kancho Royama and instructors of Kyokushin-Kan are NOT endorsing a return to sundomei karate. They are just recognizing that full-contact is the new internationally accepted norm, but also recognizing that it is one that has become blunted by shortcut training methods associated with sport competition. They are simply asking, where is the lethality that Mas Oyama intended?

Kancho Royama and Kyokushin-Kan instructors are NOT, therefore, endorsing regressing karate to an era that preceded what Mas Oyama brought to the world of karate. Rather it is the exact opposite. They are relying on the fact that there is no going back. They are just endorsing bringing back what Mas Oyama studied originally in order to break the mold of what was that earlier era’s status quo. In other words, that era’s status quo had to be broken to move the art forward. Does it not make sense that this era’s status quo might likewise have to be broken to bring the art forward again?

More on this in Part 3 of this essay in which I will further discuss differences in training methods between the bluntness of modern karate, and the razor-sharp of the traditional.

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Budo Karate : The Sundomei, The Full-Contact, and Kyokushin-Kan. Part 1.

During the two years that I was Mas Oyama’s student in Tokyo, he often repeated, “Kyokushin karate is not dance karate! It’s not kenka (brawling) karate! It’s BUDO karate!” What on earth could he have meant by this?

In order to understand fully, it’s important to understand the division that Mas Oyama’s Kyokushin created between “sundomei” karate in Japan, and what become known as “full contact” karate.

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Kyokushin-Kan Competitors in the All-Japan Tournament. Photo by Nathan Ligo.

(This author thought it would be beneficial to the Kyokushin-kan community to summarize, to the best of my ability, some content of Kancho Royama’s International Instructors’ Seminars, held every year in Japan. Although I do have the dual advantage of having attended more of Kancho’s seminars than any other American, and of having acted as Japanese-English interpreter for those seminars in many cases, the reader should understand that, still, I can only do the best I can to explain concepts presented by Kancho and other high-level instructors in Japan. I do have the advantage of having been there, but my level of understanding in karate is only just what it is, and I can only explain what Kancho and others explain, through the lens of my own limited understanding. Yet to assist the development of Kyokushin-kan in the West, I will do the best I can.)

As hard as it might be for us to comprehend, when Mas Oyama first fought in existing karate tournaments in Japan, he was disqualified for being too rough. He would break the bones of his opponents, and the karate establishment, largely Shotokan Karate at that time, would disqualify him for hitting too hard. Mas Oyama’s synthesis of Kyokushin was responsible for the most dramatic shift in the development of Japanese Karate that has ever occurred. Genchin Funokoshi’s Shotokan Karate was a highly stylized form, based in kata and bunkai. In competitions, practitioners fought to show better technique, but had not yet learned the kind of destructive force introduced by Mas Oyama. Mas Oyama, the “God Hand” they would come to call him in Japan, trained his hands and feet to break stones, and tear the horns off of raging bulls, and when he applied this power to his human opponents of the Japanese karate establishment, he broke them, and he was shunned as a brute. It was therefore, that Mas Oyama created Kyokushin, and began, at Oyama Dojo in a small dance studio behind Rikkyo University in Tokyo, teaching a new generation of Japanese karate students what he believed to be the only form of karate reminiscent of true Japanese Budo.

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Kyokushin-kan’s Shihan Hiroto Okazaki (left) demonstrating defense against Japanese sword. Shihan Ishijima (right) is wielding the sword. Photo by Nathan Ligo.

After all, a key tenant of Japanese Budo (the “Martial Way”) was the Bushido (“Way of the Samurai”) mentality in which the practitioner reduced all the struggles of life, and hence the struggles for better behavior in life, to a sense of do-or-die by the sword. Since, for the Samurai, life could end at any moment, the Samurai endeavored to live a pure life of proper behavior, and without this “closeness to death” Mas Oyama believed, true Budo Karate does not exist. Of course (and parents of kids practicing Kyokushin in the current era should take note!), there were hundreds of years of Japan’s Samurai history that were peace-time years. There were hundreds of years, therefore, in which Japan’s warriors were living by the code of the samurai, a code so strict that they held correct behavior to be as valuable as their own lives, in which there were NOT, however, actually large scale loss (or personal sacrifice) of life. It was during those years of unification and peace in Japan that Bushido joined hands with Zen Buddhism, Art, and Confucianism, and Samurai came to follow the warrior’s code to purify their lives and their behavior, even in times of peace. Mas Oyama’s recognized, however, that if karate wasn’t at some point lethal, i.e. if practitioners didn’t risk life and limb at some point during their training, or at least train with that mentality because their role models were (the most serious of adult competitors), the establishment karate of Japan necessarily fell short of true Budo.

For Mas Oyama, the Japanese karate of the establishment was “dance karate”, there was no power, it was not dangerous, it was not, therefore, grounded in Japan’s warrior code.

Of course, there is no question that Kyoushin’s early years were not very pretty. Comparing the technical ability of modern day competitors to the technical ability of many of the Kyokushin competitors of the first world tournament (1975) is like comparing apples to oranges. Early Kyokushin tournaments where not as pretty in a technical sense, and to the Japanese public, they were considered dangerously violent. As Kyokushin karate roared to international popularity, however, the karate establishment in Japan, the “sundomei” karate practitioners fearing that they were being outclassed (because they knew they couldn’t win those tournaments), began to label Mas Oyama’s Kyokushin “kenka,” or “brawling,” karate. It is a derogatory term, meaning uncouth.

“But it’s not,” Mas Oyama was still regularly preaching when he was my teacher (at the age of 69 and 70) in Tokyo in the early 90’s. “Kyokushin karate is not dance karate [i.e. not like Shotokan karate], it’s not kenka karate [i.e. not the karate the Shotokan folks would have you believe it was]; it’s Budo Karate [i.e. THE only acceptable karate, because it’s the only one that embodies Japan’s historical warrior code.].”

If that’s the case, therefore, it might be important for us to ask why it is that Kancho Royama, and his Kyokushin-Kan, are working now to re-introduce and/or refine elements of karate (such as kata and bunkai) that we largely associate with the sundomei karateka of an earlier era? For many of us, Kyokushin has come to mean punching bags and sparring partners, and a sense of kata that they’re merely something different, some kind of exercise that we have to learn for promotion, but that otherwise have little meaning.

Stay tuned. In part two of this essay later in the week, I will address that exact question.

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Kyokushin-Kan Japan Champion Fuji Yusuke. Photo by Nathan Ligo.

 

Ikken Part 3 – Kyokushin-kan Instructor’s Seminars – Concept #2 Part 3 – What is Ikken?

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Kancho Royama practicing Hai. Without the meditation-like mental picture that he maintains, the physical exercise is much less meaningful. Yet, for the beginner, it’s good for balance and lower body strength.

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I thought I would focus this part 3 essay on Ikken on how to do a specific exercise that Kancho Royama regularly encourages. It’s one that can be practiced in just a few minutes of each karate training (although Kancho would encourage us to practice if for longer periods of time). It’s also very simple (i.e. to practice) and I have given you all that you need to begin your practice, right here in this essay. The exercise is called “Hai,” pronounced like the Japanese word for “yes.”

To review, the purpose of Ikken training is to harness ones Ki energy, and learn how to apply it in kumite. As stated in Part 1 and 2 of this essay, it’s not so important if the beginner doesn’t quite get it in terms of what it’s all about. Like zazen, or sanchin kata for that matter, if you practice it, its greater meaning will reveal itself to you over time. Meanwhile, the mere physical aspect will strengthen your body and improve balance. Therefore, it can be an exercise for the white belt, as well as for the black belt. For one it might be more about balance and strength; for the other it might be more about Ki.

The components of all Ikken training are 2, each of equal importance. The first is posture (or movement). The second is visualization. In the top photo at right Kancho Royama started with a position. He then started moving forward very slowly (similar to Tai Chi) but with a very specific image in mind. I.e he’s visualizing a specific image and concentrating on maintaining that mental picture as he moves forward. Without the meditation-like focus on that image, his exercise would be much less meaningful. Luckily, it’s an image that we can all understand very easily.

In the subsequent several photographs, Kancho Royama is teaching Ikken to foreign visitors to Japan. Kancho Royama endorses daily practice of Ikken to supplement ones karate training. Here’s a exercise that we can all add to our karate training, even today. Why not practice for three 3-minute sets, for example, during every karate training, starting today? One has to start somewhere. Continue reading

Part 3: Kancho’s General Message Regarding Kyokushin-kan’s Seminars : “Please attend them! Embrace what it means to be Kyokushin-Kan!” (Concept #4 Part 3)

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In Part 1 and 2 of this essay, I described Kyokushin-Kan as a movement within Kyokushin (or rather among the various splintered parts of what was a unified whole under Kyokushin’s founder Mas Oyama), one spearheaded by Kancho Royama, Vice-Kancho Hiroshige, Shihan Okazaki and others, that seeks to “sharpen the edge of Kyokushin” that its leadership believes became somewhat blunted in the last several decades. It is not about changing kyokushin, it is about sharpening an edge that has become dull. The bottom line of this essay, therefore, is that it’s our duty to understand the lessons being pressed during Kancho’s International Instructors Seminars, and to do our best to incorporate them into our training in our home counties. Kancho’s message: “Attend these seminars, invite our instructors to your countries, take what you learn to your students!” Continue reading

Part 2: Kancho’s General Message Regarding Kyokushin-kan’s Seminars : “Please attend them!” (Concept #4 Part 2) Also, see here regarding “Fighting Posture”.

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Kancho Royama’s central message regarding Kyokushin-Kan seminars: “Attend them, attend them regularly, take what you learn back to your countries!”

In Part 1 of this essay, I described Kyokushin-Kan as something different from “just another IKO.” At least it should be considered so by us. More than that, it WILL be considered something different by anyone who attends Kancho’s instructors seminars, or by anyone who embraces what’s being taught at them as taught by any of our North American instructors who have been to them. Let’s review: Continue reading

Kancho’s General Message Regarding Kyokushin-kan’s Seminars : “Please attend them!” Concept #4 Part 1.

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Kancho Royama’s central message regarding Kyokushin-Kan seminars: “Attend them, attend them regularly, take what you learn back to your countries!”

Above all other content at Kyokushin-Kan’s International Instructors Seminars, is Kancho’s message, “Attend these seminars! Take what you’ve learned back to your countries!” It is my intent in this blog post to drive that message home, and then discuss some certain realities about the seminars in regards to traveling to them from the US. Continue reading

Bunkai : The Marriage of Kata and Kumite – Kyokushin-kan Instructor’s Seminars – Concept #3 Part 2

(This author thought it would be beneficial to the Kyokushin-kan community to summarize, to the best of my ability, some content of Kancho Royama’s Internatinoal Instructors’ Seminars, held every year in Japan. Although I do have the dual advantage of having attended more of Kancho’s seminars than any other American, and of having acted as Japanese-English interpreter for those seminars in many cases, the reader should understand that, still, I can only do the best I can to explain concepts presented by Kancho and other high-level instructors in Japan. I do have the advantage of having been there, but my level of understanding in karate is only just what it is, and I can only explain what Kancho and others explain, through the lens of my own limited understanding. Yet to assist the development of Kyokushin-kan in the West, I will do the best I can.)

In part 1 of my discussion on Bunkai (see Instructors’ Seminars in Japan tab above), I suggested that Bunkai, “application,” is a formal class of karate exercise in which the practitioner studies, with an simulated attacker, the meaning of the individual (and sometimes combined) movements that go together to make up Kata. In that sense, we can think of Bunkai as the marriage of Kata and Kumite, as shown in the picture below. Separate this diagram to where there are two separate circles, one for Kata and one for Kumite, thus eliminating Bunkai where the two meet, and you have the model for karate training that has lost its way, training in which Kumite is merely fighting, and Kata is nothing but a dance.

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This discussion takes us straight to the heart of an earlier discussion posted here (see Our Moment in History on the Kyokushin Beginners’ Guide tab), in which I discussed the evolution and devolution of Kyokushin. Here I mentioned how Kyokushin was always evolving during Mas Oyama’s lifetime, and that to take Kyokushin as a snapshot of exactly what it was at the time you learned it many years ago from Mas Oyama (for example) is destructive to the art because Kyokushin’s greatness derived from its evolution. AND , likewise, the times that Kyokushin fell short (sending Kyokushin fighters prematurely into K-1 kickboxing rings, for example), those shortcomings derived, in some cases, from Kyokushin’s “devolution,” or situations in which Kyokushin lost some of what it once had (albeit sometimes in the name of gaining something else). Continue reading