Category Archives: Karate

Man With Bare Feet and Black Undergarments

I spent the day helping break the hearts of young children and their parents, which isn’t a bad way to spend Father’s Day.

Today was an annual Junior Tournament for my karate style’s young people. It took place in a small octagonal gym in Eastern Tokyo and featured students from my Sensei’s regular dojo and students from around the Tokyo area. Because I wasn’t thinking (a common occurrence, actually) and didn’t realize it was Father’s Day, I agreed to serve as a judge.

Basically my job was to take off my shoes and socks and dress up in my black dogi (which are sometimes called pajamas but actually derive from undergarments) and my black and white belt and sit in a chair whilst a bunch of kids put on their best performances. Then I had to stand up and wave either a red flag or a white flag.

The first round was kata and I was assigned to judge the younger elementary school kids. Basically, they face off in pairs, with one wearing a red belt, and after they finish we three kings, er JUDGES, rise up and raise either a red flag or a white flag. The competitor with most flags moves on whilst the other sits and cries and ponders a bleak future (something like that) as their parents do the same.

For round two I was assigned to judge junior high and high school age boys (older kids are divided by gender; younger kids are not). If the judges are lucky, both competitors are doing the same kata, making it much easier to judge who did the better job. where it gets difficult is when they are doing different katas. You have to focus on poise and how well they perform the basics (as many stances and techniques carry over from kata to kata).  The main problem is the katas are longer at that stage and it’s really easy to drift off in to a daydream. If that happens, and I miss part of the performance, I simply vote for the kid who looks less likely to grow up to be a total douchebag.

After that I judged the bo staff katas for the younger kids and then got to watch and enjoy the spectacle of the fighting competition. Boys and girls as young as fourth grade dress up in body armor and helmets and get ready to fight. Once again, in the youngest bracket, boys and girls fight each other. In the older brackets, the genders are segregated. The judges and teachers take care to make sure all equipment is worn properly, to the point that if they don’t like a kid’s gloves–for example they are fingerless MMA gloves–they make them wear someone else’s.

I was standing near the court with the youngest kids and was having a great time watching the parents. They were caught between the sentiments of  “Please don’t get hurt” and “kick that little twerp’s ass! You are in the Octagon! There can be only one!” The girls held their own–and at least one delivered an impressive sounding punch–but the last girl standing lost the third place bout, leaving only boys in the top three. After the third place bout, a mother and grandmother were moved to tears because they were happy their young one had placed. (And I was thinking oh big whoop, he beat a girl to get third place but, miracle of miracles, I didn’t say anything because that girl probably could have kicked my ass and the boy’s mom definitely could have).

All in all, it wasn’t the most productive day, but it was a lot of fun.


A Victim of a Vague Sense of Fashionable Excuses

Last Sunday, during karate class, to be kind to myself, I stunk the place up. I wasn’t in the mood to go but, over the years, have finally taught myself that those are the times I most need to go. That’s also true with writing–both my novel, my other novel, the other other novel, and this blog.

However, last Sunday’s lesson was so bad, and I had such a horrible lack of focus, that it has me thinking about excuses versus reasons.

One of the knife defense techniques we do involves stepping forward and catching the knife arm with our left hand and then doing a kind of hockey check with our right and then doing one of many techniques. The most difficult involves twisting the opponents wrist at the same time as you push his hand up toward his shoulder. Although I’m still pretty sloppy, I can do it consistently when my opponent has a knife. When my opponent has a sword, though, I find I can’t do the technique at all. I blame my height and my opponent’s lack of it.

As near as I can tell, when I’m defending against a knife, my opponent’s arm is in a high position, well above my waist, which allows me to do the technique. When he uses a sword, however, he’s using both arms, which gives him a stronger position, and they’re down below my waist. From that position, I find I can’t get the position and leverage I need to lift his arms. It’s the difference between lifting a heavy box off a table or lifting it off the floor. I would argue that I should focus on techniques that work against my opponent rather than one ones that I don’t think the laws of physics allow me to do.

Now, is all that an excuse, or is it a reason?

I ask because about a hundred years ago, more or less, in my Hayden, Colorado days, it was a tradition (in either 5th or 6th grade) that boys who volunteered could spend a week doing football practice (the kind with helmets, not the kind that England suffers at in the World Cup) and that culminated in a Friday game. This all started off with a bull rush to get uniforms and equipment.

The uniform , not the safety equipment, was the most important thing to get. The uniforms were either dark green (nicknamed the Green Bay Packers) or red (nicknamed the whatever the hell they are now Cardinals). Once issued a uniform, the recipients formed rival gangs and pretty much bullied each other for the rest of the week. (I vaguely remember there being depantsings of Cardinals which, well, yeah, think about it). The coolest uniform to get was the Green Bay Packers which meant the largest boys in the class wore green and you wanted to be on their team. (Remember: depantsings.)

At the end of the bull rush, which involved me being repeatedly pushed to the back of the line, I ended up with a pure white jersey that didn’t even have a number on it. This meant I was simply referred to as “white shirt” in practice. I wasn’t the only one who got a white shirt but I remember being bummed out about it. The white shirt wasn’t cool to wear on designated “wear your uniform jersey day”. I would be standing out without having any standing, if that makes sense. I went to one day of practice and then quit.

To this day I blame fashion for this as much as the soreness. Both are pretty weak excuses, though. I do wonder what would have happened had I been issued an actual jersey, Even now, I remain subject to those kinds of initial impressions. I’ve gotten better at recovering from them, but back then I couldn’t. I therefore didn’t give my best in practice–not that my best would have been that impressive anyway–and decided football wasn’t for me. (Believe me, it wasn’t.)  I sucked at basketball, too, but I liked playing basketball.

It turned out that I would have ended up as a Green Bay Packer and would have been on the winning team. It’s just no one would have known that.

Proper Sitting Brings Pain and Suffering and Numbness

Today was karate day and that means I feel obligated to do a sports related post. Unfortunately, all I have to talk about is pain.

The dojo we practice in has a sprung wood floor that is used and over used by dozens of different martial arts groups. Not every one sweeps the floor the way they were supposed to and, for some reason, today my feet felt as if I was trying to do karate in bowling shoes on an oiled surface. I nearly did impressive splits and pull a hamstring during a kata when my left foot slipped. I then managed to stumble and bumble my way through the rest of the routine with my sensei constantly encouraging me with 1) “You suck” and 2) “No, really, you suck.” After I finished he saw me limping and stretching and asked if I was okay. I said I was and he said I needed to work more on my stance and my balance.

Later, we did sword defense techniques that start with the the opponent pressing the tip of the sword against your throat. You put your palms against the blade and do a little ninja twist move that pushes the blade aside allowing you inside. It looks really cool and you feel really confident doing it, but it assumes that the person pressing the sword against your throat is a talking killer monologuing on and on about what he’s going to do with your bloody remains after he kills you rather than just taking advantage of the fact he’s got a sword pressed against your throat and telling you the same thing as you’re bleeding out.

The real pain, though, happened after that. We did a sword move that starts from seiza. Seiza, which means “Proper Sitting” is form of torture where you kneel and sit on your heels. It looks a lot like the position people get in to start a Muslim prayer. Japanese have been doing this since before they could walk and most of them can do it their entire lives–although even they have trouble standing if they do it for too long. It is the basic greeting for all martial arts and even people who do shogi (Japanese chess) sit seiza when they play matches. Before my skiing injury I could do seiza for several minutes–eventually your legs go numb and you don’t feel any pain anymore. Then I couldn’t do it at all and had to settle for just kneeling. Now, I’m finally able to get back into the basic position for a few minutes before my knees start screaming “Have you lost your f@#king mind?”

This sword technique added another twist. We started in seiza with the sword on the floor in front of us. We picked up the sword and went to a kiza (one knee up) and then stood up and slashed. Well, that was the plan. I managed to stand up but, quite frankly, at that point in a real fight my only hope would be that my opponents were laughing so hard at what they’d just witnessed I’d get a chance to hack them to bits.

My sensei told me to start in kiza, which helped a bit, but my opponents would still be laughing. Especially tomorrow as I limp around school trying to teach.


What You Think You Know is Not Enough

I usually get a couple of questions when people find out I’ve been studying karate for a long time.

1) Have you registered  with the government as a deadly weapon yet?
Answer: No. I haven’t and I won’t. That was a temporary thing the occupying forces did after WWII.

2) Does that shit really work?
Answer: Yes; unfortunately, so does a lot of other shit.

3) You study sword defenses? Where the hell are you ever going to need to defend yourself against a sword?
Answer: Scotland.

The longer I’ve studied karate the more I’ve realized it’s best I stay out of fights. It is a sport/art for the small and fast. I’m neither. I’m pretty sure I could hold my own long enough to make an exit (which, by the way, is pretty much required by Japanese law: when you can get away, you are obligated to get away) but I also think it’s best I never try to prove that.

Part of this is the way my style–and I’m sure many others–teach the various techniques. For example, one of the first things we learned was a defense against a knife attack. As the attacker slashes down at you, you stab both arms up and catch his arm between your crossed fists (right on top). Then, with your arms still extended, grab his arm with your right hand, and twist down as your left hand pushes on his shoulder and you drop to a low stance. At this point he should be bent over facing the dirt with his arm across your knee. Finish with an elbow blow that dislocates his shoulder.

Now, this all well and good and it’s awesome the first few times you do it. You start thinking, who do I know back home that lives in a bad neighborhood? What’s the worst neighborhood I don’t have to travel too far to get to?

Then, at the peak of your power and knowledge, as your aura glows blinding white with flashes of purple spirituality, they teach you the shockingly simple counter technique. You stab up with your fists to block the knife, but as you connect, the attacker jerks the knife hand back whilst simultaneously pushing your arms down with this free hand. He puts the knife to your throat and says “So you studied a little karate, eh?”

Every technique we do has a counter technique and we are authorized to do them at any time if the other guy is screwing up. We are also told to resist any techniques to force the other person to do them correctly. When we’re doing techniques against multiple attackers, the attackers are authorized to grab us from behind. They’re also authorized to go ahead and hit us with the knife or sword if we really screw up (been there, done that).

It helps you focus on the techniques. It also makes you think there’s no shame in running away. Or in using a can of pepper spray.


Pleasing Your Elders With a Broken Finger and Some Alcohol

Lots of distractions this evening so I’m falling back on an “I got nothing topic” and also falling back on sports.

Not long after we earned our black belts, my friend Charles and I were invited to a special lesson for all the higher level black belts in the region as Kawamoto sensei, the founder of the style, was still in the area and he kind of seemed to like us. At these events, Kawamoto typically introduces the newest techniques and the changes to the old ones. (Once every year, the 8th dans and above get together to review all the techniques and show how A, B or C don’t actually work unless you do D, E and F. Those, by the way, are not the actual names of the techniques.)


The training took place in a community gym out in the middle of nowhere and there was a surprising amount of tension among all the trainees, especially the second highest ranked member in the room. Charles and I noticed this tension but didn’t feel it as we were 1) fascinated by what was going on and 2) oblivious.

This was also the first time I remember seeing the techniques done at speed. During one of the moves, a wispy middle-aged guy from another dojo jammed his finger or got it tangled up in a dogi. Either way, his ring finger was apparently dislocated as it was sticking up at a 45 degree angle from his knuckle. He looked at it funny, everyone asked if he was okay and he said yes and continued with the lesson. I vowed at that point to never, ever, try to take him in a fight.

This was confirmed later when he joined us for drinks, with his finger still at an odd angle. The tension was high as Kawamoto sensei held court and drank straight shochu, which was rare as most Japanese drown such things in water and fruit juice. Everyone listened very carefully as explained he’d been studying kendo and was impressed by the sport’s footwork and grip techniques (all of which, by the way, were eventually incorporated into our style).

Eventually, Kawamoto sensei left to catch the train back to Tokyo and as soon as he was gone, everyone relaxed and started having fun. The man with the injured finger finally admitted it hurt and everyone started joking and drinking too much. The closest I’ve ever seen to this in the USA is what happens when high ranking military officers are present in a room and what happens after they leave.

The funny part is, I don’t even remember what techniques we studied, but I remember having a great time.



Fear, Less Fear, Success, Running, Decent and A No Show

It’s karate day, and that means it’s time for a sports story.

Every odd numbered year my karate style hosts an international tournament of most of the dojos in the style, including one from Israel.

As part of the tournament, without any input from me, I am always scheduled for the kumite or fighting competition. This is something that not every dojo does. My dojo in Niigata was interested in breaking boards/hands but not in the sparring, whereas my current sensei regularly places in the annual 8th dan competition, and was champion once.

My first fight, when I was a second dan, was laughably bad as I was plagued with a lack inexperience and a deep sense of being scared shitless, this despite the heavy, kendo style helmets, body armor and gloves we wore. Each bout is two minutes long and is full contact above the belt. The first competitor to score two points using proper karate techniques wins–simply boxing won’t get you points, although knocking your opponent out will get you the victory. You can also use throws that while they don’t score make you look awesome which helps you win in the event of a draw.

I fought in the heavyweight division which meant most of my opponents were as tall as I. I also discovered my first opponent was a specialist who did nothing else in the tournament except fight. I got a couple kicks in and a punch but didn’t score. He eventually landed a couple punches and that was the end of the bout.

Two years later the best I can say is I wasn’t as laughable and I went the distance. I lost 1-0.

In my third tournament, I got a bye for the first round and then went up against an older man with a powerful punch that made little stars appear in my eyes the first few times he hit me but didn’t score. I eventually managed to score on a side step punch to his head and a back hand move that’s half block, half punch and looks a lot like swinging a sword over your head. In the next round I faced an opponent who liked to box but was too good to be defeated. He won with a perfect punch to my lower face mask that scrambled the world a bit, split my chin open and made me take a knee.

Important safety tip, kids: the gloves and helmets only inspire people to hit harder and a well-placed object in motion will set things in your head in motion, for a while at least. Don’t let yourself get hit.

Luckily, that was his second point and the match was over saving me the humiliation of not being able to go on. I ended up getting the third place trophy in that tournament which is, I think only the first or second trophy I’d ever actually earned in sports.

For the fourth tournament I came up against a guy who thought he was a combination of Bruce Lee and long-distance runner. He danced and ran around, trying to get in quick kicks but wouldn’t let me get near him. I suspect if I’d gone the distance in a scoreless match, I would have won simply for my attempt to do karate. Instead, he landed a couple roundhouse kicks to my hip that scored for reasons I still don’t understand. In the past, kicks below the belt didn’t score and using the same technique twice didn’t score the second time. In fact, stepping into the kick and letting it hit low was one of my standard defenses as it let me inside to deliver a punch.

For the fifth tournament, I met the eventual champion in the first round and he basically just kicked my ass. I held my own for a while and hit him and kicked him a few times but didn’t score. He hit me and scored and then read one of my techniques perfectly and put a front kick straight in my sternum.

Second safety tip, kids: don’t telegraph.

Last year I had to withdraw for medical reasons and was surprised how much I missed being in the fights as I watched them. It’s one of those things I always dread doing, but am always glad I’ve done, even when the world is a bit wobbly after I finish.

You Are Number Two And Will Be Treated Accordingly

Since today is the day I practice Karate, or was supposed to be (long story), it seems that Sunday’s are slowly becoming the day I tell my sports adventure stories, pathetic as they are.

Many years ago, when my friend Charles and I had our brown belts securely fastened and were being considered for our black belts, we were told that Norihito Kawamoto, the founder and head of our style, was going to visit our dojo–which, given the no nonsense nature of our style, meant he’d be visiting the community gym where we practiced. Our sensei’s suddenly turned very serious and we had several minutes of etiquette practice, which we’d never done before.

I don’t remember us talking about what we were expecting, but neither of us was expecting a tall, pot-bellied balding man who spent most of his time sitting on a chair with his eyes closed, apparently asleep, whilst two of our senseis tested for their sixth level black black belts.

Joining Kawamoto sensei was another high level sensei from a dojo in Myoko. I don’t remember his name, even though I’ve met him once since then, but I remember he’s the first Japanese martial artist I’d seen who had swagger. He knew he was good–and we weren’t about to argue. When we practiced with him, he was doing things in ways we hadn’t practiced, including getting in closer at the start of a technique than we’d practiced. I’ve learned since then that this is pretty common. Although we all stick to the same basic techniques, there’s a lot of variation in performance and teaching styles.

Eventually Kawamoto sensei left the chair and it was clear that despite his size, and a noticeable limp, he was light on his feet. He pulled the Myoko sensei over–as he was officially the second highest rank in the room–and used him to demonstrate the various techniques.

Now, it’s important for you to understand that, in this context “used him to demonstrate” means “smacked the living crap out of him for the better part of ninety minutes”. Several of our techniques involve pushing on the opponent’s face. Kawamoto demonstrated that by smacking the Myoko sensei loud enough in the face that the rest of us cringed. And then he kept doing it. By the end of the night, The Myoko sensei had a little less swagger and a bright red face.

Lesson learned: Never be the second highest ranked guy in the room.

Now, although this has never been officially stated, this seems to be a rule across the style. In my sensei’s case, you don’t want to be the second highest ranked student in the room. When Fukuda, a sixth level black belt, is at practice, I get the extra special treatment. With Fukuda he’ll demonstrate “Now, after blocking the knife with both hands, you deliver a backhand across the stomach and then push the person’s face with your right and then you do the throwing technique. Got that?” With me, he back hands me across the stomach, smacks me in the face and throws me. If I get things wrong, I get yelled at.

When Fukuda’s not there, unless I’m doing something completely boneheaded, the tone is much more gentle, while the lower level student gets the special treatment.

To this day, I don’t know if this is official policy, or just some kind of the hazed becomes the hazer psychological thing. In general, the teacher’s aren’t abusive in other ways. My sensei went through a faze where he was slapping us on the shoulder or on the head when we made repeated mistakes. I told him if he didn’t stop, I was leaving for good, and he’s never done it sense.  But the sensei’s bring the pain when demonstrating techniques.  I’m on my guard no matter what, especially when we’re using bo staffs and swords, even if I’m number one.




Painful Lessons With Lumber and Fists

Since tonight was karate night, it’s time for some blather about studying karate.

One of the problems with studying karate in the USA is that a lot of the teachers take themselves oh so seriously. Instead of practical skills they focus a lot on fake mysticism and cliche buddhist quotes. Imagine going to a gun range to learn how to shoot a pistol and being taught Gun Kata instead of a reload drill and a Weaver stance.

They also let pseudo political attitudes bleed over into the teaching.  For example:

Conservative Dojo: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women.”

Leftist Dojo: “You have hate. You have anger. But you don’t use them.”

??????? Dojo: “Let me test your midichlorians.”

Libertarian Dojo: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side.”

Japan is, in general, much more practical, although you are expected to remember the techniques once they’ve been taught and apply them yourself. For example, back when I started studying karate, we (my friend Charles and I) were taught how to do a punch and then, after a few months, asked to do the board-breaking-thing. This isn’t the kind of thing I was looking forward to doing, but I though I’d give it a shot, especially after seeing the kids in the dojo mess up some half-inch boards. When it was my turn, the teachers took out a seven inch thick board (well, actually it was only one inch thick, but yeah, intimidating nonetheless) and said “Go ahead, break it.” Without offering any real advice. Remember, we’d already been taught the proper punching technique.

In a case like this, an American teacher would give you some mystical bullshit advice like “See the board. Be the board. Soon you will realize that there is no board. There is only you. It is not the board that breaks. It is you.” Now, it turns out, and in defense of American dojos, after my first few attempts to break the board failed, it WAS me that broke, or more specifically, it was me that messed up the middle knuckle on my right hand (the biggest one sticking up when you make a fist). It also, I have to say, made a very impressive sound that gave lots of people sympathy pains. Cut a golf ball in half, paint it purple black and blue and set it over your knuckle and you’ll understand what my hand looked like for the rest of the week. On the other hand, I was able to kick through board with no problems (except on the day of my black belt test–long story.)

At the next practice my sensei was “ahh, well, see that’s what happens when you try to punch the board rather than punching through it. Oh, and don’t slow down as you reach the board, you’ll mess up your hand.) And my reaction was “Thanks. Great advice. If I don’t have to cut off my hand to save my arm, I’ll try all that next time.”

Nothing mystical about it. Just a painful lesson. I did eventually break the board, then I moved to the Tokyo area and got a new sensei and have never been asked to break a board again. Instead, we started fighting in tournaments and I got the opportunity to understand the phrase “seeing stars”. But that’s another story.

The Position of My Incompetence

Because it’s a lot of fun to live the cliche, I’ve been studying karate since my first year in Japan.

I study a style called Authentic Worker’s Karate (正伝勤労者空手道) which, if you know your karate styles, is an off-shoot of shotokan with a lot stolen from Okinawan karate. It’s called worker’s karate, if I understand it, because it was originally only taught to adults. Although it’s now taught to children, only children go through the rainbow of belts. Adults go from white, to brown, to black, to black with white stripe at 4th and black with red stripe from 6th dan and on. At 4th dan adults also get to wear spiffy black uniforms.

Unfortunately no one bothered telling me that at first.

I started studying with my friend Charles. I’m 6’2″ and he’s about 6’4″. We therefore made quite the spectacle when surround by tiny Japanese youth. We also were pretty much left training with each other. After 18 months we found ourselves still with white belts while youngsters who’d started after us had blue and green belts. (In their defense, they most likely could have kicked our butts with little trouble.) When we finally got the nerve to complain, our sensei explained about the belts and added “oh, and your brown belt test is next week.” It seems that adults are tested all the time but belt tests are special.

A similar thing happened before we earned our black belts.

Eventually, Charles returned to Canada and got “real” jobs in government while I plugged away as a teacher in Japan. I moved to Tokyo and got a new sensei. Since then I’ve earned my 5th level black belt and am, on paper anyway, a 6th dan, although I haven’t earned my teaching level which means I still have a black belt with white stripe. Along the way I’ve managed, on one occasion, to finish third in both kata and fighting at the style’s semi-annual international tournament.

Part of the difficulty is that once you achieve a key level in this style, for example black belt, they pretty much tell you to forget everything you’ve learned and you start learning what Charles and I used to call “The Black Belt S#@t”. Punches start going to the face and if you fail to block them, well, an important lesson has just been learned.

The same thing happens at 4th dan when they start teaching you to do the moves with technique and not strength. They also start teaching you to defend against four people or more. Also, on occasion, after the annual gathering of high level senseis, they modify the techniques and throw out stuff they’ve decided doesn’t work. You are expected to pick up the new techniques quickly and forget everything you’ve been studying for years.

Unfortunately, I seem to have finally reached the position of my incompetence and I’ve been a paper 6th dan for over a year. (Little mistakes have big consequences.) I also sprained a knee skiing many years ago and messed it up again doing karate. This left me with a limp and makes the basic karate stance painful to do. I also almost had my lower left leg broken by a former student who didn’t understand the difference between “leg sweep” and “Hulk SMASH!” To make matters worse, I’m now the second highest student in my dojo, which means I’m the designated punching bag when sensei needs to demonstrate a technique. (Remember, I do this for my HEALTH.)

That said, I have another test coming up in May. My goal is to be able to buy the black belt with red strip and a new black uniform–we wear the old ones until we reach a new level–soon after that. Until then, I hope the highest level student keeps having to work, leaving me the highest level student in the room.