SHORINJIRYU THEN & NOW

Let me begin this article with a disclaimer. The opinions expressed here are solely my own, and will, at the least result in lively discussion, and in the extreme, may result in my dojo being burned down by an angry mob of karate-ka.

When is THEN? THEN is whenever I chose it to be, since I am the author. So let me start around the time of the Roman Empire. What? You say there was no Karate around 0 A.D. (or sometime before the year 2000 if you go by the Jewish Calendar). Ah yes, the Jews had their year 2000 problems some time ago. Well remember that big to-do about the fall of the temple and the dispersion of the Hebrew tribes throughout the world? Well, now you know what you are in for in 2000 A.D. But I digress. Back to Karate. Yes, there was no Karate, but there were all kinds of weapons fighting, and they involved blocking, striking, and sometimes even throwing techniques. These techniques were refined over the years until through trial and error they neared perfection, and then became Karate.

There were two driving forces behind early Karate, the first being the desire of monks to travel the roads without being molested, and the second to fight off an armed attacker with no weapons. So around 1600 from the Shaolin Temple in China came a system of fighting which borrowed from weapons techniques, but that was designed to ward off mostly unarmed thugs. When the Japanese, with their razor sharp Katana occupied Okinawa, they confiscated all weapons. Now the Japanese warlords and their Samurai wore armour. So the only way the Okinawans were able to defend themselves were by using tools as weapons (i.e., the sai), and by developing techniques so powerful, if properly delivered they could put a dent in the armour or snap a neck with a solid blow to the head.

So Karate underwent a change on Okinawa, and from the 'Soft' techniques used to defend against an unarmed thug, evolved 'Hard' techniques for use against a potentially armoured opponent.

Loose fitting clothing in China and Okinawa permitted high kicks. So during the development of Karate on Okinawa, hard and powerful kicking techniques evolved.

When Karate went to Japan some changes had to be made. Delivering a high side kick in a kimono was not an easy thing to do. So if we look at Shotokan today we find almost no kicks in the kata, and those that do exist, with rare exception, tend to be waist level or below.

Okinawan techniques tend to the 'Hard', that is slower but more powerful (kekome), and the techniques in 'Soft' Kung Fu and other derived Japanese forms tend to rapid snapping techniques (keage) .

You might ask where am I going with this: To present day techniques, specifically in Shorinjiryu. Dr Kori Hisataka was intrigued by the generation of power with the human body. Why do we punch vertically? I posed this question to Dr. Hisataka and his son Hanshi Masayuki Hisataka. The answer was quite simple. Punching with a horizontal fist simply doesn't work. Now practitioners of 'keage' will not notice this. But a strong 'kekome' black belt, on throwing the whole body into the technique against a sandbag will observe a tendency for the arm to collapse when the fist is held horizontally. Try this experiment. Roll up your sleeve. Then hold your hand out as if finished a punch with the palm down. Now rotate the fist until it is vertical. Watch your elbow while you are doing this. In Shorinjiryu, a strong practitioner should be able to generate enough force such that the elbow position affects the force of the blow (an elbow in line with the direction of body motion).

The same applies to kicks. A whipping front snap kick is extremely fast, but if the opponent is wearing an overcoat, forget it!

What I am posing is that Dr. Hisataka crafted Shorinjiryu to be the ultimate 'power' style. And my concern is that we are drifting from that goal. Look, I studied with Yamazake-Sensei, Dr. Hisataka, and his son, and while Dr. Histaka was alive all lunge punches we delivered to the side (sokumen tsuki). After Dr. Hisataka's retirement, the front punch from zenkutsu-dachi dominated.

Why? A conspiracy of course. Actually the answer is simpler. With the onset of open competition, and the introduction of wazari, full body commitment was a losing proposition. When have you ever seen a judge call an ippon on an oi-tsuki technique? There are other problems associated with excessive shiai in lieu of basic practice. For example, techniques weaken as the objective becomes scoring a half-point, and the ability to reflex block head shots is all but gone since points to the head are never awarded, even if the pulled technique is delivered to perfection.

I have heard the criticism that Shorinjiryu used to be a 'long range' Karate. This is simply not true. We have hiza-geri , empi, throwing and grappling, etc, ? I think the reason for the confusion is the tendency we (us old fogies) used to have to back off slightly in order to get enough room to throw the whole body into a technique. Well in 'ippon only' competition, not doing that just resulted in wasted effort and mashed knuckles on those old concrete protectors.

Other issues involve fighting style. I remember Sensei Yamazaki giving me detailed instruction on how to break an opponent's arm with a kick in order to open up access to the bogu. Well, this training stood me on good stead during fighting. I would imagine the opponent to be a tree, with the arms nothing more than twigs. I retired from competition about the time everyone's neighbour had a law degree.

I would love to see Shorinjiryu remain faithful to the vision of the founder, a style where punches and kicks are the ultimate power trip.

May I suggest that:
 In-dojo formal shiai be geared to 'ippon only' fighting
 Rather than emphasize open sparring, kumite with the shields on should be done frequently
 Sparring practice should be tightly controlled and emphasize strong combination techniques and reflex blocking.

Oh! How about an 'ippon only' tournament? Sure, I'll participate. You'll find me in the 'Over 50, out of shape with arthritis' category.

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A TALE OF TWO DOJOS (PART ONE)

Many people on hearing that I studied Karate in Japan, have expressed an interest in hearing about my experiences in the Land of the Rising Sun. I have been fortunate in that I was able to study under the tutelage of Kaiso Masayoshi Kori Hisataka. My adventures were unusual to say the least, and I will share some of them with you in this article.

I started my study of Karate in 1962 when I was a student at Long Island University in Brooklyn N.Y. I have been asked on many occasions why I began studying Karate. My answer was always quite simple: "I lived in Brooklyn". In any event, I started studying old style Shorin Ryu under a talented, but somewhat shady San Dan by the name of James Wax. This did not last long as Mr. Wax disappeared one day with the dojo assets and the IRS hot on his heels.

In the Shorin Ryu dojo I had heard rumours of a very talented Karate master by the name of Hisataka. I went to visit the Brooklyn Academy of Music and stared in wonder at this extraordinarily talented young Japanese master. I could not however, afford the cost of study and would have given up at that point. It did turn out that Master Hisataka had a friend Mr. Yamazaki, a Yon Dan, who was teaching on Avenue J in Midwood. What luck! Only 3 blocks away from my house, and I could afford the rates. So I began studying with Sensei Yamazaki. I became very attached to him, he was a frequent guest at my home, and eventually he gave me one of his gis (which my son now uses). On occasion, Master Hisataka would come to Avenue J with a pair of bogu, and we would have an impromptu Shiai.

There was only one problem; Sensei Yamazaki was teaching on a tourist visa. One day two immigration agents showed up at the Dojo, and politely but firmly showed our Sensei to an airplane. I would not see him again for 7 years. After this catastrophe I tightened my belt and studied under Master Hisataka. A high point of my studies was when the World's Fair came to New York. Master Hisataka was a VIP, having connections to and giving demonstrations at the Japanese pavilion, and he gave this lowly student a VIP tour.

The emphasis in Master Hisataka's class was kumite and shiai. We did Gohan #1, #2,and #3, Renshu #1 and Sankakutobi kumite extensively. I learned Sanchin, Naihanchin, and one or two other kata. We would do kumite with the bogu on to get contact practice.

Achieving the rank of 4th Degree or higher at that time required that the candidate make a unique contribution to Shorinjiryu. This would be the academic equivalent of doing a thesis, and this is no easy feat considering how long Karate had been around. Master Hisataka was quite proud of the fact that the full roundhouse/backroundhouse combination was his contribution, and he modified Naihanchin (at that time) so that the kata concluded with this combination.

Eventually my schooling required that I relocate to Atlanta G.A., so in 1966 I bid farewell to Brooklyn and Shorinjiryu. I was pursuing a Doctorate at Emory in Atlanta G.A, when the U.S. Congress, in it's infinite wisdom, ended the draft deferment for graduate students. In short order I started receiving 'love letters' from my Brooklyn draft board and decided that drastic action was required. Having passed my first level qualifiers, and having done considerable groundwork on a thesis, I was able to delay entry into the service by signing up for pilot training in the Air Force.

A bout with hay fever washed me out of pilot training (this proves that almost anything can have a positive use) and I wound up as a Weather Officer.

After a year in Sacramento, California, my commander informed me I was due for a transfer to a weather station, specifically the station in Gnome, Alaska. Now I had seen pictures of this weather station. More specifically, I had seen pictures of a smokestack sticking out of a snowfield. This was not for me. I informed my commander that if assigned to Alaska, within 6 months I would have a complete nervous breakdown and would be of no use to anyone, much less the Air Force. He must have believed me because my good friend Luther Elrod got sent to Alaska, and I went to Japan. Luther made out quite well there in the snowbanks, and the last time I spoke to him he was about to enter the priesthood (he is a devout Roman Catholic).

Within a short period of time, camera in hand, I was tourist wandering around Tokyo. I ran into a 'hustler', one of those persons who at the time attempted to sell Florida real estate to gullible U.S. servicemen. Now this person did not have any redeeming qualities except that he had studied Karate briefly in Shinjuku (a borough of Tokyo) with a Karate Master named Hisataka! When I heard this, all the old memories came flooding back. I got the address, but he did not get a land sale.

I was at the time, living on a Japanese Air Base that was partitioned into American and Japanese zones. One could walk freely anywhere on the base and I happened to pass a low building and saw through the window a Karate Dojo. This was a Shotokan Dojo of the Japan Karate Association, headed at that time by M. Nakayame. Not standing on ceremony, I showed up the next day, gi in hand, and started practicing with the group. They didn't speak any English, I didn't speak any Japanese, and we got along splendidly.

I had been studying Shotokan for about 2 months, 6 days a week, when I obtained the address of the Shorinjiryu Hombu Dojo. Hence the title of this tale. For about 2 years, I practiced both Shorinjiryu and Shotokan, never letting one interfere with the other. For the remainder of this article I will describe only my experiences with the Shorinjiryu Hombu Dojo, and my involvement in Shotokan will be left for a future article.

I lived on the Japanese Air Base in Fussa Machi, a suburb of Tokyo. In order to get to the Hombu, I had to take a 1and 1/2-hour train ride, transfer to a subway for another 20 minute ride, and finally walk about 15 minutes. The streets of Tokyo are laid out irrationally, with the numbers being related to the age of the building. Finding a street address is not an easy task. However, the police boxes are everywhere, and the police have a direct line to a headquarters office with a 24-hour translator service.

The first time I went to find the Hombu dojo I stopped at a local police box, told the translator where I wanted to go, and a Marti-san (police officer) guided me to the door.

Not knowing what to expect, and not having studied Shorinjiryu for almost 3 years, I wore a white belt. Besides in the early days Hanshi Masayuki Hisataka never put anything down in writing, and although we wore coloured belts when we studied, there was never any written certificate accompanying a promotion.

I entered the dojo, it was small by U.S. standards, possibly no larger than the workout area at the 12 Towns YMCA. It must be remembered that this Tokyo, and for Tokyo it was most spacious. I entered and saw several black belts doing diverse things, with one white belt kicking a bag. Kaiso Masayoshi Kori Hisataka stood in a corner, his arms folded, directing this apparently disorganized class.

One of the black belts, a shodan named Morita, broke off and came over to talk to me. He spoke excellent English. I explained who I was, and within 5 minutes I was in a gi and part of the class.

The dojo etiquette was simple. On entry I had to clap and recite my name and the saying with which most are familiar. In this circumstance, however, it was not just a formality. Being somewhat elderly, Dr. Hisataka had very poor vision, and an audible entry was necessary to make one's presence known to him.

Dr. Hisataka was physically imposing, being over 6 feet tall. He was stockily built, radiating strength and dignity. It was immediately apparent why he had such a fearsome reputation. When I got on a subway in Japan I would usually be one of the tallest persons in the car, invariably able to see over most of the other passenger's heads and I am 5'6" tall. By Japanese standards, Dr. Hisataka was a giant.

Unfortunately, he did not speak English and my knowledge of Japanese was quite limited. But I could tell from the comments of my companion & translator that he had an acerbic wit right up there with Admiral Rickover.

Classes always started with individual instruction. There was no warm-up because you did Karate everyday, and if necessary, warmed up through the techniques. Dr. Hisataka would latch onto me before I had my foot in the dojo, and start me on something. Sometimes it would be makiwara technique, other times it would be some unique weapon (we practiced kumite with a short bo or walking stick as well as the traditional weapons) and sometimes a form. One could sense his desire to transfer knowledge as fast as he could and there would be frustration because of the language barrier.

There was never a bow in or a bow out. One bowed on entry to and exit from the dojo and that was it.

After about an hour of specialized practice, hopefully not causing a pulled muscle or tear, we would pair up and Dr. Hisataka would have us do Kumite. This was great for me, as the class was almost all black belts with as far as I can recall only one or two white belts at the Hombu the entire time I was there.

We would then do a kumite between 100 to 200 times. Dr. Hisataka would go through it once, and then start counting, once per complete kumite. He wouldn't stop until we were near exhaustion. About half the time, we would do the kumite wearing bogu, and at appropriate points we would make contact. When I did this with a white belt, he would usually try to escape the contact by moving quickly. Black belts would be stoic, standing stock-still to give the less talented an easy target. This was also self-preservation as the lower belts did not have good control and might cause injury by missing the bogu and hitting the ribs or groin area.

We were graced by a visit from Sensei Yamazaki after I had been studying at the Hombu dojo for almost a year. He was furious that I was not wearing my brown belt. It was difficult to explain that, having seen the only belt colours white and black, at the dojo, I did not even know if Dr. Hisataka gave a brown belt. Besides, as I explained above, discretion is the better part of valour. Apparently, after Yamazake's visit, I did wind up registered somewhere.

It must be remembered that the mindset of a karateka is different in Japan. First, rank is not that important. A shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) is just a novice. You work out several times a week, and every couple of years you get a promotion - maybe. No one really notices until the 4th Degree, at which time administrative and teaching skills tend to overshadow technical competence. It is a given that a karateka will continue practicing for 20 or 30 years, and there is, consequently, no hurry to be promoted.

After several hundred times doing a form, we would split up and do weapons kumite, and Dr. Hisataka would again give individual attention to each student.

I recall on one occasion, I was doing a kumite where the defender (myself) had a walking or half (hamban) bo, and the attacker had a full length bo. I was doing advanced turning form over a bo strike to the knees, sometimes getting hit. Dr. Hisataka, at an advanced age with some serious infirmities demonstrated the correct technique by doing a turning form over my head! He went up like a fighter jet!

After the class we would do warm-up exercises, and Dr. Hisataka would apply tremendous pressure to certain parts of the body to increase stamina. We would then clean the dojo, putting everything away and cleaning the floors. Everyone chipped in and there was no 'pulling of rank'. Only Dr. Hisataka, because of his age did not participate.

Now the second part of the class began. We got dressed, and being in Shinjuku, which is the 'fun' district of Tokyo, went out drinking. The white belts, being teenagers did not usually participate. It was mostly black belts, with the rank of the belt being proportional to the amount of intoxicating beverage consumed. This was far more difficult than anything attempted in the dojo. I stuck to beer, keeping in mind my 2 hour plus train ride home on a work night.

The black belts I studied with were openly friendly and always willing to help. Their knowledge of English ranged from poor to excellent, with most having a good working knowledge of English.

Dr. Hisataka was probably one of, if not the most powerful Karate master of all time. If he had been fortunate enough to have had a University affiliation in Japan (where most professional instructors come from), it is possible that Shorinjiryu, and not Shotokan would be the dominant form of Karate in Japan today