A TALE OF TWO DOJOS (PART TWO)

During my stay in Japan I lived on a Japanese Air Force Base in Fussa Machi, a suburb about 90 minutes by train from Tokyo. The base was partitioned into zones. Japanese soldiers lived in barracks on one part of the base while the other part was reserved for US Air Force personnel and their dependents.

Quite by chance I passed a small one story building and glancing inside discovered that it was a Karate Dojo. The next day I showed up with my gi and started practicing. Classes were held 6 days a week, 2 hours a night. I attended between two and three nights, the other nights taking the long trip into Tokyo to study with Dr. Hisataka.

The Fussa Dojo was affiliated with the Japan Karate Association (JKA). The JKA had been founded by Master Funakoshi about 1928, and during my stay it was headed by one of his former students, Master Nakayama.

JKA karate was, and still is, a very rigid style. Attention to detail is intense. For example, if during the execution of oi tsuki (lunge punch) in a kata the heel of the rear foot comes off the ground, then the contestant automatically gets the lowest grade possible. During shiai, if the rear heel is lifted while delivering gyaku-tsuki (reverse punch), even if the blow is otherwise perfect the contestant cannot get a point.

This attention to detail, and the overall rigidity of the style lends itself well to a military environment. At my dojo the instructors were all noncommissioned officers and the students were all privates. There were only one or two students other than myself who had colored belts. This was due to the normal turnover in a military environment, and the fact that, contrary to popular belief, many Japanese do not particularly care for a militaristic way of life.

So here I was, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, and an honorary private in the Japanese Self Defense Force.

The class would start with a formal bow, meditation, and the recitation of the oath. A senior student would then lead the exercise warm-ups. These were normally pretty standard. We continued the warm-ups right through the kata. We would do Heian I, II, III, IV and V and the Tekki katas (Tekki is the JKA version of Koshiki Naihanchin) as warm-up exercises. By counting slowly beginners could watch the persons around them and pick up the katas easily. We would do each kata one or two times slowly, concentrating on form and power, and then quickly to merge power with speed. The instructors would watch the forms to see where students were deficient (* NOTE in JKA Karate everyone was always deficient) and then we would do combinations back and forth concentrating on one or two points, for example moving forward in zenkutsu dachi (front stance) with an outside block (chudan soto uke), moving back in the back stance (kokutsu dachi) with a knife hand block (shuto uke), etc. This would go on endlessly, with extreme attention to detail including breathing, placement of the hands, positioning of the feet, amount of force and tension applied, transitioning while moving, etc. Every once in a while the sensei would get bent out of shape at a block or punch not being picture perfect and we would then do several hundred moves usually just involving that one technique.

We would sometimes go outside, especially in nice weather, and jog in formation over gravel roads (in bare feet, naturally) to the athletic field, where we would do mild exercises. These included such nifty things as doing a duck walk up the bleacher seats with someone sitting on your back (remember it was a military dojo)! A row of makiwaras (striking wood boards covered with a pad) were lined up in back of the dojo. We would spend considerable time there practicing the reverse punch and empi making hard contact.

After over an hour and a half of basics we would do ippon kumite (one blow prearranged sparring). This was similar to the Shorinjiryu basic upper and lower techniques for two karate-ka. The attacker would deliver one technique, usually a lunge punch, defender would block with a prearranged technique and counter. A typical set of techniques would be attacker lunge punch, defender step back into zenkutsu dachi, jodan age uke (upper block) followed by gyaku tsuki (reverse punch). Most linear indeed!

The Japanese are very enamored of the psychological battle, that is, mental sparring followed by a single lightning thrust. They used it at Pearl Harbor, and they use it in Sumo. It is also one of the reasons why they like baseball so much. The pitcher/batter duel turns them on. Consequently they really got turned on by ippon kumite.

The objective of the attacker would be to move so quickly that the defender could not block in time, even knowing what was coming. The defender would try to block on reflex without thinking, so that the block and counter was automatic. It was a game for the black belts to see if they could "psych out" the students and break through their defense.

In my case I had a weight advantage, being much stockier than the average Japanese. The typical Japanese I faced weighed about 120 lbs. I weight about 148, and at the time it was definitely not fat. I once asked a visiting black belt who spoke fairly good English why my opponents were so "gun shy". He explained that because of my physical build (not to mention how much I practiced) most Japanese were "psyched out" the minute they faced me. Bill Wallace used this technique during his PKA days, wearing a gi 3 sizes too small to show off his muscles.

Now this is one of the few things that really bugged me about Shotokan. The reverse punch was almost a religious ceremony, requiring absolute perfection. Try doing gyaku tsuki with the rear heel glued to the floor. Dr. Hisataka was absolutely right. It just doesn't work! For a Shotokan practitioner to admit that though would be like Fidel Castro admitting that Communism doesn't work.

I once asked the senior instructor, a Sandan and Master Sergeant what he did in the evenings aside from Karate. He couldn't think of anything. No movies, no shows, no family life (Okasan must have really been ticked!). Which leads me to weekends...

On weekends when Karate class was ' officially ' not in session, the fanatics (all the black belts and about 50% of the rest of the class) could be found on the athletic field practicing calisthenics and kata. I would join them, and this would be the opportunity to learn and practice the advanced kata.

I did attempt to delve into the metaphysical aspects of Karate. I engaged one young man in conversation. I asked him to describe Buddhism. He explained that Buddha was a priest who died, went to heaven, and became GOD. O.K. so far. I asked him, if Buddha was a priest, then who did he worship before he went upstairs and took over. ' Ahhh Sooooo ! ' This confused the poor guy to no end, and at that point I gave up all discussions of metaphysics and religion with the Japanese and stuck to Karate.

Promotions and tournaments were well organized. They were so well organized they rarely happened. One had to travel to Tokyo once a year for a promotion test. If you were sick or out of town it could be two or more years between tests. It was common to skip two or three grades when taking a test because of the time between testing cycles. A friend of mine went from 10th kyu to 1st kyu on his first test.

Tournaments were even worse. Because of the dominance of Shotokan, an attempt to hold a regional tournament where everybody could participate would have taken weeks. Consequently the entry rules were simple. The 2 or three senior instructors at a school would flip a coin or hold an informal contest among themselves a week before the tournament, and then frantically practice all week for the contest. Usually that would be the only shiai practice the dojo would see all year. Each dojo would then enter only one or two such contestants, and the rest of the dojo (minus one) would be relegated to sitting in the bleachers (This might otherwise be called supply-side Karate).

At such times I did get to see the Budokan, the official Japanese Center and school for the martial arts. It is a beautiful building, and has some interesting displays. Definitely a must for the tourist with a martial arts background.

When I finally left Japan and separated from the service I did so with a real appreciation for the Shotokan purist. Practicing oi-tsuki 2 hours a day, six days a week for years on end without getting bored - now THAT'S dedication!!

(November 1, 1990).

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QUESTION TO RENSHI BERENBACH.

-----Question-----
Hi Renshi Berenbach
When you were in Japan in the 60's did the gi's have crests, and did the black belts have embroidered gold stripes to denote Dan grade?
Thanks
Allen Yuen

-----Answer-----
Allen,

In the 1960s, the white of the gi represented purity of the soul and sincerity. No style in Japan had any adornment on the gi other than the person's name in stitching, or on the belt. Black belts all wore a simple belt with no stripes of any kind. Only a few instructors had their name stitched on the belt. Kaiso was the only dan I ever saw in Japan with a belt other than a plain black one.

Renshi Brian Berenbach
Shorinjiryu Kenryukan Karate Association

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WHY WE STUDY KARATE

I have, of late, given considerable thought to why so few white belts become black belts. This issue is of more than academic interest, as my generation is not getting any younger, and committed karate-ka are needed to carry the style through the next century.

Many years ago I moved to Edison, New Jersey and started teaching at the local community centers and schools. I felt isolated in that if I got sick I had no one to stand in for me, and, even more important, I did not have anyone or any school to share with and help in the grading of students.

Through a circuitous route, I managed to get the names and phone numbers of most the black belts who had studied with Russell Harter (he had a dojo in Somerville years before). I called each and every one of them and asked them if they were interested in helping me form the core of a Shorinjiryu community in mid Jersey. I was surprised to find that not a single one of them was interested. I was beyond surprised. It had never entered my mind that a Shorinjiryu practitioner would consciously choose to stop. Color me naïve.

Years later, I had a dojo with about 40 students. My wife (I am since divorced) was ill and I had to temporarily stop in order to take care of my children. Kyoshi and I found a temporary replacement, Debbie Simms, and turned the school over to her.

Debbie no longer practices karate.

While I was teaching, on occasion I had to go to the doctor's office. On one such occasion I looked up to see an ikkyu diploma in Shorinjiryu Karate. Turns out the doctor had practiced with Russell Harter. After a brief déjà vu session, it became abundantly clear to me that the doctor had absolutely no interest whatsoever in continuing.

Perhaps the title of this article should not be "why we study" but, rather "why we stop studying".

I believe that the two issues are clearly related. That is, we each study Karate for different reasons, and those that stop, in many cases, were studying for the wrong reasons.

So why do people study Karate? Lets see:

"* I want to be a black belt"
"* I want to be tough"
"* I want to be able to impress people"
"* I need exercise"
"* I need to be able to defend myself"
"* I want to be a secret agent?"
"* I like to fight"

I think that to some extent, most people who walk into a dojo do so for one or more of the above reasons. The key issue is not why they initially come, but why they participate.

Any karate-ka who studies solely for the above reasons is, sooner or later (usually sooner) going to stop. The study of karate is too difficult, too time consuming, too repetitive, too grinding and generally too demanding for those looking for an instant transformation into Jackie Chan. And there are far easier ways of exercising (I like a treadmill myself), and god, doing those stretches after the age of 50?

What about the student who wants to be a black belt? A noble goal? When I practiced in Japan, I was often in classes consisting solely of black belts. I was just another student (do I long for those days). Sooo, you are now a black belt. What now? Try longer hours, more responsibility, fewer opportunities to practice, and, yes, even PAPERWORK!

Okay, so what is it that makes someone stay with it year after year, even after it starts to feel like root canal every time they stretch? The answer is Magic! Well, sort of. Perhaps Bushido. It is the desire to touch the infinite, to meld mind and body, to be in harmony with the universe, and to study the mystery that is Karate.

To someone looking for exercise, doing a kumite one hundred times is exhausting, to THE karate-ka, each time one is just a little closer to understanding the truth of it, it feels just a bit better, and, for a few seconds, the two partners become something greater and more magical than each could ever hope to be alone.

Last Thursday night I had a choice. My son Joshua had a concert at school, my professional association had its quarterly meeting, and there was my Karate class. I chose to teach the class. Two ouches from which I have not recovered. But, you see, I had no choice.

Have a very happy holiday, and a great new year. Ous!

(December 1999)