Sunday, 23 November 2014

Correct elbow positions in ukewaza

Migi zenkutsu-dachi with migi chudan uchi uke.
The position of one’s elbows when utilizing ukewaza (reception techniques) must be fully understood, and correctly applied, whether using ukewaza for defence, attack or both simultaneously.

A good way to learn this is to learn this is from the top down: especially in a freestyle context such as jiyu-kumite or via self-defence scenario training. Have your partner attack you, and attack relentlessly (without concern of your counter offensive manoeuvre; that is, their safety); accordingly, restrict your actions to only ukewaza.

At first concentrate on (using) your hands: This is typical amongst beginners and is very difficult if the opponent is relatively strong, and aggressive. Secondly, concentrate on (using) your elbows to move your hands. This, in comparison, you will find is much more easy and, understatedly, far more effective. Of course this also equally applies to ashi-uke (leg blocks) i.e. - focusing on the knees instead of the feet. I'd like to elucidate here that I am not disregarding the imperative use of the hips, the criticality of body shifting/footwork, and so forth. Rather, this is an isolation exercise for better understanding the elbows (in the overall context of karate-do waza).

Returning to the "basic" ukewaza, which we train in a formalized context (kihon, kata and yakusoku-kumite), we quickly gain an appreciation of our elbows. From here, let's consider the five most 'standard ukewaza' of Shotokan-Ryu as established by Funakoshi Gichin Shuseki-Shihan, at  the foundation of the JKA (Japan Karate Association), namely jodan age uke, chudan soto uke, chudan uchi uke, gedan barai and chudan shuto uke.

  (1)  Jodan age uke: wrist one fist width from the forehead and forearm diagonal.

(2)  Chudan soto uke: elbow one fist width from the body and bent 90 degrees.

(3)   Chudan uchi uke: elbow one fist width from the body and bent 90 degrees.

(4)  Gedan barai: wrist one fist width above the knee and elbow one fist width from the body.
(5)  Chudan shuto uke: elbow one fist width from the body and bent 90 degrees.
Hidari kokutsu-dachi with migi shuto chudan uke.
In all cases, with the exception of shuto uke (where the sword hand is applied), the blocking surface is one's tekubi (wrist) and, 'fundamentally speaking', all of them target the opponents respective wrists and ankles; furthermore, the power of all ukewaza primarily derives from your centre; most notably, the hips. In particular, this comes from koshi no kaiten, which like all `technical categories' in karate-do can be applied via jun-kaiten, gyaku-kaiten, or a combination of the two (often referenced as 'hip vibration'). However, koshi no kaiten cannot be so easily summarised as "..there are also various degrees of rotation and appropriate usage, which differs `case-by-case'". Additionally, it involves using the seika tanden and numerous other parts of the body (and a vast array of aspects, which establish `mastery'). Needless to say, we could go on and on but, for the sake of this article, I'd like to return to the issue of one's elbows.

So where do the elbows, in the context of the `core ukewaza’, fit in relation to one's overall effectiveness? Well, besides the point mentioned above in the freestyle context (essentially controlling what the hands/wrists “do”), the distance of the elbows in relation to the torso determine leverage. In simple terms, as the blocking elbow gets further away from the body the basic ukewaza become weak. Ironically, if it comes closer to the body (than a fist width) they lose functionality/applicability.

If this point is fully expressed one can create a huge amount of power if the waist is fully applied, via the rear leg, and the shoulders relaxed (all the other aspects such as shime simply add to these points). In this way, the feeling is to attack with both your wrist and elbow as single unit. Suddenly age uke becomes a rising elbow strike; soto uke - a roundhouse elbow strike; uchi uke - a side elbow strike; and both gedan barai and shuto uke become downward elbow strikes. Again, this goes beyond various forms of enpi-uchi...

Another aspect I'd like to mention here is 'over blocking'; that is, executing ukewaza beyond the body or head. A "classic error" is chudan soto uke in, say, Gohon kumite (Five step sparring) where the defender superfluously moves. All of my students will laugh here, because you all know what I'm about to say and what I do when this happens... When someone over blocks, in Gohon kumite (or in any of the forms of Ippon kumite), I immediately punch jodan. For me, when this occurs, they have given me a huge gap of time that I can't resist capitalizing on and—much more importantly—it gives me the opportunity to give my students a `foundational lesson’... I then ask them, "…were you imagining you were also defending someone next to you?" To me this is the benefit of yakusoku-kumite because in any form of 'freestyle' "...superfluous `over-action’ is what will get one hurt in serious dojo kumite or in a match (or killed in the likes of a carjacking, home invasion and the like)".  If such key fundamental points are not second nature in one's technique, even in a basic pre-arranged context—in the somewhat `safety of the dojo’—they certainly won't be able to be applied in an unpredictable circumstance (of a serious match or in a real fight). In sum, it is obvious that "if one continues to practice in this way they are literally reinforcing very-very bad habits". But here's the good news, if you do your ukewaza correctly (adhering to proper kihon and kata) you will not over block; moreover, you will learn to use and adapt to combative variations subconsciously, which is the beauty of strictly practicing budo. I can say this with confidence from my experience in the security industry, on the door, private protection jobs, and in other occupational contexts of my former life.

Some of you reading this may be questioning the 'the elbow one fist from the body' rule mentioned in this article (in relation to chudan ukewaza); furthermore, you may be questioning the issue of techniques such as tate shuto chudan uke. To answer these questions: Firstly, yes it is true that around twenty years ago chudan uke were changed to 1.5 fist widths from the body by Sugiura Motokuni Shuseki-Shihan (i.e. – in the `Karate-Do Kata’ textbooks; however, this has recently been amended to one fist width. This is a minor difference, and 'application-wise' insignificant, but I believe is better, based on further simplification. Simplicity is what I learned to appreciate when I had to use my karate in the real world. Secondly, in the case of some ukewaza, such as tate shuto, the energy applied is different; for example, swinging the uke in an arc. This idea is consistent with muchiken-waza such as kesa shuto uchi, sotomawashi haito uchi and, indeed, various keriwaza.

Migi ashi mae hangetsu dachi with migi chudan uchi-uke.
 A critical error with basic chudan uke: one typical error that is seen by sports kata exponents is making their chudan uke too high. For example, numerous kata 'champions' perform their ryo keito chudan haneageuke (movement two of Unsu kata) incorrectly. Such 'changes' in the techniques of karate, merely for aesthetics or to make performance more easy, is clearly due to a total lack of understanding, faking power, or—in most cases—both. Essentially what they do is turn karate kata into an odd dance form. The same can be seen by their exchanging yoko keage for yoko kekomi, excessive pauses, and performing other superfluous actions. Worse than the athletes doing this are those who copy them around the world! And yes, there are legions of them. It’s what I guess can be termed ‘karate fads’ and unambiguously have no relationship with actual karate—the martial art. In saying that, this helps to identify genuine from the artificial karate.

A key indicator of correctness: "The top of the fist, or finger tips of shuto, when executing the core chudan ukewaza is in-line with the top of the shoulder (with VERY SLIGHT VARIATIONS depending on ones arm length etc.)". Keeping this in mind, with `the one fist width from the body rule', and the elbow bent at right angle: and the correct form becomes immediately apparent. This is the most effective and physiologically/biomechanically strongest position for the core chudan ukewaza... "If you have a look around you will see many sports kata `world champions' who do this incorrectly. Indeed, this is one of the numerous ways of easily separating budo karate (real martial arts karate) from fake karate, which is merely for show". While this may sound like I am repeating myself, I am, on purpose...

Last, but not least, by adhering to the correct form (and principles) of the core ukewaza one can maximize their ukewaza in un-prearranged context: whether the karateka wishes to block/cover/parry, strike, lock or apply a joint lock/dislocation. In traditional budo karate, irrespective of style, "kihon, kata and kumite are one; moreover, this is not merely an abstract idea". Hence, the techniques of real karate always reflect optimal functionality in a freestyle context. The key is to know the 'how's' and 'why's', which are often misunderstood in the greater karate world. Of course, this transcends the positions of one's elbows; nonetheless, "...such points collectively come together and literally establish authentic karate technique, which is grounded on the tradition of optimum functionality".
Kiba dachi with hidari sokumen gedan-uke.
All the very best from Kumamoto-ken, Japan. Osu, André
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Monday, 17 November 2014

Kokuzou Jinja Training

Yesterday I had—like always—another excellent Karate-Do training with my close friend and training partner, Morooka Takafumi San (JKA 4th Dan). We trained at Kokuzou Jinja (, which is one of my regular `outdoor practice areas’ here in Aso-shi.

We began by engaging in Gohon Kumite (Five step sparring), Kihon Ippon Kumite (Fundamental one step sparring) and Jiyu Ippon Kumite (Free one step sparring), followed by several rounds of Jiyu Kumite (Free sparring). What I like about Morooka San’s kumite is that he is a big strong man, but he is also a `budo karate technician’—he has real ‘kime’; moreover, he is a highly intelligent guy and this is how he fights. Needless to say, it is always great and challenging to do Jiyu Kumite with him.

Following our jiyu kumite matches we worked on gyaku-zuki. I’d like to thank Morooka San here for giving me some excellent advice on my gyaku-zuki as he is a tsukiwaza specialist. My reason for mentioning this is to emphasise that ‘in our training, we have a two-way-relationship of constructive criticism, which I believe is essential for all senior karateka'. I guess this is my motivation behind this post...

We then practiced kata, starting with Gojushiho Sho, then moving on to Sochin and Enpi. The difficulty of training kihon and kata at Kokuzou is the soft surface restricts the ability to maximise the power from the ground; hence, it is a positive challenge as it pushes one to maximise their technique. To further elucidate, and without going into detail, the surface of the ground is covered in volcanic ash (as Aso-shi sits inside of a massive caldera).
After practice, at my home, we went over several points from the recent seminars under Ueki Masaaki Shihan (JKA Chief Instructor). This included Kihon Ippon Kumite—Kiri Kaeshi; the recent changes of the JKA kata in regards to elbow positions (from Morooka San's analysis of the new `Japanese edition' of KARATEDO KATA: VOL. 2); and several other aspects. Overall, a super day of solid Karate-Do training and sharing of knowledge. Domo arigato gozaimashita Morooka San.
 © André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Friday, 14 November 2014

Italian trainee from Canada: Pietro Giordan

Pietro and I, at dinner, after his final private lesson earlier this evening. 
Pietro Giordan, an Italian 2nd Dan (who is a university professor based in Toronto, Canada), has been training at my private dojo for the last couple of days. He flew all the way here to Kumamoto for some ‘one-on-one training’.

Pietro at my dojo in Aso-shi.
The private lessons I have taught Pietro have focused on the ‘core kihon’ of Karate-Do and the aspects that underpin on-going high-level development; namely, correct koshi no kaiten (the rotation of the hips), tai no shinshuku (the contraction and expansion of the body), and junansei (softness). These three points added to “the correct position at the `pre-point’, `initiation’, `delivery’, and `completion’ (of techniques)” was covered.

Movement 14 of Enpi kata: SASHO HIDARI NANAME MAE UE (KIBA DACHI).
A particular aspect that was looked at in great depth was unsoku (leg movements) and correctly applying/”sliding” linear techniques along the chushin (centreline). From there it was possible to look at the more unorthodox techniques that I practice and teach; accordingly, this, in turn, clarified that “…in order to perform these techniques, kata, and applications (from outside of standard Shotokan) one must have solid Shotokan”. Ultimately, this culminated in the various forms of sparring ranging from Gohon kumite to Jiyu kumite (focusing their specific purposes from a `Karate in Japan’ perspective). Needless to say, special coverage of tenshin (rotational techniques) and snapping techniques (including muchiken-waza) were also addressed.It is worth mentioning that the private training included the rationale behind a number of the more common drills/exercises that I teach on international courses (and, indeed, when practice/teach in my private dojo on a daily basis). Those who have attended my classes (or seminars here in Japan and/or around the world) well know that ‘these rationales imperative to understand: so that the exercises/drills are not merely a novelty’. The key point here is that “…everything one does—in their physical training—should decisively work towards the development of effective martial arts karate”. Accordingly, it cannot be stressed enough that “in Traditional Japanese Karate-Do, the physical aim of techniques is always to achieve a single finishing blow (Ichigeki-hissatsu)”.

Lastly, a couple of formal exercises were covered, Enpi and a non-syllabus kata; however, these are for Pietro, so I won’t say anything further. I look forward to seeing his kihon, kata and kumite in the future.
Overall, I wish Pietro the very best and hope that the last couple of days of training here at my dojo will help his long-term karate development. As I say to everyone who comes to me for private training, “consume what you find useful and spit out the rest”. All I hope is that Pietro has at least gained one point that will help progress his Karate-Do and that he thoroughly enjoyed the classes. It was a pleasure to meet you Pietro! Please have a safe and enjoyable trip back to Canada. I look forward to hearing your report about training here in Japan. Osu, André.
© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Ueki Shihan Kyushu Seminar Report

Over the weekend I attended another seminar of Ueki Masaaki Shuseki-Shihan (Chief Instructor of the JKA). Last year was great but this year was "awesome". The training included a staggering amount of high level knowledge; and like Ueki Sensei’s seminar last year, was delivered in the utmost masterful way.

 For anyone who has attended Ueki Shihan’s classes, you will know that they always include a finely acute balance of kihon, kata and kumite—the `technical trinity of Karate-Do’; accordingly, this weekend’s seminar followed this highly methodological approach. Here is a very brief outline of what Ueki Shuseki-Shihan taught. – André.
KIHON: The kihon taught this year was focused on multiple points, which were seamlessly interrelated to essentially “…foster overall improvement (of one’s Budo Karate) by centring power, and balance, in the seika tanden”. With this generic theme the following points were practiced: (a) stance checks for extreme balance (pushing one’s partner from various angles/directions when they were executing jodan age-uke kara chudan gyaku-zuki in zenkutsu-dachi). I’d like to add here that Ueki Shihan stressed that jodan age uke must be straight on, diagonal, and the typical `one fist from the forehead’. Furthermore, that the eyes must be fixed and mimi must remain stationary—especially when moving between shomen and hanmi; (b) pelvic alignment (the best practice of this was `four rapid/continuous mae-geri’ where the hips must remain square and the spine perfectly erect (and, the same conceptualisation, with `ippo sagatte gedan-barai kara jun-zuki’). I should mention that to do this precise, at maximum speed, can be very challenging when fatigue sets; (c) generating power from the tsumasaki into the hips (the entire body must be used), which was practiced via choku-zuki. It was great to readdress this fundamental point, which can’t be stressed enough; (d) the latest JKA Sohonbu evolution of stances—namely zenkutsu-dachi (with jun-zuki), hangetsu-dachi (with chudan uchi-uke kara gyaku-zuki), fudo-dachi (with jodan age-uke kara gyaku –zuki), sanchin-dachi (with ‘mawashi-uke’ kara teisho awase-zuki); sanchin-dachi (with ryo ken ryo koshi mae kara awase zuki) and neko ashi-dachi (with yori-ashi and teisho gedan awase-uke); and (e) the new `tighter’ loading of yoko-kekomi for a larger scale action via centralisation. I’d like to add here that the focus was on natural energy, and more natural position, in the Shotokan-ryu tachikata and with unsoku (leg movements). Indeed, lots of things to work on!!!

KATA: This year a huge amount of kata were covered: these included Hangetsu and Gankaku, which were the main focus for the shinsain test, which I didn’t take; but also Jitte, Kanku-Sho, Sochin, Nijushiho, and Gojushiho Sho. I won’t go into all of the points taught, as there are far too many; however, I will mention some, which stand out from my notes. (i) The `chudan uchi-uke kara gyaku-zuki’ in Hangetsu is now all performed in shomen as opposed to rotating into hanmi—which returns it `to its Okinawan roots’—furthermore,  makes it more unique/`technically meaningful’ amongst the Shotokan-ryu kata;  (ii) also in Hangetsu kata, the rear legs thy must point shomen and width has been further narrowed (also chudan-zuki after mikazuki geri): this is not new, but I was still doing gedan-zuki. Stance-wise, it was great to get some personal advice on my Hangetsu-dachi from Ueki Shihan; (iii) for Nijushiho, the `ryo ken ryo koshi’ is now horizontal to the floor as opposed to being vertical and tsukami-uke downwards; (iv) in the case of Gojushiho-sho, the hand positions of the three shihon-nukite (the trademark renwaza/kogeki in this kata) was extensively explained and emphasised (other points stressed were “commonplace” i.e. – centring the knee when executing fumikomi and wider grasping blocks in the first kiba-dachi sequences follow sokumen gedan-uke with haito). The list goes on…

KUMITE: The focus was (1) Kihon ippon kumite (jodan to yoko-kekomi); (2) Kihon ippon kumite (with kiri-kaeshi against jodan and chudan jun-zuki); and (3) Jiyu-kumite attacks with mae-geri and yoko-kekomi depending on the opponent’s kamae. Basically, this part of the lesson was strongly linked to the aspects of pelvic alignment and balance that was taught in kihon; consequently, it concluded with partner balance checks once again. Ueki Shihan demonstrated his spectacular mae-geri multiple times, which literally cannot be blocked! It is a case of ‘if you are there, it will hit you”. All I can say is “Awesome!”… Taken as a whole, the focus, in kumite practice, remains unchanged in the JKA, ‘to make kime with all techniques’; thereby, disregarding karate that is merely to wins games. This is, of course, the technical essence of Budo Karate. Relating to this—in the sense of `progression in Karate-Do’—one thing that I have physically come to appreciate even more (in recent months and more so through this seminar) is Gohon Kumite and Kihon Ippon Kumite. Done right and they are essential training tools. This is something I will leave for now, but will certainly write about in the near future.
JKA Japan examinations: Shidoin no shinsa: The second day included JKA dan and qualification exams. I have started resitting my qualifications from the beginning, so I merely tested for `C Class’ Shidoin (instructor) and `D Class Shinpan’ (Judge). I really messed up my kata as I missed doing any warm-up and literally had to run back into the gymnasium and start immediately. I’ve had an unlucky year with kata in 2014 but, again, a good learning experience… In saying that, by the time the kumite section of the test came, I was fully warm and ready to go; consequently, this went well. I also `lucked out’ as I got paired up with my good friend and training partner, Morooka San, who has very-very powerful budo karate.

Shinpan no shinsa: The judging test, as always, was an enjoyable affair with the typical revolving ‘four checks as a flag judge’, `one check as an arbitrator’, and `one check as the shinpan-cho (head referee)’. As soon as I started judging the matches I went back into autopilot, which meant I could simply enjoy the shinpan exam. Still, I got some advice from Nakamura Akiyoshi Sensei, which really helped before I entered the tatami. The written tests for instructor and judge went well, thanks to Nakamura Masamitsu Shihan (arranging that I didn’t have to read and write kanji). The complexity of the kanji in the exams is far beyond my capacity, so reading the questions in English and responding in Romanji was imperative to have any chance of passing. I’d like to offer my thanks here to Nakamura Shihan and Yamaguchi Sensei (Kyushu Sohonbu) for allowing that: domo arigato gozaimashita.
Last but not least I had a really fun time sharing a tatami room with Nakamura Akiyoshi Sensei, and dojo mates (Katayama Senpai, Ogasawara Senpai and Morooka San). These guys are all super blokes and we had more than a few laughs: not to mention `a couple of refreshments’. Also a special thanks to Morooka San for the ride to and from Nogata. I really appreciate you all, and your wonderful friendship through Karate-Do. – André.

© André Bertel. Aso-shi, Kumamoto. Japan (2014).