Wednesday 20 June 2007

Flash back to my 2004 Interview with Asai Sensei

Here is one of the many interviews I did with Asai Sensei. Over time I plan to re-publish all of them on here, as I believe they offer so many insights into Sensei's karate-way. I thought I would start with the 2004 Interview, in my home town, Christchurch, New Zealand. Please note, to avoid any confusion, I resigned from JKS in 2006. I started the JKS organisation in New Zealand, and was still national chief instructor at the time of this interview.


Asai Shuseki-Shihan New Zealand Interview 2004
By André Bertel (JKS New Zealand Founder and Chief Instructor)

Sensei for the record, what are your views on sports karate kata, such as those performed by the WKF competitors. For example using jodan yoko kekomi instead of the traditional yoko keage and so forth?

Many people no longer do kata for martial arts, that is, for effective combat training of technique. People that do sports karate perform kata as a dance or gymnastics, with emphasis on being impressive as opposed to effectiveness. Often they change or alter movements in the kata to make them more aesthetic, like in your yoko kekomi example. Mostly they do their movements so fast they are in completed lacking any real impact. Also they tend to over-kime their techniques. All of these things are counter-productive and if trained, reinforce bad habits when you really need your karate. Sadly, this type of kata is being scored very well in sports karate tournaments, but this is because the judges don't know any better. They only understand Hollywood karate. I look at your kata, and many of the other senior JKS members around the world, and I see martial arts kata. This is real karate.

Thank you very much Sensei, I am greatly honored by your complement. So how do you think what we are doing fares against those who do these "jazzed up" kata?

As I said before I can see that you are doing fighting karate. But sadly, these impression-making routines will always win when you are judged in the sports karate arena as the judges don't understand martial arts karate. Karate can never compete against Olympic gymnastics for its showmanship, nor can any other martial art for that matter, so it is very sad when they water down karate to make it more impressionable, and loose its martial arts aspect. As I have said before, sports karate is not real karate. Perhaps now you can see the ever-growing rift between sports karate and traditional Bushido.

Below: Asai Sensei & Andre Sensei (the interviewer) after morning training. Asai Sensei trains for an two hours each morning staring at 4:30am.

So Sensei do you think that the majority of the karate world has moved away from effective martial arts training?

Absolutely! Look at most Shotokan training, and Goju Ryu, Shito Ryu, Wado Ryu, Kyokushinkai etc. The focus in general practice is more and more on winning competitions their respective organisations attend, as opposed to martial arts practice. Too much time is spent on only training what has become the standard techniques for tournaments, such as seiken gyaku zuki, mae geri keage with josokutei, gedan barai and so forth. That is why the majority of good competitors can't fight in reality, there karate has been very watered down and limited by what is now considered to be "standard".

Sensei, on this topic, can you give an explanation about your extensive use of nakadaka-ippon ken in your kamae and throughout your karate? It is my habit (Laughs). We were talking about this the other night at your house, do you think people really want to know (Laughs)?

Yes Sensei, I would love to see this made public if that is ok?

Ok, advanced karate is not Seiken, although it is essential to train ones seiken throughout ones karate life. It is like training the Heian, Tekki or Junro kata, or practicing gohon and kihon ippon kumite. Everyone knows we have many karada no buki (weapons of the body) which make karate very unique. In fact karate is unsurpassed in their number. Sadly, these are more than often neglected. The sharper weapons of karate, such as nakadaka-ippon ken and tsumasaki are the essence of physical karate technique. They are purely for martial arts karate, the only way of karate that I personally advocate. To me karate is using the more lethal weapons of the body with pin-point accuracy to vital points of the human anatomy. For example shihon nukite delivered to the opponent eye or hiraken to their throat. This is pure karate, not boxing with seiken. I am not a big person and not young anymore, but if I hit anyone on the temple with my nakadaka-ippon ken it will permanently finish them off. Karate is very lethal when trained focusing on such weapons and their real application. This is real karate. Back to your original question, nakadaka-ippon ken is my standard fist formation because it is completely unforgiving. Karate is not a game to me and it isn't if you have to use it in reality. How you train is what you will do under pressure in a serious altercation. If you want martial arts karate technique, you must spend time training the sharp tools, not only the blunt ones.

Sensei, every year you have introduced kata. You have introduced many since my last interview with you. What additional kata are you teaching now?

Actually I can't remember what I said last year so I will tell you all the kata I am teaching at present and want to see preserved, most of which you know. I am teaching kihon-kata including Jo no kata, Gyaku zuki no kata, Kihoken-issei, Kihoken-nisei and Kihoken-sansei (Interviewers note: Kihoken is in fact one kata, however Asai Sensei teaches it in three sections), Shinken, Junro-shodan, Junro-nidan, Junro-sandan, Junro-yondan, Junro-godan, Joko-issei, Joko-nisei, Joko-sansei, Joko-yonsei, Joko-gosei, Kyakusen-shodan, Kyakusen-nidan, Kyakusen-yondan, Kyakusen-godan, Kyakusen-rokudan, Kyakusen-nanadan and Rantai. Wheel chair kata include Shorin-dai, Shorin-sho, Nirin-dai, Nirin-sho, Sanrin-dai, Sanrin-sho, Yonrin-dai, Yonrin-sho, Gorin-dai and Gorin-sho. I have only introduced half of the wheelchair kata so far. Advanced kata include Meikyo-nidan, Meikyo-sandan, Hachimon, Senka, Rakuyo, Sensho, Shotei-dai, Shotei-sho, Kakyoku-shodan, Kakuyoku-nidan, Kakuyoku-sandan, Seiryu, Roshu, Kashu, Suishu, Hushu, Raiko. There are many others also, I think around 150 in total. I have never counted the kata as the number is insignificant. Your kata is Kaminari-arashi, Shotei-dai & the three Kakuyoku, very nice, you have made them your own through hard training and study. Before only Unsu and standard 27 Shotokan kata (laughs).

Sensei, you mention 27th standard Shotokan kata, is the 27th kata Hyakuhachiho or Taikyoku shodan?

The 27th kata of Shotokan-ryu is Hyakuhappo, which is also known as Hyakuhachiho in the various Shotokan groups or Superinpei in Okinawan karate-do. The three Taikyoku kata were created by Mr. Funakoshi's son, Funakoshi Gigo and are unnecessary training. Perhaps they were useful in the public introduction of basic kata? I am not sure, but they are not needed and only serve as basic physical education training. Doing kata for the sake of doing kata is time wasted. Each kata must help ones fighting skills to improve. The Heian kata are enough without the Taikyoku kata. The other basic kata we have, all have special points, developing various aspects of your martial arts arsenal. Taikyoku are merely simplified versions of Heian, therefore they are covered by the Heian kata and not needed.

Sensei what is the most important point you stress in kumite training?
Kumite training must involve no friendship. There is no friendship in fighting someone, so if you want to learn karate as true bujutsu (martial arts) you must train with a serious spirit, right from the onset of your training. For example, when doing yakusoku-kumite, the attacker must aim to hit the defender. They must attack from the correct ma’ai, not too far away, and not too close. This is the most basic point in kumite training, if people do not follow this precisely, they will be completely wasting their practise time. Obviously one must use commonsense when training with someone much less experienced, or physically weaker, but at a high-level, there is no excuse if you cannot handle someone stronger. When defending and counterattacking you must not be afraid, you must foster a spirit of `no fear’. Enter into range without pre-conceived thought, this was my way when I used to compete. I didn’t care, I just reacted. This is essential and needs to be fostered in all karateka. This why I am always teaching that running away is more dangerous, go inside. Everything is step-by-step, but for instructors, there is a responsibility to be strong both physically and mentally. Fortunately most are strong, but some are using age, or high rank, as an excuse, and this is not acceptable. Higher level karateka must rely on superior technique, regardless of age, to overcome strength, size and youthfulness. This is karate, and this is the purpose of all technical skill. Instructors must self-train everyday!

Sensei, can you further explain the origin of your Muchiken (Whip Fist)?
Muchiken came from my study of various martial arts weapons, namely the Chinese seven jointed whip, the three sectional staff, the nunchaku, and others. Basically I discovered, even though I am getting older, that I could increase my speed and power if I utilised a whipping action in my waza. This was something I was doing for many years before, but later on, I began to innovate more effective training methods. This allowed me to further improve my speed and power, whilst the others, even younger instructors at JKA, began to slow down considerably. Mr. Nakayama was very pleased with my innovations, and was the only one who really knew what I was doing. I think everyone else thought I was crazy like you André (laughs). By training in muchiken you can apply all the weapons of the body freely and with great effectiveness. Many karateka neglect such weapons as seiryuto, kakuto, kumade, keito, washide, and so forth. These weapons, and many others, are all standard karate and must be developed.

You always refer to `softness’ when you discuss your technique, can you expand on softness for the benefit the readers?

Left: Asai Shihan & André Sensei during a class warm up. Incredibly Asai Shihan easily performs the full-splits at 69 years of age - without any warm up! The exercise shown here involves switching sides, while in the splits, by rapidly swinging the legs around. One of Asai Shihan’s favourites.

Natural and relaxed karate is the key to lifelong karate. I always tell everyone to be natural-natural-natural, but most people do not listen! Or they listen, but do not change their way. So then I return to take another seminar a year or two later, and I say, be natural-natural-natural again. If people are natural, then they can become soft, and then they can transfer their power smoothly. This will result in more effective karate. In regards to becoming soft, I recommend stretching everyday of your life, not just your upper legs and hips, but your ankles, arms, shoulders, and neck. Everything! Also train exercises and kata to address your weaknesses. For example, your ashiwaza is no good, and you want to develop leg snap, train Rantai or Kyakusen. If you want shoulder and elbow snap, train Shinken and Seiryu. For overall softness and kokyu (breathing) train all three parts of Kihoken daily. Once you feel you have peaked, and want to become softer, practise holding your breath when training softness exercises. When your breath is held, your muscles will naturally become more tense, so if you can train to be soft when your breath is held, you will increase your softness when breathing normally. This is a basic method I have personally used for years, and it is extremely effective for becoming soft.

Sensei, in contrary to your soft body, and use of your joints for power, the weapons of your body are like steel. This seems like a contradiction for most people who don’t know your way of karate.
Makiwara is the base conditioning practise in karate. Imagine a sharp piece of steel attached to a rope. This is my karate. The body is soft, the weapon is hard. (At this point Asai Sensei whacks his shin bone solidly with his knuckles and it sounds like wood. He then thumps his shihon nukite into the lobby table with force that would most certainly severely break my fingers). André, as you know I train on the makiwara every morning. When I am here in New Zealand, and in other countries, I bring my pocket makiwara. Very convenient!

Interviewers note: After this interview at dinner, Asai Shihan told me his standard daily makiwara routine. 300 gyaku zuki, 100 uraken yokomawashi uchi, 100 shuto sotomawashi uchi, 100 shuto uchimawashi uchi, 100 teisho yokomawashi uchi, 100 haito sotomawashi uchi and 100 ganken uchi. He also said he often, but not every day uses a very heavy sand bag for the following: The conditioning of his elbows (hiji), the forearms (naiwan, haiwan & gaiwan), the shins (sune), the knees (hiza), the shoulders (he refers to as `kataken’) and the various weapons on the feet. Asai Shihan kindly gave me permission, to add this into this interview, so people can follow his example in their own daily training routine. It is also worth noting that Asai Shihan does not take his time when he hits the makiwara, he hits it fast and continuously.
Sensei what’s your opinion of kyusho-jutsu (pressure point techniques)? I know you practise them, but where do they stand in relation to basic Shotokan karate?
I have many old documents and study kyusho-jutsu very closely, this is high class karate. However, it is much more important to develop techniques, which can finish your opponent, regardless of hitting a vital point or not. Kyusho-jutsu is secondary to this, and simply gives the edge. If you miss the point, your blow must still be devastating, if you hit, it is better still. Kyusho-jutsu also greatly depends on the human bio-rhythm. Depending on the time, the more dangerous blows, if executed lightly, can be fatal, or merely lead to unconsciousness. Sometimes people die mysteriously from striking vital points at the wrong time. It is important to remember that too much focus on kyusho is pointless if you have not developed strong, fast, and spontaneous kihon.

Left: Asai Shihan superbly demonstrates the kata Joko-nisei for the interviewer during the infamous morning training. According to Asai Shihan, the five Joko kata build up from Junro series and develop greater precision (and junansei/softness) in ones karate.

For those who have not attended the advanced seminars can you explain kiho-yuragiso for the readers?
Kiho-yuragiso (way of breathing and vibration of the body) is like seaweed floating in the ocean. The purpose of this exercise is to soften the body combined with breathing of the upper, middle and lower lungs. I often practise this in my office. This is a very good method for developing the flexibility of your body, which is also related to breathing, as I said before. I don’t think this exercise is so interesting for younger karateka, however it can greatly benefit their snapping techniques. Practise of kiho-yuragiso combined with all three parts of Kihoken kata will offer complete kokyu (breathing) training for karateka. So far, most people only know of Kihoken-issei, however, I hope more will request to learn Kihoken-nisei and Kihoken-sansei. Young people can do these with snap and low tachikata. Older people can perform them more like Taikyoku-ken and in a higher stance. Kihoken actually has very effective applications for fighting, and it trains the correct state of muscles when under stress, for optimum speed and power. In regards to explaining kiho-yuragiso on here precisely, it is rather difficult! André, I am really pleased that you are seriously practising everything I teach you.

Thank you very much Sensei, and thank you for another fantastic interview. I look forward to being back in Japan in 2005 for training.

Excellent André, make sure you attend another technical seminar, and if you can, enter the JKS All-Japan Championships as I am sure you can do very well. I look forward to coming back to New Zealand again next year! Keep training hard, you are an excellent technical example for all of the JKS members in New Zealand. A focus on doing karate rather than talking karate is what makes me very pleased.
© André Bertel, Japan 2007

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