Friday 22 June 2007

Junansei: The Essence of Asai Karate

The Essence of Asai Karate

Based on my study under Asai Tetsuhiko, I believe that the highest level of karate skill and impact power is found in junansei (softness). Prior to accessing private trainings with Asai Sensei, my prime focus was foremostly to make maximum power. Nowadays, my number one aim is to always be in a state of relaxation, to achieve the 'softness', Asai Sensei was always referring to. This challenge may seem simple, but in reality it is physically ongoing and very demanding. The softer you can make your waza, a deeper level of junansei is revealed, and the deeper you go, the more 'impact power' you can generate (or better put, transfer). My training in karate-do, particularly the extensive private lessons with Asai Sensei, have snow balled for me, enabling me to have a greater appreciation of the internal arts, such as Tai Chi Chuan, Aikido etc. It has also helped me to see, that like karate, many of the instructors, teaching these arts, are merely demonstrating the external forms. This is the trend when too much focus is on martial 'sports', the practitioner is an amatuer (or poorly trained), or simply, they are a show-off.
The same power in the internal arts, when they are performed with expertise, must be applied in ones karate, if the karateka wishes to achieve a medium to high level of skill. This is the essence of Asai karate.
Always remember Asai's Sensei's constant advice! ''Snap''; ''Relax''; ''Natural''; ''Step by step!''
How I approach junansei in my own training
All the above points are fine and dandy in theory, therefore I will now translate how this permeates through my own physical karate training. Essentially this is what Asai Sensei taught me the over the years, and/or my perception, of what he taught me. In saying that, Sensei often changed what he taught, but this was usually minor technical (surface level) tweaks, such as doing a nobashi zuki instead of a gedan barai etc. The strict adherence to maintaining a soft body was never compromised.
Note: In this article I will use my approach to kata training, as Asai Sensei introduced so many new kata. I'd like expand here by saying, one of the main purposes (if not, the very reason), for his introduction, and development of these new kata, was simply to open students' minds to junansei (going from hardness to complete softness). It was his belief that he needed to teach junansei via a clean canvas. Of course junansei does not only apply to kata, but is universal in karate. So by doing the Asai kata in a typical JKA Shotokan manner actually defeats the purpose of doing them. I have sadly noticed this to be the trend of most people.
1.0 My priority in kata keiko is junansei: I foremostly aim to perform, and apply kata, in a fluid manner as opposed to being rigid. Being devoid of muscular tension results in large scale body actions (wind up using more joints), permits maximum transfer of energy, and allows the posture to remain unbroken. Therefore, as opposed to shiai/competition karate kata, I prioritise smoothness and fluidity over speed and power. My priority checklist in self-monitoring my kata is as follows: (a) Precision of kihon-waza (stance, posture, movement/transitions, and techniques in general). (b) Relaxation/Lightness (smooth fluid karate movements maintaining a perfectly 'controlled' center of gravity). High emphasis on power coming from the lower abdomen, pelvis, and back bone after being initiated from the floor/ground via the legs. (c) Snap as opposed to force/muscle drive (this idea comes from the 'muchiken' which I will upload an article on very soon). (d) Kime (decisiveness, that is achieving 100% stillness; techniques should be frozen like a statue). I would like to add here that this is 'my own way'. Asai Sensei's way was continuous movement not unlike his approach to Nijushiho. (e) Bunkai/Oyo-jutsu (techniques must be fully understood and 'physically investigated' constantly). In my view, I believe that kata application is time wasted unless it trains 'street effective' techniques and tactics. Junansei allows this to universally be possible, whereas stiff 'robotic Shotokan' doesn't. Typically bunkai-jutsu practised here in Japan, by most dojo, is pointless. I refer to this as 'Best Karate Oyo'.
1.1 My thoughts on the development of kata (based on discussions with Asai Sensei). According to Sensei ''Junansei was orthodox when karate was 100% a martial art'': Before I get slammed by the karate historians, politicians and everyone else who thinks they own karate, I would like to say here that I am just a guy who 'just trains', and has listened to what his teacher lectured. These points are only based on what Asai Sensei told me, and whether true or false, my ideas presented here are from his comments. Regardless, these ideas for me simply further justify my intense focus on junansei, and hopefully will help you to understand Asai Sensei's approach to kata (and karate in general). More than everything I have said here, what matters most of all is that you keep training, and keep improving! Junansei is the key to surpass your physical power once you hit that inevitable strength peak. Even more importantly, junansei means that you can keep getting better at karate as you age. Like Asai Sensei, you can still be at your peak in your early 70's! So here we go! My thoughts on the development of kata: (a) Firstly, kata is the base catalogue of all karate-waza and were/are the means of 'handing down the art from teacher to student. (b) Kata were apparently based upon the actual combat experience of warriors in China then later Okinawa. It is believed that what was proven ineffective was discarded. (c) Karate 'styles' were only established early last century, and were essentially defined by their respective kihon (which were the techniques found in the kata they practiced, and no doubt the sharing of knowledge). This kihon was altered by various instructors based on their own personal preferences and discoveries. In saying that, perhaps the minor technical differences/variations were created to merely 'define styles'? (d) In relation to points 'a' to 'c', Kata has evolved incorrectly since the development of kata competition. However, this was probably born prior to this time, by past generations of karate exponents, trying to 'show off' their power or athletic prowess. (e) The ultimate level of human action is when it is effortless, or appears effortless. When refined motor skills are made autonomous, and no superfluous action, or unnecesary power is used, it establishes true mastery. Kata is no exception to this rule, therefore the highest level of karate is the perfection of junansei (this was the ultimate biomechanical aim in bushido, as it permitted warriors to go physically beyond their seemingly natural limits). Asai Sensei often told me that karate was much 'softer' prior to the war, as it was trained as pure bujutsu (martial art). After the war he claimed that it was turned into physical education, and as a means to rebuild pride/spirit in a conquered and American occupied Japan. The ultimate demise of karate as a 'martial art' was the introduction of competition, as exhibiting more power than anyone else, espectially in the performace of kata, resulted in wins. Over time, karateka became more and more stiff, as that was what was percieved as 'good karate'. Many years passed, and now, the kata performed by most karateka is merely are stiff looking dance. Asai Sensei literally referred to it as ''Constipated style karate''.
1.2 Junansei in karate requires a supple body. I won't address the subject of flexibility in this article, but rather cover it in a future one, in a more indepth way, includilng some special exercises. I have to say Asai sensei's body was like a yoga master, so much so that Koichi Hirota (of the Hirota Dogi Company in Tokyo) once said to me in his office, ''Your teachers body is made of rubber''. He said this after attending a course in Tokyo. Relating this back to kata, the flexibility of the body allows the karateka to make a larger chamber (or wind up) to permit a greater use of snap/joint power. This is again directly related to the concept derived from the muchiken. Asai Sensei's constant reference to the Seven Jointed Whip, like everything else, comes from the foundation of junansei, but more obviously from this principle. _________________________________
This stiffness of movement restricts the karateka's release of power and therefore counterproductive (more input and less output). Long-term it is also unhealthy, as it is not natural, and jars the bones and joints. On the contrary, junansei allows the karateka to apply natural energy, thus impacting harder than with their limited muscle power. It also permits smooth, fluid and more rapid techniques, not to mention the ability to adapt accordingly to unpredictable scenarios. Again, in Asai Sensei's own words ''Stiff karate is like fighting against yourself.''
In conclusion I'd like to say that regardless of what I am working on, that junansei is my physical priority. Others, who wish to follow Asai Sensei's karate way, must not Shotokanize it, but rather aim to make their Shotokan soft. If you can make a 'committed physical effort' to erradicating muscular tension in your karate, you have found the essence of Asai Karate.
© André Bertel, Japan 2007

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