Monday 30 July 2007

Relaxing weekend in Yufuin

Over the weekend we had a friend stay with us, from Chiba, so we naturally enjoyed showing her the sites, here in beautiful Kyushu. One area I highly recommend, and where we took her this time, is Yufuin, and in particular, the Yufuin Brewery. After a refreshing time at the local onsen, you just can't go wrong having a couple of cool drinks (yes, I am sorry to everyone who religiously follows Funakoshi Sensei's 'Karate-do My Way of Life'). As many people know, I don't drink beer, however, every time we visit Yufuin with friends, the brewery is a must. Great food and wonderful atmosphere.

For those like me, who are non-beer drinkers, you can always enjoy some of the local shochu or sake!

I managed to complete my morning training today, but really felt my muscles burning. Lactic acid? Shochu in the veins? Not sure? Regardless I am assuming that the shochu was pretty good! Fortunately I'm no longer capable of drinking enough, to get one of those nasty hangovers.

Best wishes, Andre

© André Bertel, Japan 2007

Saturday 28 July 2007

Italian translation of interview

I'd like to thank Roberto Riccomagno Sensei of Torino, for requesting permission to re-publish Asai Sensei's final interview, on his superb Shotokan blog. My pleasure in this, is the fact that he has translated the interview into Italian, which is where my family originates from. For all the Italian readers of my blog, here is the link to the translation on Roberto's site.

© André Bertel, Japan 2007

Thursday 26 July 2007

Oyo-jutsu: Is kata an effective training method for self-defense?

Perspectives on the value of kata
There are many differing perspectives on the value of kata in regards to the acquisition of effective goshin-jutsu (self-defense techniques), and fighting skills in general. Some preach that kata is the very heart of karate, yet others view kata as a complete waste of training time. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, both of these perspectives have merit. It completely depends on ‘what is insinuated by kata’, and more importantly, ‘how physical kata training is approached’. I will not address the academic study of kata here, because I believe this ‘must only exist to support physical training’ (either to enhance one’s own 'physical' self-workout, or improve the coaching methodology for the benefit of others).

Let’s not deceive ourselves! Is kata training essential to learn how to fight?
If we are completely honest, regardless of how “traditional” we are, it is clear that kata is not a prerequisite for street-fight/defense effectiveness. Besides being commonsense, this is undeniably proven by the fact that there are countless effective martial artists, who do not include kata training in their respective regimes. So since kata is not a ‘must’ to develop fighting prowess, why do the various ryuha (styles) bother with them? And more importantly, why in so many cases, do they claim that kata is the nucleus of training? To fully understand and explore these questions, we firstly need to understand why kata was initially developed.

The history of kata
Obviously the old masters thought that kata had a very useful purpose, otherwise they would not have devised them (not to mention, create so many kata). It is said that martial arts experts engineered the various kata, to record and summarize their key combative techniques, principles and tactics. They did this, so that their martial knowledge could be passed down to future generations. My Sensei, Asai Tetsuhiko claimed that ‘’each kata, is in fact one complete martial arts system, in itself’’, for example, the Nijushiho (Niseishi) style, or the Sochin (Hakko) style. He also claimed that originally, the kata were a mixture of various fighting systems, not limited by the modern definition of karate. This modern definition has been dramatically influenced by sports karate, and also by the attempt, to ‘distinguish’ karate, from the other martial arts, such as jujutsu and muay thai. Not to mention ‘socially establish’ karate as a clean ‘gentleman’s’ punch/kick art. Of course, in reality, fighting is fighting, regardless of martial art, style or anything else. The history of the various eclectic kata verifies this, and in doing so, cleverly demonstrates that ‘cross training’ is certainly not a modern concept.

Was kata an effective means of preserving techniques?
In my opinion, regardless of stylistic variations, by the likes of masters Nakayama Masatoshi, Funakoshi Gichin and Funakoshi Gigo, it is undeniable that kata was a successful means of preserving the respective knowledge (of the past well-known exponents). Generations later, us modern karateka, still have records of these highly refined techniques, and strategies, encrypted in our kata. Likewise, Asai Sensei, who recently passed away, left us his special techniques and concepts, in the kata he himself designed. Certainly there is less chance his karate will be forgotten because of these kata, so there we have a modern example!

Let’s win some plastic trophies by looking pretty!
Unfortunately, overtime, and as a result of sports karate, kata has drifted away from being viewed as a record of lethal combative methods, for real-fighting/self-defense. Instead, it is now ‘generally considered’ as an athletic or aesthetic pursuit, which has little or no relationship to hand-to-hand combat. Regardless of how kata may be perceived in the year 2007, people, who have the wish to study bujutsu (martial art) karate, can still do so, via the kata. This is because kata provides a tangible connection, back to karate as a fighting art, as opposed to being a sport (or even being tightly defined/labeled as “karate”). It is here that we can access not only the modern ‘standard’ karate techniques, but also a huge syllabus of cavity strikes, head-butts, eye rips, ground-fighting maneuvers, chokes, joint dislocations, bone breaks, escapes, takedowns, throws, and all the other elements that make it a "complete" self-defense system.

So how do I utilize kata for martial training?
To practice karate as a martial art, one needs to actively study the kata, as opposed to just performing them, as precise technical routines. My personal belief is that without indepth study of oyo-jutsu (application), kata practice loses all meaning. In the case of you wanting to learn karate for self-defense, and you are not working on 'partner-kata' (addressing realistic scenarios), you are completely wasting your time. And by merely practicing your kata to look nice, you are doing nothing more than sports karate, which offers no more protection than a gymnastics floor routine (that is, gymnastics offers balance, agility etc.., which is often the 'practical' justification for kata, within traditional karate circles). Not practicing street effective applications from your kata, with a partner or partners, does not suffice as as an authentic martial art.

Kata is the original syllabus
Always keep in mind that kata is a record of fighting styles that combined to form, what is now 'labeled', as karate. So kata is in fact, the ‘original syllabus’. It is well documented, that the old masters usually only trained between one and three kata. Surely, if this was merely in the exact performance of the outward motions, they would have trained numerous formal exercises. We must also question, why was it regarded, that individual kata were ‘complete fighting systems’? Let's face it, without kata we would have no syllabus to work with. Everything that the past masters discovered, engineered, learnt, used and taught would be lost. Kata is the holistic syllabus of karate, and in order to have a system which is not grossly inadequate, for self-defense, we must 'physically research' this system.

Karateka ignoring the lessons of the kata
The techniques and strategies of competition karate are undeniably inadequate for practical use, outside of the tight confines of the sporting arena. Sadly many karateka ignore the lessons of the kata, and therefore inadvertently practice karate as a partial fighting art. What alarm’s me the most, are instructors, who train and teach karate in this incomplete way, yet at the same time, boast that their dojo teaches practical self-defense. Worst still is that they practice similar bunkai (analysis), to that demonstrated in Nakayama Sensei’s ‘Best Karate’ book series. To be fair, they sometimes have more 'innovative' applications, but they are a hardly streetworthy. But I guess, that is where they can always use the 'great karate excuse'. ''I am not allowed to use my karate for fighting". Sadly, traditionalists are the often worst when it comes to realistic training, as they are too busy being pompus about Japanese affiliations, dan grades and the like. In my opinion, any karate lesson which does not include a portion of practical self-defense, is pointless. There is no need to go outside of the Shotokan syllabus here, but merely go inward, and utilise the lessons encrypted in the kata.

Just as a side note here: Going by comments from Asai Sensei, I believe that the bunkai sections, in Nakayama's Sensei's wonderful 'Best Karate' books, were for 'analysing' the respective kihon in the kata. They were not the oyo-jutsu (application techniques) being taught at the JKA Honbu.

Do kata have any value within a self-defense training regime?
There are essentially two types of kata, solo kata, and as mentioned above, kata you perform with one or more training partners. In Shotokan karate, the majority of practitioners associate the term ‘kata’ with ‘solo kata’ training. Partner kata is now more commonly referred to as ‘partner-drills’. It’s widely accepted that these partner drills are valid training methods, for the development of practical fighting skills. But solo kata training is justifiably questioned more ruthlessly, in regards to the development of practical fighting prowess. It seems to make much more sense to practice techniques with a partner, as opposed to performing them on your own, in a seemingly dance-like routine. Insofar as martial arts training is concerned, partner drills, including sparring, are undoubtedly more effective than solo kata practice. So why bother practicing solo kata? Here are my five main defenses for solo kata training: Firstly, without solo kata, we would have no syllabus, and therefore, no access to the refined knowledge of past exponents. Secondly, solo kata is useful when we haven’t got a training partner (we can do solo kata anywhere, and at any time). Thirdly, we can perform ‘all the techniques’ in solo kata with maximum snap, even the most lethal techniques and maneuvers can be done with vigor (no need to seriously maim our training partners! You can go full-power in solo kata). Fourthly, solo kata makes self-training highly motivational (what I call 'the fun factor'). And lastly, they physically condition your body whilst rehearsing the combative principles (original syllabus) in the respective kata you are training.

Solo kata is inferior, but still extremely valuable
Essentially, if training in traditional karate for martial purposes (fighting/self-defense), solo kata practice compliments the overall training regime. Solo kata will greatly enhance your compliant and non-compliant partner drills, literally bridge the gap between kihon, kata and kumite, and certainly develop your ability to protect yourself. Nowadays solo kata is so often criticized as a being an ineffective alternative to partner drills, and in actuality, as said above, this criticism is valid. Like it or not, solo kata is an ‘inferior alternative’. However, those who make this criticism, and try to avoid solo kata training all together, are misunderstanding the role of kata within the complete training routine. It is also my belief that without solo kata training, what we practice historically loses its connection to karate. Therefore if we take this path, we cannot honestly call what we are doing 'karate'. From a pure bujutsu perspective, this of course is completely irrelevant.

By this article I am not suggesting that karateka should neglect their kihon in favour of application, as the two must co-exist. As commonsense dictates, without solid kihon, and the ongoing development of ones kihon-waza, nothing is possible. Refining ones basic actions is literally endless, unless you have come straight out of Plato's 'World of the Forms' into the material world. Experienced karateka must not be stagnant by merely perfecting outward form. This ok at at low kyu level, but once people get to senior kyu levels, they should have ample skills for personal protection. I'd like to conclude, by saying that the kata of JKA style Shotokan-ryu, that is, its applications, make it a complete martial art. Study and more importantly, physical practice of oyo-jutsu will fill the wide gaps found in the standard Shotokan syllabus.

© André Bertel, Japan 2007

Tuesday 24 July 2007

Arigato gozaimasu everyone

I'd personally like to thank all my family, friends, karate seniors and students, for their kind birthday wishes, and support of this blog.

More than anything, I hope it inspires you to self-train your karate, and 'really appreciate' that you can use your body, for such a wonderful activity. We must always appreciate our physical health, and youth, while we are still blessed with them!

My Grandmother, who is in her late 80's, still drives a car, and mows her own lawn (and it is not a granny flat). That certainly is a great example of discipline, and a tenacious future target, for anyone who trains in karate. She chooses to keep going, and physically pushes herself each day, this to me, is the perfect example of 'life-long discipline'.

Again, thank you all very much! And remember to appreciate what you have, when you still have it! And more importantly, keep active so you don't 'loose it' faster!


© André Bertel, Japan 2007

Friday 20 July 2007

Kihon must be basic

What makes Shotokan unique, in my view, is the 'extreme simplicity' of advanced training, insofar as kihon is concerned. KIHON TO ME - MUST BE BASIC, otherwise karateka are better to stick to kata, partner work, and impact training. In my opinion kihon is the 'raw training' of the foundational techniques, and isolation of their respective principles. These principles exist, to maximise your physical action, regardless of attack or defensive measure. Generally speaking, I am opposed to highly elaborate combinations when seriously training (except for the occassional novelty), and certainly opposed to long combinations, when assessing students at kyu and dan-shinsa.

My justifications for this simplicity in training, and assessment, are as follows

Kihon-Keiko (Fundamental Training/Practice): In fundamental training, practice of kihon must be simple and deep, grooving exact form and the correct physiological principles into your subconscious mind. I believe that Shotokan’s biggest asset, in regards to kihon, is its depth. The essence of our fundamentals can be found in the development of reliable body mechanics, which are universal for hand-to-hand combat. This is achieved through the dissection, of a limited number of ‘core techniques’, and perfection of each element. Never forget that mae geri contains hiza geri, chudan soto uke 'has the body action of jodan shuto sotomawashi uchi', and so forth. The limited number of standard techniques, originally established by the JKA, allows us to more rapidly understand the complete arsenal of 'standard Shotokan' (remember this is THE FOUNDATION FOR EVERYTHING ELSE), and from here we can become specialists. When practising, always keep in mind the importance of 'muscle memory'.

It is literally a case of quality as opposed to quantity, and without real quality, your techniques will have less chance of being reliable, in a sudden altercation. Some people may see this karate training as rather mundane, but as I have said before, it can be compared to doing sets and reps at the gym. You must concentrate on perfect form throughout your motions, and train regularly. Even with simple motor skills (say a body building excericse, such as a tricep extension) you must concentrate on all aspects of your technique, and seek to systematically improve your strength (lift heavier weights whilst maintain exact form). Balance what you 'currently percieve as perfect form', with large repetitions of the most simple actions, and you'll advance rapidly. This is because you will discover deeper layers in your karate, which in turn will greatly increase your skill level. It's in this training, that you will discover the need for enormous self-discipline, as I have discussed in previous articles.

Kyu/Dan-Shinsa (Grading Examinations): During grading assessments, single techniques, and very simple combinations, make the examinees 'legitimate' technical skill transparent. Mistakes cannot be hidden by outstanding skills in other areas. For example in a long kicking combination, someone’s ineffective yoko kekomi might be overlooked by the excellence of their mae geri, mawashi geri and ushiro geri etc. As an examiner, I would prefer to visually assess each basic kick individually, or simple renzokuwaza (combination techniques), such as mae geri followed by oi-zuki. When the Kihon portion of the exam is done in this way, the depth of skill is easy to establish, – even by outside examiners, who are brought in, to make up the required grading panel.

* Just as a side note, as opposed to making up longwinded ‘Mega Memory' testing combinations at gradings, I would prefer to see examinees demonstrate their techniques, full-power against a target such as an impact shield (preferably held by another karateka). This, I believe would result in the failure of many people trying to achieving upper kyu and dan grades. Too many traditional karateka 'look nice', but lack impact power. These dancers need to be failed, and given a supplementary strength training regime. A minimum strength requirement needs to be set for all people, regardless of age, gender and rank. This may limit some people from advancing in karate, but that's life! I don't believe in 'politically correct karate'.


The renzokuwaza I deem as essential in ido-kihon training, and assessment, are as follows: (a) Sanbon ren zuki; (b) The four basic 'closed fist blocks' (jodan age uke, chudan soto uke, chudan uchi uke and gedan barai) individually executed, followed by chudan gyaku zuki; (c) Mae geri followed by oi zuki; (d) Traditional Shotokan mawashi geri followed by gyaku zuki - not the 'bad habit' instep kick; (e) Chudan soto uke followed by yori ashi into kiba dachi, with yoko empi uchi; (f) Chudan shuto uke in kokutsu dachi, switching into zenkutsu dachi for tateshihon nukite; (g) Yoko keage switching to yoko keage with the same leg in zenkutsu dachi. Alternatively, yoko keage ashi o kaete (change legs) yoko kekomi in kiba dachi.

Notice all of my ESSENTIAL renzokuwaza contain only two techiniques, with the exception of sanbon zuki.


One term I discovered, on my very first trip to Japan, was 'basics inside of basics'. This term was essentially how instructors at the JKA viewed kihon-keiko. Each technique can be broken down into many sections, like a slideshow, with each part of your body coordinating harmoniously with each frame. Looking at each individual technique in this manner, makes it very clear, that 'long winded' kihon combinations, are completely counter-productive for ones karate growth. Instructors must question ''why'' they are doing certain things in their own training regime, and what they are looking for, when testing their students.

If you prefer to practice ‘fancy stuff’, my opinion is that Shotokan is not for you. There are plenty of flamboyant styles out there, but I seriously question their legitimacy as martial arts. Just remember: ''Someone who can blow you away with a basic oi zuki, gyaku zuki, mae geri or any other 'foundational technique', is a great karateka!''



Bottom line, what do long-winded kihon combinations achieve? Why not just practice kata or sections of the kata, as more elaborate combinations? Will you ever use these techniques combatively, or are they only trained for your next respective examination? And are they teaching any special body mechanics not found elsewhere, or intimately connected to an integral skill? In reality most instructors who advocate such 'cheesy combinations' in training, and in tests, simply lack any depth of knowledge. Clearly the motivation of adding 'another move' to the sequence, for that brightly coloured belt, is either technical imaturity, or an attempt to make training 'more interesting'. Yes, that is the McDojo alarm, ringing in your ears.

My advanced karate practice is kata, partner work, and yes, kihon. And the kihon is made into 'advanced training' by its raw simplicity, and ever increasing depth. This is what I believe makes Shotokan unique, and the most dynamic, amongst the four major traditional systems.

© André Bertel, Japan 2007

Thursday 19 July 2007

Asai Sensei's Final Interview

This was Asai Sensei's final international interview, and was featured in Issue 87 of Shotokan Karate Magazine. After it was published, I recieved a lot of flack from various people, who claimed this interview shouldn't have been released, as it pre-empted his passing. However, Sensei wanted me to interview him. I hope that these people now appreciate the interview, and respect that Asai Sensei himself, wanted it to be published. I certainly had no regrets, and feel proud that Sensei asked me to conduct his final interview. As we approach the one year anniversary of Asai Sensei's passing, lets think about Sensei's message, to us, his karate students. RIP Asai Sensei.

Interview By Andre Bertel.
Ohope, New Zealand
This interview was conducted at 6:30am after a one hour and forty-five minute private lesson I had from Asai sensei on Ohope Beach, in the North Island of New Zealand. The one-on-one training I have received over the last few days, has truly been the highlight of my entire karate life. But then again, I say that every time after I train with Asai Sensei. To me training with Asai sensei surpasses tournament victories, dan grades, qualifications and karate trips. Obviously I would like to deeply thank Asai sensei for once again letting me 'join in' with him, and for asking me to do this interview for SKM (and give me some rest time - every other day we trained for nearly twice as long). I have been a personal student of Asai sensei for a long time, however, this interview was a complete eye-opener for me. At 70 years old Asai sensei seems far from slowing down, and I am wearing several 'very deep' bruises from our bunkai training yesterday morning to prove that. Asai Sensei is content with his life, and is now primarily concerned with passing on as much of his knowledge as he can to his closest students. This interview is very revealing, in regards to where Asai sensei is now, with his karate.


Andre Bertel: Sensei, how would you describe your own karate and it's objectives?
Tetsuhiko Asai: My karate has only one objective, and that is bujutsu (real fighting) karate. Effective technique for martial arts, for example, for military personnel, police, karate. real fighting, as opposed to any conscious focus on sports and/or health. In my style they are not important, effectiveness is, and community development is certainly not a goal. My karate is very free and flexible, it is 100% Asai style karate, it is my way precisely. In saying that, the typical foundation is Shotokan-ryu, as that is my orthodox base in karate. No karate group is better than any other. It simply depends on what the individual karateka wants from their karate training.

Andre Bertel: Do you believe that there is a technically superior karate organisation in the world?

Tetsuhiko Asai: No, only individuals. Organisations are simply meetings of people. No one is better than anyone else, if the organisation is truthful to the karate way. However, there are inferior groups ... These groups teach poor karate, for example commercial groups only wanting money. You have taught me very good new English word, 'McDojo'. Gimmick karate. Not good!

Andre Bertel: When and where will your next World Karate Championships be held?

Tetsuhiko Asai: This is the golden question, and this will be the first time this is known outside of Japan! It will be held in April of 2007 in Okinawa, for the anniversary of Mr. Funakoshi's passing. Mr. Tatetsu begged me to have it there, and the Okinawa Prefecture Government also asked me, so I finally agreed, as it is very appropriate. All affiliated nations will receive invitations as the time comes closer. Okinawa will be a wonderful place for this grand event in the karate world.
Andre Bertel: A bit of a controversial question Sensei, I hope you don't mind me asking! What is the story in regards to the Takushoku University Old Boys? Many Western karateka have felt disillusioned, that Japanese leaders of the Shotokan world, always preach the dojo-kun to everyone, yet they can't seem to get on together.
Tetsuhiko Asai: No problem Andre, at tomorrow mornings practice you die on Ohope beach (laughs). Seriously, we all pretty much get on nowadays, contrary to our official stances and federations. In saying that, some of us don't, but isn't that life? Everyone doesn't get on in the world, friendships don't always last. Actually my big issue 15 years back was only with one person, who I won't name here, but he was not a practicing karateka. Naturally, from there, people take sides, often they have to, especially in Japanese culture. It is very sad, but life is not always fair. In saying that, I am happy to say that most of the deep rooted rivalry has gone amongst my peers. I think that the passing of Mr. Enoeda, Mr. Kase, Mr. Tabata and Mr. Shoji and so forth has brought many of us back to reality. Obviously this is not limited to Takushoku university, it is all about us international karate pioneers getting very old. Soon we will all be gone, and then Andre Bertel's job really begins and Mr. Asai finally gets tenth dan (laughs). The communication of the Shotokan leaders in Japan, outside of organisations, and contrary to popular belief, is very good. Even the instructors I don't get on with are also good people, and follow the dojo-kun with sincerity. We have just gone our separate ways in the karate world, and in some cases, separated socially. The world is too big, why be together with people who you don't, or you no longer get on with? No, most of the instructors, especially Takushoku Old Boys get on well socially, outside of our respective groups. If karateka around the globe saw this side of the senior Japanese leaders, I think they would have a different view.

Andre Bertel: Sensei what is the source of the majority of karate politics then?

Tetsuhiko Asai: Very easy! Someone like you is the source! People are jealous of karateka like you, and others, because of your superior technical level and knowledge. If they can't beat you in the dojo, they will beat you in the committee room or with biased refereeing at competitions. So the highly skilled and knowledgeable students' instructor is also responsible, especially if they teach the student more techniques, kata and fighting application than the others in their respective nations. I do this on purpose (laughs). My student in Switzerland, Bruno Koller, has the same problem as you. He is the highest level karate man, and has more technical knowledge and understanding than anyone else there, so he has lots of trouble. Everyone, who is a politician in karate, is a jealous person who can't win in the dojo. I have taught you as my personal student because you have the correct attitude, martial spirit, and the ability to pass on what I have to the future generations of karateka. I want Asai style karate to go on in the future, through great karateka like you, Mr. Koller, Mr. Watanabe, and my other very close students. This is the goal of my life now.

Andre Bertel: That is a great compliment and huge responsibility Sensei, thank you very much! So where does Asai style karate sit for the karateka around the world who are in the Non-Profit-Organisation J.K.S and in I.J.K.A?

Tetsuhiko Asai: Sits anywhere! Both do my style because I am chief instructor of both groups. But I.J.K.A. is closer to me,because it is exclusively my style and mentality, its way follows karate as bujutsu, which is how I live karate. Real fight karate is where karate is! Not game karate. Tournament is ok, good goal or target. But bujutsu is everything in karate. You die or I die. This is the samurai spirit and is the base of Zen in Japanese martial arts.

Andre Bertel: Sensei some people are criticising the increasing number of kata you are teaching now. Some Shotokan people claim 15 or 26 kata is more than enough. What do you think about this?

Tetsuhiko Asai: They are right, and I am right, and everyone is right if they are training and improving. It depends on what your target is! 15 or 26? Actually one or two kata is enough for a lifetime. Just think of any number! Martial arts is physical training, not numbers, not theory. We must groove physiological principles into our subconscious mind, via physical repetition, for rapid response to any situation. Not simply memorizing movements. To me, kata is a solo training tool for the perfection of the essential principles of combat. The kata is not the issue, the body action is. The more variation, the less chance I have to think, the more I am grooving these elements into my subconscious mind. Various kata is great for developing specific points. This time here in New Zealand, the basic kata I taught at the open seminars was Kibaken, there are actually five parts of this kata, which is in fact one long koten (ancient /classical) kata. My reason for introducing this form is to simply refine kiba dachi. For example, rather than just sitting in kiba dachi or doing kihon in kiba dachi, practicing Kibaken is highly motivational. This is the other point of introducing kata. Kata is an excellent motivational tool to train more. I always say if a Shito-ryu person punches you in the face, you don't say that was a Shitoryu punch, or that was a boxing punch. More or less kata is not so relevant. Setting the number of kata is a closed minded way. A closed mind for developing your maximum fighting potential to me is foolish. My advice is just train! If people feel they want to stick to 15 kata, that is fine, if that is what they want. Just remember Mr. Funakoshi practiced many kata, and that if Gigo Funakoshi (his son Yoshitaka) had lived to an old age, I think what people now consider as 'orthodox Shotokan-ryu' would have many more kata.
Andre Bertel: Sensei, how about the JKS or JKA instructors course in Japan? For an individual to become the highest class Shotokan technician and karate teacher, do you believe the instructors course is essential?
Tetsuhiko Asai: The instructors course is very good training for karateka who are very serious about full-time training in Japan, but my answer to your question for 'need' to do the course is, no. Often the best karate technicians, for example kata and kumite champions, cannot survive the course. This is because their muscle type and endurance is different. I study the body extensively and this is an important point. The strongest karateka for a real fight and competition is not the endurance man, but the man like a machine gun. Highly explosive, very dangerous for a limited time, but after the bullets run out, the machine gun can only be used like a metal bar. This is still ok, but it can't beat the semiautomatic, which is still loaded, and the other man is holding. In saying that, this rule is often broken, for example, I think at the last Olympic Games, an American man won both the 200m and 400m. We select the best Japanese competitors from the best karate universities to enter the course. Many don't accept as they don't feel a need for it. Obviously, if they enter the course it helps their profile with the judges at major tournaments. This is something that I hope stops in the future. Back to your question, I have found that the best technicians and teachers around the world are in many nations. They are natural's with a passion for hard self-training, and technically don't need the instructors course, or even a style or organisation. There are many excellent foreigners at karate now, and have been for some time. Probably the very best people at anything, are people who train quietly by themselves. No one knows of their name in the greater karate world.

Andre Bertel: So Sensei it is not necessary to do the course for technical superiority. So what about for learning to pass on karate to others? Could you expand on the teaching aspects of the course? Does the course teach people to instruct?

Tetsuhiko Asai: The instructors course as I said before does not teach the participants how to teach, but in other ways it does! The point of the course is to simultaneously instill exact kihon and Japanese budo spirit. In karate terms, with these two elements covered in depth, the course gives the graduates a very exact and orthodox base in Shotokan-ryu karate. That is not to say they will become high-class instructors, but if not, it is because they are simply not interested in instructing others. Kihon is everything in karate, and the perfection of kihon is what best describes the two years on the instructors course. The technically best karateka and the best teachers, come from the inside of each person, course or no course. Not federation, not style, or martial art, but how the individual trains and studies karate themselves.

Andre Bertel: In your 58 years of doing karate (Asai Sensei started after seeing a boxer overcome with a karate kick at 12 years of age) you must have had some funny incidents in your karate life. Maybe in the early days?

Tetsuhiko Asai: OK, OK, very funny story! At Takushoku University I was the craziest in the karate dorm because I had to be to make up for my size. Some days in summer we used to all run to the beach together for extra keiko. One day I ran into the water yelling like a madman "Bonzai" after telling everyone I would swim out to a marker, way out. Everyone was determined to be the strongest due to an upcoming event. As I expected, they followed me with great pride to be back first, including Mr. Enoeda, for the England readers of SKM. I then sneaked back without going in too far, and everyone swam out and back. The entire time I relaxed on the beach with a big Asai smile. But my smile did not last! Everyone was so amazed how I beat everyone, even though I never seemed to do any swimming at all. I was back so fast I was completely dry, and not even slightly tired! So I was drafted onto the Takushoku swimming team, which was unfortunately competing only in a few days time. I was put into the last position for the grand event, the relay. All I can tell you is that Takushoku was winning easily, until is was Asai's turn. I lost the huge lead we had in the very last lap. Actually I can barely swim at all, so here I was pulling myself along the pool lane with the rope to get to the end. Everyone was watching, very funny now but not then!

Andre Bertel: Sensei, thank you so much for this interview here in Ohope. Hopefully you enjoyed your time here in the North Island of New Zealand. Do you have any last comments for the SKM readers?

Tetsuhiko Asai: Yes, I would like to use the situation here in Ohope as an example for the readers about instruction. I have found that the karate of the instructors and dan examinees here, to be very low level. Instructors here need much help with their basic techniques and stances. But everyone must start somewhere, and with the willingness to improve here, coupled with self-training, there is hope. But this comes down to the standard of the instructors, and this means they need to change! I have spent most of my time here correcting bad habits, in saying that, it has been great having you fly here to train with me. Otherwise, my time here would have been very frustrating. Please practice the two new kata I have taught you. Also I hope that the instructors from up here can visit, and train with you in Christchurch, as it will dramatically help them to improve their standards.

Andre Bertel: Thank you Sensei, I am once again overloaded with techniques and new ideas.

Tetsuhiko Asai: My pleasure again Andre, please have a safe flight back to Christchurch and thank you so much for coming. You have again improved a lot. Hope to see you back in Tokyo again soon. My best wishes to all the people who read this interview from all karate groups, and to the editor Mr. John Cheetham. I am very lucky in my life to be an old man and still practice karate everyday, and keep improving step-by-step. It is my hope that others can do this too.

Don't forget INTERNATIONAL ASAI MEMORIAL DAY is on August 15th. This will be the First Anniversary of Asai Sensei's passing. Globally there will be a special practice. Be sure to complete the 1000 gyaku zuki and 1000 mae geri in memory of Sensei.

© André Bertel, Japan 2007
I would personally like to thank Ari Hultqvist of Iceland who made this post possible. Thank you Ari for kindly scanning, and emailing the article, here to me in Kyushu.

Saturday 14 July 2007

Half-way between the JKA and the Shoto-kai

It is my belief that the technique of Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei was half-way between the karate of Masatoshi Nakayama Sensei (the Japan Karate Association) and Shigeru Egami Sensei (the Shoto-kai).

This use of natural energy, combined with the refined form of the JKA, was Asai Sensei's 'technical aim'. The weakness of the Shotokai in his opinion, was its lack of decisive body action, whilst the weakness of the Nihon Karate Kyokai was the tendency to produce 'stiff' karateka (particularly outside of Japan). Sensei's attraction to the relaxed style of the Shotokai was so compelling, that in 1999 (prior to losing the name "JKA" at the final legal battle with the Nakahara group), he decided to name his new organisation 'Japan Karate SHOTOKAI'. Within a few years, the organisation already holding this name legally responded, and forced Asai Sensei to change names again, and the organisation was renamed as 'Japan Karate Shotorenmei' or 'Japan Karate Shoto-Federation'.

Regardless of organisation brand labels, the most important thing in karate is two-fold according to Asai Sensei. Firstly, that karateka do not 'misuse their skills' to cause unprovoked physical harm. And secondly, that ones technical development is relentless and never-ending, regardless of age, and rank. Asai Sensei added one more point in jest... "Don't use other groups names and stay away from lawyers".

The technical development in the karate that I'm TRYING to follow is this 'half-way' position that Asai sensei discovered, and engineered. That is, seeking the refined form of the JKA, and following their tradition of further refinement (via advancement in the various feilds of sports science). And also seeking smooth/fluid/relaxed karate, and the maximum transfer of energy, like that advocated by Shigeru Egami. I also vowed to follow Asai Sensei's advice to "avoid lawyers".

I'd like to add here that much of the fluid style Asai Sensei advocated was discovered through his brother-in-law in Taiwan who is a master of Chinese boxing (White Crane style). But interestingly enough, Egami was Asai Sensei's initial springboard for this interest.

The parallels with Egami's Shotokai came around 1960 when Asai Sensei needed to establish a better way to move/generate power, to deal with his physically larger/stronger peers (the likes of Hirokazu Kanazawa, Hiroshi Shirai and Keinosuke Enoeda). During those times, Shigeru Egami was apparently the most revered, and feared, Shotokan master in Japan. My only firsthand knowledge of Egami's karate is from Asai Sensei, however, I know that his 'technical form' was something he did not follow (he sincerely felt the 'outward form' of JKA was unsurpassed), but his use of energy was a mystery, to the then young Asai. This interest was the spark, assisting to open his mind to other methodologies, in particular the Chinese martial arts.

How can we constructively use these points to physically improve our karate? Very easily, take off the blinkers, and really look at your own karate during your self-training. Be brutally honest, train both hard and smart, and 'tick off' improvements as you go (if you love karate, then your self-improvement will always be the greatest motivator).

Like the great masters of karate, establish what works for you! I'd like to end by quoting my later teacher, Asai Tetsuhiko. "Always remember that 'forced-technique' is 'bad technique', regardless of what advancements you desire to make".

Gambatte kudasai,


Thursday 12 July 2007

My dojo entrance exam for children

I originally wrote this article in 1993 when I had my JKA (Asai faction) Canterbury club, in Christchurch-city, New Zealand. 14 years on, and I am happy to say that this 'tradition' continues...

(Please note the jpeg images used in this post are not from the original article).

To enter my children's karate class I have an entrance examination. If under the age of eleven years old, they must sit still in seiza (the kneeling position), with eyes closed, for three consecutive minutes.

They must do this without any moving (including blinking or twitching), or making any intentional sounds. They must also sit with their back and neck straight. In the case of not knowing good posture, I position them correctly, before starting the stop watch. The entire time I sit directly infront of the child, examining them closely.

Failure in this 'Entry Examination' means they cannot enter my kids beginners class. Interestingly enough, some older children fail, and the very odd five year old manages to get in. Like these students I started karate at five and passed this test, but in saying that, I can't remember doing it. My point here, is that the entry examination was obviously not traumatic, as I remember the majority of my first lesson.

Often children who fail, get upset and cry, and their parents try to 'bribe me' to accept them into JKA. Naturally I can't give in, and explain that 'their child is not ready for the strictness of traditional karate'. I never just fob them off, but rather appologise, and invite them to try again in a few months. If I loose students, that's too bad. I would prefer to have less money, and have a dojo where everyone can learn authentic JKA karate. Because without this serious focus and disciplined environment, real Shotokan simply cannot be learned.

The use of such a test makes my children's classes very different to the majority of dojo, especially in Western countries. You may question ''Is this too strict?'' Well, in my opinion, this is merely 'standard'. You might then laugh at me and say ''Well buster, your dojo floor will be empty''. But according to my teacher and JKA Chief Instructor, Tetsuhiko Asai Shihan, ''Many parents are now looking for a more strict environment, for their children to learn karate-do''.

The bottom line is that there ain't no way I am baby sitting for money, and pretending it is Shotokan karate, like so many do nowadays. I refuse to 'further deminish' the worldwide standards of traditional karate, created by the 'student-numbers-competition'.


Why, don't I accept students who do not pass my 'Entrance Examination' is very simple! Because I am not a baby sitter, and regardless of age, if children want to do karate, they must have the maturity to start. Likewise, my existing students need to be developed in an environment which maximises their potential. Therefore, accepting children who are not ready isn't acceptable. We model our karate on that of JKA Honbu Dojo in Tokyo, and that's what gives us the edge.


© André Bertel, Japan 2007

Saturday 7 July 2007

Seiryu kata

It is July the 7th, 2007. Yes, that's right folks, 07-07-07 today... And this coming Friday is 'Friday the 13th', so appologies if you are superstitious! My post today is about a kata close to Asai Sensei's heart, and features the attacks he regarded as his tokui waza (specialised techniques). I would go as far to say (from extensive time with Sensei), that this formal exericse, if focusing on 'martial art karate', is the most important kata in Asai-ryuha. This week I have dropped all my other kata training, and have been exclusively working on Seiryu, hence this article.



The kata for the complete mastery of jujinho for the shoulders

Seiryu is literally translated as 'Green Willow Tree' and should not be confused with the Seiryu/Aoyagi of Shito-ryu karate-do, it is a completely different kata with no relationship, except sharing a name.

It is the kata Asai Sensei most intensively taught me during private lessons/morning training, and was very high on his personal agenda, insofar as his own training was concerned. This is because Seiryu trains his infamous 'snapping techniques', with 100% focus on jujinho (soft ligament method) and joint power. This form features no kicks, and therefore provides isolation training for shoulder, elbow and wrist snap, using the joints like 'links in a chain'. The more joints used, the more impact can be made with this incredibly powerful whipping action.

In regards to there not being any kicks, Asai Sensei emphasised his kiho (health) karate by saying that "Kata like Seiryu are excellent practice, for those who have leg problems, and/or during times of recovery from knee, ankle and thy injuries".

The technical focus of Seiryu is the perfection of huri uchi (swinging strikes) with ganken (the rock fist), haito (the ridge hand), and naiwan (the inside forearm). The name of the kata 'Green Willow Tree' comes directly from these strikes, as they resemble the flexible branches of a willow tree.

In contrast, the solid Shotokan stances featured (zenkutsu dachi and kiba dachi) act like tree roots, providing steadfast stability, for the wild and flexible upper body actions. Asai Sensei often liked to compare his body suppleness, to that of a willow tree, and in particular, made reference to Seiryu kata.

In addition to the solid stances, there are also four neko ashi dachi utilized, each coordinated with gedan barai, for a quick defense, and more importantly, a coiled spring to rapidly counterattack. The final sequence sees a pivot action into heisoku dachi with ryo sokumen gedan barai (similar to Jion and Kakuyoku-nidan) followed by jodan teisho hasami uchi, and yori ashi, with chudan haito hasami uchi. The second and final kiai is applied on this last technique.


You cannot perform Seiryu with any muscular power. To make it work, it must be performed with total relaxation/joint power, that is, no conscious muscular strength. Otherwise the respective techniques will be lame, and you will run the risk of putting your shoulder out of joint. Essentially Seiryu pushes you to develop joint power, and the resulting 'snapping techniques'. It is a kata that forces Shotokan karateka to go outside of the box, and develop their fighting repetoire to include Asai Sensei's tokui-waza.


© André Bertel, Japan 2007

Monday 2 July 2007

Gohon kumite

Gohon Kumite
Exact performance and training objectives

This article I originally wrote in January of 2002. I dug it up as several of my students have been requesting an article on Gohon kumite (Five Step Sparring). It is pouring down with rain here today... I guess Japan's rainy season has finally arrived, actually it has been unusually late this year (I was just distracted by a rather sudden and spectacular down-pour). To all of you facing the challenge of gohon-kumite, at your next examination, I truly hope this gives you some useful hints. I am off now to do some walking, or better still, some gohon-kumite steps, in the rain. Regardless of the weather in your neighbourhood on planet Earth, happy training to you!


While studying at the Christchurch College of Education and the University of Canterbury to become a school teacher, I became very familiar with lesson planning, and effective assessment methods. Everything in ones planning and lesson delivery had to come back to the AO’s (Achievement Objectives) established by the New Zealand Ministry of Education. The assessment process had to verify whether the objectives had been met by the students.

I believe it is essential that instructors clearly understand the core objectives of any given requirement in the grading syllabus. Unfortunately this is often not the case. It is also important that the students fully understand these objectives as well, so they can maximise their training time. From my several trips to Japan, I have discovered that many karateka outside of Japan are confused, in regards to training exercise objectives. According to Asai Sensei this comes back to language and cultural barriers, and within Western karate circles, the instant correlation to jiyu-kumite (free-sparring) we make, when `kumite’ is attached to a drills name.

Often, us Gaikokujin overcomplicate our karate, particularly in regards to the fundamentals, trying to bridge everything closer to `jiyu-kumite’. This is precisely why the Japanese have such a high level of technical prowess. I hope this simple article on Gohon kumite (Five step sparring) can help instructors, and karateka in general, fully understand and perform standard Gohon kumite both correctly, and with the proper achievement objectives in mind.

What is Gohon Kumite?
Gohon kumite in its standard form (grading syllabus `required’ method) is kihon yakusoku kumite or basic pre-arranged (promise) sparring. Essentially it is fundamental training, with a partner in front of you, adding the elements of distance, timing and physical (and psychological) interaction with an `opponent’. The name five step sparring literally means there are five basic kogeiki (attacks), and five basic ukete (receptions or blocks) followed by a hangeiki-waza, or counterattack, on the fifth and final step. Roles are then reversed, with the attacker taking the role of the defender, and the defender becoming the attacker.

The purpose of training in the standard method:
Correct kihon with a partner. That is it! The attacker and defender must groove the following into the subconscious mind:

(a) Correct zenkutsu dachi i.e. – when blocking correct hanmi (half-facing position of the hips, with the rear leg contracted). And when attacking/counterattacking – full shomen (hips/ shoulders `square on’ with the rear leg locked straight or 'expanded').

(b) Posture exact at all times. The pelvis/hips, back and neck must remain completely erect. This is particularly notable when counterattacking. If you are out of distance, you MUST NOT lean forward. Remember, the achievement objective of Gohon kumite is basic technique training with a partner, rather than Jiyu Kumite (free sparring).

(c) Correct kokyu (breathing). Both partners must not hold their breath. Breath naturally and harmoniously with your opponent. Ideally, if your opponent inhales, you inhale, if they exhale, you exhale. Related to kokyu is the `kiai’. When making your fifth and final attack, always kiai strongly (perfectly coordinate your kiai at the completion of your punch or kick - where kime is made. A common mistake is doing a 'late kiai'). Likewise, kiai strongly with all of your gyaku zuki counterattacks. For those testing for low kyu grades, a strong kiai is particularly influential on the pass and fail marks, so don't be shy and kiai with spirit!

(d) The jiku-ashi (pivot foot) must remain `set’ whether advancing with the attack, or retreating. When attacking, the front foot must not telegraph your step by moving. Likewise, when retreating, the rear foot must stay `set’. That is, the heel must not rise up, and the foot must remain in place (never use slide, or half step, to make rearward motion seemingly more easy).

When being tested on Gohon kumite at gradings, the examiners are primarily searching for:

(1) Exact basic stance (zenkutsu dachi) and posture of the pelvis/hips, back and neck at all times.

(2) Position of hips and upper thy/knee (shomen & hanmi) in zenkutsu dachi. Note – related to this is the height of the hips. In both attack and defence, the hips must not change in height, nor tilt.

(3) Precise basic technique (trajectory of attacks and blocks, correct use of hips, and rear leg, to 'drive' these techniques). Basic techniques in Gohon Kumite are as follows: (a) Gedan barai; (b) Jodan age uke; (c) Chudan soto uke; (d) Jodan oi zuki; (e) Chudan oi zuki; (f) Chudan mae geri; and (g) Gyaku zuki.

(4) Timing of attacks and landing in stance (in the case of punches – execution of the punch (jodan & chudan oi zuki) and landing in stance is simultaneous (please note my comments in the next pointer about 'timing'); In the case of the kick (chudan mae geri) – a full hiki-ashi, or snap back of the kicking leg, and stable/controlled landing in stance, after being blocked each time, is required.

(5) Timing of blocks (the defender must wait or `react’ to the attackers technique. The block must divert the attack without excessive motion (i.e. – over-blocking). Note the importance of timing to cause damage: If your aim is to impact hard with your blocks, you can do this more powerfully, without overblocking. Simply focus on your elbow/hip connection, and pull back rapidly with hiki-te. If you simultaneously time your step (landing, and rear leg thrust), decisive blocking action, hiki-te, and 'locking in' of your lower abdomen/hips, you will transfer maximum energy to your training partners limb. Do not do this unless your partner wants to 'train hard', otherwise I see it as highly disrespectful, and potentially bone crunching.

(6) The defender must counterattack with chudan or jodan gyaku zuki. The technique must demonstrate control, and maximum power from rear leg drive and hip rotation. Note: In the basic syllabus form, the counterpunch MUST NOT be snapped back. It must be left extended with hiki-te (pull back hand) tightly pulled back on the opposite hip.

(7) Complete zanshin (awareness) must be maintained after the punch. The defender should not be hasty in returning to shizentai (natural position). Both partners should move slowly showing martial spirit and readiness for a surprise attack. This is also training for waza no kankyu or 'technical rhythm'.

(8) Your confidence! Decisively step back into zenkutsu dachi and 'snap' your gedan barai. Announce your attack (either `jodan’, `chudan’ or `mae geri’) firmly, but don't bellow it out like the typical sports karateka. Kiai strongly on your fifth and final attack. Likewise kiai strongly on all of your counterattacks with gyaku zuki. ''Kiai sharply as opposed to sounding like a fog horn!''

(9) Explosive power and kihaku (fighting spirit) must be demonstrated, but not at the expense of the previous eight points. Otherwise, the objective of Gohon Kumite, as partner kihon training, is invalidated, as the core purpose of the exercise is diminished. Regardless of how much power and speed you perform your Gohon at, keep it picture perfect (that is, from start to finish in each action).

(10) Hyoteki (target). When attacking or counterattacking, aim at effective targets (ideally weak points such as the ribs, solar-plexus, temple, throat, kyusho also the jaw line etc. Likewise do the same when attacking. WHEN ATTACKING, NEVER AIM TO MISS YOUR OPPONENT as you will only be 'short-changing' yourself, and your training partner.

Additional tips to perfect Gohon Kumite:
One key point is to not rush, make each technique with full commitment and pause between each step. Consider Gohon Kumite as kata with a partner. The attacker must lead the exercise with the defender responding to the stimuli of the attack. As I said in the previous tip, aim to make each technique picture perfect. After the fifth step: If attacking, always step back into shizentai; and if you are the defender, step forward into shizentai, after counterattacking.

Standard kyu/dan-shinsa requirements:

Gohon Kumite is typically required for the 8th, 7th and 6th kyu examinations. Only jodan oi zuki and chudan oi zuki attacks are tested for, in the 8th and 7th kyu exams. Jodan oi zuki, chudan oi zuki and chudan mae geri are tested in the 6th kyu exam, and also often in the shodan exam (to test the core basic `line-defence’). No tai-sabaki (body evasion) is permitted in Gohon kumite, this is because karateka must be able to deal with sudden attacks where evasion is impossible. This fully tests their ukewaza (blocking techniques) in isolation – in particular their timing and blocking trajectory. I have even sat on a grading panel where Asai Sensei had Nidan examinees demonstrate Gohon kumite, and were failed for their 'un-committed' mae geri attacks and defenses.

Gohon kumite if trained in the manner described above, will provide basic conditioning for the karateka’s limbs (in blocking and attacking). The attacker must aim to hit, and the defender must block properly. This initially can be painful, but with practice, the karateka will become stronger. It is essential that those who follow the karate way seek to physically strengthen themselves, and avoid taking shortcuts. With training, the limbs will calcify and highly effective blocks (limb attacks) will be developed. In the case of older people, and those with medical issues, such as haemophilia, osteoarthritis etc., padding can be used, or simply a reduction in the level of contact (focusing more on timing). I believe that karate training, when it comes to physical contact, must be customised, according to the needs of the individual. Otherwise, karate becomes an exclusive activity for those who are young and strong. In saying that, in real fighting/self-defense, there are no compromises, and this opens a huge field for discussion/debate.

For higher ranks there are many advanced variations of Gohon Kumite, however, the most basic form is by far the most essential. The key, regardless of the training drill, is to always keep in mind the 'achievement objectives' of what you are doing. Gohon kumite is not jiyu kumite, it is basic form with a partner. Therefore, when practising Gohon, always seek perfection of the kihonwaza/fundamental techniques.

© André Bertel, Japan 2007.

Sunday 1 July 2007

Learning is not Perfecting


The countless times I have seen students equate learning something as `mastery’, is rather perplexing to me. It goes without saying that once something is learned, for example, a pianist knows how to play Beethoven’s `OP.13 Sonate Patheteque’ from beginning to end, this is actually where the real practice (real learning)begins. They don’t say ``I know it now, so I don’t need to practise it so much any more’’. Likewise they don’t play the piece in a sloppy manner, once they know it in full. They maintain and try to further refine their skills. They can never practise in a lazy manner; otherwise, their overall piano performance skill level will suffer. Slack technique or `short-cuts’ never work, and ultimately lead to the technical demise of the individual who takes them.

Technique is pointless unless it is truly perfected in karate. Perfection of technique is firstly the perfection of form, and secondly the perfection of function (or applicability). These two points are inseparable, that is, form is dictated by function, and `optimum’ function is dictated by the `perfection of form’. Understanding these two points is essential, because they are nucleus of the Shotokan, as handed down from the Japan Karate Association (the base of Asai's Sensei's karate). Learning motions is not enough, skills must be autonomous.

Once these two principles have been addressed, then we must groove our perfected techniques into our subconscious mind, also into our ‘muscle memory’. This can only be achieved via many thousands of disciplined repetitions (and continues throughout our karate life regardless of rank, age and even physical disabilities). Fortunately in karate, this discipline is far less mundane than most other physical activities, such as competitive swimming, where the athlete just repeats lap after lap in the pool, doing exactly the same limited body actions, over and over again. Knowing how to do a technique well is useless, without being able to use it effectively, and more importantly, instinctively. If you have to think, you are too late. This is the prime reason why in Shotokan, we opt for quality, as opposed to quantity of techniques. The Shotokan syllabus is defined by its simplicity and depth.

When practising, it cannot be overemphasized that when doing repetition training, technical form must be exact. Otherwise, the training is counterproductive, resulting in less efficiency, and in some cases, long-term injuries. This is why one must always train underneath an internationally qualified and licensed instructor. This is something I will address in a future article.

Obviously karate is not only a method of fighting, but also an `art’, in saying that, unless ones technique is effective, for goshin-jutsu (self-defence), its artistic beauty is lost. Likewise, if one can merely fight ferociously, but has no technical form, they cannot be considered as a true karateka. Next time when repeating a technique, basic drill, or basic kata in class, remember that it is `basic’, but `basic’ certainly does not imply `easy’. Nor does `basic’ imply ‘low-level karate’. Kihon (basic) training is the `base’ or `foundation’ of everything, and therefore is also the most advanced training method. Only by tens of thousands of repetitions of a `correct technique’ or kata can we truly know it, and use it automatically when under pressure.

Always remember that learning a skill, never equates to perfection. If it did then musicians, athletes, and other artists wouldn’t practice so strictly. Also keep in mind that the by-products (bonuses) of physical repetition are increased endurance, muscle strengthening and toning, and mental discipline, among other things.

''Never use the excuse that 'perfect karate' is unattainable. This can only lead to excuses to not self-practice, or worse still, practice lamely. Perfection is ongoing and self-challenging. Those who teach karate must train the hardest, harder than their students, otherwise they shouldn't teach. Todays karate must be better than yesterdays karate.'' - Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei

© André Bertel, Japan 2007

Mental Discipline

By André Bertel

This article was originally featured in my dojo newsletter (in Christchurch, New Zealand) during 2006. It was specifically aimed at 10th kyu students, after I started a new beginners class. It is also of value to advanced karateka, who wish to maximise their potential. My belief is that karate training time cannot be measured in years, but rather in minutes. Too many people say ''I have trained for 25 years'' but how much 'training' have they really done in that time? If they have trained properly it will reflect in their technical skill and 'mental focus'. There is no excuse for lame technique or weak fighting spirit. These results are just a product of incorrect and/or insufficient training. My advice, besides always physically training, is to use 'each minute' in your practice time, 'to the maximum'. Otherwise you are wasting your time, as you will never develop truly devastating techniques, which authenticate ones karate (always remember that dan grades, tournament titles, attaching yourself to Japanese organisations/famous instructors, and so forth, does not make your karate authentic). This style of karate training is directly related to ones psychological approach to the art, and inseperable from this, is mental discipline.


In karate-do, when the Sensei (teacher) is talking, or we are waiting to perform a drill or exercise, we must learn to stand still, like a statue, and stare straight ahead or focus on the sensei. It is essential to not move or twitch at all, in a state of zanshin (awareness or preparedness) to react to the command of the sensei. This maximises our training as it makes us mentally stronger and more alert. In traditional budo (martial arts) a delayed reaction, or lack of poise during a class, will always result in punishment from a competent instructor. In shiai (competition), it will result in defeat if you are fighting an equal, or even less competent but more disciplined opponent. In a real life confrontation, it may result in serious injury, or perhaps even death. Without this element in your karate, your training is wasted time and no more than aerobics or a dance.

Lines must always be perfectly straight, and formed very-quickly, as to train ones awareness, focus, decisiveness, and desire to maximise training time. Anything less will result in a class punishment, or the punishment of the individual who acted indecisively. Karatedo is a discipline, therefore laziness and inattentiveness means that harsh consequences are inevitable. If this system is not used in the dojo (training hall), mental discipline will not be attained, and the karateka will always be overcome by those psychologically stronger than themselves.

Budo (karatedo, judo, kendo, aikido etc.) is a way to develop not only physical power, but obviously mental power as well. However, unless training is structured in the strict traditional manner, we can only offer lip-service to the mental discipline of the art. Physical power alone, when seriously tested, will always fail without the discipline of mind. This discipline of the mind results in `osu no seishin’ (the spirit perseverance).

Without the development of this psychological power, and with only external technique, ones karate will not work in self-defence, nor have technical brilliance, and will not benefit our daily lives. By disciplining the mind we can make kime-waza (decisive techniques) which are effective and aesthetically beautiful to observe.

A karate dojo without the above mentioned strictness, is one I am not interested in. Even as a roku-dan (sixth degree black belt) I submit myself to this type of discipline, even when classes are taken by my kohai (juniors). For me it is very sad when students in the dojo call me `André, as opposed to `Sensei’ or `André Sensei’ (in saying that I have never demanded to be called ‘Sensei’). Or simply walk onto the floor in the middle of the class without waiting in seiza (the kneeling position).

One of Funakoshi Sensei’s favourite sayings was ``Karatedo begins and ends with courtesy’’. The founder of Shotokan, and father of modern day karate was adamant that one could not be followers of karatedo without paying close attention to reigi-saho (etiquette). Reigi-saho not only in the dojo, but everyday in our lives. This obviously requires much self-discipline, but is something that is no doubt a righteous aim. I hope this little article further develops our dojo, and more importantly, each and every member. A disciplined structure is something each and every person in our dojo can be proud of, and is typical worldwide, amongst traditional Shotokan groups.

© André Bertel, Japan 2007