Sunday 30 August 2020

39 years of karate: from my beginnings

 Today I trained on my 39th year of Karate, literally today. I'm still just a beginner, but more keen than ever in my own training and as a teacher. Osu!

基本 (KIHON)


Today I practiced the following five single kihon waza and our basic combination of elbow strikes.


1.    Jodan age uke (heiko dachi and zenkutsu dachi).

2.    Chudan soto uke (heiko dachi and zenkutsu dachi).


3.    Chudan choku-zuki (heiko dachi).

4.    Jodan choku zuki (heiko dachi).

5.    Chudan mae-geri keage (heisoku dachi).


6.    Renzokuwaza: Tate enpi uchi kara ushiro enpi uchi, mae enpi uchi soshite yoko enpi uchi (heiko dachi).


While it would be dishonest to provide the numbers of repetitions I did, I can say that ‘I did a lot’. For each waza and the final renzokuwaza. The focus was on high quantity of high-quality techniques. The focal points were: (a) technical form and trajectory—‘technique within technique; (b) softness/flexibility/fluidity; (c) fixing of the eyes; (d) ground power; (e) use of the hips/abdomen/core; (f) explosive speed; and (g) zanshin with ‘recovery’. All simple, yes… Well, not really…





For the last couple of days, I’ve been reviewing 浪手 (Roshu), which is one of the five so-called ‘natural element forms’. Like, many of the others, I was fortunate to have been taught this kata directly (one-on-one) from Asai Tetsuhiko Sensei. Consequently, the version I practice and teach, is significantly different.




Technically speaking, Roshu mimics the motion of waves in both defense and counteroffensive techniques. Asai Sensei stated that this kata incorporates “…ebbing, flowing, swirling, rising and crashing down of ocean waves”.


Unfortunately, this aspect of the kata has been lost. The version practiced and taught now probably shouldn’t be called ‘ROshu’ but, rather, ‘ROBOTshu’ as the ‘wave like motion’ has been removed.

Osu, André


© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2020).

Sunday 23 August 2020

The 3 LEVELS of JIYU IPPON kumite development

Today I thought I’d focus on Jiyu Ippon Kumite and its three levels of development (and a fourth level, actually not an 'additional level', but some ‘variations’). To initiate this process, let me stress that sufficient skill in Kihon Ippon Kumite is imperative for this training to be productive. Otherwise, the karateka is apt to have insufficient technical form and kime in their techniques. There is also the danger factor… In this form of kumite, the maai (distancing) is not fixed and the attacker comes at you hard, even though the counterattack must be controlled. So again, a sufficient stage of kihon must be possessed. In fact, it is said that “…in the standard forms of Shotokan-Ryu kumite, Jiyu Ippon Kumite is the most dangerous as the attack is seriously launched”. Put another way, if your defense fails you will get injured; consequently, you are pressured to make it does! In sum, Jiyu Ippon Kumite exemplifies the concept of ‘ichigekki-hissatsu’ in karate. With this in mind, and whether reaching such a level or not, the karateka will make the most of each and every waza in their training; thus, maximize their individual potential. This is the most important meaning of Ichigakki Hissatsu: Intent and commitment to optimize your techniques destructive potential.

Countering my student Lyall Stone (4th Dan).
Countering Lyall Stone (4th Dan) using DEAI.

So, let’s begin… I hope you find ‘The Three Levels of Jiyu Ippon Kumite’ valuable for your training in this aspect of our art. Osu, André



In the first level of Jiyu Ippon Kumite. The role of the attacker and defender is pre-determined. The designated attacker announces their attack before launching it. The six set attacks are as follows and in the following order:



1.     Jodan oi-zuki;

2.     Chudan oi-zuki;

3.     Chudan mae-geri keage;

4.     Chudan yoko-geri kekomi;

5.     Chudan mawashi-geri or jodan mawashi-geri (note: chudan or jodan must be specified at this Level of training); and

6.     Chudan ushiro-geri kekomi.



At a basic level the foundational ukewaza followed by gyaku-zuki are used. For example: against the jodan tsuki, jodan age-uke kara gyaku-zuki; against the chudan tsuki, chudan soto-uke kara gyaku-zuki; mae-geri, gedan-barai kara gyaku-zuki; yoko-geri, chudan soto-uke kara gyaku-zuki; mawashi-geri, jodan or chudan uchi-uke kara gyaku-zuki; and ushiro-geri, gedan-barai kara gyaku-zuki.

In the case of the keriwaza, tai sabaki is often utilized with the fundamental strategy of optimally avoiding any potential follow up attacks. This is habit is grooved by this practice; that is “… this is the formal beginning of this practice).


A major difference—besides freely being to move around and the fluctuating maai (distancing)—from Kihon Ippon Kumite is that “…both attacker and defender have a freestyle kamae (in Jiyu-dachi); furthermore, after countering the punches are immediately snapped back to the kamae”. Some karate groups no longer do this practice, “…they leave their tsuki extended”, therefore, “…their Jiyu Ippon Kumite is in fact to closer to Kihon Ippon Kumite”. In saying that, this methodology is a good ‘Pre-First Level Jiyu Ippon’. The only problem with this is that some karateka stay at this level of practice. Keep in mind that Jiyu Ippon Kumite’s goal is “…bridging kihon and yakusoku/prearranged-kumite to Jiyu Kumite”; that is, “…transitioning to free style without losing kime in techniques”. Keep this point in mind as we move on to Level Two…



The next phase of Jiyu Ippon Kumite training is the same as the previous methodology. The same six attacks, in the same order, are first announced then launched; however, this time, any method/technique of defense and any counterattack may be utilized by the defender.

After using an ukewaza and/or taisabaki the defender must counterattack with the best technique in that moment; that is, the best technique based on you and your opponent’s position, maai, your physique (i.e. – arm/leg reach), and the one which would potentially cause the most damage. I’d like to address the last point in greater detail as many people fail in this regard and, unless this point is understood, it is better to go back to ‘First Level Jiyu Ippon’.

Let me provide an example… I had a senior karateka, whom I was teaching, who keep kept countering with uraken yokomawashi uchi. While this technique can potentially finish a fight; in most circumstances, it will not. Therefore, unless the aspect of collision, or some other transfer of mass is involved, it is usually not the best option. This is just an example, but my point is to select the technique, which is strongest. Yes, it might be a snapping uraken in specific circumstances, but usually a large-scale power technique will be ‘the correct choice’. This is Budo Education in which “…the karateka must instantaneously/instinctively launch the most devastating technique”. This training is not a test of one’s creativity; rather, it is for optimal effect.

At this second stage ‘kensei-waza’ (feints) can be formally introduced and practiced; furthermore, if the defenders counterattack fails, the attacker can attack again.



As you can imagine, while the defender and attacker are pre-determined, attacks are not announced. I recommend doing this in two ways. Firstly, using the only the six attacks as before, but in a random order. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the quality of the attack. Oiwaza are the strongest techniques due to the radical transfer of bodyweight/movement of the center; furthermore, their immense propulsion/momentum. Secondly, deviating from these attacks sometimes causes the quality of the attacks deteriorate.

Once this can be done with excellence, any attack can be used. It is worth noting that “…if the quality of technique in attack and defense/counterattack lessens, it is better to return to the aforementioned ‘standard’ attacks.

In this form of Jiyu Ippon Kumite, one will find kenseiwaza to be naturally more effective (due to the defender not knowing what attack is going to come). Nonetheless, in the circumstances of overuse of feinting, or exposure of one’s kamae, the defender is permitted to launch a pre-emptive attack. This often happens when the designated attacker presses into attacking distance without attacking in the attempt to pressure the defender.

As one can see, by this stage (even though it is still a ‘one step drill’) this form of Jiyu Ippon Kumite is almost Jiyu Kumite.



The third level of Jiyu Ippon Kumite is in fact the final stage, the highest level of Jiyu Ippon Kumite. However, I thought I’d provide some of my favorite variations. The first is adding a second (or more) technique(s) in the one step, that is, a renzokuwaza. For example, mae-geri followed by jodan oi-zuki; Jodan gyaku-zuki kara jodan gyaku-zuki; mae-geri followed by mawashi-geri with the same leg; etc… The second variation is to make an attack with a tsuki, keri or uchi and follow up with a hold, lock or strangulation technique (or vice-versa). This is great practice for applying these techniques and, indeed, foiling them. The third variation is doing the aforementioned ‘Third Level of Jiyu Ippon Kumite’ then after the opponent’s counterattack, have short bursts (say five seconds) of Jiyu Kumite. The fourth and final variation, is the younger sister of Jiyu Ippon Kumite: Kaeshi Ippon Kumite. Kaeshi Ippon Kumite is where the initial attacker counterattacks the defenders counterattack… In this form of kumite, one can follow the same process of ‘Level One to Level Three Jiyu Ippon Kumite’ to ensure that the foundational techniques are not undermined.


In ALL CASES, especially in the case of variations, we must make sure that the training is effective. If the drill or exercise does not result in skill development, it is time wasted. Obviously, in some cases, certain training methods can even lead to the regression of good technique/skill. From my experience, I have found this not so much due to the drill itself, but the level of the karateka. If a drill, is too difficult (seen by the deterioration of KIHON and weakness(es) in KIME, take a step back. I think this way adequately highlighted inside my descriptions of the three Jiyu Ippon levels. You and/or students can always go back to a more basic level. This type of systematic training will result in the best use of time to continue advancing one’s karate prowess. In this way—in the immediate, short-term, and long-term—real results will be achieved.

Lastly, if you are a regular follower of this site, you will notice an article earlier about the 'stages of jiyu ippon'. I recommend that article in connection to this one if you wish to maximize your training! Don't get bogged down with the terms of 'levels' and 'stages' but, rather, the defining differences in actual training. Best wishes and best training. Osu!!!

Countering Matt Brew (4th Dan) with TAI-SABAKI.

© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2020).

Sunday 16 August 2020


Today my training focused on junansei (softness) and kokyu (breathing). Accordingly, the kata of my practice was 気法拳 (Kihouken) and lots of core-strength based stretching, which Asai Sensei utilized to soften his body. 

I also worked on lots of diaphragmic breathing:

This training was a central aspect of Asai Tetsuhiko Sensei's self practice and was a huge emphasis from his wife, Mrs. Asai Keiko. Yesterday marked Asai Sensei's passing. So I did a special training based on these aforementioned points. My thoughts are with the Asai Family in their mourning.

© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2020).

Thursday 13 August 2020


Kumite with my student Matt Brew (Yondan)
Jiyu Kumite at the seaside with my student Matt Brew (Yondan).

 I was recently asked why I can hit people with such a wide variety of techniques in Jiyu Kumite (I’ve often been asked this type of question in various ways over the years). The reality is that, from Asai Sensei, Tanaka Sensei, Osaka Sensei and other instructors, I simply LEARNED THE RIGHT WAY! So what is the right way?


The reality is that people think I have a ‘large arsenal’ in free sparring, but, in reality; I only have a handful of techniques. So, what is behind this phenomenon? The answer is 



That is, to be able to effectively use your techniques optimally in relation the environment, stimuli, opponent(s), and so forth. In this way, one technique becomes many—because the karateka can automatically adapt it for optimal effect.


Do not get confused here. It is NOT JUST ADAPTING TECHNIQUES. For example, trajectory changes in an attack. Rather it is adapting techniques autonomously ‘in an instant’ with optimal effect. This is a skill that requires true mastery of the fundamentals and, consequently, being able to apply them in a freestyle context.


On the contrary, many people have a wide range of techniques, which require very specific circumstances to be successful. Such techniques are what I can only refer to ‘underdeveloped technique’s’. This type of karate is inferior to boxing and kickboxing. In actuality, this type of karate is not real karate.

Jiyu Kumite with David from Spain during his time as a Renshusei.
Jiyu Kumite in Japan, HENKA MAWASHI-GERI, ippon!

Jiyu Kumite is essential to develop the overarching skill of TECHNICAL ADAPTABILITY. Needless to say, this skill is imperative in all fighting arts. This also raises a big question……. Many people teaching karate now ‘demonstrate well’, but can they do what they teach against a non-cooperative and strong opponent? This is my professional asset and the key to what effective fighting karate is. 


© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2020).

Wednesday 12 August 2020

Diaphragmic Breathing

 I was asked “What are the first things I teach in Karate?” So, in the same light, of my last post I thought I'd answer that here today. Before I go on, now (due to my schedule in Japan) I only teach instructors and elite competitors at my dojo here in Oita City. Nonetheless, I taught total beginners for many-many years. 

Well, at the beginning of the first lesson, I'd initially teach the following: How to make a correct fists (seiken) and stand correct with a good posture (shisei) in shizentai. From there, I teach the ryo ken daitai mae position. In this regard, I teach people to drop their shoulders and ‘sink the energy down into the lower abdomen’. Basically, TO RELAX and rely of the kahanshin (lower body). This is physically achieved by diaphragmic breathing and consciousness awareness of where human energy intrinsically is. Next, I always teach to fix the eyes on one point directly in front the trainee (as a basic reference for them) and begin the practice of receptibility; that is, having an empty/open mind to all stimuli that surrounds them. Please remember, this is the beginning. But like all beginnings, these aspects are ‘constants’ for the karateka. In fact, they eventually expand and differentiate the levels of people.


Just to clarify, in my teaching, this training precedes the standing ojigi and seiza, as it is perquisite to performing these formalities. Furthermore, as already alluded to, these foundational skills underpin everything else.

Today, let me to briefly focus on just one of these points…DIAPHRAGMIC BREATHING.


1.0 What is the Diaphragm? The diaphragm is a muscle at the base of our lungs which is shaped like a dome. When one inhales the diaphragm contracts and moves downwards creating a space, in your chest cavity, that allows your lungs to expand. When one exhales, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards into the chest cavity. Reading this, tai no shinshuku in karate should immediately come to mind.

1.1 What is the Diaphragmic Breathing and what are its benefits? So, what then is diaphragmic breathing? It is belly or ‘abdominal breathing’ which allows a full trade of incoming oxygen and outgoing carbon dioxide. In other words, it is ‘high quality breathing’. Diaphragmic breathing has long been known as scientifically beneficial for people with various diseases. However, it is also known to lower blood pressure and heart rate; reduce stress, anxiety, and anger; enhance mental clarity; and indeed, improve physical performance and recovery from exertion.

1.2 Basic exercise to learn how to do Diaphragmic Breathing: To begin practicing diaphragmic breathing lie flat down on your back with your knees bent. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your lower abdomen—just below your rib cage. Inhale slowly and steadily through your nose with the intent of getting the air deeply down into your lower abdomen. The hand on your chest should remain motionless, whilst the hand on your stomach should rise. Tighten your abs and allow them to fall inwards as you exhale from your mouth. The hand on your abdomen should move down to its original position.

1.3 Applying Diaphragmic Breathing to one’s Karate: The next phase to replicate this breathing, but in the standing position, as described as the start of this article (with the hands—instead of being placed on the chest and belly—being in the ryo ken daitai mae position). From here, this breathing methodology is appropriately applied and in harmony in all karate techniques; thereby, optimizing physical and physiological capacity.


The first thing we do when we enter the world is breath. And it will be the last thing we do. Accordingly, “…the quality of our breathing—between times—is ‘pretty important’.” I will conclude on that note!


© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2020).

Monday 3 August 2020


As an instructor many people question me on different topics. Obviously, it is impossible to answer all these questions and everyone, however, when the same or similar questions get asked a lot (by a wide range of people), I usually get around to answering them: via a post, here on this blogsite.

 That is the case today… The topic is ‘General Flexibility’. That is, what I do ‘to SAFELY and EFFECTIVELY STRETCH?’ Namely, to avert injury, increase and/or maintain maximum range of motion, optimize compression and so forth. I’d like to answer this question by providing a history/timeline, as such: of my warmup, stretching and flexibility training over the decades. I’ll do that briefly and broad manner in three sections: 1980s, 1990s and the 21st Century. After that I will wrap up with some key points, which hopefully answer all the questions I’ve received on this topic, in recent months.

Karate stretching in the 1980s—the ‘pain is gain’ approach: 

During the 80s, in retrospect, we did a lot of unhealthy stretching. Inadequate (often stretching was the ‘warm-up’), lots of ballistic stretching, pushed partner stretches and so on. Even as a youngster I suffered a significant number of, fortunately, minor injuries, during this decade. Nonetheless, in my experience at that time, these pulls, and strains were un-scientifically viewed ‘as the road towards increasing flexibility’ and even increased strength. To clarify, I have only suffered one very serious injury, which ironically was not karate related.

But on the subject of serious injuries and stretching, one cannot look past these common 1980s practices. One regular practice was to have partners stand on your legs to make full splits or force the knees flat to the floor in the ‘butterfly stretch’. Another was to sit on your partners back as they bend forward for the base 'seated hamstring stretch'. Keep in mind I was born in the mid 1970s, so in the 80s I was a junior and later, a teenager. Back then, the popping, cracking and crunching sounds, as we stretched were normal. We thought it was positive! Now, the thought of it makes me grimace. Across the many young karateka practicing at that time, I wonder how their bodies are now in 2020?

This painful type of practice, as mentioned did cause injuries—but also (admittedly) achieved ‘quick results’, which provided a ‘phantom justification’ for their practice. Unfortunately, as I already alluded to, “…I am sure that a significant number of people damaged their joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscles, doing this type of archaic training”: both immediately, and probably, in the long-term. That would certainly be an interesting research project.


1990s karate stretching—things got a lot better but… 

The 90s saw a lot of improvements in stretching via new and wider access to sports science within the karate world. Warming up became more aerobic in nature (to literally ‘get warm’ before stretching) followed by loosening exercises, stance based floor stretches, more attention to upper body stretches (much thanks to Asai Sensei) and prioritization of dynamic stretches at the start of classes (for example, leg swings), and PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) based stretches.

Furthermore, the conclusion of trainings included more static stretches, isometric stretches, coupled with balancing strength-work… The sort of splits work we did in the 1980s, but devoid of all the intense partner stretching and jerky ballistic stretches. In sum, the research showed that, at least for fighting arts like karate, static stretching was found to be optimal at the conclusion of practices.

I would like to add here, that in the early 1990s is when I first began training here in Japan… Of course, the general level of karate was far technically superior; however, the ‘warmups’ were worse than what I experienced in the 1980s in New Zealand!!! So, in this regard, Japan was very behind. Indeed, I doubt this problem was about ‘a lack of sports science knowledge’. Rather, it was probably more-so an issue of the strong sociocultural rules of joge kanke—‘the senpai/kohai relationship’ here in Japan: which is very influential in greater society, but extreme in the Japanese Budo World.

Accordingly, when training in Japan in the 90s, I learned to be ‘very well warmed up’ well before seiza: to avoid immediate or long-term damage as much as possible. I could go into competing in large inter-Japan karate competitions (on the topic of warm up and stretching) especially if you are a foreigner… But I will leave that, for another day, as it is a topic worthy of itself.

Stretching in the 21st Century...

To this day, here in Japan, many clubs still ‘warm up’ like the 1980s!!! Yes, still,  almost immediately (after standing from seiza) the instructors often have everyone drop into the splits!!! One well known instructor, who is a friend, advised me. “Every time you finish bathing spend five minutes in the splits”. So many people take such advise seriously, as karate gospel, just because it came from a Japanese instructor.


Thankfully, those interested in avoiding injury, and getting the best results from stretching “…kept evolving, refining (and diversifying their routines)” based on contemporary sports science. Most importantly, RESPONSIBLE, PROFESSIONAL and CARING INTRUCTORS continue to “...advance their knowledge to optimally improve their student’s flexibility in the safest possible manner”. This, in my opinion is the absolute responsibility of everyone who teaches karate, or any other physical activity for that matter. As instructors, WE MUST ALWAYS KEEP UP TO DATE!


So, where do I stand now when it comes to my own flexibility training? Well, now in my mid 40s my conditioning hasn’t changed very much since I entered my 30s. That is, at that time I could see the super intense training I did—throughout my teens and 20s—would eventually take a harsh toll on my body. So I changed and by the time I was 32 I had fully restructured my stretching program: based on (1) optimum outcome (karate skill development); (2) safety (health/physical longevity); and (3) suppleness of my body, but also mind (youthful elasticity/stillness of mind).

One major aspect of stretching for me is to ‘not push myself’. I take things easy when doing flexibility work and let my body talk. Yes, it tells us how far we should or shouldn’t go. Some days I am extremely supple. Sitting in the full splits for an extended period is fine. Yet, other days, I cannot do the same stretch past 90 degrees. My motto, in this regard is: “when you make stretching ‘being competitive with others’, or ‘even being competitive with yourself’, it is a non-productive training ethic”. Understanding and applying this, you will mitigate the chances of harming yourself, you will maintain and ‘safely increase your range of motion’, and most importantly ‘YOU WILL ENJOY STRETCHING’. Why, is ‘enjoying’ most important? Simply take on a behaviorists view. When the experience is pleasant—gentle and relaxing: (a) you will avoid injuries; (b) you will increase your range of motion; (c) you will improve overall performance; (d) and will feel healthier and younger in general;—therefore, due to this positive reinforcement, you will probably keep it up!

Alternatively, if stretching is painful, and even periodically damages you (negative reinforcement), you may keep it up for a while. However, it probably won’t be too long before you start ‘avoiding’ it. This applies to even the most disciplined and driven karate exponents around the world; whom of many, I've privately coached to give them an edge.

To conclude I would like to challenge you to take it easy!! No pain, just all gentle and relaxing stretches. Stretch AS DEEP AS YOU CAN WITHOUT ANY DISCOMFORT. Enjoy it by making it enjoyable! Not just at the dojo, but how about doing a hamstring stretch when waiting for the subway? What about using that nice bookstand in your office to put you’re your foot on? How about occasionally standing up from your desk and bending forward as far as possible for your hamstrings? What about doing a relaxed half box splits stretch as you watch the evening news? You will be surprised how less is more. Just remember, “…pain in stretching is not a sign of good training”. It’s your body saying, “Hey stop it, or ease up a little, you’re overdoing it”. So that’s it for today. Hopefully, there was something of use in this article. I’d personally like to wish you the very best results and health in your training.

Greetings from Oita City.

Osu, André

© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2020).

Saturday 1 August 2020

Andre Bertel only 'partially trains in Japan'???

Recently I was messaged that someone was propagating online that "Andre Bertel only 'partially trains' in Japan"... Whatever that means? Well, its true that I have been (and trained in Japan), on and off, since 1993. However, I have been living, and training daily, here in Japan (non-stop) for over seven years now. In total, I guess "...I have practiced karate daily in this wonderful country for at least 15 years" in total since '93.

Of course, I don't need to defend this, as I am obviously here! However, it amazes me how childish some people are in the karate world. Furthermore, I feel it is unfair how some people wish to ERASE MY LIFE. 


Always remember in KarateTECHNIQUE AND SKILL TALK. If the quality is there, the quality students will come, irrespective of race, place or face.

I will KEEP TALKING WITH MY TECHNIQUE AND SKILL, and also OPENESS to those willing to learn.

Greetings from my dojo here in Oita City, Japan.

© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2020).