At 級 (Kyu) and roughly初段 (Shodan) level one should execute their kihon in a highly prescribed manner. While this somewhat varies between Shotokan organizations, the underpinning principles and biomechanics are nearly identical. This is due to the human body inherently having the same generic limitations; thus, the very best way to make any given technique means “…that the key points of execution are more similar than different”. This, of course, applies to other kaiha/ryuha as well.
Accordingly, the highly prescribed manner of the ‘base kihon’ is imperative for one’s foundation and, indeed, “…the prime reference point (for each karateka) to fine-tune/self-specifically customize”, to make their karate optimal for themselves.
Now, before I go on here, I want to emphatically stress that I’m not implying ‘radical deviations from the originally learned (aforementioned) prescribed kihon’. As I said, the fundamental techniques practiced at the kyu and shodan stages are “… the base reference for subtle changes at higher levels, so the individual makes the most of their unique physique, and personal attributes”.
Please note, and hopefully needless to say, radical changes to the foundational techniques—based on bizarre theories, which some people inevitably (and counterproductively) concoct—is not what I’m implying here either. Therefore, and accordingly, if someone begins to go down this path, it is FAR BETTER for them to stick to the kyu/shodan prescribed kihon. Quite simply, this is because it’s particularly difficult to ‘unlearn’ errors and, needless to say, this is not the wisest use of one’s time!
This brings me to the point of answering an important question (that I especially get asked by non-Japanese karateka). This question goes something like this: “Why is so and so Sensei’s shuto-uke different from ‘so and so’ Sensei. Please note, I could have used any technique, stance or leg movement here. Basically, when people ask me this, they are really asking: “What’s the correct way?” or “What’s the best way?”
Well, the correct way is what I explained earlier. The ‘kyu/shodan acutely prescribed way’ of doing kihon. Furthermore, ‘the best way’ is also what I said before: in sum, it is the ‘subtle variations of the prescribed manner’, which ‘specifically optimizes the individuals effectiveness’.
Many people get confused by trying to copy different experts via external cues. They look at Asai Sensei, Osaka Sensei, Tanaka Sensei et al., and do not correctly understand why they all move so differently/uniquely. Usually, their assumption is the differences in their physiques, age, strengths, flexibility, and so on. While there is truth in these points, it is not helpful for a person wishing to really improve their own karate. In sum, it is short-sighted. Certainly—study such fabulous individuals—but “…the base kihon, and ‘one’s own unique features’, are the prime reference points”. Indeed, this, ‘technique-wise’, underpins “….how all ‘the greats’ became really great”.
While these masters and others were learning—from Nakayama Masatoshi Sensei, their senpai, and each other “…they were literally ‘adjusting their own kihon’ based on the points I have outlined here today.”
Finally, I’d like to address some individuals, who ‘criticize variations’ from the base/prescribed kihon’, which is EXTREMELY COMMON NOW! Even among those with high Dan in the mainstream organizations. This trend has arisen from the lowering of standards to attain high Dan and qualifications. Such individuals have only been ‘spoon fed the basic system’, and have ‘yet to have been deemed, as good enough, to go to the next phase’. Often, in fact, they never do: probably due to their tunnel vision… In this regard the major associations made some grave errors in giving such people high dan and examination rights. Unambiguously, this has led to the confusion amongst many non-Japanese instructors and, in particular, big egos, brand label obsession, and ‘not very good karate’, to back all that up… All that seems to matter is lots of ‘stand around photos’ with famous instructors. Well, at least they get their pictures each year…. Hmmmm…..
It is also shown in how robotic standards are these days, even at the top. Just looking at the top Japanese instructors (especially up to the 1990s)—and their vast technical variability (uniqueness)—strongly reflects this. So far, in this century, we’ve seen a more ‘packaged’ form of karate, which is less budo/bujutsu in nature and “…more aimed at mass participation and competition success”. While these are potentially good things, they are not good when they take away the optimization of each individual’s budo prowess.
So, how can you moderate your own kihon for yourself to optimize your karate? Well, the power is literally in your hands: “your empty hands!” Firstly, you must have solid kyu/shodan level—the prescribed—kihon. Secondly, based on these waza you must self-check and test for yourself. This means: (a) mirror and/video work to adjust/modify/balance your form; (b) test in impact training; (c) test in all the forms of kumite training; and lastly (d) reinforce/subliminally groove the core skills via kata practice. Using this way, and hopefully with access to a high-level instructor (or instructors) with good character, you will find ‘the best way for you which will be unique’—but ‘avoid negativity deviating from proper kihon’—via going on a strange tangent.
Lastly, I hope that this article helps you via empowerment of yourself. I’ve quoted it many times before and I’ll unapologetically say it again today: “You can feed a person for the day by giving them a fish, or you can feed them for life by teaching them how to fish”. Osu and best wishes for your training, AB.
© André Bertel. Oita City, Japan (2021).