Gichin Funakoshi, the famous karateka who inspired the development of Shotokan and the dissemination of karate throughout Japan, wrote a pivotally important biography known as “Karate-do: My Way of Life“. In this all-too-brief book Funakoshi describes his martial arts training and experiences throughout his long life (he lived to be 88).
One of the stories he tells involves a poetry reading party in the city of Tamagawa. After enjoying a night of festivities, the 80-year-old Funakoshi rode the train back to Otsuka station, where he set off to walk the rest of the way home.
Carrying only his umbrella and furoshiki (essentially a cloth sack), Funakoshi traveled along the night street when suddenly a figure popped out from behind a lamp post. The young tough confronted Funakoshi, first reaching toward his umbrella, then engaging him in nervous small-talk. He asked Funakoshi for a cigarette, and when Funakoshi claimed he had none, the tough demanded to see the inside of the furoshiki.
When Funakoshi refused, the tough grabbed the umbrella and swung it at Funakoshi’s head. Funakoshi ducked and grabbed the thief by his testicles. The pain froze the young man, and as a street constable came by, Funakoshi was able to release the man into the officer’s custody.
On a separate occasion Funakoshi was attempting to board a ferry that was connected to a dock by a single wood plank. Unfortunately, at that time, a storm was brewing and caused the sea to become quite uneven.
As Funakoshi stepped onto the board, the sea swelled and a high wave began to form. Relying on instinct and quick reactions, Funakoshi balanced himself and then swung his luggage forward, using that momentum to carry his body on board the ferry, barely avoiding a dangerous spill into the ocean.
The Big So-Whats
There are a couple of valuable takeaways that we can extract from these small tales. The first is that nobody gets a free ride when it comes to personal safety. No matter what part of town you’re in, or who you are, your personal safety is something for you to consider seriously. Men, as well as children, women, and the elderly should understand that violence can occur in a moment’s notice for a wide variety of reasons. The attacker could be desperate, bored, mentally unstable, sexually deviant, and so on.
In modern times there has been a stronger push for equality in the arts, where as short as a generation ago it was largely considered man’s domain. This movement toward the equal inclusion of women and children should be continued, and we as martial artists should do our best to spread the core concepts of our arts. We also need to be certain to spread the proper mind and heart that goes along with this kind of dangerous training, otherwise we are merely flooding the streets with more effective thieves, stalkers, etc etc.
Secondly, it is critical that we do not overestimate our own prowess. Through years of hard training we become confident in our abilities to defend ourselves and others, maybe even using that skill in live scenarios. Nevertheless, confidence can easily lead to overconfidence, which can re-introduce many of the pitfalls that haunt people completely unskilled in the art of self defense.
Someone like Funakoshi spent a lifetime training in the arts and honing his abilities, and even he was caught unawares from time to time. No matter how well tuned your radar, and how street-wise you are, it’s important to remember your own human limitations. By doing that you can stay sharp, continue to make good decisions, and try your best to integrate your art in such a way that it expresses itself naturally without highly structured decision making.
This natural integration can manifest itself in unexpected ways, like it did with Funakoshi when he saved himself on the dock. Even his instructor Yasutsune Azato expressed marvel at Funakoshi’s enhanced abilities to react to the unpredictable dangers of the ocean that day.
Finally, if you wish to pursue karate in the same fashion as the old masters, you need to take these stories into even deeper consideration. In Funakoshi’s encounter with the street mugger, he attempts to hold off from violent behavior as best as possible (some might say he waited far too long to act). Yet, at the end of telling that story, Funakoshi expresses regret at having ‘taken the offensive’ against his attacker. He sympathizes with the man whom he surmises was likely a vet coming home to nothing, and living in a state of desperation.
To live the way Funakoshi lived requires an unwavering mind which some people may find too unrealistic to implement in their day-to-day lives. Until you have come to a conclusion about your own willingness to conduct violence, and when you might deem it appropriate, you’ll have a gap in your defenses.
Although martial arts training can (and should) help people overcome fear and uncertainty, it is critical to never lose that tactile realization that even you could be cut, hit, and taken advantage of.
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Bruce Heilman is the founder of the International Karate Kobudo Federation and owner of the Heilman Karate Academy. Hanshi Heilman has spent over 45 years in the pursuit of martial arts and has contributed significantly to the growth and propagation of the Okinawa Kenpo style.
In addition to creating an original video series exploring the forms and concepts of Okinawa Kenpo, Hanshi Heilman has been featured in multiple martial arts publications and programs. For a full look at Hanshi Heilman’s experience consult his martial arts resume here. Mr. Heilman has a diverse background in jujutsu, karate, and kobudo, and has studied with some excellent instructors including Hank Talbot, Robert Trias, and Seikichi Odo (who’s style Hanshi Heilman continues to spread today).
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Mr. Heilman about a wide array of topics, ranging from childhood troubles to building organizations. I’ve included this interview in digestible video pieces so that you can enjoy as much as your time allows.
In this video I ask Mr. Heilman about his very first experiences in the late 60’s with the martial arts and what made him step into a dojo for the first time. Also discussed is the character and teaching methods of his unique jujutsu instructor Hank Talbot (pictured here), who was known to use his cigar as an implement while on the mat.
Study with Robert Trias
In this next video I ask Hanshi about how he transferred from studying with Hank Talbot in karate and jujutsu to full-on karate study with Robert Trias. For those who are unfamiliar with him, Robert Trias is considered one of the fathers of American karate (along with Ed Parker) and was one of the strongest driving forces in the states for karate study. in fact, Trias Sensei is accredited with opening the first commercial martial arts dojo in the United States and the development of the United States Karate Alliance.
Study with Seikichi Odo
Next Heilman Sensei discusses how he came to know Seikichi Odo, and what drew him to his eventual teacher. Hanshi also elaborates on his love for weapons and why he chose to pursue them so passionately when other opportunities (such as continuing study with Robert Trias) were present. For those who are unfamiliar with Seikichi Odo, he was the successor to Shigeru Nakamura, the man credited with developing Okinawa Kenpo. Odo Sensei was a world renowned karateka and weapons practitioner and did much to bring Okinawa Kenpo to the United States.
The Birth of Okinawa Kenpo, And The Struggles to Organize
In this video Hanshi Heilman explores the beginnings of Okinawa Kenpo and what Shigeru Nakamura had originally intended for the style.
Early in this video Hanshi refers to a picture of a gathering of Okinawan Karateka, which can be viewed here. Also discussed is how Okinawa Kenpo shifted and changed after the eventual deaths of Shigeru Nakamura and Zenryo Shimabukuro, the two figureheads of the group.
The Future of Martial Arts, And Hanshi Heilman’s Concerns
This video steps away from the biographical and explores some of the ideas Heilman Sensei has about the future of the martial arts. Hanshi begins by explaining why he chose to name his federation the IKKF (International Karate Kobudo Federation) rather than something Okinawa-Kenpo-Specific. He goes on to explain his concerns about the focus on theatrics and gymnastics over fundamentals and application. Also discussed is the current trend toward quick gratification, and the need to teach students how to overcome failure.
A Gathering of Styles
In the final video Hanshi Heilman talks about how he came to know some of the most influential martial artists in the United States, and how he turned potential competition into an opportunity to learn and grow together. Some of the practitioners mentioned in this video include Bill Hayes of Shobayashi Shorin Ryu, George Alexander of Matsumura Shorin Ryu and Hakutsuru Kenpo, Chuck Merriman of Goju Ryu, Patrick McCarthy of Koryu Uchinadi, Miguel Ibarra of Aikijujutsu, Jody Paul of Motobu Udundi, and more.
Hanshi Heilman also explains how he first developed his annual training event at the International Karate Kobudo Federation’s honbu dojo, and why he believes it is critical to stay exposed to skillful practitioners of other styles.
I hope you enjoyed learning about the early days of Okinawa Kenpo and Hanshi Heilman’s experience in developing the arts. If you’d like to learn more, visit the book project “Tales From the Western Generation”. In addition to the topics covered here, Hanshi Heilman discusses how his teachers influenced him, what he believes is the optimal learning process for karate, what his motivations were for establishing the IKKF, and what trials he had to endure to make that happen.
Thank you to Hanshi Heilman for this interview and to you the readers for being a part of this site!
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I’d like to share a video this week that explores a portion of the Gojushiho kata. Many karate styles share this kata, which makes exploring the different versions very interesting and impactful. Despite their performance differences, most styles include a section wherein the practitioner steps in a kosa dachi fashion, performs a grabbing motion, and then steps out into a throw.
This video looks at that series and explains how you can take the performance of the technique and drill down to the core concepts that make it work in a combat-viable fashion.
The bunkai demonstrated is far from the only application possible. The real goal here is to show how practitioners can explore their kata in ways they might not have considered before.
As you dive into the bunkai and oyo bunkai of your kata, never be afraid to ask yourself “could I really use this?”. A good application keeps reality in mind while staying true to the essence of the form itself.
Finally, remember that some kata (including Gojushiho) were subject to alteration and hiding of technique throughout the history of Okinawa. Finding what the technique is trying to whisper is sometimes more important than what the technique literally shouts.
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