As long time readers here know, I have a great passion and interest in Bunkai. Bunkai is the application and inspection of meaning in kata, and to me it is as integral as the movements themselves.
Recently I got a chance to watch a new work by Charlie Wildish and Keith McKay Cormack entitled “Inside Bassai Dai”.
Wildish operates the blog Bunkai Jutsu and decided to create a DVD entailing his breakdown of the kata Bassai Dai. In the video Wildish is joined by his friend and ‘partner in crime’ Keith McKay Cormack. The interesting thing about this duo is the diverse backgrounds they bring together, Wildish a Sandan in Shotokan Karate and Cormack a student of Choy Li Fut Kung Fu.
The video is staged in front of an unadorned yet attractive stone wall, which seems to set the mood of the entire video. Wildish and Cormack are friendly and down to Earth in their explanations, yet stay very focused on the task at hand, wasting little time in frivolity.
Wildish begins by demonstrating the kata from multiple angles, then breaking down each segment into possible explanations. Following Wildish is Cormack who demonstrates how the idea of the technique appears in his Chinese background, and how he might approach bunkai from a Kung Fu perspective. It is enjoyable to actively see the similarities and differences played out.
This video is unpretentious, straight forward, and focused on content instead of flashiness. As such I feel it does justice to the spirit of Karate.
As a bonus I was also able to check out Wildish’s “10 Kicking Tips”, which guides the viewer not through specific kicks, but through some of the basic physics and ideas that make kicking effective. This DVD was also an enjoyable watch, especially as Wildish described ways in which kicks can be thrown in a true straight line.
All in all I would recommend these resources to individuals who either study Bassai Dai or are looking to enhance their overall understanding of Bunkai. The procedures used in these DVDs are sound fundamentally and can be relied upon to elicit positive results.
This is a continuation from Part 1 of the interview with Patrick McCarthy. McCarthy Sensei is ranked 8th Dan and is a well known author as well as the developer of Koryu Uchinadi.
PM: The Bubishi has been one of Tuttle’s best-selling martial arts titles in the past and I think my publisher got wind of the fact that I was planning to produce a Bubishi Companion text. Hence, asked if I would consider revising my original work. Anyway, that’s what my attorney told me. Based upon this, I produced the revised edition, and was very pleased with the final outcome; FYI, the Bubishi Companion text is still in the works.
MA: Speaking of the Bubishi, what roll do you see hakutsuru (white crane) and the Fujian Province playing in the development of ti (early karate)? Which hakutsuru kata on Okinawa are generally considered the most genuine? [Note: Hakutsuru is one of the major subjects discussed in the Bubishi]
PM: Genuine is a relevant term! Like lineage and culture, genuine doesn’t necessarily mean functional. I’ve witnessed a lot of “genuine” Japanese and Okinawans who came from impeccable lineages and couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag! I call such folks, “re-enactors,” not totally unlike the Medieval Re-enactors Groups; most, not all, pay remarkable attention to various cultural details, and have the best uniforms, etc. The only one thing lacking is their functional fighting skills.
As a style Hakutsuru (i.e., Yongchun Crane), played an important role as one of the precursor methods from which several Okinawan lineages trace their origins. As a kata (e.g., Sokon’s Hakutsuru, etc.) however, I think far too much fuss has been made over its form with out understanding its function. Much of what I’ve seen being promoted as “authentic,” falls far from being functional. Those traditions established in and around the Matsuyama Park district of Naha’s Kume Village (i.e. Wai Xinxian, Iwah, Aragaki Seisho, Kojo Taitei, Xie Zhongxiang, Higaonna Kanryo, Maezato Ranpo, Matsuda Tokusaburo, Nakaima Norisato, Sakiyama Kitoku, and Wu Xianhui, etc.) and that of Uechi Kambun appear to come down from this lineage.
One of the difficulties in tracing exact lineage is the different cosmetic appearance of the style. An example of how styles, which come from the same progenitor source, change is found in detachment, the passing of time, confusion and the arrival of rule-bound practices, which emphasized form over function.
MA: Your travels took you not only to your main areas of study (Okinawa and Japan) but also to Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and China. What were you hoping to find during these excursions?
PM: Similarities, differences and contextual premises, in order to corroborate my theories and bring more meaning to what I was studying.
MA: Could you share an anecdote from those times of an experience that you found to be particularly enlightening or humorous?
PM: In November of 1990 I traveled from my home in Japan to Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China. The local martial arts association was hosting an international competition, preceded by a week long symposium with many of its most senior masters. Amid the several foreign countries partaking in the martial arts festival was a Japanese delegation with members from various fighting arts. One evening in the banquet hall after dinner, several of the groups were enjoying, “a few drinks,” and exchanging stories. In a rather lively conversation, “alleging that the Japanese misunderstood the original fighting arts of Shaolin,” one of the Chinese delegates come out with something like, “…for example, jujutsu is an application-based practice but without our old solo routines (kata), and yet karate has preserved our old routines but still don’t understand their application!”
The comment was greeted with a roaring silence, until one gentleman from the Japanese delegation responded with, “are you suggesting that each of these arts is a smaller part of a larger whole, and incomplete in itself?” As the Chinese gentleman skulled the last of his jiu (Jiu= liquor), he proudly blurted out, “Karate and jujutsu both trace their roots back here to our Fujian-based Shaolin practice, therefore, wouldn’t you all just be better off studying our original art?”
Historically, I think the intoxicated Chinese gentleman was referring to Fujian-based Shaolin arts as the progenitor to which karate kata traces its roots, and Chen Yuan-Pin (aka Chin Gempin/1587-1674) as the Fujian-based martial artist said to have influenced the development of Jujutsu by his mid-17th century visit to Edo (Tokyo) and subsequent interaction with the Samurai class (i.e., Fukuno Hichiroemon, Isogai Jirozaemon, and Miura Yojiemon, who later influence the establishment of Fukunoryu/Ryoi Shinto Ryu, Miuraryu Yawara and Kito Ryu Jujutsu).
What happened next between a couple of emotionally charged martial artists at the table was, for me, nowhere near as important as the BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) I experienced that evening. Learning that Fujian-based quanfa served as the progenitor from which came both karate kata (form) and jujutsu oyo (function) it stood to reason that the contextual premises and underlying principles which shaped this original art should also apply to any and all derivatives, including today’s practices. Furthermore, being able to prove such a thing would surely help resolve the terrible ambiguity shrouding insight to the contextual premises and application practices of kata as understood in modern karate.
This not only formed the basis from which my obsession with studying the original Fujian-based quanfa practices unfolded, but also revealed a crucial link between form (karate kata), function (jujutsu oyo), and their shared Shaolin heritage.
MA: I’d like to take a closer look at some of your main instructors. Sugino Sensei was an extremely well respected budoka, and subject of the article “The Last Swordsman”. What was training with Sugino Sensei like? Did he provide any unique glimpses into the world of Japanese Koryu?
PM: Sugino Sensei was a delightful person and it was a wonderful opportunity to be one of his direct students. In spite of also having trained Muso Shinden Eishin Ryu and ZNKR Iai under Izawa Takehiko most of my formal Koryu training was experienced under his tutelage. Like all Koryu, Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu uses identifiable attack scenarios and timeless prescribed application practices to effectively negotiate them. I could tell you many wonderful stories about this fascinating teacher but it is understanding this premise that Grandmaster strengthened my understanding of kata.
MA: Did Inoue Sensei discuss his Ninjutsu connections frequently, and did you get a chance to experience those methods during your kobudo training with him?
PM: On many occasions Sendai discussed training under Fujita Seiko, Shiyoda Gozo, Taira Shinken and Konishi Yasuhiro, and what a collective impact it had upon his learning. I used to meet Sendai early every Tuesday afternoon before regular training at the Shibuya dojo to serve him tea, and listen to him talk about his history. From time to time he would lead us through various Ninjutsu-based practices, including shuriken and tactical application of pressure points.
MA: More importantly…any regrets about wearing leopard print pants in your kickboxing match at Tokyo Korakuen??
PM: Not at all … only wish I was bold enough to wear the Leopard mask that came with them ; – )
MA: These days you are touring quite frequently to help improve people’s understanding of Uchinadi and karate in general. Where have those travels taken you, and where might people contact you if they are interested in such a seminar?
PM: I like to think of KU as a system of application practices which can fit easily under the foundation of any karate style, and radically improve the overall curriculum, without adversely effecting its cosmetic appearance.
I’ve been invited to teach KU TPAD’s all over the world ranging from North & South America, Russia, the UK, and the EU, to Africa, Japan, China, SE Asia, New Zealand and Australia. For anyone interested, I can be contacted c/o firstname.lastname@example.org but cannot always respond immediately. Alternatively, it’s best to contact our American Shibucho, Sensei Darrin Johnson c/o email@example.com.
MA: Many thanks McCarthy Sensei for your participation in this interview and for your tireless efforts to help reveal and preserve the true nature of traditional martial arts!
It’s an honor to present this interview with Patrick McCarthy, 8th Dan and founder of Koryu Uchinadi.
McCarthy Sensei is one of the world’s leading investigators in classical martial arts. He has traveled to many countries and for decades has acquired knowledge and information from some of the top instructors in various classical arts, putting together an innovative system known as Koryu Uchinadi (ko=ancient, ryu=style, uchina=okinawan people, di=hand).
McCarthy Sensei is a noted practitioner of Okinawan Kobudo and Karate but is also a cross trainer, integrating modern ideas and techniques into his personal skillset. He has proven himself in the realm of competitive kickboxing as well as traditional tournaments.
The following interview grants us a peek into some of McCarthy Sensei’s ideas behind martial training, as well as some of the insights granted to him by his highly skilled instructors.
MA: McCarthy Sensei, what got you into martial arts in the first place and how old were you when you first started studying seriously?
PM: When I was nine years old a highly motivational documentary film was shown at my primary school. Produced by Josef Reeve, for the National Film Board of Canada, it was entitled, “Road to the Olympics,” and highlighted Canadian Judo Champion, and silver medalist, Doug Rogers. I joined the Saint John Judo club immediately after that.
MA: Could you provide a brief overview of your training history and main instructors?
PM: I have learned from many teachers over the years but I think those who most influenced me taught me to learn for myself; John Grosdanoff [high school wrestling coach], Tiger Thompson [boxing coach], Wally Slocki [kumite coach], Sensei Richard Kim [principal karate teacher], Prof. Wally Jay [jujutsu instructor], Donn Draeger [Budo culture], Sugino Yoshio [Japanese swordsmanship], Takada Nobuhiko [shoot fighting], and Kinjo Hiroshi [karate teacher]. If you’re interested, here is a Facebook link to some of the many sources I came into contact with during the Japan years. [Note: To learn more about McCarthy Sensei's background, visit his biography page here.]
MA: What was study like under Kinjo Hiroshi Sensei? Was his focus on sparring/kata/application/etc?
PM: Keeping in mind that I was already a 5th dan and 31 years old when I met O-sensei (who was then in his late sixties), learning under him could be likened to being a university student; the lecturer delivered the target lesson and it was up to me to do the required study (training) in order to achieve the required outcome. Following this, O-sensei would check my progress from time to time and make corrections as required. His focus was always upon technique, application and contextual premise.
MA: It is said that Kinjo Sensei is a great repository of karate knowledge. Has he spoken often of karate before the integration into Okinawan school systems? What were the major difference pre/post war, in his mind?
PM: O-sensei is always a great repository of karate knowledge (now nearly 92 years old). In fact, in addition to the many books he’s written, he’s currently in the process of writing yet another! To tell you the truth, all O-sensei ever talks about is karate; he’s still very sharp mentally and remarkably fit, especially for a man so advanced in age.
He always talks about karate in general and has spoken much about the old-days, the “old ways” and many of the authorities with whom he’s come into contact with along the way. Also, my wife Yuriko and I have had the opportunity to translate many articles, either by or about O-sensei. All of this has been quite insightful. He learned directly under Hanashiro Chomo, Gusukuma Shimpan, Oshiro Chojo and Tokuda Ambun. As these men were also the senior students of Itosu Ankoh, and the principal instructors to first teach karate in Okinawa’s school system, O-sensei has a lot of interesting stories about the old-ways. As I have also spent a lot of time studying the past, with a special emphasis upon the old-ways, I can tell you that this is one topic we’ve discussed many times over the years.
One of the biggest things that separate the past from the present, according to grandmaster, is method, organization and systematization. In the old days karate training was very personalized and never as stylized or as commercial as it is today. Also, most of the local Okinawan instructors were all friends of each other and frequently enjoyed “cross-training,” and social gatherings. Little emphasis was ever placed on competition whereas today it’s virtually the opposite; competition is everything! The idea of kihon [learning strikes, blocks, kicks, punches, and postures] separately before learning kata was unheard of; this was a new concept developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Old-school training, prior to karate being introduced into the school system was all about private/personal training, two-person drills and kata.
MA: One of the trademarks of Koryu Uchinadi is it’s two-person tegumi drills. Can you talk a bit about how you came to establish these drills and why you chose to name them in honor of Okinawan Tegumi? In what ways do you suspect they are similar/dissimilar to the ancient version?
PM: I first came across the term, “Tegumi,” while I was still residing in Japan and working on the Nagamine Shoshin book translation “Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters” for Tuttle publications. The term is made up of two separate ideograms; Te – meaning hand or hands, and gumi/kumi, which holds several meanings, such as braid, construct, assemble, unite, cooperate and grapple. More interesting was identifying that the term was also kumite written backwards! Learning this I remembered that as a young kungfu student*, my sifu used the term, “crossing hands,” in the same way that swordsmen used the term, “crossing swords,” as a way to describe fighting.
Asking Master Nagamine about it, he told me that the original, and far more brutal practice of Tegumi had fallen quietly dormant during the end of Okinawa’s old Ryukyu Kingdom Period [c.1879]. Following it’s demise, a modified rule-bound version of stand-up clinch wrestling ascended from it called Okinawan Sumo. In spite of several efforts to popularize the more modified version, the new cultural recreation fell short of gaining widespread recognition.
Considering myself more than a novice history buff, and having spent considerable time in Okinawa, I was surprised that I’d never come across the term “Tegumi” anywhere before. One only need look around at the publications of that era to clearly see that the term “Tegumi” was not in use anywhere within the karate community. As I was also occupied with searching out the origins of various two-person strength and conditioning exercises**, used in old-school karate practices, you can probably now imagine why I liked the dormant term straight away. Having traveled to Fujian in search of what southern kungfu styles used these two-person hand practices, I’d learned a wide range of drills and was searching for a user-friendly name under which to deliver them to others. What better name for such two-person hand practices than Tegumi?
MA: You often suggest that kata are mnemonic templates that are “geometrically choreographed” to elicit understanding of techniques that can be used against habitual acts of physical violence (HAPV). Can you break that down a little more and explain what that means?
PM: As karate is a defensive tradition, what could be more important than learning to identify which acts of physical violence it was developed to defend against? Wouldn’t the ability to defend oneself be left entirely to chance otherwise? Only a naïve mindset imagines that all “fighting” is about standing toe-to-toe with an opponent! Even then, this approach concludes one has the luxury of facing their attacker! The KU approach varies drastically.
The original idea that karate is a defensive art presupposes that if an “opponent” was facing you, irrespective of whatever threatening gestures and verbal taunts were being made, unless you were literally set upon, the better (wiser) person also learned to evade the potential threat, hence preventing the need to harm someone. As such, the need to actually defend oneself arose only if and when an attacker actually seized a hold of you.
In civil/domestic circumstances***, “one against one, empty-handed unwarranted acts of physical violence” (HAPV) represents the contextual premise upon which the art of self-defense was originally forged. My research revealed that pioneers developed various engagement scenarios****, so that novice students could safely rehearse prescribed application practices. In KU TPAD [Koryu Uchinadi Two Person Application Drills], aggressive resistance serves as the catalytic mechanism through which learners are able to achieve functional competency. By bringing together various prescribed application practices into solo routines, something greater than the sum total of their individual parts appears; kata! In KU, this is how we see kata as mnemonic; i.e., a practice that culminates the lesson already learned in TPAD. Moreover, as creative mechanisms through which to express individual prowess, kata also serve a popular means of strengthening one’s overall mental, physical and holistic conditioning.
As such we believe that the HAPV premise crosses the boundaries of time, culture, and gender and therefore are as valuable now here in the West as they ever were in the beginning.
MA: One of your primary methods of exploring bunkai is reverse engineering using HAPV. Do you suspect that karateka of generations past spent far less time exploring bunkai because the applications were introduced first, with the kata then coming after to reinforce those already established lessons?
PM: I do, in fact. With few if any of the distractions, as exampled in today’s highly commercial-based traditions, old-school training methods focused much more upon prescribed application practices.
That said, tradition was never meant to be about blindly following in the footsteps of the old masters, or even preserving their ashes for that matter. In principle, tradition has always been about keeping the flame of their spirit alive, and continuing to seek out what they originally sought. This timeless message is how practices are kept functional, and it is why tradition should inspire learners, not inhibit them!
MA: When exploring bunkai do you have personal checks and balances to determine if you’ve let your creativity veer too far away from the core concept of the kata? How do you keep your imagination inline with the kata’s intent?
PM: Aggressive resistance is one “check” that helps keep us within the boundaries of reality. Another is simplicity; methods that require cognitive thought in the midst of unpredictability and all hell breaking loose, tend to be time-consuming and have little place in practical application. Finally, if and when the prescribed practice meets these criteria, its solo representation MUST still resemble the kata mnemonic. There’s a cute little saying we use in KU about ambiguity; “If it has feathers, quacks and flies, it’s a duck!” So too, if the said prescribed template (i.e., a group of self-defense techniques from the kata) meets the criteria, and looks exactly like what’s in the kata, then until someone is able to show me/us something “more functional,” I/we consider this, “the application!”
Incidentally, this does not suggest that the said template cannot be used in another context exactly the same way, only that the premise doesn’t have to be the same!
MA: Do you still practice kata in your personal training? What value do you derive from it these days?
PM: Oh, yes! I love kata…it is the true art of karate and I am very much inspired by its continued study.