Kendo is a dynamic sport. When watching, it’s hard to take your eyes off of the lightning bolt sword strikes or the faces of the competitors as they pierce each other with intensity. If you’ve never seen a kendo match (or even if you have), check out the following video for a great example:
The zanshin of a good kendo match is always very high. It is a fine balance between keeping energies and emotions perfectly in check while still transmitting full spirit into your opponent in the hopes of intimidating or disrupting him/her.
However, even with all of that going on, the real core fundamental that every great kendo player requires, the engine that powers each thunder clap movement, is Okuri Ashi.
When first learning kendo one of my biggest problems was that I had already been a karate and kobudo student for about a decade. That means certain stancing and body movements were very ingrained into me. This was compounded by the fact that I had studied karate in my formative years and thus had it as part of my developed “self”.
As opposed to karate where most stances are optimally used to involve the whole body (especially the hips) in a variety of techniques and to weight the body down when appropriate, most of kendo’s footwork is light and crisp. Shizen tai is a very popular term in kendo and means “natural body”. Okuri ashi takes a shizen tai upright body and manipulates the footwork to allow for extremely quick forward and backward movement with minimal “dead spaces” in between each movement.
The execution of Okuri Ashi is as such:
The feet start about shoulder width apart, the ball of the left foot lining up across from the right heel. The right foot moves first, sliding forward about a half pace. The left foot then slides up to meet it, the heel lifting just a bit off the floor. Exactly how much lift you are instructed to get during this movement will vary from school to school.
Okuri ashi can be used with smooth, half pace strides to cover distance or it can be abbreviated to possess extremely short motions (while still maintaining that sliding characteristic). The benefit of moving like this is that your weight is underside almost at all times. This allows you to make quick directional changes and leap into attacks at the moment you feel them appear.
When Okuri ashi is done in multiple successions, it takes on a slight hopping quality even though the body and feet never leave the ground. To understand what I mean, observe this video of a basic drill known as Kirikaeshi:
You might take note that when moving forward the lead right foot moves first, and when moving backward the rear left foot moves first. During Okuri ashi they do not switch.
It can take years to make this motion feel natural, but it’s worth the effort. Okuri ashi has a lot to teach about keeping body weight centered and available for explosive movement. Give it a shot sometime, and don’t worry if you feel a bit awkward at first.
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 email@example.com but cannot always respond immediately. Alternatively, it’s best to contact our American Shibucho, Sensei Darrin Johnson c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.
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!
One staple of a good movie fight scene is a hero or villain working their way through a myriad of weapons. They might start off with knife, but that will get kicked out of their hand, leaving them defenseless until they grab a nearby pool cue. Once that breaks they eventually find their way to a chair, and so on.
You’ll find this classic situation popping up in all kinds of martial arts movies. Take this scene from Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon”:
In a mere three minutes we are treated to Bruce’s skill in open hand fighting, bo, escrima style sticks, and nunchaku.
Most of the time this is done just to keep the audience interested. However, the idea of being able to use multiple weapons effectively is intriguing and warrants a little deeper investigation.
When discussing the use of a weapon, I generally break things down into two “spirits”: the spirit of kobudo combat, and the spirit of the weapon itself. Each are equally important when endeavoring to maximize your ability to utilize tools as a means of enhanced life protection.
The Spirit of Kobudo Combat
When fighting with weapons (especially against other weapons) damage can accrue quickly. Certainly empty hand fighting can be lethal, but adding the force and physics of a weapon increases the likelihood of being mortally injured. Bearing that in mind the spirit of kobudo combat must always be one of a brief and fatal meeting.
As such there are certain matters that require special attention to achieve success. Stancing must be used in a manner that reveals as few targets as possible to the opponent, even if it means narrowing traditional stances. Centerline control must be so precise that there is only a razor’s edge allowance for error.
The need for control of distance and timing in kobudo is paramount as opportunity occurs in a moment’s notice. Nowhere is the idea of ichigo ichie more apparent.
Understanding the spirit of kobudo combat means building a solid foundation of principle and concept.
The Spirit of the Weapon Itself
Although all weapons share commonalities in fighting, each also has it’s own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Understanding how best to use the weapon means understanding the spirit of the weapon itself.
An Array of Weapons From Okinawa Kenpo
Long range implements are capable of different tactics than short range ones, which can be broken down further into wooden weapons vs metal weapons, bladed vs non-bladed, and so on. Properly assessing these capabilities will allow you to stay within your zones or strength while avoiding zones of weakness.
Just as an example of analyzing each weapon for its own unique qualities, consider the kama. The kama is weak when it comes to long range. A bo user can keep a kama user at bay and outside of the kama’s effective fighting distance. However, the kama’s unique hooking ability can control, manipulate and ensnare an opponent’s weapons or body parts in order to force a closure of distance and quickly dismantle vulnerable and hard-to-access parts of the body.
The winner in any match is determined by whomever is in better command of themselves and their weapon.
Open Hand / Weapons Separate and as One
I’ve come to believe that the spirit of kobudo is the same as the spirit of karate, with very minimal differences. The importance of centerline, distance, timing, kiai, kokoro, etc. are all present in both methods of life protection. The emphasis and execution will vary, but both systems will ultimately augment each other and spur on a practitioner’s growth as a complete artist.
An example – in sparring we often find it acceptable to take a few blows knowing that we can bounce back and try again. In weapons combat it becomes intensely obvious that a single mistake will result in real life injury. This is an excellent mindset to transfer to self defense. Conversely, training in empty hand can teach us how to move the body quickly and utilize all eight of our attached weapons (hands, feet, knees, elbows) even when one or more weapon is occupied. This resiliency and creativity can be lost when using a single weapon all the time.
It should be noted that the spirit of a weapon itself is something that cannot be faked or assumed through other means. If you wish to learn how to use a kama-like weapon effectively, you must practice with the kama. If you wish to use the sword effectively, you must practice with the sword.
As such, kobudo is both exclusive and inclusive in the realm of martial arts.