Faster than a Speeding Tsuki …

Do you race through your kata! Why?

A common issue I see with intermediate and advanced karate students is speed simply for speed’s sake. Watching a kata performance is like watching a sprinter on a 50-yard dash. The starting gun goes bang, and they’re off, blasting through their kata at the speed of light (or, as close as they can get to it). And that is truly unfortunate. Speed is very often misunderstood … and misunderstood to the karate practitioner’s detriment.

Power defined …

P = W / ∆T
where P = power, W = work, and ∆T = elapsed time.

Yes! Speed is a factor in power. In physics, power is the ability to do work quickly. However, anyone who has done work knows that working faster than your natural speed leads to mistakes. And, in a life or death situation, mistakes can have drastic consequences.

Force defined …

F = M x A
where F = force, M = mass, and A = acceleration

How much force can you generate in your technique? Speed is not a factor in force. Force equals mass times acceleration. Your technique needs to accelerate through its execution! Where is your room for acceleration if you are already blasting along at full speed?

You should never run a kata any faster than you can run it correctly
~ Sherman Harrill

True speed comes from understanding body mechanics
~ Charlie Taylor

The fastest block in the world does you no good if it is there and gone before the punch arrives.
~Unknown

Once you understand body mechanics and technique, you only have to be half as fast as your attacker.
~Unknown

Also, consider that excessive speed can hide many mistakes, demonstrates clearly that the performer is not ‘living’ the kata, and shows a lack of understanding of timing across techniques and good body mechanics. How are they practicing and understanding the principles of Sanchin or Naihanchi at Mach 1 or 2?

Developing solid technique in kata …

What does kata training do for us? They take a system’s basic techniques (Kihon), which have been honed over time in one-step, two-step, three-step drills, Kumite drills, etc., and teach us how to deploy them in different scenarios, at different angles, from various stances and distances, etc. Kata teaches advanced usage of our chosen system’s basic techniques. We learn to develop power in those techniques through Sanchin (Tanden) or Naihanchi (Koshi).

Sanchin

If you’re practicing a Sanchin-based Okinawan style of karate, are you incorporating the lessons from Sanchin into the techniques of your kata? Are you including the use of the Tanden to help you develop real power in the kata techniques? If someone is blasting through their Seisan Kata at ninety miles an hour, I suspect the timing of the “Tanden tuck,” and cross-body power development is not playing much of a role.

Naihanchi

Some Okinawan styles of karate did not include or practice Sanchin Kata. Instead, those systems typically practice some form of Naihanchi kata, often with a different name, such as Tekki (Tekki Shodan, Tekki Nidan, Tekki Sandan). Naihanchi Kata teaches the practitioner to develop power and deliver it through Koshi ( rotation through the hips).

Isshin-ryu Karate’s Father and Mother

Some styles, such as Isshin-ryu, incorporate both (Sanchin and Naihanchi). In fact, according to the founder of Isshin-ryu, Tatsuo Shimabuku, Sanchin is the Father of Isshin-ryu and Naihanchi is the mother. This means Isshin-ryu Karate develops power in a technique through either the Tanden (Sanchin) or Koshi (Naihanchi), or both … meaning you better slow your kata down!

Just food for thought …

Isshin-ryu: Hard or Soft?

Isshin-ryu is a blend of hard and soft?

Way back in 1983, when I first started training in Isshin-ryu, I was told that it is a blend of hard and soft, with Goju-ryu typically portrayed as the hard influence and Shorin-ryu portrayed as the soft influence. But what exactly does that mean?

After, all, isn’t Goju literally Japanese for hard-soft? So Goju-ryu, too, is a blend of hard and soft? What happened to the soft?

Are there no “hard” techniques in Shorin-ryu? I have seen some Shorin-ryu kata performed and I certainly spotted what looked like “hard” techniques to me.

Uechi-ryu is also a blend of hard and soft. According to Sensei Noel, Darin Yee, the president of the Internation Uechi-ryu Karate Federation, once asked how you can claim to be a master of Uechi-ryu without understanding the soft, as well as the hard side of Uechi-ryu? I think that is a really good question.

So if you ask, what makes Isshin-ryu a hard-soft style, you will often get an answer that is something like … Isshin-ryu is a blend of Goju-ryu (hard) and Shorin-ryu (soft), which in my opinion is not an answer at all.

Exploring the idea of hard and soft.

Back in the 90s, I spent a great deal of time exploring this question and looking for the “soft” side of Isshin-ryu. I began to research Chinese martial arts, Yin and Yang, and even learned and practiced a Yang-stye Tai Chi long form. Sensei Kathryn Eldridge used to come by my dojo regularly and worked on Tai Chi with me and some of my students. We also did push hand drills as well. I thought … maybe I was beginning to get some idea, at least.

Enter Sensei Sherman Harrill

Let me just say, there is nothing “soft” about being on the receiving end of a soft technique. I remember on several occasions Sensei being asked about hard and soft techniques. He would typically answer that he does not think about doing “hard” or “soft” techniques. He just executed his technique, and whether it was hard or soft was most often determined by the intent of the attacker or opponent.

Now that was a very interesting concept to me, and it stuck in my head. I began to work on that idea and what it meant to my Isshin-ryu Karate. I had already been working hard on body mechanics and natural body movements. We often say that Isshin-ryu is a “natural” style, meaning we use natural body movements and proper body alignment to generate power in our techniques, rather than extreme conditioning or exercise. However, that does not mean conditioning and exercise should not be a part of your Isshin-ryu training!

For a while, I had been experimenting with what I called “neutral positions” or being “dynamically relaxed” from which you exploded into the techniques and then returned to. It is kind of a “remaining mind” idea. So you stayed in this dynamically relaxed state from which you could instantly shift into a soft or hard technique as the situation demanded. While not exactly what Sensei Harrill was describing, it think I may have been working my way in that direction.

The Hard/Soft Continuum

Over the years, and based on what I have learned from Sensei Harrill, Sensei Kerker, and my own research, I have come to a conclusion for myself and how I understand and teach the ideas of hard and soft in Isshin-ryu Karate.

I now look at the idea of hard and soft as a continuum. If you think of “Soft” as being one end of the continuum and “Hard” being at the other, Isshin-ryu, as I teach it and practice it, floats around in the middle. It is neither hard, nor soft, but a state of being in between. It is not one or the other, it is both. By staying in the middle range, you can instantly shift a bit toward either hard or soft as needed, and then immediately return to the middle (or neutral state).

If, as Sensei Harrill said, you consistently execute your techniques the same way, meaning in a relaxed, natural, and mechanically sound manner, hard or soft almost becomes, as I heard Sensei Kerker state once, a simple weapons choice, doesn’t it?

If I hit my opponent with my fist, essentially it’s a hard technique. If I use an open hand technique, it is a soft technique. However, the mechanics of my technique stay the same.

Just food for thought …

Isshin-ryu Karate: In-Line Stance Drill

A Great Isshin-ryu Karate Exercise.

The in-line stance drill is a great little drill that teaches the practitioner to break the line of attack and remain safe while staying close enough to deliver an effective counter. This is not kata. It is just a drill designed to develop an understanding of a few key concepts in Okinawan Karate.

In my dojo, this drill was typically taught after the Basic Kata and before learning the Tachi Kata, which was developed by Sensei Harrill as an intermediary step before starting into black belt level kata. The Basic Chart Kata and Tachi Kata will be examined in future posts.

In the two videos below you will see both a front and side view of the drill performed as a single-person exercise, much like kata. And while, not a kata per se, this drill is made up of techniques taken from kata to illustrate the concepts.

In-Line Stance Drill from the front.
In-line stance drill from the side.

However, this drill is a two-person drill and is worked back and forth repeatedly. Beginners will start out slowly and perhaps give themselves a bit more “working room.” As you become comfortable with the drill, your speed and power can increase, and the distance may decrease a bit. You will learn to control your distance and remain safe while being close enough to deliver effective counters. But, not so close that you cannot execute a good technique.

Here is an how the drill will look with two people.

Right-handed initial attack.

The nice thing about truly understanding techniques is that you begin to realize that it does not matter what your opponent does, so much as how well you can utilize your technique. In this drill, the attacker started with a right-handed punch. What if he hadn’t? Suppose he had attacked with his left-hand first? Do I change what I am doing?

Nope, the nice thing about good technique, is that it works (as we say, “Right, Left, Up, or Down). Yes, of course, there are specific techniques for certain types of attacks. But for most techniques, if you truly understand them, it does not matter. In this next video, the attacker will initiate his attack from the other side, and I will not change anything I am doing. It still works.

Left-handed initial attack.

I would like to thank Lucas Davis for helping me with the two-man aspect of this drill. Lucas trained with me in Isshin-ryu for several years before I moved to Raleigh, NC for about three years. After I moved back to Tennesse, Lucas now trains both in Isshin-ryu with me and in Uechi-ryu with Sensei Bob Noel who is also an excellent instructor.

Isshin-ryu Karate: The Road Less Traveled

Remembering Sensei Harrill on his Birthday

Today would have been Sensei Sherman Harrill’s 76th birthday.  I sometimes wonder how many folks truly realize just how unique a gift he left to those of us who continue to practice his brand of Isshin-ryu karate after he finally lost his battle with cancer in 2002.

On May 6th, Eddie Satterfield hosted Sensei John Kerker for the annual Isshin-ryu Karate Seminar in Maynardville, Tennessee. This seminar continues a Tennessee tradition that started in the 1990s. Sensei Satterfield brought Sherman Harrill in for a seminar sometime in the earlier 90s. I later brought Sensei Harrill to Clinton, Tennessee, in 1996, and we continued to hold that seminar the 3rd weekend in March each year up until Sensei died.

Those seminars (and others I traveled to held in places like Champaign, Illinois … Carson, Iowa … Chicago, Illinois … Pontiac, Michigan) had a profound influence on me. When Sensei passed away in 2002, I think we went perhaps a year without a seminar. Then we started bringing in his senior student, John Kerker, to continue the seminar tradition.

Isshin-ryu Karate –  Passing on the Tradition

Sensei Harrill left his Isshin-ryu Karate Dojo and everything that entailed to John Kerker.  As is often the case, several “instructors” tried to move in and usurp that role … claiming that, since they had higher rank, or their own organizations, or special friendships with Sensei Harrill, etc., John should join their “group” under them.   But, what they did not have was the actual skill, knowledge, or character to fill those shoes. They did not have the many years John spent in that dojo. Many of them just liked to hang around and take their photos with Sensei. John stepped up and assumed the task left to him by Sensei Harrill, and while those were massive shoes to fill, fill them he did.

Sensei Kerker has done a great job. When John took over doing the seminars for us, maybe in 2004, he might not have been quite at the same skill level as Sensei Sherman Harrill, but I think he was actually a better instructor. Sensei Harrill just did not seem to have the knack for explaining things that John has. Sensei Harrill showed you … it hurts… you tried it.  And you kept trying it until you figured it out. And, that was not bad! It worked. But, John added an additional element.  He shows you … it hurts just as much … you try it … John analyzes and explains what you were doing wrong … you try it again. For me, at least, that adds a lot.

Isshin-ryu Karate

Sensei Kerker has definitely come into his own over the years and I would now hate to try and say which of them now has, or had, more skill.

It is Never a Straight Path

Sometimes life gets in the way and, unfortunately, I had to stop hosting the seminars, and I moved to North Carolina. Sensei Eddie Satterfield has picked the Tennessee seminar back up and has hosted it for several years now. I am very glad he did … as are several other people. I had hoped at some time in the future, to bring Sensei Kerker to North Carolina for seminars as well; but I am now back in Tennessee.

On May 6th, Sensei John Kerker gave a great seminar covering several techniques from kata … focusing on not getting hit, controlling the distance, disrupting your attacker’s balance, and proper timing in executing your technique. It was excellent and, as always, I learned something new or was reminded of some important information I had forgotten. There is so much you can learn from Kata if you study them correctly and have the right instructor.  I have been in many Isshin-ryu dojos over the years, and what we do is pretty unique.

So, what is unique about the karate we do?

Isshin-ryu Karate

We do not spar in the common sense of the word. I once did.  I originally came up in an Isshin-ryu dojo where we learned the kata to earn belt rank. Then we put pads on and sparred in the ring for points. Self-defense was something we made up as we went along and most of it was pretty bad. Nobody knew what kata was really for. We knew kata taught us balance, coordination, timing, etc. And, while all that is certainly true … kata is so much more than that. They are essentially a physical encyclopedia of the principles and techniques of karate.

I was actually ready to quit once I get my 2nd Dan.  The problem was that I read a lot … and had read about the history of karate and what the Okinawan karate masters were capable of.  Of course, I had seen none of that. Either the histories I had read were all a bunch of hooey or none of the karate instructors I had yet met and trained with actually knew any karate!

Enter the Sherminator!

Enter Sherman Harrill.  The first time I saw him give a real seminar my jaw nearly hit the floor. He was demonstrating what I had, until that day, only read about.  So, I started over. I traveled to many seminars and eventually became one of his students. For me, that was a real honor … the honor of a lifetime. I worked hard to change and improve my karate.

A critical moment came for me when I  tested for my 3rd Dan. I passed with flying colors, but there was one caveat. The testing board told me I had to undo all the changes I had made in my karate from working with Sensei Harrill. I thought about that and decided I simply could not do that. That forced me to make the difficult decision of changing instructors. Telling Sensei Allen Wheeler I was leaving was also one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I always liked and respected Sensei Wheeler very much. He was a good man and had been very good to me and helped me in so many ways. I just needed my karate to take a different path. It was also one of the proudest days of my life when Sensei Harrill said “Welcome aboard!”

Injured or Just Hurt?

Not many will like or appreciate the way we train.  It hurts.  I have learned over the years that pain is actually a very good teacher. Notice … I said pain … not injury! Karate is, after all, a striking art. So, you must be willing to be struck by and to strike your training partners hard enough to understand the mechanics of the techniques … why and how they work.

You have to understand what the techniques do to you and you have to understand the real results of the technique on your attacker. And your targets are very often the areas that are “off-limits” in sport karate. So, it is a rather small group … those who train like we do. I am sure there are other groups like ours training here and there in many other traditional arts. It does slowly seem to be growing as folks lose interest in the “Hollywood fluff” offered by way too many McDojos today.

Isshin-ryu Karate

Folks, it is very much a buyer beware situation out there in the world of martial arts.

Just Another Flavor of Karate

And e understand, I am not knocking sport karate. There are some good sport karate schools out there. If that is what you want to do, that is fine. It is certainly your interests and your choices that matter. I know some folks who are very good at it and they are tough competitors. But the keyword here is “competitor!” It is a sport … and there are rules (which sometimes do vary). Certain target areas are off-limits. For instance, no kicking below the belt, no attacking small joints, no head contact, sweeps only allowed on the front leg, etc. There are absolutely no rules in a dark alleyway mugging, an attempted rape, during a vicious home invasion, a terrorist attack, or on a battlefield.

For us, it is just a different flavor of karate. We train more the way the Okinawan’s trained … you might say a more self-defense-orientated approach. We study how to apply the basics and techniques from kata in real-life combat situations … focusing on body mechanics, timing, and developing our weapons with the makiwara.  The Okinawans did not spar … they studied kata. They trained with the makiwara. And, they were pretty deadly fighters.

A Teacher and a Friend

I considered Sensei Harrill my teacher and my friend. He was a marine and tough as nails, but he was also a kind man. I learned that lesson very clearly one day. My students and I had worked very hard to convert an old used-auto parts shop into an Isshin-ryu Karate dojo. The building belonged to one of my students, Eddy Weaver. Weaver’s Used Auto Parts had been an institution in Anderson County, Tennessee for decades.

Isshin-ryu Karate

We finished everything except getting the mats down. So, we trained on the freshly painted concrete floor.  I just got the gas heater in the day before the seminar and it ran all night, but that old concrete floor was still very cold that morning. There had been no heat in the building for some time. During the seminar breaks, we all took turns sticking our feet under the gas heater to thaw them out!

Shit Happens!

A few months later some kids playing with fire behind the building, let the fire get away from them and our dojo burned to the ground. Sensei Harrill happened to call that next day just to chat. He would do that fairly often. I told him what happened. Sensei Harrill expressed real concern. He knew how much work we had put into that dojo. A few days later I started to get checks in the mail, boxes of training gear, etc.  He had put the word out to his Isshin-ryu Karate friends! He was not even my instructor yet! That part came just a bit later.

I will end this post by saying … Thank you, Sensei Harrill … for your gift to those of us who had the honor to be your students. Happy Birthday and Kanpai!

And, … Thank you, Sensei Kerker … for continuing to carry the torch.  I am looking forward to that next seminar!

Isshin-ryu Karate, Maynardville, TN 2017
2017 Maynardville Tennessee Seminar Crew

Karate and Rusty Red Ford Tractors

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is shimabukusanchin-1-1.png

So, what does a rusty Ford tractor have to do with karate?

Well, nothing really. But then again, everything. Hey, that’s kind of like a Zen riddle isn’t it?

Several years ago, say the late 90s, at one of our post-seminar workouts, Sensei Harrill was working with me and a couple of my senior students on Sanchin Kata.

Now first let me say there are several versions of this kata and while they have commonalities, they are not the same. A version of Sanchin can be found in several Chinese and Okinawan styles including Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, Uechi-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, and Isshin-ryu. There are certainly others as well. Tam Hon taught a martial arts style that was called “Saam Jin” which is Cantonese for “Sanchin.”

At its essence, Sanchin is taught to help the practitioner understand body mechanics and condition their body while learning to deliver properly focused techniques from a stable platform.

It is also, unfortunately, a kata about which a prodigious amount of “bullshit” has been propagated. But that is not the subject of this post.

Isshin-ryu Karate’s Sanchin

The Isshin-ryu version of this kata is really quite difficult in its simplicity. It consists of only five steps (three forward and two backward) and there is a great deal of repetition. But, like an onion, there are many layers to this kata and as your understanding grows, and the more layers you peel away, the more you realize there is to learn. It gives a new level of understanding to the idea, the more I learn the more I realize how little I know.

I had been working with Sensei Harrill for some time now and had made a lot of changes in how I trained, and this included Sanchin. I now practiced Sanchin most often with the vertical fist (which I liked because it fit our basics). I still, on occasion, will practice with the corkscrew punch as I had originally been taught, and sometimes I will mix it up. At that time, I was trying to get a handle on what the kata taught as far as body mechanics, as well as the many different breathing patterns found in the kata (none of which, by the way, resembled a gasping pressure cooker about to blow its top).

However, there was one movement in the kata that always gave me a fit. I practiced and practiced, trying different ways of executing the movement, and nothing seemed to work for me. I had once seen Sensei easily demonstrate the use of that movement at a seminar on a pretty big guy. The guy moved! But I felt like I was not even getting close. And of course, as I demonstrated my Sanchin Kata while Sensei watched, that was readily apparent to him.

You’re not doing that properly …

I probably felt like that was the “understatement” of the year. I was painfully aware of that fact. especially seeing what he had done with that very same movement.

I am sure that I replied with something to the effect of, “I know, Sensei. I just can’t seem to get it right.”

And I remember him saying something like, “You don’t have the right focus.”

The hook …

So, how did I change my focus? By listening to what my Sensei told me!

He said to imagine a rusty old red Ford tractor that’s been sitting in the field for a while. Now you’ve got to crank it up and plow that field. You finally get the tractor started, climb up into that seat. and reach for that big old shift lever with your right hand. Then you squeeze and give the lever a strong tug. And what happens? It doesn’t budge. It’s pretty much rusted into place. What do you do?

I thought about it a second … stand up and give it a real yank, I was thinking.

Then he added … but, imagine you have to keep your butt in the seat.

Now that’s an altogether different proposition.

Which muscles would come into play and when? In what order would you use them? How would that feel internally? Think about it.

I did.

And over time, that earlier “movement” that had previously been using the muscles of my arm changed. It began to originate at my core. It employed the rotation of my hips, my abdominal muscles. the lats, the shoulders, and finally … the arm. The pull became a properly-focused, mechanically sound whole-body movement. And after working on it awhile, when I tried it in the dojo, people began to move.

And that is what an old rusty red Ford tractor has to do with my Isshin-ryu Karate.

Roy Loveday: Navy SEAL and Karate Sensei

I first met Sensei Roy Loveday in 1983 at Wheeler’s School of Karate in Powell, TN. It was at the same time I first met Sensei Sherman Harrill. I remember Roy being present at a few amazing classes Sensei Harrill taught, and then both were gone. It wasn’t until much later that I learned the backstory to that, but it really doesn’t matter for this post. This post is about Roy Loveday, a former Navy SEAL, a Vietnam veteran, a solid karateka, and a friend.

I got reintroduced to Roy when I started bringing Sensei Sherman Harrill in for seminars in the mid-90s. Sensei asked if he could invite Roy as his guest, and I said, “No problem, Sensei. Please do.” After that first seminar, Sensei and I would often visit Roy whenever he came into Clinton, TN, for future seminars. Sometimes we would train, and sometimes they would reminisce, and I would just listen. Sensei Harrill and Roy Loveday were great friends, and it was fascinating to sit there and listen as they talked back and forth about Isshin-ryu Karate and their shared history. After we finished training at one of these sessions, Sensei surprised both Roy and me with new rank certificates.

Roy Loveday, Sherman Harrill, Darren Gilbert

After Sensei Harrill passed away on November 4, 2002, I started bringing in his senior student, Sensei John Kerker, for seminars. John had inherited Sensei’s dojo in Carson, IA. Although health issues were beginning to make it hard for him to train, Roy Loveday would still come and support us. I remember one comment Roy made to me as he watched me struggle to understand how to to make one of the techniques we were working on flow properly. He came over and stood there for a minute and watched. Then he commented.

“Darren, don’t forget your elbow principles.”
“Elbow principles?” I asked. “What the heck are those?” I hadn’t heard that phrase before.
“When a technique gives you a problem, give it to your elbow to solve,” Roy replied. Then he grinned and walked off.

It turned out that was a great pearl of wisdom, and applying the “Elbow Principle” has helped me understand and solve a lot of difficulties in technique since.

Mark Radunz, John Kerker, Darren Gilbert, Mel Sims, and Roy Loveday

Roy passed away on February 11, 2021, at age 76. He was born on October 25, 1944, graduated from Central High School, and enlisted in the US Navy, where he became a SEAL. Roy served in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam during the war. After Vietnam, he retired from the Norfolk Railroad and served as a Free Mason. Sensei Loveday studied and taught Isshin-Ryu Karate for over 40 years and held a 7th Degree Blackbelt.

In addition to Isshin-ryu Karate, Roy also studied Shito-Ryu and Tai Chi. He wrote and published an Isshin-Ryu training manual. I was honored to help by being in some of the photographs demonstrating weapons techniques with Sensei Harrill. It was a real honor. The dojo patch (shown in the post banner) adopted by Sensei Sherman Harrill and proudly worn by his students was based on Roy’s design. The name would just change depending on the school.

For hobbies, Roy enjoyed rebuilding old ’55 Chevys, and I still remember one old Chevy truck he was in the process of painting on one of my visits over to his house. Roy was a master diver and loved SCUBA diving.

For anyone who knew Roy and would like to pay their respects, the Family will receive friends from 6:00 – 7:00 PM Saturday, February 20, 2021, at Mynatt Funeral Home Halls Chapel, with a service to follow at 7:00 PM. Rev. Mark Large, Rev. Danny Scates, and Daniel Beason will be officiating. Family and friends will meet at 12:15 PM for a 12:30 PM interment on Monday, February 22, 2021, at East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery on John Sevier Highway. Online condolences may be left by clicking here.

It saddens me because I just moved back to Knoxville, Tennessee, and was looking forward to reconnecting with Roy. He was a good man who served his country and had a lot to share. He will be missed.

No First Strike …

Karate is for self-defense only.

The popular interpretation of this guiding principle of karate is that karate is for self-defense only. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this interpretation, especially if you are just getting started on your martial arts journey. Teaching this maxim to your students helps instill the rule that karate techniques should not be misused. But is that truly all there is to it?

There is no first strike in karate.

Hmmm. Okay. This phrase does not say, “Karate is for self-defense only.’ It clearly says, “There is no first strike in karate.” Why is that? If they meant to say, “karate is for self-defense only,” why didn’t they just say that. Part of the problem is that these maxims were not coined in English. Most were probably originally written in Chinese, then translated into native Okinawan languages such as Uchināguchi, then possibly Japanese, and finally into English.

Another consideration is the translation itself. Chinese and Japanese languages are rather different from their western counterparts. One-to-one translations of characters into letters can be problematic at best. Thus, the age, knowledge, and life experiences of the translator become a translation factor.

To provide an example of what I am talking about, I will use the Isshin-ryu Code, which is basically a streamlined adaptation of “The Eight Poems of the Fist” found in the Bubishi.

The Isshin-ryu Code

Version 1

Version 2

  1. A person’s heart is the same as Heaven and Earth
  2. The Blood circulating is similar to the Moon and the Sun
  3. A manner of drinking or spitting is either hard or soft
  4. A person’s unbalance is the same as weight
  5. The body should be able to change direction at any time
  6. The time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself
  7. The eyes must see all sides
  8. The ears must listen in all directions
  1. Man’s spirit, heart, mind : is like (same as) : Heaven : Earth
  2. Blood, hope, range, pulse : is like : Moon (day – date) : Sun (month)
  3. Stiff – hard, strong. stubborn, inflexible : Soft-gentle, mild-tender, mellow : Take in (soak in) : Throw out
  4. Fear, horror : March : Past (pass) : Leave : Meet
  5. Directions : Any : Time : React (respond) : Flexibility (change)
  6. Hand : Meets : In the air : Suddenly : Enter
  7. Eyes : Should : Watch : Four : Directions
  8. Ears : Laterally placed : To listen to (to comply with) : Eight : Directions

Clearly, the two versions of the Isshin-ryu Code are pretty similar. Version 1 would certainly be easier to “read” for most English-speaking Americans. Version 2 is definitely much more cryptic and makes you want to scratch your head. But beyond that, there are some notable differences. I like to highlight #6 and #8 as the first differences for my students to explore.

Version 1 is found in most books on Isshin-ryu Karate. I have no idea where it comes from. Version 2 is a direct translation of the code’s Kanji by an elderly Chinese gentleman who was known to my instructor. It is the translation his students use and has shaped our training a little differently.

So, where is all this going?

First, if differences in translation can occur in one text, they can occur in another. Second, phrases that mean one thing to a beginner often mean something else to an intermediate, advanced, or long-time student. As an example of this, take The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. If you have read this book more than once, say at different times over your training years, you will understand exactly what I mean. While the words themselves have not changed, your understanding of them will have.

So, here is an alternative “understanding” of the phrase, there is no first strike in karate.

The words could say, there is no first strike in karate because, quite literally, there is no first strike in karate. By way of explanation, here are two examples.

A traditional story

There is an old story of two early karate masters in nearby villages in Okinawa. Each village was very proud of its resident Sensei, and therefore talk soon began around the topic of which was better. Over time, this argument grew to such a fevered pitch that a match became inevitable. Finally, the two masters met on neutral ground and squared off. The residents of both villages gathered to watch. The villagers waited in breathless anticipation for the action to begin. The two masters calmly faced each other, each waiting for an opportunity. It never came. After what seemed like an eternity, the match was called a draw, and the disappointed villagers went home, grumbling to themselves.

A student of one of the Senseis, following his teacher back to their village, finally worked up the nerve to ask, “Sensei, why did you not fight? What was settled by this?”

The Sensei smiled, “We settled the fact that we are both excellent karate-ka. Each of us understood that the first one to strike would surely lose. Therefore, neither of us was willing to strike first.”

From the sport side of things

While over the years, I left sport karate behind, there were many years I did participate. I was never a “Hall of Famer,” but I was a solid competitor. I won some and lost some. Eventually, I refereed matches and judged the kata competitions. I also hosted the Tennessee Valley Karate Championship on the Tennessee Karate Circuit for about seven years. I am not sure that the circuit even exists anymore.

In my experience, there are basically three types of tournament karate fighters: 1) the charger, 2) the runner, and 3) the counter-fighter. Which fighter is harder to beat?

  • The charger comes right at you, straight on, fast and hard. However, if you get fairly adept at working angles, you can do well against the charger.
  • The runner runs, and you have to chase him all over the ring and try to pin him in a corner. Typically, they get a lot of warnings for running out of the ring. However, if you can learn to control the ring and cut the runner off, you can do well against the runner as well.
  • The counter-fighter sits and waits patiently for you to attack. When you do, he simply shifts position, parries, or blocks, and then counter-attacks. And, for my money, this is the toughest competitor to beat.

You cannot initiate an attack with out creating an opening

If your opponent simply has the patience and skill to take advantage of the opening you have just provided them with, you will lose. Perhaps, this is another reason there is no first strike in karate. Especially when losing might be a matter of life or death.

Just food for thought …

That is the beauty of art. It is open to interpretation. And karate, after all, is a martial art. I am just sharing one of my interpretations with anyone interested. It is neither right nor wrong. It is simply another avenue to explore. And, for those who want to argue, I leave you with a few additional thoughts from Mr. Miyagi …

  • “The answer is only important if you ask the right question”
  • “Only root karate come from Miyagi. Just like bonsai choose own way grow because root strong you choose own way do karate same reason.”
  • “First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule Daniel-San, not mine.”

Then, of course, if you do understand the point I am making, and when you pair this take on “There is no first strike in karate” with “Hand meets in the air, suddenly enter,” pretty cool things begin to happen. But that’s a subject for another day.

Two Hands Meet in Air

If two hands meet in the air, can you “suddenly enter?”

This post is a continuation of the thread started in my last post, No First Strike. If you are unfamiliar with my thoughts on this idea, you may wish to read that post first. And again, there is no right or wrong here. After many years of training and research into Okinawan Karate, this is just one of my understandings and interpretations of these concepts. And, in no way do I imply that I am the originator of these ideas. Instead, I learned from many other karate practitioners I have met on my journey.

In the Kenpo Gokui (also known as the Isshin-ryu Code), we have line #6, whose kanji can be translated as, Hand : Meets : In the air : Suddenly : Enter

The more common interpretation of this idea found in the U.S. is, the time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself. However, as mentioned in the previous post in this thread, I prefer the more exact translation of the kanji.

First, a quick example of understanding body mechanics.

Try this exercise with someone strong.

Have a training partner get into a solid stance, make a fist, and extend their arm. Then, stand in front of them and ask your partner to resist the pressure you apply to their fist.

  • First, press down on their fist. Can they resist that?
  • Second, lift or press up on their fist. Can they resist that?
  • Push their fist to the left. Can they resist?
  • Push their fist to the right. Can they resist?

Now holding their fist with your thumb and second finger, move their fist in small circles. Can they resist that? Not so much…

There are muscles in place that allow your body to effectively resist the up, down, left, and right pressure. Of course, to what extent does depend somewhat on how strong you are. However, there are no specific muscles to resist those small circles. That is a simple example of understanding and applying the concept of body mechanics.

So, let’s think about this for a few seconds.

If an arm was extended toward you in an attack, and you intercepted that arm with your own, could you use the concept above to redirect the attack and suddenly enter with your own counter strike? As in …

Hand Meets In The Air, Suddenly Enter

In the above illustration, arm A. is the punching arm. Arm B. has met arm A. in the air. There would be several options open to arm B. at this point, one of which might be the basic Isshin-ryu low-level block.

They’re not blocks! They’re really Ninja Delayed Death Strikes!

First, let me say that I do not accept the theory adopted by some Isshin-ryu Karate practitioners, that there are “no blocks in Isshin-ryu Karate.” And that that the blocks are ” some kind of top-secret pressure point, Ninja delayed death strikes.”

It is much more likely that nobody ever showed them how to properly practice and employ these blocks in technique. Nevertheless, the blocks do, in fact, work exceptionally well for me and several practitioners I know pretty well.

So, the answer to the above question is …

Of course, you can. In fact, this is one of the critical elements of blocking in Isshin-ryu Karate. A second is that Isshin-ryu does not typically employ linear blocks. Instead, they are designed as circular blocks. However, the circles are tiny. So can these blocks be used linearly? Of course, they can. But many of the Isshin-ryu kata techniques are set up by using this “two hands meet in the air” concept combined with circular blocks and then followed up with an aggressive counter-attack.

However, it is essential to remember that combat is fluid and ever-changing, so as soon as you understand a concept, someone tosses in an exception. This, too, is also fine. That is where years of training, experience, and flexibility come into play.

Experience and Flexibility

As an example of this experience and flexibility, the third seminar we held in Clinton, Tennessee, with Sensei Sherman Harrill was on Seisan Kata. The opening technique in that kata is essentially a mid-level block followed by a reverse punch. We probably spent the first two hours of the seminar exploring variations of those two primary techniques. And nobody was bored! Two hands would meet in the air. The entry would vary with each version, and therefore the counter-attack would target different areas of the attacker’s body. But the technique was the same.

Then, of course, there would come the “those are the things I do with these techniques comment. So what Sensei (for him, Master Tatsuo Shimabuku) showed me was this …

It would be a simple block/punch karate technique. But it would also be very effective. Two hands would meet in the air, a sudden entry, and then – the fight is over. Ikken Hissatsu 

The Not So Secret “Secret Scrolls.”

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I hadn’t gotten too far along on my Isshin-ryu Karate journey when I heard rumors of something called Master Tatsuo Shimabuku’s “Secret Scrolls of Kumite.” I envisioned Master Shimabuku walking over to a dusty intricately carved old chest in the corner of the dojo and opening it. After the dust had settled, he’d reach in and take out an ancient cloth wrap containing a traditional scroll. With much reverence, he’d remove the cover, unwrap the scroll and share some of its ancient and mysterious knowledge with a chosen few.

Imagine my disappointment when someone told me they were just listed on the dojo wall in plain sight. The reason they were so secret is that they were very cryptic. Most Marines were not stationed on Okinawa long enough to get to a point where they would learn these techniques. A typical tour for a Marine on Okinawa might be 14 to 18 months. That is barely enough time to get a thorough grounding in a system’s basic techniques, never mind lessons from the “Secret Scrolls.”

From discussions I’ve had with my Sensei, Sherman Harrill, and others, It has become clear that these techniques were mostly taught to his Okinawan students. This was simply because they lived there and therefore trained long enough to have a base of knowledge sufficient to make practical use of them.

But we got lucky …

First, Sensei Sherman Harrill was lucky enough to be in Tatsuo Shimabuku’s dojo when he was teaching his kumite techniques to a group of his Okinawan students. Sensei was drafted to be “uki,” meaning Shimabuku’s students practiced these techniques on him. I guess Master Shimabuku figured if they could make them work on a big, strong U.S. Marine, they understood them properly.

Second. Sensei Arcenio Advincula made repeated trips back to Okinawa. This was for several reasons. He remained in contact with Master Shimabuku’s wife and his second son, Shinso. He also visits his in-laws, having married Michi Nakamashi in 1961. And he continued to train and research Okinawan Karate and Kobudo. Because of his additional time on the island of Okinawa, Sensei Advincula did learn Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite.

Sensei Harrill would often incorporate these Kumite techniques into his classes in the dojo, depending on what he was teaching at the time, and did not “separate” them out for special classes. At one point, he did compare notes with Sensei Advincula to ensure what he remembered from being on the receiving end of these techniques jived with what Sensei Advincula was taught. Once satisfied, they were both on the same page, he began teaching them more openly as Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite.

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Sensei John Kerker demonstrating one of the kumite on me.

One of the early seminars Sensei John Kerker did for us in Clinton, Tennessee, covered Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite. John was Sensei Harrill’s Sempai and inherited the Carson Dojo when Sensei Harrill passed away in 2002. This seminar, held in March of 2005, was a real eye-opener for many Isshin-ryu folks who attended because they had not seen these “secret techniques” before.

So, what are these Kumite all about?

Essentially, they are keys to understanding Tatsuo Shimabuku’s karate. From my experience, they are multi-faceted in that they are solid techniques on their own. They also give examples of how Tatsuo Shimabuku viewed the techniques in the kata he taught, and perhaps why he modified them as he did when incorporating them into his system.

There are fifteen Kumite Techniques. The last five are knife defense techniques. I will list these below. When you look at the list, I think you will understand why they were “secret.” If someone did not actually show you what each technique was, you would be hard-pressed to figure it out on your own.

Also, several have multiple variations, so the fifteen expand to about forty-five if you look at the “official” variations. Personal variations are really only limited by your level of knowledge, your imagination, and, of course, the rules of body mechanics.

Tatsuo Shimabuku’s Kumite

  1. The left hand hold the right wrist
  2. Outside block, punch inside
  3. Punch back of the hand
  4. Knuckle block for kick, counter kick
  5. Hold arm, use against a punch
  6. One handhold gi, grab, twist, kick
  7. Full nelson, karate cut groin
  8. Bear hug waist, hands-free, grab one finger, break, or hit back of the hand
  9. Devil’s handshake, grab your fist, pull, kick.
  10. Two-hand straight choke, break, grab adam’s apple
  11. Straight stab, grab hand and writs, twist kick, trip kick.
  12. Ice pick stab, block across, kick.
  13. Straight stab, both hands up, karate cut block, kick.
  14. Straight stab leaning forward, grab the hand with both of yours, pull. trap at elbow
  15. Two knife straight stab, squat kick

Well, there you have them, or at least the primary fifteen. The Secret Scrolls of Kumite is not so secret anymore. I do think, however, you can see why a young Marine standing in Master Tatsuo Shimabuku’s dojo might look at this list and say to themselves, “what the heck is this?”

Traditional Okinawan Karate: It’s a very small world

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This morning I had the opportunity to visit a traditional Uechi-Ryu dojo in Knoxville run by Sensei Bob Noel. I was invited by a former student who started training with him when I moved to Raleigh, NC.

Lucas and I discussed Sensei Noel while I was still living in Raleigh. And he stated that he felt comfortable with Sensei Noel because of his teaching style. Likewise, Lucas thought that what he had learned from me about body mechanics and technique allowed him to understand what kind of an instructor Sensei Noel was. And I will say that Lucas chose well.

I have often stated that Okinawan karate systems have more in common than they do have differences. Although, of course, the early karate pioneers on Okinawa had “favorite” techniques and preferred training methods that created differences. However, you must remember that Okinawa is a tiny island and many of the early masters knew and, at times, trained together. In fact, Kanbun Uechi (the founder of Uechi-Ryu) and Tatsuo Shimabuku (Isshin-Ryu) were good friends and often trained together. Add to that the fact that good technique is determined more by body mechanics than anything else, and you should see the logic in my statement.

Adding to this visit’s enjoyment, I learned that Sensei Noel grew up in Williamstown, MA, which borders North Adams, MA. I studied Uechi-Ryu for a brief time while still in high school in North Adams with an instructor, Bruce Witherell, who was one of Sensei Frank Gorman’s students, and it turns out that Sensei Noel trained with Sensei Witherell as well.

Then I discovered that Sensei Noel was in Boy Scout Troop 70 in Williamstown. I had a good friend, Camden Pierce, who was in Troop 70. Don Gilbert (no relation) was the scoutmaster of Troop 70. I was a member of Troop 88 in North Adams, and Douglas Filkens was our scoutmaster. Camden and I did a lot of backpacking and canoeing together over the years. And we had an annual New Year’s Eve campout on the top of Mt. Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts. It was cold, and the snow might be up to your armpits, but it was a blast. I guess we did that three or four years in a row.

Sensei Noel has an efficient and straightforward approach to teaching and a deep understanding of his art. Lucas did a great job of choosing him as an instructor.

It really is a small world when dealing with those who practice traditional Okinawan karate.