012 Training in Japan Part 8 – What were classes like

Through the years, I get a lot of questions during my teaching travels, locally and internationally, from serious Karate Ka along the line of ‘What was typical training all about with Higaonna Sensei in 1973’, What was general training like then?  What were the standards like then?’  One hears so much about famous or well-known names from back then – what were they like?’  What did Sensei focus on most?’ What was it like in Okinawa in 1973 when you went there for the first time, and many other in a similar vein, the common denominator being ‘what kind of stuff did you?’, 

Let me elaborate on these remarks:  

One can have the most beautiful looking techniques, but if you cannot knock someone 10 kg heavier than yourself down with it, it’s not going be much use to you in a real situation.  

The main object of practicing a Martial Art such as Karate, is to survive in a civilian environment when you are under threat and your person is in danger of either being seriously injured, or even killed!   I might sound a bit macho here, but please do realize here that I live in a country with an average of 59 murders every day, so to me I don’t play Karate – I do it!

Strength and speed are related to size and this is the beauty of the art of traditional Karate (as opposed to Sport Karate) – you develop these according to yourself.  To illustrate what I’m getting at in layman’s language, would be to have a body of say, 70 kg, but your power output is actually 90kg!   One can immediately think of Higaonna Sensei, as an example of this statement.

So in the Dojo, as I mentioned in the previous Podcast, Higaonna Sensei had two very favorite English words which he used a lot during teaching – ‘More Powa!’, ‘More Speedo!’

The factor of stamina is probably the most important part of a Martial Artist’s make-up, because of the simple fact that if you have to concentrate to stay alive for the duration of a class, you will not improve, as you are not pushing yourself to become stronger and faster – you can only push yourself if you have enough fuel in the tank, so to speak!  

It is also linked to your ability to concentrate on your execution of the techniques and skills – doing techniques with only the body, will not improve you – setting yourself a goal of for example, of doing 100 Katas is good for you only in the sense that you can say ‘I did it!’  It is better to do five Katas or three or one with 120%+ concentration on speed and power in every technique, if you want to progress seriously!    One needs to concentrate your mind on every technique and movement in order for that technique to become stronger and faster, judged by the ultimate criteria – effectiveness!

So in the Dojo, we quite regularly did things like combining push-ups with for example punching – ten push-ups on the knuckles, then get up and do ten punches with each hand flat out, again ten push-ups, ten punches – varying between three to ten sets of these. 

Another one was to do combinations of squats and Mae geri.  Ten full squats – squat down to your heels – then twenty kicks – ten with each leg. Again, it could be between three and ten sets of these.

Hojo Undo was done after or before classes – there were not enough Chi’shi for a whole class, but there were barbell weights, dumbbell weights and a Kongoken and of course, the Makiwara and bag. It was expected that you do these by yourself – there was no standing around and chatting before or after classes – you did something, such as Hojo Undo, stretching, going over stuff from the last class, going over your Kata, a person who maybe missed the previous class, asking someone to bring them up to date, etc. 

If one really goes flat out and really push yourself ‘far beyond your own limit’ so to speak, from time to time – take note – not every day – until you cannot do another push-up or squat, it is amazing the difference you feel in a week or two’s time regarding the increase in your own power, speed and technique levels!  

This is the whole motivation behind the word Gasshuku – intensive, over the top, crazy, using more energy than what you have, put into your Karate for the duration off a Gasshuku!  

Incidentally, in Japan, this is what a Gasshuku is all about – going away for a week or two away from family, friends, luxuries, pubs, restaurants, technology such as TV, Internet, etc. and just do, eat, sleep, dream Karate 24/7!  

Gasshukus have taken on a more social flavor in recent years since the foundation of the IOGKF in 1979 and I like that – fanaticism has never appealed to me and social interaction is the glue of an organization – it would be interesting to see the aftereffects of the lockdown on our Gasshukus for these two years in future!

To get back to training, secondly, we did loads of Kihon repetitions in every class, no matter what the level of the class was. Punches, strikes, kicks, blocks against these – loads of it! 

From my Physical Education background, and also being involved at university in a ‘high performance’ program for athletes of all kinds of sports, I realized that the essence here was the fact that in combat, you could not rely on your brain to get messages to your muscles quick enough – you only had motor reflex to rely on and the only way to develop motor reflex is to do many, many repetitions so that your body execute the movement before your brain catches on. 

I have explained this many times at just about every course I’ve taught using the example of an attack coming, your body reacting, blocking, countering, do what needs to be done and when it’s all over, your brain asks, ‘what happened there?’  

Again, this is Martial Arts training – the swordsman does not have time to think when his opponent attacks, or when he senses an opening – his body reacts because of hundreds and thousands of repetitions. 

An easier example to understand, is when one knocks a glass of wine of the table by accident and without thinking, you catch the glass before it hits the floor – without any wine spilled!

Apart from the solitary Kihon training, we also did loads of Yakusoku Kumite type training with the same system – repetitions, changing partners all the time, so one got the chance to work against different persons, so got used to different types of attacks from different persons – and by the way, the hardest was against lower grades, as they were still pretty uncoordinated, and you needed to concentrate extra against them – an intended chudan punch could end up in your face!  We did lots of Sandangi and as I mentioned before, free parring was mainly in the free training classes which sometimes included Brown as well as Black belts.

We did not do a lot of Kakié training, maybe once every two weeks or so.  I do however remember that we had a Brown Belt who was a Tongan and originally came to Japan as a Sumo wrestler, but his stable closed down and he trained Karate. A Kakié session against him had the result that I could hardly lift my arms for two days!  His arms were literally thicker than my legs!

A point of interest here was that Kakié was done for power development – we did not do a lot of fancy tricks and stuff, you just pushed as hard as you could to develop power, timing and balance and in the process, you strengthened your shoulders and core muscles, legs, balance and feel for directing or re-directing power – the basis for all your Karate techniques.  I often remark ‘It’s training For close fighting – it is Not close fighting!

To me, Karate is punching, kicking and blocking, counter attacking combined with smooth and swift movement and body positioning – not wrestling!  You have to keep a foe away from your close person with punches, strikes and kicks – wrestling and grabbling is absolutely Plan C. Against a knife, you use kicks as you move out of range – against a stick, you use punches, shutonukite and elbows, moving into the attack to take away the advantage of the stick’s range.

Thirdly, we did Kata.  And Kata and Kata! Again, the refrain in the Dojo was ‘Mo Ichi Do’!  ‘Mosh To’ ‘Mo Ikai’ – ‘one more time’ or Sensei’s other favorite English word – ‘Again!

We usually started of doing the Fukyu Kata then, which was like preceding or basic Kata and was seized altogether later, as it was very basic. Then the Gekki Sai Dai Kata – Ichi and Ni. Another point of interest is that we did some of the other Gekki Sai Dai Kata here and there, but mostly Ichi and Ni and since the end of the 70’s, just those two.  The rest of the more senior Kata was according to the level of the class.

The evening classes usually had more high grades, so we did more senior Kata up to Seiyunchin and Shisochin. Sanchin and Tensho was done mostly in the evening classes but more intensely during the free training sessions.  We did the occasional Shimé, but I cannot actually remember doing it frequently. It was a different scenario in Okinawa, however, but more of that in another episode!

We rarely did the basic Bunkai for the Kata as well, more Ojo Bunkai in practical, self-defense manner.  If I can share something with you – I actually only learned the Renzoku Bunkai for the Gekki Sai Katas in 1976, when Higaonna Sensei came to South Africa with a Japanese team – almost ten years after we changed to Goju Ryu. I mention this fact because we are very much spoiled these days with an overflow of knowledge available at the click of a finger on a keyboard, knowledge which took us ‘old schoolers’years to learn and figure out in line with Higaonna Sensei’s philosophy of ‘just do it , soon you understand!

One of the moments in my Karate career that I will never ever forget, is one evening, there were just one or two persons for the free training, Higaonna Sensei came to me and said – ‘You Superinpei!’ and taught me the Kata himself, personally. He would take me about every two weeks or so and made me do it to see how I was getting to grips with it, corrected me, advised me!

So that was basically what training was all about – to get physically stronger, faster, more skillful and the same mentally – stronger, faster and more skillful!  And the buzz word – repetitions! One More Time!

Repetitions, apart from developing the motor reflexes needed as I explained, is the one way to develop mental strength – thé most important factor standing between victory and defeat in a real situation!

I have brushed here and there on the training at Yoyogi Dojo in 1973 and to maintain perspective, one has to realize that a lot has happened in the almost 40 years since then.  

If one just ponders upon the magnitude of knowledge available presently on all aspects of physical well-being, research into sport science on how to get the best performance from every aspect of your body, such as nutrition, the most scientific ways to develop strength and conditioning, power, speed, endurance, recovery combined with the research into the mind – sport psychology with all the different components of motivation, mental preparation, how to enhance your concentration, it is amazing that a few factors from the ‘old days’ still proves to be the difference between a Master and just another good Karate Ka.

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Music by Basson Laubscher

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