THE ESSENCE OF KARATE
by Eugene H. Ho
SCREAMS FROM THE OLD COUNTRY STORE pierce the stillness of the night, but
the citizens of the quiet little town of Waipahu on the Hawaiian island of
Oahu pay little attention to the tumult. It has become a routine part of
their daily lives as they have conditioned themselves to the noise for years
-three to four hours each night.
The old building has been a training hall for 44-year-old James Miyaji and
his students. Tonight, like any other night, Miyaji leads his students
through the rigorous paces of shorinji-ryu karate. Hour after hour he leads
them through the kata exercises, only stopping a moment to wipe the
perspiration from their own faces.
For 24 years, Miyaji has attempted to impart the seven virtues in the Code
of Bushido: courage, honor, justice, courtesy, truthfulness, benevolence and
loyalty. He teaches karate not to get rich but to spread the true
individuality of the martial arts. His classes remain small, the dues are
cheap and the instruction demanding but personalized. He preaches
self-development and perfection of character and disdains prejudice between
races, nations and martial arts.
As a youngster, Miyaji had his fair share of neighborhood scraps and brawls
which finally led him to an interest in self-defense. Like other young
Hawaiians of his day, he started out in judo, later picking up a smattering
of aikido, kempo, western-style boxing and various styles of karate.
In contrast to present-day Hawaii, where one can study Okinawan, Japanese,
Chinese, Korean or any other ethnic brand of martial art, Honolulu 20 years
ago was anything but a hotbed of budo. "Most of our martial art experts
conducted their classes behind locked doors," Miyaji recalls, "The average
person just didn't have a chance to see such martial arts as karate, kempo
|AN UNLIKELY DOJO by the standards of many
modern-day sensei, the second floor of this 52-year-old store in Waipahu
is where James Miyaji teaches shorinji-ryu karate. And his approach to
teaching is just as simple as his clojo. "if you don't want to practice
kata," Miyaji says, "don't come to my school."
HAND IN HAND
Miyaji gravitated to karate after witnessing a kempo demonstration and
seeing the "strange fighting maneuvers that I never knew existed." He says
his understanding of the "true value of budo" did not begin, however, until
1957 when he met Richard Kim, head of the American branch of the Dai Nippon
Buto Ku Kai. "His selfless devotion to the martial arts and his unlimited
knowledge was just what I had been looking for," says Miyaji, crediting Kim
with "everything I know today."
As a disciple of Kim, Miyaji stresses the practice of kata as the most
important part of karate training and warns those who don't share his
opinion, "If you don't want to practice kata, don't come to my club." He
insists that his students work on karate kata every day, and he constantly
hones his own form in such weapon arts as the bo, sai, tonfa and nunchaku.
"I always tell my students kata and kumite go hand in hand," says Miyaji.
"Perfection of shorinji-ryu karate requires perfection of form. Those who
neglect this basic phase of training are not conforming to the basic
doctrines of our school.
"We can remove kata from any style of karate and still have a damn good
method of fighting, but it's not karate any more-it's kick-boxing. Now, if
we're just talking about fighting, there's nothing wrong with it. Any good
boxer or street fighter can put a man down without the least experience in
the Oriental martial arts. All he needs is guts.
Here, Miyaji makes an emphatic distinction between streetfighting and
martial arts training. "The man in the street lacks not only the physical
and mental discipline that come through karate training, but also the
finesse and definite form that can only be achieved through kata practice.
"This is how I can tell which of my students are devoted to the art. To do
kata well, one must repeat it over, and over, and over. Kumite is a little
different. A student with natural fighting ability could practice very
little, yet still look good during sparring. All he needs are good reflexes,
a fast punch or kick, and a lot of guts. When it comes to kata, however, you
either know it or you don't. Without constant practice, no one can do kata
well. The precise form just isn't there. That's why I promote my students on
the basis of kata. It tells me whether or not the person has been training
hard. Even if he isn't the best fighter in the world, the student's efforts
will eventually pay off."
KUMITE A YOUNG UPSTART
To further support his contention, Miyaji points out that kata was the
primary means of karate training long before kumite was practiced.
"Competitive sparring in tournaments is an innovation of the 20th Century.
Okinawa-te, which is the basis for most Japanese styles of karate seen
today, was never considered a sport until the year 1940. Their fighting
experts believed that this training, in itself, was sufficient to develop
Miyaji, although a staunch traditionalist, is nevertheless acutely aware of
the changes in karate and has been flexible enough to accept new
innovations. He is a highly regarded official on the local tournament scene,
and he even encourages his students to compete.
"This is the best way we can promote karate within the United States,"
Miyaji says in favor of tournaments. "Americans are competitive, and the
lure of championships, shiny trophies and awards has too much appeal to our
younger generation. In Hawaii, our youths are drawn to many other sports.
Surfboard riding, skin diving, swimming, along with our national pastimes of
football, baseball and basketball are often more appealing than a grueling
two-hour workout in a karate dojo ... without our tournaments, I'm afraid
U.S. karate would not continue to grow as it has in the past."
Many tournament spectators believe kumite competitorswho must pull their
punches-cannot defend themselves on the street. Miyaji disagrees. Drawing
largely from his own boxing experience, he states emphatically, "Pulling the
punches in competition would not hinder your ability to fight. Holding back
your blow in free-sparring, on one hand, and following through like a
sledgehammer, on the other, is dependent upon one thing: how much control
you have. So you see, we're right back where we started-kata. After all,
isn't that what form training is all about; developing the ability to have
complete mental and physical control over each single movement that you do?"
In the dojo, the Hawaiian sensei frequently spars with his students and
encourages each of them to develop his own individual style. "I'm not trying
to mass-produce a bunch of duplicates who must think and fight the way I do.
Everyone's background and physique are different ... the type of technique
that he uses should suit him, not me."
To illustrate his point, Miyaji executes several non-karate movements
acquired from his earlier training in other fighting methods. The judo and
boxing techniques he incorporates into his own program, he says, "would
probably be useless to a person who has not had this training." Although he
is solidly built, he considers himself small at 5-foot-7 and therefore
relies heavily on side-stepping and fast hand techniques.
"The first step in free-sparring," he maintains, "begins with an analysis of
your opponent. Don't rush in like a blind bull. Study him first. Every
fighter has his weak points. Seeing how an opponent stands, for instance,
usually can tell you whether he is a kicker or puncher. A high stance is a
good indication of a man fast on his feet-you could probably expect a leg
attack from this type of fighter. An opponent who sets himself low, on the
other hand, shows the sign of a defensive counterpuncher."
To aid his students in determining when they should be on offense or on
defense, the third-generation Japanese-American instructor teaches methods
of gauging distance. "You should form an imaginary circle around yourself,"
he explains. "The radius of this circle should be equal to the length of
your fully extended arm. Whenever an opponent penetrates the perimeter of
your circle, you must attack. Do not wait any longer, or the opponent will
gain the upper hand."
|INDIVIDUALIZED INSTRUCTION characterizes
training sessions at Miyaji's clojo. The sensei divides his classes into
small groups, such as the one above, so each student will receive as
much personal attention as possible.
After he has taught them these basic principles, Miyaji lets his students
work out their sparring programs by themselves. "All I do," he says, "is
guide them along the way."
Part of Miyaji's willingness to accept karate tournaments as a necessary
evil is the fact that kata-not just kumite-has gained a significant place in
competition, particularly in Hawaii. "Look around you," he says. "Most of
our free-style champions in Hawaii are also terrific kata men. This applies
to all styles."
The kata advocate does admit, however, that there is a problem with forms
competition, one of setting up "accurate" standards for judging. "There are
a lot of prejudiced as well as biased overtones here," he candidly observes.
"Karate, kempo and kung-fu are entirely different. How can a judge who has
nothing but hard-style karate under his belt, for instance, award points to
someone doing a soft-style kung-fu kata. One must have a good understanding
of the principles and philosophies involved before accurate scores can be
RESPECT FOR OTHER STYLES
Miyaji considers himself as one of those who is not expert enough to judge
Chinese kata. At one recent tournament, he removed himself from the panel of
judges when a contestant stepped up to demonstrate a kung-fu form. "Awarding
points on a style that I knew nothing about," he explains, "would have been
unfair to the performer as well as all the other contestants."
Miyaji notices the conflicts between different arts and styles in tournament
competition and also in everyday coexistence. He sets down a rather unusual
plan for unity. Instead of immediately lumping all the ethnic arts under one
roof, he would first establish sub-organizations, with one governing body
for each major ethnic group.
"For instance," he explains, "one main unit would encompass and afford equal
representation to all karate styles developed in Japan. Other organizations
would confine themselves to Korean styles, Okinawan styles, Chinese styles,
etc. Each of these major bodies would, in turn, be composed of various
regional chapters. The important thing right now is to get everybody on
board-karate, kung-fu, kempo, everybody.
"The next logical step, of course, would be to bind all of these
organizations together into one cohesive unit. It would be like the United
Nations, affording a voice to all interested parties, both large and small.
It would perhaps be called something like the 'United States Karate-Kempo-Kung-Fu-Tae
Kwon Do Association."'
|HIS WIFE'S PATIENCE is what Miyaji says has
allowed him to keep weird hours at the dojo year after year. Here, James
and Ann relax at home with their son, Melvin.
Miyaji admits his idea may sound "crazy" but insists it's the most practical
way to accomplish unification. "Karate is not better than kempo; Korean tae
kwon do is not more effective than Okinawa-te; nor are the Chinese styles
superior to the Japanese schools. Each country has developed their methods
of fighting in different ways. All deserve credit. All should be recognized.
"The man behind the style-not the style itself -determines the effectiveness
of a fighter. What many people fail to realize is that comparing Japan-style
karate with Korean schools, or Chinese methods with Okinawan schools, is
meaningless. Each of these arts is different and steeped with the culture
and flavor of its respective country."
Whether Miyaji's plan is workable or not, martial arts unity appears to
still be a long way off. In the meantime, the 44-year-old grandfather will
continue to steadfastly adhere to his own budo philosophy as he pounds the
concept of kata and bushido into the heads of students who gather above the
tiny old store in Waipahu. "My efforts will be rewarded," James Miyaji says,
"if I can help our people understand how these basic tenets of budo can
improve our daily lives."