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KATA

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 and kung-fu."

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 combat skills."
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?"

ENCOURAGES INDIVIDUALISM

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 awarded."

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."