Bao Quan

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
August 19, 2016

Bao Quan

Bao Quan, or “fist wrapping” is a common martial arts salute performed with one’s hands. It has its origin in China but is also used by some other martial arts.  It is performed by clenching the right fist, straightening the left palm to have the four fingers in a plane, and then wrapping the left four fingers together around the right fist.

Bao Quan goes by a variety of names other than “fist wrapping. Some described it as the “velvet glove” covering the “iron fist” and reportedly refers to the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Ming means “sun and moon.” Since this hand formation could, with the hand over the fist, look like a crescent moon over the sun, some refer to it as the “sun and moon” salute.

The martial arts symbolism behind Bao Quan is intriguing and something that should be meditated upon from time to time. The left palm symbolizes the spirit of martial arts with the four fingers representing the four nurturing elements: Virtue, Wisdom, Health, and Art. The left thumb, rather than being held straight is slightly bent to acknowledge that one should never be arrogant or self-centered. The right fist symbolizes rigorous practice and, since the right hand is clenched in a fist, it also symbolizes power and the potential for action.  When brought together, the left hand, the spirit of martial arts, checks the right hand, power and action, symbolizing self-discipline and restraint.  Through the spirit of martial arts and its nurturing elements we can channel our practice and use our power responsibly and even choose not to use it at all.

Bao Quan can also be a reflection of the fact that most people are right handed and how that fact would impact training. In ancient China, it reportedly was common for Chinese masters to practice conditioning methods, such as “Iron Palm,” with their left hand. Such conditioning would enable the left hand to readily execute lethal strikes.  But as martial artists were less likely to use their left hand and instinctively use their right, their training would bias them to use incapacitating techniques rather than lethal ones. A martial artist who trained in this manner would have to purposely decide to use a lethal technique. Thus, the Bao Quan salute represents this choice between lethal or incapacitating techniques.

There are other interpretations that get more into Chinese philosophy and medicine.  The left hand is seen to represent yin and the right hand represents yang.  The joining of the hands in Bao Quan therefore symbolizes yin yang and would be a manner for a martial artist to express the desire to be in balance.  It is also said that Bao Quan connects the meridians from a specific point in the open left hand to a specific point in the knuckle of the right hand and thus closes an energetic loop in the body.

In Isshin-Ryu, the four fingers are left in a plane position and are not wrapped over the fist.  I believe that this is still consistent with the underlying symbolism of Bao Quan but adds a slight twist. With the hand remaining in a plane it suggests a connection with the universe around the martial artist versus turning the connection strictly inward.  It also could be seen as a manner of expressing a desire to always improving in one’s martial arts spirit.  But, regardless, as with perhaps the more traditional Bao Quan salute, the left hand is still shown as keeping the right hand in check.  While we strive to improve our martial spirit, our virtuousness, our health, our wisdom, and our sense of art in our practice of Isshin-Ryu, we will remain disciplined and our use of our power will be purposely deployed.

Advancement of the Yudansha

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
August 12, 2016

Advancement of the Yudansha

A black belt is the common way to denote a person who has demonstrated sufficient competence in a martial arts system’s basic techniques, forms, and principles.  Since the start of the 20th century, martial arts schools have used a system of colored belts or stripes and specific testing criteria to guide a student’s training and mark progress to earning a black belt. When a student moves through all the kyu ranks and earns his or her first black belt, that student joins the “yudansha” or those who hold a dan rank.  Having earned the rank of a “1st Degree Black Belt, or “shodan,” literally meaning to have taken the “first step,” the martial artist can continue in their training and advance in dan and be awarded higher ranks within the yudansha.

But, while martial arts systems will make it clear how one can advance through the student or kyu ranks, advancement in the Black Belt or dan ranks becomes increasingly subjective.  In Isshin-Ryu, first through third dan Black Belts are considered to be assistant instructors, referred to as “shidoin” (versus “sensei”). Shidoin advance in the yudansha by demonstrating competence in advanced techniques, such as weapons use and weapons forms, as well as demonstrating competence in principles from other martial arts systems. But, once a shidoin is promoted to 4th degree Black Belt and attains full instructor status, addressed as “sensei,” there are no specific testing criteria for further advancement.

In Isshin-Ryu, the following ranks and honorific titles are observed after 3rd degree:

4th degree – Sensei or “instructor”
5th degree – Shihan or “chief instructor”
6th degree – Renshi or “expert instructor”
7th degree – Kyoshi or “master instructor” or “master”
8th degree – Hanshi or “grand master instructor” or “grand master”

Without specific training criteria, it is the duty of an advanced Black Belt to determine if a karateka is eligible for advancement.  Generally, such a “nomination” for advancement can only be made by a martial artist who is two ranks higher than the grade to which the candidate is to be promoted.  For example, a karateka of 7th degree or higher is considered qualified to determine if a karateka is eligible for promotion to 5th degree. Most typically, it is the master of a dojo who is charged with making all such evaluations for a given school.

Up to this point in training, advancement was simply a matter of competency in skills.  But, to advance further, past 3rd degree, other aspects must be considered. A higher dan should have an ever increasing depth of understanding of the system and a corresponding improvement in the ability to teach others. Moveover, if a Black Belt is to advance in the yudansha, that person should be seen as contributing to the promotion and/or growth of the martial arts. Finally, the ability of the candidate to provide leadership and/or serve as a role model will also be a significant consideration for promotion. While some have suggested that there are certain ages or numbers of years associated with promotions to advanced ranks in the yudansha, I feel this is an over simplification and generally misguided.  Certainly greater depth of understanding and the opportunities to contribute are greater with the passage of time, but talent and dedication can accomplish in less than a decade what some never will in a lifetime.

Finally, what must a candidate do in order to earn a promotion to an advanced rank?  While some schools use written exams or have the candidate provide some sort of demonstration, ultimately this is a means only to mark the occasion of promotion. Once nominated, all the karateka need do is to accept the nomination.  For the purpose of this article what I have called a nomination is actually an acknowledgement; seeing a karateka for the rank they truly hold. What is often the challenge in promotion to an advance dan is not the ability of others to recognize the advance rank of a karateka, but for a karateka to be able to perceive it for oneself.

Kaisai no genri

Western New York Karate Center

Shihan Bill

July 8, 2016


Kaisai no genri

One of the definite challenges to a student as he or she prepares for a Black Belt grading is the creation of oyo. Oyo are fighting techniques that are extracted from kata through the process of bunkai, the martial arts term for “analysis” or “disassembly.”  Due to the history of secrecy in martial arts training, the “true” oyo in kata have been lost to time. What the author of traditional kata intended the kata to represent in terms of actual fighting techniques is unknown. Further, rarely do martial arts systems provide a method for disassembling kata, likely for the same reasons of secrecy, and thus many students find themselves struggling to engage in kata bunkai.  Fortunately, Gojo-ryu has a system for performing kata bunkai, kaisai no genri (pron. k-eye sigh no ghen ree). This article will explore kaisai no genri and the implications it has for kata bunkai.

Kaisai no genri has three basic guidelines or shuyo san gensoko and nine “advanced” guidelines or hosoku joko.  The following is not only a review of those guidelines but also tips or comments will be provided as needed.

The three basic guidelines are:

  • The pattern on the floor made by a kata has little bearing on the meaning of the techniques. 

The embusen or shape of a kata is designed to allow the kata to be performed within a small space. It is not meant to act as an accurate stage plan from an actual combat scenario.

  • Techniques performed while advancing in a kata are likely offensive moves. Techniques completed while retreating are most likely defensive.
  • There is quite possibly only one opponent and that opponent is often in front of you.

Even though one turns in the course of a kata that does not mean one is turning to face a different opponent coming from a new direction; the angle instead can indicate the angle taken with respect to a single opponent attacking from the front.  For example, the turn can represent executing a joint lock or a throw.  It is also important to note that while one continues to face a single direction, one’s opponent could change their angle of approach or one could indeed be dealing with more than one opponent while facing the same direction.

The nine advanced guidelines are:

  • All movements in the kata have meaning.

Every movement in a kata can be used as part of an oyo. There are no extraneous moves.  No movement is fully symbolic. Once you state the name of the kata, every movement from that point on is significant.  Even the salutation after stating the name of the kata and the salutation immediately at the end of a kata are part of the kata and therefore can be part of an oyo.

  • A closed hand returning to chamber on the hip can usually be thought to hold some part of one’s opponent.

When a hand moves to the chamber position, particularly if the hand is closed, it could represent pulling some part of one’s opponent; that one has in one’s grip an arm, wrist, ankle, leg, neck or head.  This pulling action is likely a set-up for the technique which follows, acting as a joint lock and forcing the opponent into a specific physical posture.

  • The closest tool is also likely the one being used.

It is reasonable to determine that in a kata the opponent will be attacked with the closest parts of the karateka’s upper and/or lower body. For example, if two fists are presented in one direction, it is likely that the closer fist is actually being used to attack; the farther one could be serving as a guard or completing some other defensive action. Note that if two tools are near the opponent, a fist and a knee for example, both could be intended to be utilized.

  • If you control an opponent’s head you control the opponent.

Martial arts techniques in kata are believed to often target vital or weak points of the body (known as kyusho); many of the most important of these points are located on the head.  And, if one changes the direction the head faces by applying force, the body will often turn along with it.

  • There are no blocks.

Uke are not blocks, they are defenses. Defenses could include deflecting attacks away from the body, but they could also involve other results such as checks, joint attacks, chokes, and throws.  Some defensive actions could be offensive in their outcome such that they can be considered as strikes.  Finally, what appears to be a defensive move in a kata may not even represent an immediate defensive action but instead represent a movement of a limb required to execute a more complex technique like a throw.

  • The angle to which you turn represents the angle which you must take relative to the opponent for the technique to work.

As stated in the basic guidelines, one is likely only responding to a single attacker.  Thus, a turn does not necessarily represent turning to face a new opponent. The turn can instead be a component of a technique which could be intended to force a change in the physical posture of the opponent to set up the next technique. Or it could be part of a throw.  But, it could also represent an attack to the flank or side of the opponent.

  • Touching one’s own body in kata can indicate that one is touching part of one’s opponent.

Where a kata indicates that one should touch a part of one’s own body, the recommend interpretation is that one would be touching or holding part of the opponent’s body. It is also possible that touching certain parts of one’s own body is part of a manipulation of the flow of qi in one’s own body and usually to concentrate it.

  • Hard tools to soft targets. Soft tools to hard targets.

It is a general rule of thumb that a good target for a hard tool, like a fist, elbow, knee, or heel kick, is a soft part of the opponent’s body like a muscle or organ. While soft tools like one’s palm should be applied to a hard areas like the skull or a joint.  Thus, when considering the likely target of a tool, consider the tool itself.  For example, if one appears to be using one’s fist, it is less likely that it is being applied to an opponent’s face and more likely its target is the neck, a bicep, or possibly the ribs or abdomen.

  • The rhythm of the kata is not keyed to any specific oyo.

The rhythm of the performance of kata is for the entire kata and not specific to any of the possible fighting techniques that are embedded within it.  As one attempts to discover an oyo within a kata, do not allow the timing used in any section of a kata to determine the timing that would occur in an oyo.

Using these 12 guidelines should help you develop oyo on your own from any kata. However, definitely consult with an instructor and get the help of a partner to truly determine if a potential oyo is realistic and effective. One additional guideline that can only be followed once one involves a partner is “if one’s partner does not move realistically in response to being struck in the course of the oyo, the entire oyo is not going to be realistic.”  An actual opponent will have natural and often reflexive responses to each technique used in a fighting technique.  If one’s training partner does not react realistically to each technique in the oyo, the likely best application of the next move in the kata will not be made apparent and the remainder of the oyo will be rendered unrealistic.

The 12 guidelines of kaisai no genri and the tips presented here are certainly not the final word on kata bunkai and the creation of oyo; consult with instructors and explore the Internet for ideas.  But, this will provide a good foundation from which to start.


Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
July 1, 2016


The term, bunkai, can be translated as “analysis” or “disassembly” and it is most often applied in martial arts to kata.  Through kata bunkai, a martial artist will disassemble a kata in order to extract fighting techniques from the movements.  The fighting techniques extracted from a kata in this manner are called, oyo.  Kaisai no genri is an excellent system from Goju-ryu for conducting kata bunkai and will be the subject of another article.  That article will be somewhat lengthy and technical. This article will instead focus on ippon bunkai and is rather brief.

The challenge in kata bunkai is that the “actual” threat that some aspect of a kata is responding to is a matter of conjecture.  The threat that was known at the time of the creation of the kata, hundreds sometimes thousands of years ago, is lost to time.  A defensive move, appearing as a “side block” could be a response to an attempted punch, but it could also be a response to an attempted kick or an attempted hold as part of an attempted throw or choke. With an ippon, the opposite is true.  The martial artist starts with the exact and actual threat being declared.  The challenge in ippon bunkai is determining the best fighting technique to manage that threat.

The analysis performed in ippon bunkai is going to be affected by a variety of factors beyond the exact offensive tool or technique being examined. First is the relative position between the martial artist and the attacker; the attack could be coming from in front, to the side, or from behind.  Another is range; the attack could be at long range, medium range, short range, or at close quarters (see the essay “The Sweet Spot”).  But, given that one will likely need to deliver multiple strikes to effectively neutralize the attacker, the third consideration regards follow-up strikes as well as kakuzi waza.  To best determine the most reasonable follow-up strikes will require that the martial artist has an excellent grasp of ukemi.  Failing that, ippon bunkai will benefit from a martial artist studying human anatomy and human physiology.  Regardless, it should be understood that the first action one takes in neutralizing a threat will lead to a reaction from the attacker.  That reaction will often be reflexive but could also be informed by training.  When designing ippons utilizing bunkai, it is therefore important to not only consider the various initial responses and the follow-up actions, but one should also consider, what to do if any one technique fails to work as intended due to error or being countered.

Ippon bunkai is thorough and thoughtful approach to developing self-defense techniques that should deepen and broaden one’s sense of both kihon and kata.  One should approach ippon bunkai to not only train, for example, that a side block isn’t the only response to a punch to the chest, but also that a side block can’t be thought of as sufficient enough to stop another attack from being launched by the same opponent.

Through ippon bunkai one should strive to develop a technique that makes the neutralization of the opponent, not simply the attack, its goal.

kakushi waza

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
June 17, 2016

Kakushi waza

In the practice of kihon and kata, there is a tendency to focus on a single action one is taking be it a punch, a strike, a kick, or a block.  But, within the taking of any action, there are opportunities for additional actions to be taken at the same time. In modern martial arts, people refer to these additional actions as minor moves or bonus moves or “three-handed” techniques. Traditional Japanese martial arts refer to these moves as kakushi waza which means, “hidden techniques.”  In this article, we will examine the concept of hidden techniques and how training with these techniques in mind can significantly enhance one’s effectiveness as a martial artist.

Before we proceed, it is important to note that, with regard to kakushi waza, hidden does not mean “secret”.  Once one becomes aware of this aspect of engaging in kihon and kata, the presence of kakushi waza will be plain.  These techniques are not found only in some well-guarded tome or only passed from a master to a select apprentice. Kakushi waza are available to anyone once that person is aware that such techniques are possible.  It is the fact that one has to be made aware of kakushi waza that makes these techniques hidden; they are not obvious or easily perceived by the naive observer.  They are “incidental” to the primary method of the technique in that they occur in the conduct of the primary method and thus can go unnoticed.  One could say that kakushi waza is the martial arts equivalent of a magician’s “sleight of hand.”

The first type of kakushi waza will be referred to here as “off-hand” techniques.  These are the hidden techniques performed by the hand or foot not currently engaged as the primary focus of the technique. Off-hand techniques can take the form of an additional strike. They could be a grab to increase the likelihood of the primary technique’s effectiveness.  For example, consider the end of Chinto kata.  One has just executed a hammer strike with the right hand into the open-handed mid-level block of the left hand; one will soon perform a right front snap kick before kneeling and punching with the left hand.  At this point, most people focus on the left hand as the primary focus. Certainly the delivery of the right front snap kick is still an issue, but it is not a hidden technique.  But, what about that right hand?

Many karateka will simply move the right hand from its hammer strike to chamber it on the right hip. It is within that movement from the hammer strike to the chamber that we can find at least two hidden moves.  First, consider the possible outcome of that right front snap kick.  The opponent could end up doubling forward and presenting the neck and or head as a target.  The right hand could be used to execute a knife hand strike to the side of the neck or, if at greater range, a tiger hand rake to the face or fingers glancing across the eyes.  Second, a hand chambering on the hip is usually a clue to the opportunity to capture some part of the opponent and holding on to it in order to maximize the impact of a follow-up strike. Thus, the right hand, after executing that open-handed attack, could grab on to the opponent’s neck, shoulder, sleeve or a lapel and then pull the person into that final left hand punch.

A large portion of off-hand technique opportunities exist when one is stepping.  Each time one advances, consider how that movement of the foot could be more than simply taking a step forward.  One could use the knee, as it rises to take that step, as a knee strike.  One could turn that step into a low crescent kick.  As one plants one’s foot, the placing of the foot could be a rake down the shin or a strike on the instep of the opponent’s foot.  And, one’s foot could be imagined as fixing the opponent’s foot in place so they cannot retreat or fall away from the primary technique that is about to arrive.  Another application, as one plants one’s foot, could be to it set it down between an opponent’s feet, close to one of the opponent’s legs, so as to cause pressure to the inside of the opponent’s leg and destabilize the opponent’s stance or execute something of a joint attack on the opponent’s knee.

Whether using hands or feet, off-hand techniques are hidden moves that are built into the movement associated with a specific move.  But an off-hand technique is performed by a hand or foot that is not executing what is considered to be the primary technique.

The second type of kakushi waza will be referred to here as “obscured” techniques.  Obscured techniques are performed by the same hand or foot that is to perform the primary technique.  As they are performed by the same hand or foot, they are often not easily observed unless one is looking for them.  For example, let’s consider the sequence after the third kusanku block in Kusanku kata when one has executed a left hand upper cut while moving into a crane-on-the-rock stance; one will soon perform a descending back fist strike with the right hand.  When last focused upon, the right hand had performed a low block.  The right hand then moves through an arc to move from the low block to the back fist.  Whenever a hand moves through an arc, be aware that the hand could have the opportunity to strike at least one other target in the course of that arc.  As one possibility, close to the apex of the arc in Kusanku kata, the right hand could perform a hammer strike or be part of an inner forearm strike to the head or neck of the opponent.

Another version of obscured techniques does not use the same hand or foot but instead uses the elbow or knee on that same limb.  A favorite combo of mine that illustrates this involves a basic self-defense when attacked with a bear hug from behind. The primary element is a hammer fist to the groin.  One then turns around and executes a descending back fist with the same hand.  In between these two moves is an obscured technique of a rising elbow.  Picture it.  A person attempts a bear hug from behind and you apply a hammer fist to their groin with your right hand.  This not only should negate the bear hug but also cause the attacker to double forward somewhat.  As one turns, one can bring the right arm up, elbow bent, so as to execute an obscured rising elbow into the opponent’s face that is now facing somewhat downward.  This should cause their head and upper body to rise back up again away from that blow as one turns around.  Now, facing one’s opponent, either the attacker’s face or their upper chest will be in a more vulnerable position when you execute the back fist than if you had not used an obscured elbow strike.  Another obscured technique that one could use after that same initial hammer fist to the groin is to then use that same hand to pinch whatever is available. And then perhaps still put in the obscured elbow before turning around to back fist the attacker.

We train to strike an attacker multiple times.  We do so knowing that some techniques will fail.  Some will only be partially effective.  The more strikes we execute, the more likely we will neutralize the attack if not the attacker entirely.  Applying kakushi waza, whether off-hand or obscured techniques, will at least double the potential strikes one can deliver in a single technique.  Thus, not only doubling one’s chances of success but likely also bringing an end to a threat that much faster.


Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
June 9, 2016


Whether it is self-defense or sport karate, success in a hostile encounter depends on multiple factors.  Only some of those factors are within one’s control.  In addition to the choice of technique, “timing” can also be determined by a karateka.   For this article, timing refers to choosing when and how to take action. This article will examine timing and the multiple decisions for achieving the effective range of one’s chosen technique as well as how one’s rhythm of engagement can best disrupt one’s attacker.

Maai (pronounced, mah-eye) is the Japanese martial arts term referring to the “interval” or “engagement distance” used by a person engaged in a hostile exchange.  This concept involves not only the exact distance and the exact time one should execute a technique, but also how one gets to that point in space-time.

Distance – depending on the moment, the specific technique one wishes to execute will either require that one decrease or increase the distance from the opponent.  To decrease or close distance, one may need to take a shuffle step or perhaps one or two full steps.  Perhaps one will need to run or even take a flying leap! While one is moving, a “secondary” technique, as part of that movement, can be used to set up the “primary” technique; a kick or a sweep or maybe a simple feint can change the opponent’s body position and set them up to maximize the effect of the primary technique. Another consideration for closing distance is to simply hold one’s ground; if the opponent is in motion, allow the opponent to close the distance. Similarly, if one needs to increase distance in order to execute a technique, one could move back with a shuffle step or a full step back, but one can also choose to make the opponent move away simply by pushing them.  Along with these choices in changing distance, it is important that one have a sense for how much time it will take to change the distance, taking whatever steps or secondary actions, to arrive at the needed distance at the correct time. Competence with this aspect of timing, manipulating distance, can only come from repeated drills and purposeful practice of this concept when sparring.

Angle – engagements will generally line up opponents so that they are face-to-face.  While this maximizes one’s choices of techniques, both offensive and defensive, it does the same for one’s opponent.  Thus, in extended encounters, opponents will “work the angles;” each person will seek to create an angle of approach that provides an advantage over the opponent.   Certainly, the most advantageous position is directly behind one’s opponent where the opponent’s defensive options become minimal as do the offensive techniques they can bring to bear. But, the ability to move to the rear of one’s opponent is often also highly guarded against for obvious reasons.  Less well defended against, however, are flanking maneuvers; moving to the left or right side of one’s opponent. Particularly for the less experienced martial artist, having one’s opponent move “away” to their left or right is seen as less threatening than having one’s opponent moving directly toward them.  When executed by an experienced martial artist, this is a purposeful illusion.  Flanking maneuvers not only deprive an opponent of half of their body to use in techniques, flanking also can be used to subtly manipulate distance. One can increase or decrease distance in a flanking maneuver and it will be far less perceptible to one’s opponent.  Again, as with more overt manipulations of distance, one must account for the time required to work an angle before being in position to execute the primary technique.  And, again, to make this aspect of fighting essentially instinctual, one should engage in repeated drills and purposeful sparring practice of this concept.

Rhythm – there is a rhythm to engagement and this occurs due to the engagement style of the two opponents.  One can be aggressive, biasing significantly toward offensive versus defensive techniques with little regard for the actions of the opponent.  One can be passive, again with little regard for the actions of the opponent, one can significantly bias toward defensive techniques instead of offensive ones. Preferably, one should strategically take the actions of the opponent in mind when considering the timing of one’s attack. There are three strategies:

Go no sen – waiting to attack after the opponent.  Sometimes called “reaction fighting,” one waits to take advantage of the vulnerabilities exposed in the aftermath of an opponent’s attack. Go no sen can also have the psychological impact of putting one’s opponent into a more passive role as the opponent inadvertently seeks to deprive the reaction fighter of such opportunities by switching from offense to defense.

Sen no sen – attacking simultaneously. This is a strategy that seeks to take advantage of the inherent vulnerabilities that occur in stance and form when a person has launched but not yet completed a technique.  To be successful, one must be able to complete one’s own techniques faster than the opponent and thus such a strategy will demand more use of open-handed strikes and snap kicks, which, while delivering less force, are faster to complete than closed-hand or thrust kicks.

Sen sen no sen – preemptive attack. This strategy requires ki sensitivity. One must have a sense of where the opponent is dedicating their energy and therefore the likely technique the person is planning on taking. Then one must executed one’s own technique, one that is likely advantageous over the opponent’s planned action, before they even start.  This strategy can be further enhanced through sensitivity and manipulation of kokoro-no-maai.

Kokoro-no-maai – beyond the physical aspects of maai, there is a mental aspect: kokoro-no-maai (pronounced koh-koh-roh-no-mah-eye).  It is human nature to be distracted by sensory events, thoughts, and feelings.  But, we can also purposely seek to distract one’s opponent and in so doing disrupt their timing and gain the advantage.  If one ever wondered why Bruce Lee emitted a kiai prior to launching an offensive, manipulating kokoro-no-maai to one’s advantage is an excellent reason.

Being Grounded

Western New York Karate Center

Shihan Bill

June 3, 2016

Being Grounded

The importance of one’s stance in karate is among the first lessons any student is exposed to and will be brought up repeatedly throughout the experience of training. For most students, however, the benefit that will be emphasized is only the physical one.  But, as discussed last week in our examination of karadakitai, the benefits of one’s stance is not only physical but also mental and spiritual as well.  We will look at all three aspects of the importance of one’s stance in today’s article.

The physical benefit of one’s stance should be familiar to all karateka: stability. Being in a solid stance when executing a technique will physically support the successful application of a technique whether one’s intent is offense or defense. Imagine a door; it can be used to keep the environment out and it can be used to let the environment in.  If that door is part of a properly built house, it will open and close easily and provide the desired level of security. But, if that door is hung on a frame in a shoddily constructed house, it may not close properly or open easily. If one does not assume a solid stance before executing a block or a strike, that block will not defend you as hoped nor can that strike have the fully desired effect.  The techniques will be undermined by the “shoddily constructed house” upon which they are based.

In addition to the physical benefit of stability, there is a mental benefit: heijoshin. Heijoshin is the ability to think clearly and make the most effective choices despite one’s circumstances.  Quite literally, heijoshin can be translated as “always level mind/heart.” Maintaining a level head while having one’s life threatened would be essential to being able to use one’s martial arts training effectively to manage a threat. Recent research in psychology provides insight into how one’s stance contributes to heijoshin. It has been found that overactivity in the amygdala of the brain is associated with anxiety.  Specifically, overactivity of the amygdala contributes to a state of hypervigilance, being more on guard than necessary, as well as an exaggerated startle response, displaying a reaction to a possible threat that is out of proportion with the nature of the threat. Exercises in “grounding,” directing a person to feel their connection to the ground through the soles of their feet, have been shown to significantly reduce the activity of the amygdala and thus reduce hypervigilance as well as the startle response. With this in mind, whenever one is even briefly in a stance, take a moment to experience that connection to the ground and thus achieve or maintain heijoshin.

Finally, there is a spiritual benefit that I will call, connection. In Chinese martial arts, Tai Chi in particular, the study of “Bu” is the examination of how qi can be accessed or dissolved based on the innate aspects of one’s stance.  In other words, by employing a well formed and executed stance, one not only gains access to the qi of the universe that can be applied to one’s techniques, one also is granted the ability to place the harmful energy of an attack out into the universe.

The importance of the spiritual benefit of one’s stance cannot be stressed enough as it applies to one’s martial arts practice.  As a person, one is finite.  We not only have a distinct beginning and a distinct end, we also have a limit to our personal resources.  If we depend solely upon ourselves, we will inevitably experience an end to our ability to respond to the challenges. We will become exhausted in a fight.  But, if we tap into the qi available in the universe around us, our resources become as infinite as the universe itself.   One’s ability to maintain oneself in a fight becomes inexhaustible; like the Terminator, you will not quit until your opponent is no longer able to oppose you.  But, the spiritual benefit of one’s stance is not restricted to obtaining energy; one can also disperse energy.  As a lightning rod protects a home, one’s stance connects us to the infinite.  We can direct the energy of an attack from our body and into the universe similar to how lightning is channeled away from a home and into the ground upon which it stands. A karateka, connected to the qi of the universe through a proper stance, could conceivably not only continue to attack and defend inexhaustibly but also do so without taking any significant damage.

Stance is the key to invincibility. It supports our techniques through stability. It helps keep us level-headed so we do not panic in a fight.  And, it provides us with access to limitless power for our techniques and an unlimited buffer against the damage attempted by others.  As a final thought, it is important to note, that the key to success in conflict is not only attending to the quality of one’s own stances through a fight; one must also attend to disrupting the stances of one’s opponent and thus deprive them of all the benefits we know a proper stance provides.


Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
May 27, 2016


Karadakitai (pronounced, kah-rah-dah-kee-tie) is the Okinawan term for body conditioning.  The most commonly practiced form of body conditioning is kotekitai (pronounced, koh-teh-kee-tie), arm conditioning.  But there are other foci for body conditioning such as ashikitai (foot conditioning) fukubukitai (abdomen conditioning), etc.  While not unique to Isshin-ryu, reportedly used in similar styles such Shohei-ryu, the practice of body conditioning has fallen out of favor in almost all other martial arts as the emphasis on sport karate has taken precedence over self-defense and preparing for practical application of martial arts in real world situations. This week we focus on the reasons a serious martial artist should engage in karadakitai.

The purpose of body conditioning is multifold. First, is the physical “toughening” of the body. Karadakitai provokes a physiological response in the body that reduces the experience of pain and injury over time.  Martial artists who engage in karadakitai report less bruising and less injury related to ever increasing physical impacts.  Some propose that there is an increase in the activity of the basement membrane between the dermis and epidermis and an increase in the density of the reticular region of the skin but there is little scientific evidence to support this.  There is some evidence reported for an increase in the density of the skeleton, which would reduce the likelihood of bone damage, related to the “microfracturing” associated with the “sub-traumatic” injury associated with activities like karadakitai.  Regardless of the physiological explanation, the outcome remains the same; those who incorporate some form of karadakitai in their training also report less physical consequences of the practice of martial arts.

The second purpose of karadakitai is the mental toughening of the martial artist.  As most students can attest, the first time they are asked to practice a technique with a partner, even though they have been practicing the technique successfully on their own, is experienced as being awkward.  The truth revealed by that experience is martial arts techniques are not solely the mechanical execution of a coordinated set of body movements; there is a mental component associated with physically interacting with another person particularly one who is viewed as a threat.  Furthermore, the actual experience of a potentially damaging blow, to an unconditioned body, can lead to the person having an acute stress reaction.  The first time a person experiences being significantly struck can be quite literally stunning; that the struck person becomes unable to access their training for what they should do next and will remain immobile.  This could obviously have devastating consequences if a person is in a real life situation where the initial blow is only the start of a series of attacks. Karadakitai gives a martial artist the opportunity to become used to physical contact with other people. More important, it can desensitize or make the martial artist less reactive to being struck and better able to maintain their ability to respond effectively.

The third purpose of karadakitai is the spiritual toughening of the martial artist.  As said by General Sun-Tzu, “to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”  Thus, it could be said that one of the most important abilities a martial artist should seek to perfect is the ability to win a fight without fighting at all. In the study of kiaijutsu and kime, we can see that projecting a spiritual energy that convinces would be attackers that they will fail, can end a fight before it has even begun.  Karadakitai is one method for developing one’s kime or, put more mundanely, confidence.  The practice of karadakitai over time will inform the martial artist that they are much sturdier than might be imagined and that while certain physical threats remain unpleasant, there will be increased confidence that one will survive nonetheless.  That increased self-confidence, based on the repeated experience of being able to manage punishing strikes, can not only buoy one through a confrontation and inoculate one to despair, as indicated above, it can have the effect of causing an attacker to despair and quit possibly without attempting a single strike.

I encourage all martial artists to incorporate some form of karadakitai into their training.  Talk to your sensei, learn body conditioning techniques, and start toughening up your body, mind, and spirit!

The Journey, Part Three

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
May 20, 2016

The Journey… Part Three

Prior to the early 20th century, Okinawan martial arts had been forbidden from public practice for over 400 years. Okinawans trained in private and usually only within a given family.  As Japan strove to be a world power, they took note of how Okinawan workers, who were known to be practitioners of Te, were also healthier than other workers.  The Japanese took an interest in promoting Te and thus the ability of the Okinawans to openly explore and develop Te into the Okinawan martial arts systems we are familiar with today.  And, most important for Isshin-Ryu practitioners, it opened the door for the diverse training Master Shimabuku Tatsuo was able to enjoy.

It is noteworthy that while Japanese nationalism led to the return of the public practice of Okinawan martial arts, Japanese nationalism also led to the development of the word, “karate.” The Japanese directed the Okinawans to replace the kanji symbol that meant, “Chinese,” which can be pronounced as “toe” or “kara” with the kanji symbol that can also be pronounced as “kara” but instead of meaning “Chinese” it meant, “open.” Thus, the term for Okinawan martial arts shifted from “to-de” to “karate” and its interpretation shifted from “Chinese hand” to meaning “open hand” in 1936.

It is of further note the Japanese forbid the Okinawans from applying the “jutsu” suffix, common to Japanese martial arts, as this suffix was reserved for Japanese martial arts and not for the “peasant fighting ways” of Okinawans. Thus, Okinawan martial arts would not be called karatejutsu.  Since then, however, Okinawan martial artists have argued at times to use the “do” suffix to convey that karate is a way of life. While not forbidden, this usage was discouraged and never generally caught on.  Okinawan martial arts are still commonly referred to simply as “karate.”

For this final installment of the history of Isshin-ryu, we will examine the four most influential martial artists that Master Shimabuku trained with.  We shall start with his first and most influential teacher.

Kyan Chotoku

Kyan Chotoku (1870 – 1945) was primarily a Shuri-te practitioner and a major contributor to Shorin-ryu, but has also been credited as a master of Tomari-te. Master Kyan overcame significant physical challenges from childhood (known for being small in stature, suffering from asthma, frequently bed-ridden, and with poor eyesight) and became a renown martial artist. As an adult, he was well known for having and promoting a colorful lifestyle; he was noted for encouraging his students to visit brothels and engage in excessive alcohol consumption.  His first teachers were Matsumora Kosaku and Oyadomari Kokan but most notably he also trained with Master Matsumura Sokon.

Master Kyan was the first teacher of Master Shimabuku, from 1932 until 1936, when he was about 66-years-old, and taught him Seisan, Naihanchi, Wansu, Chinto, and Kusanku kata. He also taught Master Shimabuku Tokumine-no-kun and basic sai techniques. Master Kyan’s sai techniques inspired Master Shimabuku to create the sai kata, Kyan no sai (named in honor of his master) as well as Kusanku sai.

Master Shimabuku originally named his martial arts system after Master Kyan: Chan-migwa-te.  This was inspired by Master Kyan’s nickname, Chan Migwa, which means, “squinty-eyed Chan.”

Master Kyan died in 1945, around 75 years of age, due to fatigue and malnutrition following the Battle of Okinawa.

Miyagi Chojun

Miyagi Chojun (1888 – 1953) was the adopted son of a wealthy business man. He began his martial arts training, in Naha-te, at 9-years-old with Aragaki Ryuko and then Higaonna Kanryo. When he was 27, he travelled to China and studied Shaolin wushu (prior to the monastery being burned to the ground in 1928) as well as studying Baguazhang. In 1929, Master Miyagi merged his study of Chinese wushu with Naha-Te and created Goju-ryu (meaning, “hard soft style”). Interesting note, the original “The Karate Kid” film series was written by a Goju-ryu stylist and the character of Mister Miyagi was inspired by the real Master Miyagi.

Master Miyagi is the second teacher of Master Shimabuku, from 1936 to about 1938, when he was almost 50-years-old.  Master Miyagi and taught Master Shimabuku, among other things, Seiuchin and Sanchin kata. He also trained other students who went on to create their own systems such as Seigo Tada, founder of Seigokan.

Master Miyagi suffered his first heart attack in 1951 and died of a second heart attack in 1953 at 67-years-of-age.

Motobu Choki

Motobu Choki (1870 – 1944) was a Shorin-ryu stylist descended from Okinawa nobility.  Master Motobu was the third son of Motobu Palace. But, being the last of three sons, despite his intense interest in martial arts, he was not entitled to learn his family’s style of Te. Thus, he spent much of his youth training on his own.  During that time, however, he managed to train with some of the most prominent Te practitioners of the time, most notably his first teacher, Master Matsumura Sokon.

Master Motobu insisted on testing his fighting prowess in street fights in the red light district of his town; being of noble birth, neither teachers nor peace keepers had the authority to stop him. He reportedly highly favored Naihanchi kata as the “fundamental of karate” and practiced this kata almost to the exclusion of any other.

When he was about 47-years-old, in 1917 Master Motobu, was invited to Japan to demonstrate Okinawa martial arts along with Master Funakoshi Gichin, the founder of Shotokan.  Master Motobu’s insistence on the need for practical application and evaluation of techniques as well as often being at odds with Master Funakoshi as to how karate should be taught, did not win him favor in Japan. While Master Funakoshi would be invited back to Japan five years later and eventually invited by the Imperial court to remain in Japan and teach Shotokan karate to the Japanese people, Master Motobu was not.

In 1938, around the age of 68, Master Motobu was the third teacher of Master Shimabuku for about a year. As one would expect, Master Motobu emphasized with Master Shimabuku the “practical” application of martial arts outside the dojo.

Master Motobu died about five years later, in 1945, at the age of 74.

Taira Shinken

Taira Shinken (1897 – 1970) was an Okinawan kobudo master.  He was given up for adoption as a child and took his mother’s maiden name.  He had to work in the sulfur mines of Minamijima and suffered a permanently crippling leg injury when a mine shaft collapsed. He first studied Te with Master Funakoshi around 1922 but in 1929 he began his study of Okinawan kobudo under Yabiku Moden.

Master Taira created the nunchaku kata, Taira no Nunchaku as well as being credited with creating a kata using metal horse stirrups, Maezato no Tekko. He mastered over 40 traditional Okinawan weapons kata. To revitalize the vanishing art of Okinawa kobudo, he established the Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai in 1955.

When Master Taira was about 58, after he established the Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, Master Shimabuku came to study Okinawan kobudo with him. Master Taira taught Master Shimabuku Hama Higa no Tulfa, Shishi no Kun, Chatan Yara no Sai, and Urashi Bo.

He died at age 73.

Through our examination of the lineage of Isshin-ryu, the men that trained and influence each other over time, can one should now better understand the underlying inspiration of the One Heart Way.

The Journey… Part Two

Western New York Karate Center

Shihan Bill

May 16, 2016

The Journey… Part Two

Last week we explored the history of Isshin-ryu up to 1609 when the Japanese conquered the Ryukyu Kingdom and made it into a vassal state of Japan.  The Japanese maintained the ban on the open training of To-de as well as Ryukyu Kobudo.  We now jump ahead over one hundred years and examine the two men honored with being major contributors to the establishment of Te but also, by extension, major contributors to the modern roots of Isshin-ryu. 

Sakugawa Kanga

While generally ascribed as a major contributor to Okinawan Te, the root martial art of Okinawa, given that Te has its roots in the 14th century and that Sakugawa was born in the 18th century Akata village, it is my opinion for what it is worth that he is more accurately described as a practitioner of Shuri-te who had a profound influence on Tomari-te and Naha-te.

1750 – Sakugawa began his training in To-de, presumably in secret, with a revered Ryukyu peichin, Takahara.  Peichin (meaning scholar-warrior, similar to the Japanese Samurai) Takahara is attributed as being the first to explain the principles of “do,” martial arts as a way of life. Takahara instilled in Sakugawa that a martial artist should, first, be compassionate and have humility, second, strive for a complete understanding of all techniques and systems of karate, and third, dedicated to the seriousness of karate by engaging in actual combat.

1756 – Sakugawa is referred by Takahara to study with Shifu Kwang Shang Fu, also known as Shifu Kusanku, a Chinese ambassador residing in the village of Kanemura (the area of Okinawa formerly known as Naha).  Kusanku was a Chinese master of Ch’uan Fa or “Fist Law,” having studied with a Shaolin monk in Fukien province.  It is interesting to note that in Japanese the same kanji used for Ch’uan Fa are pronounced, “Kenpo.” Sakugawa studied with Kusanku until his death in 1762 and developed the kata Kusanku in his honor.

Matsumura Sokon

The year that Matsumura first started training with Master Sakugawa is unclear other than to indicate that Matsumura was young and Sakugawa was very old.  Sakugawa reportedly died in 1815 around 81 years old. Given that Matsumura is reported to have trained for five years with Sakugawa, if that corresponds with the year of Sakugawa’s death, this would mean that Matsumura started training with Sakugawa around 1810. Matsumura is reported to have been born in Yamakawa village in the Shuri region of Okinawa.  But his birth year is reported as early as 1798 and as late as 1809. Using the earliest birth year for Matsumura, 1798, would make him 12-years-old when he first started training with Sakugawa.  This is believable but also then fascinating as Matsumura reportedly had then developed, by twelve years of age, such a reputation for disobedience that Sakugawa trained him only out of an obligation to Matsumura’s father.

1836 – Matsumura, possibly around the age of 38, is recruited into the service of the Ryukyu vassal lord, King Sho Ko, and given a peichin title.

Matsumura would eventually become the chief martial arts instructor for the vassal state of Ryukyu and also the bodyguard of King Sho Ko as well as the last two vassal lords, King Sho Iku and King Sho Tai. It was reportedly during this time as the champion of Ryukyu that Matsumura was directed to deal with a Chinese sailor, possibly a pirate, named Chinto. Chinto had taken refuge in a cemetery of the mountains of Tomari after he was shipwrecked. Chinto was stealing from the local Okinawans and generally acting like a shipwrecked pirate. Matsumura has been described as blindingly fast and deceptively strong and possessing a pair of unsettling eyes; he reportedly was never defeated in a duel although he fought many. Legend has it that while Matsumura was not defeated, he was at least equally matched by Chinto.  Matsumura went on to train with Chinto for some time and eventually created Chinto kata in his honor.

In addition to creating Chinto kata, Matsumura is credited with installing Seisan, Naihanchi, and Kunsanku kata in the Shorin-ryu system.  He is also credited with teaching several major martial artists of the 20th century including Kyan Chotoku and Motobu Choki.

With the end of the 19th century, we can see how, through Sakugawa and his legendary student Matsumura, the foundation of Isshin-ryu has heavy influences of Chinese martial arts particularly in the influence of Shifu Kusanku on Sakugawa and the dread pirate, Chinto, upon Matsumura.  Next time, we will look at the 20th century instructors of Master Shimabuku: Kyan Chotoku, Miyagi Chojun, Motobu Choki, and Taira Shinken.