Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Okinawan and Japanese Martial Arts Weapons in Arizona

One of many of weapons of the Japanese and Okinawan arsenal is the yari (). A yari is a spear favored by samurai and warrior monks in Japan’s past. There are many types of yari and each system had its own indigenous techniques. Yari is the weapon of sojutsu, a Japanese art.  In Arizona, we found only one instructor of sojutsu, Soke Hausel at the Arizona School of Traditional Karate in Mesa.

The yari is thought to have originated in China. However, some suggest it is as old as Japan itself. When Japanese ancestors picked up sticks to hunt fish, they created a spear. Since no one recorded this event, we are left to speculation as to when this might have occurred.

Some suggest a yari is simply a spear, others suggest a yari is a spear with a full tang that slid within a pole much like the blade of a samurai sword. With this in mind, one should separate spears into three categories: (1) early spears (hoko) use by Japanese ancestors, (2) yari-like spears (hoko yari) that originated in China, and (3) spear blades (yari) with full tang and unique metallurgy and sword-smithing indigenous to Japan.

According to Japanese folklore, a god named Izanagi no mikoto stood at the Bridge of Heaven and thrust a hoko into the earth’s ocean. As he withdrew the hoko, tiny, shinning drops fell from the weapon back into the ocean to form the islands we now know as Japan. This legend is very old. Even so, Draeger and Smith (1980) indicate the use of spears on the Japanese islands is older than the legend, and spears likely existed on Japan as early as 200 BC. Others argue that spears appeared much later in Japanese history, but this is likely an argument of semantics, which is why it is important to separate spears into the three categories.

Kapp and others (2002) report hoko yari originated in China and this weapon was exported to Japan during the Nara Period (710-794 AD). Such Chinese spears consisted of wavy-shaped blades mounted on a 6-foot pole. The side of hoko yari often contained a Kama (sickle) blade used for slicing or chopping. The base of the primary blade had a hollow socket that simply slipped over a pole rather than into the pole – in other words, it did not have a tang.

The hoko-yari likely produced some interesting moments on the battlefield, when a foot soldier lost their spear blade as it flew off the pole similar to what we periodically see in dojo today with low-cost katana that do not have full tang, or cheaply made tonfa with tsuka (handle) poorly attached to the monouchi (baton shaft). Visualize a young Japanese soldier of the 8th century on a battlefield for the first time swinging a hoko yari with a focused downward cut using every drop of adrenalin, just to have the blade fly off before striking his intended target.

This happened at a University of Wyoming kobudo class many years ago. I had just purchased a modern garden hoe (kuwa) from a garden shop in Laramie that had a blade attached like a hoko yari. The blade simply slid over the end of the handle. I took my new kuwa to the evening class in the Education Gym at the University of Wyoming. I’m sure some still remember this event. Luckily, I was facing the dojo shomen so no one was in front of me when I swung the kuwa down with full focus for an atama uchi (head strike) at my imaginary opponent: the kuwa blade shot off the handle like a guided missile and struck the tatami (mats) on the shomen wall with a loud report that echoed throughout the gym and down the halls. I checked my garden kuwa (made in China of course) to see if it had any warning labels stating that the tool should not be swung, used for self-defense, or used as a garden implement –there were no warnings.

I learned a valuable lesson: you cannot trust any martial arts practice weapons or garden tools purchased from any martial arts supply house (or local garden shop) – most are junk and not made for kumite (sparring), kata practice, bunkai training, and all should consider wearing safety goggles because of this danger. As a result, Sensei Borea purchased garden hoes from a local hardware store in Gilbert, Arizona for use in our hombu dojo in Mesa. He drilled holes through each shaft and added a screw to keep the blades from flying off.

Martial arts practice weapons are a serious problem. A few years ago at a kioga clinic in Casper most attendees had new kioga (asp) purchased from a well-known, popular martial arts outlet. Before the clinic was over, half had fallen apart. At one martial arts demonstration at a University of Wyoming basketball game, my uke and I were demonstrating a fighting kata between Bo and tonfa. The very first strike of my tonfa broke my uke’s Bo in half and she had to end the kata with a short hoko.

During the Heian Period (794-1184 AD) which followed the Nara Period, Japanese sword-smiths progressed to a point that their blade work exceeded all others. Their smithing and metallurgy resulted in some of the strongest and enduring blades in history. These sword-smiths produced yari and naginata blades using the same methods they used to manufacture katana (sword) blades. The naginata and yari blades were mounted on poles of varying lengths designed to outreach their opponents’ sword. Some were very long.

Yari of the Heian Period were unique in quality, sharpness, metallurgy, smithing and method for mounting on the pole-arm. They were also unique because the blades were like a double-edged knife and used for slicing as well as for thrusting. The edges of most yari were razor sharp. These had full tang to keep young soldiers from losing blades and soiling their pants. In addition to the blade, the pole arm was used for thrusting and had a weighted pommel known as a hirumaki. The side of the pole could also be used for striking or unbalancing an enemy.

Some blades came with sharpened horns or cross blades known as jumonji yari (also known as magari yari). These looked like a cross and were similar in shape to the Japanese number 10. Ten translates as ju, thus the origin of the root of jumonji. Some jumonji also had cross bars similar to the Okinawan nunte bo (also known as nunte). The nunte bo was an Okinawan spear with three prongs. The two shorter prongs were directed in opposite directions producing a blade to look similar to a swastika. During the Heian Period, most yari were su-yari (straight bladed). Later in the period, naginata were developed with curved, single-edged blades (Sinclair, 2001).

During Kamakura times (1185-1333 AD), Japanese metallurgy continued to progress. The bushi (samurai warrior) had grown accustomed to their swords which were portable and fast. It is said that excellent swordsmen could defeat spearman (Draeger and Smith, 1980) (other authors disagree and suggest yari was more effective). The sword was considered the soul of samurai; as a result, it became the favored weapon of samurai. So-hei (warrior priests of militant Buddhist sects) chose yari and naginata as weapons.

Both yari and naginata had an advantage of reach. Near the latter half of the 16th century, Japanese foot soldiers known as ashigaru were armed with long pikes (nagae yari) to stop cavalry. Sinclaire (2001) reports yari were as long as 18 feet while most were 10 and 12 feet in length. The foot soldiers marched into battle with their nagae yari to stop the charge of cavalry, while others carried shorter su yari, arquebusiers (muzzle-loaded firearms) and yumi (bows).

During the Edo era (1603-1868 AD) yari lost favor with samurai and greater emphasis was placed on katana and close quarters combat. Even so, some yari were produced, but mostly for ceremonial use. Some of more interesting varieties of yari were used at various times in history include: (1) sankaku yari which had a triangular cross-section designed to penetrate armor; (2) kikuchi yari had a single sharpen edge similar to katana, (3) yajiri nari yari had a very broad spade-shaped blade; (5) the kama yari had one horn projecting from the base of the blade and looked similar to a jumonji yari, but was asymmetrical; (6) the katakama yari looked like a pitch fork with two prongs; (7) the tsuki nari yari had a crescent-shaped blade for slashing and hooking; (8) sasaho yari had a bamboo leaf shaped blade; (9) makura yari known as a pillow yari, was kept by one’s bed for protection at night and the (10) naga yari had a short pole used like a javelin.

  • Draeger, D.E., and Smith, R.W., 1980, Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts: Kodansha International, 207 p.
  • Kapp, L, Kapp, H., Yoshihara, Y, 2002, Modern Japanese swords and sword smiths: Kodansha International, 95 p.
  • Sinclaire, C., 2001. Samurai: The weapons and spirit of the Japanese warrior: The Lyons Press: 144 p.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Makiwara - Build Your Own Martial Arts Training Equipment

In Arizona, many martial arts schools have heavy bags for striking. Heavy bags tend to respond to force in an unnatural way. They pivot along the axis attached to an overhead chain or rope, just exactly the opposite of striking a person whose feet would be on the ground and pivot along the axis attached to the earth. There are bags available that have water-filled bases that tend to correct this problem, but essentially every one we  tested were cheaply constructed with very thin padding. 

Okinawan karate-ka (karate practitioners) developed an excellent tool in place of a heavy bag that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. All you have to do is go to a local lumber or hardware store and buy a few materials to build one, dig a hole, and ‘walla’ – you’ll have a great striking surface known as a makiwara.

The makiwara can be constructed using a board about 10 feet long. However, the Arizona soils (if we can call them soil) are filled with so much clay, caliche and volcanic ash that they are very hard to dig in. So you can get away with an 8-foot board. In Wyoming, we used a 2 x 8 inch and 2 x 12 inch boards which do not have a lot of give. So in Arizona, we went for a thinner board  (1 x 8 inch) and was pleasantly surprised that the thinner board was much better because of  greater flexibility.

After you purchase the board, take your 8-foot board and dig a 3-foot hole. Go find two large rocks while resting from trying to break through the caliche layer. If you are in Colorado, Utah or Wyoming (or anywhere else in the US except maybe New Mexico), you might want a 10-foot board. In this case, plant it 5 feet deep. I’m not sure what to recommend in Alaska or Canada other than wait for summer before you plant your board. 

Now that you have a hole for a makiwara, place the board to the appropriate depth and take two large football-sized rocks placing one in front of your board at the bottom of the hole. Now fill in the hole. When  it is nearly full, place the other rock on the opposite side ( back) and then cover it. The rocks will provide spring to the board. Now buy some hemp rope from a local hardware store and pick up some carpet pieces from you local carpet store for padding. We found hemp at Harbor Freight in Mesa. The hemp is great for training knuckles and the side of your hand.

Next, place pieces of carpet under the hemp to increase padding. When your knuckles get use to striking the hemp and board, you can remove some carpet pieces.

Ideally, you will want to practice tsuki, shuto, koko and empi uchi along with mae geri, maewashi geri, yoko geri, kozumi geri and other strikes and kicks (see Japanese Karate Dictionary for translations). Now you have an excellent tool to supplement your karate training at home and drive your neighbors nuts (they’ll love peaking through their curtains and wondering what is wrong with you). At first, it will be difficult to hit the board with a lot of force with your bare knuckles; but after months of training, you will look forward to hitting the board. When the it finally breaks (the board, not your hand), buy another.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Aikido in Arizona

Te waza (hand throw) demonstrated by Soke Hausel at Casper,
Wyoming clinic.
Aikido is a Japanese martial art modified from jujutsu in the 20th century. Aikido (合気道) (the way of harmony) is a grappling art created by Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969) in Tokyo. According to Farkas and Corcoran (1983) the art was created in 1942; however, like any art, it is difficult to say exactly when it came about as martial arts are created over extended periods of time and constantly evolving. Frederic (1998) suggests aikido began its evolution in 1931 and its governing association dates to 1948. The name ‘aikido’ was officially registered with the Japanese Ministry of Education in 1942.

 The creator of aikido, Ueshiba was described as religious and nationalistic and created his art with religious and nationalistic overtones: he particularly avoided including any connection to kempo (Chinese hand) and other Chinese arts (Frederic, 1998) to be sure this was an indigenous Japanese art. At that time in history, nationalism in Japan was rampant.

 Ueshiba linked aikido to Zen and Shinto: national faiths of Japan (Farkas and Corcoran, 1983). He emphasized harmony between breath, spirit (ki), and body (tai) combined with nature while emphasizing harmony between mind (shin) and moral outlook (ri). In Zen, followers believe the center for meditation and power is the tanden, a point situated 1.5 inches above the navel. This point is emphasized as the source of power in aikido and is the point from which ki (spirit) is thought to originate.

Ueshiba began in Daito-Ryu Aiki JuJitsu and through time, named his new art Aikido. Today, more than 30 different sects of aikido exist. Aikido emphasized the philosophical aspect of martial art referred as ‘do’. ‘Do’ (pronounced like the female deer) means ‘way’ or ‘path’ to enlightenment. Many techniques (waza) in jujutsu and judo require close contact grappling; whereas Ueshiba avoided such techniques in favor of placing an attacker at a distance.

Ueshiba’s philosophy was to defend against an attack without causing great injury. To do this, aikido attempts to redirect an attack by blending the attacker’s movement and redirecting the attacker’s momentum against himself. This is done with entering and turning movements. Aikido uses many joint locks to manipulate an attacker while attempting to direct an attacker in the direction of the force generated by the attack. Joint locks are usually followed by throws. Aikido attempts to lead an attacker (uke) into a circular path so that the defender (tori) turns on an axis. The circular motion allows the defender to neutralize an aggressive action by gaining control of momentum (Westbrook and Ratti, 1970).

Like jujutsu, aikido starts with atemi. Atemi is a vital point strike used to disrupt the attacker’s balance and is very important, particularly in places like Arizona. This is because people in Arizona sweat. Its hard to believe, but very recent government-funded research identified Arizona as the place where people sweat the most in the US. Did we really need the government to spend our taxes to determine this piece of information?

 Following atemi, the defender uses evasive moments and body shifting (tai sabaki) to manipulate the attacker’s force so it can be used against the attacker who is redirected and thrown. Many techniques in aikido end with grappling to subdue the opponent.

 Most techniques in aikido are used to control (katame waza) or throw (nage waza). According to some sources, there are over 700 techniques that fall under these two categories and are derived from basic kata (forms) of aikido. Aikido kata consist of freeing oneself from basic grips or grabs (te hodoki), throwing, and immobilizing with use of pressure point attacks (kyusho) on joints (kamsetsu gaeshi). Aikido practitioners also use a limited number of weapons as part of training that include bo (6-foot staff), jo (4-foot staff) and yawara (short stick) (Frederic, 1998).

According to Mitchell (1998) aikido lost much of its effectiveness through time. Genuine attacks were replaced by compliant attackers: a would-be attacker typically runs forward with arm held out until the defender employs a defense. This is followed by a symbolic strike or atemi. However, without a focused and powerful atemi, one learns to defend improperly. As a result, some aikido masters separated from the mainstream aikido association and attempted to develop more effective methods for self-defense. Tomiki aikido incorporated contests to try to improve reflexes, but this is something that was already part of many jujutsu and judo arts, where continuous defenses (randori) are performed non-stop. Another school, Yoshinkan aikido, focused on the importance of ki requiring their uke to attack with energy and force. As a result, Yoshinkan aikido has been used to train many Japanese law enforcement agents as it is thought that this emphasizes more realistic atemi.

 The atemi (or strike) in aikido is very important. If not practiced with focus and power, the practitioner will learn an incorrect response to an attack. An atemi can include shuto (open hand) strikes to the arm, teisho (palm strikes) to the chin, kozumi geri (kick) to the chest, etc.

 The traditional aikido dojo (place of the way) is simple. Floors are matted since practice involves throws and unlike judo and jujutsu, the aikidoka (practitioner) does not slap the mat (tatomi) when thrown, but rolls out of the fall (ukemi) similar to ninjutsu. To practice these types of break falls, aikidoka dive onto the floor extending one slightly curved arm forward while curving the spine to keep the head tucked in. As a student progresses, these dives become higher and higher and cover greater distances.

Aikido, like most Japanese martial arts, has a ranking system of colored belts (kyu) that vary from school to school. As one progresses, they may reach the upper levels of aikido or dan (black belt) ranks. Aikido practitioners typically wear a hakama (split skirt) with a gi jacket. Since aikido manipulates the joints, teaching this art to children should be avoided.

Exercises in aikido serve to loosen wrists and joints. During training, the wrists are seized and twisted and joint locks applied until the uke either slaps himself on the thigh as a sign that the tori should stop applying pressure, or until uke yells ma te. Through time, the wrists become supple. The more one practices, the less the wrist hurts. However, in the beginning, one can expect sensitive and swollen wrists.

Because aikido does not involve intense striking and kicking techniques such as karate, the public views this art as being less violent and is therefore a good art for many law enforcement agents. It also focuses on restraints, another important law enforcement application. There are several aikido schools in Arizona.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Kobudo in Arizona (Martial Arts Weapons)

Kobudo, the ancient martial art of Okinawa weapons, is designed to compliment karate. Most martial arts schools that we surved in Arizona do not include training in kobudo. If they do, typically, one has to sign contracts with their karate school and pay additional fees to allow them to train in kobudo, often only after they reach the yudansha level (black belt). Other martial arts schools do not practice kobudo as it was intended – as a martial art of self-defense.
Recently, some martial arts students attended a fair in the Gilbert Islands community where one local martial arts school gave a demonstration of taekwondo and then followed with weapons. The weapons portion of the demonstration left questions as to what the intention of kobudo was in that particular taekwondo school. It was more a demonstration of acrobatics with twirling rather than kobudo.
Kobudo was created by Okinawan peasants and body guards for royalty as a method of self-defense. It was (and is) an extension of karate. Because of a proclamation by King Shoshin many centuries ago, all bladed weapons were banned on Okinawa. This was due to the king's Buddhist belief and because of civil unrest – sort of what we see in the US and Australia today. So, what this did was open up everyone’s pockets and valuables to thieves and left the country vunerable to invasion (which finally happened when the Satsuma samurai from Japan invaded Okinawa in the early 17th century).

At some point in Okinawa's history, peasants began training in kobudo with karate. Kobudo used the tools of trade – farmers used rakes, hoes, poles, sickles, bridles: fishermen used poles, paddles, fish hooks, ropes and weighted ropes for self-defense against armed aggressors. In Shorin-Ryu Karate (Okinawa Karate), students learn kobudo as soon as they start karate. They go hand in hand - much like a bicycle and tires - you need both to work properly.

Traditional kobudo weapons include nunchuku, tonfa, sai, kama, hanbo, nitanbo, cane, bo, kobutan, eku, ra ke, kuwa, manrikigusari, hojo, tanto, hari, nireki, surichin, tetsubo, tekko, tinbe, yawara, suruji and more. It is rare for a karate school in the US let alone Arizona to teach any of these let alone most. We only found one school in Arizona that teaches most. In addition to ancient weapons, kobudo actually goes much further. Many tools of trade should be practiced as kobudo weapons. Imagine a carpenter, a plumber, a gardener – they all have many weapons at hand. Even such docile professionals like librarians are surrounded by potenial weapons as librarians learned at a clinic in Chandler, Arizona.

Training with kuwa (hoe). This is the modern day version of the
Okinawan hoe purchased at a local hardware store. But be careful,
the cutting edge often flies off on these, so it is recommended to
drill a hope and place a screw through the blade and handle
It is also very important to learn to use such weapons in combat! It is important to feel the weapons and what they can do. Thus bunkai, one-step sparring and even free sparring will assist in development of weapons expertise. At a couple of martial arts clinics at Scott Air Force in Illinois, members of Juko Kai International trained with bo, naginata, katana and yari and sparred with bo - all 50+ martial artists free-sparred (kumite) against all who came near them.
However, one has to be extremely cautious because nearly all martial arts weapons sold on the market are junk and will even break just by swinging the weapon in the air. Not too long ago, I purchase an eku (paddle) from a well known martial arts distributer in Oklahoma. The very first time I swung the weapon in the air, the handle snapped in two!
At a clinic in Casper Wyoming many years ago, the dojo operator purchased several expandable batons from the same company. By the end of the day, more than half of these had fallen apart. So in most cases, it is worthwhile to purchase man-made weapons made from strong materials. We came across a place in Oracle, Arizona that makes strong weapons. Also, if you particle with a partner, always wear protective eye gear!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Karate in Arizona

Karate – What is it?

We see Karate Schools” around Arizona: in the Phoenix valley, karate and taekwondo schools are located on almost every block – so what is karate? Are all of the schools the same and teach similar curriculum? First we need to recognize that Karate is Okinawan in origin. Taekwondo in Korean.
One could easily write a book on ‘Karate – actually many people have. But I highly recommend you examine any book on karate before you purchase as most are not worth the paper they are printed on. Otherwise, we will try to keep this blog about karate as brief as possible.
Karate is the ‘art’ of ‘empty hand’ combat. Note I mention this as an ‘art’!  This is a very important concept because there are many combat systems that promote themselves as ‘martial arts’ when they have absolutely no esoteric or redeeming value, such as MMA (mixed martial arts). MMA should either label themselves as ‘fight clubs’, ‘street fighting’, or martial combat as they are not an art by any means.
Karate is considered an art because it has philosophy, requires respect, it has kata (forms) and more that places it in the realm of esoteric value or an art. It can be liken to dancing, but with a different purpose – the purpose being self-improvement and self-defense. If you watched the original Karate Kid movie, you will remember many pieces of esoteric philosophy that led Daniel, san to self-improvement, self-understanding and self-defense. Remember the “wax on, wax off” scene?
Yoko tobi geri (flying side kick), University of Utah
So briefly, karate was developed on Okinawa, Japan, when Okinawa was an independent country. Many are under the impression that karate was a Japanese martial art. It only is a Japanese martial art because Japan invaded Okinawa. After the Okinawans practiced this martial art for hundreds of years in total secrecy (a few hundred years under the noses of the Japanese), they finally brought it out in the open and introduced it to mainland Japan in the early part of the 20th century.
No one kept records on its evolution, so we only have folklore and legend to help discover its origins with  few scattered facts. But karate evolved from Okinawan people traveling to China to learn Kung Fu and then modifying the Chinese art to karate.
Oi-tsuki (classical signature karate punch), Arizona
School of Traditional Karate, Mesa, 2012.
When it began to develop on Okinawa, different villages had different techniques and concepts about what their karate should be. Thus different styles of karate branched from the original “Okinawa Te” (Okinawan Hand Art). After it was introduced to Japan, different Japanese martial artists began to branch from the original Shorin-Ryu karate that was introduced, a few calling themselves masters of the martial arts, and then providing different names for their branches of karate. There are so many, that hopefully, someone will one day complete a research dissertation on the origins and styles of karate.
As you drive around Arizona, you will likely only see information identifying some martial arts schools as ‘karate’. But these are different styles of karate. For example, there is Shorin-Ryu Karate, Shotokan (this style is actually a Shorin-Ryu style of karate given a different name by the Japanese and at the same time, it drifted away from the original concept of Okinawa karate), Kenpo, Kempo, Chinese Kempo, Okinawan Kempo, American Kenpo, Goju-Ryu, Wado-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, Kokusin Kai and many others. So how do you pick which is the right style (ryu) of karate for you?  That is a very challenging question that we will also examine in future blogs.

Check out these Karate Clubs and links in Arizona
Arizona School of Traditional Karate (Mesa-Gilbert)
Arizona Hombu (Mesa)
Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu Karate (Arizona)


Monday, February 18, 2013

Shinto Gates and Martial Arts Schools

Recently, I was asked about decorative oriental gates known in Japanese as torii (pronounced 'tore' 'eeeeee'). These are often found in Japanese and Zen gardens around the Phoenix valley and it wasn't too long ago we saw a interesting torii at Home Depot made into a fountain with water that cascaded down from the cross bar. I love fountains and thought about buying one, but it was a little costly. Hopefully, one day I will find a successful Japanese business man to donate a torii and dojo so I will be able to build an attractive oriental Arizona Hombu with a surrounding Japanese garden with large torii at its entrance. This would be my dream dojo.

Torii (鳥居) is a traditional Shinto gate, which in Japan, marks the approach of a Shintoshrine. Some are also found at Buddhist temples in Japan. The traditional torii has two upright supports with two crossbars on the top that are usually painted vermilion. Many have kanji (Japanese/Chinese characters) displays mounted on a plaque known as a gakuzuka between crossbars, while others have kanji displayed along vertical supports known as hashira.

Traditionally,torii are constructed from wood and gates are interpreted to mark the transition from the spiritual to the physical world. Shrines that are dedicated to a particular Shinto god known as Inari have many torii.

Torii are often donated by successful Japanese businessmen who give gratitude for their success. The origin of the word "torii" is unknown: one suggestion is the gate was designed for birds (tori) to rest upon, which is suggested in the kanji. For instance, part of the kanji used in torii contains a symbol for bird () (see the feet and wings of the bird in this symbol). The second kanji () in torii is possibly derived from 鶏居 meaning 'chicken perch'. This is because birds are considered messengers of gods in the Shinto religion.

A second thought is that toriiis derived from the term tōri-iru (通り入る) meaning pass through and enter. It is unknown whether torii are indigenous to Japan or if they were imported from some other country. If you are interested in building a torii in your Japanese garden, there arebuilding plans available on the internet.

In some traditional martial arts schools (dojo), torii decorate walls or entrances to the dojo. These can be very attractive in a martial arts school.