Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Martial Arts Weapons (kobudo)

When it comes to martial arts weapons, one school stands above all others. The Arizona Hombu (aka Arizona School of Traditional Karate) at the 60 W. Baseline Center in Mesa. The school offers one entire night of training in martial arts weapons each week.  The first class, kobudo, provides adults and families an unique opportunity to learn many traditional Okinawan weapons. To our way of thinking, this is a super way to energize martial arts training which at times can get a little mundane. At the Arizona Hombu, martial arts students have the opportunity to stay interested with all of the weapons and kobudo kata (weapons forms) that are taught. No where in Arizona have we seen such a wide variety of martial arts weapons taught in one school.

The Arizona Samurai class has no match we are aware of in the Western US. Students in this class learn all about the samurai arts - not just swords, but also sojutsu, naginatajutsu, jujutsu, hanbojutsu, hojojutsu and more. It is a class any 17th century Japanese samurai would have loved to attend.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

When is Karate Karate?

There are many forms and styles of martial arts. I've been asked many times, what is martial art? What is karate? First of all, to be a martial art, there must be some esoteric and redeeming value - just like art. Any school kid can kick and punch and mimic ninja turtles, but does that mean they are karate practitioners? Take MMA for instance. I'm no authority on MMA (mixed martial arts), but from what I've seen, most are wrestlers or street fighters who add a kicks and punches. So how can this be martial art?
Kata training at a traditional martial arts school in Mesa, Arizona 
When karate was created on Okinawa centuries ago, it had lineage that progressed through time. It was originally taught to body guards of Okinawan royalty and later to peasants and kept secret from outsiders. Karate evolved from these Okinawan martial artists who traveled back and forth to China to learn Chinese arts and modified them to produce a more pragmatic combat system for the royal body guards. Probably early on, karate was blended with Zen which gave it esoteric value. The Okinawan people used karate to teach their offspring to be positive, self-confident, humble and respectful, which is still the main purpose of traditional karate today. Remember the scene in the Karate Kid?

Daniel San “All right, so what are the rules here?”
Mr. Miyagi “Don't know. First time you, first time me”.
Daniel San “Well, I figured you knew about this stuff. I figured you went to these before. Oh great, I'm dead. I am dead. You told me you fought a lot”.
Mr. Miyagi “For life, not for points”.

Karate was developed as a traditional art for self-defense and self-improvement. Those who trained in traditional karate could do unbelievable things.

Karate was not intended for sport. And just like Miyagi's statement, it was used to defend a person's life, not score points.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Okinawa began to open up and karate was introduced in the public schools on Okinawa. Some karate practitioners also offered demonstrations of the martial art to mainland Japanese. By mid-20th century, the Japanese began to change karate to sport at the objection to their Okinawan instructors, such that today, we have two types of karate: Sport Karate and Traditional Karate. Both are good martial arts as long as the instructors are legitimate.

Sport karate has two parts: kata which focuses solely on outward appearances and kumite which is about winning and losing”. Sport practitioners attend tournaments, wear protective gear, and fight for trophies.

Traditional Karate is different. There is no competition but instead classes focus on positive attitude and respect. In traditional karate, students typically train daily in kata, interpretation of kata known as bunkai (pragmatic applications), body hardening known as shitai kori, the basics known as kihon, exercises known as undo, and weapons known as kobudo. One learns to focus technique and power in traditional karate unlike sport karate where competitors are often penalized for power. In sport karate, contestants are disqualified when they hit too hard - not something you want to learn if you ever need karate for self-defense.

We can gain more insight into traditional karate from statements by various masters and grandmasters from Okinawa.

The father of modern karate, Gichin Funakoshi from Okinawa wrote: “The purpose of karate lies not in defeat or victory, but in the perfection of its participants.”

Grandmaster Shoshin Nagamine from Okinawa wrote: "Kata is the origin of karate. If there is no kata, there is no karate! Without kata, there is no martial art; instead it becomes nothing more than primitive street fighting."

And the late Chojun Miyagi, who was known to tear bark from trees and kick holes in gas cans with his big toe was quoted as saying, “Karate has the ability to train one's body to the point whereby you can overcome an opponent with one technique without the need for weapons.”

So when you pick a type of karate to learn in Arizona, you can pick either sport or traditional school. If the school has trophies in the window, it is sport karate. If the school has no trophies, and classes are hidden from the public, it is likely a traditional karate school. But just because a school advertises itself as traditional, does not mean it is traditional. Check the Internet for either Traditional Karate Classes or Sport Karate Classes depending on your interest.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Arizona McDojo

Walk into a McDojo: brightly colored uniforms covered with patches that will make any NASCAR driver jealous, obi (rank belts) that look like Tibetan Prayer Flags with many color tabs, martial arts weapons that glow in the dark and are as light as balsa wood but with no strength, colorful certificates with cartoons and no kanji (Chinese calligraphy) revealing a lack of lineage, hundreds of trophies professing the owner to be a world champion, or a 20-year old, pimple-faced self-proclaimed arrogant grandmaster. When you see these tell tale signs, hang on to your wallet!

Next, a former used car salesman walks up in a colorful uniform with a contract and clipboard that guarantees if you sign his contract, you will be a black belt in a year. Yes, they've found their way into Arizona from California - McDojos with 'John Wayne' instructors that are as legitimate and honest as any politician kissing babies.

So, what does this sketch have to do with martial arts?
Nothing, but McDojos also have nothing to do with
martial arts. They are all about your money.
I ran into a father at the 24-Hour Fitness in Phoenix last week. He told me his 8-year old son received a second degree black belt after nearly two years of training in taekwondo. Wow! I was impressed.

"Your son must be very talented. How can he find the time to work so hard, does he have a family, or a job that gives him enough free time to train many hours each day?" I asked.

"No, he trains at the school sometimes twice a week and just turned 8!"

"Oooooh" I said. "You must be proud."

"Yes, we just sat down to talk about his career in taekwondo and I signed him up for his 3rd degree black belt. He'll have it when he turns 9".

"Wow, how much did that cost?" I asked.

He responded, "We got a deal, it was under $5,000".

Personally, I don't know how the McDojo owner and instructor could keep a straight face putting out that kind of contract, or offering rank for a fee. But this happens all the time and gives all martial arts a 'black eye'. Arizona and California are two of the more popular places for McDojos, but they are popping up all over the country and in Europe.

One of my instructors has a grandchild who attends a McDojo in Queen Creek. I asked how that happened? He indicated he didn't any say, it was his daughter's choice.

One afternoon, he went to pick up his grandchild. The Owner walked into the McDojo and disrupted the class being taught by a teenage black belt. The Owner walked in wearing tennis shoes, gi pants with racing stripes down the pant legs, an incorrectly tied black belt, and a street jacket and sunglasses. He popped open a can of coke, leaned against the wall as he talked to the kids. That must have made a very nice impression on the kids and parents.

Last year, we had the opportunity to see a Gilbert McDojo in action. The Gilbert instructor was an old Korean who had more than a dozen teenage and preteen black belts who were part of an elite drill team. The drill team did forms, kicks, and then broke boards. I didn't realize boards could be cut that thin. It was terrible - the kind no one should ever have to witness with breaking wood that would snap in a gust of wind over 10 mph, a nunchaku demonstration that looked more like a group of cheerleaders twirling  batons, etc. But it was impressive to the kids who watched. Anyway, you have a general idea of what a McDojo is. And they are everywhere in the Phoenix valley.

Its been suggested by some legitimate Okinawan/Japanese/US martial arts associations that as many as 85% of instructors have no evidence of legitimacy - and this is from a very good authority who receives applications for membership from schools and instructors from around the world.. So, be careful when you decide to sign up for classes in Arizona or California.

Before you join a martial arts school, ask questions. And be assured there are good martial arts instructors, as well as bad ones. The parent must decide if the school will be good for their kids. And if they are having a good time and not getting hurt, I guess there is no harm done, other than when the instructors mislead the parents about their legitimacy, rank and background.