Article written by Jonathan de’ Claire for the Shotokan Karate Magazine.
It was after an extended period of transience that persisted throughout the 1980’s and into the early nineties, that something really dawned upon me. It was during this period that I traveled extensively and experienced Karate in many places and at many levels. But no matter where it was that I practiced, the marked difference in one particular area was evident. It was something that I had taken for granted, something I had even complained about, due to the excessive emphasis placed upon it in the group I belonged to in the UK. However, it was as a result of that period of travel that I did realise its true value! I certainly don’t dismiss it so lightly now, for it is the cornerstone of my practice. Its value cannot be underestimated and yet as I found out, most Karate groups place it way down their list of priorities. In my humble opinion, much to their great loss!
Having begun Karate in 1976, I trained mostly at local level 2-3 times a week. As a young man, I rarely attended weekend courses. They clashed with Rugby matches and generally enjoying myself. I graded infrequently as a result. What with travel getting in the way also, from when I began up until 1990 I had probably trained for about half of that period and that was in spells of 3 years here and 2 years there and so on. Karate was not on the top of my agenda, but something kept drawing me back. Then, from 1990 onwards it truly dawned upon me how lucky I was to have such intuitive perception within my reach, I don’t think I have missed more than a week of training since, except for my honeymoon and then on our return, I went straight from the airport to Summer School in Canterbury, the opposite direction to my bride (thank the lord my wife understands me!).
During a period of about 6 month’s training at a JKA dojo in Santa Monica I first really became aware. The Santa Monica club in Los Angeles, was a vibrant and energized dojo. The instruction was of a very high level and this was added to by instructor’s drive towards excellence. He had high expectations for his group and his great sense of humour added to his appeal. I was lucky to have found such a venue. The training was hard, but enjoyable. I was very impressed by the technical level of his class, they made you want to push hard to emulate their swift and solid techniques. But it was when kumite came around, that something began to occur to me. Over the months, this impression became more solidified. Even with my limited experience and technical ability, regardless of whom I partnered up with, I was generally able to thwart my would be attackers through my ability to control the distance between us by movement. My mobility didn’t allow my partner’s a clear opportunity for a cleanly landed blow. As long as I focused on this aspect, I would remain unscathed. However, my inexperience sometimes led me to be drawn into close quarter confrontations from time to time, at which point the better man (or women) took the honours! But during this time, I noticed that most partners soon became agitated by their wasted efforts to land an attack and began to throw caution to the wind as the attacks became less measured in a do or die effort to make a solid contact. In doing so, they would compromise their own postures! At that time, my ability didn’t allow me to capitalize on these occurrences to any great extent. I could see it, but my body could react naturally. My conscious awareness was slowing me down! It would be some years before that particular problem was addressed.
I had similar experiences at JKA and Kyoshin clubs in Sydney, Australia and again at several clubs in Asia. Of course I couldn’t match seniors for precision of technique or speed of limb, but it struck me as strange that experienced Karateka found it such a struggle to land a solid attack without jeopardizing their highly regarded form and posture in an effort to reach me. What else struck me was that few reacted to the subtle changes of distance that I made in order to gain an attacking opportunity. Instead they just held their ground and waiting for an obvious attack to block or counter against. Naturally, there were exceptions. But in the main, this lack of attention to controlling distance through movement seemed to be true.
It wasn’t really until I returned to the UK and started training consistently and in earnest under Harada Sensei and his technical group’s guidance, that I realized what it was that gave me the confidence to stand in front of most any level and not be intimidated. I couldn’t dominate an encounter back then, but my control of distance ensured that my opponents couldn’t either!
Harada Sensei’s explained it was his own experiences with other styles and other martial arts, as a result of his own travels, that led him to focus on movement in relation to distance as a means of controlling an opponent. Harada Sensei researched and developed a method that allowed his students to discern the smallest of changes in an attackers range. Then, if the body condition remains relaxed a reaction to an attackers action is possible at the opportune moment allowing for a crucial interception or escape from attacks, whilst still maintaining a close control over it. The result, the blow is never landed at its optimum distance as it is interceded before its completion or if escape is the option taken, over extension occurs compromising the form and power of the chosen attack. This of course, will result in the defender being able to take full advantage of the imbalanced body before them. But even the word “reaction” implies that something must be seen to be happening first. Harada Sensei wanted more than this, not thinking and doing. He wanted – just doing and instinctive process!
Back in the seventies and early eighties, this close control of distance had been in its developmental stage. The major attention at this time was kept on a relaxed body condition, no matter how extreme the level of attack. Smooth escape was the key, avoiding the momentary tensing of the body normally experienced as an assault is launched at you! This went on for years – move, move, escape, escape, relax, more relaxed! These were words we heard over and over from Harada Sensei. His plan was to train our bodies to act intuitively to an opponent. If you needed to think and then act, it too late! Harada Sensei wanted us to perceive the slightest change in an attackers body, to be able to pick up the slightest indication and automatically respond, the body acting naturally to this stimulus. He was training us to use our senses to tune in to the ebb and flow of others movement and changing body condition.
It was after this period that I left on my travels, having only worked on the first phase of Harada Sensei’s long term goal. As I said, at that time we had focused on the escape phase only. Sensei needed this to work before moving on. But ultimately, this same perception can be used in attack or in early interception of an attack. But back then we weren’t yet ready for this, much to his obvious frustration at times! You see, if you are confident that no matter what is thrown you won’t get hit and therefore won’t get hurt and because you are in control of your opponent through being in control of yourself, your body can stay calm and relaxed whilst being focused of mind. This is what Sensei was after, this control of ones own body. Once this had been achieved the next stage was to use it this intuitive perception both in attack and defence. These two are essentially the same thing, if the desired effect on an opponents body is the disruption of the body and the inability to land an attack. Anyway, so there I was trying all these different types of Karate on my travels, having only finished half the job intended. Escape was fine, but getting in early with confidence was another thing. The result, the strongest person won. Power against power, my timing going forward was distinctly poor when compared to that of escaping. My body just wasn’t ready to act intuitively whist staying calm and relaxed in the face of a physical assault. Not yet anyway!
The ability to pick up an attack early and deliver a meaningful interception (whilst avoiding an impasse), has been realized for me, to some extent, over the past few years. I am not, of course, the finished article. This is only the beginning. There are days when I struggle and days when it seems natural. There are days when my condition feels good and others when it is not so good. The important thing is, I know what I am attempting to achieve and I have a pretty good idea of how to achieve it. I can also help others with their own efforts. It is a struggle, a constant battle with ones own body, a battle to not think what you need to do, just training your body to do it. This is where there is a paradox! For first, you have to think of what you need to do, what pieces of the jigsaw need to be put in place and work on each piece individually in a very conscious manner. Then, as they become a natural and automatic part of your reactions, over time, the jigsaw can be slowly put together to work in a synchronized manner. Often, the very fact that you are trying to combine intuitive actions, which work perfectly fine individually, can set you back months and even years. But it is a necessary learning process, it cannot be forced, only time and constant practice will result in success. With the help of Harada Sensei and his team the next generation are succeeding in their quest to react naturally to another’s body. Tuning into opponents body changes, controlling and confounding attacks through movement.
But what kind of movement is necessary to be able to control distance? Certainly, if you are picturing continuous movement in Zenkutsu-dachi, both forwards and backwards, it is laboured and totally unnatural. It does not allow for flowing harmonized movement that is attune with another’s and it certainly doesn’t allow for adaptability to change, which is crucial. In fact it promotes a kind of robotic jerky feeling between each step, not a posture for mobility at all! For free flowing movement which is at home going forward or in reverse, the weight distribution needs to be central so equal pressure is appointed on each leg. The body sitting comfortably, centrally placed between the legs, regardless of direction changes. The gravity can now sit low, with the muscles working, but not tense and vitally, the joints remaining mobile. Breathing is constant and not forced. Only one posture enables this kind of movement (other than upright walking) and that is Fudo-dachi. For this posture allows both knees to be bent and therefore unlocked. As Fudo – dachi posture is with knees bent and weight on a 50/50 basis, it is well-suited to movement. With correct training it can be achieved without compromising its structure and stability.
Originally, Harada Sensei would have us doing stepping exercises in a natural upright standing posture. The idea was to follow a partner, whichever direction they chose to move, forward or backwards. The distance between direction changes was up to the person with “the iniative” as he called it. Back and forth we traveled across the hall (for what seemed liked hours and often was) with feet blistering from the constant friction with the floor. As movement became smoother and weight distribution remained central, the blistering seemed to abait. This being definite indicator that something has changed for the better. Next, came changes in speed to react to, in order to get the body used to a sudden explosion of speed as one would experience in an attack of any kind. After a time, this could be achieved by many. But not all, some didn’t realise the concept of what Harada Sensei was trying to achieve. Then Sensei introduced simultaneous attacks during the stepping exercise. At any time anywhere between 3 and 5 oizuki’s would be flying towards you!
Now going backwards at breakneck speed is one thing, but then being able to pause and be stable in your posture at the opportune time is another altogether. So to accompany movement, also stability practice was necessary and ways to fuse the two together as was required. It was a tall order and took years of diligent researching, trying this method and that until Harada Sensei found ones that worked and took him and his students one step further to his goal.
To help with the development of movement within his students Harada Sensei changed his approach to all aspects Karate. Kihon no longer moved on a verbal stimulus. Instead it was the stimulus of another’s movement that instigated it perpetration. Kata was only done in groups with front and back students leading, the remainder tuning into their timing and speed. This took the form of one synchronised unit, starting and ending in harmony with each other. The speed of the kata would change, but the synchronisation would not. Each merely adapted to the new speed, but the rhythm remained the same, regardless.
This attention to the stimulus, inevitably, transferred into kumite. Whether it be jiyu ippon, sanbon or gohon kumite, the movement of the attacker had to be the stimuli. This heightened the senses and raised the ability of the karateka to react swiftly and smoothly to the smallest of indications. Of course, this was not without difficulties. Some, no matter how they tried, would nearly always react in the shoulders as a first course, thus raising their centre of gravity and slowing escape. The result, going back to the old favourite, the use of force – not Sensei’s ideal at all! Some went by the wayside, others persevered and began to succeed where previously they had failed. Mobility therefore, became the most crucial of weapons in any encounter and a factor that became a fundamental issue if success was considered the target.
However, Harada Sensei stressed that to wait to see movement before one reacted was a big mistake! “If you wait, it is too late, it’s all over”, were and still are his words. He stressed that controlling through movement was what he was, ultimately, after. Something he is a master at doing. He repeatedly backs would be attackers into a corner, reacting to the most subtle of indications before a full blown attack can be launched. His movements, sometimes too subtle too see, other times ruthless in their speed and impact.
Whichever was his approach, the result was the same, an attack could not be landed and more often than not it could not even be launched! Harada Sensei’s ethos was simple in these cases, “never give an opportunity to attack”, he stressed. His movement allowed him to do this. By ever changing and adapting to the attacker in front of him, he would repeatedly nullify potential attacks by his intuitive movement that opened and closed attacking distances at the moment when they were about to appear. To do this Sensei focuses on his opponents changing breathing pattern, tightening muscles in specific areas such as the shoulders and changing facial expression at the start of an attack to name but a few indications he looks for. Whatever they are, they can totally frustrate an attacker. When you are giving your best and trying your utmost to knock his block off, you might hear “ ah, thank-you very much” as he steps forward and grabs your nose between his thumb and forefinger and laughs out loud. Someone like Harada Sensei, who can achieve this repeatedly against proven high performers over and over, must be onto something a bit special and one of those things is his ability to control an opponent through movement. Such is Harada Sensei’s perception he can easily turn this timing into offence. As the opportunity arises, he takes it with lightening speed and no indication of any change in his own body condition. “Defence or attack, the body remains the same” he stresses.
The key to Harada’s repeated success is his footwork. By using subtle changes of foot position he keeps his posture at it optimum structure for the best use of his muscle chains. Always allowing his legs to drive whichever movement he chooses. Never, does his upper body lead! Sensei’s balance is thus maintained and he can react without compromising himself in the process. His mobility in this instance will lead to harmonization with an opponent’s movement. Then at the appropriate moment, he will change this timing to intercept and interrupt an attack, momentarily stunning it into ineffectiveness as he throws it off balance before it has reached the point of stability and often almost before it has even begun. Such is Harada Sensei’s extraordinary awareness of the slightest change in another’s body condition.
Maybe it is the emphasis on competition in Karate that has led to a lack of any real study regarding footwork, distance and movement. From my point of view, I don’t consider bouncing on the spot and firing quick attacks or the odd learned footwork maneuver as a study of movement. It has always struck me that, every time an opponent is in mid air their reaction to anything is severely limited without a connection to terra firma! As Harada Sensei says “Never lose control of your feet”. Always adjusting, always ready – defence or attack! I personally, have seen little evidence in Shotokan competition and club practice of any heed to this advice. Flying kicks, misjudged distances and almighty clashes of techniques with little or no control over body balance, displacements and contact points are the proof of this. Crisp technique during ever elaborate kihon combinations is one thing, how this carries over into sparring is markedly different! When another person is considered in the equation, this variable can throw a considerable spanner in the works if he or she is doing what they want, when they want. I don’t say this because I don’t respect Shotokan Karate, far from it. It is Shotokan that I practice. When I am away from the KDS I nearly always seek out a Shotokan club to practice at, as my experiences have indicated. I just feel it could be so much better and the older, more experienced, practioners that I come across seem to agree that competition can be a detracting factor that deviates from potential progress. After all, it is a young person’s area of development. But by thirty or so, this career is over. What is left then? If you have reached your potential and in decline at this point, something seems drastically wrong to my eyes and many others I have discussed this with.
In Harada Sensei’s group, without competition as a hinderance to ongoing research and development, he has developed the ability to utilise movement and the ability to be mobile at all times, as a controlling influence in an encounter. This is especially evident in his technical group to a high degree. They in turn are passing it onto his next tier of 3rd and 4th Dans and so on. There is an obvious hierarchical difference in ability related to experience. Sensei expects and demands that his blackbelts improve with age, leading from the front. The demands on their practice increase over time. As Harada Sensei says “Karate should get better by the year”. Efficient use of the body, an understanding of movement and the ability to perceive and attack make this possible. But it is possible, because these key points and an emphasis on mobility have been studied at an early point when beginning down the long road of a martial artist. Day one is the ideal time to start, but it is never too late to make changes to your practice for the better. So how about the next time you walk into the dojo? Believe me, it could revolutionize your approach to Karate