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Shotokan karate is based on ancient arts that were, by definition, successful in allowing its practitioners to defend themselves.  The ancient masters had years of experience to draw upon, and the teachings of their own instructors as well, so by the time modern science could be applied to karate, a lot of the problems were already solved pretty well.

Shotokan embraced the use of science to measure and even improve karate techniques, to explain how and why they work in terms of physics and body structure. 

Some of the same physics that dictate the shape of a roof can inform your consideration of karate.  For instance in the rising block, or age uke, arm angle is critical for whether the block would protect you.  Most roofs in temperate regions are peaked, to a greater or lesser degree depending on rain and snowfall.  The flatter the roof, the less likelihood of heavy rain or snow in that area.  In areas where there is a lot of snow, roofs are very pointy indeed, so the snow will slide off.

This does not mean your age uke should point straight up, though!  The steeper your arm position, the less area is protected by it.  A balance is needed between coverage and "slidablity."  For age uke, the elbow bend must be 90° or greater - any less and the triceps are no longer able to extend the arm and it will collapse under load.  Much greater than 90°, and your aim has to be more precise to intercept the blow. 

This web site shows a good diagram of how to determine the parameters of your front stance (zen kutsu dachi).  In the case of a stance, you need to balance distance you can cover, structural advantages of the stance against leg strength, ankle flexibility, and a few other factors.  It is not critical that your stance have the exact angles mentioned; every person will have to find the stance that works for him/her and is still functional.  Some things to consider:

  • A short stance will reduce your distance, but your steps will be faster.
  • A very long stance requires a lot of leg strength, but if too long is not as structurally stable in support of your block or strike, and a single step will take longer to make.
  • Direction of the toes is the direction of the most strength in your leg.  If your back foot points sideways, your power toward the front is less, and your knee could easily be injured.
  • Think of your front leg as your "soon to be back" leg: it must drive you forward, and in order to do that it must be bent enough.  If you allow your front leg to sit too straight, you'll have to spend the extra time to bend it when you move forward!

Thes are just a few thoughts on basic form in karate.  Please ask Sensei or one of your sempai if you have a question!

Ancient Origins

The art now known as "Shotokan" is derived from the teachings of two masters who lived and worked in Okinawa, and were the teachers of Funakoshi Gichin Sensei.  Their names were Itosu Anko, who created the Heian Kata series, and Azato Yasutsune, famous for mastery of the sword, and his fiercely strong grip.  These two men were in their time trained by other teachers, and were part of the the thriving karate underground on Okinawa in the mid and late 19th Century.

These men understood that major changes were coming to the world and they saw that in order to survive, karate had to be made public and available to all.  The introduction of karate training in the Okinawan school system was the first step toward moderization of an art with ancient roots that can be traced back through China to India.


So the legend goes, Bodidharma began his life as a member of the privileged Kshatriya warrior class in India.  He was said to have been of princely rank, but gave up his status and wealth and set out wandering the world in search of truth.  His path took him eventually to China, where he found the Shao Lin monastery and settled in to study Buddhism.  Stories vary, whether he found his fellow monks lacking the physical fitness to properly practice meditation or too vulnerable to banditry as they wandered, and he decided to teach them self defense and conditioning exercises. 

Today the Shaolin Kung-fu tradition is the best known of all Chinese martial arts and Bodidharma, or Daruma as he is known in Japan, is credited with founding the practice.

In the centuries preceding the common era, trade and travel in the far east often made its way through strategically located Okinawa.  Chinese found themselves on these small islands, and Okinawans traveled to China for business, study and to learn Chinese Boxing (kenpo) and other ways of fighting.  This cross pollination has made it impossible to separate out the indigenous practices of any particular region, at the same time yielding dozens of practice methods, now called "styles" of martial arts.

There are dozens of stories preserved into the present day, and surely many more were lost during WWII when Okinawa was a fiercely contested prize for both sides.  Then, as now, the Ryukyu Archipelago was of immense strategic value, a fact which has been both a blessing and a curse to its residents.

On the one hand, trade means wealth, luxury goods and a diversification of economy that monetarily and culturally enriches the people, or at least the nobility.  On the other, as a vital trade nexus, Okinawa was claimed alternately and concurrently at times by both China and Japan.  Beginning in 1609, Okinawa was both obligated to China, two whom it paid tribute, and at the same time a territory of Japan, which placed armed Samurai in Okinawa to occupy and control it.  During this time, as had previously occurred, possession of military weapons by Okinawans was banned.

Needless to say this placed the population of Okinawa in a precarious position, without the right to carry weapons they were utterly at the mercy of the armed Samurai from Japan, who had no qualms about cutting down any Okinawan at any time for any reason.

Perhaps for this reason the art of karate, now translated "empty hand," flourished among the Okinawan samurai-equivalent classes in secret.  This is not to say there were no fighting arts among the common people of Okinawa, as Funakoshi Sensei mentions public match ups in his book "Karate-Do - My Way of Life."  However, these methods lacked the ruthless lethality of Karate, since the upper classes were by nature in a much higher stakes game.   No Okinawan was allowed to bear arms, not even the men who surrounded and guarded the Okinawan monarch.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and the abolition of the Samurai class, there was much less need for secrecy in the practice of Karate.  The Okinawan king was now residing in Japan so even the need for local security was less. 

At this time, Itosu Sensei knew the world was changing saw no need to consign Karate to the past along with the Samurai topknot and feudalism.  He set about creating a method of Karate training that could be safely taught to anyone, even a child, to disseminate the foundations of karate to the public.  He created the five Heian "kata" (a formal exercise sequence) incorporating motions and concepts from other kata, creating a set of progressively more difficult patterns to teach concepts and application of self defense.

To be continued...

Students return to the 'burg

Saw some guys with TRIBE backpacks at the train station yesterday so I guess things will get started for the Fall semester soon! A few things to think about in the next few weeks, please take a moment to consider them and bring your thoughts, along with your uniforms to the Activities Fair. For those of you who were promoted at the last testing I will see if someone can get your belts.


The East Coast's annual FALL TRAINING CAMP is the weekend of September 14! The Collegiate meeting during this camp is when the tournament schedule for the academic year will be set. Having club members at that camp is the best way to get the dates that work for club members.

The ISKF recognizes this and is offering a special collegiate rate for the camp to encourage students to attend. Please consider coming to the camp, and please discuss possible tournament dates - you can see the schedule from last year on the ECCKU Facebook Page and if nothing else, exclude dates that are bad for the club's schedule. i.e. dates during WM breaks.


An old tradition of informal training where students meet outside formal trainings to help each other with their karate has fallen by the wayside. All you need is a relatively flat place to practice and someone from whom you can learn. If you are a person who has schedule conflicts for one of the weekly trainings, perhaps one of your club mentors will meet with you to help you stay current. Informals are a great way to fill in your gaps. It's also a great way to get a firmer grasp on your own karate by helping others understand it.

Club Tee Shirt

Call for Artists! Anyone want to design a tee shirt for the club? A nicely designed shirt is a great way to draw attention to the club and maybe attract some new training partners!

Exams are over, seniors have graduated and everyone is on their way home for the summer.  If you can't find a place to train during the break try to remember Okazaki Sensei's self training pattern.  Or make up your own!  At least go through your kata so when the new academic year rolls around you won't have to start over.


Bunkai - application of karate techniques

Or how to get into an MST3K discussion of karate - "Oh, that would NEVER work," or "That's cool, but unlikely," or "Whoever came up with that was on something..." and so on.

After several months of training, WM Shotokan has a solid foundation of karate techniques and a set of principles for understanding bunkai, or kata application.  Applications, or explanations of why something is done a particular way, can and do change - it's not that the first one you learned is wrong, it's that there are more right answers than you might think.   Different teachers favor different interpretations and different students have different tendencies in their thinking.  This does not mean "anything goes" - but it does mean lots of possible applications exist for any movement or sequence.  Many applications are so hidden, in some cases deliberately, that it will take years of training before one becomes clear.  

Several reasons exist:

  • Many of these techniques are lethal when applied correctly
  • The first group classes of karate were taught to school-children in Okinawa, nobody wanted there to be injuries or deaths in that context
  • For the Okinawan gentleman, having an array of lethal skills was only an advantage if nobody knew about it. 
  • Hidden bunkai also exist because the people who knew them did not teach them, or their students did not.  For whatever reason, these meanings remain buried in kata practice, and are pursued dilligently by modern practitioners who want to know what the ancients knew.


     A few principles can guide your search: 
  • Crossed arms often indicate a limb lock or break might be applied.
  • "Cup and saucer" - As in Heian Nidan - can indicate a grab of a limb, the head, clothing or even objects.
  • Consider that the expected attack is not going to be unrealistic or too complicated - real fights are not like Kung-Fu Action Theatre.
  • The angle of the step can convey the angle of the attacker or your response.
All this notwithstanding there are some motions for which we have no explanation of combat application.  Nobody knows what the old masters thought, even some of the most recent masters such as Itosu and Azato left very little outside oral traditions.  Perhaps their writings were destroyed during the wars or perhaps they were re-shaping their art for generations whose needs they knew would be different from their own.  In any case there are mysteries left in karate even after medical science has tested and validated the kinesiology and physics of the techniques. 
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