Looks Only

By Sensei David Johnston, (First printed in Ippon, the newsletter of the American JKA.)

Some time in the seventies, at a tournament, my teacher performed Kanku-dai as a demonstration. He looked very splendid in the hakama he kept for special occasions; the movements were bold and expansive; for a starry-eyed fan of Japanese samurai movies it was easy to feel a connection to a distant, heroic past. As he left the area, I complimented him on the performance. He scowled: “Looks only,” he grunted. “Power nothing!”

There was a large mirror at one end of his dojo and he often talked of removing it. He never did: perhaps he was afraid of losing students. The mirror was useful for occasional checking of form but some students seemed unable to perform kata without it. At each turn, instead of facing an opponent, heads would turn to find the beloved reflection.

As time goes by, however, it would seem that the mirror might be the most useful of all training tools if one wishes to do well (that is, to score high points) in kata competition. More and more, outward appearances seem to outweigh other factors. A lay audience can hardly be expected to appreciate the finer points of a performance. Judges, however, are supposed to have more sophisticated criteria. Yet what earns the most applause from the bleachers also earns the highest scores and I don’t think it’s because the audiences are more sophisticated than they used to be. It’s because judges are less so. They like what is easy to see: high kicks, high jumps and low stances, for example. That a contestant is unable to move from his beautiful rooted stance without raising or tilting the hips is of little consequence. To observe that the angle of a foot might indicate the absence of torque in a stance is to be pedantic. If the eyes show that a contestant is thinking of anything but a life threatening situation, it seems to pass unnoticed. (Japanese competitors are rarely guilty of the first two crimes: their stances, shifting and technique generally are superb. The third crime, and to my mind the most serious, I have seen perpetrated by top Japanese many times, even in prestigious events like the Shoto Cup.)

The general tendency to exaggerate (high kicks, low stances, etc.) does have more subtle manifestations. Sometimes, what is easy to see – what catches the eye – is movement of reduced magnitude. Take the inside knife-hand strikes in Gojushiho-sho: these used to begin close to the ear and little by little the movement became smaller. Smaller techniques are appropriate to a “sho”, and very advanced, kata but many performers now do little more than turn the hand over from the preceding outside strike. It has no meaning! But who cares, if it looks nice? (See addendum)

Often, first or second dan students see a technique like the aforementioned knife-hand strike performed differently from the large scale version they were raised on (at least, we hope they were) and they think, “Aha, advanced people make it small. The smaller I make it the more advanced I will appear to be!” The correct reflection, however, is that, having learned to make power from large movements and having developed a strong body through practicing those vigorous movements, one can get an edge in speed without too much loss of power by making the movement smaller. Beyond a certain point, however, diminishing the technique will diminish its usefulness.

Thinking about this just now made me think of dog breeding (not something I often think about at all)! Traits which characterize certain breeds are, I’m told, deliberately bred and over-bred to satisfy the artificial criteria of dog-shows. Sheep dogs, for instance, are bred with extra-narrow heads and a consequential loss of intelligence. They are bred for “looks only” and the usefulness of the breed is thereby diminished.

Some time around 1970, before the Japan Karate Association National Championship, a prominent competitor (Isaka, who for a time had instructed in New York) asked Nakayama Sensei if it would be all right to make the kicks in Nijushiho to the upper level. Traditionally they were done to the knee but, as the competitor pointed out, big kicks look better in a big hall. I don’t know with what misgivings Nakayama gave his assent – I don’t know if he ever regretted his decision. I do think it was a pivotal moment in the development of modem karate and that there might be cause for regret. At least, we must be on our guard against the “looks only” syndrome!

ADDENDUM: OK, so it could be a wrist release. The opponent having grabbed your wrist following the previous strike steps back, you follow and turn the wrist over to loosen the grip, and “hiki te” with the following strike completes the release. But this last outside strike would have to be from the hip so as not to break the timing (which in fact is sometimes done) and would be relatively weak. Incidentally, why does Nakayama (Best Karate Vol. II) state that “this technique is not suitable for freeing a captured hand” when he shows that very application on the same page? Is this “not” a typo?

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