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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Book Review: The Secrets of Okinawan Karate: Essence and Techniques

This is going to be a somewhat shorter book review than is usual for me ("Thankfully!" cry my handful of readers). What Can I say? Kiyoshi Arakaki's The Secrets of Okinawan Karate: Essence and Techniques is a short book.

Short, I say, but well worth the reading. It first attracted my attention when I flipped through it at a local bookstore. I saw in it what has to be the most interesting discussion of the Okinawan methods of delivering a punch I've ever seen in print. Only one other source has ever explained the mechanics of the punch to me in a similar way. That happens to be my RyuTe teacher, so Mr. Arakaki had my attention right away. This is not to say that What Mr. Arakaki has to say is identical to what I've been taught, but it is much more similar to what I've been taught in RyuTe than it is to the punching taught in any other system of karate I've seen.

I later bought the book used via the internet (money is an issue in the Man of the West household) and found myself well-rewarded.

Mr. Arakaki is a native of Okinawa. He studied Matsubayashi Ryu, a sub-style of Shorin Ryu, under the famous Shoshin Nagamine (and it is interesting to note that Mr. Arakaki's description of the Okinawan punching method is decidedly different from Mr. Nagamine's, as described in his book. An example of information being deliberately hidden?) and then Kyokushinkai, which, if you don't already know, has most of its roots in Goju Ryu, so he's able to approach the subject of Okinawan karate from both of its major perspectives (for those who don't know, at the risk of oversimplification, Okinawan karate is divided by most into two major branches, Shuri-te and Naha-te, and a considerable number of styles within each of those branches).

A person picking up this book looking for information on vital point striking or grappling--what I would usually be looking for in a book on Okinawan karate "secrets"--might be disappointed. It contains nothing of that sort. Instead, this is a book about power, how to generate it, and how not to dissipate it. There are other topics covered, but I don't hesitate to say that this is far and away the major concern of the book.

I don't recall having read any book that has gone into quite as detailed an explanation, at least from a largely Western perspective, of how to generate real karate power. Mr. Arakaki explains his conceptions of both of the major methods of delivering an Okinawan punch, going into particular detail as to why the punch of Shuri-te is delivered as a whip-like strike rather than the noticeably more linear acceleration taught in most modern Japanese and Korean systems (think Shotokan and Taekwon-do), and gives an exercise to help you develop that whip-like power (the exercise does help, by the way). In the following, where Mr. Arakaki explains the whip-like strike in contrast to the "waist rotation method" of modern karate, for tsuki, think "punch":
...instead of simply moving a solid object (the fist) from point A to point B, you consciously increase the speed of the fist as you punch. On television and in movies you have seen a cowboy crack a whip, making a sound that helps him move cattle into an enclosure. Some cowboys even use these skills in rodeo competition. It is so natural for them that they can produce the crack without thinking. ...The tsuki of Shuri-te is like this whip. Think of your entire body--waist, arm, wrist, and fingers--as a whip delivering a tsuki that exceeds the speed of sound.

...In Shuri-te, the energy point is the center of the body. This body center, the waist, is like the wrist of a cowboy cracking his whip. From this point you produce energy and transfer the energy to your opponent. Using the waist rotation method, you treat your body like a hard object. However, if you think of the body as a rigid object, you lose fluidity and cannot transfer all your body's energy to your target. If you use waist rotation as the key to producing power, the result will be more like using a length of 2 x 4 rather than a whip. The weight and mass of the 2 x 4 would be powerful but would lack the speed and explosion of energy delivered by the whip.

...This whipping completely different from the tsuki of modern karate, where a tight fist travels from the waist to a target in as straight a line as possible.

...The tsuki of Shuri-te will always quiver because the whipping motion of the body creates energy and transfers energy completely. If a whip does not quiver, it is not a whip, it is a stick. If your body is like a stick, you destroy the speed of the tsuki...There should be no moment when you see a punch stop in the tsuki of Shuri-te. Contrast this with modern karate, which uses the action-reaction method of pulling back the left hand to the waist so as to send energy into the right hand punch, much like a set of mechanical pistons.
I'd give you more of this section, but it's one of those things where if you're going to experiment, I think you'd better go out and buy the book. I would certainly agree that the punching method he describes, as well as RyuTe's, which I would describe in very similar terms (I didn't include all of Mr. Arakaki's material on the subject here, if you're wondering) is "completely different from the tsuki of modern karate."

Mr. Arakaki's discussion of how to form the Okinawan fist is fascinating--this section alone, in my opinion, is more than worth the price of the book--and I couldn't help but note some similarities to how Dave Lowry described the relaxed grip of the skilled swordsman (I've mentioned before that it seems very likely that Okinawan karate was influenced by Japanese swordsmanship) in Bokken: Art of the Japanese Sword. And of course, in RyuTe we certainly make use of the bokken as part of our training.

Just as interesting was his very lengthy discussion of how to manipulate your center of gravity, your "imaginary center of gravity," and those of your opponent in order to maximize power, and, perhaps most interesting of all, his positive identification of this sort of--shall we say--gravitational power as ki, which is so often, and so unnecessarily, described in mystical terms. Mr. Arakaki writes:
Try this with a friend. Face each other with hands at your sides. Bring your arms slightly forward, asking your partner to grab your wrists tightly. Without changing your arm level, lock your elbows close in to your body. Then just walk toward him. Amazing! You can lift up his body. Some people say this is due to ki (life-energy or vital force). If you move forward from this position and lift your arms a little, you can make your friend fly ten feet! This is called the aiki-age. People explain this as making the opponent fly because there is ki (vital energy). This is absolutely incorrect! As you can see from diagram 1, this is a situation where your arms control his actual center of gravity (CG) because you adjust his CG higher than his true CG and your CG, and, "Voila!" he loses his balance.
And in another place:
You can now understand that the so-called Universal Ki is gravity, and gravity is the key for the martial artist. Traditional Okinawan karate uses this principle for executing tsuki. Okinawan karate recognizes this balanced CG point and the gravitational energy that is created by putting your body weight downward to create tsuki which penetrate through the target.
And in another place:
The principle of the aiki-age is the same as in a fist that is using Newton's second law of motion. All Japanese martial arts are based on this principle.
And in yet another place, where he discusses the concept of ki in a more general way, he writes:
In today's martial arts world, everyone thinks ki can force an opponent down with no physical contact, or enable one to sense an opponent's thoughts. Ki is perceived as being a mystical power. Japanese martial arts view ki as a practical, even a philosophical concept, but not a mystical one. The Japanese language has many different words for different forms of ki. Kaki is the ki for the energy of combustion. Iyoki is the ki for the energy of vaporization. Aiki is the ki for the combined energies between you and your opponent. In old China, ki (or chi in Chinese) meant energy in general. Now ki is thought of in a more imprecise way. In today's martial arts world, we often use ki as a sales pitch, and little more. There has been no scientific observation, no attempt to analyze and understand this mysterious force. However, Japanese culture always took a more pragmatic view of this energy. After all, the concept of bu in budo includes systematic thinking. Traditional karate and Japanese swordsmanship never stressed the mysterious aspects of ki when they discussed it.
Moving on from discussions of ki, I was strongly interested in Mr. Arakaki's discussion of the Naihanchi Shodan (he calls it Naifanchi) kata (here is an expert performance of that kata, should you be interested),

which he flatly declares is Shuri-te's foundational kata, designed to teach the student how to use gravity power (among other things, some of which I've learned with some pain).
While learning Naifanchi, keep in mind that it is the zenith of the martial arts. Its meaning has been passed on only by oral tradition. It took thirty years for me to understand completely its technical concept.
I was also interested in some of the other exercises he recommends. One, wherein the student stands in a more or less natural stance and imagines holding a heavy ball between his hands, struck me immediately and forcefully as being identical to the famous tai chi ruler exercise, an exercise--chi kung--taught in the Chinese martial arts to develop ki. Mostly, they are exercises in learning to control your balance and mass--very similar, in some respects, to some that my own teacher has taught me.

Mr. Arakaki also discussed ki in some other ways, not all of which I would agree with, illustrating beautifully that ki is a word that can be translated in so many ways as to make it effectively meaningless.

As far as a downside to the book is concerned, I did find it curious in a book that dwells so heavily on the development of punching power that Mr. Arakaki did not discuss the use of the makiwara. No matter how you are throwing your punch, it seems to me, the makiwara is a useful feedback device if you want to develop real punching power. A hanging bag, while useful, just isn't the same. Perhaps Mr. Arakaki feels that the makiwara has been adequately covered elsewhere. (I should mention, for those with an interest in RyuTe, that my opinion is by no means universal. Taika Oyata has said that one should certainly be familiar with the makiwara, but at least one person has told me that he has also said that it is like lipstick on a woman--something used to impress other people. My own teacher has not used one for years, and he can certainly hit hard. Perhaps, in the end, it is just best for me to say that I find it useful.)

It also seemed to me that there may have been some language issues. Mr. Arakaki originally wrote the book in Japanese for the Japanese market, and I can't help but think that some parts of the book could be written a little more clearly--or at least, more clearly in the English translation. I do think that actually trying some of the exercises Mr. Arakaki suggests will clarify some of what he means.

Some of the terms Mr. Arakaki uses, such as "Imaginary Center of Gravity," seem to be unique to him, that is, I don't recall anyone else using them. It may be that that is the inevitable result of attempting to express what is usually couched in esoteric terms in clearer, more modern, more objective, more definitive terms, but it contributes to a strong impression left by Mr. Arakaki that he thinks he's one of only a handful of people to understand these concepts. While admitting readily that much of what he discusses never penetrated the confines of any of my old Taekwon-do classes (and I studied with people up to eighth-degree black belt, gang), my experience with RyuTe, and my reading, lead me to say that at least one association explains the mechanics of the punch very similarly to Mr. Arakaki. Likewise, I have read treatments of "gravity power" elsewhere, such as in Jonathan Maberry's Ultimate Jujutsu.

But these are relatively minor quibbles. Overall, the book is a gem, edifying and clarifying, and it is one of perhaps half a dozen books that I would say are essential reading for anyone pursuing excellence--or at least improvement--in karate. In my opinion, of course, you would do better to just go ahead and study RyuTe. But unfortunately, it's just not possible to find instruction in it everywhere, so if you're interested in taking your Taekwon-do or Shotokan or American Combat Karate a little deeper, this might be a good book for you.

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