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Sunday, November 1, 2009

From Dr. Bruce Clayton's Shotokan's Secret

I found Dr. Bruce Clayton's Shotokan's Secret fascinating. Not that I agree with him on a great many things; I don't. He is so obviously sold on the idea that Shotokan is the ultimate fighting art, that its linear punch is so overwhelmingly powerful as almost to vitiate the need for careful targeting, that saying there is a certain amount of bias in what he writes is a considerable understatement. Also, there are some things about which, at least according to what I have heard from other sources I know to be reliable, he is simply wrong. And there are places where I know from personal experience that he is simply wrong.

On the other hand, it seems to me that there is a certain element of, shall we say, bold speculation in his writing that sometimes generates some of the most interesting insights. He asks questions like, "What tasks should we reasonably expect the martial art practiced by the Okinawan Royal Guard to be able to accomplish? And knowing that kata was the principle means by which those guards got their practice, what movements in those kata might accomplish those tasks?" In answering those questions, he has come up with kata applications that, frankly, I'm not sure I ever would have--but many of them look like they could work.

Kata's weird that way. I have seen several different methods of interpreting kata and unlocking the techniques within, and the weird thing is that all of them seem to produce at least some practical and useful techniques. Dr. Clayton's method is no exception. He writes, at one point:
The real bunkai of the Shuri-te kata is so vicious it quite takes your breath away. It breaks necks. It breaks arms. It incapacitates multiple people in a single move. It rips out eyes. It crushes throats. It destroys knee joints. It targets and breaks critical bones. It ruptures vital organs. People hiss and flinch when you demonstrate.
Bunkai, for those who don't practice karate, are the applications drawn from the movements of the kata--the dancelike routines you see people performing in karate classes. And you might be wondering, if all you've ever seen of "karate" is the stuff that kids and teenagers do, wearing pillows on their heads and hands and attempting to score two points by walloping each other upside the head with their metatarsals, if karate really can be so nastily effective as Dr. Clayton paints it.

The answer is yes. Yes, it can. I take issue with his description of those techniques as "the real bunkai," for the reality is that all of those motions have more than one application (almost the first thing I was taught was that all the movements can be applied as strikes, as blocks, and as tuite), but it is nevertheless true that some of those applications really can do those things, at least with sufficient training.

Break necks? Yes, you can find neck breaks--or at least movements that can effectively break necks--in the kata.

Break arms? Yes. Mostly at the elbow. Elbows are not all that hard to break. What is difficult is overcoming the resistance of the muscles around the elbows, the muscles that are protecting the elbow joint itself. But there are ways...

Incapacitate multiple people in a single move? I suppose it might depend on what you mean by "incapacitate." But Dr. Clayton does give at least one example, and I have seen more than a few demonstrations on Youtube of people tying two, or even three people up in knots with martial arts techniques.

Rip out eyes? Of course you can.

Crush throats? You can. Might not need to. Simply punching the throat might very well send it into spasms severe enough to make your opponent pass out.

Break knees? You kidding? Of course.

Rupture vital organs? I don't know how easily, but I do know that if you know where an organ is, and can hit darn hard, an ability that classical karate certainly purports to develop, you can hit it hard enough to really hurt. You might not even have to rupture the organ. There's a nerve right around the kidney that will certainly get an attacker's attention, for example. Hit that with the tip of your thumb, and "rupture" isn't exactly necessary.

One of the things that, to my mind, characterizes realistic applications is that people really do shudder, or "hiss and flinch," when you start showing them. When you've got a real application, you don't really have to convince people that it would work. They can see it, and it's so obvious--"intuitively obvious," as my own instructor put it once--that contemplating it will send a shiver down your spine. They may never have thought of putting a hurt on a human being that way, but once they've seen it, there's a part of them that's thinking, "Sweet Honey Mustard! What demented freak thought that up?!"

And the answer is: the sort of demented freak that was determined to go home alive and mostly unharmed to his wife and family. Period.


  1. Speaking of the martial arts, I think I may have found a kung fu school. On Saturday my kids were in the Red Ribbon Day Parade with their tae kwon do school and also in the parade was a kung fu school named Phoenix Rising. I talked to the instructor, mostly to see if he taught tai chi (which unfortunately he doesn’t) and he seemed like a really nice and laid back guy. I haven’t had a chance to get over to the school to check it out, but I was excited to find a kung fu school near by. One thing that I thought was interesting was that a lot of the members of the school that were in the parade were dressed in karate uniforms instead of the traditional Chinese kung fu uniforms. The teacher and a few of the senior students were in the traditional garb though. I know that this may sound nit picky, but the idea of a kung fu school using the belts system is just odd to me (the younger students in the karate uniforms all had belts).

    I know that this has nothing to do with your post and for that I apologize. I’d wanted to talk to you about this and since this was a martial arts post, I thought you wouldn’t mind too much. :o)

  2. Briefly, as I am at work and need to "get to it," so to speak:

    I googled Phoenix Rising kung fu. It is not, strictly speaking, Kung fu, it is "San Soo." Saying the history of this system is hotly debated is putting it mildly. In my opinion, it is more accurately characterized as a variant of American Kenpo that has been "sold" by the founder as an ancient system--hence the belts and so forth.

    Its practitioners, of course, will disagree.

    That is not to say that it is a bad system. A lot of people like it. Go observe some classes and see what you think. Put on your skeptic's goggles and ask yourself if you've ever seen attacks like the ones they are trying to defend against, or if their defenses require a whole lot of muscle.

  3. I've got a few more minutes on my lunch break, and I want to change something slightly. Ever since I wrote the foregoing comment, it's bugged me that I said, "variant of American Kenpo." Can't think what possessed me to do so, for I don't know whether San Soo's founder ever studied Kenpo or not.

    It would have been better to say that it reminds me of American Kenpo, in that (in my opinion) its origins are highly suspect, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the art is worthless. In the case of San Soo, basically, everybody goes back to Jimmy Woo and what he had to say about the art's origins. In the case of American Kenpo, everybody goes back to James Mitose and what he had to say about the art's origins.

    Trying to come up with really solid verification of what either one said seems to be quite a trick, and I personally am of the opinion that it is likely that each of them taught a mixture of such techniques as they had been taught, probably from more than one source, as seemed good to them, and put together some history to make it sound better. History means a lot to some people. More people will go to study "Old Pine Tree Style" than will go to study "that stuff Jimmy teaches."

    What I have said here is enough to annoy the dickens out of a lot of people. It is my opinion only, I don't claim to have been there and I don't know the truth for sure.

    As far as effectiveness goes, a lot of people are convinced that San Soo is very effective. As I said before, by all means, go see a class, or search for San Soo on YouTube and see what you think. My personal opinion is that you have better options available to you in the Oklahoma City area.

  4. Thanks for the info, I really appreciate it. Sadly I’m not as worried about the effectiveness as I am about other aspects of kung fu and tai chi training. I doubt that I will ever be able to kick anyone’s butt so in a lot of ways it is more about the fitness aspect (and meditation aspect of tai chi). I will check it out for sure though.

  5. I understand that. Just a couple of quick thoughts:

    1) The combative application of the techniques affects the way you train; if you don't concern yourself with whether or not you can make the techniques work, you will inevitably wind up doing them incorrectly--which will inevitably affect how you do with other martial arts-related goals.

    2) I understand that you have some physical limitations. However, there is a yawning chasm between being able to "kick someone's butt" and greatly enhancing your chances of surviving (or even evading) an attack. There is every reason in the world for you to train with the second goal in mind.