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The Soul of Karate-Do
Initial Move and Posture
by Masatoshi Nakayama, Japan Karate Association

In the early days of karate-do, for some years after 1935 college karate clubs all over Japan held inter-school matches. They were called kokangeiko, 'exchange of courtesies practice' and the participants freely attacked each other with all the karate techniques at their disposal. Their original purpose was to promote friendship between clubs. The matches were to consist of displays of kata, the set patterns of defence and attack, or of practice in attack and counterattack. The latter was ideally a formalized affair. One person attacked, only once. Then his opponent counterattacked, again just once. They continued in strictly controlled alternation. But the young blood of the students ran too hot to be satisfied with such tameness. They could not resist the temptation to use to the fullest the techniques they had learned and the powers they had gained through daily training. There would be five or six contestants from each university in these free-style matches. Giving a brave yell at a signal, the paired opponents began to fight. If a melee developed, it was the responsibility of the judges to step in and part them. The truth is, the judges rarely had time to exercise their responsibility. It was all over in 30 seconds. Some of the contestants had broken teeth or twisted noses. Others had earlobes nearly ripped off or were paralyzed from a kick to the belly. The injured crouching here and there around the dojo--it was a bloody scene. Karate in its early days had no match rules, although there was a gentlemen's agreement to avoid attacking vital organs. Despite the wounded, the custom of holding such "matches" remained popular for some time. I was a student in a karate club in those days. If the custom were to continue, I feared, karate would degenerate into a barbarous and dangerous technique. Yet, defeating an opponent is the common aim of all the martial arts. A person must fight freely in a match, using his techniques, if he is to maintain his skill. If that is so, I thought, then karate is too powerful and too dangerous for match competition.

Karate was developed in Okinawa, where the people were strictly forbidden to own weapons. Its practitioners there usually trained themselves alone through practice centering on kata. They held no matches. Although we can maintain our technique through practice without an opponent, we cannot improve our mental and physical conditioning in preparation for actual battle.

Specifically, we need to learn how to overcome anxiety or how far we should stand from an opponent. Without practice against an opponent, we cannot have the chance to work at our greatest capacity. I was in a quandary. Fighting is dangerous, but fighting is indispensable. Only through it can we maintain the essential skills of our martial art. Even after graduating from college, I still kept hoping to see the development of a true match that would make karate a modern martial art. Once I organized a match with the contestants wearing protective gear, but the special clothing was an obstacle and turned out to be itself the cause of unexpected injuries. I had to keep looking for a solution. That was just before the beginning of World War II.

After the war, Japan abandoned the militarism of the past and made a fresh start as a nation based on pacifism. Even so, the college karate clubs kept holding their wild fighting contests, and the number of injured kept mounting. In the new climate of peace, violence in any form was a hateful thing. If karate remains as it is, I thought, it will be regarded as the embodiment of violence and will eventually fade away. Yet judo and kendo (fencing) were developing as sports. The glorious contests of swimmers and baseball players were brightening the postwar gloom. Young karate practitioners began to hope that karate would become a sport, would have rules for matches.

I thought it was high time we made a sport of karate. I studied the rules of many sports and observed matches. Finally, I developed match rules and styles of fighting that allowed contestants to use karate techniques to the fullest without injuring each other. However, if we put too much emphasis on fighting, we become loose in technique. To prevent that I made a contest of the kata, too. The matches I had worked out, consisting of free-style fighting and kata, were first performed in Tokyo at the All Japan Grand Karate Tournament in October 1957, under the auspices of the Japan Karate Association. They were most impressive--attack and counter-attack with rapid, powerful, well-controlled technique. The kata contestants displayed quick, beautiful movements. Both the fighting and the kata left the audience impressed. Not one contestant was injured in the free-style fighting. The new matches were a great success. That was the beginning of the free-style fighting matches performed today in karate tournaments around the world. Finally a match form close to actual fighting had come to the public.

As you can see, I solved my quandary and succeeded in creating the karate match. I'm still afraid of one thing however. As karate matches become popular, karate practitioners become too absorbed in winning. It is easy to think that gaining a point matters most, and matches are likely to lose the quickness of action characteristic of karate. In that case, karate matches would degenerate into mere exchanges of blows. Moreover, I cannot say whether the idea of free-fighting styles matches the soul of karate as taught by Master Funakoshi Gichin, the founder of karate-do. For as you will later see, the soul of his karate requires quite a high standard of ethics.

Art of Virtuous Men  Master Funakoshi often recited an old Okinawan saying: "Karate is the art of virtuous men." Needless to say, for students of karate to thoughtlessly boast of their power or to display their technique in scuffles goes against the soul of karate-do. The meaning of karate-do goes beyond victory in a contest of mastery or self-defence techniques. Unlike common sports, karate-do has a soul of its own. To be a true master is to understand the soul of karate-do as a martial Way. Karate-do has grown popular these days, and its soul is apt to pass from our minds. Here I would discuss the soul of karate, returning to the roots of that martial Way. It is said that karate has no initial move (sente). That is an admonition to practitioners not to launch the initial attack and concurrently a strict prohibition against thoughtlessly using the techniques of karate. The masters of karate, especially Master Funakoshi, strictly admonished their pupils with those words again and again. In fact, it is not going too far to say that they represent the soul of karate-do.

In karate, the power of the whole body is focused on one part, such as a fist or foot, so that immense destructive power is loosed in a moment; hence the warning: Regard your fists and feet as swords. In a match the attacker's fist or foot is in principle aimed at a target a few centimeters, an inch or so, from the opponent's body in order not to injure the opponent.

Out of consideration of such destructive power, come the words: There is no initial move in karate. That spirit is embodied in the kata, the patterns forming the core of karate-do practice. Karate has two forms of practice: kata and kumite (mock fighting). The kata are patterns of combined defence and attack that assume four or eight enemies right, left, in front and in back. As far as I know, there are 40 or 50 kinds of kata. Each begins with defence (uke). You may argue that since karate was born as an art of self-defence, it is natural that it has no initial move. That is certainly true, but if you immediately conclude from the words, "There is no initial move in karate," that you can freely counterattack, you have not yet fully grasped the soul of karate-do. The underlying meaning of those words is much deeper.

In addition to refraining from attacking first, practitioners of karate are required not to create an atmosphere that will lead to trouble. They also must not visit places where trouble is likely to happen. To observe those prohibitions, the practitioner must cultivate a gentle attitude toward others and a modest heart. That is the spirit underlying the words, "There is no initial move in karate". And that spirit is the soul of karate-do. One master says: "Karate is based on attempts to avoid an trouble, so as not to be hit by others and not to hit others." Another says: "Harmoniously avoid trouble, and abhor violence. Otherwise, you will lose trust and will perish."

At the bottom of the soul of karate-do lies the wish for harmony among people. Such harmony is based on courtesy, and it is said that the Japanese Martial Ways begin with courtesy and end with courtesy. Such is the case with karate-do. Master Funakoshi collected the kata of his forerunners then systematized them into 15 kinds of kata for practice. One, called Kanku, symbolizes the wish for harmony, the soul of karate-do. Unlike any other pattern, it begins with an action unrelated to defence and attack. The hands are put together, palms outward, and the practitioner looks at the sky through the triangular hole formed by his thumbs and fingers. It expresses self-identification with nature, tranquility, and the wish for harmony. The practitioner of karate must always have a modest heart, a gentle attitude, and a wish for harmony. Karate is truly the art of virtuous men.

Karate and Void  "There is no initial move in karate" is one saying. "There is no posture (kamae) in karate" is another. The former represents karate-do's ethical aspect. The latter summarizes the proper attitude in training or actual fighting. Both sayings are integral elements of the soul of karate-do. When we say, "There is no posture in karate," we basically mean this: you should not stiffen your body; you should always relax yourself to be ready for any attack from any direction. When the gale blows, the stiff oak resists and breaks, the flexible willow bends and survives.

But even if there is no physical posture, you may think a certain mental posture necessary. You cannot relax your attention. That is why in karate-do it is said: there is posture but no posture. Practitioners assume a mental posture but not a physical posture. Actually, that is not the highest stage of the art. At the highest stage, practitioners of karate should in actual fighting have posture of neither body nor mind. Herein lies the deep meaning of "There is no posture in karate". It is this highest stage, the essence common to the Martial Ways of Japan, that I would next explain.

In the 17th century, the Zen priest Takuan gave Yagyu Munenori a treatise which had great influence on the ideological side of the Martial Ways of Japan. It is popularly called "Fudochi Shinmyo Floku" and in it, Takuan wrote:

"If you place your mind on the movements of your opponent, your mind is absorbed by the movements of your opponent. If your mind is on the sword of your opponent, your mind is absorbed by the sword of your opponent. If your mind is on cutting your opponent, your mind is absorbed by cutting your opponent. If your mind is on your sword, your mind is absorbed by your sword. If your mind is on not being cut, your mind is absorbed by not being cut...

" Where, then, should the mind be! You should put your mind nowhere. Then your mind is diffused throughout your body, stretched out, totally unfettered. If your arms are important, it serves your arms. If your legs are important, it serves your legs. If your eyes are important, it serves your eyes. It works freely in the body wherever necessary.

"If you concentrate on one place, your mind, absorbed by that place, is useless. If you are worried about where to place your mind, your mind is absorbed by that worry. Ku should throw off worry and reason. Let your mind go over your entire body, and never fix your mind on a certain place. Then your mind must accurately serve in response to the needs of each part of your body."

In short, the Zen priest says that the mind, if placed nowhere, is everywhere. The concept reflects Buddhism's abhorrence, especially in the Zen Sect, of attachment and bonds. Such antipathy is based on the concept of "void" in Mahayana Buddhism. In Buddhism the English "void" or "emptiness" translates the Japanese word ku, derived from the Sanskrit sunyata. Its original meaning is to be lacking in or to be wanting in. Mahayana Buddhism arose in opposition to the rigid doctrine of traditional Buddhism and made the bold assertion that we should not be trapped by the difference between good and evil, or enlightenment and illusion. That assertion seems to destroy ethical value, but Mahayana Buddhism claims that it strengthens ethical value. When we reach the stage wherein we adhere to nothing, our actions are naturally good. The basic idea of Mahayana Buddhism, Ku, is different from nothingness and is difficult to understand. It cannot be explained in a few words, but perhaps a specific example will help you understand void and one of its aspects--denial of confrontation.

When we first learn how to drive a car, we find it very difficult and take every precaution. But once we have thoroughly mastered driving, we can be quite at ease while we drive and still not break the rules. We aren't very conscious of our driving technique. Mahayana Buddhism aims at attaining the stage of enlightenment without worrying about the difference between good and evil, or enlightenment and illusion.

That, too, is the highest stage of actual fighting in karatedo. There we do not have posture of mind. In the martial arts, when we have attained the highest stage after long years of training, we return to the first stage. In the first stage, where we do not know any posture or technique,we do not fix our minds anywhere. When attacked, we simply respond unconsciously, without strategy. But as we come to understand posture, the use of technique, and fighting tactics through our study of technique, we occupy our minds with all sorts of things. The mind is divided into attack or counterattack and loses its freedom. After a long period of further practice, we can move unconsciously, freely, and properly.
That is the highest stage of karatedo, the true meaning of "there is no posture of mind". That stage can be reached only after hard and painstaking training, but it has nothing to do with physical strength. In the West, physical strength counts for much in the martial arts. Men of a certain age must quit. Karate-do, however, emphasizes technique based on the practice of kata. We can continue to practice this martial art for a lifetime, no matter how much our physical strength declines. The more we practice, the more gracefully we can move. Finally, we attain the highest stage, where there is posture in neither mind nor body.

Dragon Times' presents U.S. National Coach
Yukiyoshi Marutani - An Interview with America's leading Gen Sei Ryu practitioner by John & Steven Heyl


Dragon Times: When did you begin your martial arts training?

Marutani Sensei: I started in 1967 with a college Karate club. There were classes Monday through Saturday for three to four hours a day. In addition, you were expected to do personal training like hitting the makiwara during the lunch break. Many times my hands or feet were bloody...

DT: What was the training like?

Marutani: It was always my college sempai (seniors) who led those early workouts. We did nothing but basics...again, and again, basics. I remember wondering to myself after three weeks if this was all that Karate was...nothing new for three weeks...three hours a day!

DT: Somebody told me that you failed your first kyu exam. Is this true?

Marutani: Yes, I failed. There were about thirty students who tested that time. They split us into two groups...the upper group passed. The lower group (my group) failed. My sempai told me I was a bad center of gravity was too high...everything! They were always yelling at me. Later on, they were all amazed that I stuck it out and progressed as much as I have.

DT: What made you stay with it? You could have quit but you didn' fact, you increased your training to six or seven days a week for four or five hours a day.

Marutani: You know, the first month I hated it. The second month...I began to like it. My mind and body became fixed on the simple acts of hitting and punching. I failed the testing but after that we had our first Gasshuku training. It was long...about ten days. Running in the morning...punching until our hands were bloody...and afterwards, we had to clean up and cook. That was ten long days. After that...the feeling was so different. It was like being a new person. I became more involved with karate...working on my punching...working with seiken-tsuki. At night, I would train my eyes. I was a shy person. On the trains I would look into people's eyes--never moving my eyes from theirs...they hated it! I have heard about the "Eye of the Tiger" or something like that.

DT: Who were your main instructors?

Marutani: I had many sempai but my main instructor is Kunihiko Tosa.

DT: What is Gensei-Ryu? Marutani: I don't have a lot of details. I learned through my instructors that Mr. Shukumine (the founder) started Gensei-Ryu after World War II. Mr. Shukumine's instructor was Soko Kushimoto, an Okinawan. We can see through the kata that it is very close to Tomari-Te. I only met Mr. Shukumine twice, but I understand that he had a very strong character and that he was a very philosophical man. GEN means the universe and SEI means control--so GENSEI is to "control the universe". He wrote the kanji and analyzed it to more fully understand what it meant... physically and spiritually.

DT: What makes it different from the other more well-known Japanese styles?

Marutani: I think Mr. Shukumine had done research in body gymnastics. I believe he was also involved in that sport. So, the body movement in Gensei-Ryu was more natural...more reasonable. He also figured out how to incorporate certain movements from gymnastics (like jumps, flips, and handsprings) into karate techniques. These sorts of techniques helped to make the movements faster...more surprising.

DT: When did you qualify for the Japanese National Team?

Marutani: I believe it was 1974.

DT: What was the selection process like?

Marutani: I remember the first team selections were in 1972 or so. There were about 150 people in the selection pool. All the top people from the tournaments except for the JKA. We ran, we free-sparred. If you got hurt...there was no sympathy. Good-bye...thank you for coming! You packed your bags and went home. No one was special. If your karate was bad and you couldn't survive... you went home. They started with about 150 of us--all championship caliber--and ended with 7 or 8.

DT: How long were you on the National Team?

Marutani: I think it was about 7 years. I retired from competition in 1981 or so.

DT: What were some of the highlights of your time with the Japanese National Team?

Marutani: I was on the team for the World Championships in Long Beach, Tokyo, and Madrid. I took the bronze medal (70 kg.) at the World Games in Santa Clara.

DT: Who were your teammates? Marutani: During the seven years, I trained alongside Mr. Murase, Mr. Nishimura, and Mr. Maeda and several others. Those three are on the current coaching staff for the Japanese National Team.

DT: Can you tell us a little about those days, about training with the team?

Marutani: We met about 7 or 8 times a year for three days. The first one was longer. It was a good time. We trained and trained...we also drank...but then the coaches changed. They wanted us to be more like college students, younger. I was 32 or 33 at the end. Now, the maximum age is 29. I don't know the details. It is a brand new team.

DT: When were you first exposed to international competition?

Marutani: My first memorable encounter was in Tokyo. I was matched against a big Italian. I couldn't move. He couldn't move. We were both so nervous. the first time in the spotlight with 20, 000 spectators watching me...especially the Japanese team. I managed to get past him and relaxed in the later rounds. I still remember...the coaches were inexperienced as far as competition was concerned. They didn't understand how to coach for to use strategy to score a good point.

DT: This situation has improved as seasoned competitors like yourself and your teammates, Murase Sensei & Nishimura Sensei, have moved into coaching?

Marutani: That is right. They can explain concepts better to the new generation. They understand the point of competition, or at least can put themselves into the position of the competitor and explain it in those terms. Some of the first coaches understood the concepts but couldn't explain it. They had no frame of reference--the rules were changing. Ippon Shobu has a different strategy than Sanbon Shobu.

DT: Sensei, I understand that you were also ranked nationally in Japan for kata. How important is kata in Gensei-Ryu? What kata is included in the curriculum?

Marutani: We do the mandatory kata used by the WKF (WUKO). We also do kata unique to our style of Gensei-Ryu.

DT: How many Gensei - Ryu kata are there?

Marutani: There are seven. I demonstrated Sansai Sho for you. I am still learning the others. Sansai Sho is probably the most well known of our kata. It is used in the All-Japan tournaments.

DT: When did you come to America?

Marutani: The first time I came here was in 1981. I stayed for 3 or 4 months at Mr. Yamazaki's dojo in Anaheim. Later, in 1982, the Huntington Beach dojo sent me tickets to come here. I have been here ever since!

DT: Within a very short time your students were ranked nationally and competing internationally. What was the training like in those early days? Marutani: I didn't teach much as far as technique. Some Americans get caught up in asking questions. I told them not to worry about the competition. Win or lose--it didn't matter. Just go to the tournament... their bodies would understand. Back then we had mini-training camps...two or three times a week. Every morning we ran 10 miles. After that, we would train. It helped to teach them about stamina. We wanted to push the make the preparation more difficult than the actual competition. It is like hitting a very heavy bag. When you switch to a smaller problem!

DT: What does the American kumite competitor need to do to win at the international level?

Marutani: Most competitors are not skilled in basic things like distance control, body evasion, situational strategy, time management... things like this. These sorts of skills should be "second nature" to a competitor. I think that this is the biggest weakness here...especially when compared to the stronger teams like Japan, France, etc., etc. These teams had a better understanding of competition even 15 years ago.

DT: You stress distance control and body rotation/evasion in your seminars. These are much higher level/ more sophisticated skills than what is normally taught today. Is this the next step for the typical American competitor?

Marutani: Yes. A lot of these ideas came to me from my own competition days. Back then, it was basically full-contact... I would just fly at my opponent...and I didn't have any teeth!! I went to the dentist and he joked with me that I was too weak--after every tournament I showed up in his office!! I started thinking about things and began to experiment. I would put pressure on the opponent...both physically and mentally. I never backed up. I pressed, I hit, I pushed...naturally, I lost some...but I won a lot more! About 3 or 4 years ago, I began to train seriously with weapons. It changes the atmosphere. Everyone worries about getting hit with a weapon. It can be a bo or nunchaku or doesn't matter. It got me to think more and more about the distance. When I moved in close, the opponent couldn't hit me. If you analyze a punch...the fist is the fastest point and the shoulder is the slowest--if you stop the shoulder you don't have to worry too much about the fist. It loses most (if not all) of its power.

DT: Your weapons training has been recent, but it has helped you to develop your entry skills, how to get in closer and gives you a better understanding for distance and body control?

Marutani: Yes, I didn't show many of these techniques today, perhaps I should have--how to balance your shoulders, hips and knees to get more control and ease of movement... nobody really explained it to we learned how to block, how to move our spines and big joints efficiently and economically on our own. That's what helped them to learn their skills. My responsiblity is to teach my students, not only what is easy and what I like, but how things work. I was thinking about why a punch has tobe countered with this block or that block. I enjoyed sparring, the movement... and you got hit. People told me that it was too dangerous and I know--I got hit hard sometimes. It's like in soccer however, if you learn to absorb the power of the ball you can avoid injury... I think that sparring should be taught first in Karate, and after you've learned how to move that way you should move on to learning Kata. I learned Kata through the fighting when I was beginning.

DT: Can you tell us about the Japanese Instructors Club?

Marutani: Right now there are over forty of us from all styles. Just a month ago we got together and had a good time. We get together as often as we can but it's hard. Before the club, when we were at the tournaments it was usually with six or seven competitors each, and it was difficult to discuss things. I want to learn what other people are thinking and saying about Karate for the future. It gives us a place to pool our knowledge, and be sure that things are passed on from one generation to the next. It's an easy concept to explain in Japanese--very difficult in English... For my generation, it means passing on what we learned from the last generation to the next generation--it also means that the new Japanese instructors coming here should not expect to control American Karate, that there are already sempai here... there will be a place for them to get advice and guidance. It works both ways.

DT: So far you've had training sessions with Nishiyama Sensei and...?

Marutani: Yes, with Mr. Nishiyama, as well as Mr. Higaonna.

DT: It seems to me that you've come into Karate from the Kumite or sparring side, and the more you've learned, the more you have come to understand that the Kata training is a necessary thing to help the students to learn and grow?

Marutani: To completely understand Kata, if it is the right instructor teaching the basics, it is the same thing. Kata has to equal useful sparring, that's what we learn. Sometimes that concept is lost. For example, some highly rated Kata competitors score well but they can't hit. They practice their Kata like gymnastics or a dance. I didn't want to get into that so I concentrated on teaching sparring--to teach realistic movement. My student, Kevin Chen, is Chinese, so he brings books on Chinese martial arts and we compare... the movements may be similiar but the execution and meaning is different. So that's like Kata--the Kata itself is very important, but so is the the student's understanding of the meaning of the movement.

DT: So it's helped you, because you've taken your competition experience and applied it to the performance of the Kata--unlike some American competitors who do Kata--not performing the Kata with real understanding of the basics or possible applications?

Marutani: Yes, like when you perform Kata you are supposed to be facing an opponent--every instructor will tell you that, but the competitors eyes are wrong... you know in Sparring, everybody's eyes change--they get fighter's eyes, but you don't always see that in Kata..

DT: You continue to train and develop, is there anything special that you are doing... any new arts to learn?

Marutani: I enjoy doing basics more and more every day--kiba dachi, forward stances, hit the makiwara, combinations... and I enjoy sparring with the kids. They hit me with all their power, and I learn how to absorb the impact better. I learn how they move and what to expect from them.

DT: Do you practice any other arts?

Marutani: Boxing, or anything else--I'll watch. During high school I practiced Judo as part of the physical education. I enjoy watching it. The movements are very similiar to Karate.

DT: Mr. Reynolds' Yoshinkan Aikido classes uses the facilities here at the Huntington Beach Dojo... do you watch the classes or otherwise become involved? With your participation in the instructors' club, you always have the opportunity to learn--do you consider yourself still a student?

Marutani: Yes, I always want to learn something. I want to research more into the relationship between basics, Kata, and Kumite. I've seen too many demonstrations of Karate that are basically the same thing, and not done very well. I would like to be able to present demonstrations that really show what Karate is about, and are meaningful for future Karate students... I was really impressed by some AIKIDO demonstrations I've seen. It looks like dancing, but the fundamental movements and concepts are sound. Karate instructors have to prepare for the future, for when they are done... that's what Mr. Demura is trying to do. To pass on to the next generation what we have been taught, and what we have learned, so that they can do the same in the future... Part of what I am worried about is the manner in which Karate is taught today--I think there should be more emphasis in the basics.

DT: One of the concepts that came out of Nishiyama Sensei's summer camp this year in La Jolla, California was that regular training in the Dojo should not be different from competition training--that your training in the Dojo should leave you prepared to compete at any time. Do you think that this reflects on some of your own philosophies about training?

Marutani: Some things that Mr. Nishiyama talks about I absolutely agree with... He said that Dojo sparring equals Tournament sparring. I don't train my students with one or two punches... we free-spar every day and have special training on Saturday. We hit each other over and over...we learn to move our bodies to avoid the kick or punch... we need to understand that the movement can also be a treasure of Karate. DT: Some people would say that one of the weaknesses of American Karate today is that it has become a business... that compromises have been made to keep the students from leaving?

Marutani: Somebody told me that it was bad if the students sweat too much after a workout... that you had to think about the students. I didn't change my workouts. People who join have to understand what they are getting into. To develop your mind and body, you have to sweat. The school is not joining the student, the student is joining the school. I try to teach like this is a church, and that people who join have to make a different kind of donation. If I taught like this was a college, people coming for one semester and then saying goodbye--I couldn't have the correct control to teach.

DT: It is difficult because the American culture is not that way.

Marutani: Yes, and that's my problem. I have to change. If you said something to the students, probably they would stay. Having a conversation to explain why I won't change the workout would probably help. My English is getting better so probably that's why I have more students.

DT: Are there any GENSEI-RYU instructors in Europe?

Marutani: Yes, there some Japanese instructors in the Netherlands.

DT: If you had an opportunity to do seminars in Europe, would you?

Marutani: Any time, any where. I have students in Brazil, and the Dominican Republic... so if you go to South America, people would know about GENSEI-RYU.