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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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The Control of Karate


Scott Langley

My instructor once said to me that the moment I walked through the dojo door I was his. To turn up for karate was to give oneself to the sensei for the duration of the class.

Recently I have been reading, albeit on the internet, about people who have given up the trappings of Shotokan karate. They no longer feel the need to use terminology that most of us take for granted as being an essential part of training. Words like osu, sensei and zenkutsu-dachi have been dismissed as irrelevant and been replaced by the English “equivalent”. These people have claimed that a word is just a word, and each country should use its native tongue when teaching karate.

Members of the other side of the argument have counter-claimed that this takes something away from what we are doing, and have posed the question “At what point do changes like these alter what we are doing into something that is no longer karate?”

It is an interesting point and I began to think about the importance, if there is any, of using Japanese terminology in the dojo. Why do we still insist on using it, on the whole, and would the essence of what a dojo is change simply by calling it a training hall?

Let us first set the premise that we are talking about good clubs with good instructors. It is a difficult premise to make as one person’s idea of good may be very different to another person’s. However, in this case, I would like to state that “good” means an instructor who has only the best interests of the student at heart and draws upon a balanced and varied wealth of experience when teaching that student.

 From the moment we start karate we are controlled by the sensei. They dictate our movements in order to teach us techniques. At first, doing oi-tsuki is slow and cumbersome. It is hard to imagine that such a movement can be fast or effective. However, the control continues and we do as the sensei says.

Over the months the direction from the sensei increases. No longer is it enough to have the correct foot forward, but it is also important to have the knee bent correctly, the weight properly distributed, and no matter how tired one gets, it is also important to maintain ones form.

Over the years one’s form is completely dictated. Total body control, from the orientation of ones head, to the angle of one’s foot, everything is manipulated by one’s sensei… And I think, to a lesser extent, this never ends…

What is happening is that the instructor is giving (which is probably a better description than “teaching”) the student a framework of thinking. What I mean by framework of thinking is a set of assumptions and parameters, based on tried and tested experience, about what karate is and how it should be done. By initially forcing the student into a strict and stringent way of movement, the student is forced to become more aware of his/her physical actions. This helps them conceptualise body mechanics and increases body awareness… In essence, through being controlled by the sensei, the student is able to learn how to control their own body.

The same can be seen with the mental aspect of karate… From the moment one walks through the dojo door students are forced to abide by a strict set of rules which go beyond the simple physical task of putting your left foot forward. No talking in class seems one obvious way of controlling the students, however, more subtle than that is the use of Japanese language and culture. By introducing a foreign language to the dojo it has the effect of setting the time spent training as being different from the normal world. Osu is constantly used to communicate a whole wealth of feelings. The word sensei has connotations which set the instructor apart from the rest of the class. And techniques are described using their Japanese term; “lunge-punch” doesn’t quite describe what an oi-tsuki is.

 By forcing people to adhere to the Japanese culture and hierarchical system, it forces them into a strict set of social parameters that they must abide to. By controlling the students behaviour (what they can and can’t do) the student is forced to think about “life in the dojo” in different terms then what they would in normal life. Simple things like showing politeness to ones seniors, bowing at the correct time, pushing yourself to train harder because your sensei insists you have more to give… All these ways in which students behaviour is controlled forces the way they think, and the way they relate to other people, to change.

Life in the dojo can be tough and demanding. Knowing ones’ place and knowing what is and isn’t expectable behaviour whilst with the sensei can be a daunting task. However, over time, students can learn the correct manner and abide by it. So, similar to the physical aspect of karate, the mental aspect can be seen as a framework of thinking. From being strictly controlled by ones’ sensei, students can come to understand their mental actions… From this one has a better ability to develop self-control.

So, hopefully, through an initial strict regime of both physical and mental control, karate can provide students with (what every karate advertisement has ever claimed) greater discipline, confidence and coordination. By ones’ every movement being controlled by the sensei, body coordination is learnt. By the interaction amongst student and sensei being dictated by strict rules, greater discipline can be learnt, culminating in a martial art which allows the practitioner to have a greater control of mind and body. Therefore, when people ask why is it necessary to use Japanese terminology in the dojo? I think it comes down to the basic need for control. Karate is not merely a set of techniques and rules. That is a simple and rather superficial view of what we do. It is a way of learning and a way of developing a framework of thinking which better enables us to use our bodies and minds, maximising their efficiency. Without the Japanese language, without the control, I think karate is merely reduced to its physical components, just a series of punches and kicks.

Finally, it is worth noting two points. Firstly many people, in a knee-jerk reaction, object the idea of themselves being controlled in the dojo. The word control has negative connotations. However, it is possible to see that people, on a regular basis, choose to place themselves in the control of someone else, who they judge to be more knowledgeable. Everything from personal fitness trainers at the local gym to weight-watchers meeting, these people make one easy decision to walk into the gym or town hall, however, from that moment on they are put under pressure to perform and conform to the wishes of someone else… In essence they are controlled, and they allow this because people realise the need for outside help and guidance and the need to have someone else motivate them.

The second point I would like make is that my argument regarding the use of Japanese language and culture could be negated by the fact that in Japan, the home of karate, neither the language nor the culture is foreign. However, ask any Japanese non-karateka and they will tell you that the language and culture that surround karate is equally as foreign to them as it is to us. Most Japanese people don’t know how to write osu or karate using kanji (Japanese pictograms). They usually use katakana (the phonetic alphabet reserved for foreign words) and as a result people often think karate is not from Japan. So, even when a person enters a dojo in Tokyo, they still find it somewhat foreign to their normal daily life.

A comparison can be drawn with ballet. Throughout the world French is used when teaching this art-form. Similar to karate, in good ballet schools the teacher can be very strict and controlling. Even in Paris the culture and language surrounding ballet can seem foreign to local Parisians. Native speakers know that “Pas de Chat” means “step of the cat”, but have no idea what it involves or how difficult it is. Neko-ashi dachi (cat stance) is an obvious comparison within karate. Just because the language spoke may be familiar, it doesn’t mean the vocabulary employed is part of daily usage. The language becomes an integral part of the control of the class.

In the west (and also in westernised Japan) people just aren’t used to this way of teaching through total control. However, any martial tradition, whether is be the samurai of Japan or the knights of England, has always had a strict physical and mental regime to follow. Then, the need for a comprehensive teaching process was understood for all the reasons I have mentioned above and those of us who practise good Shotokan today can still see the importance of these things as a way of developing good karate.