by Scott Langley
Shu Ha Ri is a phrase used in Japanese to describe the three stages of one’s development. Shu (to protect or to obey), the first phase, describes the first steps; the acquisition of knowledge. Ha (to frustrate) describes the internalisation of that knowledge, making the leap from learning a system to using it in a natural way. Ri (Freedom), the last, describes mastery of the system, making it your own and going beyond the limits of the system by pushing the envelope. These stages are seen as the natural path of development and are an integral part of any eastern learning process.
I believe that for the karate-ka, knowing and thinking about “how to develop” is just as important as technical development itself. Although, when you start karate this is easy. Everyone is aiming for shodan, that coveted black belt; you want to be like one of the guys at the end of the line. Instructors simply have to teach the range of techniques, the various kata and the sets of kumite that make up the Shotokan system. So by shodan, a karate-ka has probably learnt every technique in the system, what more is there to learn? A few kata? However, when shodan is attained sensei often start dealing exclusively in clichés.
“Black belt is just the beginning!”
“You have only just started”.
“Now you can start learning”.
And in every way they are correct – how to develop suddenly starts to get increasingly more difficult. Shodan just means “first level”. It is saying that that person is competent at all basic techniques, basic kumite and basic kata. It is at this point that developing one’s karate becoming increasingly difficult.
If the instructor follows a traditional, Japanese based syllabus, jiyu kumite is not used in gradings until after shodan. So from shodan to sandan, areas like jiyu kumite and the more advanced kata can be practised and learnt. All the time the finer nuances of Shotokan technique can be refined and honed. At third dan, karate-ka are considered junior instructors – complete with all the skills a Shotokan karate-ka should have. There may be a few more kata that need to be learnt, but the bio-mechanics that make up those kata should have already been well developed. Therefore, from shodan to sandan, one’s development may not be as controlled and dictated to as with beginner to shodan, but there certainly is a structure in place to follow.
Therefore, from sandan what are karate-ka supposed to do? Just continue repeating the same formulaic karate sessions they have been doing for the last 10/15 years? How are they to develop if technically they have already honed their craft? And how do they go from a good understanding of karate waza to a mastery of karate waza?
In the JKS GB & Ireland we have been very lucky over the last couple of years to have had high quality karate-ka join our ranks. At the moment I am thinking of two in particular. Both are Yondan and came to the JKS from other British based karate associations with Japanese chief instructors. Both are of a very high standard and could easily be described as having a deep understanding of the Shotokan system. However, having got to know them and their karate, it was surprising to see how little they had been allowed to develop past the standard Shotokan system. In so many ways they were like clones of their previous instructors. They had never been given the freedom or confidence to find their own way in Shotokan karate.
Before we go any further I would like to describe what happens in Japan and use that as a comparison to what happens in the west. In Japan, when someone is awarded sandan they take on their own responsibility for their development. This is not an explicit thing, much more something that comes from the culture and set-up of the large organisations there. For example, from sandan, karate-ka are considered junior instructors (like I have mentioned). With that comes a certain responsibility. They are allowed to do kyu examinations for their students on behalf of the organisation. So there is limited interference from the hombu/organisation headquarters to the dojo. Therefore, the junior instructors are encouraged to find there own way and the way of their dojo. That is not to say that there is no input from the hombu, just that the dojo is not being dictated to by the hombu. Support is there when they need it, but the hombu has confidence in the grades that are given out and at sandan level and above it is believed that karate-ka are capable of developing a dojo and the students therein.
This mindset is continued for the development of the karate-ka after sandan. For Yondan and above of course they must know all the kata, but beyond that there is no grading syllabus. However, what they must show is something unique. That can be in the form jiyu kumite or it may be in the form of self-defence. It can even be in the form of a presentation of how you would teach a certain technique and apply it to kumite. The point is that the grading panel is looking for progress and a sign that the person grading has developed beyond the basic aspect of Shotokan karate, developing their own way. Of course, that is not to say that they have left the Shotokan system behind, they have merely used this system (as a solid foundation) to progress to greater and greater levels.
In the west this doesn’t seem to happen. The old analogy of the nail having constantly to be hammered down to kept it smooth to the surface is often used (Deru kugi wa utareru - "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down). Karate sensei have to push their students down to stop them from becoming arrogant or out of control; but surely this is for the young student, still finding their way within the karate world? However, I have seen fourth, fifth even sixth dans who are treated (in the way they are taught) like shodans. Stifled and restricted by their sensei, they are not allowed to develop and cultivate their karate… Why is this?
I think a big mistake was that early on in the history of Shotokan karate in the UK, Ireland and maybe the rest of Europe, the number of grading examiners was limited. Initially, due to a shortage of experienced sensei and an abundance of students, sensei as low as shodan and nidan were doing kyu gradings. However, as the number of black belts increased in the country, the same small number of examiners kept a strangle hold on the right to do kyu gradings. Eventually, even karate-ka ranking godan and rokudan were prevented from doing kyu gradings by the very same people who have been doing gradings since they were shodan and nidan.
The reasons for this can be debated another time, but I think the consequences of this decision have been far reaching within British and Irish karate. Unlike Japan, junior instructors were never given that freedom to express themselves through their karate. Flamboyance was encouraged, if not expected, at the high level end of competition kumite; however, for the average dojo instructor there was little they could do. The result is a large number of good solid karate-ka who have never been encouraged or allowed to make Shotokan karate their own.
Going back to Japan I have trained with many great sensei. Of course, most of them have been through the instructors’ course. However, the instructors’ course merely gives us a boost. There is nothing special about it; it just gives us a head start. However, I have trained with many instructors in Japan who have never done the instructors’ course. Nagaki sensei 7th dan JKS, Yagi sensei 6th dan JKS and Kondo sensei 6th dan JKS are all brilliant examples of what I am talking about. None of them have done the instructors course, none of them are world famous karate instructors, but all of them are brilliant and unique. They have taken the Shotokan system and made it their own. And there are many examples of these types of sensei in Japan.
When I look around I think it is a shame that many good, talented, sandans and yondans are not allowed to develop and cultivate their karate (like their counter parts in Japan). Whether it will take a change in attitude or a change in the financial structuring of organisations, there is no reason why western countries can not produce unique, individual karate-ka. It does happen on occasions, but this tends to be the exception, rather than the rule. And those that do develop are often forced out to form there own groups, unable to work within the existing organisational framework.
Senior instructors and senior students should really think about “how to develop”. From sandan and above karate must go beyond the physical of “how can I move faster?” and “how can I hit harder?” as this is merely the surface level of karate. From sandan karate-ka should be looking at “How can I make this karate mine?”