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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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The Asai Karate Kata

Keeping the Legacy of Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei Alive

By André Bertel (6th Dan), Japan.
______________________

 

Asai Sensei

 



INTRODUCTION


On this third anniversary of Shuseki Shihan Tetsuhiko Asai’s passing, I felt deeply compelled to publish something in honor, and in memory, of my late karate mentor. Thinking about August 15th 2006, when Sensei left us, I know 100% that he wanted his research (and lifetime dedication to karate) to be preserved for future generations of karateka, and that is why he engineered so many new kata. Therefore, the kata he synthesized are literally ‘the legacy’ of his karate-do. Keeping Asai Sensei’s beloved karate foremost in mind, the two points I’d like to verify in this article are “Why, technically speaking, Sensei created these kata?” and “How can those, interested in Asai-ryuha, practice these kata, to achieve what Sensei specifically developed them for?

 

 

 


PART ONE: Why more kata? Aren’t 26 Shotokan kata more than enough?


Asai Sensei explained that “Shotokan-ryu has more than enough kata already” however he also stated that “one kata is more than enough, or punching the sandbag is more than enough”. His point was, just train! “Whatever you do, keep training, whether it’s one kata, ten kata or 150 kata.” He also emphasized that in ancient times, one to five kata, for an expert, was typical, and that this number is still completely relevant. Asai Sensei, in addition to the numerous kata he had at his beckoning, still only had a handful of kata which he really worked on (the most famous being Nijushiho, Empi, Tekki-nidan and Kakuyoku-nidan). Therefore, in his opinion, he had the best of both worlds. When Sensei was questioned by a very polite JKA exponent, at an open seminar (about the huge number of kata he practiced) he jokingly replied “I have many kata, and I still have special kata, so my karate is very interesting neh!” Before the astute JKA gentleman could ask anything else, Asai Sensei without bowing, went straight into a silk-like demonstration of his Nijushiho. Everyone’s stood motionless, stunned by the awesomeness of the rendition… Needless to say, no more questions were asked, and all present were very keen to practice the new kata he was introducing on that occasion!

Once in morning practice when Asai Sensei was teaching me a new kata, he suddenly stopped and said to me, “André, you are now godan (5th Degree Black Belt), there is no need to limit what you study in karatedo, definitely specialize in areas, which are your preference, or suit your physique well, but also practice a variety of martial arts techniques, kata and applications, because you’ll never know which techniques may later become your tokuiwaza.” He also said, “You’re still very young, so your karate WILL CHANGE… Your purpose of training, your physique, and the way you think about karate. Everything changes! Therefore study deep, and also maintain broad studies.” Such explanations directly from Asai Sensei, and his justification for designing new kata, helped to convert me… That is, to see karate for myself, not to blindly follow a set system like an amateur.

 

Asai Sensei teaching Andre Bertel Hushu Kata



PART TWO: The main reasons why Asai Sensei created new kata


(1) Kata providing a clear canvas

Asai Sensei had enormous trouble trying to pass on ‘his karate way’, especially when trying to teach fellow Shotokan karateka. The main problems he encountered, when conducting technical seminars around the world, were primarily stiffness and unnatural movement. Initially he tried to re-teach the standard Shotokan kata and techniques (primarily based on junansei or softness/flexibility of the body) however, he admitted that he failed miserably. “As soon as I left, the instructors and students would return to their stiff ‘constipated’ Shotokan-style, as if I’d never taught there”. Upon to returning to these countries, he immediately noticed, that nothing he had taught previously had been retained, not even by the majority of instructors. Chuckling away, and explaining this story to me in his typically humorous way, he stated “I was still looking at a bunch of stiffs!”

Already at this time (actually for many years prior to this, due to his extensive overseas excursions) Asai Sensei was informally self-training in and researching a variety of martial arts. So with JKA-style as his formal base, he began to ‘very subtly Shotokanize’ many koten (ancient/classical) kata, and engineer hybrid kata, to formulate a clean canvas to teach people more effectively. To clarify the acceptance of Asai Sensei’s research, the late Japan Karate Association Chief Instructor, Masatoshi Nakayama Sensei, offered Asai Sensei his full support for his efforts, and even promoted Sensei to the position of JKA Technical Director! This was a huge endorsement of Sensei’s ingenuity, and was frowned upon by several senior honbu instructors. This was most probably the beginning of the infamous Kyokai split, which occurred not long after Nakayama Sensei died in 1987.


(2) Kata expanding the techniques and principles of Shotokan

As a result of studying and informally self-practicing different karate systems and martial arts from all around the world, Asai Sensei discovered many effective techniques not in the standard Shotokan syllabus. Sensei analyzed this from the two most simplified perspectives, defense and offense. Firstly, without at least knowing of such attacks, defense may be difficult, due to sheer surprise. Therefore he theorized that at least understanding such maneuvers and tactics is crucial for JKA karateka. And secondly, Asai Sensei enjoyed the prospect of using these exotic attacks himself. “I increased my repertoire, and found techniques unlike classical Shotokan, that didn’t require my power. I started to think, if I apply these principles to my Shotokan, I can generate more power with natural energy.” This was very appealing to Asai Sensei as he was already past his prime as All-Japan Champion, and wanted to maintain his power into old age. When discussing ‘fighting with other martial artists in his early days’ he stated “After surviving Taku Dai (Takushoku University) I was more than equipped to deal with any such challenges and never lost one, except when I had consumed too much sake!” He also said “I created more opportunities for myself by studying the techniques of other styles. It also helped me to further understand karate, before it was divided into ryuha and kaiha, and before tournament rules were prioritized.”

In addition to the waza Sensei incorporated from other fighting arts, he also developed many of his own special techniques, principles, and tactics. The kata he introduced, especially the one’s which he completely designed himself, feature many of these waza, and therefore have great value in retaining his lifelong research and genius.


(3) Transparent kata

One unique point about the Asai-ryuha kata, unlike the 26 Shotokan kata, is the fact that we know the specific applications, of each technique, within each kata, and also the exact training purposes (as established by the designer himself). Obviously we cannot go back in time and ask Chinese or Okinawan creators of the various classical kata to teach and explain their secrets. And let’s face it, by practicing the Shotokan renditions of kata; we probably can’t go back much beyond the 1950’s. So much for ‘tradition’ if you are a hardcore “I only practice the 26 Shotokan kata” kind of person! Another major issue to consider is that all of the Shotokan kata bunkai/oyo-jutsu (analysis/technical application) is guesswork, and usually totally impractical. The best applications are those made up by people’s clever ingenuity; however no one can truthfully claim to know the original application and purpose behind these kata.

The strength of the Asai-ryuha kata is that they’re not competition based or modified forms, but rather based on actual kumite application. More importantly than this is the fact that we have a complete understanding of these forms, their origin and purposes (as taught and explained by Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei himself). This transparency further valuates Asai Sensei’s kata, especially for Shotokan stylists who typically suffer the ‘bunkai void’.


(4) Kata as a means of psychological motivation

Having more kata to choose from, in Sensei’s own words “Makes karate more enjoyable for people!” Asai Sensei claimed that “Practicing a variety of kata is highly motivational” based on his experiences teaching around the world. “Having the motivation to practice is the most important skill you can ever have, and if a karate teacher can make his pupils enthusiastic, motivated to train, and highly skilled, he is a great teacher.” He explained to me that he saw people getting really excited when he taught a new kata (and noticed that they were compelled to practice a lot more). So in addition to transmitting his karate way, he also managed to psychologically motivate people to train much more diligently.

As a personal student of Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei I was taught and corrected on 62 of his ‘Asai-ryuha’ kata (listed below). Therefore, in addition to the 26 standard Shotokan formal exercises and Hyakuhappo/Hyakuhachiho (which Asai Sensei claimed was the 27th Shotokan kata) I have 89 kata at my disposal. Whilst I do not practice all of them on a regular basis, I have made several of them ‘my own’ over the years. In saying that, I’ve fastidiously kept records of every kata, and liberally use all of them at various times, as special training tools.

(1) Jo no kata, (2) Gyaku zuki no kata, (3) Kihoken-issei, (4) Kihoken-nisei, (5) Kihoken-sansei, (6) Shinken, (7) Rantai, (8) Kibaken-shodan, (9) Kibaken-nidan, (10) Kibaken-sandan, (11) Kibaken-yondan, (12) Kibaken-godan, (13) Fudoken-dai, (14) Fudoken-sho, (15) Junro-shodan, (16) Junro-nidan, (17) Junro-sandan, (18) Junro-yondan, (19) Junro-godan, (20) Kyakusen-shodan, (21) Kyakusen-nidan, (22) Kyakusen-sandan, (23) Kyakusen-yondan, (24) Kyakusen-godan, (25) Kyakusen-rokudan, (26) Kyakusen-nanadan, (27) Shotei-dai, (28) Shotei-sho, (29) Sensho, (30) Meikyo-nidan, (31) Meikyo-sandan, (32) Nijuhappo, (33) Sanjuhappo, (34) Joko-issei, (35) Joko-nisei, (36) Joko-sansei, (37) Joko-yonsei, (38) Joko-gosei, (39) Juroppo, (40) Tekken-dai, (41) Tekken-sho, (42) Hachimon, (43) Senka, (44) Rakuyo, (45) Kakuyoku-shodan, (46) Kakuyoku-nidan, (47) Kakuyoku-sandan, (48) Seiryu, (49) Kashu, (50) Suishu, (51) Roshu, (52) Hushu, (53) Ryubi, (54) Kaminari-arashi, (55) Yokotawaru-tatsu, (56) Shinobiyoru-hayabusa, (57) Shoto, (58) Hakkaishu, (59) Raiko, (60) Shorin-dai, (61) Nirin-dai, & (62) Sanrin-dai.

Whilst some may claim that 89 kata is too many, the reality is, that like Asai Sensei, I only have three or four kata that specialize in. The additional kata filter in and out my training regime, and as a result I never get bored of practice. Another major advantage has been when I teach my students or conduct seminars. I can always teach a kata, which addresses the needs, or interests, of those training, and really excites them. As Asai Sensei explained to me (and I fully appreciate now), having more kata is a ‘motivational asset’ for oneself and for one’s students. Without telling me, Sensei literally ‘set me up’ as a professional karate instructor!

 

Asai Sensei with Andre Bertel - Kumite training


PART THREE: How to practice the Asai-ryuha kata correctly


To correctly practice the kata designed by Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei we need to understand Sensei’s inspiration for creating each of them in the first place, especially in regards to 'natural energy'. The biggest point I want to emphasize here, especially on this third anniversary of Sensei’s passing, is that “further Shotokanizing the Asai-ryuha kata completely invalidates practicing them at all.” Unfortunately this seems to be the trend, with many people learning the kata from online videos and DVD’s, and from people who didn’t learn them directly from Shuseki-Shihan himself, or didn’t get a sufficient amount of training from him.

Before giving you the impression that I have some sort of an elitist attitude, I’d like to constructively offer three personal tips, on how you can correctly practice Asai Sensei’s kata, insofar as proper movement/natural energy is concerned. These three points are fundamentally crucial to follow the karate of Tetsuhiko Asai.


(1) Firstly and fore mostly, when executing Asai style karate, you must remain in a relaxed and natural state at all times. You should feel as if your muscles and fat are hanging off your bones and that your joints completely control your movements. This is how to maximize junansei and muchikenwaza (whip fist techniques).


(2) Secondly, your motions must use as many relevant joints as possible and be large scale. Asai Sensei didn’t like small scale action, for example if launching a haito-uchi, shuto yokomawashi uchi or mikazuki-geri he really swung the limb in a huge arc. He didn’t shorten the movement to give an impression of speed and look tidier, both of which have been motivated by the gymnastic influence of karate competitions. Referring to the motion of the nunchaku or better still, the Chinese seven jointed whip, is very beneficial when practicing/applying Asai-ryuha kata and techniques.


(3) In all actions smoothly utilize your hips like a ball. This applies to ashi-hakobi/unsoku (foot work), ukewaza (reception techniques), tsukiwaza (punching techniques), uchiwaza (striking techniques) and keriwaza (kicking techniques). Mastering this core skill combined with perfecting the jiku-ashi (pivot foot) and junansei will result in unpredictability. This is because one’s attack and/or defense can be made from any of the eight directions, standing, from ground, or leaping.

 

 

                       

 


CONCLUSION


Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei’s kata correctly practiced, encrypt his technical legacy, a lifetime dedicated to the practice and study of Shotokan, and the martial arts in general. It is my hope on this third anniversary of Sensei’s passing, that his legacy will be stringently kept alive, and technically not distorted, for the future generations of karateka.

© André Bertel, Oita-ken, Japan (2009). 

 

 

Andre Bertel with Asai Sensei and Mrs Keiko AsaiAsai Sensei & Andre Bertel at the old Honbu Dojo