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Drew Loto
Drew Loto's picture
Methods of the Masters

In communities such as this one, we frequently discuss techniques that are hidden in kata.  We acknowledge that the definitive application for most kata movements, if one ever existed, has been lost.  We may even go so far as to point out the ineffective methods of training employed by karateka who have been irrevocably indoctrinated into the cult of unrealistic bunkai.  People like Iain and other members of this forum have made great efforts to tease out possible techniques concealed in kata.  They have poured over primary and secondary accounts of the various writers of kata, analyzing the styles they probably knew, their mental dispositions, their physical attributes, and other relevant qualities.  If the product of their research is not accurate, it is, at the very least, highly convincing.  

However, technique (I'm including kihon in this broad category) is not the only aspect of martial arts training.  First of all, there are different ways to communicate technique.  Some teachers insist on practicing techniques in thin air and with partners, while others promote partner training exclusively.  Some encourage students to begin learning techniques slowly, only graduating to speed after becoming technically proficient and developing control--others believe that the only worthwhile training is with full speed and impact.  Additionally instructors can employ a variety of conditioning techniques, drills (often to develop flow or sensitivitiy as opposed to pure technical skill), and meditations,  

Here we often think of karate as being a collection of techniques passed from masters to their students, and recorded ambiguously in kata.  But what of the other aspects of karate training?  What do we know of the specific training methods used by Anko Itosu and Sokon Mastumura for example?  Did they always train at full impact?  Did they strike rocks with their bare hands?  Did they incorporate drills resembling sticky hands or push hands from their kung fu tutelage?  Do we even have the documentation to shed any light on this question whatsoever?

With that question posed, I would like to say that I admire the color seemingly inherent in karate.  For an art that originated in such a small land, there is an immense amount of diversity among techniques and methods.  Even if much of the "truth" of the masters is unknown or hidden, karateka have often succeeded in preserving a sense of diversity.  I say this to explain that by inquiring as to the methods of earlier teachers, I am not condemning the brilliant drills and insights that many intructors today contribute.  My question is academic in nature.  :) 

Jason Lester
Jason Lester's picture

Hi Drew

A very interesting post, it is said that Master Itosu ounce tied a leather sandle to a stone wall to build a better makiwara, however after several strikes the stone fell, after relocating the sandle a number of times he had destroyed the wall.  Master Itosu specialized in the Naihanchi / Tekki kata but also developed the Pinan / Heian kata as many of us know, as for the great Master Itosu and Master Mastumuras own training methods very little is known, as far as i know, i have no doubt i will be corrected.

Karate, again as we all know has changed so much over the years and very watered down to what karate used to be. It has in fact changed so much that if the founding masters of our great art were around today they proberly would not recognize karate, its sad but a true fact that very few schools these days study karate for the self -defence / bunkai etc.

Here is a quote from Gichin Funakoshi, karate do, my way of life:

Times change, the world changes and the martial arts must change too. The karate that high school students practice today is not the same karate that was practiced as recently as ten years ago, and it is long way indeed from the karate that i learned when i was a child in okinawa.

He goes on to say that, there has never been any hard or fast rules within kata or training etc.

So i think its important to remember this and make use of all training aids and methods, for example if a school only practices punching in thin air, continue to do this but introduce impact work.

Oi zuki for another example, look at how this can be a take down rather than just step through and punch. Karate blocks vary from style to style, these can also be looked at and indeed studied within your own school or style, one must keep an open mind in training.

Its a real shame we cannot go back in time and train with the likes of master Itosu and their training methods etc, it would indeed be a shock to the system and again we would proberly not recognize their karate or cope with the training.  As Gichin Funakoshi trained under master itosu and trained for 3 years doing just one kata, how many out there would be really happy doing this in modern day.  A lot of  people forget that the masters of the old knew 2 to 3 katas at the most and there were no such things as belts and grading systems or tornaments for that matter.

Kata and training the makiwara seem to have been the two main training methods, along with no doubt real fights but we can be rest assured that they would have had other training aids and methods but sadly there are no known written records ect.

All the best,


Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

Its a real shame we cannot go back in time and train with the likes of master Itosu and their training methods etc, it would indeed be a shock to the system and again we would proberly not recognize their karate or cope with the training.


Early films of the old masters leave you wandering why they are so revered, in much the same way as watching early Olympians might be nostalgic but hardly evidence of a better way of training.

It would be foolish to ignore the past, but perhaps respecting these old masters and utilising modern training methods is a better way.


bassaiguy's picture

One thing I think the old masters stressed that we sometimes lose sight of today is an emphasis on developing a never-give-up attitude in their students.  Whether it's Funakoshi spending years on Tekki/Naihanchi, Itosu dodging has father's stick attacks, or the intense Sanchin training of the old Goju masters the message was clear - press on!  My experience has been that it's often the mentlaly tougher guy who wins the fight.  It's the sight of the guy who picks himself up after being knocked down that takes the fight out of his opponent and wins a lot of times - not necessarily the guy who has the most pristine technique.  You've got to be just a little crazy to be a good fighter, I think.  The old masters cultivated this kind of determination in their students.

Tournament based training turns out an awful lot of very fast technicians, but I wonder how many of them would fight with a broken nose a la Motubu or with a broken hand like Kanazawa. 

I struggle with how to emphasize this with my students.  I want them to be safe and practice karate for life -so we're definitely not pitbulls.  I also want them to be good, clean technicians, not brawlers.  And yet, I think one of my instructors was right when he said a blackbelt should be able to handle himself in a real fight - that he wouldn't promote anyone to blackbelt whom he felt wasn't a bit of a fighter as well as a good technician on the exam.  It's a hard balance and I'm not sure I've found the way quite yet.