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Interview with Iain Abernethy by Geoff Thompson (October 2000)

Interview with Iain Abernethy by Geoff Thompson (October 2000)

Geoff Thompson: What made you want to write a book, and specifically about kata?

IA: I have a great love of reading and hence have always had the ambition to write a book. As your foreword to the book states, karate has not enjoyed a great reputation of late. It is very common to hear comments such as, "karate is no good at close range", "karate men can't fight on the ground" or "karate is no good for real fighting." All of which is absolute rubbish if you practice the art as its founders intended. I love the art of karate and am deeply indebted to it. It does upset me to see this highly effective art slighted. I decided to write a book on the close range aspects of the art - as recorded within the katas - as few karateka practice at close range, and it is my view that they should. The striking side of karate is well understood but the grappling side is not, and it needs to be if the art is to regain some of its lost credibility.

Geoff Thompson: The book talks at length about the grappling aspects of the kata, do you get your students to do tachi-waza (throwing techniques) and ne-waza (ground techniques) randori (free fighting)?

IA: Yes. As part of their training they will learn and practice punches, strikes, throws, kicks, takedowns, chokes, strangles, leg locks, ankle locks, finger locks, arm locks, wrist locks, neck cranks, ground fighting etc. As for randori, the exact type is matched to the level of the student. In my book, I list several different types of live practice and not every one is suitable for every student. The lower grades tend to focus on striking only (common karate sparring), grips & movement, striking & defending from a clinch and regaining their feet from the floor. The main purpose of this is to desensitise them to the intimacy and intensity of close range fighting. As the student progresses so does the type of sparring. Some of the black belts from the club engage in heavy contact and any-range sparring. This tests our skills and our ability to apply the kata's methods in live situations. The black belts personally choose to do this and I would never force anyone to engage in this type of training if they did not want to. The sparring is closely supervised; we don suitable gloves and put down the mats. Significant injuries are rare (we have only had to ring for an ambulance once!) but cut lips and bloody noses are fairly common. I feel that as instructors we have to engage in this type of training otherwise how can we have confidence in what we teach. All the lessons learnt are then passed onto the students back at the club.

Geoff Thompson: Can the students learn the real applications without the randori?

IA: No, as I said earlier, on a compliant opponent everything works. Chojin Miyagi wrote in his "Karate-do Gaisetsu" (outline of karate-do), "Through sparring practice one may identify the practical meaning of kata." The only way to learn to apply a technique is to try and utilise it in live sparring. Too many karateka approach kata as an intellectual exercise, they may know what a kata movement is for, but do not develop the skills needed to use it.

Geoff Thompson: I have always taught karate as an all-encompassing art, and this book - to me - proves that it really is. Why does the watered down karate that reaches the dojos not represent the karate-concentrate that you portray in this book?

IA: There are many historical reasons for this - that would be too lengthy to go into here - but I feel the main problem is the undervaluing of the katas in favour of the art's sporting aspect. Many people belittle karate's sporting side and I feel this is fundamentally wrong. Sport karate is exiting to watch and requires great skill. It has also benefited karate as a whole through the introduction of more productive and scientific training methods. The problem occurs when we try to take the methods of one environment and try to apply them in another. Sport karate has evolved from sparring based upon the "one blow-one kill" concept and hence does not permit many of karate's close range techniques on the grounds that should a specific technique be delivered with force the fight would be over. Many of the more dangerous techniques are also omitted for the safety of the participants, e.g. groin strikes. The use of sporting techniques in a real fight will lead to defeat as sure as using the katas techniques in competition will lead to disqualification. What is referred to as watered down karate is often the result of insufficient study of the katas and instructors passing off sporting methods as self-defence techniques to their students. The katas were devised long before the evolution of competition and it is within them we should look if effective fighting skills are our aim.

Geoff Thompson: From my own experience of kata/bunkai practice, classes learn a given applications, do it a couple of times, and then move on to something else. Do you think that there is room in the contemporary dojo to incorporate grappling - as taught in kata - into the curriculum proper?

IA: There simply has to be. Without the inclusion of the close range aspects, on a consistent basis, the art is essentially incomplete. Grappling is part of karate and it is my view that it must be included in regular practice. The striking should always be the priority however. It has been said that the essence of karate is found in ending the fight with a single blow. Close range fighting includes both striking and grappling and it is important to use the right method at the right time. When an opponent makes their initial grip, it is not our aim to become involved in a long drawn out wrestling match. The more time we spend entangled with an opponent, the more time their unentangled colleagues will have to repeatedly strike us. Grappling an opponent into submission can take time, whereas a well placed strike can end a fight in a split second. A great many of the kata's grappling techniques free limbs and position opponents so decisive strikes can take place. The danger is that we place so much emphasis on the striking that we totally omit the grappling. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and hence grappling should be a part of regular practice.

Geoff Thompson: This would mean that when karataka spar, any range would be allowed and many of the fights would end up in grappling and then on the ground. Is the karate world ready for this?

IA: Some are and some aren't. It is my understanding that a significant number of Okinawan & Japanese dojos train in this way, so one would not think it should be a problem. But I guess it must be because so few are practising in this way already. This omission is probably down to individuals failing to understand the need for skills at all ranges. Whether the karate world is ready or not, the omission of close range techniques will leave the student woefully unprepared for a live confrontation. If the karateka understands the nature of live fights and has sufficiently practised and understood their katas, I feel they would embrace all-range sparring as a means to further develop their skills.

Geoff Thompson: At this level true karate - certainly in the sparring or in a real fight - would not look unlike the fights on the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).

IA: In terms of the fighting being at every range, then yes, it would be similar. In other respects it would be radically different. Karate was designed specifically for use in a civilian environment against untrained attackers. It was never intended for use on a battlefield or in a sporting arena against a trained fighter. The methods in karate were designed by sailors, scholars and other civilians. The type of attacks such people were likely to encounter would be the attacks of the violent and untrained, e.g. wild swings, tackles, head butts etc. as opposed to the skilled combinations of a trained fighter. As a result, the katas do not contain the counters to counters to counters that a samurai on a battlefield, or the modern combat sports practitioner, would need. The counters that do exist in the katas are typically responses to an opponent stopping the karateka from gouging the eyes, seizing the throat or crushing the testicles, typically by grabbing the wrist before the technique can be completed. The katas also contain strikes to weak points, stamps, small joint manipulation etc. The UFC does not allow such techniques and the katas do not provide methods for countering a skilled fighter in a rule bound environment. Obviously, the more brutal methods are omitted from sparring but they can be indicated. If I firmly take hold of the inside leg of my partners Gi, I could just have easily seized the testicles. This would be acknowledged and the bout stopped. Another major difference is the amount of time spent on the ground. In some UFC bouts, fighters have remained on the floor for over half an hour. To do so in reality would effectively amount to suicide. In our ground fighting practice, if one participant should regain their feet whilst the other is prone, the vertical fighter is declared the winner. So in both real fights and sparring, karate would look different from the UFC in some ways but would be similar in others.

Geoff Thompson: Is the purpose of your book to shed some light on the true bunkai or would you like to see karate take a giant leap into the 21st century and actually start applying the bunkai into the everyday teaching of karate classes?

IA: I would like to see the karateka of today practising and applying bunkai in the everyday karate class. But it is less of a leap forward and more of a leap back. The karate of yesteryear is far more complete and effective than the karate of today. The beautiful thing is that the karate katas provide a direct and living link to the methods of the past. If we want to practice karate as a complete and effective art then we must practice it as our forefathers did.

Geoff Thompson: There are going to be a lot of defensive karataka out there who will not like your premise, they might even deny it. What would you say to them?

IA: Nothing. Everyone is free to practice the art as they see fit. I do, however, feel that it is a travesty to ignore all the lessons the kata has to teach. By refusing to practice the art in its entirety we are ultimately ensuring its demise as it will fail to attract new students who want to practice an art that is effective and complete. But each to their own.

Geoff Thompson: If you actually taught the techniques in your book in a regular dojo, and on a regular basis, karate would change almost beyond recognition. In my view it would be far more exciting, more practical for self-defence, and certainly more honest. How do you think this might be received?

IA: The thing is karate has already changed beyond recognition. In his book, "Karate-Do my way of life," Gichin Funakoshi wrote, "The karate that high school students practice today is not the same karate that was practised even as recently as ten years ago, and is a long way indeed from the karate that I learned when I was a child in Okinawa." I feel sure that if the founders of the art could see the way it is interpreted today, they would barely recognise it. Shigeru Egami in his book 'The Heart of Karate-do' wrote, "There are also throwing techniques in karate… Throwing techniques were practised in my day, and I recommend that you reconsider them." The karate of old, as contained in the katas, is much more exiting and practical. If anyone came to my club they would see the same things practised in many other karate clubs, line work, one-step sparring, kata, striking only sparring etc. But they would also see the locks, throws, chokes, ground work etc. I am not suggesting a radical overhaul of the art - as much of what is already practised in the modern day karate dojo is great as it is - just that we should utilise the art in its entirety and practice karate in the way its creators intended. Some will agree with me and others will choose not to. If the individual is happy with what they do and benefit from it, then I fully support them. My way does not have to be their way.

Geoff Thompson: How is it Iain that all of this amazing bunkai has escaped the knowledge of the regular dan grade?

IA: As I mentioned earlier, there are many historical reasons relating to the ways in which the katas were taught. As an example, when Master Itsou introduced karate onto the physical education program of the Shuri Jinjo elementary school in Okinawa, he believed Karate to be too dangerous to be taught to children and set about disguising the more dangerous techniques. As a result of this change in approach, the children were taught the katas as mostly blocking & punching. This enabled the children to gain such benefits as improved health and discipline from their karate practice without giving them knowledge of the highly effective & dangerous fighting techniques that the katas contain. The terminology used by Itsou when teaching children is the one most prevalent today and hence the labels attached to techniques often have no bearing upon their intended use. So a modern karate student may simply accept that a certain movement is a "block" and never look for the movement's true purpose. There are numerous other historical reasons in addition; things like the original secrecy surrounding the art, the katas and their applications etc. I feel, however, that the main reason is that many people practice the katas but few study them. No matter how nice a kata looks, it is of little use if the techniques and concepts it contains cannot be utilised. All the information is there, you just have to study it. The regular dan grade tends to view kata as a pointless activity that is begrudgingly learnt and practised simply to satisfy grading requirements. I think it was Einstein who said that you could look at the surface of an orange in an infinite number of ways but it would not be until you split it open that you would learn what an orange was all about. Study the katas in-depth and all the knowledge is there for the taking. If you wish to acquire anything of value you have to be prepared to pay the cost. Many don't spend enough time on the katas and hence fail to extract the profound knowledge they contain.

Geoff Thompson: Your bunkai is very practical and your book covers, specifically, the grappling side of karate. What about the claims that pressure points are at the heart of karate bunkai. Does your book cover pressure points?

IA: I don't feel it is my bunkai. It belongs to the kata, but thank you for the compliment. I disagree that pressure points are at the heart of karate bunkai. Effective fighting techniques are at the heart of karate bunkai. Certainly pressure points are included in this but the katas are not exclusively pressure point drills. The katas contain throws, chokes, strangles, joint locking and dislocation, groundwork and numerous other fighting strategies and concepts, in addition to pressure points. I feel knowledge of the weaknesses of the human anatomy will help the karateka to apply their techniques. But to rely on pressure points alone is as foolish as relying on only punches, only throws, only kicks etc. The kata teaches us to use anything and everything in order to win. The amount of knowledge in the katas is vast; they are not solely about pressure points. As for the book, it does include a small amount on pressure points that can be gouged or rubbed to good effect whilst grappling.

Geoff Thompson: There is a heck of a lot of judo in the karate bunkai. Would you recommend that karataka also study judo to get a better understanding of karate? They do in Japan.

IA: I believe Judo to be without equal when it comes to grappling. Because they have concentrated on grappling they have taken it to a very high level and hence the study of Judo will take the karateka well beyond the level they would achieve if they studied karate alone. The essence of karate lies within the "one blow-one kill" concept. We always try to end it with strikes. The grappling in the katas is a back up system. Also, the techniques within the katas are designed for use against untrained attackers. Kata will not make you a great grappler; it will make you competent, but not great. If an individual wished to be a high quality grappler then - as I say in the book - they should take up a dedicated grappling art.

Geoff Thompson: I studied boxing for many years and I couldn't believe how similar many of the hand movements and footwork were to karate - especially in the bunkai. Should we also have a look at boxing, perhaps even Thai, indeed should we look at lots of different arts to better understand our own?

IA: It is a bit like music. All the music in the world, from Mozart to Motorhead, is based upon the same principles. Different musical styles emphasise the various principles to differing levels, in a similar way to differing martial arts styles, but they are essentially based upon the same concepts. There are only so many ways to punch, throw, strangle etc. I am constantly looking at how other arts apply the principles contained within the karate katas and adapting those aspects into my training if appropriate. I think everyone else should as well. Another important thing is that if you do not know what a throw, or a choke, or a lock looks like you will never see it in the kata. Looking at other arts will definitely help you to understand, and refine, the principles and techniques already contained within your own art.

Geoff Thompson: What of the future Iain, what does it hold for you?

IA: As far as karate goes, keep training and learning. I have also recently started work on a second book. The first one was supposed to be a one off, but I have enjoyed the process so much I have decided to write another, still early days with it though. As for the rest of my life, just keep enjoying it.

Geoff Thompson: I'd just like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on a great achievement and a great book Iain. Very well done.