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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Shobu ha, Issho Ichido

     The last entry on Kumite generated a number of private responses; some think I'm brilliant (thank you again) while others believe I should "increase your medication[sic]". The majority of the comments lie somewhere in the center of the continuum.

     Fortunately it's my blog, my thoughts. If you are offended by my ideas, here's an idea; don't read them. Tibetan Buddhism teaches words only offend us when we fear there is truth in what is being said. Hmmmm . . . . . . .

     I blame my current teacher, Sanchez Renshi, for your discomfort. He strongly encourages students there is the traditional way, the right way, the hard way, the wrong way, and the easy way. You (i.e. "I") have to decide what the truth is for me. It WOULD be a lot easier if he just told students what to do and believe but then he would simply be making little copies of himself. Instead he teaches the basics, keeps an ear open to innovation and discourages cronyism. Unfortunately he encourages my academic, pseudo intellectual prattle - what you're reading.

     Anyway kumite really IS an important topic for every karateka, and something we all must learn conceptualize in order to continue training. If we simply repeat what we were taught "cause that's the way we've always done it" we are nothing more than robots. We can become very good robots but remain fearful of original ideas.

     First we must decide WHAT we believe.

     Example. Remember when you decided what your spiritual orientation was? Weather you believed in a deity or not? Of course not, you were indoctrinated by your parents, caregivers, and other significant adults. If you developed your own sense of self you one day did ask the question "What do I believe in and why?" You may or may not have changed your ideation but at least now it's YOUR belief and not an inter-generational transmission of un-reviewed belief.

     Kumite is the same. You reach the yudansha ranks, finally you're a recognized student, and hopefully start to ask yourself questions about what you believe and do not believe.

     Fortunately, for me, I have a strong background in anatomy and physiology. Even as a mudansha I soon learned many of the sacred cows of karate were delusions; e.g. "you rotate your fist on a punch so that the twisting motion tears the flesh on contact." I started thinking; out of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of patients I have seen struck with a fist how many had tear marks where the assailant's knuckles made contact.

     Answer ……

     Wait for it …..

     N - O - N - E! (except when brass knuckles were used)

     Now, back to Kumite.

     I conceptualize there being five different types of Kumite with numerous sub-divisions:

          (1) No or minimal contact (occasional light contact slips in).

          (2) Moderate contact (although the word medium is seldom defined and tends to try to hide the words "testosterone driven").

          (3) "Yudansha Rules" (testosterone driven)

           (4) Full contact (another nebulous term - usually followed by the words "except to the _____".)

          ((5) No Kumite practiced.

     Many times instructors (not true Sensei's but instructors) will tell students you have to get hit so you will not be afraid in a real fight or won't get hit and simply stop fighting because it hurts.

     Much like Communism this sounds like practical advice but is not based in reality. In a real fight (yes, been there) hormones are dumped into your system. What Cannon, in 1923, identified in his book "Traumatic Stress", and later became known as the "Fight or Flight Syndrome". We all have heard of this syndrome and may even talk about it in training carelessly not allowing our ignorance of the subject prevents us from talking about it.

     During the Fight or flight syndrome there is a dumping of catecholamines (biologically active chemicals) into the body. These include, but are not limited to; epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and many others. This chemical dumping can produces all or some of the following somatic functions:

     Tachycardia, Tachypnea, Slowing of digestion, Peripheral blood vessel constriction, Muscular blood vessel dilatation, Gluconeogenesis, Decreased tearing and saliva, production, Pupil dilatation, Focused hearing, and Focused visual acuity. All of these functions are each designed to enable you to fight your assailant or run swiftly away.

     In addition, this chemical dumping can also produce more deleterious effects known as the cortical inhibition syndrome; an acute dulling of higher intellectual functioning. Symptoms of the cortical inhibition syndrome include all or part of the following:

     Agnosia, agraphia, alexia, akathisia, amnesia, anomia, aphasia, apraxia, delirium, dysarthria and/or dyscalculia.

     So, to clarify, in a "real fight" the limbic system (our primitive "lizard" brain") prepares by increasing our oxygen intake, redirecting blood flow to large muscle masses, increasing our visual acuity in low light situations, producing energy by converting fat to glucose and pumping the highly oxygenated nutrient rich blood throughout our body.

     At the same time our brain is betraying us by limiting our ability to think, cognate, and remember the fancy 473 different bunkai applications associated with Pinan Sho-dan.

     Really? Yep, look it up.

     Now if you were to fight for your life once a month you COULD eventually develop a limited control over some of these functions. Remember even the "big gun" MMA stars know their opponent will not kill them.

     But wait, it gets worse; Neither the Flight or Fight Syndrome nor the Cortical Inhibition Syndrome can be reproduced in Kumite, unless you will occasionally kill a student and the student knows and believes this.

     So what then is the purpose of Kumite? -- That's the question you have to answer for yourself grasshopper.

     Uechi-Ryu Shinjo Seiyu Sensei used to have a saying on the wall of his dojo: "Shobu ha, Issho Ichido" (A fight occurs only once in a lifetime). He wasn't talking about a smack down, or a drunk throwing a punch he was talking about Thunderdome; "Two men enter, one man leaves". Think about it.

     So, summary: Kumite teaches you how to spar in the dojo, it fails to prepare you for "real fights" and can actually increase the odds of you being seriously injured in such a fight. On the practical side (we all have to make a living) kumite decreases your dojo enrollments by intimidating students who have the potential to become excellent martial artists IF they were taught, mentored and grown with care and attention.

     Okay now that I've annoyed you, the oblivious question is "If kumite doesn't work why even study karate?"

     To quote Monty Python "A fair question and one that's be much on my mind of late. . . "

     (     ((1) At it's core I maintain karate is NOT about fighting another person but about YOU coming to terms with who YOU are. Kumite does not help in this introspective process. To do this karate MUST have a spiritual component integrated into it. While I, and many others, prefer Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc. all can work.

          (2) You WILL learn to defend yourself, physically and mentally, but not overnight and not in a year or two. If you an "win" a blackbelt in less than 5 years of hard work you dojo is probably not a dojo but rather it's a business. (Go ahead send me the letters - I won't answer them)

          (3) It is a martial tradition that teaches mindfulness. Remember "Mizo no kokoro"?

     OK now for the million dollar question; if I don't practice kumite how will I ever learn to defend myself?

     Best answer; if your primary reason for learning karate is to learn to defend yourself, buy a gun and take lessons. It's cheaper, easier, and you'll feel safer within a couple of weeks.

     Go back to the Cortical Inhibition Syndrome above. In a crisis situation we (all of us) respond automatically, without thinking (mizo no kokoro). Our bodies respond reflexively, automatically based on the concept of "muscle memory".

     You block a sucker punch with a jodan-uke because you've practice delivering jodan-uke's literally thousand's of times by the time you tie the blackbelt on. Your body remember and reacts, the motion has become part of you, automatic. How do you learn to defend yourself: KATA!!!!!!

     Again I go to Uechi-Ryu Shinjo Seiyu Sensei (and many other Okinawan masters who did not teach or practice Kumite). Seiyu Sensei stated ". . . by correctly practicing kata, fighting is not needed." Kata is taught full force with emphasis on proper delivery. Exercises develop the body's ability to deliver power strikes and protect oneself from injury. Zazen is practiced to settle the mind. Most importantly, in every kata, every strike is also a block just as every block is also a strike. And of course, Makiwara (again).

     Here's a thought. If you brought in a Golden Gloves amateur boxer to your dojo's Kumite night and everyone went full contact, how many of your best Kumite artists would survive? (I'm betting on the boxer) Don't believe me - I DARE YOU TO TRY IT! I DARE YOU!

     Show me a karateka who practices kata precisely, accurately and with power and you'll be looking at someone who will survive a street encounter.

     Who would you rather fight "for real"; the karateka whose kata is powerful and almost perfect or the guy who does a sloppy weak kata under the guise of "I include my personal bunkai"? P-U-U-U-U-L-E-E-E-Z-E!

     Again. You don't have to agree with me, in fact I hope you don't because you're taking my word and not developing your own thoughts. If you are upset with what I write; EXCELLENT! Now I dare you to explore your own mind and discover why. If you like what I write, great, dig in and start doing your own exploration.


Cox Hakase


Cannon, W. (1939), The Wisdom of the Body (2nd Edition), W.W. Norton & Company: St. Louis, MO.

Everly, G. (1994), Psychotraumatology, Springer Publishing: New York, New York

Grossman, D. (1996). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Grossman, D. (2000). Teaching Kids to Kill, A Case Study: Paducah, Kentucky. Paper presented at the American Psychiatric Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL. (Full text available on-line at ).

Miyagi, M. (2011). Interview with Miyagi Minoru Sensei, available at

MacDonald, E. (1992), Shoot the Women First, Random House Publishing, New York, New York.

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