28. Getting past “Level 1”

I ran into an old friend who teaches Okinawan karate the other night, and his off-handed remark (to be expanded upon later) made me recall a seminar I once observed given by one of Shotokan karatedo’s modern masters, the late Asai Tetsuhiko (he died in 2006).

I was still trying to publish my budo magazine, Furyu, and the local Shotokan folk alerted me to Asai sensei’s visit and invited me to do an interview with him, for which I was very grateful. I had heard tall tales of this martial arts master and was looking forward to seeing what he looked like in the flesh.

He turned out to be rather unimposing physically. He was barely five-foot four inches tall, if that, and unless he was animatedly talking about a technique, he spoke softly and gently. His eyes and eyebrows had those upturned “samurai eyes” one sees in exaggerated form in portraits of kabuki actors, and his one glass eye turned lazily compared to his other eye. He moved with very little pretensions, so unlike some karate sensei I used to see in tournaments, who walked around like proud peacocks.

Asai sensei at the time was the technical director of the Japan Karate Association, the JKA, which taught Shotokan style karatedo. He later founded and was chief instructor of the International Japan Martial Arts Karate Asai-ryu and the Japan Karate Shoto-Renmei, or the Japan Karate Shoto Association. Asai sensei taught karate in Hawaii for five years in the 1960s, so his seminar some time in the 1990s (I forget the date) was a homecoming of sorts for him. Foregoing all the political intrigues that preceded and followed his death, Asai’s technical acumen was incredible, from the little I gained from observing that one seminar.

His words bear retelling, if only because I think they went totally over the top of the heads of most of the seminar’s attendees. Apparently, the organizers had forgotten to enlist the services of a very good interpreter. They relied upon the mother of a young student, pulling her in at the last minute to interpret Asai sensei’s more complicated verbal instructions. She was a Japanese national but probably knew next to nothing about karate, and her grasp of English was severely limited, so her translations were garbled and left out some key points.

So, for example, Asai sensei noted that, “You are all very good at what I would call Level 1 karate. Level 1 is basic form. Kihon. Step. Punch. Kick. Step. In Level 1 you are just trying to do each movement right.  You exaggerate the stance to build muscle. But that is Level 1. Level 2 is Step-punch, same time. Kick, move, same time. Level 3 is freedom to move smoothly, without any break. You are good in Level 1 but that is like forever staying with elementary school lessons. You need to go to high school in Level 2, and then college in Level 3.”

The mother translated all that as, “You are all very good!”

The attendees all felt good about themselves, and thus very few of them really lifted the blinders off their eyes and really SAW what Asai sensei was showing them.

Maybe I was ready for what he had to say, in any case. I had long since stopped doing karate, convinced that the current trends in most karate dojo were going the wrong way. I was impressed by some of the techniques being unveiled in some Okinawan karate schools, but for Shotokan systems and American karate in general, I had developed a very dim view. In addition, I could understand what Asai sensei was saying. My Japanese isn’t all that great, but I followed each of his technical points quite clearly. He was trying to boil things down into very simple terms.

So bear in mind what I’m going to say next is filtered through my own prejudices, but Asai sensei had some ideas that bear repeating.

Most of his admonitions focused on the notion of Levels. Most karate players, or karateka, were on a Level 1 position, akin to being in elementary school and learning the ABCs. They were very good at it, but face it, that’s like saying you’re good at repeating the ABCs. Students who profess to wanting to be good karateka should continue to move up the levels to Level 2 and Level 3. Asai sensei gave the analogy of elementary, high school and college. He also showed what he meant by the difference in application of techniques, both in kata and kumite, of the Levels.

Take ippon kumite. Your attacker steps in and does an oizuki punch. You step back, block, and then return the punch. One, two, three. You focus on each step being a separate movement, large, strong and in proper form. Your zenkutsu dachi is very long. Nothing wrong with that. But it’s Level 1. It is supposed to develop proper form and muscles in bodies that are not used to moving in a particular way.

Level 2 would be if you were smoother. The attacker punches. You step back, deflect (which is somewhat different from “blocking”), at the same time, and immediately counterpunch. Much quicker. To do so, you don’t stand higher, but you do alter the stiff, tight, long zenkutsu dachi by shortening the stance and bending more at the knees. In that way, you will be able to move much faster and the flexed knees give you spring in your stance, the ability to move quicker and in more ways than straight back, if need be.  Instead of stepping straight back, maybe you angle back so the strike misses you because of the angle of your body, not just the deflection/block. You can do this because you already know your ABCs. Now you’re making whole sentences. You’ve got the principles of the movements and body balance, so you should feel the strength coming from the appropriate places: the hips and knees, not the shoulders and arms.

Level 3 would be college, or perhaps graduate school. Or, you’re writing creative essays. The attacker punches, and you move in at the same time and counter immediately. Even before the attacker can complete the punch, you’ve sidestepped, perhaps deflected the punch (or not), entered and delivered a counterstrike, sweep or dislocating lock.

Okay, what did my friend say at the dance recital? He said, “I used to think karate and aikido were really different martial arts. But the older I get, the more I realize karate is really about entering, irimi, like aikido. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old and such, but they really look all the same to me now when you boil down the movements.”

When I saw Asai sensei move, he moved like an aikido master entering into and blending with an attack. In aikido and jujutsu, one way to enter an attack is called irimi. The attack goes past you and the committed attacker can’t regroup himself fast enough for another blow because you’re already up close, delivering a counter or a throw, using the attacker’s momentum against him. Asai’s irimi was marvelous.

I was flabbergasted at how Asai sensei moved. It destroyed all my preconceived stereotypes of how Shotokan people moved like robots.

He went further with his explanations and demonstrations. His partner tried a maegeri, a front kick. Asai slipped under the kick and ended up BEHIND the person, put his hands on his shoulders and threw him down backwards in the blink of an eye. For another punching attack, Asai jumped and spun in the air, avoiding the blow, and delivered at least three strikes to the back of the neck, shoulder and kidneys before landing and kicking him lightly in the rear end.

How to get to that point? Asai said you had to learn to relax, relax, relax. Release all tightness from your upper body. Chikara o nuku, he said. “Let go of” tension. The signature long stances of Shotokan were meant as training tools. But in reality, you didn’t make long stances, you made low stances. There’s a difference. He demonstrated the difference. Long stances were when you lengthened the stance in order to lower the center of gravity. This builds up muscle strength, he said, but not speed. He showed the modified kamae (positions): shorter in length, with knees relaxed and flexed. That way, you will have a springiness so that you can move from stillness to action immediately, without having to shift weight first because of being so splayed out at the legs.

With knees flexed, the strength should feel like it is coming from the hips, the koshi, or more succinctly, the seika tanden. Asai sensei chose a little girl and had her do a horse stance. He asked her to practice punching. Then he said, “Very good. But now, just relax. You don’t have to use strength. Just relax all your muscles in the upper body and snap out your punch, like it is nothing. Think of just going as fast as you can, first without putting any strength in it because if you do, sometimes you tighten up too much.”

The translator said, “Very good! Punch faster!”

So the girl did her best, but it looked pretty much the same. Asai gamely soldiered on and instructed her to lower her waist, bend at the knees. The translator said, “Get lower!” The girl spread her feet further apart instead of bending more at the knees.

Some other recollections: Asai sensei stressed loose, supple muscles, as in aikido. He gave some examples of stretching exercises. Even at his age, already well past his 60s, he could do a leg split while warming up. He said, stretching is not for the sake of stretching. It’s so your muscles are supple and you can use them more easily, without them tightening up. He then demonstrated: He had someone stand only about a foot and a half away from his body and he lifted his right foot up and was able to kick nearly straight vertically, his heel just under the other person’s chin.

“Well, you COULD do this kick for self-defense, but this is just a demonstration. If you CAN kick like this easily, then your normal, more frontal maegeri will be all that much more easy to do, don’t you think?”

Asai said he loved the Shotokan style of karate, but he felt it was an “incomplete” art. He encouraged the students to do cross training, to study Okinawan karate kata, to study Okinawan weapons, Chinese martial arts, if even just by studying their concepts and philosophies. He said he himself went to Okinawa to learn some kata that were “lost” to Shotokan. The experience of learning new kata gave him insights into the deeper meanings of the “orthodox” Shotokan kata.

This was translated into something like, “Study kata a lot.”

Thankfully, Asai sensei’s physical movements have been captured in some YouTube videos. But they are only pale fragments compared to seeing him move in reality, upfront and close. His interpretation of Shotokan took my breath away. I can’t say he was ever my sensei, but I learned an incredible amount from him just in that one seminar. His examples and teachings are etched in my mind, and hopefully, it will come out in some of my own body movements as I do jujutsu and iai. After all, as my friend said, “In the end, they all seem to have the same concepts, don’t you think?”

15 thoughts on “28. Getting past “Level 1”

  1. Fantastic article Wayne. Thanks a lot!

    I adhere to the cross training philosophy he (Asai) addressed. I think nowadays we are all to much closed on our own martial art or concept and cant see much further than that. The judoka (me myself I have been one) says: I am invincible in ground fight. It’s ok as long as the guy you are fighting with doesnt have a friend who kicks your head. The karate guy would emphasize on his striking abilities without taking into account his/her weak points…and so on. And regarding MMA that nowadays is getting so many publicity, in my opinion, they are not more than a blend of thai boxing, grappling and a lot of judo ground work. The same answers for them.
    Martial arts are supposed to be martial, there is no judge in the street and you may fight against 1, 2, 3…500. As one teacher of Aikido I met was explaining after a bokken kata “you do this and this and stay in zanshin for whatever it comes, be one enemy or 1000”. thats why I think a person commited to the study and practice of martial arts should do a “compensated” (i dont think ever practicing 5 styles at the same time is good at all) cross training.

    Thanks a lot Wayne.


    1. Thanks for your notes, Javi and Rick! I’m glad this blog struck a chord. Your replies also had me thinking…What if there’s a Level 4????

      1. Wayne,

        perhaps there are even 5 levels. Remember the gorin no sho?. We have earth (kihon), water (level2), fire (3), wind(4) and void (5). Level 5 could be a state of mind in which you identify a conflict or an attack in advance and you avoid or solve it before your oponent even starts moving. Maybe is more than this, I can’t say as me myself I consider to be yet in level 2 and trying to reach the 3rd. MAybe this is a better way to consider the ranks than with colour belts (?).


  2. Javi, I have no doubt that there are surely other levels, primarily mental, emotional, non-physical, etc., that most of us have barely begun to scratch. I suspect colored belts started off as a good idea but I think their importance sometimes gets out of hand, especially among younger students. But that’s just my opinion. On the other hand, they do motivate young people to train hard for an outward goal, and maybe later on they realize what is inside is more important than what they wear on the outside.

  3. Thanks for sharing.

    I’d like to post a translated version of your article in my blog – of course giving full credit and linking back to your blog. Would this be ok for you? My blog can be found at http://www.specialmove.de/

    Best regards,

  4. Just found your article for the first time, thank you very much!
    If you are in the US you might look for a Ohshima Shotokan dojo (SKA). Because irimi and relaxing are the main goals of Ohshima Shotokan. Interesting that also Asai emphasized that so much.
    irimi and iai are even parts of the higher dan examinations (irimi yodan, iai godan kumite).

  5. My father was his top student for 5 years in Hawaii.. This is why just being his student is not enough.. Try to be the Best student of any instructor and the Instructor will give you the most he can. I would watch Asai and my father in their prime Kumite after classes … Epic .

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