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Lineage: Funakoshi Gichin – the Founder

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The founder of what would be called the Shotokan style started life (as do so many of the martial arts masters), as a small and sickly child. Decended from Okinawan bushi, he grew up in the ryukyu islands (Okinawa). He learned Te the old way, through personal training, either one-on-one or in very small groups, at the homes of several Te masters, often at night. He would go to school or work during the day and then walk miles to and from his training, much of the time, on lonely trails in the dark. While he would grow up to become a school teacher and raise a family, he would continue to train in or teach Te for his entire life…living into his late eighties. He never sought the limelight, being very quiet and humble, but was very devoted to what would become Shotokan. And, although he was acknowledged as one of Okinawa’s leading Te experts, he was not a fighting champion such as Motobu Choki nor the best kobudo (weapons) expert like Mabuni Kenwa. Instead, he was considered to be the best educated, best speaking/writing (in Japanese), and highly respected sensei whom the Okinawan Te community felt would serve [...]

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Questions about Ranks

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Sometimes students will ask me several related questions: What’s the difference between a black belt sempai and a black belt sensei? Or, What is the difference between a shodan (1st degree black belt) and a judan (10th degree black belt) and all of the dans in between? Or, I’ve heard that a red belt is higher than the highest black belt, does Shotokan have a red belt? Understand, I do not claim to be the ultimate authority on rankings in karate, but these are my thoughts. First of all, a sempai (or senpai) could be someone senior to you in the dojo/ministry. Conversely, a kohai could be someone junior to you in the training hall. I say could be, because in Japan, the sempai/kohai relationship is one of mentorship, like taking someone under your wing. Normally, I call the brown belts and above, the sempais of the dojo or ministry because they have an informal responsibility to help teach the color and white belts and to serve as good examples for all members of the group. The question comes up then, how does a sempai become a sensei? I usually reserve that title for a black belt who has actually [...]

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Sports, Aerobics and Karate-Do

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I realize that everyone starts up in karate for their own particular reasons, the more common ones being: self-defense, exercise, martial arts movies, tournament trophies, cultural appreciation (really!), and one especially common in the secular dojo…”because my parents wanted me to learn some discipline.” For most adults, if they have the patience and drive to hang in with karate-do beyond a year, these early drivers fall off and they’re left with the unbelievable realization that…they just plain enjoy training. This should not be confused with the initial infatuation that many feel for the art, which so often, like in romantic relationships, fades and then karate becomes “something I tried for a little while.” A mature love of the art is a true interest in the bio-physics and dynamics of movement, force projection and speed. It is a real appreciation for the traditions, thought, effort, and sharing attitude of the experts that brought this modern, complex system, with its ancient roots, so freely to each of us who are fortunate enough to study and practice it. For those who survive the first year, therefore, who make it through the natural screening process of repetitive basics (what I like to call “Eternal [...]