Form & Structure in Karate - reflections from an 8th Dan in Japan

Left to right: Ryuhei sensei, Uetake sensei, Armstrong sensei, Shiraoka snesei.

This year I finally returned to Japan following my moving away from living there in 2002. It was great to be back and take in all the familiar scents, noises and feel of the country that is so different from the West. However, it was extremely hot and very muggy which is something I had not missed.

Whenever I spend time in Himeji (a town most famous for being home to Japan’s largest castle) I am inspired by the older sensei who ensure they train and remain fit and fully active in the art. For example, most of the sensei here are in their sixties and seventies and still engage in ippon kumite and free kumite. For their ages they are in amazing shape and still nimble – a true testament of the benefits of studying the Way. As the Zen master Dogen, (the monk who brought Zen arts to Japan) said:

“ Jewels become objects of beauty by polishing,

Man becomes a true man through training,

What jewel is lustrous from the outset,

You must always keep polishing and always

keep training, do not depreciate yourself

in your study of the Way..”

This trip was to revisit with the sensei I had lived with when I was based in Japan, and to stay in touch given the dojo’s we interact with in Australia and the USA. Above all it was fantastic to talk with a sensei and friend I have become so close to over the years.

During the trip Uetake sensei (who holds Dan ranks in Kenpo, and is an 8th Dan in Shito-ryu.) stressed the importance of an instructor remaining active and training with students – for the student’s benefit and their own. He talked at great length about how student class numbers and organizational issues often impact a sensei’s own diligence on the art, and therefore teaching ability. He stated that it is much better to teach and not worry about such things as class size, or organization politics, but rather the core of one’s study of technique and the Way of Do. I noticed on this trip that Uetake sensei seemed to have become even stronger in the connecting of breath with technique impact - very inspiring to see improvement in someone 60s and a lesson to all...

On a related topic there had been some recent organizational changes in my old style so part of trhe trip was to involve myself to learn about that and continue ties with our dojos in the West. In particular I wanted to spend time with Master Uetake again having been an uchi deshi (live in student) with him. It was great to see him well (looking young as ever for 60 years of age). Recently he has become more involved in the broader karate community (which is very consistent with the Traditional Japanese Karate Network’s approach to dojo relationships) and is now the Chairman of the Himeji Karate Federation (which is all the organization for all the styles in the area).

While I had been practicing karate in Tokyo in recent years as an add on to my ongoing shito-ryu studies, I had not been involved in dojo training in Himeji since 2001 due to an organizational change in the karate landscape at that time - so it was refreshing to be back on the floor there. Uetake sensei’s karate had evolved during my time away. In part this evolution has been due to his organizational shift which has given him freedom to return more to his Shorinji Kenpo roots and combine that with his 8th Dan in Shito-ryu (he has labeled his own honbu dojo as Kenjufudokai whch translates to “studying the way of the fist for enjoyment a and strong mind”).

Comments on Form & Structure in Karate

Consistent with the recent path of many of our associated dojos in the USA & Australia an emphasis had been placed on fluid form, joint locks, and relating karate to the origins of self defense oriented kata. Uetake sensei is also a very big advocate of Do (the Way) and makes it a central topic to training – this should not be taken to make this Karate master sound like your classic image of an “old Zen man”, he is one of the most youthful 60 year olds I have ever seen, and more jovial than most teenagers.

Of most note since our earlier training days was Uetake sensei’s radically different approach to form. Before I try and comment on the form itself (structure of the technique) I will relate it to the topics of ancient budo and Zen Masters through ranging for Chinese war experts of thousands of years ago to the more recent Funaksohi sensei:

1. The ancient masters of Taoist Chinese leadership and war:

Texts from such works stress how structure (form) is a bad thing due to the following line of logic: “in battle if something has structure that means an enemy can work a way around it to achieve victory. With no structure (i.e. being formless) an enemy cannot easily work out a decisive tactic (The Book of leadership & Strategy – Lessons of the Chinese Masters by Thomas Cleary ISBN 0-87773-690-1).

2. Zen analogies relating water to form in fighting:

- Water is formless, taking the path of least resistance yet at the same time has

the power to carve through mountains.

- Through its lack of structure water is able to envelop anything in its path.

Bruce Lee would often use these types of water-fighting analogy in his famous

writings (The Warrior Within, by Bruce Lee. ISBN 0-8092-3194-8).

3. Sun Tzu, the Art of war:

- “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness”

(The Japanese Art of War by Thomas Cleary. ISBN0-87773-653-7).

Uetake sensei’s teachings seem to have become far less about technical form but instead were about core concepts (which often eludes lower ranked students based on comments from those watching the lessons). In particular it was impressive to see him now hitting harder than he did 10 years ago through an extreme relaxation of form and technique. Consequently the instruction was something that may shoot over the head of novice students and probably could only be followed in a valuable way by ranks of sandan and above in Japanese Karate (as a side note: students of Koryu styles (traditional Okinawan karate), like Taira sensei of teh Jundokan, would not find the approach foreign at all).

The comment above regarding lower ranks not following the formless approach is an important issue for instructors to recognize. Typically lower ranked students (here I include those up to shodan) need structure to mimic and develop a core – hence to a degree this dictates the regimented art of Japanese karate with its often overly rigid form i.e. it aids beginner learning. A conceptually simpler representation of “formlessness” than the ancient Chinese classics above can be derived from some of Master Funakoshi’s writings (Master Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan). He commented on beginner versus advanced karate with relation to form in his famous 20 precepts of karate. Precept 17 says, “Practice the basic stances, however at later stages in your training use more natural stances”. Uetake sensei’s class thrust was not so much about stance freedom, but rather relaxation to produce power derived from a central balanced point (the “tanden” and “hara” in Japanese Budo terminology). While this is nothing new to anyone in Japanese karate I must state that the degree to which it was displayed by this 60 year old master was profound even after my 20+ years of cruising through Koryu and Japanese Karate dojos in Australia, the USA and Asia.

Following Himeji I caught with some other karate friends in Nagoya and Tokyo. While in Nagoya, Mayuko san (pictured with me at the Nagoya Catsle) assisted in our latest online video course (Speaking Japanese for martial artists). In Tokyo I touched base with some friends that train in Kyokushin (I had visited their dojo regularly a few years back when I lived in Tokyo), as well as sensei Greg Story (5th dan Shito-ryu).

Hanshi Uetake - details

Shito-ryu 8th Dan - Japan, holds an 8th Dan in Shito-ryu and Studied Shorinji Kenpo to Nidan in his early years. He was previously Chairman of the Himeji Karate Fedration (which oversees about 40 dojo from different Japanese Karate styles). He trained for decades in the Renbukan Shito-Ryu system under Master Sotokawa and Master Iba. He has named his current honbu dojo Kenjufduokai which translates to "Enjoying the way of studying the fist and an immvoable mind".

Photo: Uetake sensei in 2006.

Right Photo: Known for long arms and fast hands a snapsot mid action in Heimji Japan 1997.

Dojo History Photos of Uetake Sensei

Uetake sensei performing seienchin at a tournament in Himeji Japan in the early 1980s.

Uetake sensei (5th Dan at the time) visiting Renbukan Shito-ryu in 1986 with Sotokawa sensei. At Shihan Greg Story's honbu dojo in Australia.

Uetake sensei visiting working maegeri on Jason Armstrong shihan 2006 in Himeji Japan.

Uetake sensei with Jason Armstrong and Iba sensei in Japan in 1997 .

Uetake as a Shihan 6th Dan in 1995

Sai discussion at a party in 1998 (Uetake sensei and Jason Armstrong). Uetake is a big fan of Sai.

Dinner at the Uetake household in the 1990s (a time here Jason Armstrong lived as an Uchi Deshi with Uetake & under the training of Sotokawa sensei).

Uetake sensei refereeing a bout with Jason Armstrong in Japan in 1997

Uetake with his wife and kids from his second marriage. Winter of 2018

Uetake at 74 yrs of age after a class teaching Jason Armstrong kids.

Himeji Japan summer 2018.

Uetake Bunkai classes - working with Jason Armstrong

Horsing around at Dan Dan's bar - the after training drinking spot on Saturday night instructor classes in Himeji in 1990s.

The infamous Uetake sensei Beetle's cover band of the 1990s