From the Archives: An Interview with Higaonna Sensei
Having listened to what has been said up to now, what comes to mind is that behind something that seems simple is hidden something which is much deeper: in Japan, the Masters that teach who fully understand this are few, would you agree?
Well, they are few... And what is more, such concepts are not disseminated, given that generally all the concentration is on competitiveness. There’s nothing wrong with dedication to competitions, but let’s remember that Karate means training until death. As Master Chojun used to say, once upon a time we trained to defend our lives. And we should also train to surpass ourselves. This, he used to say, is the real Karate. “Karate is based on not hitting or being hit”, he would say. It means that avoiding combat is inherently linked to peace. We also have to remain humble. If we are about to use a force of 10, we should reduce it to 5. We should not want to fight. If we are humble, the adversaries lose the will to attack.
That is correct. Master Chojun Miyagi didn’t use to talk of “Karate”. He called it “Ti”, or “Bu”. He would say “Te is this, Bu is this”... It wasn’t even ever necessary to say “Goju Ryu”. He said to use it only when someone asked for it.
You were never supposed to say that you practiced Karate. You were not supposed to show it. The only important thing was training. It was not something to boast about: he would constantly repeat this. Master Chojun, when faced with a drunk, would steer well clear of him.
So as not to get involved in something?
Higaonna Sensei: He was afraid. Not of his adversary, but of the possibility that he might use some technique or dangerous move without realising it. After the war, among the ruins, there were a lot of thieves. This is why he used to always carry some change with him. Whenever he came up against a thief, he would give the money to them.
Was he really against fighting to such an extent?
Higaonna Sensei: A policeman once asked him why he behaved like that, and he replied that the man was doing something wrong, but in this way the situation was resolved without problems.
Another time, in a US military area there were a lot of different foodstuffs which hadn’t been stored away, and everybody was going there to steal them - Even the police. And they even claimed not to be thieves! And when they told Master Miyagi to go there, he replied that the mountains were full of food, and that whoever practiced “Bu” had to behave well. No matter how hungry you were, there was no need, he said, to steal the food of others.
He must have been an exceptional person!
Higaonna Sensei: He maintained that everybody, sooner or later, is put to the test. And that is precisely the moment in which whoever practices Karate must reflect and overcome the problem by using their intelligence.
This cannot be traded for money or material goods. The Master taught without charge. But if one of his students brought him tuition money, he would ask him “So you decide how much then, do you?” [laughs]
And yet he said that he did not want money! [laughs]
Higaonna Sensei: Yes. He had reached such heights in the practice of Bu! This is why he never really demonstrated the Kata much in Japan.
But that didn’t mean that he didn’t want to bring Karate to Japan or teach it there, did it?
Higaonna Sensei: No, it wasn’t for this reason! Given that in Japan there already existed mental aptitudes and tendencies linked to bushido, he probably believed that once a Kata had been taught to someone, that person should then practice it on his own. Okinawa, on the other hand, was full of lazy people [laughs], and he would teach people without even trying to get them to train. In this sense, he was an excellent teacher in Okinawa. This is why, in my opinion, only the bare necessities were passed on in Japan.
It was just that in Japan that Karate concentrated on the competitive aspect. Many teachers in Japan say that their Kata is for the competitions, or for obtaining Dan ranking [laughs]. Nowadays the Kumite is what people concentrate on. Of course, there are also those who still concentrate on the Kata.
Besides, speaking of all Shotokan, there is also a Shotokan style that is based on the figure of Sensei Nakayama and it has distinguished itself both for the Kata and the Kumite and is a fantastic school.
This is because there are also great teachers who emerge from the Kata and the Kumite and the competitions.
Higaonna Sensei: Exactly. There are many exceptional individuals.
Even among the teachers there are those such as Kanazawa of Shotokan and Maeda of Wado-ryu who have understood the essential nature of the Kata and have applied this to competitions.
Higaonna Sensei: Yes indeed, there are people who, while teaching methods for winning competitions, nonetheless deeply respect tradition. A Karate that is purely competitive can only be practiced up to a certain age, in my opinion. The point, however, is that Karate is in essence a challenge to yourself. I think that it is a good thing that children take part in competitions. It stimulates them to set objectives for themselves. And when the competitions are over, that is the time for personal training. In Okinawa too there are kids that win high school competitions without knowing how to do the Kata. It’s vital that we also teach the traditional aspects. I once said that this will be the fundamental point for the future.
In Japan there are even those who maintain that the Kata are pointless...
Higaonna Sensei: This is because they have never really experienced what Kata are. I am still no expert, but if I try to do a Kata to the absolute best of my ability, I realise that for each technique, and even for each position, there emerge mental, physical, medical, technical aspects and so many more aspects too.
It doesn’t matter if the Kata have a point or not: the point is that when it comes to strengthening oneself it is difficult to create the correct force, whereas if we discover rites that help us to move normally, it can be created.
So we’re talking about adapting our bodies so that we can utilise the techniques?
Higaonna Sensei: That’s it exactly. And depending on how we communicate, even if it isn’t easily seen, we do strengthen both our minds and our bodies.
Those who hold the opinion that the Kata are pointless say that they are not a simulation of combat.
Higaonna Sensei: The blows are carried out the same way, whether we are in a confined area or an open one, on sand or on a mountain, in a bright place or in a dark one, the positions and the hand techniques, but also our mental perceptions must function well. Even our line of vision, although it may seem to be fixed straight ahead of us, must be aware of what’s going on in all directions.
All of this can be developed through daily training of the Kata. Training like this on our own is hard going! If we train every day for an hour and a half by repeating “Gekisai dai Ichi” 100 times, it is really tough!
Needless to say, the next day our muscles are full of aches and pains. Every technique must be undergone decisively. This is why it becomes a challenge to oneself. When I was young I was good at gymnastics, but I didn’t know how to breathe or how to use the techniques. Bit by bit I learned how it was done.
Through repetition, right?
Higaonna Sensei: Yes. Training through repetition is absolutely vital. Once, in Europe, I made a group throw 1000 punches while in Shiko Dachi. They were pouring with sweat. It was a training session that consisted of nothing other than being in Shiko Dachi and throwing punches.
And what did these European students say?
Higaonna Sensei: “Great!” [laughs] And I replied “Yes. Simple is great. Karate is simple!” [laughs].
At the end of the day, a training session like that is really tough, but it serves to develop a form of trust in terms of real sensations and sensations of growth. This is why I always say that we must have faith in ourselves. And also in those that are teaching us. And also, if we push ourselves we are certain to fulfil our objectives. If we’re told to practice 100 times, initially we’re bound to reply that we cannot do it. But if we train every day, sooner or later we will be able to practice 100 times.
There are also times when I learn from my students. When I see a student who is moving well, I tell him to repeat the exercise and then I learn something [laughs]. And often it happens that while I’m teaching I learn something as well. And at those moments I am happy to practice Karate, and happy that we never really finish studying. And this happens more with the Kata than with Kumite.
Another important aspect of the Kata is that they have a story to tell. They came about as a collection of techniques carried out by masters that used them in order to survive. This is why they contain hidden meanings. They were not merely created as a form of exercise. We’re dealing with collections of techniques used in real combat. Obviously, changes have occurred. But Master Miyagi used to say that their essence had not changed. Even if he also said that they should be kept hidden.
The other day Master Shimabukuro stated that: “The techniques are changeable. Even the Kihon (basic training) contained in the Kata’s, once it has been fully learned, can be applied in many different ways depending on the circumstances. Whether or not the Kata are useful, whether or not they are applicable – this is an extremely superficial way of looking at things”.
Higaonna Sensei: You’re absolutely right! The internal forms in the Kata are basic forms containing specific techniques, but they are not used as they are presented. In my Dojo we have subdivided the Kata: there are the Bunkai of the Kihon, the traditional Bunkai & the applicable Bunkai. It depends on the level of the person who is learning. And this is because the techniques change depending on the adversary. They even change depending on whether the adversary is large or small. So we can’t simply say things like “this technique is used in this way”. It wouldn’t make sense.
The chat the other day also brought up gamaku and chinkuchi, and I would like to ask you a few questions about these. At the time you, Master, didn’t say anything…
Higaonna Sensei: Master Chojun used to teach in dialect. “Put some chinkuchi into it!”, “More gamaku!”, “Give me more kushi!” and so on.
Ah, so even Master Chojun used to say “Put chinkuchi into it!”?
Higaonna Sensei: Well... he wouldn’t say it often, given that it was so obvious. Just to the beginners, he would say to use gamaku. There are those who, when they contract their bodies in Sanchin, do not rotate their hips as they punch. In these cases he would say to use more gamaku.
With regard to those who punched by only using their arms, did he mean for them to rotate their hips more?
Higaonna Sensei: Yes. To use chinkuchi, to use kushi (hips – koshi in Japanese.), to use gamaku when we punch. But this all goes without saying. Apart from chinkuchi and the hips, he would only say to use more gamaku to absolute beginners. The thing that Master Chojun repeated the most was “Do chuuraku!”, which in a certain phrase meaning to move in an elegant way. If the movements and the Kata are not elegant, he would say, we do not create “bu”.
Elegant movement is certainly the ideal, right?
Higaonna Sensei: Absolutely. Initially we can be a bit stiff in our movements, but we gradually obtain graceful movement. He’d also say “Give it chinkuchi, chiruchanchantoshii!”. “Chiru” means the muscles and the tendons, whereas “chan” means movement. So this all means that our bodies create power and velocity through our muscles and our joints.
Master Chojun never used to teach from one fixed position. He observed everything, from your gaze to your movements.
And he used to teach in dialect...
Higaonna Sensei: Yes. Even from the feet, he would say that we should “Muchite”.
By “muchite” did he mean to move them in a decisive way?
Higaonna Sensei: It probably meant that if you were approaching an adversary, you should stand on his foot to stop his movement. This is the basic rule. After you have kicked, you tread on the adversary’s foot with a large step. You block their movement by standing on their foot and you close your hand in kakete.
In Japan there are many who question your martial valour, Master. When you built your dojo in Yoyogi, is it true that many came for a dojo yaburi. (a practice that means “knock down the dojo”. The Master of a dojo is challenged, and if you beat him, you take control of that dojo by depriving it of its very basis, which will cause its closure given the dishonour that its defeated Master has suffered. This practice is now considered illegal but apparently has not totally disappeared.) And is it true that many of these challengers were only to leave your Dojo in an ambulance?
Higaonna Sensei: No, not at all! (laughs) Nothing as spectacular as that ever happened! You know, Yoyogi was near Kamiya, and every now and again someone who practiced Taikiken would come to me to me to ask if we could train together. And so, when I was very young, on occasion things might have gotten a little out of hand...
Master, that is what people call a “dojo yaburi”... (laughs). And the story of the ambulance?
Higaonna Sensei: No, no. They all went away on their own two feet. (laughs) Only once did it happen that one day Master Ken'ichi Sawai came by...
Higaonna Sensei: I was wondering what he could possibly want from me, and went outside. He bowed his head and said “I am sorry for what my students did the other day”. This made me think that he was a truly great Master!
Ooh! So even the Taikiken, renowned for being a contact school, understood that your school was a serious business!
Higaonna Sensei: Ah, who knows! (laughs)