The non-contraction (non-tension) way in Karate-do.
“Animals are not muscle-bound; why should a man be? Pliancy and flexibility are natural characteristics of the human body; rigidity is the mark of death.” Master Shigeru Egami, “The Way of Karate, Beyond Technique”.
Karate and Karate-do have taken many different directions both with respect to objectives and specially with respect to technique. Karate has evolved, de-evolved and taken such diverse forms that today it is actually impossible to try to talk about them all in a general way. An interesting classification, one I would like to use in this essay, is to separate two main tendencies with respect to their attitude towards contraction and what creates an effective technique: let’s call them the contraction style and the non-contraction (relaxed) style. It is based on this difference in approach that I will briefly analyze the developments within Shotokai Karate-do as a direct derivative of the original Karate that Master Gichin Funakoshi introduced in Japan. Though a bit limited in the breadth of the subject I will treat, some general ideas may be obtained and they could maybe be applicable to other styles of Karate or other Martial Arts completely. Before starting I would like to warn you that it will not be an exhaustive analysis and secondly that I will mainly base my comments on what masters within Karate have to say, considering that I am truly just a beginner.
When Master Gichin Funakoshi introduced Karate to mainland Japan in a definitive way in 1922 (Funakoshi, 1988; Funakoshi, 1973; Cattel, 1989), he arrived with an incomplete and rather primitive self-defense martial art developed on the island of Okinawa under influence of mostly Chinese martial arts (Cattel, 1989). Techniques were done in high body positions as can be seen in the first books Gichin Funakoshi published, movements were a bit disjointed and some tension was involved, this can be observed in old videos. Technically defense and attacks were largely based on arm techniques and very few leg techniques. Since that day stances and all techniques have been extensively researched and some strongly modified by his subsequent students (Egami, 1976).
One must not forget that when Gichin Funakoshi sensei started the most noticeable expansion of his art in the 1930’s, he was already more than 60 years old. Furthermore, he began a strong expansion within the University circle (Noble, 1985), students many times misunderstood what O-sensei was teaching for they thought he was too old to do things “well”. Master Shigeru Egami mentions in “The Way of Karate, Beyond technique”, that they thought he threw blows (tsuki) in a non-contracted way just because he couldn’t tense his muscles due to age. Master Mitsusuke Harada also mentions how Master Funakoshi’s technique could look deceptively soft: “The old Master would strike the post (makiwara) one thousand times a day, left and right lightly, uttering a soft “hoi” sound. Funakoshi’s punches did not seem strong to an observer, but were, in fact, very powerful”. Another passage were Master Funakoshi says to young Master Harada “This is how Itosu/Azato [Master Harada cannot remember which] could stop a man” and Funakoshi would lightly touch Harada with an ippon-ken (one-knuckle fist) on the chest… The technique was soft, relaxed and unfocussed. (Layton, 1997). So the younger students trained with contraction not because they were taught to do it this way, rather because they thought contraction was the right way to do strong techniques.
Yoshitaka (Gigo) Funakoshi sensei, O-sensei’s son, took over the instruction in 1932, after Takeshi Shimoda sensei died of influenza (Layton, 1997, Egami, 1976). Considering the fact he was very ill (tuberculosis and later lung gangrene) and actually living on borrowed time, he seems to have been very uncompromising and at times emphasized strong training. This together with a militaristic spirit that prevailed in the late thirties and the first half of of the 40’s may have been the reason in part for the tense and staccato movements encountered within sports karate groups (contraction styles) nowadays.
In any case, research was begun by Master Shimoda, he started to develop low karate stances and continued by Yoshitaka Funakoshi with a small group of students, among them Shigeru Egami and Genshin Hironishi (Layton, 1997; Cattel, 1989; Egami, 1973; Tokitsu, 199?). Karate-do evolved as a result of their discoveries, stances became more natural with respect to body mechanics and free from unnecessary tensions, this is clearly noticeable when we observe the front stance (zenkutsu-dachi). Leg position is natural, without strange and uncomfortable twists, the hip and the torso is placed in half-facing position (hanmi) and the back leg is in a natural bent position. These types of changes were done to all techniques and new ones were also developed by Gigo Funakoshi sensei and his research group, such as mawashi geri, yoko geri kekomi, ushiro geri, ura mawashi geri, fudo-dachi, etc (Anonynous, 1983, Layton, 1997; Harada, 1983; Cattel, 1989; Noble, 1985).
After Yoshitaka Funakoshi’s death, differences within Karate-do arose in a much stronger way, without Gigo to control the situation, separation started to become evident. Divergencies in philosophy culminated after Gichin Funakoshi’s death, creating two clear-cut differing groups, not only technically, but in their objectives within the art (Hironishi, 1994). These two groups are well represented by the JKA, (commonly, but erroneously, called Shotokan) and on the other hand Shotokai. The JKA group is a good representative of the contraction style and Shotokai of the non-contraction (relaxation) style.
The contraction style and the relaxation style are distinguishable by the way strength is generated. Master Sugimoto classifies them in two types:
First, the strength that originates from contraction, which makes it stay within the body.
Secondly, the strength that is emitted and let out from a point. (Sugimoto, 198?)
Both are obviously strengths and as Master Sugimoto says, have totally different characteristics. He continues: “The first one is commonly encountered within most karate groups, here strength is attained by contracting muscles in a violent fashion. Movements are stopped abruptly generating a strong snapping sound in the Karate suits (Karate-gi). Even though movements may attain momentarily quite some speed, they only depend on physical strength and sometimes even breathing is unconsciously stopped on occasion. Due to this contraction all movements are limited in their radius of action, free movement is limited, the breathing rhythm is broken and transpiration appears. Even though techniques may seem effective, and there is a sensation of really working out, most of the strength is locked within the body instead of getting out. Due to this retained strength the body vibrates, producing the illusion that the movement is strong and effective (Sugimoto, 198?).
The second type of strength, the strength that is emitted and let out from a point, as Master Sugimoto describes, is the strength that Shotokai searches to attain. Useless and wasted are all the energies that are wasted in the rest of the body, and not involved in the actual transmission of the energy to the objective through the unique point of contact. Master Egami describes it thus: “Two points are crucial [in a tsuki]: 1) Relaxing and 2) concentrating power. If the body is tense or rigid, the power in the elbows, shoulders, stomach, hips and legs cannot be released. Power cannot be dispersed throughout the body; it must be concentrated in the fist alone.” (Egami, 1976).
Following Master Yoshitaka Funakoshi in research within Karate, the most notorious would be Master Shigeru Egami and his subsequent students like Masters Aoki and Miyamoto. As mentioned before, stances were changed during the years with Master Gigo Funakoshi and the general approach to Karate became deeper and not solely oriented toward self-defense. In Master Egami’s words: “The changes have by no means been merely technical ones; changes have also occurred in the way of thinking”. [Through] practice you can clarify the relation between body and mind, understand the relation between one’s own mind and the mind of the other, and seek the innermost secrets of the human being (Egami, 1976). Or as Master Isao Obata puts it: “Karate is an art. It must be regarded as such with its entirety of philosophical thought and development of the mind in harmony with the body. If it isn’t thought of this way, it is valueless. It is like eating only the bitter skin of the apple while leaving the inner meat untasted. It is this crucial premise that is being overlooked today, and if the tide is not turned, I must predict the demise of the art.” (BB, 1972)
An interesting and very enlightening experience that can be obtained from Master Egami’s research into tsuki effectivity. It is the origin of the more radical changes within Karate-do, a courageous research involving re-learning decades of Karate, restudying the art from the foundations and involving a sacrifice beyond belief.
After the Second World War, Master Shigeru Egami became obsessed with trying to find out if his tsuki was truly effective, this was not merely an egotistic doubt, rather, as he describes it:
“If the adversary’s attack doesn’t have any true effectivity, you do not seriously need to stop it, you don’t even need a technique. A truly effective tsuki must be countered with a serious blocking or evasion technique. That is when true training (keiko) begins.” (Egami, 1972; Tokitsu, 199?;).
He decided that the only way to find out would be to start to receive blows from all type of Martial Artists (karateka of all styles, judoka, kendoka, boxers, etc.) and even common people. Master Shigeru Egami recounts: “I knew this way of testing was dangerous, but I decided to try anyway, as there was no other way and I thought that the way of striking was not really effective” (Egami, 1976). He received tens of thousands of blows in his abdomen and face. The conclusion was devastating, Egami recounts: “The result of the studies were extremely depressing because I was able to discover that the karate tsuki was the least effective. And I had to admit a very shocking thing: the more and more seriously a karateka had trained, the less effective were his tsuki. The most percussive tsuki was that of the boxers. Another very surprising fact was that the blows from a person that had never studied anything were surprisingly percussive” (Egami, 1972). The problem, Master Egami said, lay in the fact the different martial artists put too much power in the wrist, elbow and shoulder, this inevitably would dissipate the energy that was intended to be received by the objective.
In the early 50’s (1952 or 53) one of his colleagues (Egami, 1976), Tadao Okuyama sensei, showed him an effective strike method that involved eliminating all tension from the wrist, elbow and shoulders, in Master Egami’s words: “I was astonished. The difference lay not in the form, which was little changed, but in the concept. In fact it broke all precedents. I made up my mind to start all over again and practice with this new concept. My way of practice was completely altered, from stiff, Pinocchio-like movements to rhythmical ones. I succeeded only after months and months of study with the young karateka” (Egami, 1976).
He then remembered how his teachers had shown the way before him but they had not noticed, Master Egami recounts in his book “Karate for the Specialist”: “Then I remembered the different types of tsuki by the masters: Master Funakoshi did his tsuki in a natural and non-contracted fashion; Master Shimoda would throw a tsuki lightly but I was never able to stop his arm, it wouldn’t budge a centimeter; the terrible furi-tsuki (whip tsuki) of Master Yoshitaka Funakoshi…” or in “The Way of Karate”: When I practiced, the figures of Master Funakoshi, of Takeshi Shimoda and of Gigo Funakoshi popped into my mind, and I could hear their words clearly, as if they were teaching me in the dojo. I recalled how the master struck in a natural and light way, how Shimoda did it lightly but accurately, and how the younger Funakoshi did it so quickly and with such power, although his arms were dangling from his sides. I remembered, too, how I could not avoid the blow and how it hurt when it landed”.
As can be imagined, if the method of striking is changed all other techniques must change. Real training, real techniques cannot be developed if you are trying to counter an ineffective striking technique. If the striking technique is useless, as Master Egami said, you need no technique what-so-ever, let yourself be hit, there is no need to evade it. But once an effective method was developed, all of Karate practice had to be modified with this in mind, together with the underlying change of attitude.
I believe that these changes have taken Karate back into an art form that can be practiced by anybody and as Master Funakoshi expressed: “Karate can be practiced by the young and old, men and women alike”. (Funakoshi, 1973). By eliminating tension and muscular excesses, participants can all find their own rhythm and strive to perfect body, mind and spirit through non-contraction training. Being muscle bound can only lead to future trauma and to a progressive distancing from Karate. Here we can quote an important Karate Sensei called Kenji Tokitsu (external link) who has researched into this subject too: “… Before turning 30 years old, I met with many accidents and traumas due to practicing. After examining myself as well as my fellow students and elders, I noticed that, in this style of karate [“Shotokan“], there were a great number of physical traumas in particular of the back and joints, especially affecting people over 30. When I was a young professor myself, I had the opportunity of associating with older karate masters. They all suffered from aches in their backs and joints.” (Tokitsu, 1998). It is clear that there is much to be questioned about the practice of the contraction method and we can only hope that positive developments may take their due course and not stagnate within a mass of traditional dogmatism.
Before ending the essay I would like to quote Master Egami from “Karate for the Specialist”:
“I must admit that the situation within karate today has completely degraded. With respect to this situation I admit feeling responsible too. In my youth I thought and acted with the prime directive of being effective in a real situation. Therefore I mainly practiced free combat (jyu kumite), that is the original form of today’s competition combat. To obtain a strong punch I trained with a very rigid makiwara. I strayed away from the essential training. I do not understand why karate today still continues to evolve in the wrong direction. If karate were defined merely as a sport competition, I would have nothing to say. But, is it not time to reflect and define what Karate really should be?”
Master Egami is immensely critical of the situation within Karate in his day (70’s), Master Gichin Funakoshi was so of the situation in the 50’s, there is no doubt they would be horrified of the panorama today. A mission all true Martial artists should have would be to “avoid, at all costs, the deception and deviation that sports competition within traditional martial arts has had”, don’t let the sad evolution that Karate has taken as a sport repeat itself within other arts.
This has been a brief and superficial analysis of the non-contraction method within Karate-do, many within Karate may never have heard of this method, but it should be no surprise considering the existence of many Martial styles that avoid all use of brute force, such as Tai-chi, Aikido, etc. Historical reference shows that this actually seems to have been the direction the great Masters intended for Karate-do and Master Egami’s developments within this framework helped bring Karate-do back to life as a true Budo.