I first began training with Soke* Takayuki Kubota at his Hollywood, California dojo in 1978. And when I was a purple belt, he had me climb onto his shoulders, then clenched his toes into knuckles and proceeded to walk across the hardwood dojo floor with me onboard, on his toe knuckles, jumping from time to time, and then executing an occasional kick to demonstrate the perfection of his balance and power of his training. I’m not a small man, easily weighing fifty pounds more than him at the time, and his many feats of accomplishment fill lists in martial arts history. Yet this is one personal image continues to reverberate for me, these many years later, as I reflect on the impact this man had on me—the President of the International Karate Association and creator of the Gosoku Ryu style.
I was working as a production coordinator at a small production house in Hollywood at the time when I began at IKA dojo. Growing up in a nascent suburban, yet rural town outside Boston, I’d always had a curiosity about karate, but the opportunities to study the art were very limited, far less available than when I ultimately moved to Los Angeles, which is one of the top two martial arts cities of the world. I had played football in high school and rugby at Amherst, so I felt willing to take on a physical challenge or two related to robust action and the risk of taking a bump or two. This path did not disappoint in that department. Yet the core of Soke Kubota’s training, for me, involved something else as well. And it was this other factor which also applied to my writing and to my life.
Curiously this aligned with a concept I had studied in drama history at Amherst. It related to Konstantin Stanislavsky’s breaking acting roles down into objectives and units of action. Also, through the years, I have also observed, first hand, dozens of other martial arts training systems (even Steven Segal at his Aikido dojo), and Kubota’s systemic approach was not always adopted by all. Soke Kubota’s system involved breaking down each movement within a technique to the smallest components of movement and conveyed an understanding of the applied dynamics within the orchestrated movement. What was the basic stance at the beginning of a movement? How did it change, with hip rotation, as well as hand or foot movement (or both simultaneously)? How was it executed? When is the body fluid and relaxed, and when is it firm and hard? Then how does a technique flow naturally into the next sequence of movement?
Here’s an example, a simple front kick (mae geri): from a rooted front stance (zenkutsu-dachi), as the hip begins to rotate, the right leg first comes up to a high knee position, directly in front of the stomach (offering mid-section and groin protection with the shin before the kick is delivered); then as hip motion continues forward, the kick opens forward and extends, with toes curled back, pushing the front of the ball of the foot forward as the striking surface; as kick connects with target, the expanding forward energy continues, unfolding from the hips, with the back foot, heel rooted to the ground, empowering the delivery of a powerful penetrating thrust upon impact; then, just as quickly, the hips reverse direction, pulling the kick back out, bringing the knee back into a defensive position before returning to the front stance. During this entire technique, the hands are either engaged in a static defense, or performing a blocking technique, or a striking technique. The body position is leaning slight forward throughout the execution of the kick.
This system of instruction has presented to Soke’s Karate students from the youngest age of instruction, or to adults just beginning their study of Karate-do. In contrast, I’ve observed other martial arts teachers telling students to ‘do it like him,’ indicating a new student should emulate his or her best to imitation of another student whose energy is higher and more enthusiastic, but not necessarily more informed. The result, however, delivered executing the core components of a technique without any sense of competency. The units and objectives are ignored.
In a Soke’s kata class (choreographed forms) a discussion of bunkai may also be involved. Here analysis or a breakdown of the technique within the form is discussed. The student comes to understand the different applications or purpose of each movement, some of which have more than one function. And as a student’s understanding deepens, their mastery of the given technique, or collection of techniques broadens. And with each informed repetition of a technique the simple utility and power of it becomes more available to the student, who then finds way of integrating different techniques together into a broader application of options. It’s like learning the vocabulary at first (each movement within a technique) and then reciting the sentences of a technique, and finally being able to compose original dynamic movements (whole paragraphs of expression).
And of course, the applications of this system of approach – to Learn, Repeat, Refine, Perfect, Integrate, Expand – has had a direct application on my development as a writer. That collective ability to manage the basics while embracing the flexibility to expand into new areas of endeavor with a framework of consistency and approach has fortified my strengths as a writer through the years, and I remain grateful for the instinctive and natural discipline Soke Takayuki Kubota has instilled in me.
*Soke is a title most commonly meaning, a highest level Japanese title, referring to the singular leader of a school or style of martial art, and this context also denotes the founder of a style.