As I have stated countless times on this blog, Sensei emphasized that one must “physically understand how to relax, and use this to snap their techniques”. However, and hopefully not confusing to you, he also stressed, “to appreciate this, one must train hard, and to some extent ‘power their techniques’ whilst young”. One of the last things Sensei said to me, was “when you reach your mid to late 30’s, you will change, or you will be unable to continue karate throughout your life”. He also explained that “going from hard to soft is easy, as from there one can fully appreciate, and optimally generate/apply power from softness. But going from soft to hard technique is very difficult, especially for older people without a strong training base.” In some respects he was just telling me to make the most of my youth, but more than that, he claimed that vigorous training was a long term investment, for serious karateka, as long as they didn’t sustain too many injuries in the process. This is why Sensei pushed me so hard, he was literally setting me up for my future karate journey. At the same time, in private trainings Asai Sensei taught me how to move smoothly and softly, and how I should apply energy in actuality, where relaxation is essential to maximize one’s martial arts effectiveness.
“Hard technique is physical training - it is ‘karate exercise’. Using snap is martial arts: There are two main forms of martial arts karate. One is for physical strengthening and making a strong heart, the other is for application in real fighting. One is 'base physical training' for muscle power and fortitude, the other is how to use one's power most effectively/devastatingly, without restriction of motion. One is young man’s karate only, the other is every one's karate. They are different and can be separate, but it is best if you have the opportunity to do both, like I have.” This is the type of thing Asai Sensei would often be chatting about at the dinner table, then tell a story about his training Takushoku University. Anyway, I hope this is making sense to you, as I’ve been reluctant to write about these points, as the extreme contrasts may be confusing for readers. I have feared that I might misrepresent Asai-ryu karate-do, something which is characterized by relaxation, softness, smoothness, and whip-like snap, as opposed to muscular force.
The Junro Kata: Previously I’ve written articles about the ‘importance of these formal exercises’, and also about their excellence in 'perfecting one’s use of the jiku-ashi'. In saying that, above and beyond these, and other technical themes, the five Junro are very important in broadly understanding Asai sensei's junansei (softness)… Why? Because in contrast to the standard Shotokan-ryu kata, they cannot be done correctly utilizing sheer power; only by employing smooth 'natural energy', and snap. However, it was Asai Shuseki Shihan’s hope that via the mandatory study of Junro, his followers would then apply this method when doing the Shotokan kata (especially as one matures in age, and technically matures as a karate exponent). Asai Sensei plainly stated that “the Junro kata are the ‘initial introduction’ of power from softness in the grading syllabus, and also specific actions, for actual kumite. They are kumite kata. They are exactly for martial arts”. (This was Sensei’s reasoning for including them in the grading syllabus from 5th kyu onwards).
Softness and large-scale coiling are paramount in the Junro kata: Interestingly enough, even though they are ‘kumite-kata’, the five Junro do not ‘need’ to be performed rapidly, the main point is that they are executed with softness, using correct energy via full-coiling (of the limbs and also the stance/transitions). “Of course there is also nothing wrong with doing them fast, but they completely lose their overall purpose if ‘conscious power’ creeps in”. If you are going to ‘blast out’ a formal exercise, with power, Asai Sensei would tell you to “do a Shotokan kata!”
Summary of a karate life like an ‘orderly road’: Shuseki Shihan Tetsuhiko Asai’s ‘seemingly contradicting’ views on hard and soft movement, are not so difficult to understand if you look at karate as a lifetime pursuit as he did. “If you are young, regularly train hard, knowing that this training is a physical and psychological base for your future. But remember, that if you are to have a good future practicing karate-do, that your karate must evolve beyond this. If you are older, choose when to train hard, sensibly injecting power into your karate, but focus more on the ‘martial art aspect' through channeling natural energy”. In all cases, regardless of age, Asai Sensei claimed that the Junro kata provide the best ‘fundamental springboard’ for future advancement.
Now, well into my 30’s I still train hard, but my karate is softer, thus the overall intensity has naturally lowered. It is this softness that has allowed me to continue advancing, where otherwise I couldn’t have. I’m sure, externally I may have improved, but this would have been self-deceit, as my impact power had definitely reached its pinnacle. What I’m trying to say is that I crossed the zone, where if my karate was to continue developing, I had to follow the masterful advice, that my late teacher graciously offered. Needless to say, the Junro kata were extremely important for me in that transition, once again illustrating the deep wisdom which Asai Sensei possessed. As always, I feel in great debt to Tetsuhiko Asai Sensei, and will always be thankful for his incredible tuition.
© André Bertel, Japan (2009).