Basic Knowledge

This is a small, noncomprehensive list of basic knowledge and protocols. The art of Okinawan protocol is vast and taught in class every day in a traditional school. While it may seem like a lot of rules, at its base it is meant to convey respect.

  • How do you count to ten in Japanese?
    1. ichi eech-ee”
    2. ni “nee”
    3. san
    4. shi shee
    5. go
    6. roku rokoo” or “do-koo” or “lo-koo
    7. sichi  sitchee
    8. hachi  hachee
    9. kyu  “coo”
    10.  ju joo
  • R can be sounded as an “r,” “l,” or “d” sound.
  • What do Sensei and Sempai mean?
    • Sensei- It means teacher. Literally, it translates to have walked before or born before.
      • In our style, it designates a 4th-6th degree black-belt. It can also be anyone who runs a dojo.
    • Sempai- This is an assistant instructor.
      • In our style, it is a 1st-3rd degree black-belt. 
  • When do you bow?
    • When you enter a dojo.
    • When someone makes a correction.
    • Before working with someone as a partner.
    • When you greet your teacher or a higher rank.
    • When in doubt.
    • Never slap your hands along your side to bow. Place them there quietly.
  • How do you greet someone in the morning, afternoon or evening?
    • morning – 12:00p Ohayou Gozaimasu
    • 12:00-6:00pm Konichiwa
    • 6:00p- evening Konbonwa
  • What style of karate do you do
    • Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito
      • Matsumura is a family name of two grandmasters.
      • Seito means orthodox/unchanged. This is Matsumura’s style preserved as perfectly as we can.
      • Shorin – pine forest
      • Ryu – style or methods handed down
      • Karate – (kara) empty     (te) hand
      • Do – way
  • Taboos in the Okinawan culture:
    • Do not aim the bottom of your feet at a higher rank. The bottom of your feet are considered dirty, and it is disrespectful to aim the bottom your feet at someone.
    • Do not walk between two people talking.
    • No whistling at night.
    • Never put your obi(belt) or certificate on the floor. The floor is dirty. This means that you don’t care about what was given to you.
    • Don’t point with your finger at someone.
  • Other Vocabulary:
    • Obi “o-bee” is your belt.
    • Dan- blackbelt ranks. Literally translates to man.
    • Kyu- ranks below blackbelt. Literally translates to boy.
    • Gi- This is your outfit. It is meant to be all white until you are a blackbelt, and kept clean and wrinkle free.
    • Hai- This means “yes” or an affirmation of understanding. Usually in conjunction with a bow.
    • Onegaishimasu “own-ee-guy-she-muss”- The most formal way of saying, please. Usually said when bowing to a partner or in the beginning to bow into class. It means please teach me.
    • Yudansha- A group term, referring to all the blackbelts in a dojo.
  • Who are the former grandmasters and teachers in this style? Our lineage.

Satunku “Tode” Sakugawa (~1733-1857)

Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura (~1797-1889)

Nabe Matsumura (1860-1930)

Hohan Soken (1889-1982)

Fusei Kise (1935- living)

Shihan Greg Lazarus (1956- living)

                                                                                 ↓                                 ↓

Mike Abrams               Kelsi Thompson


Scott Thompson                                    .

  • What is Kata?
    Kata is the soul of your style. It was originally was designed as a way to practice and pass along karate in secret when Okinawa was under attack. The real fighting moves are disguised as bunkai, or a disguised move. When practiced altogether these moves form a sequence or routine. Students will take days to learn a kata, but a lifetime to understand and master it. 
  • Protocols Outside the Dojo
    • Karate, in its purest form, is not an activity that you practice and leave in the dojo. It is a lifelong dedication and the protocols are maintained outside of the dojo.
    • Maintain bowing to your yudansha (blackbelts).
    • Do not point your chopsticks at anyone. Even when you set them on your plate, do not have the dirty ends aimed at someone, especially a higher rank.
    • The highest rank orders their drinks and food first. They also take a sip of their drink first and take a bite of their food first. It is just a way to show respect and is how meals are served in Okinawa, Japan, to the grandmaster.
    • Toasting a drink is done in a particular way. You put your left hand under your glass and make sure your glass is lower than the higher ranks’ glass when they touch and you say a toast, “kumpai!”
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What is a decade?

I learned Chinto for the first time as a sandan, somewhere around 20 yrs old. It is beautiful and full of finesse that had been less prominent in the lower ranking katas. It stood out in this traditional style where kata historically focuses on bunkai and practicality, almost exclusively. Here is Chinto though, jump kicking its way into my world.

Some people grow bored of doing the same kata for decades. They get that itch right around sandan to start exploring new styles because they think they have found everything that can be found in doing a kata for two decades. I think that is more of a reflection on the karate-ka than the kata. I practice my kata differently than I did in my twenties; the kata may not have changed, but I have.

I practice my kata slowly, so slow my body fights my mind. I feel every move and perfect my hands within a centimeter of where I want them. You never notice that your foot turns out a little until you are moving at the speed of molasses. You begin to sharpen when to turn your head, and when to move your foot.

I practice my kata with no cadence. Did you know cadence is just a tool to teach a kata? Your kata has no numerical cadence. You can start to feel the energy of the kata without the numbers. When are you supposed to go hard, go soft, speed up, or slow for emphasis? The kata will tell you, after a decade or so.

I practice my kata alone. I study it, pause when I need to break down the bunkai by myself. I am self-studying as a martial artist here, not as a teacher or a student, directing or being directed. Some of the best answers come in the alone moments. That’s when I hear my kata the loudest.

I never really understood what Hanshi Kise meant when he said, “Good job. More practice.” Now, when I watch Chinto done by my teacher, Shihan Lazarus, I see that it resonates through him with so much more understanding than I have. It will take a lifetime of practice to learn my kata the way my teacher knows them, and I guess that was the point Hanshi was trying to make.

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The Death of Protocol

Do you know how to make a traditional glass of Awamori? It’s a very simple question. Do you know what to put in the glass first? Which way to stir? How to pour the bottle? How to toast with your glass? Who has to drink before you can? Who makes the drink for highest rank at the table?

“Traditional karate is a dying art.” -Anonymous

I show up to training and bow as I meet my fellow karate-ka. I wish them good morning, in Japanese, and ask if there is anything I can do to help the class run smoothly. Today it is my mission to wait patiently by the front door of the building. I will be there to hold it open when higher ranks enter the school. This job is not a bother at all. I’ve been to Okinawa to train, and I know that people hold the doors for higher ranks there. It is all part of the art. There is a lower rank reserving a parking spot in the parking lot. That allows the teacher of the school to have a good parking spot. It’s not about lavishing your teacher, but about showing them respect in the same way they show their teacher respect. I’ve watched my teacher do these things for his teacher, and now it is a privilege to extending the same kindnesses to him.

Training commences and it’s the second row for me. I’m not going to lie, I’m glad I’m not in the front row. I may have even pointed out my luck of making the second row to a few high ranks in front of me. (Ha!) Today there are enough high ranking black belts to fill multiple rows. In a traditional martial art that can be difficult these days. People don’t crave the discipline of protocol and nuances anymore. They want to throw their belts on the floor, bow at their own discretion and have a handful of people in their style addressed as Master. PAUSE. This is not a bad thing, it’s just not traditional Okinawan Karate. I promise you that my mission of this blog today is not to criticize non-traditional schools! I am simply in the grievance of watching the traditional ones dissipate with each passing year; some sliding slowly off the cliff that they professed to train on. I wonder if the pendulum is swinging back to the days of fathers teaching their sons in a garage- the privacy of a family art from one teacher to one student. If it is, I’ll be training solo with my teacher until the day he refuses to train me. This is my art.

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As you may have gathered, I train in a very formal style. Out of all the dojos I have been a guest in, my teacher’s dojo has the most strict protocol that I have ever seen. My teacher believes that we should train the same way in the USA that our art is trained in in Okinawa, and so we do. Unfortunately for a dojo, that doesn’t always win you the most students in this day and age. As our numbers dwindle and our higher ranked blackbelts talk of retirement and closing their schools, I can’t help but notice that we don’t have the numbers to fill their future absence. It makes my heart ache.

High ranking blackbelts are paramount to a traditional school. While your teacher gives you your art, it is not their job to be correcting your protocol on a day to day basis. That is the second and third higher rank’s job. That protocol should filter down as high ranks help lower ranks learn how to act and teach. They are supposed to police the rest of the class to allow for an environment of respect. This is just as important as the primary instructions you receive for your kata, kobudo, kumite, etc.

I will touch upon disrespect briefly and concretely. Students who are intentionally disrespectful should be removed from a traditional school immediately. There is no room for disrespect in a traditional dojo. People who are disrespectful shodans grow up to be problematic yondans! A person with poor kata can be corrected, but a person with intentional disrespect is a bad apple, bound to spoil your dojo.

As I worked to co-open a school of my own, I took on the role of second in command. Protocol is one of my favorite parts of karate. I love teaching students about it because it is teaching about the culture of my art. We found that the key to maintaining a strict protocol school is being okay with having less students in pursuit of the ones who want to preserve its practice. Of course, there is a lot more money in laxity. If you want to run a dojo paid for with the student’s tuition you may have to compromise on the discipline. While we are unwilling to do that, I acknowledge that we are not in a financial obligation of providing for our family with our dojo’s income. I’m not judging what people do to make ends meet in a business, I’m just choosing to not compromise my karate under any circumstances. (Maybe I judge a little as that did seem passive aggressive. I’ll work on that.) I find that too much of karate is spent focused on money and politics these days. We have made a choice to not allow that in our school.

We train our students for free at the time being. CRAZY, right? While I recognize we won’t be able to do that forever, it allowed us a liberty to train for simply the love of training for the last two years. We asked nothing in return but their respect and time.  It has inspired me in a beautiful way to fall back in-love with karate without any of the clouding factors. I know it isn’t possible, but I wish all teachers could experience that at some point.

I’m sorry I have no witty words or many things to laugh about in this post. This is one for the people I watch around me, clinging to our art and able to identify with the difficulties of watching it slide away from us. I wish in ten years to write again about this, but maybe in a light of the re-birth of traditional martial arts. Until then I will close by saying that though there are few of us, may you find strength in keeping your art preserved. You are not alone.

Best wishes from our dojo. Kanpai!


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