As this is the very first IUKF Canada newsletter, I want to take this opportunity to welcome all of you and thank you for supporting this fledgling Canadian
Uechi-ryu organization. I’m sure that I’m only iterating what most of you know,
but there are a number of Uechi dojo spread across Canada and I am hopeful that we can, through IUKF Canada, get to know each other, support each other and help our beloved karate style thrive. As some of you know, my commitment
to Uechi-ryu will span 50 years as of 2014 and many of you similarly span significant years of practice. But even if you’re a “newby” to Uechi-ryu, I hope that this newsletter serves to encourage you in your practice.
IUKF already offers forums and other connections through the internet but, as the Canadian representative, I’d like to take a slower approach to our communication. It’s nice to consider issues and discuss in a thoughtful way. I’d like to use the newsletter, not so much as a forum for who got promoted, got married, bought a new car (the usual news things), but as a means of haring common interests with ideas and questions. I’ve asked a number of you to write something of interest to you and I’d like to thank Victor Swinimer, James Walker and Michael Vena for taking the time to put something together. I’ve also been writing about Uechi-ryu for awhile and, in this newsletter, offer some ideas on ranks and testing for you to consider. My hope is that each of you will want to contribute questions, ideas, insights, experiences and that this newsletter will
evolve into an exchange. And so that we have time to do so, my intent is that the newsletter will come out quarterly.
So let’s get started!
IUKF Canadian representative.
Cold Mountain Dojo
Uechi-ryu Kata and Competition by Victor Swinimer
Over the past eight years I have been involved with Karate Nova Scotia and Karate Canada as a
Competitor and Official. In that time I had competed in Kata and Kumite. These were both under
WKF rules of competition. Because of this I have had lots of questions from Officials on Uechi
kata from Nova Scotia and other Provinces. This I hope will help in some way to those that wish
to compete as Kata Athletes and Officials or answer some question for Dojo sensei.
First lets get the one statement out of the way that drives me more than a little up the wall “ it’s
no good competing because they don’t understand our kata anyway “. This to bring back the 70’s
is a cop out. First you have to educate yourself on the rules and then you have to educate
Officials on Uechi kata. You must also continue to compete.
Because of the changes in WKF rules most styles of karate’s kata will be allowed in National and
International Competitions and that includes Uechi-ryu.
Let’s take a line from the rule book.
In assessing the performance of a contestant or team the Judges will evaluate the performance
based on the four major criteria; conformance , technical performance, athletic performance and
technical difficulty. Let’s take a look at each.
1. Conformance to the form itself and standards of the applicable school.
This may be the hardest because some different variations in movements are okay. We all
have seen how other schools within your Province differ as well as other Countries and I’m
not here to say this is right and this is wrong. Let’s use what Sensei Mattson always said. “ If
it’s good Uechi keep it , if it’s bad Uechi get rid of it” I think we all know the difference.
2. Technical performance
This includes Stances, Techniques, Transitional movements, Timing/ Synchronization (for
team kata), Correct breathing and Focus. We know what our stances should look like, feet flat on the floor and using the floor, deep stances having control of our bodies, cat stances with proper posture. All are the basics that are practiced in every class.
Techniques: Are we in control of our movements, are our arms flying all over the place, do
the movements seem to have a purpose and dose the performer understand them.
In The Beginning …………………
It never ceases to amaze me what new students, which includes all of us who have
participated in any sport, martial art or even learning a musical instrument, believe
what it is that we are about to embark on in the beginning of that journey and what
our expectations might be at that time.
As we begin training, our bodies fumble around trying to find the right positions, our
minds struggle with the concept that our bodies are not responding instantly and our
ego gets in the way by giving excuses and convincing us that we are “better” than we
actually are. Our expectations are governed by the ego and by our “misconceptions”.
Over time, the ego gives way to the realization that progress can only be accomplished
at a rate equal to your dedication to training and practice, practice, practice! Once this
begins to take hold, the mind begins to see the physical benefits as well as some of
the mental benefits such as better concentration and focus, better emotional control
etc. This is the beginning of the understanding of the “sanchin” in our life study of our
“art”, sport, be what it may.
Once we begin to really study, we begin to uncover what one would call “little jewels”
or little AH HA ! moments. The “three ways” of “sanchin” are starting to unfold, the
connection of mind, body and spirit. The meaning of this realization reveals itself in
increments along the path to further enlightenment. This becomes the true “way” of
our study of Uechi-Ryu, our quest for the meaning of life. To continue is to become
“one” with your art and to realize that there is no destination, no finish, just the
So as we look back at the beginning of our studies and we are working with new
students, we can say the study of Uechi-Ryu is like the study of life and the quest for
“Life is a journey you just have to take!” (Michael Vena)
September 18, 2013
Michael Vena, Shihan
West Ottawa Uechi-Ryu by James Walker
My journey into the martial and fighting arts began in 1971, and between then and
1982, my path lead me to the traditional Chinese-Okinawan art of Uechi-Ryu Karate
I began teaching Uechi-Ryu Karate Do in the Ottawa area in 1990 as a Shodan. Using a
process that was taught by my original sensei, Peter James, my prospective students
undergo a casual but detailed screening process prior to commencement of training.
New students are offered a three-month trial membership at West Ottawa Uechi-Ryu
and given the opportunity to evaluate the style, the group of students and my style of
instruction. This evaluation period is a two-way street and after the trial period has
been completed a candid discussion takes place where more long term expectations
are discussed and goals are set. These types of discussions become the standard for
all students for the duration of their time with West Ottawa Uechi-Ryu.
I encourage the students of West Ottawa Uechi-Ryu to train, grow and evolve at their
own pace with safety, trust and longevity as the primary guiding principles. Students
are guided through the core curriculum with emphasis on self defense and the
practical application of the techniques and the movements taught. Each student’s
journey into their own human potential is one of continual learning and evolvement
with the byproducts of a strong sense of personal and situational awareness and the
belief in their ability to overcome adversity.
The West Ottawa Uechi-Ryu group falls under the umbrella of the Cold Mountain
Uechi-Ryu Dojo based out of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Cold Mountain is owned and
operated by Hachidan, 8th Dan, David Mott and his most senior student, Ryokudan/
Renshi 6th DAN, 1st degree master, Ken Brown. With the advice and guidance of
Sensei’s Mott and Brown, West Ottawa Uechi-Ryu, continues to maintain and evolve the
high standards of Uechi-Ryu Karate Do.
Over the years I have had the honor of mentoring and guiding many students in the
achievement of their personal goals through the study of Uechi-Ryu Karate Do.
Rank by David Mott
The rank that I really wanted above all ranks was a green belt. Since I started Uechiryu
at the Boston YMCA and spent a year as a white belt there, followed by another
year at the Mattson Academy as a white belt, It seemed like I was forever a white belt.
Remarkably the rest of the ranks came relatively quickly. After teaching for some years
at the Mattson Academy as an apprentice teacher, (1967 –1971) I started my own dojo
at Yale as a Nidan and advanced through Sandan. After coming to Canada, I decided
to wait for further testing until I had students from Toronto to be tested for Shodan and
so the rest of my advancement was a bit sporadic. I tested for advanced rank with the
idea of benefiting the dojo rather than as achieving a personal goal. Now, my Hachidan/
Kyoshi belt is wearing out. It is rapidly becoming stripped of its black cloth covering and
so it is, fittingly, turning white. I am returning to the beginning.
One of the perplexing problems in Uechi-ryu, which has a ranking system to Judan, is
how do you define what qualities are required to advance to the next rank? I have
some ideas about this. Let’s start with the pre-black belt ranks. White belt signifies not
much more than raw material. Green belt is really a good beginner –able to move
relatively correctly with a modicum of skill. Brown belt is really a good intermediate
student. There is some fire and heaviness in the movements which are becoming real.
There is also some evidence of real karate spirit.
Shodan. In some ways this rank of first degree black belt is the most important rank of
all and, in other ways, it’s not all that important. The reason it has great significance is
that the physical skills and the embodiment of karate have developed sufficiently that
one is a true Uechi-ryu karateka. Karate has begun to seep into one’s bones. Shodan
is also important because it signifies a level of competence of practice that can sustain.
But in reality, this also means that Shodan is a new beginning where learning can now
really begin. While Shodan is a culmination of everything that led up to this attainment,
and this is a significant achievement, the distance from Shodan to Judan is quite vast.
If I use the analogy of mountaineering, you’ve arrived at the base of the mountain with
all of the necessary skills and equipment to climb it. Now you have to climb.
My Shodan test took place in Providence, Rhode Island at Charles Earles’ dojo. The
night before my test I was performing with a jazz band that was supposed stop at 1 a.m.
but got hired on until 4 a.m. With travel time back to my home, an hour away, and rising
in time to drive for the 9 a.m. start, I had two hours of sleep.
It served me well. I was simply too tired to waste any energy on being nervous. Although I found Mr. Earle’s dojo disconcerting –all four walls were covered in floor to ceiling mirrors–I made it
through the test. Among the successful candidates that day were a number of the North
American seniors: Robert Campbell, Jack Summers, Buzz Durkin and Jimmy Maloney.
The test, in spite of my tiredness, was both exhilarating and an immense relief. I can remember feeling a sense of culmination and a new beginning. The wisdom traditions
point out that it is the Path that is the goal. I could feel my feet firmly placed on the Path
of the Way of Karate.
What are our expectations for a candidate at any level? Before I go further, it is
important to point out that no two people are the same in what they bring to karate. Any
attempts at creating a uniformity of students is a vain endeavor. So there is a base line
of expectations mitigated by who the karateka is and how far they’ve come developmentally. While there are identifiable traits to each dojo’s karate form, there will still be a fairly wide spectrum of abilities within each rank, within each dojo, as well as within Uechi-ryu.
There are a number of things to look for in a candidate .
Kata/Junbi Undo/Hojo Undo/Zhan Zhuang (–a traditional qigong standing meditation as practiced at the beginning of each class at Cold Mountain)
1) Accuracy of movement.
2) Refinement of movement.
3) Integration of movement.
4) Quality of movement.
7) Spectrum of movement –from the large to the detailed or nuanced.
9) Presence of being.
10) Intensity or projection of intent.
In addition to the above:
1) Timing and distancing.
6) Accuracy of targeting.
7) Defensive skill.
9) Ability to control another’s attacks with followups.
10)Strategy and tactics.
Obviously, the higher the Dan rank, up to and including Godan –where the emphasis on
the physical reaches its apex– the higher the expectations. In general, as a matter of
comparison, one would probably rarely give more than a five out of ten to any Shodan
candidate whereas, for a Godan candidate one would expect 10 out 10. But this is
ideal. Such scores do not account for the person, their body size and strength, their
depth of being, their athletic ability or lack thereof, their age, their gender and so forth.
Nor does it recognize that in some individuals where one area is lacking, there are
compensatory skills which more than make up for any weaknesses. The frustration for
test board members is that, if we established absolutes for any particular rank (if that
were even possible), few would ever pass their test and advance. So we have to look
carefully at the individual, understand what a base line expectation is, and assess from
that basis. Any test board also has to assess whether or not advancement or delay is in
the best interests of the candidate.
Advancement can offer encouragement whereas delay can discourage a candidate. On the other hand, a delay can offer a meaningful “gateless gate” to pass through. The pretest for the lower Dan ranks is an excellent means of providing feedback to a candidate. (For Sandan candidates and above a pretest hardly seems necessary unless there is a particular area of weakness to be
If we only reward good form with advancement, any candidate with natural physical skill will succeed. But is there depth? Is there stillness or centre etc.? What if the form is lacking but those last categories are abundantly present? The Dan test itself is a great help in this. Sanchin Kata, primary Kata and sparring all must meet base line expectations with, at least, minimum scores. The remainder of the scores must average out to a base line average. This means that some categories may not be as strong as others but the over all profile of a candidate’s ability must meet minimum expectations.
Border line cases are often difficult and result in considerable test board discussion and even debate. And test boards don’t always get it right. Since each member has a vote, a simple majority is all that is necessary to determine the outcome. The critical thing to remember is that determining a candidate’s test outcome should not be approached from a rigid frame of reference since the practice is designed to benefit the candidate, not to reward or punish. While it is a fairly select group who will achieve advanced rank in Uechi-ryu, it must not be an exclusive group. We are not looking to reward only the“best of the best”. We are offering a Way. The Way is not limited to the physically gifted, it is available to all who undertake it and diligently pursue it. The question always
to be asked is, will passing or delaying a candidate further them in their pursuit of the Way? This decision must be made from a place of wisdom rather than absolutes.
The higher the rank to be granted, the more that intangibles must be assessed. In other words, there are three areas to be assessed in Uechi-ryu: Body Mind and Spirit. At the lower end of the Dan ranks we assess mostly on the basis of Body. In the mid range of dan ranks, Mind plays a greater role. At the upper range of Dan ranks, Spirit is paramount. Of course, for the master ranks, we are also assessed on the basis of our contributions to Uechi-ryu.
In the end, the only thing that matters is one’s practice. Rank serves to advance the dojo more than its head teacher. All benefit from advancement that is real. But there is a danger in that advanced rank, when personalized, can become a matter of ego fulfillment. Years ago at a gathering of Zen students a young man came up to me and introduced himself as being a fourth degree black belt in a Korean sword martial art. He was aware that I had some background in martial arts so he promptly asked me what rank I was. I told him that I too was a fourth degree black belt. I then asked him how long he had been practicing his martial art and he replied, “Four years”. Somewhat
taken aback I said, “Well then you are a much more gifted martial artist than I”. (And I tried to say this without any intended irony as I could see his pride of accomplishment).
After quite visibly basking in that praise, he thought to ask how long I had been practicing and I said, “Fifteen years”. That ended our conversation.
We should neither take pride in being stingy with awarding advanced rank nor should we be indiscriminate by handing it out like candy. Advanced rank should be meaningful. However we view a test candidate, the rank attained must be merited. Furthermore, while those of us who teach can neither take the credit nor the blame for a candidate’s outcome, we are still responsible for them.
I have also had students, off and on over the years, who are very judgmental towards themselves (and others). Usually after a test, they come to me and say, “I really don’t think that I deserve . . . .” So I’ve always said, “You’re questioning the test board’s judgement? Give me back your black belt!” They never have. It’s always a transparent ploy for reassurance. I then say, “I guess that you’ll have to work extra hard to fulfill your own standards.” Sometimes karateka dip down into a bit of depression following a successful test. As if life would suddenly change for the better with their new rank. I guess that the disappointment lies in the reality that they are no more skilled a day after
the test than they were a day before the test. The achievement is, in the end, ephemeral. In Zen, there are “gateless gates” to pass through. Barriers that present various challenges to the depth of our realization.
There are times when the barriers seem insurmountable and it takes every bit of our effort to squeak through. But that required effort, brought to bear, is the means of opening to transformation. Never easy but always essential. In a recent Nidan test, one of the successful candidates had her
daughter video her test. She told me that, after viewing her test on video, she finally realized,
“I’m a martial artist!” I said, “Welcome”.IUKF Canada
I found your article full of insightful comments. I had the pleasure of meeting you years ago at one of Mattson Sensei’s summerfest. While you are a recognized senior Uechi teacher, your Zen practice intrigued me and I have been “dabbling” with it since. I feel Zen practice not only complements Uechi training but is essential.