Develop a Martial Imagination

By Sensei David S. Hogsette

David Sensei with Sensei Tamaki

Tamaki Sensei and David Sensei

Anyone who has trained in a particular martial art for several years has committed serious time and effort (and even money) to that art. As we study and practice our art, we become “wedded” to it, sometimes even developing the belief that “my karate is best karate.” Most practitioners would never admit to having such thoughts, because as traditional martial artists, we are to be humble. Yet, if pressed by claims and challenges from other stylists, our martial arts biases quickly come to the surface. We really do think our karate is the best karate, because why else would we devote so much time and energy (and money) pursuing that art? Developing a martial imagination to see links, commonalities, and connections among various styles may help us move beyond these limiting biases.

Some practitioners become so committed to their system that they develop a tunnel vision that ultimately limits their potential for advancing in their own art. Such individuals may elevate the founding master of their art to such a degree that they can see nothing else, or they deify the master and will accept nothing else other than what the master taught. If that founder wrote books, then these students devote much time studying those books (nothing wrong with that) and fashion their training “by the book.” Here is where the tunnel vision can develop and hurt advancement.

My main martial arts system is Matsubayashi-ryu, created by Shoshin Nagamine. Most serious practitioners of this style own a copy of Nagamine’s book, The Essence of Okinawan Karate-do. It’s a great book, an excellent resource. He outlines many training principles and karate-do philosophies. He discusses blocks, kicks, and stances, and he describes all 18 katas in the system, complete with photos and footwork diagrams. He also explains kumite drills and offers an overview of traditional Okinawan weapons training. It’s an amazing book. Some practitioners, however, become limited by the book. If it’s not in the book, they don’t consider it legitimate for Matsubayashi-ryu practice.

Tamaki Sensei and Makino Sensei Discussing Martial Imagination with Sensei Figgiani and Sensei Hogsette

Tamaki Sensei and Makino Sensei Discussing Martial Imagination with Sensei Figgiani and Sensei Hogsette

I was fortunate enough to train in Okinawa for one week in July, 2015. I traveled with other Shorin Ryu Karate-do International yudansha, and we trained at the Tokashiki Dojo under Sensei Takeshi Tamaki (9th Dan, the most senior student to come out of the Nagamine Dojo) and Sensei Masahiko Tokashiki (8th Dan), both of whom trained under Sensei Nagamine and Sensei Taba. In other words, these guys are the authority on Matsubayashi-ryu. During one of our training sessions, this topic of becoming limited by following Nagamine’s excellent book too closely came up.

Both Tamaki Sensei and Tokashiki Sensei noted that Nagamine’s book is central to our understanding of Matsubayashi-ryu, but they also emphasized that it is only a book. As such, it is necessarily limited in what it can reveal. They said Nagamine did not describe everything in that book, and they explained that the book is just a foundation upon which to build one’s own karate. The book presents the basics, and it is up to each of us to expand upon the basics, to dig deeper into the techniques, and to advance our knowledge through training and expanding our martial imagination. During our discussions, both Senseis emphasized that we must use our imaginations. The book presents basic principles that we follow, but we are not to become constrained by the principles themselves. Rather, we should use the principles to develop sound applications for the techniques and sequences contained within the kihon and katas.

David Sensei with Tokashiki Sensei

Tokashiki Sensei and David Sensei

So, one of my greatest takeaways from this training trip to Okinawa is that the katas are indeed central to our karate. But they are not to be practiced for their own sake. Rather, the katas give us principles of body movement and transitional combinations of techniques, and we are free to use our martial imaginations to interpret these movements and to create functional and practical applications. Moreover, we are to encourage our students to develop martial imaginations so that they can also learn how to make Matsubayashi-ryu their own.

How are we to develop and expand our martial imaginations? By studying widely and deeply. Investigate other styles and martial systems. Learn from different teachers. Share ideas and experiences. Train with different people. Gather, collect, and integrate into your training in Matsubayashi-ryu. After all, Shoshin Nagamine did this very thing in his martial arts study and training. Only then will “my karate is best karate” be transformed into “my karate can be improved by analyzing your karate.”