Interview In "INSIDE KARATE" February - March 1986

By Paul Okami


"But now I think the time is right for us to make ourselves known. There's so much confusion in the goju-ryu world right now, especially in America. Too much confusion." As mentioned, Kao Loon Ong holds strong opinions, many of them controversial -even inflammatory. I'll therefore leave it to him to explain some of them in depth. What follows is an interview I held with him in the Spring of 1984. 

We spoke in his I living room, while his two children, and his Akita, JuGo, did their best to distract his attention: 

OKAMI: Sensei ... I mean, Kayo. Why are there so many different versions of Goju-Ryu in Okinawa? Are they all legitimate? The art as taught by Master Yagi, ior instance, looks quite different from that as taught by Master Toguchi or Master Miyazato, and so on. 

ONG: Well, first of all, you have to remember that Master Miyagi Chojun was constantly developing and refining the style integrating elements of Chinese martial arts as he learned them, and so on. He may have developed what you could call a prototype kata early on, and taught it to his first generation of students. Now these students might have stayed with that version, while those belonging to the second or third generation may have learned it differently, Also, our Grandmaster taught various students according to that person's physical capabilities, level of commitment, trustworthiness, etc. Many people don't understand this. There is no one way to do a kata. It's the principle of the kata that must remain constant, not necessarily the exact, precise physical movement. So all claims of legitimacy among Master Miyagi's disciples are correct, as different as the art looks from one to the other. 

OKAMI: Many people become confused and disturbed when they notice differences between various masters in their stances, hand movements and so on.

ONG: Everyone gets all upset about minor differences in the execution of a kata movement. A lot of the time this is just nonsense. Yes, it's true that certain movements should be performed in a certain way, but many other movements can be performed several ways according to individual preference, idiosyncrasy or temperament. You have to know the principle and meaning, of the kata to be able to judge where it is possible to personal a movement and where it is not. Now a problem arises when a teacher's idiosyncrasy is copied to the letter by a student who doesn't understand what the teacher is doing it. Maybe the teacher has a bad ankle, and has learned a way to compensate for it, and he moves forward in to shiko-dachi, for example, in his own peculiar way. Now the student thinks that's the proper way to step so he does it too, and before you know it the whole organization is stepping forward into shiko-dachi in a very weird way. Then you've got a problem. 

OKAMI: To carry this further, in America there are a great many styles calling themselves 'goju' which bear very little resemblance to any of the various legitimate Okinawan or Japanese versions. How did this come about? 

ONG: Again, we go back to how the art was originally taught, by invitation and introduction. By that I mean that a prospective student, in general, had to be introduced and recommended to a teacher. He didn't just walk in off the street and sign up. He would first be given training in the basic stance-which is often wrongly called sanchin stance-and then taught to walk in that stance. This training could take up to three years and it weeded out the faint-hearted and also protected against so-called "spies" from other styles. After the stance was developed, the thrusts, blocks ' and breathing techniques of kata sanchin were taught - another three years! Six years of basic training, including supplementary exercises and strength training with the various Okinawan devices such as chiishi, makiwara and. so on. Boring, right? But after this period the body would be sufficiently developed and the spirit disciplined enough for the student to begin to learn the koriyu (kaishu) kata, and to be able to execute in a real situation the techniques contained in the kata. Without strength and knowledge of body movement the techniques are useless. Now to get back to your question-who in modern day America is going to spend six years walking up and down the dojo floor practicing Sanchin thrusts and blocks? The modern so-called goju practitioner simply does not have the proper basic training, strength. breath control, etc., to make the real goju-ryu techniques work, and so they decided the fault was in the kata instead of in their training. The next step was to substitute other techniques that seemed more natural to them, and they therefore created a whole new so-called martial art based on free-fighting. They put the horse before the carriage and ended up with techniques that might work ... or might not. What made the situation worse was the fact that the “one-to-one-by-invitation-only" method of teaching died out as the art spread and became so popular. As a result, unfortunately, many teachers today don't even know how to understand the kata, and the techniques got lost that way too.American goju practitioners have not developed the Sanchin body, pure and simple. Also, the entire concept of strong defense a complimentary offense is absent from modern karate, as it is from street fighting. 

OKAMI: Your style, chi-i-karate-do goju-ryu, and especially your teaching methods, differ markedly in certain respects from many of the other traditional Okinawan schools, and they seem to contain paradoxes. For instance, most people would associate an emphasis on kata and an absence of free-fighting as you have in your schools-with a lessening of emphasis on “practical" or so-called "street" defense. Yet you say that it is because your interest is in practical self-defense that you rely so heavily on the examination and practice of kata to develop fighting skills. Can you elaborate on this, and also on what you consider to be the major differences between chi-i and other traditional styles? 

ONG: We believe that a gun without bullets is just no good. All the so-called secret techniques in the world won't get you anywhere if you're not strong enough and knowledgeable enough to apply them. This is why, as I've said, people are always messing around with the true techniques and why they love free -fighting- it's just a substitute for true knowledge of real karate. Sure, sparring skills might work under some circumstances for some people. But we don't think that's good enough. Then you’re relying on individual talent, genes, fighting experience or spirit (some people are just born fighters or born athletes), etc.The techniques of free-fighting, and the techniques of kata are on opposite poles in concept and execution. While you're training to punch me out, I'm training to break you see what I mean? Our style was derived in a very traditional way. In the old days if a student was very good, and his teacher felt that he, the teacher, had passed on the best of his knowledge to that particular student, he would introduce his protégé to another teacher who had some sort of specialty -say blocking techniques. Then, when that teacher had passed on his knowledge, the student would be introduced to yet another teacher. Thus, many of these sensei were very unselfish and not at all afraid of comparison. My teachers were taught that way, and therefore our school is able to combine many aspects of the teachings of several masters. However-and here is the difference -we teach this art in the 1980s in New York City. And we teach it to Americans. Now, being “different" doesn't necessarily mean being rebellious or egotistical. We just recognize, as did the Japanese when they brought the art from Okinawa to Japan, that you can't import culture, only art. For instance, our classes are held in English. The art itself is difficult enough to learn -why complicate it by having to learn a foreign language too? The Japanese didn't teach karate in Okinawan, did they? They taught it in their own language. All these American teachers who do everything in Japanese might be adding a nice mysterious feeling to their classes. But if they really wanted to be traditional, they would teach in English. In my Puerto Rican schools we teach in Spanish. Also many students of each country tend to feel at least, Some kind of nationalism, and I don't see why we should deny this. The next major difference in the philosophy of chi-i is that we recognize that Okinawa was a much less violent environment than New York is today. Practically all the Okinawans know each other, and a lot more courtesy is extended, even in a fight, believe it or not. In America - especially in a city like New York -there's a lot more suspicion and hatred. You may know martial arts, but out here people have firearms and all kinds of offensive weapons and they're crazy enough to use them. So we emphasize practical application for today's reality. We want our students to be prepared for the real thing ,where the only trophy you come away with is your own body in one piece. 

OKAMI: Kayo, one of the things that really struck me about you as a teacher was the willingness you had to explain in detail why things are done a certain way ... you always answer your students questions fully, unless you 'feel they won't understand the answer. 

ONG: In Okinawa and Japan, if you ask a question they'll just tell you to go in a corner and practice it 1000 times. Now. in my opinion, this means that either the teacher himself doesn't understand the technique, or else he's trying to get rid of the student. This business of 'teaching yourself' by endless repetition without explanation might work for spiritual uplifting over a period of many years but we don’t have time time for that. This is New York City. The time spent in Sanchin training is long enough. I see a lot of schools where the teacher is himself limited in his knowledge so the student becomes limited as well, and that is not fair. The teacher binds the student to him out of fear that the student will overtake him, or discover his (the teachers) own weaknesses. If you want to learn, I will teach. I don’t hold back . And when you can take me on. then you will have really learned something. 

OKAMI: One last thing -your classes seem very relaxed, and your students call you by your first name. Can you explain why? 

ONG: Americans are not used to showing respect for anything that’s unproven. We do not force a show of respect with a shout of “Osu” or “Yes Sir!" Asian respect of authority is rooted in Confucianism which is at the very heart of Chinese and Japanese culture. We in this country have not only not been exposed to that. but really. We've been more exposed to the opposite -to make fun of authority. Why should we behave the Oriental way? It's not natural. It would be like asking Japanese baseball players not to bow before a game, because American players don't. The Japanese would feel unnatural without the bow. I'm not saying that Americans shouldn't or can’t learn respect in the arts. I just mean that it has to come naturally. and I believe that if the teacher or senior is truly strong and knowledgeable the respect will be there. In Asia the student has to earn the teacher's respect. In America the teacher has to earn the students respect. 

OKAMI: You seem to denigrate free-fighting as a training method. Can you be more specific in your criticisms? 

ONG: Oh, boy. Do you have a few hours? First off, I want to say that even though I don't believe in free-fighting, I'm not implying that pre-arranged sparring-kiso and bunkai kumite-are perfect methods for learning how to fight either. There's only one sure way to learn how to fight, and that's to get into a lot of fights-which we obviously don't want. So it comes down to a question of what method has the fewest disadvantages. I'm against free-fighting because it teaches techniques, attitudes, and strategies that lead away from real combat effectiveness. For instance, free-fighting techniques were not devised to be used against weapons. Most hand-to-hand combat involves weapons, and real karate was designed to allow an unarmed man to defend against an armed man. Why should you need to train so many years just to defend against a punch in the nose from another man just like you? The true techniques of kata emphasize grabbing and breaking, and re-posturing for immediate and final counter attack. In my opinion this last part is the most important. In free-fighting you can always buy time, or run away, you're simply trying to avoid getting hit so your opponent doesn't "score." In a real fight you have to be able to take a hit while minimizing its power, in order to be in the most advantageous position for a devastating counter-attack. In free-fighting it doesn't matter how weak your technique really is, as long as you score. So free-fighting teaches you incorrect combat strategy. What good is being able to smack someone on the side of his head with a snapping hook kick if he doesn't care if you hit him with it: and he then proceeds to slice oft your private-parts while you've got your leg in the air? In a real fight you don't want to buy time: you don't want to simply block or avoid your opponent (that is, unless you have the opportunity to actually run away, and you choose to do so ... but then you may be leaving some unfinished business that could come back to bother you again). Every time you block and push your opponent away, he's still alive and well to come back and try to kill you again. Free-fighting is a game based on prolonged, continuous sparring to gain points, like a tennis volley. If the other guy can't return your serve you have no game, right? But that's the idea of real combat. So that old one-shot kill really is the ideal you should train for. 

OKAMI: Is there absolutely no benefit then from free-fighting practice? 

ONG: Free-fighting can be an exchange of ideas, and as far as that goes it's O.K. Also, it's obviously based on karate, so some of its techniques might work for some people in a real fight -particularly for people who've already had actual combat experience, or who are athletic and fighters by nature. But that's not good enough. You've got to have an art that can train people without those talents and experiences. For that you need the higher levels of the art, breath control. stance, breaking and trapping. All the peculiar hand formations of traditional Okinawan karate relate to attacks and targets which are illegal in free fighting. if you go to a tournament you'll see that everyone's techniques look the same. No one has confidence in the techniques of their own particular style as drawn from kata, because they do not understand these techniques properly, and also because these techniques ,are not appropriate to free-fighting. There is no such thing anymore as a karate “style" in tournament free-fighting. Trying to use real karate in free-fighting is like taking the teeth out of a dog and then telling him to go fight.

OKAMI: What about fighting spirit? Doesn't free-fighting teach courage under stress?

ONG: Everyone hopes it will do this, but it doesn't. It may teach courage in the face of possible ego-deflation, but not physical courage in the face of possible death or injury. In a tournament you know that the worst that can happen to you is a bloody nose and a sore ego. But the ego rewards of winning are so great that many people will develop the "courage" to enter tournaments. But many of these same people - particularly if they haven't fought in the street-will told when confronted with a real fighting situation. It's very hard to develop real combat courage without experiencing real combat. On the other hand, there are people who don't see any reason to risk bloody noses and broken toes, who'd rather not get hurt in a contest; but who might possess great inner strength and fight like hell in a situation where their life is at stake.So there's really no way to tell, no way to be sure how you're going to react in a real fight other than really fighting. which as I say, we don't want. There are methods-rigorous years of certain types of spiritual training for instance, rarely found today-which might help in developing real courage, but as I say, that's rare. 

OKAMI: What about free-fighting with protective armor?

ONG: This could be useful, but only within a spirit of no animosity between the fighters-which almost never happens. 

OKAMI: What do you use in Chi-I-Do to replace jyu-kumite? 

ONG: We don't use anything to "replace jyu-kumite:" jyu-kumite is a replacement for proper karate training! And that training is first and foremost kata: as you say, "karate is kata, kata is karate." However, we also practice kiso kumite (prearranged sparring) and bunkai kumite (kata sequence sparring), as well as many other types of attack-defense and strengthening drills .In kiso and bunkai you get to go full out, full power at proper range, using many of the actual techniques of the style: knee strikes, elbow smashes. kicks to the knees and groin, eye attacks, throat attacks, simulated breaks and so on. We train to go through our partner's block, not to help him block, and if you can't stop something you know is coming in, how do you expect to stop something you don't? But I have to go back to my favorite maxim: real fighting or no fighting.

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