Yoshimi Inoue was called an instructor of champions for good reasons. He had trained over 20 world champions from a variety of karate styles, including the most successful kata competitors like Mie Nakayama, Ryoki Abe, Atsuko Wakai, the Hasegawa Brothers, Antonio Diaz, and Rika Usami.
But how did he do it? What was his secret?
In this series, I will cover some important karate lessons and valuable insights that Yoshimi Inoue left us which I hope will benefit your training in some ways.
This is the first post of the series.
Table of Contents
- Good Kihon Is the Secret to Good Karate
- Breathe Naturally
- Your Power Comes From the Ground Up
- Three Principles of Power in Karate
- Kime Is Like a Car Crash
- The Makiwara Is an Essential Training Tool
Good Kihon Is the Secret to Good Karate
“If kihon can do, any kata can do”
After both of his students, Rika Usaki and Antonio Diaz won the 2012 World Karate Championships, Inoue was asked about the secret of his success, he said the following in his broken English:
Kihon is very important. If kihon can do, any kata can do … So, every day, practice kihon, kihon, then can be good karate.
Inoue indeed strongly believed in the magic of mastering kihon.
In an interview with Joe Fraguas in 2012 for the Martial Arts Masters magazine, he said the same thing about the importance of kihon:
Kihon training, although it may be boring, is extremely important. If the foundations of a house are weak, as the house get older, problems will arise.Yoshimi Inoue
He went on to say that some people may spend 30 years training and then come to realize after all that time that “they don’t have a solid foundation, their technique is not polished at all, that they lack solid basic, clean karate technique” and that they try to cover that up by focusing on kumite.
Inoue must have drilled the importance of kihon into his students for they echo his message and apply that principle in their training.
For example, Antonio Diaz who currently holds the Guinness World Records for the most individual medals won at the World Karate Championships said in an interview that “I think with good kihon, you can have good kata, good kumite… I think it is the fundamental, the base. For me, kihon is karate.”
Another student of Inoue, Mie Nakayama who won three consecutive world championships and was ranked one of the best ever kata competitors said that she’d spend about one hour every day practicing kihon.
“I practice kata very accurately going through the basic again and again; I do this for about one hour every day. I then go through the kata imaging the attackers and how I would compete with them. I pay a lot of attention to imagination, feeling, and expression”.Mie Nakayama
Sakura Kokumai, an American karateka who won the gold medal at the 2019 Pan American Games and represented the United States in the women’s kata event at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, said the following about her experience training with Inoue:
Yamamoto Sensei thought it was a good idea for me to visit Inoue Sensei in Tottori prefecture. I didn’t know what I was walking into then… I remember practicing only basics for three days (about 10 hours of practice each day). We didn’t even have lunch, sometimes no dinner. It didn’t make sense to me then, doing the same things over and over again. But after every practice I always learned the lesson behind it.Sakura Kokumai
Why is kihon so important in karate?
Kihon is so important in karate because good kihon will lay the foundation for good kata and good kumite.
Kihon in Japanese means “basics” or “fundamentals” and, in karate, kihon covers basic blocks, punches, kicks, and stances.
While they are considered “basics”, they are incredibly difficult to get right because they require thousands of hours of practice to learn and master body mechanics, which is how to properly use your body to generate power in your techniques.
When you master those basic techniques, your kata will improve as well because, after all, kata is typically a collection of basic combat techniques with stances and transitional moves added. If your basic techniques are not polished, weakness will emerge in your kata.
Similarly, mastering basic techniques also improves your kumite in actual self-defense situations.
Karate is meant for self-defense and when all other means have failed and you are forced to rely on your martial art skills, you want to have good techniques that can quickly defuse the situations or end a fight in an instant.
Ikken Hissatsu or “to annihilate at one blow” is what you are after. This is only possible if your basic techniques like blocks and punches are “polished” to the level that they are actually effective in combats.
So, if you want good kata and good kumite, practice kihon every day.
I’ve seen videos of high-ranking Okinawan karate masters practicing kihon with everybody else in the class.
Perhaps, they became masters because they knew the importance of kihon and never neglected their kihon training.
Inoue teaches that breathing while performing kata should be natural and preferably without any audible sound at all.
Many of you may have been taught otherwise that you should coordinate your breathing with movements when performing kata. For example, you should exhale on blocks and attacks and inhale in between actions.
However, this does not make a lot of sense because that is not how you breathe when you are actually fighting. And if you don’t breathe that way, why would you do that when practicing your kata?
Inoue demonstrated that inhaling between actions and exhaling on kime points have the opposite effect. They make your body stiff and actually result in a loss of speed, power, and effectiveness.
After all, your body knows how to breathe from the moment you are born, there is no reason to further complicate things unnecessarily.
The main reason that you breathe shallowly when performing kata or during sparring is tension, anxiety, and nervousness. But this will improve as you train more, gain more knowledge and experience, and have more confidence in your ability.
In a battle, an experienced fighter or a true master is expected to breathe calmly and naturally as when he or she is taking a walk through the park.
If you are doubtful of the validity of Inoue’s advice, carry out an experiment on yourself and see how trying to coordinate breathing with technique executions impacts the speed and power of your techniques.
I have not seen any of Inoue’s world champion students coordinating techniques with breathing rhythms while competing and none of them ever let out audible breathing sounds in their kata performance – they all breathe naturally.
Inoue only recommended deep abdominal breathing during slow sequences of techniques in a kata to help with fast recovery following a series of challenging, fast and powerful techniques.
Inoue did not teach how to breathe in kata but he encouraged his students to keep their mouths slightly open to let the air out freely.
Keeping your mouth slightly open also has a beneficial side effect of relaxing your jaw, reducing overall body tension, and helping with your technique execution.
Your Power Comes From the Ground Up
You probably often hear that, in karate, the power of your techniques comes from the tandien or the hips and that the more body mass is involved, the more power you can generate.
However, Inoue goes a step further to its root and emphasizes that the power of your techniques actually originates from the ground.
Power comes from the ground up. This is pure physics. A karate punch or kick does not begin with the hip rotation. It passes cleanly through the hips to the torso, but it is not the hips that cause the power or the turn. The power that starts, originates or comes from the ground is transmitted to the upper body and eventually to the punch or kick by the correct use of the hip and then directed to the target via the arm or the leg.Yoshimi Inoue
He mentioned in an interview with Jose Fraguas in 2012 that there were studies [I haven’t been able to track those down yet] conducted at universities where “professional boxers and karateka have been placed in the air hanging with no base or contact to the ground whatsoever. The result? Their punching power was gone, decreased to the simple arm power. Why? Because they had no base”.
Hip rotations can definitely facilitate the transfer of power from the ground up to your limbs, but they cannot generate power by themselves.
An important implication arising from a correct understanding of the origin of power is that you become aware of the need to have a good solid base to harvest the power from the ground. And that means solid and strong stances with every technique are required.
Otherwise, even with correct hip rotations or vibrations, your techniques can’t reach their maximum power potential.
Three Principles of Power in Karate
According to Inoue, three fundamental things that are needed to generate power in karate techniques are balance, speed, and timing.
To generate good power for your techniques, the first thing you need to do is to have a good balance.
By balance, Inoue means solid and strong stances at the start of the techniques and at the final positions of the techniques.
This point is related to the principle that “power comes from the ground up” discussed above.
You can have strong arms, good hip rotations and great speed, but if you are not well rooted to the ground and your stances are weak, it is impossible to deliver powerful techniques.
In addition, the trajectories of the techniques need to be correct as well.
Inoue demonstrated this with an example of a simple choku tsuki technique (straight punch).
While different karate styles might place the chamber hands at different heights, in all styles, a chudan tsuki must follow a straight line with the arm kept close to the body and the elbow tucked in. Any non-linear trajectories will reduce the speed and power of the punch.
By speed, Inoue means the time it takes to execute a karate technique should be no more than 0.2 seconds, the same amount of time it takes one to blink.
Needless to say, speed is an important variable in the power equation.
Inoue didn’t elaborate on how to achieve this speed or how he came up with this specific speed but, at 66 years of age (when the video was recorded), he demonstrated sharp techniques with awesome speed.
By timing, Inoue refers to the timing of technique execution when transitioning between stances.
Your techniques need to be executed after you have partially or completely finished the transitions and established a strong base, not at the same time as or before your transitions.
If you understand the principle that power comes from the ground up, it will be clear as to why you need to time your technique this way.
If you have finished or almost finished the transition between techniques and established a strong stance, you have a solid base from which to launch your technique.
If you haven’t finished the transition, are not well-rooted, and try to execute a powerful technique, your technique will be weak and you may even become unstable as a result.
Try to punch with one leg dangling in the air and see how weak your punch is (although that’s what you’ve got to make do with in a fight sometimes).
Try to do a straight punch and step forward at the same time and you will find that your punch is a lot weaker compared to the scenario when you step first or when the stepping foot has at least touched the ground and then punch.
Wrong timing is a common mistake people make when performing kata. They want to look fast and execute their techniques too soon and, as a result, their overall kata looks weak because individual techniques are weak.
You may think that getting the stances right first before executing techniques will slow you down. That’s a possibility at first. But by practicing a lot you can reduce the time gap to just a fraction of a second and, to the untrained eyes, it will look like there is no gap at all.
Kime Is Like a Car Crash
Kime is derived from the verb “kimeru” in Japanese which means “to fix”, “to decide” or “to set”.
In the karate context, kime means the fixation of the power of a technique at the moment of impact.
For example, for a tsuki technique to achieve its maximum power potential, you want to harvest the power from the ground up, through the legs, the tandien, and the arm, and then transfer all that power to your opponent at the moment of contact.
To achieve kime in karate, a common approach taught is to relax all the way through (to achieve maximum speed), only tense briefly at the end of the technique just before hitting the target and then stop at impact to avoid damage to the joints.
Some instructors even say to kime means “to stop”.
This is a mistake.
According to Inoue, you should aim to transfer all the power through and there should be no attempt to stop the attacking arm at the moment of kime.
For example, if you aim to punch someone at the jinchu area (the midpoint of the philtrum, under the nostrils), you should aim to punch all the way through to the back of the opponent’s head.
What stop the momentum is your body or the whipping motion of your hips, never your hands.
Inoue compares throwing a tsuki with a car crash. In a car crash, the car is analogous to the body and the arm delivering the punch is analogous to the driver. The car (your body) hits an object and stops, but the driver (your arm) will keep going forward.
There should be a feeling of expansion to let the power go through freely and never a feeling of contraction or pulling back at the kime moment.
Of course, you still need to briefly contract the muscles on impact otherwise you will destroy your limbs (unless you are air-punching only). However, a deliberate stop or a pull-back will impede the transfer of power and reduce the effectiveness of your technique.
And a good thing is, if you hit a physical object rather than thin air, your body will know when to contract the muscles. Try to punch a makiwara or a punching back and you will find yourself instinctively contracting the muscles when you hit the target.
The transfer of power is a core principle practiced in traditional Okinawan karate.
The Makiwara Is an Essential Training Tool
Inoue encourages the use of the makiwara in training to perfect your techniques.
You can punch the air and produce impressive snapping sounds but the only way to find out the real power of your punch is to punch an actual object. A makiwara is a great tool for that purpose.
The makiwara can provide progressive resistance, let you test out body positioning, speed, distance, and timing and receive feedback that no other training tool can offer.
If you want to work on your kime, an impact tool like a makiwara, a punching bag or a homemade sandbag is a must.
Mie Nakayama was one of Inoue’s most accomplished students. She won three consecutive world championship titles and completely dominated women’s kata during the 1980s.
Mie Nakayama was first brought to Inoue’s attention by one of his assistants.
After two months of training with Inoue, Mie Nakayama participated in the kyu category of the Hayashi-Ha All Japan Karate-do Championships. She was the last one to perform among 48 competitors and was the winner of her division with her performance of the Pinan Nidan kata.
After that, the first thing Inoue reportedly did was to ask her father’s permission to install a makiwara at her house, which she began to use every day. And, according to Inoue, Nakayama developed “very good karate muscles“.
Choki Motobu, one of the best karate fighters ever lived had the same view about the makiwara.
He considered the makiwara to be an “indispensable equipment of karate practitioners” and that “when you have trained with it for several months, your fist is well capable of crushing several roof tiles and wooden boards with a single blow“.
I hope you find the above lessons from Inoue helpful.
Keep an eye out for the next post of the series which covers the following:
- How to move your center of mass
- Why use double blocks in karate
- How to add pauses to your kata
- Two principles of kumite, and so on.
Other posts you might be interested in:
- Yoshimi Inoue: The Life of a Legendary Karate Instructor
- Choki Motobu’s Wisdom in “My Art and Skill of Karate”
- How to Systematically Improve Your Karate Sparring
- Karate vs Wing Chun: Which One Is Better for Self-defense?
- How to Improve Your Kata Performance: 5 Surprising Tips
- A Comprehensive Guide to Karate Etiquette
- Gedan Barai Technique and Applications – Karate Philosophy
- What is the Purpose of Kata in Karate?
- Shotokan Karate Grading Syllabus: Brown Belt (3rd Kyu)
- “Returning to the source” by Joe M. Fraguas, Fall 2012, Martial Arts Masters
- Yoshimi Inoue – Findingkarate.com
- Yoshimi Inoue – Japan Karate-do Inoue-ha Shito-ryu Keishin-kai
- Soke Yoshimi Inoue
- Soke Inoue Yoshimi – The importance of fundamentals – Seminar Italy 2013
- Soke Inoue Yoshimi – The 3 principles of power in Karate – Seminar Italy 2013
- USA Karate Magazin, Volume 3, Spring 2017
- Antonio Diaz Interview: “Kihon is Karate”
- Antonio Diaz website
- Sakura Kokumai – Wikipedia
- Mie Nakayama – Findingkarate.com
- Ikken Hissatsu – Wikipedia
- 3 Karate principles taught by the legendary Yoshimi Inoue
- Soke Inoue Yoshimi – Normal vs emergency breathing in Karate – Seminar Italy 2013
- Soke Inoue Yoshimi – Relax your shoulders and open your mouth – Seminar Italy 2013
- Soke Inoue Yoshimi – Kime is like a car crash – Seminar Italy 2013
- Inoue Ha Shito-Ryu Keishin Kai History
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