Thoughts, stories, and ideas from Sensei Steve Gottwirt

Thoughts, stories, and ideas from                  Sensei Steve Gottwirt
Some of these thoughts, stories, and personal history appeared in our newsletter, "Dō Gakuin News". Few members have been with us since our first issue in 1993. As such, ideas on this page may have been printed before, but are worth telling again.

Friday, March 23, 2018

White and Black Stripes on Belts

Some folks commented on the idea of Sho Dan-ho and Shonen Sho Dan-ho (少年初段補) in the previous blog post. To clarify, this is written on our 'Ranks and Requirements' page:

Juniors under age 16 may go no higher than Sho Dan-ho, and will receive a special cotton Shonen belt with a white stripe running the length of the black belt. Yonen () age 12 and under are ineligible for black belt rank until age 13.

Written elsewhere on the page: 
White stripes and black stripes may be placed on belts. A white stripe lowers the rank (showing closer to the White Belt end of the spectrum), and a black stripe raises the rank (showing closer to the Black Belt end of the spectrum). These stripes cannot be used past 6th Kyu Green Belt, as 5th Kyu and above have stripes assigned to them. From this rank on a student either passes or fails.

Black stripes ("-dai") on a white belt and white stripes ("-ho") on a color belt are used when a student has shown improvement, but does not meet the standards to reach the next full kyu. This serves as a visual reminder to the student and Sensei that they need a little more polish to come up to expectation for full rank.

A black stripe on a color belt ("-dai") may be awarded to a student with exemplary test results, making the student senior in that kyu. Students who do not test very well may also be given a "-dai" rank on the belt they presently hold.

Sho Dan-ho has graduated the kyu ranks and is an apprentice Black Belt, indicated by a white stripe on the end of the belt. This stripe is removed after the apprentice passes a test on Black Belt material for full Sho Dan.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

We Are Family

I was recently reminded of a story from March 2007 when we held a special Shinsa (rank examination) for 15 year old Frank Gomez.  In our dojo, we use Sho Dan-ho (初段補 - apprentice Black Belt) as a rank, and youths under 16 years old can only hold Shonen Sho Dan-ho (少年初段補 - junior apprentice) before their 16th birthday.

Mr. Jerry Saravia happened to be home from college and worked intensely preparing Frank to test.  We decided on a special test date for the last Sunday Mr. Saravia would be at the dojo.  On test day, Mr. Saravia showed up, as did Mr. Jose Pineda.  Both Sho Dans were in their 20s (21 & 27), around Frank’s size, and both originally made Shonen, earning their ranks before age 16.  I knew Frank and Mr. Saravia would work well together, but was surprised how well Mr. Pineda worked with Frank and coordinated with Mr. Saravia on ippons (1-step self-defense) and kumite (sparring) as they worked Frank hard.  After shinsa, the two Sho Dans introduced themselves: By the way, my name is Jose.  Hi, I’m Jerry.  I was stunned that these two were strangers.  It never dawned on me that they trained different years, made rank at different times, and never crossed paths before.  I then complimented them on their teamwork; how smoothly they worked with each other.  Their response was matter-of-fact: Even though it was different eras, they both trained with me.  Of course they would think alike, react alike, and move alike.

Friday, February 16, 2018

High School Shooting in Florida

For the second night in a row, the topic of debate on my job was Wednesday’s high school shooting in Parkland Florida.  Ban all guns!’ and ‘Arm all teachers!’, and points in between were heatedly argued.  I was asked for my opinion on Wednesday night, and really had no concrete thoughts.  This is not a clear cut, black and white issue.  I was asked again last night and, right or wrong (although there is no definite right or definite wrong), these were my thoughts:

Our dojo meets inside a Temple.  They’re in the process of renting out space to a day care center, who must meet strict County standards.  A sign was posted in various parts of the building, declaring it a gun-free zone.  Graffiti on one of the signs sums the argument up perfectly.  This all got me thinking: 
- Many of these mass shooters are loners, self-isolated from others to brood on their own.
- Many mass shooters bought their guns legally.
- Law enforcement and military train regularly to handle their weapons safely and effectively.
- Even on the opposing side, militia and survivalists train together.

Here’s a thought – legal gun owners should be required by law to belong to an NRA-approved gun club and attend regular meetings.  The NRA and gun clubs should love this as their active membership grows.  The Government should love this as gun owners would be regulated into controlled, safe training.  Gun owners should love this as they’re socializing with like-minded people while practicing their safe shooting skills.  Registered gun owners who do not attend and practice regularly should be reported to the authorities by the gun club.

Like the Temple (a religious institution where like-minded people congregate to share fellowship), fellow congregants (gun club members) can have direct, regular contact with each other.  They are in a good position to see if a member’s mood goes dark, or they seem mentally imbalanced, and can report it to the club, who can alert the authorities.  Basic human contact is the best way to check on someone’s mental status.  Is this foolproof?  Nothing is foolproof.  Don’t tell me banning guns is foolproof because those who break the law by murder are not concerned that obtaining a gun is illegal.

Is this idea the solution?  No, nothing is guaranteed to stop the problem, but if one disturbed person gets help, if one shooting is avoided, it’s worth examining.

Sunday, January 7, 2018


In our dojo, we will often watch one person perform a kata or technique, and then we can all offer comments.  How dare a Yellow Belt criticize a Brown Belt!  ‘Comments’ are not necessarily ‘criticism’; they can also be positive observations. 
We do this for four good reasons:

1- We develop the students’ observational skills, making sure we’re all looking for the same details.
2- We develop the students’ verbal skills as they describe what they see, reinforcing it in their minds.
3- As juniors learn what makes good form, they will start to look for it in their own techniques.
4- Students can see direct cause and effect when someone’s form is a little off (e.g. leaning forward or back, stance too wide or long, moving head late while turning, etc.).

We can all learn from each other, what to do and what not to do.  Here is something to think about:

JUNIORS give you a chance to improve solid basics.
EQUALS give you competition.
SENIORS give you something to strive for.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

50 Years a Martial Artist

December 13, 2017 marks my golden anniversary in the martial arts.  (How the heck can he remember the exact date?)  I kept a log when I began, showing the date of each class and what we worked on.  The log was lost until my family moved from Jamaica, Queens to Merrick, Long Island in 1971, when it was found sifting through some papers.  As it turned out, my brother Rick married Rita on the same date, December 13, but in 1970.  I can never forget when I started, because it’s their anniversary too, just three years apart.
My first instructor, Sabumnim Illowsky, called his teachings Karate, which was a rare (but known) term, as Tae Kwon Do was almost unknown to the public.  I then went on to Moo Duk Kwan – Tang Soo Do, another ‘Korean style’ in Brooklyn.  As we know, Koreans trained with Funakoshi O-sensei in the 1950s, then went back to Korea and created ‘Korean styles’ based on Shotokan.  I learned Taga 1-2-3, Bin-an 1-2-3-4-5, Chul-ki, and Passai.  Do these names sound familiar?

As a teen, the attractive patch at right caught my eye, but I knew nothing about the style.  I studied Judo for a while.  New York Tech had a Karate Club, which I joined in 1976.  It turned out to be a Shotokan club.  I guess it was kismet all along.  Next month is my 42nd year in Shotokan, but today is my 50th year in the martial arts.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

I Fell Down

I finished class a little while ago and walked over to the pizzeria for lunch.  It rained heavily this morning with gusting winds.  Leaves were scattered everywhere.  I walked along, took a step, and my right foot sank into a deep hole, sending me sprawling face-first onto the ground HARD!  You’re in your 60s and you fell down?  You could break a hip; break an arm; break an ankle!  I did a break-fall (mae ukemi), caught my breath, then got up and continued on my way.  Was this an example of self-defense?  Let’s see... I protected myself and prevented injury so, yep, it’s self-defense.

Everyone knows that martial arts are for the young.  It’s that cute, adorable activity that little children play.  No serious teenager would be caught dead doing Karate.  Adults go to the dojo to watch their darling kiddies perform in a little recital for rank promotion.  *Sarcastic irony detected*

Today proved what I already knew: Martial Arts training is for ALL ages; perhaps even more important as we age.  Older people are more likely targets for attack.  If attacked, you can defend yourself.  If you are never attacked, your training may have helped you avoid danger, or made you look less likely a victim to attackers.  If you fall, your training may have increased your bone density and taught you to break-fall minimizing the chance for injury.  If you never fall, it could be that training improved your balance.

Whether you’re young, not-so-young, or old, I’ll see you at the dojo.

Monday, October 23, 2017

How Many Tigers Are There?

We study Shotokan Karate.  Funakoshi O-sensei never 'named' his teachings, simply calling it Karate (empty hands).  Outsiders referred to his teachings by the dojo's name, 'Shotokan'.  There are different variations of Shotokan, Shotokai, Kenkojuku, and others.  Within the Shotokan world, Japan Karate Association (JKA) is by far the largest organization.  There are, however, many other large ‘governing bodies’ including:  JKF, SKIF, WSKF, WUKF, FSK, ISKF, ITKF, FAJKO, WKF, ASAI, SKA, KKA, and a whole bunch of other initials.

A couple of years ago a Shotokan acquaintance mentioned that he is now following Asai Shotokan.  Another friend mentioned that he now performs kata Kanazawa-style.  Not long ago a young Black Belt entered tournament run by a different organization than hers.  She received a low score because her kata wasn’t performed ‘their way’.

In my own parent association, I’ve heard stories how our founder was known to pore over his copy of ‘Karate-do Kyohan’, dog-ear pages, highlight sections, and make notes.  He would then change the way he taught a basic or a kata.  Forgive me if I sound rude, sacrilegious, or just ‘New York brash’, but I doubt Funakoshi O-sensei made any changes to the book since his death in 1957.  Was our founder mistaken, did he misinterpret the book, or did his interpretation change?  Isn't it all subject to interpretation?  We know that almost all moves can have multiple meanings (bunkai).  Whichever bunkai you use will affect your speed, timing, rhythm, and flow. 

In all cases mentioned above, it is some person’s interpretation of how to practice Shotokan that others choose to follow.  So who is right?  Which way is correct?  It’s all good.  They say there is more than one path to the mountain top.  As long as we stay on the path (Dō ) and keep climbing, the summit will be within reach.