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.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Some updated details on my 'family tree'

Please note: I refer to people by name, and not title, in this blog post. No offense meant; it just saves time and effort repeatedly titling everyone ‘Sensei’, ‘Shihan’, ‘Master’, ‘Kyoshi’, etc.

June has been a fascinating month for me.  It began with a Facebook post asking for further information on my Karate ‘family tree’.  Joe Butrim (8th Dan, trained in Kenkojuku since 1959) phoned and offered to put me in touch with Art McConnell (7th Dan, trained in Kenkojuku since 1961). This led to a few lengthy phone calls where I heard stories about John Slocum (head of Samurai Dojo, Queens NY, in the 1960s). I also discovered that my particular lineage from Mike Hatgis and Rudy Goldmann actually stemmed from Burk Bailey, age 82, a private, retired gentleman. I sent a letter to Bailey requesting details; let’s see if he responds.

The Facebook post also brought some comments and details from Joe Turchiano, Barry Wicksman, Stu Hirschfield, Brian Fey, and Eddie Domagala. My hearty thanks to all these gentlemen for their information.

It surprised me that several times I was told not to post this information on social media. Sounds pretty cloak-and-dagger to me. Some stories did raise eyebrows, but nothing earth shattering. In a later conversation with Joe Butrim, he explained two things:
1-      Many early Kenkojuku people are private. For whatever reason they haven’t mentioned it, I have no business publicly airing their laundry.
2-      These stories are shared orally among those in the association. I can tell my students these historical tidbits, but they must not share online.

Our next quarterly Black Belt workout will be on Monday, July 23rd, when I will share stories with our yudansha in attendance. See you there.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Shoulders' Width

One of our high Black Belts was on extended hiatus due to his work hours.  I know his nature and was not concerned - he practices diligently on his own.  He also ponders different ideas, formulates alternate bunkai, and generally keeps his mind active.  One day he returned to class with a deep revelation: We know that many stances and yoi have the feet shoulders’ width apart.  He asked if shoulders’ width is measured from instep to instep, mid-foot to mid-foot, or blade to blade.  It’s only a 2” or 4” difference on each foot, an 8” total difference at maximum, but it adds up to a dramatic difference.  He felt that proper width is most effective when the outer blades of both feet are within the shoulders’ width.  A very valid analysis which we realized long ago.

New students’ front stances are often too narrow.  They’re used to walking; a stride that is much narrower than shoulders’ width.  I would lightly sweep the outer ankle on their lead leg (deashi barai), causing them to lose balance, immediately showing where their balance is weak.  So if shoulders’ width is good, then wider must be better, right?   Too wide is just as bad.  I’d then sweep the inner ankle of their lead leg and they’d pitch forward off balance.  The best front stance and fighting stance for maximum stability and flexibility has the front foot and knee in alignment, with the blade of the foot within shoulders’ width.  The rear leg is straight or bent, depending on the stance, with the blade of that foot within shoulders’ width as well.  Another way I’ll show students proper width is to have them move forward with an oi zuki (forward punch).  I’ll go behind them and lightly push between their shoulder blades.  The body pitches forward and they involuntarily move their foot inward to regain balance.  I explain this is their proper width.  The front knee/foot acts as a ‘stopper’ so the body doesn’t pitch forward with the force of the forward moving punch.  When you punch an object, there is an opposite recoil reaction on the body.  With improper stance width the punch is weak and the student is knocked off balance.  Anyone who has fired a gun understands the idea of recoil and proper stance. 

Okinawan kobujutsu (weapons) master Toshihiro Oshiro-shihan teaches forward stance with the front and rear leg in a straight line (no width).  He says the footwork and body should be aligned with the bo, sai, eaku, or whatever weapon for maximum effectiveness.  If the opponent moves, he changes direction by swiftly moving his feet in a ‘two-step’ manner to keep his body and weapon aligned with the opponent.  With our Shotokan shoulders’ width stance, our punch can vary left or right by as much as 30 degrees and still be within alignment of our stance.  A quick shift of either our front or rear leg (or both) can easily change our body’s direction. 

In Japanese kobudo, we generally hold a bo in thirds.  I even have a 6-foot practice bo taped off at the 2-foot and 4-foot marks.  Students are taught to keep their hands within the middle two feet, with their pinkie fingers touching the tape.  They can then easily rotate the bo around their bodies with minimal arm movements.  The wider their grip on the bo the more their arms, elbows, and shoulders move, the larger the bo arcs, and the harder it is to control.  If narrow grip is good, then much narrower must be even better.  Not so.  Narrower grip does allow you to rotate the bo faster, but with far less control.  We’ve seen Sport Karate tournaments where the competitor twirls the bo, tosses it in the air, and catches it like a baton.  In traditional competition we say you released your weapon leaving you disarmed, lost control, and were killed (OK- too harsh- disqualified).  As traditional martial artists we are concerned with the functionality of the weapon, not the acrobatics.  By the way, holding a 6-foot bo within the middle thirds is approximately shoulders’ width.  Coincidence?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

"Kyu" (級) and "Dan" (段) Ranks

"Kyu" () indicates 'class', or 'grade'. "Dan" () indicates 'level', or Americanized as 'degree'. The following article appeared in the Autumn 1997 edition of Dō Gakuin News:
The difference between Black Belt (Dan) ranks and underbelt (Kyu) ranks can be related to class grades in school. When a child is in first grade s/he is called a first grader. The child has not yet learned the entire first grade curriculum. On completing first grade the child becomes a second grader, even though s/he has not yet learned second grade material. Being a second grader actually means the child has completed first grade and can now work on second grade material.

Kyu (under Black Belt) ranks in Karate work much the same way. A student begins training and is given White Belt. This means the student is now working within the White Belt curriculum. On successful performance during Shinsa (rank examination), the student is awarded Yellow Belt and may now work within that curriculum.

Sho Dan-ho is the first Black Belt rank (apprentice first degree, or level). This only means the student has graduated Brown Belt and now begins working on Black Belt material. After a minimum of one year's training, the student then tests for Sho Dan (full first degree) on this Black Belt material. Unlike Kyu ranks and Sho Dan-ho, where the student now first works on material within that rank, a Sho Dan has earned the rank and is a full first degree. To simplify the difference: an underbelt wears the rank they're working on, full Black Belts wear the rank they have achieved.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A Letter to Sensei Hatgis

My sensei, Mike Hatgis, also owned advertising media, which included typesetting and printing.  When I founded Dō Gakuin in 1986, he graciously offered to have my hand-outs and fact sheets professionally typeset.  He noticed I was not following his rank structure, particularly on belt stripes assigned to different ranks.  I commented that there were some rank changes over the many years.  Nothing earth-shaking, but noticeable bumps when looking back.  As Dō Gakuin is a new organization, I wanted to start with a fresh slate and a rank belt system without hitches.  A fellow student suggested I write down my reasons for Sensei Hatgis’ clarification, and for me to evaluate these changes to see if they were valid.  Our belt structure has not changed in our 32 year history.  Here is an excerpt of the 3-page letter given to Sensei Hatgis: 

We don’t want to fail new students.  This only discourages them.  If a student isn’t really ready for the next kyu, but doesn’t deserve to fail, s/he can make half-steps (low yellow belt, low orange belt, etc.)  The kyu is followed by the word ‘”ho” (), meaning an apprentice, or a half-step.  Many other styles call their Taigo Sho Dan rank “Sho Dan-ho”, or apprentice Black Belt.  Students making low kyu ranks will wear the color belt, but with a white stripe on the end of it as a reminder to the student and the Sensei that s/he must work harder to come up to full potential.  On the next test this student is going for the next full kyu rank, a promotion of one and a half steps.  If they don’t perform well, they may make the next low kyu (still a full step up).  If the student does poorly, but we don’t want to fail him/her, the stripe is removed and is now promoted to the present kyu in full (1/2 step up for time in training).  These ‘-ho’ ranks may only be granted up to 6th Kyu Green Belt, since the next full rank has a stripe.  After Green Belt, the student either passes or fails.

A black stripe may be placed on a Green Belt or below raising it 1/2 step (e.g. 6 Kyu-dai).  These ‘-dai’ () ranks may be awarded to a student with exemplary test results, making that student senior regardless of when the others earned the same kyu rank.  Students who test poorly may also be given ‘-dai’ rank on the belt they presently hold.  While perceived as a promotion, the poor-testing student now has another three months with no new kata requirements, allowing him/her to improve abilities.
White Belts may earn one, two, or three black stripes on their belt showing advancement, but not yet ready for Yellow Belt.

Simply put: a white stripe lowers the rank ½ step (showing closer to the White Belt end of the spectrum), and a black stripe raises the rank ½ step (showing closer to the Black Belt end of the spectrum).

*It should be noted that not long after receiving this letter, Sensei Hatgis began placing black stripes on white belts for incentive, and awarding white stripes to students who barely passed their color belt test.*
_  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _
Here is another part of the 3-page letter addressing why Dō Gakuin removes white stripes on purple and brown belts rather than adding stripes:
L.I. SHOTOKAI uses one, two, and three stripes to indicate 3, 2, and 1 Kyu Brown Belts. The Japanese kanji for ‘Ichi’ is one horizontal slash ().  Ni’ is two horizontal slashes (), and ‘San’ is three slashes ().  The belt stripes are illogical.

I remember Bill Martinez buying embroidered San Kyu belts for Harrison and Brucie at Honda.  They had three slash marks to indicate ‘San Kyu’ (三級).  I also remember Sensei Hatgis carefully placing one stripe of adhesive tape covering the three embroidered slashes.  This seemed irregular.

Brown Belts go from one, to two, to three stripes; but Purple Belts go from NONE, to one, to two stripes.  This is inconsistent.  *Note: Sensei Miyazaki (and therefore, Sensei Hatgis) originally awarded Blue Belt, then Green Belt, then Purple 1 and Purple 2.  At some point in the early 1970s they stopped giving Green belts, making Purple a 3-step belt like Brown.  Since 1 and 2 stripes were standard, Purple no-stripe was given.*
I once asked Sensei Hatgis why Taigo Sho Dan had one white stripe and none of the other Black Belt ranks had stripes.  Many other styles use stripes to indicate what ‘Dan’ they are.  Sensei Hatgis said that Shotokan is a modest style.  We don’t need stripes to display our rank.  I know my rank, you know my rank, my fellow Black Belts know my rank, everyone in the Association knows my rank.  I don’t have to impress outsiders by advertising my rank.  A white stripe for Taigo indicates that s/he is not yet a full Black Belt, as the belt doesn’t show fully Black.
Dō Gakuin uses the concept of white stripes consistently throughout the ranking structure.  Green Belt with a white stripe is not fully green, hence a low kyu rank.  Purple Belt 5th Kyu has a white stripe to indicate not yet fully purple.  4th Kyu removes the white stripe and shows the belt fully purple.  San () Kyu is three stripes (three steps removed from fully brown), Ni () Kyu is two stripes, and Ikkyu () is one stripe.  At some time, by my judgment, an Ikkyu’s last stripe is removed.  This shows the belt fully brown, and alerts the student to prepare for a Black Belt test.

How many times in L.I. SHOTOKAI was a Brown Belt’s stripes replaced because the adhesive wore out? 
Dō Gakuin stripes are removed by promotion instead of their wearing out and falling off with age.
*Photo of Jiu Jitsu striped belt courtesy of Sensei Andrew Faupel*

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 intensively 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.