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Little Fingers and Toes

June 29, 2007

Pete Starr

The revered “Father of British Judo” and founder of the Budokwai, Gunji Koizumi, was once asked about the “secrets” of his art. “Little fingers and toes,” he replied. No doubt, this left the journalist who had posed the question more than a little puzzled. But to me, it is a fine example of Koizumi’s genius and deep understanding not only of judo but martial arts in general.

Koizumi’s chosen art was judo, which is a grappling art and I think that one must have some experience in it (or a similar discipline) before one can fully understand just what he meant.

Judo practice begins with both participants grasping each other’s jackets and maneuvering for an advantageous position; trying to cause the opponent to lose his balance momentarily or just feeling when he inadvertently places himself in an unstable or vulnerable position (which is not limited to his physical body, but also to his mind and spirit). There is often some maneuvering for the grip on the jacket itself and this struggle for one’s favored grip is more than just a gross placement of the hands and arms. It is also a placement of the spirit and a preparation for technique. The real “technique” of grasping the jacket is very subtle.

Modern judo is, in my opinion, not what it used to be. One of my most senior students, Sifu Mark Hachey, has an extensive background in this fine art and often refers to the contemporary version of the art as “brudo” or “brute-do.” Participants nowadays focus on the development of great strength and seek to overpower their opponents with brute force. They seem to have forgotten that judo’s founder, Dr. Jigaro Kano, was a very small man (even by Japanese standards in his day) whose skill was truly remarkable. Master Koizumi had studied and mastered the art under Kano’s instruction.

Koizumi’s answer to the interviewer’s question about the “secrets” of judo is easily applicable to any martial art. Although they are simple the secrets are also very subtle and not readily understood by novices. They are learned through constant training and study of the art. It isn’t enough to simply “go through the moves”; they must be studied in detail. Students should take the time to sit, think and consider.

Beginning students start by learning the gross, large movements and until these are thoroughly mastered they cannot hope to understand the inconspicuous but profound subtleties of the art. Rarely are these delicate, sophisticated aspects taught openly. Students have to watch closely and must have a good measure of experience and understanding themselves before they will be able to see these little “extra somethings.” Little fingers and toes.

There are small, understated movements and shifts that often accompany the teacher’s way of punching, striking, and kicking. It isn’t always seen in his striking hand or kicking foot. Sometimes it’s elsewhere. Sometimes it has to do with angles, but even that statement is a gross oversimplification. In a knife-hand strike, the placement of the finger(s), the angle of the strike, and the angle at the point of impact… all of these are things which the beginning student will not notice. And even if she tries she will not necessarily see it, not until she has mastered the basic strike herself.

Forms lend even more complexity to the situation. It is important for the student to do his best to imitate the teacher’s movements exactly. When the instructor stamps her foot rather than stepping down normally, there’s a reason for it. Sometimes the step seems to “glide.” Watch for the tension in the legs as she moves. The placement of the hand (which is precise even though it may not appear to be), the rhythm in certain segments of the form, the breathing pattern(s) and how they relate to the movement(s). There are many “little” things that one must look for if one aspires to discover the real art and master it. Little fingers and toes.

A martial arts practitioner for nearly 50 years, Pete Starr is a black belt in Kyokushin karate, trained in traditional shao-lin, xingyiquan, and baguazhang, and the author of The Making of a Butterfly. He lives and teaches in Omaha, NE. His upcoming book Martial Mechanics comes out in the Spring of 2008.

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