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Watch Your Words: How Words Affect Form

Think about how words, spoken or heard, can influence the way we train in the dojo. Those same

words can influence the way we move our bodies. Watch your words.

watch your words

This may seem far-fetched. Most of us don’t believe in magic spells, in the ability of mere words to affect the physical world. Nobody has died because someone pointed a finger at them and shouted “bang!” That said, there are ways that words can affect not just our perceptions but also the way we exist. The karate dojo is but one place where this can happen.

How do you, for example, translate jodan uke? Probably you’ll say “upper-level block.” Uke, though, does not mean “to block.” The uke in judo or aikido does not block. He or she “receives” the technique. That’s what “uke” means: to receive. If you think in terms of blocking, you miss the value of receiving the technique and using that reception to your advantage.

Likewise, when you hear, week after week, your teacher talk about this or that block, it influences the way you perceive the movement. If you don’t believe that, mentally translate the word differently: Each time you hear “block,” think “receive.” That is an obvious example; most karateka will identify with it. Others are more subtle. What, for instance, is a “front kick?” In Japanese, this is called mae geri. Practitioners of most forms of Japanese karate will immediately have a mental picture of a front kick.

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Okinawan karateka, however, don’t have such a clear image. In traditional Okinawan karate, there are many ways of kicking in a generally forward direction, all of which could be described as “front kicks.” Some forms call for the foot and leg to twist out from the hip, corkscrewing. The kick isn’t aimed directly ahead; it’s meant to rotate, much like a turning punch.

Some front kicks in Okinawan kata are actually delivered on an oblique angle. In other systems, a front kick refers to a kick with the toes. Using the ball or heel to strike is thought of as a thrust.

Two hundred years ago, it’s doubtful any Okinawan karate teacher used the term “mae geri” or a similar word in Okinawan. He may not have used any term at all. That’s the point. He and his contemporaries probably just said, “Kick like this.” Then they demonstrated. The emphasis was never on words. Understand that a class, lined up in neat rows and performing their kata or basics as a unit, is not a part of Okinawan karate’s history. Quite the opposite. Training wasn’t conducted in a dojo — there isn’t even an equivalent word in Okinawan for that space.

Karate “class” happened in a teacher’s yard or in a clearing in the forest. The teacher probably was related to some of the students; he would have known the others personally, known their families. Every student would have had the attention of that teacher. He wasn’t standing at the front of the class, barking orders. He was standing right next to you.

In this environment, there wasn’t any need for terminology. Your teacher didn’t need words. He just showed you and you copied. This also is true of the Japanese arts, by the way, those traditional koryu from the feudal age.

I was contacted by a novelist a while back; he wanted me to give him some terms for various sword cuts that he wanted to describe in a book — stuff like “interlacing dragonfly sweep.” I had to tell the writer there weren’t really many of those. Tsubame gaeshi, the “returning swallow,” is one example, true. But for the most part, most classical ryu do not have a lot of terminology. Just as with the Okinawans, the groups were so closely related they did not need a lexicon of terms.

This will sound odd to many karateka. Modern karate has a massive terminology. There is yoko geri kekomi to describe a side kick that drives in, and yoko geri keage to describe one that rises as the side of the foot goes out. Mae sagi ashi is a one-legged stance with the foot of the raised leg against the front of the supporting knee, and ushiro sagi ashi is when it’s on the rear of the knee.

For obvious reasons, most karate books include extensive glossaries. Inevitably, these are in Japanese. Creating a Japanese terminology for karate was a deliberate step many early Okinawan karate sensei employed to make their art more acceptable on the mainland.

There’s nothing wrong with this — but it can make karate a static art, one in which doing something “correctly” becomes more important than doing it efficiently. A front stance, or zenkutsu-dachi, is one in which there must be a certain percentage of weight on the forward leg and another percentage on the rear leg. This is the “right” way, in the dojo, to take a front stance. It is a front stance.

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But meeting these standards is not the same as taking a stance in the most effective manner, a stance that can differ depending on one’s size, leg length, fitness or flexibility. The teacher, instructing next to a single student, can see and accommodate for that. When there is a set word with a corresponding standard, however, that sort of individuality is lost. When the student hears “front stance,” he or she has an ideal in mind. It’s one that may not be appropriate or even healthy for that student.

In this sense, the phrase “front stance” has a kind of power — and not a good one. We need to remember that when we talk about a “front kick,” a mae geri, both terms are approximations at best. The words are not the thing. And when the words become fixed in one’s mind in a particular way, they can inform the way we perform the techniques they’re meant to describe.

It is always good to study Japanese terminology in the dojo. It can provide valuable clues to the meanings of techniques. It’s good, too, to remember that whether in Japanese or English, the words shouldn’t have too much power over your training.

Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles

and books, visit and type his name into the search box.

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