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All you need to know: NUS Karate

Not sure which clubs to join in the upcoming semester? In this series, we put together comprehensive masterposts for all you need to know about NUS's martial arts clubs. Stay tuned for more!


Note: As part of the Interest Development Series, NUS Karate will be holding workshops on 30th Jan! If interested, please refer to their Facebook page here.


The sixth club I’m visiting in this series is NUS Karate! You know what’s coming up: a rundown on what karate is; the training menu I experienced; some common Q&A; and 4 interviews with members of the club.


(Slight disclaimer: I might sound a little biased because I almost joined NUS Karate in my freshman year and I’m practising another style of karate, myself.)


Karate

Karate is a martial art from Okinawa. It’s believed to have come from Chinese kung fu from the surrounding regions (particularly Fujian White Crane), passed by soldiers, merchants and other human traffic from the 14th century. It was mostly used by unarmed peasants, who were forbidden from carrying weapons by the Japanese rulers, so this strengthened the preference for unarmed techniques or weapon techniques using common items like farming implements

Karate is practised very widely in a variety of styles with different training methods and preferred techniques. NUS Karate is trained by Sensei Ishikawa, who practises Shito-ryu karate which favours speedy movement, compact stances and movements. To illustrate, other karate styles might teach a student to block a punch very hard to knock the opponent off balance. However, if your opponent is really, really strong, you might lose. Thus, Shito-ryu teaches you to evade the strike while blocking it, maximising your effectiveness even if you aren’t very strong. Sensei Ishikawa also explained that these compact movements are also more forgiving on your joints and muscles, explaining his ability to keep training effectively despite his advanced age, whereas many of his peers in other, more strenuous, styles have suffered joint and muscle injuries.


NUS Karate

NUS Karate trainings are held at The Japanese School (opposite Engineering) on Mondays and at MPSH2 on Thursdays from 7-9 o’clock.


Broadly speaking, karate training consists of 3 components: kihon (basics); kata (forms); and kumite (sparring). Kihon refers to drilling basic techniques repeatedly to build power and strength. Kata are choreographed routines which teach sequences of techniques. Different kata also focus on different skills (some focus on teaching evasive footwork, others train blocking techniques, some might train your breathing techniques and power). Kumite is sparring to practise applying techniques you learn in the other 2 components.

Other than kihon, NUS Karate focus on kata on Mondays (since they have a nice, large hall to train in) and kumite on Thursdays (since they have their equipment at school). They also conduct special training on Saturdays focused on competition. The training I attended was a Monday session at JPS.


Our warm-up started off normal enough with walking leg raises, but quickly ramped up to wheelbarrows, hopping across the hall, piggyback carries and repeated sprints. I was sweating heavily within 15 minutes!


After stretching a little more, we opened the class by bowing to the sensei and the class.

Thus, we started our kihon training. The instructor (usually a senior black belt other than Sensei Ishikawa) leads by calling out and demonstrating the technique while the class does it. We started off doing very basic techniques like single punches and blocks, then doing them while moving:


We moved onto more complex techniques like combinations.

When techniques got too complex, the instructor told those senior enough to perform the full movement while juniors would perform a simplified version. The GIF below is the senior doing the full movement (a movement, block and kick) while the juniors did just the movement and block.








Throughout, Sensei Ishikawa paid special attention to us to correct any mistakes.

This went on for a long time (over 30 minutes). On the one hand, while Shito-ryu karate stances are sometimes more compact and thus easier to hold, it’s also dynamic because you might slide into a wider stance e.g. when charging in with a punch.

Hence, this type of training is very tiring! It’s a terrific workout for your legs and if you hold the position properly, you’ll build up your hips and ankles so you’ll be very stable when you fight. I have a senior at my dojo who’s 60, a full head shorter than me but so strong that I can’t knock him over no matter what I do because his legs are so thick and solid.

The rest of the training was spent doing kata. We split into several groups to practise the kata appropriate for their experience level, with one to several black belts helping each group.

The junior belts did a more basic kata, Heian Nidan, which teaches, among other skills, how to fight people who attack you from behind. The move being shown here is a punch to someone behind you while blocking someone trying to punch you from the front.








This is a push: you brace your upright hand with the other fist so you can more effectively thrust your weight into your arm, pushing back your opponent. Lots of karate moves like this are about using your bodyweight to maximise your strength so a smaller person can even knock down a larger opponent.

So you can get a better idea, here’s the kata in its entirety by Joanne Ong! I performed the Kyokushin version of this, so you can get an idea of what other styles of karate might look like. Disclaimer: I’m only somewhat competent with my kata, and there’s lots of people better than I practising my style!

The seniors were practising different kata. Generally, the earlier kata all feature movement in an “I” shape. Later kata feature special movement to do more complex moves or to face opponents coming from different directions. Some even involve jumping!

The technique at the end has been interpreted as a groin attack or an ankle pick (you can bend down to grab your opponent’s ankle and yank it up to knock him over).

This technique is used to escape from someone who has you in a bear hug. You punch behind you to stun him, then shift your weight and punch him from the other end before shaking free. I’ve learnt a similar technique in another kata, which adds a jump to make it even easier to shake free of the enemy.

As you can see, the different kata are like different textbooks that contain information on all sorts of different techniques. Sometimes, they don’t really make sense because blocking in certain angles seems useless. In fact, these are actually simplified versions of Chinese taolu, which do show that these blocks are actually other maneuvers like breaking free of a grab or another move. It isn’t that karate practitioners don’t know them - they do - but you’ve got to spend time thinking about the application (“bunkai”) before you’ll get it, since the kata are simplified for teaching purposes.

What I like about kata training is that you’ve got to really know the movement before you can make it look graceful and forceful and cool. That isn’t just my vanity talking - it’s because the techniques will only work if you can do them properly (and looking good is usually quite a good indicator of whether you’re doing it right). That’s why karate practitioners spend so much time learning and practising even the minute movements of kata.

Although the training ended here, several members stayed back to practise more. I managed to get the help of 2 experienced seniors to demonstrate some kumite for us! Kumite is sparring.

Shito-ryu practitioners practise sport-style kumite, which looks like taekwondo or “fencing” with your hands and feet. You can kick and punch as you like, but you need to pull back your power because it’s not a full-out fight. Thus, the focus is on scoring points, not getting a KO - you need to be very agile and cunning for this to work.

In a tournament, they’d be wearing a body protector, gloves and feet padding.

The other type of kumite is ippon kumite. It’s a bit like practising your combinations but with the intention of doing the full technique (obviously, not with full power, for safety). The seniors demonstrated different ways of throwing the enemy and finishing the fight with a decisive blow. This looks a little like what you might see in a movie or an old-school army video about martial arts. At a high level, a very proficient karateka should be capable of actually executing these techniques on a real bad guy.


Q & A

1) What’s the timing like?

Trainings are on Mondays and Thursdays, from 7-9pm.


2) Is there a steep learning curve?

No. Karate techniques are quite straightforward. It might take you a while to learn the posture and build up your flexibility to do high kicks, but you’ll sort of roughly get it from the start. If you’re diligent, you can make steady progress even as a beginner so it won’t take very long before you get to do the fun stuff.


3) How much money am I going to spend on it?

The membership fee is $25/month. Other than that, you might need the uniform, which costs $50. Additionally, you might need to spend $60 - $70 to take gradings when you want to, and when you feel ready.


4) Is karate very tough?

It’s definitely not easy, but it’s not very tough either. I think the most difficult thing for karate is getting used to holding the low stances for long periods. However, that’s for your own good and you’ll quickly build up your leg muscles so you’ll be conditioned for it. “It doesn’t get easier, but you do get used to it!”

It’s still a good workout, so if you want to get fit, definitely give it a try. That said, it’s also not so tough that you’ll need to give up your other strenuous activities to do karate, so I’d still recommend it to an athlete who wants to try something else on the side as well.


5) How much of my training is conditioning? How much time do I actually get to “play”?

Well, it’s a little hard to say. The only PT/exercise-like things we did was the warm-up, although some might consider the kihon an extended warm-up. If you can’t stand doing the same techniques over and over, then you might be a little bored by it. However, most people don’t mind kihon since it’s also about learning the technique and the form and practising it, so it’s not really boring like doing running or push-ups or sit-ups. I wasn’t bored at all since there was a good variety of techniques and it was still “fight”-related stuff.


6) Is karate useful for self-defence?

I think so. Initially, more people liked full-contact karate and dissed sports karate because they thought it wasn’t practical in street fights. However, the prevailing opinion has shifted since many pro fighters have effectively employed point karate in MMA, most notably Shotokan expert Lyoto Machida (UFC) and Horiguchi (Rizin). The sport-type of fighting is quite good for self-defence because it helps you keep your distance from bad guys so you can do the techniques you want (kicks, punches, etc.) while he’s either too near or too far to do what he wants.

Other than that, ippon kumite and learning your kihon and kata will teach you all sorts of invaluable techniques you can use like arm locks, throws and the obvious striking combinations.

Lastly, lots of pro-fighters in Japan have noted that karate is a “body utilisation method” which means it helps you get better body control and maximise your body’s power. At the very least, karate can help you learn other fighting styles or to be physically tough enough to handle a combat situation.

Just to share a little personal story, I was at the Welcome Tea in 2018 as a freshman and Sensei Ishikawa was explaining how to do a reverse punch (a boxing right cross) on a senior, who I was standing behind. This moment stuck with me because even as I stood behind the senior, when the fist came towards my face, the hairs on the back of my head rose because I really felt like the punch would have killed whatever it hit. It’s not just me being awed by a cool, wise-looking Japanese martial artist because I’ve only ever felt that kind of “killing power” on two other occasions from experienced martial artists.


7) Is karate safe?

Sure. As I’ve mentioned, Shito-ryu karate is meant to be easier on your body so you can train safer and longer. Besides, training doesn’t have any crazy components or fighting your partners at full-force. The only somewhat dangerous training might be kumite, although that’s done under supervision and with the relevant safety equipment, and everybody’s very mindful of safety. Besides, tournament rules and the focus on scoring mean that participants are more focused on technique and speed than killing power. If you’re still uncomfortable with sparring, you can also focus on kata or your basics, which is still plenty of fun.


8) Are my karate days going to be over once I graduate?

No. Sensei Ishikawa runs this club so it’s open to the public to join as well. Lots of the people I saw today were actually non-NUS students. In fact, most of the seniors who looked really good and strong were non-students (since they’ve been at the club longer and have gotten steadily stronger). Besides that, there are lots of karate organisations active in Singapore like SKF, Shotokan karate, Kyokushin karate, Ashihara karate, etc.

9) Can I take part in tournament? Will I be able to get any fortune and glory even if I’m a newbie?

Yes. NUS Karate takes part in tournaments like . In fact, everyone is encouraged to take part in Saturday training which is meant to get you competition-ready.


10) What’s the social life of the club like?

Karate might have the image of being very stuffy and serious, but that’d be inaccurate. The club was quite large so you found all sorts of people there from many faculties. Since it’s affiliated to an external club, there are also non-NUS people taking part, so it’s a great way to meet new people.


(Pulau Ubin outing)

During training, the others were really friendly despite me being a total stranger and we ended up talking a lot even after training ended. I’m glad to have met new friends here! I was waiting for the bus with 2 members, born 4 years apart and on opposite ends of the campus, but who had quickly become fast friends despite having nothing in common because “karate bridged the gap between their worlds”. (One of them’s a bit camera-shy so I've cleverly protected her identity!)


Interviews

Joanne

1. How long have you been doing karate?

Joanne: 3 plus years. I started when I was Year 1 Undergraduate. At that time, I had just entered NUS and I was looking for a CCA. I knew I wanted to do a sports because (i) I have not tried a sports CCA before, and (ii) my major is computer science, so I wanted something to help me to move. Martial arts sounded cool so I just joined Karate in the end J

Question: What do you like about it?

Joanne: It’s an activity that is totally new to me. Like my previous CCA was Harmonica Band, and then before that it was like Green Club (i.e. environmental club). So it’s really cool to learn something new through karate.

Question: Why did you stick with it?

At the very start, it was due to curiosity about the martial arts. However, after some time, it’s also because you start to realise that you really need to practise it if you want to learn a martial arts properly. Oh, and also, some of the people in the club were quite nice, and that helped as well.


2. What do you like about NUS Karate?

Joanne: Hmm, a bunch of things. I guess the fact that a wide variety of people join NUS Karate? So you get to mix around with folks outside of your major. Actually a large part of it comes down to the individual’s self-discipline. NUS Karate welcomes anyone who is interested and willing to commit their time and effort to learning Karate. When new folks join, they are taught from the very basics. But afterwards, to move beyond that, it depends a lot on the individual’s will to continue. And yea, I guess training can be quite xiong sometimes so maybe some people are scared off after a while :P

Question: Why NUS vs an external club?

Joanne: It’s more convenient. And it’s a lot cheaper than learning outside. Might as well!

Question: Do you have any fun stories?

Joanne: Haha in karate we have this thing called sparring/kumite. One time, two guys were fighting each other, when they both landed an attack on each other’s groin and collapsed onto the mat at the same time! LOL


3. Would you recommend karate to an incoming freshman / other student?

Joanne: Yeah, I think it’s nice to learn something new in Uni that isn’t academics. And also it keeps you fit and healthy. From Karate, the first thing you can take away is commitment – the ability to will yourself into doing something. As I said before, there is really no way to avoid devoting time and effort to the martial art if you want to learn it well. Another thing is err perseverance? Cliché, but when there are 100 punches at once you’ve gotta keep it up.

Question: Who do you think would like karate?

Joanne: People who are looking to keep fit and learn something cool at the same time. And people who are not afraid to spend time here.

Question: Do I have to be strong to do karate? Is it dangerous because I’ll have to do sparring?

Joanne: Nah, I’m not very strong myself haha. In fact, I think you should do Karate to get stronger. Sparring wise it isn’t really dangerous cos our kind of sparring is semi-contact, and there are all sorts of guards (mouth, shin, knee) to prevent against injuries. Furthermore, people actually get penalties if they attack others too hard during sparring matches!

Question: What kind of people would not like karate?

Joanne: People who hate repetitions. You have to keep repeating moves till your body is used to it, and if you’re always looking for flashy new moves you probably can’t stay for long.


4. What advice would you give someone who just joined NUS Karate or is thinking about joining?

Joanne: Focus on getting the basics right first. The footwork, the basic punches, and kicks etc. Once they become habits, they can be quite hard to change, so let’s try to get them right from the onset.


Tedd

1. How long have you been doing karate?

Tedd: I started in semester 1 of AY2016/2017 when I first joined NUS as I wanted to try a martial art and keep fit. I like that Karate is fast and to the point. This dojo (KYK) constantly drills the fundamentals and I stuck with it mainly due to the Senpais, Sensei, and the seniors. They are nurturing and understanding, even though I can’t do most of the moves very well.

2. What do you like about NUS Karate?

Tedd: I like that not every training session is compulsory. It’s important as we have to prioritise studies over exams.

Question: Why NUS vs an external club?

Tedd: One, it’s within school, means you’re training with fellow students going through the same study and play cycles. Two, it’s cheaper than an outside club.

Question: Do you have any fun stories?

Tedd: Every performance preparation for Sports Club Day or NUS Open House is a lot of fun. A personal one would be being sent to join the leadership camp organised by NUSSSC (NUS Students’ Sports Club) to Malaysia over the study break in 2017.

3. Would you recommend karate to an incoming freshman / other student?

Tedd: Yup, to anyone who wants to challenge themselves further. I like that you can start from absolutely zero. Lack of physical strength or flexibility is not a hindrance. Only a dedicated mind and humble attitude is needed. I take away that more than just becoming a better fighter, karate aims to make you a better person overall. Learning to receive instruction and deal with failure are part and parcel of the karate journey.

Question: Do I have to be strong to do karate? Is it dangerous because I’ll have to do sparring?

Tedd: You don’t have to be physically strong, but over time you will be strengthened. It is only dangerous if you don’t know how to control yourself when sparring. One must demonstrate control under intense pressure while fighting. Inexperienced fighters usually go all out when exhausted, leading to injuries.

Question: What kind of people would not like karate?

Tedd: Karate, or any sport, takes commitment. If you have a lot of other commitments and not having enough time for other things, then karate might not be for you. If you only have personal ambition and decide that people are not important to you, then don’t join. Karate is humility in action.

4. What advice would you give someone who just joined NUS Karate or is thinking about joining?

Tedd: Make friends. Don’t focus everything on training and forget the people training with you. One step at a time. You’ll see certain moves and go wow, impossible. Stay dedicated and keep coming for training.


Jian Hui

1. How long have you been doing Karate?

Jian Hui: I am still new to Karate and started learning it about 4 months ago. I like martial arts and practised some other form of martial arts before (Wing Chun), therefore decided to pick up Karate as it’s similar to what I have learnt. I like that it is rather practical for self-defence and promotes cultural values such as respect and discipline. I’m sticking with it since it’s a form of sports to keep myself fit and for self-defence purpose


2. What do you like about NUS Karate?

Jian Hui: Senpai and the seniors are all very friendly and patient in their teaching

Question: Why NUS vs an external club?

Jian Hui: Being a NUS student, monthly training fee is partly subsidized as compared to external club

Question: Do you have any fun stories?

Jian Hui: The club occasionally organizes outings, events and often go for supper after training. During our last outing, we went Harbourfront but it was too hot on the roof so we end up playing Singaporean Dream card game in the food court … THE WHOLE DAY!


3. Would you recommend Karate to an incoming freshman / other student?

Jian Hui: Sure! It doesn’t only impart self-defence techniques, it also teaches the practitioner to be respectful to others at all times (such as the practice of bowing to your opponent and sensei after partnered up for drills). It suits everyone and not uncommon for kids to learn Karate. It is great for anyone that would like to pick up some self-defence techniques and/or keeping themselves fit

Question: Do I have to be strong to do Karate? Is it dangerous because I’ll have to do sparring?

Jian Hui: Strong is not a requirement to practice Karate as it doesn’t only focus on strength. Speed and techniques are equally important. Practitioners will wear protective equipment and there will be rules for sparring, therefore, it is not considered as dangerous


4. What advice would you give someone who just joined NUS Karate or is thinking about joining?

Jian Hui: Don’t be afraid to try Karate and it is important to get the techniques and forms right first before focusing on strength and speed


Le Rae


1. How long have you been doing Karate?

Rae: Hello! I've joined Karate for one semester, since I entered NUS. I decided to try it out because I had always been interested in martial arts but my parents never did let me join when I was younger because they didn’t want me beating my brother up if I picked up martial arts. *laughs* It's been a really tricky yet enjoyable and fulfilling journey so far. I've had experience in sports and dance, but karate is super new to me and so it's really hard to pick up.


2. What do you like about NUS Karate?

Rae: Karate has made me learn a lot about hard work and humility. It hasn't really been a smooth ride learning the basics, and I have had to constantly pick myself up from mistakes. But through it, I've learnt how to take failures and to get better from them. Watching the seniors train with us is really inspiring too, because even though they're already super good at it, we all start every training with the basics.


3. Would you recommend Karate to an incoming freshman / other student?

Rae: The NUS Karate team is like a family. The seniors are really helpful and caring when they train us, which made it a safe and patient space for a confused newbie like me. I wasn't sure if I wanted to join karate at first, but after attending the first session, the seniors were so friendly that I didn't feel like joining other martial arts LOL so here I am. The safety of it all also appealed to me quite a bit as it felt comfortable and assuring for me as a first-timer. It's really not that dangerous because our style of karate is not very contactive.


4. What advice would you give someone who just joined NUS Karate or is thinking about joining?

Rae: To anyone who wants to join Karate, be prepared for discipline and tiredness, but also a sense of accomplishment and some laughter along the way. You don't have to already be strong or fit or flexible to join, just come as you are and we'll train it up together! It only takes a willing heart, hard work and humility.


Final Thoughts

I had a lot of fun training with NUS Karate today! It’s a terrific workout and a lot of fun, but more importantly if you want to train your body and spirit under a very, very, very experienced teacher and with like-minded peers, then NUS Karate is a pretty good option.


Note: If you'd like to try out some Karate moves, why not sign up for NUS Karate's Interest Development Series workshop on 30th Jan 7-9pm. Find the details on their Facebook page here.


The next club I’m heading to is NUS Wushu!

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