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Zanshin

By Kenji Tokitsu


In Japanese martial art, one often hears the word “zanshin”. Its meaning? Let’s see what the dictionary says about the term and then I’ll comment on its significance.

This article is written in response to a request from Vincent Leduc, my 6th dan Belgian student and karateka. So at the end of the article, I will clarify the concept with regard to karate.

Japanese dictionaries give two meanings for the word “zanshin”. As their explanations are short, I will add my own personal comments below.

1 - The spirit that remains, or the fact of letting the spirit remain.
- The spirit that does not break off
- The fact of not being fully satisfied with things or events.

2 – The frame of mind sought and practiced in kendo and in kyudo (archery).

In kendo: the state of mind maintained after having delivered a strike.

Striking with the shinaï (in kendo) corresponds to the action of fighting with the sword. The dictionary definition means the following: having attacked (confronted) your opponent, your mind must not dwell on this action. You have to be ready to face any other opponent that might turn up, while still keeping a watch on the first one. Suddenly stopping your gesture or continuing it in the void is no good. Even if your movement stops, your mind is still in action without being under tension. Vigilance, readiness and energy remain when your attack action appears to be over…

In kyudo: maintaining mental tension after having released an arrow.

Your body is in symbiosis with the target. You shoot an arrow. Whether it hits the target or not, your action continues to resonate in your body and in your mind. The action of shooting the arrow is over, but not the spirit behind this action, as the gesture continues to resonate inside you. Releasing an arrow does not mean the end of the action of shooting that arrow.

In the practice of martial arts, the word is used in this second sense.

Modern karate gives great importance to the technique of executing kimé, a concept inspired by the idea of “zanshin” that we have just seen.
If you have some training in karate, I invite you to pay attention to your body when you perform kimé. What happens in your body? You contract your muscles to instantaneously block your body, so as to express the power and precision of your technique. Modern karate encourages this form of expressing power associated with a technique.
If you compare the tensions involved in performing kimé with what I have just written about “zanshin”, you should realize that there are certain differences.
Because, when you execute a technique with kimé, for an instant you’re in a fixed posture in which you  are expressing the precision and power of the gesture. If you could observe yourself, you would see that at that exact moment, you have blocked yourself. Watching more closely, you would see that you’ve kept yourself from making any other movement. Which means that at that moment, you are keeping yourself from reacting to a potential attack from another opponent – which is absurd in martial art.
This is one of the reasons why I feel that the implementation of kimé in modern karate has not been a success as an application of the “zanshin” concept.
If you compare this situation to the comments that I added to the definition of “zanshin”, you’ll easily see the difference. In the original karate of Okinawa, the situation was very different. (I’ll explain this in future articles.)
But a question remains.
If kimé was inspired by “zanshin” in Japanese martial arts, what gave rise to the present-day model of kimé? This question will lead us to reflexions of a sociocultural and historical nature, which I’ll leave you to think about. Here I will simply provide a few historical notes.
But first, a small anecdote to top off this short reflexion about “zanshin”.
“A famous 20th century kendo master was having tea with his pupil on a terrace overlooking a garden. The pupil asked his master a question about the meaning of “zanshin”. In response, the master quickly threw the contents of his cup into the garden. Then he showed his pupil the bottom of the cup where a few drops of tea remained, saying ‘That’s what “zanshin” is’.”

 

Historical timeline of modern karate

To my mind, modern karate is the set of currents and schools of karate formed and developed after 1920 on the main islands of Japan. I distinguish four periods in the history of modern karate.


1) First period (1921-1945).

The introduction of Okinawan karate to the main islands of Japan. This process begins in 1921 and continues to the end of the Second World War. It is a period of efforts to get Okinawan karate incorporated into the tradition of Japanese martial arts.


2) Second period (1945-1970).
End of World War II to the end of the 1960s. The formation of modern karate, which associates the karate of the first period with a trend towards competitive sport. It is the birth of what is known as “traditional karate”.


3) Third period (1970-1990).
After the first world karate championship held in Tokyo in 1970, karate experienced an upsurge the world over. Riding the wave of Bruce Lee films that would come a few years later, karate enjoyed real expansion in the world until the end of the 1980s.
4) Fourth period (1990-to the present).
As of the 1990s, karate began a period of decline. The furore of the preceding period began to fade and the number of karatekas diminished. At the same time, Chinese martial arts, including tai chi chuan, enjoyed a rise in public appreciation.


Conclusion

In this historical timeline of modern karate, we are now in the fourth period.
I believe that the concept of kimé was formed and developed over the course of these historical periods when karate had to develop as a martial art discipline that was both traditional and for sport. That is, modern karate had to develop as a spectator sport while maintaining the sobriety of a traditional Japanese martial art.
In a way, modern karate is the result of a dilemma: how to develop as a spectacle while successfully maintaining the sobriety of martial art. We can see this clearly in the anecdote about the cup of tea – how can you create a spectacle with a drop of tea in the bottom of a cup? The answer is in our reflexion on “zanshin”.