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How to kick-start your qi: Japan's most dangerous man shows the way

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

You heard it here first: karate will be the next big wellness trend. Obviously, with more than 50 million practitioners worldwide, it’s already a popular sport. After it debuts at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it’s bound to become even more so. But beyond karate’s athleticism, what is less well known about it in the West is that it offers a mind-body connection of the kind commonly sought from yoga or Pilates. And its overarching philosophy – that force should be a last resort, and that cultivating inner strength is an end in itself – feels valuable in a world increasingly dominated by strutting machismo.

My eyes (and hip flexors) were opened to all this at a recent session with a living legend here in Okinawa, where the martial art was developed. Karate’s origin story is fascinating: after the Japanese launched the first of what would be a few invasions of the Ryukyu Islands (of which Okinawa is now the largest) in 1609, they banned locals from possessing weapons. The islanders, living in a trade hub for north Asia, were already developing their own form of martial arts, influenced by the Chinese, and as Japan strengthened its grip on the archipelago, karate evolved. By the 20th century, the martial arts of Okinawa were referred to by the Japanese word for “hand” and later “empty hand”, which is pronounced karate.

Still, it was with some trepidation that I came to be standing in a dojo, or studio, with the man sometimes called the most dangerous in Japan. (Though the karate uniform, a stiff white cotton ensemble, felt curiously on trend.) Yagi Meitetsu holds the highest rank in Goju-ryu karate, known as 10th dan. On his frayed black belt, which he has worn ever since he was awarded that status in 1965, there are three faded yellow stripes denoting his accomplishment. Meitetsu is nowhere near as terrifying as this backstory might suggest; he laughed a lot, and as I flailed around in an attempt to follow his graceful movements, had no compunction teasing me about my dodgy knee.

In his teaching, Meitetsu repeatedly invokes qi, the Chinese concept of vital living force flowing through the body. I saw this in practice when at one point he demonstrated a very basic move (seeing him perform at all is extremely rare and special) and his face completely changed. With his face taut and his mouth in a single line, Meitetsu was the picture of concentration as he channelled qi. I suggested to him afterwards that we might call this type of focus “being in the moment”; my clumsy description was generously met with the affirmation that yes, karate is all about summoning this quality.

In fact, Meitetsu said, there is a Japanese word, michi, which refers to the need, once a decision has been made, to commit 100 per cent to executing it. In physical terms, michi means that every gesture is deliberate, with no wasted energy, but you can see how it would apply in other areas of life, too.

“If you remember one thing from this, it’s that any time you need to calm down, you can just breathe,” said Meitetsu at the conclusion of our 90-minute session. He told two parables about karate masters of centuries past, and how in moments of confrontation they had resisted fighting even though they knew they would win easily. Meitetsu said he has not fought since gaining his black belt all those decades ago. Why, I asked. He shrugged in response: “It’s just easier to not get into an argument in the first place.”

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