Embu: Martial Arts Training For Youth Without Competition

by William Durbin, Soke of Kiyojute Ryu

The martial arts instructor was bragging to his competitor about the way he taught children. He said he had the largest children’s class in his city and that he taught them in a dynamic fashion. When he started a brand new children’s class, the first session began with him putting oversized boxing gloves on the children and letting them flail on each other. He bragged about how it made the children tough and prepared them to be hit by bullies. Sure there are bloodied noses sometimes and even a few ears have bled, but it’s no big deal. Overall it’s good for the children.

Children’s Health and Well-being

          One wonders whether this particular instructor knows anything about children’s health. Upon talking to a health specialist after hearing this conversation, it was made apparent that anytime a child is hurt and bleeds through the nose, it should be checked by a doctor, possibly an ear, nose, throat specialist, to insure that the septum has not been deviated, which could limit the ability of the child to breath correctly and process oxygen.

          When an ear bleeds, it is possible that the eardrum itself has been damaged. This could possibly lead to a loss of hearing and even greater problems, especially if any form of infection sets in with the injury.

          The main point of this story is simple, children do not need to be injured in order to develop confidence, learn discipline, or grow as human beings. Yet this was the premise of a newspaper article recently featured in a local Louisville newspaper relating the events of a recent Tae Kwon Do tournament.

Injuries in Tournaments

          It seems that during this particular event, arms were broken, toes damaged, several ribs cracked, shoulders separated, and a lot of facial trauma. One of the instructors interviewed basically said that the idea was for the students to learn to ‘suck it up’ and be tough. At that event, as one child was felled by a kick, the instructor turned his back on his student and walked away, claiming it was necessary for the student to learn to stand on his own two feet. One has to wonder what lesson the student felt he really learned, was it to be tough and strong, or that he couldn’t trust or count on anyone, including his own instructor. Does it make a child strong or cynical? Will that student feel loved or abandoned?

          Is there an alternative to using sparring as a method of training people in the martial arts? Is there a traditional form of training which would be much more appropriate for children, so that injuries would be less likely and parents could enlist their children in martial arts classes without worrying about injuries from fighting? Most of all is there a form of training, which would teach actual self control and cooperation, rather than confrontation and competition? The answer is; yes!

Michiomi Nakano

          Many years ago a man by the name of Michiomi Nakano trained in China learning from the last master of the Northern Shaolin martial arts system. During the war, he was sent to China as a spy for the Kokuryukai, the Black Dragon Society, an ultra nationalistic war supporting organization. He acted as a Chinese national to infiltrate and gather information for his country. After the war he was placed in custody, along with other Japanese prisoners. Eventually he returned to Japan after World War II, and after studying at a Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu Dojo for awhile, adopted the title of So Doshin and founded his own system of Nippon Shorinji Kempo, in which he taught the traditional methods of Shaolin martial arts with certain elements of Daito Ryu.

          Among the traditional forms of training, which he taught as a part of his Nippon Shorinji Kempo, is an exercise called Embu, which he said was used by the monks in place of sparring. There are many people who think of the Shaolin Buddhist monks as violent martial artists who engaged in brutal sparring bouts, in order to develop superior fighting skills.

          Yet So Doshin emphasized the fact that monks did not ‘fight’ each other or engage in competitive bouts. It would have been against the pacifistic Buddhist’s doctrine. While self defense became recognized as essential under certain circumstances, violence for any other reason, especially in regard to needless and frivolous competition, was prohibited. Thus So Doshin said that they engaged in Embu, a two man training form that to the uninitiated seemed to be a sparring match, but which was in reality an exercise in cooperation and self control.


          Embu starts with two practitioners saluting each other, in Shorinji Kempo this is with Gassho, the hands in a prayer position, in other styles, including Kiyojute Ryu Kempo, this is done with the traditional Oriental bow. One person attacks, moving no quicker than they can stop, and pulling the technique one inch from contact. In Kiyojute Ryu the idea is to perform techniques Sun dome, stopping one inch, from contact.

          Beginners move slowly, never faster than they can stop. Advanced practitioners move as quickly as most people do when they actually spar, though safety is always the first priority. Many masters still prefer to perform the Embu at a leisurely pace, enjoying the training, knowing that speed is developed during Kata.

          While some Embu are practiced as set patterns, the main goal, particularly of Kiyojute Ryu, is for the Embu to be practiced spontaneously, with no set pattern. Rather the defender blocks the attack in any logical manner and then counters with a strike to whatever vital point is available. Any technique may be used, as long as it is pulled short of contact. Thus realistic self defense skills can be practiced. Fingers to eyes, strikes to the solar plexus, attacks to knees, blows to kidneys, and so on. Thus Embu is much more realistic self defense training than sparring, which due to the competitive nature and potential for accidental contact, must limit the areas which can be targeted.

          Joint locks and throws are also practiced in Embu, as can be counters to them. Nippon Shorinji Kempo in particular has some throws, which are performed, and then countered by the defender arching their body and landing on their feet. They then continue on to counter with a move of their own.

Kiyojute Ryu Kempo

          In Kiyojute Ryu Kempo, most Embu end with a throw or joint lock takedown, which then allows the performer to pin helplessly their partner, or perform a finishing strike, as may be needed in actual self defense. Chokes are also used to end Embu, where they are appropriate to the situation, but only adults practice them. In Kiyojute Ryu Kempo, a person does not learn chokes until the age of sixteen.

          The best aspect of Embu is that there is no competition. What makes sparring so dangerous, is that while there are safety rules, when two people are competing, each one has a strong desire to win. The rules of most Karate competition is that the technique must be pulled short of contact, but in the excitement of conflict many techniques land too hard, which can cause injury or concussion.

          Even in those styles that allow full contact, there are some rules against certain vital points, yet once again in the frantic pace of competitive fighting, control is sometimes lost. In a full contact, bare knuckle event, which allowed fist strikes to everywhere but the face, one competitor fully punched another in the face, knocking him out. Most of all the knocked out competitor hit, did not even try to block the punch coming at his face, since it was not a ‘legal technique’ in the competition. This means that the person would also be likely to forget to block his face in actual self defense.

          In Embu, since all vital points are allowed to be targeted, a Kempoka learns to protect their whole body, all vital points, not just those allowed in some form of competition. This makes it an excellent form of self defense training. It also helps a person who is having trouble with visualization during Kata, in that they can draw upon the memories of past Embu to ‘see’ how an opponent attacks.

Cooperation and Calmness

          But most of all, Embu teaches cooperation and calmness. In competitive sparring, teachers sometimes encourage young people to get angry as they fight. One teacher told his students to focus on hating their opponent, drawing upon every injustice or wrong that had ever been done to them, to draw up hate and anger in order to have greater power. This is a very negative method of training, and teaches a loss of control, which in actual self defense could precipitate an unnecessary fight, or lead the student to making mistakes which would spell defeat.

          Embu is a form of training in which the students work together to help each other get better. Students are taught to stay calm and in total control of their emotions and their physical techniques. These are actual qualities needed in self defense and seldom developed through sparring.

          Embu is a traditional form of two person training, which can be practiced by people of all ages, without the worry of injury. It dates back to the original Shaolin temple and the Chugoku Kempo of China, but has spread all over the world, where students of Nippon Shorinji Kempo and Kiyojute Ryu Kempo practice it.

          For young people who do not enjoy contact sports, and for parents who do not want to involve their children in a potentially injurious form of competition, but would like for them to learn self defense, martial arts which employ Embu are idea.

          Some people are not competitive. There are educational institutions today whose curriculums were designed specifically to eliminate competition from educational growth. There is a movement in modern society to develop cooperation between people and eliminate competition (and contention). At the same time, it is recognized that there is a need for physical programs, which will develop fitness, and a growing need for self defense.

          There are those who think they can never be involved in a martial art because they require competition and physical contention between students, yet there exists alternatives. For those who want to learn the martial arts, as a form of physical fitness, mental awareness, spiritual growth, and self defense, without the need for fighting competitively, there are those styles which have as their method of two person training the excellent and historical form known as Embu.

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