Life was never easy for Yossi Litvin. He’s worked hard, lived hard and played hard just to survive. But at times when he felt as if life was dealing him cards from the bottom of the deck, there was always one constant that Yossi Litvin could rely on, could live for and could thrive on. Karate.
Yossi Litvin’s lineage is one chequered with overcoming oppression. His grandparents fled Russia and relocated to China to escape the dreadful persecution which has tainted Jewish history. For years China provided a reliable home for the Litvins and, indeed, was Yossi’s birthplace.
When China fell under the Red curtain of communism, a new found fear swept the country and the Litvins emigrated to Israel.
“They took everything off us and everybody started to move out… so we moved out too,” recalls Yossi distantly.
It was not an easy predicament for an eleven year old to be in. “It was a new country, a new language, a new way of life for me,” he remembers.
Home was in the suburbs of Nahariy, about ten kilometres from the Lebanese border. It was a nice area but a little rough around the edges. A cultural melting pot housing people from various nationalities; a recipe for inevitable conflicts. “It was a bit rough in the beginning. There were a lot of little gangs and confrontations. I toughened myself on those streets. I learned a little bit of martial arts, just bits and pieces, whatever I could. It was that knowledge that helped me to survive.”
It wasn’t until at 16, when his family moved to the city, that Yossi undertook a structured martial arts class. He discovered a neighbour, Arie Farkash, who taught Shotokan Karate and was immediately impressed by what he saw.
“I liked the hard training, the straight approach to fighting, the deep solid stances. It had structure, it had a system, it had tradition.
It provided me with a foundation. Sensei Arie always said that you can’t build a building without a strong foundation, and you can’t master Karate without a strong foundation in the kihon (basics).”
Yossi trained with Sensei Farkash for two years, at 18 he enlisted into the army for national service, an experience made easier by his martial arts studies.
“My Karate training helped me a lot. One of my jobs (in the army) was handling people who ran away, deserters. We used to pick them up at night on the run and we often had confrontations with them. Other than that, Karate gave me the discipline to be able to handle the army life. I had the discipline to take orders, to listen to others carefully and to do things the right way with only one instruction.”
Karate helped Yossi’s army experience and his army experience helped him realise how valuable Karate was to him. When he finished his service at 22, in 1974, he headed back to the city and resumed his training with Sensei Farkash, engrossing himself more than ever before.
He trained in Shotokan every day, relishing the discipline, the structure, the tradition and the contact.
“The sparring was pretty rough back then,” he says, “There were no gloves, no padding and plenty of contact. In the tournaments, if you got hit you fell. If you got up again, it was a waza-ari to your opponent. If you stayed down, it was an ippon. It was hard and not very refined but it was all we knew. I enjoyed it. I don’t know if those that I hit enjoyed it… but I did,” he laughs.
Yossi achieved his black belt in 1978 and began teaching with Sensei Arie before relocating to the Sinai Desert to work as a beach inspector for the government.
In 1985, he emigrated to Australia (after falling in love with the country when visiting some friends). He settled in Bondi and immediately looked for a place to train. He consulted the Yellow Pages (as you do) and came across a listing for Sensei Frank Nowak, who in 1972 had founded the Shotokan Karate Association of Australia (as it was then known) with his wife Kora. Those who knew the late Sensei Nowak harbour vivid memories of his dynamic and passionate style of teaching, Yossi is no different.
“I had never seen an instructor the like of Sensei Nowak. He made a huge impression on me. His posture, his hard training, his dedication… he was inspirational. We became close friends, travelled together and I graded to Nidan under him. I was actually living with him and helping look after him when he was badly sick. I was there during his last days,” he says with sadness.
Sensei Nowak left a great legacy to his instructors. A legacy which Yossi strives to continue. “I try to implement his way of teaching, his spirit. I don’t think I will ever achieve the level of spirit he displayed, but I am trying.”
In his efforts to be the best instructor he can, Yossi makes a habit of traveling to Japan to train at least once a year. He spends time with some of the most respected Karate instructors in Japan, including Senseis Kanazawa, Murakami, Okazaki, Kagawa and Kaze. While the training is intense, he admits that it is not as hard as it used to be.
“At university the Shotokan training is still very hard and vigorous, but at Honbu they have softened up a bit. The instructors are young and their approach is different. In fact, Japan’s whole attitude to traditional martial arts is different to what it used to be. Today, the Japanese love kickboxing and contact Karate like Kyokushin. Those contact martial arts are much more popular than traditional Karate.”
Shotokan’s popularity may have withered, but instructors still remain loyal to the traditional syllabus developed by Gichin Funakoshi. In developing Shotokan, Funakoshi brought together two systems of open-handed fighting that flourished in his native Okinawa to form a new system he called Karate-do (way of the empty hand). His followers referred to the art as Shotokan, meaning ‘hall of Shoto’, Shoto being the pen-name Funakoshi adopted in his calligraphic work.
In creating his new style, Funakoshi continually edited, revised and updated the various kicks, punches, strikes, blocks and body dynamics until his death in 1957.
As a teacher assigned to instruct in many schools in different parts of Okinawa, Funakoshi was forced to travel extensively, passing through the major centres of martial arts on the island. As a result, he was able to study under excellent masters from different backgrounds over a long period of time.
After many years, Funakoshi synthesised the best elements of the techniques and kata that he was taught and created in his new system.
A great deal of Funakoshi’s teachings are not still adhered to in the modern Shotokan dojo, Funakoshi believed that in studying kata, it is most important to concentrate on learning each thoroughly. There is infinitely more value in studying a single kata until one has digested it well than in possessing a shallow knowledge of thirty kata.
This is a point Yossi drives home to his own students, highlighting the relevance of kata to the modern day Karateka. “Kata brings all your basic training into action and shows you how the movements flow from one to the next. It is a good method of training by yourself and can be practised virtually anywhere, from a dojo to a hotel room. It is very important also to learn the bunkai (application of the techniques). It is in the bunkai that kata’s relevance to modern day society can really be seen.”
And what is Yossi’s preferred Kata? “Hmmm, Sochin. It is a very typical, strong Shotokan kata which is usually taught at sandan. It has fast and slow movements, it is extremely powerful and utilises long, deep stances.”
What of those deep stances for which Shotokan is renowned? According to Yossi, there is a common misconception that Shotokan’s deep stances are employed in combat, making the style ineffective as a modern self defence system. “That is wrong,” says Yossi firmly. “People look at our deep stances and say ‘how can they possibly fight like that?’ The fact is that we do not fight like that. Funakoshi developed those deep stances as a form of physical education, not to fight from. The stances are used to develop strength, speed, power and a good stretch. You try standing in a deep stance for half an hour and see how your muscles react. Anybody can stand in a high stance, but it takes muscular endurance and conditioning, not to mention mental strength to stand in a deep stance for an extended period of time.
“It is ridiculous that people think we fight from those stances. Nobody fights from those stances. We fight from a comfortable stance which is suited to the individual. When we fight we find that we are much stronger and more powerful from the conditioning we get from the deep stances.”
Funakoshi also taught the theory of iken hisatu. Loosely translates as ‘to kill with one punch’, iken hisatu is the teaching that each and every punch must be made with power of your entire body behind it.
Shotokan is unique. It is physically distinguished from other Karate systems in adapting nearly every one of its techniques to a linear fighting style, its philosophy being that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. “That is one of the things which most impressed me about he are,” says Yossi. “Its techniques are straight and direct.” This is in contrast to a style such as Goju Ryu which is based upon a circular pattern of movement, or the Kung Fu Forms, which are also circular, criss-cross patterns of fighting.
Although employing many of the historical teachings of Funakoshi, Shotokan remains a progressive art. Indeed, Funakoshi said that Karate was an unfinished art and would continue to grow and change as a man’s knowledge and circumstance grew and changed.
Yossi believes that until such level as Shodan, it is important for the Shotokan practitioner to not diverge from the Shotokan syllabus. “To master something you have to train diligently in that system. Too often students start doing bits and pieces of different martial arts and become totally confused.”
However, once a practitioner reaches a level where they have a solid grasp of the techniques, Yossi encourages supplementing one’s training by cross-training in other arts.
“No one martial art is completely perfect. I think that overall Shotokan is an excellent system of self-defence but it does have its inadequacies. For example, I train in Ju Jitsu with Larry Papadopoulos because the Shotokan syllabus doesn’t have those locks and groundwork. I have also trained in Iaido, in kickboxing with Benny Urquidez, in pressure points with Geroge Dillman, and with other Karate instructors such as Patrick McCarthy, Paul Starling and Tino Ceberano. I have learned something important from all of them. You can’t afford to be single-minded as an instructor. You must always keep your eyes open and be willing to accept different aspects of different arts. That is what makes you a more complete martial artist.”
Yossi, now a fourth dan, hopes that he can create similarly complete martial artists out of the students he teaches at the honbu dojo of Zanshin under Sensei Kora Nowak. It is to those students that he will pass on his depth of knowledge, try to import some of the inspiration which was given to him by his Senseis Arie Farkash and Frank Nowak, and hope that if any of his students experience difficulties and hardships through life, they too will find strength through Karate, just as he has.
Reproduced with permission from Blitz Publications