Black Belt October 1978

Can a karateka utilize his skill in a self-defense encounter without betraying the spirit of the arts?

Karate and the Automatic Response

by Richard Zimmerman

The challenge to fight was from an intruder, and to say the situation was "touchy" is to understate it. For even though most martial arts instructors find themselves in such a dilemma sooner or later, Hee Il Cho found himself retreating in full view of his students - the people who support him through paying for his instruchon in tae kwon do.

Only moments before, the challenger had disrupted one of Cho's classes, insisting that he buy a discount coupon for a local car wash.

"I am teaching a class," Cho said. "If you wish to observe the lesson, please sit down. Otherwise, please leave."

The man responded, Cho said, by telling me that if I impress him he will join my school, and if I didn't want to show him my stuff, he would show me his.

With that, Cho said, the man, who stands around six feet tall, began to take off his coat.

"Don't do that," said Cho, who stands five feet, eight inches. "You're going to get hurt. Why don't you just leave before you get hit?"

Cho said the man's response was to take a figthng stance and say:

"Oh, you just try."

"Then he tried to attack me," Cho continued.

Motioning the man into a waiting room of his school, Cho insisted the intruder change his mind and leave.

"Again he tried to attack me," Cho said, "and I responded automatically."

There was a time, however, when Cho was unable to respond automatically in a self-defense situation, like when he was a 10-year-old boy visiting a local fair in Korea.

"Four or five neighborhood boys beat me up so badly I was half dead," he said. "Later, at home, my body aching, face swollen and bruised, I felt the uneasy sting of humiliation and disgrace at a defeat.

"For a long time after this experience, a burning anger ate inside my heart. This anger was the creator of my competetive spirit. I wanted to make sure I would never again in my life be in a similar position. And that was the beginning of my journey in life."

Cho started training in a local school of kong soo do, one of several forms of Korean karate that are now largely referred to jointly under the name of tae kwon do.

"My training was hard," he said. "Even though I was the youngest student there, they treated me with indifference to my age. Classes were two hours long every day. There was no individual instruction to help beginners. If you couldn't follow - too bad."

The economic depression that followed the Korean War left the country poor for a time, a fact that was all too evident by the dirt floor, meager equipment and facilities of the studio Cho was attending.

"Despite these conditions," he said, "we had to show respect for our studio. Humble as it was, it was looked upon as a palace. The head instructor seemed almost godlike to me at that age and I was often asked to wash his feet after class. This was considered my honor. I think a year passed before my instructor even talked to me once. So it was that I learned humility and respect."

But it would be much later, after several other self-defense situahons in other parts of the world, before Cho would come to seriously contemplate the interrelationship between humility, respect and the martial arts.

After attaining his first-degree black belt some three years later, Cho began studying tae kwon do when his family moved to Inchon, located close to the Korean capital of Seoul.

"I found that tae kwon do satisfied my mental growth as well as my physical development," he said. "I also knew by then that martial arts would be my life."

At 21, Cho also found himself in the Army, where, as a ranking black belt, he was assigned to teach self-defense to Korean servicemen. By 1969 he had given instruction to military special forces in locations as diverse as India and Germany.

"I then had an opportunity to go to the United States with a demonstrahon team," he said. "So my journey was broadening and the horizons of my life were swiftly changing.

"I arrived in America thinking that life was full of endless possibilities, and it was. I had heard so much about the freedoms of the United States and the people of this country that I thought if there was any place in the world I could hope to achieve my goals, the United States was the place."

Cho gave his first demonstrahon in Chicago where a friend informed him that a tae kwon do instructor was needed by a school in South Bend, Indiana. Not only did he receive the instructor's position for night work, but he also acquired a daytime position as a factory worker.

"The days were long," he said, "fifteen hours of work each day. But I knew that with patience and perseverance I would pass through this moment in my life, and move on to better times."

It was at about this time in his life, Cho said, that he learned how to apply his martial arts training to understanding and coping with hard changes, many of which were yet to come. For instance, soon after Cho opened his own school in Milwaukee, he learned that a proper understanding of American business procedure is as important as knowing how to teach.

"I had the teaching qualifications," he said, "but I didn't know how to run a business. My teaching was rough and disciplined and my American students weren't used to it. That was one reason I didn't make it in Milwaukee."

During the next few years, Cho traveled to many American cities. He listened to the financial advice of other instructors and discovered, among other things, that he was one of the few who was fighting in tournaments.

"There is a vast difference between the cultures of East and West," he said. "I tried to take the best from both worlds and balance this in my teaching until I came to understand the American as a person and a martial artist."

Perhaps this approach is what enabled Cho to open, in 1972, what was to become the first in a chain of schools in Rhode Island. "I trained many young people in Rhode Island and received much sahsfachon from them," he said. "A lot of my students, especially at the high school ages, were experiencing difficulties in being caught in what was then the extending drug scene.

"Some of my students suffered with an apathy of not knowing where their lives were leading them. Some didn't even care. I worked hard with them, showing them how to gain a sense of achievement from their training, how to gain solid mental strength and how to channel negative feelings into responsible thought."

Five years and seven schools later, Cho decided to turn over his Rhode Island studios to his black belt students. And in 1976 he moved to Califomia, where he opened a school on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles.

"Moving to Califomia was like moving to a foreign country," he said, "so different are the people and the way of life. I had to make many changes in the way I taught class. My Southem Califomia students seemed reluctant to freespar.

They lacked the strong fighting spirit of my Eastern students, who are very competitive, innovadve and ready to utilize new techniques in sparring.

"At first, I missed the involvement and strong athtude of my Eastern students. But in hme I came to adjust to California. The people here have such a wide variety of leisure activities to choose from that they tend to take karate either for exercise or self-defense."

It was in the latter category, the category of self-defense that Cho was to gain, as he put it, his deepest insight into the contrast between his East and West Coast students. Because for Cho, the familiar situation of someone walking in off the streets and issuing a challenge is not unique to California.

"Even when I was in Rhode Island these types of incidents were occurring," he said. "But unlike my California students my Rhode Island students always escorted intruders out of my schools. And I'm almost tempted to conclude that they have more respect for me than my California students have, since they never allowed me to be put into a situation that could result in legal complications."

The California man who forced Cho to defend himself spent almost two months in a hospital, accruing a bill, it has been reported, totaling somewhere between $20 000 and $30,000.

"I didn't know I did that much damage to him," said Cho. "I kicked him with a back spin and followed through with two punches in the mouth. That's all I did. Then my brother held me back. He helped clean up the guy and get him on his feet to leave. A short while later a policeman came and told me I had broken the guy's jaw and knocked out some teeth."

Cho is now being sued by the injured man. His lawyer has told him that, in spite of the large number of witnesses, he is considered a legal weapon not to be used for purposes of self-defense against people who lack his level of training.

"All this has created a great conflict within me," Cho said. "For if I cannot use my skill to protect myself from any person who walks in off the street and demands a fight, how can I hope my students will retain confidence in my ability to teach them this skill? And yet, if I use my skill and hurt someone, even in self-defense, have I not betrayed the spirit of what martial arts are all about?"

As if Cho's inner conflict is not great enough at the time, exactly one week after his encounter with the challenger he injured, another intruder walked into his studio - the fifth in a chain of challengers this year alone.

"He surprised me, grabbing me from behind and forcing me to the floor," said Cho. "But perhaps he could see from my face that I meant business. He didn't force the issue any further." These situations are all part of an overall situation in which the world finds itself today, Cho said, becoming more philosophic about his position while trying to see everything in a posihve perspective.

"There is a new awareness of the psychological benefits of martial arts," he said. "More than ever before, the arts offer practitioners a bridge towards coping with the progressively violent society we live within. For many, confined and stiffled in ever-growing cities, violence is a daily threat. And as the population continues to expand, violence will continue to expand. Freedom of self will be harder to find."

In a manner more than a little tinged by the irony of the circumstances in which he finds himself, Cho concluded: "The advanced martial artist has an immediate, unconscious response to danger and the gracious freedom of being free of fear."

Recent Changes in the Martial Arts
by Hee Il Cho

(October 1978)

In the last 10 years, major changes in the martial arts have made an impact on both students of the arts as well as the general public. Eithor good or bad, much of the mystique has been dispelled. But other changes have taken new roots in America and a tremendous growth that, with experimentation, trial and error, is reaching exciting new heights of development. And while new methods for training, teaching and techniques have been developed, many of the traditions have been forgotten or lost.

When I started training in Korea, we used only a limited number of kicks, such as the front snap, side thrust and roundhouse. These were practiced again and again until perfected. Since then, the popular emergence of point system tournaments has con tributed to the development of new kicking techniques.

As a result, some of the traditional kicks, executed with a short snap and fast retraction or one blow to fimish the fight, were not effective o r ac c e ptable in a point system situation. So a new set of techniques emerged with spinning kicks, jumping back turning kicks, new combinations and counterattacks.

The physical scope of the practitioner also has widened, along with a new emphasis that has added more power, speed and spin. For instance, professional full contact has brought about new techniques. For when hghters began wearing equipment in the ring, they found that many traditional techniques which had been considered deadly were rendered ineffectual.

In contrast to point system fighters, few full contact fighters use spinning or jumping kicks because they require too much effort. If the kicks miss, the fighter is left open with the - needed energy to last out the rounds burning up too quickly.

So contact has emerged with a style of its own somewhere between boxing, karate and Thai kickboxing. Still struggling to gain a reputation and recognition publicly, contact has not been successful for most promoters. Something seems to be missing.

It could be that, in taking away the Oriental traditions, customs and art, promoters have cut out the heart and basis of karate.

© copyright Black Belt October 1978