When the average person thinks of karate they think of Japan. But that is only partly correct.
The true birthplace of what we now call karate is Okinawa, which is to karate what Mecca in Saudi Arabia is to Muslims; a pilgrimage to the birthplace. Students truly invested in their training go there to learn what karate truly is.
Karate was developed when Okinawa was its own kingdom, long before it was invaded and conquered by Japan in the early 17th century, let alone its 19th century annexation by Japan.
As someone who has practiced shotokan karate (one of many karate styles) for over two decades, I thought I understood at least most karate basics. But last month I spent a week training in traditional karate seminars in Okinawa and realized how little I actually understood.
While many martial arts, including karate, can produce reasonably good fighters — at least for tournaments — they actually are often remarkably deficient in teaching useful fighting skills for what one might encounter in real life.
Some history is necessary to understand what I am talking about. For generations karate was taught secretly in Okinawa. The art had almost no literature and when it emerged from secrecy at the beginning of the twentieth century it was enveloped in myths. And as it spread around the world, especially after World War II, there was no central authority. Instead there was a collection of different styles and schools, each with its own ideas, training methods, and versions of history.
Essentially, karate is a striking art using punching, kicking, knee and elbow strikes, and open-handed techniques such as knife-hands. Grappling, locks, restraints, throws and vital point strikes are also taught, but, sadly, most of that is not common in many styles today, though they are at the heart of what makes karate truly effective. A karate practitioner is called a karateka.
Hypothetically, any unarmed combat system could accurately be called “karate” since the Japanese phrase literally means “empty hand”. But this is not really karate. True karate was developed from indigenous fighting methods called te (literally “hand”; ti in Okinawan) and Chinese kenpo (a Japanese word used to designate several Chinese martial arts).
After trade relationships were established with the Ming Dynasty of China by King Satto of Chuzan in 1372, some forms of Chinese martial arts were introduced to the Ryukyu Islands by the visitors from China, particularly Fujian province. A large group of Chinese families moved to Okinawa around 1392 for the purpose of cultural exchange, and they shared their knowledge in a wide variety of Chinese arts and sciences, including Chinese martial arts.
Members of the Okinawan upper classes were sent to China regularly to study various political and practical disciplines. The incorporation of empty-handed Chinese wu shu into Okinawan martial arts occurred partly because of these exchanges.
Sakukawa Kanga (1782-1838) had studied pugilism and staff (bo) fighting in China. In 1806 he started teaching a fighting art in the city of Shuri that he called “Tudi Sakukawa”, which meant “Sakukawa of China Hand”. This was the first known recorded reference to the art of “Tudi”. In the 1820s, Sakukawa’s most significant student, Matsumura Sokon (1809-1899), was teaching a synthesis of te (Shuri-te and Tomari-te) and Shaolin (Chinese) styles. Matsumura’s style would later become the Shorin-ryu style.
Matsumura taught his art to Itosu Anko (1831-1915) among others. Itosu adapted two forms he had learned from Matsumara. These are kusanku and chiang nan. He created the ping’an forms (“heian” or “pinan” in Japanese) which are simplified kata for beginning students.
In 1902, Itosu helped to get karate introduced into Okinawa’s public schools. These forms were taught to children at the elementary school level. Itosu’s influence in karate is broad. The forms he created are common across nearly all styles of karate. His students became some of the most well-known karate masters, including Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni and Motobu Choki.
Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, is generally credited with having introduced and popularized karate on the main islands of Japan. But actually many Okinawans were actively teaching, and are thus equally responsible for the development of karate. Funakoshi was a student of both Asato Anko and Itosu Anko.
During this time period, prominent teachers who also influenced the spread of karate in Japan included Kenwa Mabuni, Chojun Miyagi, Motobu Choki, Kanken Toyama and Kanbun Uechi.
Early styles of karate are often generalized as Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te, named after the three cities from which they emerged. Each area and its teachers had particular kata (forms), techniques, and principles that distinguished their local version of te from the others.
Karate was brought to the Japanese mainland in the early 20th century during a time of cultural exchanges between the Japanese and the Ryukyuans. In 1922, the Japanese Ministry of Education invited Gichin Funakoshi, regarded as the founder of shotokan karate, to Tokyo to give a karate demonstration.
In an era of escalating Japanese militarism, the meaning of karate was changed from “Chinese Hand” to “Empty hand” — both of which are pronounced karate — to indicate that the Japanese wished to develop the combat form in a Japanese style.
Japan was invading China at the time, and Funakoshi knew that the art of Tang/China hand would not be accepted; thus the change of name to the “way of the empty hand”. Karate-do (the way of karate) teaches ethical principles and can have spiritual significance to its adherents. Gichin Funakoshi titled his autobiography Karate-Do: My Way of Life in recognition of the transforming nature of karate study. Today karate is practiced for self-perfection, for cultural reasons, for self-defense and as a sport; all of which helps explain why much of karate today is lacking in true self-defense effectiveness.
The do suffix implies that karate-do is a path to self knowledge, not just a study of the technical aspects of fighting. Like most martial arts practiced in Japan, karate made its transition from -jutsu (technique) to -do around the beginning of the 20th century. The “do” in “karate-do” sets it apart from karate-jutsu, as aikido is distinguished from aikijutsu, judo from jujutsu, kendo from kenjutsu and iaido from iaijutsu.
Funakoshi changed the names of many kata and the name of the art itself (at least on mainland Japan), so karate could be accepted by the Japanese budo (martial way) organization Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. Funakoshi also gave Japanese names to many of the Okinawan kata.
The five pinan forms became known as heian, the three naihanchi forms became known as tekki, seisan as hangetsu, Chinto as gankaku, wanshu as empi, and so on. These were mostly political changes, rather than changes to the content of the forms, although Funakoshi did introduce some such changes.
Funakoshi had trained in two of the popular branches of Okinawan karate of the time, Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu. He always referred to what he taught as simply karate, but in 1936 he built a dojo (training place) in Tokyo and the style he left behind is usually called Shotokan after this dojo.
In 1922, future Karate master Hironori Ohtsuka attended the Tokyo Sports Festival, where he saw Funakoshi’s karate. Ohtsuka was so impressed with this that he visited Funakoshi many times during his stay. Funakoshi was, in turn, impressed by Ohtsuka’s enthusiasm and determination to understand karate, and agreed to teach him. His prowess in martial arts led him to become an assistant instructor in Funakoshi’s dojo.
By 1929, Ohtsuka was registered as a member of the Japan Martial Arts Federation. Okinawan karate at this time was only concerned with kata. Ohtsuka thought that the full spirit of budo, which concentrates on defense and attack, was missing, and that kata techniques did not work in realistic fighting situations. He experimented with other, more combative styles such as judo, kendo, and aikido. He blended the practical and useful elements of Okinawan karate with traditional Japanese martial arts techniques from jujitsu and kendo, which led to the birth of kumite, or free-fighting, in karate.
During the years leading up to and during World War II, karate in Japan became militarized. Harry Cook, author of the authoritative Shotokan Karate: A Precise History wrote:
The Japanese government used the martial arts to inculcate both soldiers and civilians with fighting spirit, and at the same time the martial arts absorbed military practice and values. Much of what is now considered “traditional” in karate training is actually based on Japanese Imperial Army methodology. Drilling in large groups to shouted words of command, rigid rank levels, barking “oos” as an acknowledgement of an instruction owe more to the parade ground than the dojo.
Ironically, given the destruction visited upon Okinawa by the American military during World War II, much of karate’s post-war development was due to American involvement. US military personnel stationed on Okinawa studied karate and brought their knowledge back home, teaching what they had learned. This became the starting point for Okinawan karate spreading not only across the US, but Europe as well.
How does this modern form of karate differ from the way it was originally taught in Okinawa? Vince Morris, founder of kissaki-kai karate, and author of the Rules of Combat, wrote:
The main problem today is that few students ever learn in the same manner as those who studied under the direction of the old masters. It was much more an individual rather than a group process, and each student was constantly under the eyes of the master who would continually assess and correct the efforts of the student.
In order for the student to become fully apprised of the “rules of combat” they were continually matched with a partner in training drills (Tegumi [an early form of Okinawan wrestling]) which emphasized bumping, slapping, pulling, striking, throwing and all the other ancillaries to technique that are essential background knowledge.
In most modern dojo this is not usual. Therefore, unless the student gets practice elsewhere huge and important parts of martial arts “grammar” and ancillary concepts are just not available to them. Therefore, although in sports situations the student may well be effective, in the real street situations they are often out of the depth and can get into serious — sometimes disastrous — trouble.
In fact, while training in Okinawa is generally physically and mentally taxing, it is also non-repetitive, and personal. Okinawan teachers do not generally like military type “drilling” and prefer a low teacher-student ratio.
Generally speaking, the Okinawans abhor the practice of senior students beating up junior students which is the norm in Japanese high schools and colleges, and which is referred to as “sparring”. Okinawans do not understand Western concepts of karate sparring. For them karate training is aimed at learning how to incapacitate or render unconscious an opponent with one, maybe two blows, so an easy escape can be made.
Training in Okinawa
As the birthplace of karate Okinawa still has plenty of true karate dojos. And it has an embarrassingly high number of world-renowned karate masters. There are also bad karate teachers in Okinawa, as elsewhere, but there were none at our seminars. By masters I just don’t mean high-ranking black belts but instructors(sensei) who are hanshi — a senior expert considered a “teacher of teachers”. This title is used by many different arts for the top few instructors of that style, and is sometimes translated as “grandmaster”.
The seminars I attended were organized by Classical Fighting Arts magazine, a division of Dragon Associates, based in California, in conjunction with the Okinawa Karate Do Rengokai, a long-established and highly respected organization that is recognized and supported by the Okinawan prefectural government.
It is the dominant and most active Okinawan karate organization, with the largest number of senior karate dan (black belts) grades (ninth and tenth dans). In effect, the Okinawan government is promoting karate tourism, and it seems to be working. These seminars have been in operation for a couple of years now and are growing in popularity. In fact, the governor’s office had a film crew taping the training to make a documentary out of it to be used in a future advertising campaign.
The whole point of the seminars was to expose students to the source of traditional karate, to accelerate the learning process, and break bad habits that inhibit the development of maximum power and speed. While it may sound arrogant, this level of training is not generally available outside Okinawa.
Under normal circumstances it would not be possible to even meet these teachers, let alone train with them. However, the seminars I attended made it possible for you to study with them in small classes, and even receive personal instruction in their own dojos.After arriving in Okinawa on April 3, I spent a day visiting Shuri Castle. In a way it is the home of Okinawan karate as some of its greatest exponents lived and worked there. The next day training began; each day we trained for two, two-hour sessions. In the evening some in the group, who still had the energy for it, went and trained at the private dojos of some of the instructors.
There were just over 20 in my group, including students from the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Portugal and the US. Our instructors were senior dan grades, typically ninth and tenth dans. They were assisted by their senior students most of whom are seventh, eight and ninth dans.
All of the instructors we trained with were famous throughout Okinawa. Some are known globally. For example, Morio Higaonna, born in 1938, is the founder and chief instructor of the International Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do Federation. He is a tenth dan hanshi. At 72 he is a marvel of physical conditioning. His physical conditioning has been so intense that he has calluses over his knuckles that are one-inch thick. He has spent so many years hitting boards and rocks that his wrists are virtually calcified into his forearms. To see him punch is to see the concept of one technique, one kill in action.
Zenpo Shimabukuro, born in 1943, was another instructor. He has a pedigree that stretches back through his father, Zenryo, to his teacher, the legendary master of Shorin Ryu karate, Chotoku Kyan.
Many of the instructors spoke good English. Shimabukuro Sensei and his son Zenshu (graduated from college in the US) speak fluent English. Higaonna Sensei, Arakaki Sensei, and Kuba Sensei also speak good English.
There is a huge difference in the quality of training (and legitimate grades) between Okinawa and elsewhere (including mainland Japan). According to David Chambers, director of Dragon Associates, “It has been my experience that there is at least a two to three dan grade difference between Okinawans [Rengokai certified dan grades] and Americans/Europeans. For example, in my experience, a really good European Shotokan sixth dan would be roughly equivalent to an Okinawan Shorin Ryu second or third dan.”
To see what these instructors can do is nothing short of staggering. Higa Sensei sent a six-foot, six-inch tall, 285 pound (129 kilogram) judo student flying just by placing his hand on his side and twitching his hips. All karate students know that the start of any karate movement starts with the hips, but rarely does one see such a powerful display of it. According to Chambers, “When we were filming [24 frames per second] Higa Sensei, who is 68 years old, he hit his third dan student with nine clear, well-controlled blows in two seconds, none of which was blocked.”
During a lunch I asked Shimabukuro sensei how he saw the future for Okinawan karate. Surprisingly, he said that it was dying. At first I took that to mean that he and his fellow instructors were not going out to be around very much longer. And given their ages it is true that we not going to have them around for that many more years, although Okinawans are generally extraordinarily healthy and live long.Later it was explained to me that there are, in fact, many younger karateka, some of them the sons of the present instructors, who are, or will be, just as good as the present day hanshi. But Asian culture being what it is you just aren’t seen as a true master until you reach a certain age. And when you are just in your 30s or 40s you are still considered a kid by Okinawan karate standards.
So it may be a few decades until the future Okinawan legends are old enough to officially merit the same accolades the present ones do. Fortunately for the rest of the karate world, their technical skills will be the same. And as long as that level of skill continues to exist Okinawa will remain the atomic clock of the karate world, ie, the gold standard by which the rest of the karatekas measures themselves.