The Karate Tapestry – Part 8


By Robert Hunt


We yearn for our style to follow a nice, reassuring, linear path, from some ancient teacher straight to us. How comforting t’would be. Lu Lu Ko to the Goju dojo down the street. Shushiwa to Uechi to George Mattson. But, alas, it’s not. The foundation of karate was nothing like linear – in fact, it was chaos. There is nothing linear about karate training, anyway. Even today, if you practice Shotokan, it is not what Itosu taught nor even Funakoshi. Your Wado is probably not what Ohtsuka intended and there are a half dozen Shito Ryu’s, with Mabuni’s own two sons each offering different takes. The Meibukan, the Shobukan, the Seibukan and the Jundokan all claim Miyagi. Watch their kata side by side – you’ll scratch your head. There never was anything linear in karate. We all like to envision that ours is the “real thing”, handed down on stone tablets from some bygone Chinese Moses.

Dream on.

Once Itosu and Higaonna started teaching in schools, every one with a room big enough to accommodate 10 people and a dog started a program.The mix of teachers and students was mind boggling. Miyagi, for example, the purported inheritor of the art Higaonna learned from Lu Lu Ko, was an assistant instructor to Itosu – that other guy. All the names we associate with our history were jumbled together under a few bewildered teachers unearthed from the shadows of Okinawa’s past. Karate had been secret for 300 years and when it finally saw the light of day, it exploded like Chinese New Year. It is not hard to understand why. Look what happened in the United States after Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon movie. Dojo’s filled up like ant hills and you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Kung Fu master.

In Okinawa, at the turn of the century, there were a lot of eager seekers comparing notes but few teachers with broad knowledge. They knew their own stuff, though not much about its history, and hardly anything about other styles. Karate had been secret and no one was blabbing. But it had been unleashed and, as they say, you can never squeeze the genie back into the bottle. Everyone wanted to know more. Karate had been “discovered.” Teachers were in demand. The Okinawan government encouraged the formation of a formal study group to delve into the origins and practices of their once underground native art. A few teachers began to bubble to the top of the soup. It wasn’t necessarily the best (It’s never the best, is it?), but, instead, the ones with the organizational skill, or the wealth to devote the time and energy, or, like most of history, in the right place at the right time. Miyagi had the wealth and time, as did Mabuni. Funakoshi was poor but had organizational skill and, apparently, desire. Funakoshi seems to be the main character of the karate drama in it’s modern infancy. He was a primary school teacher and organized demonstrations around Okinawa as early as 1906.

It would be like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show touring the United States, which it did about that time. The fascination was the same. Exotic people demonstrating arcane arts theretofore only fantasized. The modern world getting a glimpse into the looking glass of history. A book could be written about that looking glass (Aha!). The beginning of the pretend era was at hand around the world. In the United States, pioneers had hunted real buffalo and fought real Indians. Buffalo Bill made a diversion of it. We now make movies about it. It’s fun to live in a pretend world. We, in the karate dojo, pretend…

Back to Okinawa.

Funakoshi was asked to give a demonstration to the crew of a visiting Japanese naval ship in 1912. The amazed Admiral signed up his officers for a week of lessons and returned to Tokyo with news about the exciting “new” martial art. Then, in 1917 Funakoshi traveled with a group of students along with Matayoshi Shinko to Kyoto, Japan to give a demonstration at a martial arts festival organized by the Butokukai, the first time karate had been seen publicly outside of Okinawa. After that, it was “Katy bar the door.” Groups of martial artists came together to tell the country about Ryukyu Tode Jutsu (Okinawan Chinese Hand Art) the common name for karate around 1920. They also began to train informally together. Some of their names were: Funakoshi, Kyan, Okugushiku, Tokuda, Yabiku, Mabuni, Gusukuma, Ishikawa, Motobu, Miyagi, Chibana and Tokumura. Never heard of most of them? Me neither. You can be the best there ever was, but if no one knows your name…? Buddy can you spare a dime.

Karate’s big burst came in 1921.Prince Hirohito (later emperor of Japan,presiding over World War II) was on a trip to Europe and dropped by Okinawa. He was treated to a demonstration of Tode Jutsu at the ancient Royal Palace, organized by Funakoshi and featuring Miyagi performing Nahate and Matayoshi demonstrating weapons. The Prince was impressed. The following year, the Japanese Ministry of Education asked the Okinawansto send someone to Japan to demonstrate karate at another martial arts festival. The Department of Education of Okinawa chose Funakoshi, one of those mind bending points in history that changes it all forever.

Why Funakoshi?

You could pick a karate teacher out of the phone book in Okinawa and probably find a better practitioner than Funakoshi. He was a good organizer, a prolific demonstrator, but not known as a fighter. Gusukuma had allegedly defeated 50 men. Why not send him? Because Funakoshi was educated, a teacher, spoke Japanese and believed in Okinawa’s future as part of Japan. That’s why. He wouldn’t embarrass anyone. Probably a good choice in hind sight. In the 1920’s there were still Okinawans around who remembered the Japanese occupation. Karate teachers were very nationalistic by nature and more than a few wanted no trek with Japan. So Funakoshi got the nod and, at 53 years old, bid farewell to wife and kin and sailed away. Back home in Shuri, Naha and Tomari, however, things were still a mess. Today, with history filled internets, we can sort it out, sort of, although still not all that well. Thanks to writers like John Sells (from whose work some of this article is gleaned), Patrick McCarthy and others, we know a lot more than the early teachers. Imagine Okinawa in 1910 – the public school system in its infancy, the general populace just beginning to learn to read, secretive karate masters who didn’t even know the origins of their own art. Some thought it must have come from China. Others said it was Okinawan in origin. Many just didn’t know.

There had never been systematic karate instruction. It was warriors training warriors to fight for real, not school teachers teaching school kids to become better citizens. Itosu laid the groundwork. He created the Pinan katas as introductory lessons for kids. He reinvented the fighting katas as physical education tools while trying to maintain the spirit. Others followed. Rudimentary styles arose that would later develop into what we recognize today. The study of weapons, which had always been a standard part of any teacher’s curriculum, began to fall away, as did the lethal aspects of karate, the killing techniques and the bunkai, the meaning of the kata. Karate was evolving into a structured pursuit, a coherent melody, like musical notes bouncing around Mozart’s brain suddenly materializing on paper.

But without Mozart’s soul.

When you stylize something, standardize it and package it for the masses, you lose a part of it. The belt tests in which I have participated over 50 years have been drivenby the desire to look just like everyone else, perform acceptable gestures, or endure a physical challenge – not survive battle. Standardization would be karate’s future, thanks in a large part to its incarnation in Japan. But in Okinawa in 1910 it was a dog’s breakfast, everyone trying to sort out how to box it into manageable bites, feed it to the masses and where to go from there. The more widely known karate became, the more mundane. The fighting art fell away and the social way proliferated. Out of the chaos of the age, a faux martial pursuita rose and grew and organized itself and proliferated into an international happening. The early masters eventually forged for us a coherent design around which to get our arms, a new concept from the shadow teaching of some ancient Chinese Shaolin Monk. It offered a place to start and a direction in which to go.

Form from chaos.