The Karate Tapestry – Part 12
By Robert Hunt
Oyama and bull
Once karate migrated from Okinawa and found fertile ground in Japan, everything changed. Linked to its Okinawan source, anchored by the old teachers and centuries of tradition, it remained, at least in intent, a fighting art with applications. Once unhinged from those roots, it emerged as whatever someone imagined – a sport, a capitalist’s dream, a political platform, a movie. When a boat breaks loose of its mooring, it drifts in whatever direction the currents lead. Such was karate outside of Okinawa. With no seniors around, with no heritage to which to be true, it drifted, and the inevitable shore on which it ran aground was…sports. The first Okinawan to introduce karate to Japan was Funakoshi Gichin. He was also one of the first to significantly alter the art. He and his son Gigo made many of the innovations that eventually became modern Shotokan – the wider stances, the exaggerated side kicks. Gigo died at the end of the war years, Funakoshi died in 1957. His student Nakayama Masatoshi continued to innovate and is probably the person most responsible for turning Funakoshi’s Okinawan karate into the Japan Karate Association sport vehicle.
Funakoshi, Gigo and/or Nakayama created kata like Unsu (from Mabuni’s original version) and Empi (from the old Shorin version of Wanshu). Nakayama’s goal was to create routines that would be sport applicable – more athletic in nature (than martial). The taboo of adapting karate to something other than a fighting art had already been breached. Itosu had purged many of the kata of “deadly” techniques when he introduced karate to school children in 1901. His goal was to create strong bodies and moral citizens for Japan – not killer kids. It was a short step for Funakoshi to change them further. Funakoshi even changed the names. His explanation was to make them more relevant to Japanese people, give them Japanese names based on some element of the kata in place of the original Chinese ones. Wanshu was a kata named for a Chinese emissary to Okinawa in the 1600’s. Funakoshi dubbed it “Empi”, the Flying Swallow, and added a jump to illustrate. Kushanku was named for the 18th century Chinese who introduced his martial art to Okinawa. Funakoshi renamed it “Kanku”, the Rising Moon. It sounded something like Kushanku, had a philosophical ring to it and the first movement kind of looked like a person might be gazing at the moon through open fingers.
Funakoshi’s reasoning is plausible but probably not authentic.
In 1935, when Funakoshi was molding his art, the Japanese were attacking China to control natural resources throughout Asia. Funakoshi longed for his art to be accepted by the Japanese – impossible with Chinese names. As usual, the desired narrative trumped veracity. Some say there was another reason. Okinawans are proud of their heritage and protective of it. Funakoshi was changing centuries old katas. As long as he gave them new names, he avoided explanations. People point fingers and accuse, but, the truth is, nothing stays the same, life is change, and so with karate.
Funakoshi and Nakayama
Over the centuries karate went through numerous changes, but, there were three major 20th century changes that affected what you and I do. The first was the reveal of karate from a secret fighting art to a public one, practiced by commoners after the 1868 Meiji “Restoration”, culminating in 1901 when Itosu started teaching in schools. No longer secret knowledge reserved for a few, it became the property of mankind and began the transformation from jutsu, a fighting art, to do, a way of life. The second change took place in the 1920’s when “research societies” organized and preserved this bit of Okinawan heritage. It became an academic pursuit as well as a martial one. Where did it originate? What is kata, anyway? Who taught whom? The third change, and the one that probably affects the 21st century student the most, was when karate took root in Japan proper. In Okinawa, the study was all about origins and methods, bunkai and history. In Japan, karate became sports and…politics.
Organizations emerged, and “styles”. Systems were formed. Syllabi were developed for testing. Rank was bestowed on those who could mimic movement. The art became calcified in stances and basics. “Right” and “wrong” ways of performing kata became a common mind-set based, not on martial practicality, but on Mabuni’s slant, or Funakoshi’s or Otsuka’s or someone else’s. It wasn’t trivial, especially to the Okinawans (who still resent it). But, you and I have a lot for which to be thankful. Japan spread it around the world. The Okinawans never would have. We may not like that it changed, but at least we had the opportunity to learn it. Unless we were with the United States occupation forces, we may never have even seen it. There were hundreds of styles that sprang up after the war, founded by people who thought their way was the way. Martial arts were prohibited by McArthur, but karate dojo’s started anyway in the burned out buildings and basements of war torn Japan. Within a couple of years the prohibition was relaxed and dojo’s started popping up like ping pong balls in a swimming pool.
Shotokan, Wado Ryu, Shito Ryu, Goju Ryu, Chito Ryu, Kyokushin, Uechi Ryu and a hundred others existed in Japan in the 50’s. And, as the Japanese are wont to do, they “organized” things, packaged karate into digestible bites with names for every possible movement or combination thereof. They tried for a unifying organization with the JKA, but karate people are an independent lot. An overarching banner never gained momentum. Olympic acceptance has been illusive for that very reason. Nishiyama and the JKA vied early on. Not much has changed since.
In 1964, four styles were eventually christened “major” styles and grew to prominence – Goju, Shotokan, Wado and Shito. These still boast the largest following worldwide, although many small styles exist. (Nambu Kai, an off-shoot Shito Ryu organization run by Shigeki Uemura, an old friend, comes to mind.) That isn’t to say that these styles are intact as envisioned. They have fractured over time as politics and ego reared their heads. It’s hard to be an Indian when its such fun (and lucrative) to be Chief. But karate styles are a double edged sword. On one hand they opened karate up to the world as each sought to propagate itself. That’s how many of us, probably most, got involved. It allowed us to practice the ancient martial art in a modern setting. If the styles had not emerged, the randomness of the art would have impeded its growth. But styles also mean orthodoxy. This is the right way, that is the wrong way. The desire to make everyone look exactly alike is embedded in the modern art. Conformity is inherent in Japanese culture and nowhere more so than karate. Many a kata competition was won or lost because a judge thought a person turned fingers the wrong way, used the wrong stance or stepped forward with the wrong foot.
After all these years, some tournament organizations have finally given up the idea of standard kata and no longer judge on such mundane criteria as putting the correct foot forward. Tradition is supposed to be adhered to, but dojo innovation is allowed. At first that felt strange, but as one considers the idea, it begins to have merit. Karate no longer has to be a mimicked performance, and the idea of a teacher teaching a student becomes more important than a universal, prescribed pattern.
Of course it can also lead to gymnastics doubling as karate. Only time will tell.
The Japanese saw karate through the lens of their budo mystique, deeming it a “do” sport, like judo and kendo, making it their own and tying it into their 5000 year old military history and “Way of the Warrior” mythology, ideas that were never part of the art in Okinawa. In fact, Japanese karate did become incredibly militaristic. Osamu Ozawa once described what training was like as a young man in prewar Japan – brutal to the point of sadistic.
Torn from its Okinawan roots, karate became whatever someone wanted to make it. The Korean-Japanese strong man, Mas Oyama, (born Choi Yeong-eui) re-envisioned karate as a sort of no-holds-barred smash fest in his Kyokushinkai organization. He traveled the United States and demonstrated alongside studio wrestlers. He fought bulls in mock events, supposedly hacking off horns with knife hand strikes. This is about where many of us came in. Karate is an ecumenical art, that is to say anyone can do it and do it alone. We don’t need a sword. We don’t need a partner. We don’t need a mat. With a bit of introduction we can start down the path and eventually become master of our own universe.
But we need an anchor, lest our art drift so far from its origin that it loses all sense of historical meaning and martial reality. We need a link to the past, something that resonates in our collective soul and moderates our future, some sign that the game with which we fiddle so intently has a heritage that is more important, more human, more real than our tournament squabbles and plated medallions.
We need Okinawa.