The Karate Tapestry – Part 6
By Robert Hunt
The world evolves in mysterious ways.
How did three wise men from the east ever stumble on a dumpy little stable in Bethlehem? A star? There are stars above my house. No one stops. At least no one wise. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote “All men are created equal”, owned slaves. I ended up married to a beautiful woman. Who would have guessed? Ideas held sacred for decades are smashed to the profane by calloused historians (like me). I was sitting in Teruo Chinen’s living room – hardwood floors with a huge stone fireplace and not much else. We were simultaneously chatting about nothing and everything, passing the conversation back and forth like a talky football. I proposed that a lot of Okinawan karate teachers seem to have traveled to China to study. He tossed back a surprising response. “I think it’s something like ‘urban myth’,” he said. “I think some were just dodging the draft.”
Urban myth? Draft dodgers? These were ideas that had never crossed my mind as regards Okinawan karate. But should have. Things are seldom what they seem. (Did I say “seldom.” I meant “never.”) I always assumed that Okinawan karate masters made pilgrimages to China much like Muslims to Mecca. You could hardly find one that hadn’t – from Sakugawa to Nakaima to Matsumura to Higaonna to Miyagi to you-name-him.
Chinen Sensei continued.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the Boshin Civil War, Japan annexed Okinawa. Until that time, Okinawa had been considered, erroneously, an independent kingdom, allegiant to China. Not since 1609, however, when the Satsuma invaded, had anything been remotely independent about Okinawa. The myth of Okinawan independence was devised by the Satsuma so they and the Chinese could trade without actually having to endure each other’s presence. Shortly after said Meiji Restoration, the new government terminated the Samurai class. The Samurai had been Japan’s warriors. With no Samurai, Japan needed warriors to sacrifice in epic battles (like Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima) so they began to conscript young men. (They fired them up with pseudo Budo, but that’s another story.)
About the last thing Okinawans wanted to do was fight for the occupying Japanese. Therefore, a gaggle of them headed, like buffalo before the chase, to China. The Chinese government promptly rounded most of them up and sent them back, where they had to sink into the shadows, or join the army, or go to jail, or somehow get back to China. The story they often told was that they had gone to China to study martial arts. The fact that Japan was conscripting soldiers – mere coincidence. A lot of Okinawans did go to China in the years after the annexation. Two of the major karate figures were Higaonna in 1874 and Uechi in 1897. This may explain why Uechi was so secretive when he returned to Okinawa and faded into the woodwork for a few years before later teaching Pang Gai Noon karate.
This is conjecture. I know of no written evidence that they were dodging the draft, and I am pretty sure they would never admit it and heaven will attest that none of their martial progeny would ever entertain such a thought. But it is an interesting coincidence and illustrates a key drawback of oral tradition.
Even if they don’t overtly lie, they often (always) embellish the story in the retelling so it fits their narrative. Or they just confuse the details, our memories being notoriously unreliable. What we remember is more often what we want to remember rather than actual annoying facts. In 1968 a black belt used to show up at Shintani Sensei’s tournaments in Canada. He quit for a few years and when he showed up again, said he had been studying in Japan. It was a great story. He wore a hakama and all the gear. We were mesmerized. We hovered around this young “master” who had actually dwelt among the enlightened. The truth is he had dwelt among enlightened convicts in some prison on a drug charge, far from the mystical Orient we so naively worshipped. The Japan story, of course, was a lie, not an embellishment nor a lapse of memory. So many people recite their karate fantasy as fact, that finding karate truth is as hard as finding a real cowboy. Look at the adulation and endless fantasies surrounding Bruce Lee. The facts are: he was a good actor, he was a physically talented, he charismatic, he became a big star, he made a lot of money. Isn’t that enough? Do we have to resurrect him as a Kung Fu god?
By the way, a guy the other day told me, in some detail, about fighting Bruce at a tournament in Dallas. I listened politely, but, I assure you, it never happened. Bruce Lee’s handsome nose was way to valuable to risk getting bent back at the whim of some doofus glory seeker at a Texas karate tournament. The problem with karate history is that, mostly, all we have is oral tradition. There is very little written record. There never was – most people couldn’t write. And what survived the Tokugawa Shogunate didn’t survive the American bombing of Okinawa at the end of WWII. So we mostly sift through the tattered verbal remnants of 300 years of chaos for clues – bits and pieces of our never ending tapestry. Example. Higaonna, (who, by the way, was also illiterate) said he studied with a guy named Lu Lu Ko. And that’s about all he said. He didn’t embellish much about his teacher (or his reason for visiting China.) His student Miyagi even went to China to see if he could find Lu Lu, with no luck. But mountains are made of Lu Lu Ko’s mole hill among the Goju community, as if he descended from heaven with a menjo clutched in his sand-hardened fingers. Goju legacy exudes from him.
But nobody really knows much. They just hope.
The more we research, the less we know for sure.
Nakaima was supposed to have studied from Lu Lu Ko, too, in 1838. Then Higaonna in 1874. Then someone came up with a 1921 photo of him. He must have been something like a Chinese Lazarus to make it from the war of 1812 to the roaring twenties. History is written by the winners. That’s what they say. And it is ever so true in the often make-believe world of karate. Our knowledge of the art stems from the likes of Higaonna, Funakoshi, Miyagi, Mabuni, Ohtsuka, Uechi, Itosu, Nakaima and maybe a few others. They were the winners. They were the ones whose “styles” survived time. And they or their students were the ones who told the stories. Who can say what they really did? What motivates anyone to do anything? Often nothing like noble intentions. Survivors like Higaonna and Itosu are virtual karate deities. We believe their motivations were dedicated. Their hearts pure. We emulate them.
But who were they really?
Per Chinen (and logic), Higaonna could have been a draft dodger. Who knows?
Who cares? (Apparently I do).
We build a narrative and we pass it on. We repeat our karate gospel and we mimic movement like robots. And we think this is karate.
This is not karate.
This is a caricature of karate.
This is politics.
This is playing at karate for fun and profit.
And this is OK.
OK because we all become, however artificially, part of a heritage that spans a millennium. And we taste a bit of it. And we feel it. And we learn to love it. And we meld into it. And we pass it on. Who cares if they were draft dodgers? Who cares if they didn’t want to be part of the Japanese army? Would you want to be part of the Japanese army? The salient point here is that the forces behind history are often more coincidental than intentional and rarely as portrayed. The revolutionary war burst out on Lexington Green in Concord Massachusetts when a few militia men stood eyeball to eyeball with 300 British soldiers. Then someone, somewhere fired a shot. No one knows who or why. With that shot, the story of humanity spun off like an Oklahoma tornado and the idea of free people governing themselves materialized on earth.
History may not be what we think. Our teachers may be less worthy than we would like. I have had four less-than-perfect ones, but I have learned a pile of karate. Our heroes may be draft dodgers and story tellers, but they are still our heroes. These flawed humans, these seekers, passed karate down to you and me. Through them we piece together our karate tapestry.