Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Sunday, July 27, 2014

It was a slow news day

I was reading the local paper the other day, and for some reason the 1936 meeting of Okinawan karate masters came to mind. I don't think the connection was with newspapers per se, though the 1936 meeting was sponsored by the Ryukyu Shinpo newspaper publisher and, in addition to the many prominent karate
masters, government officials and newspaper men were also in attendance. That in itself makes you wonder what can happen when the government, the press, and popular opinion are brought together around a  common cause.

Of course the notes to this meeting have long been available in English in a number of books and on-line, and the possible impact it may have had on the development of karate has been a rich source of speculation, written about by many practicing karate people. I have often been amazed that real karate even survived that day, as the pressures of the times seemed to push for the development of a form of karate that could be practiced by school children, a form of karate that could be used more for physical development than self-defense, a form that might, in the process, divorce karate from its very lethal and historical origins. I've always appreciated Miyagi Chojun sensei's very adamant and clear statement that, though he might agree with the development of new kata that could be used in schools, a standard uniform, and a regulation of terms, "the classical kata must remain."

The historical atmosphere that may have fed this desire to use the martial arts as a force for cultural unification or to strengthen the youth of the nation at a time when unity and nationalism were significant concerns on the national and regional political agendas has been written about as far back as George Kerr's seminal 1958 book, Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Perhaps there were earlier books or articles as well. But I wonder less about how historians saw this period than how it was perceived by the average person sitting at the breakfast table, reading the local paper just as I was the other day.

The big story on the front page of my local paper was about an invasion of water chestnuts in the local lake. There was a picture, spread across four columns, of a couple of guys in kayaks pulling up weeds. There was another story about the loss of a dachshund from a "possible" coyote attack. The story was continued on to the back page of the section with a cute picture of the dog. At the bottom of the front page there was a story about the demolition of a barn that will be put off until next summer...when there will probably be another story about the demolition of the barn. Then there was a story of a Cambodian lawmaker who was released from jail after a human rights protest...in Phnom Penh. Inside the paper there was an op-ed piece about how diverse the city streets are, a news item about a tree in L.A. planted in memory of George Harrison that died from an insect infestation, a story on Glendale St. being closed while road work continues, and a story of an untended backpack that caused the evacuation of the courthouse--suspicious because of wires that were sticking out of it--but it belonged to the contractor working on the building. Nobody had made the connection.

I guess it was a slow news day, but it made me wonder what place an anachronistic activity such as martial arts has in the world today. Why does anyone need to learn how to defend themselves with lethal force? Certainly the view of the world we get from movies and television seems pretty violent, and that view may color the way we think about the world we live in if the theories of people like George Gerbner are to be believed. But movies and television aren't real. It's not the Middle Ages.

Of course the short answer is that most people don't study a lethal martial art...even those who study martial arts. School boy karate was not lethal back in 1936, and it's not lethal now. And most people seem to be practicing school boy karate--just watch the unrealistic demonstrations of bunkai or the tournament kata demonstrations put on simply for show. Even in more traditional schools--ones who may shun sparring or tournaments--the emphasis seems to be more on the study of a certain cultural milieu or some spiritual endeavor that will hopefully lead to enlightenment. We don't study the quite lethal practical applications of kata so much as we train the body and the spirit through the practice of courtesy, breath control, awareness, posture and proper movement; training  one's kiai and me-tsuki; learning to sit in formal mokuso. I'm not saying that these things aren't worthy subjects of study. But when this becomes the focus of your training, then there's not much difference between then and now. Just remember, "the classical kata must remain," and all that that implies. And watch out for the slow news days!

Monday, July 14, 2014

More on karate forums

Sorry in advance for the rant, but I didn't have anything else to write about so I thought this deserved a short comment. (I hope the irony isn't lost there!) 

I was reading a couple of forums and blogs recently. I don’t know why. On one of them, a rather popular site that tends to sometimes lengthy discussions of traditional Okinawan karate--at least that's the way it's billed--the forum regulars were bemoaning the fact that a lot of forums had gone quiet recently, that there didn’t seem to be any interesting topics of discussion, and that this had been the case for months. I could sympathize. Of course, all things go in cycles. I started training martial arts back in the days when Kung Fu was a popular TV show. Heck, I knew students who stayed home to watch David Carradine instead of come to class. But the really funny thing about these forum regulars to me was that in discussing the lack of meaningful discussion topics most of them seemed to come to the
When is a punch,
not a punch?
conclusion that they didn’t themselves engage in or bring up more interesting topics--though they could certainly take some of the blame, I think--because they no longer felt the need; all of their questions had been answered. There wasn’t anything that they were unsure of?!? (Here I actually wondered whether this was also the case of the folks who read my humble blogs, since I so rarely hear from anyone.)

Anyway, how could this be? Who are these people? Is it that they don’t train enough or they have no imagination? What with all of the back slapping and deferential agreement that so often accompanies any discussion on these forums, IMHO it’s surprising that any of them have lasted this long. Most of the time they seem more like mutual admiration societies. I hate to rant, but that in itself raises all sorts of questions for me. For example, if two people practice the same kata differently, however slight those differences may be, doesn’t that raise questions? Who’s right? Why the differences? Perhaps everyone has just agreed to disagree. Life goes on. There is no argument, and no one is wrong because everyone is right. And they all lived happily ever after. Except I have questions, always questions…  Why does the Higa dojo (Shodokan) do Sanseiru one way and Meibukan and Jundokan do it another way? Why do we practice an upper-level punch (jodan tsuki) in most schools when it doesn’t occur anywhere in the classical kata? Why do we practice barefoot in New England? Why do we count in Japanese? 

I guess the answers are probably pretty predictable for most people—something akin to what I read on another forum this past week. At the end of the discussion topic, one forum participant wrote something like this: “Well, that’s what my teacher said, and I see no reason to question him since he hasn’t steered me wrong yet.” And they lived happily ever after.