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!


  1. Hi Sensei, ever wonder if it wouldnt be easier to just call classical karate something entirely different?
    I recently had the pleasure of meeting someone who had studied a form of shorin ryu all his life and began traveling to northern Okinawa to learn from a teacher who passed down the real Ln deal bunkai on naihanchi, passai and bassai kata. When he travels to teach seminars he calls his material Kishimoto Di, he says it makes it easier for people to get to learning...

  2. Hello Mr. Gidi. :)

    Would that be Ulf Karlsson?

    Naihanchi applications:


    As to what is in a name: Goju, Hard/soft, Saifa, Smash and Tear, Sepai, Number One Kata, Kishimotodi....it seems to me no name/label would have any impact on the ease of learning a kata. If that is his stance...I think it's somewhat...disingenuous.

  3. Dang! Sorry about the first link:


  4. I dont think its disingenuous at all to name the material after your teacher "Kishimoto", especially when it brings attention to something substantial.
    But it might seem disingenuous to a closed organization trying to control things or even its members who have only seen what they have been shown. Perhaps its as disingenous as when kanbun Uechi renamed Pangainoon or when Gichin Funakishis student coined Shotokan. I wonder how many people have renamed the art we now call Goju ryu...? Propably a bunch...and propably for good reason.

  5. When Kanbuns Students renamed pangainoon