Lost in Translation The Post War Styles
Gichin Funakoshi, Choki Motobu, Chojun Miyagi, and Kenwa Mabuni are widely regarded as the pioneers of Japanese karate. However, Yabiku Moden, Uechi Kanbun, Sawada Masaru, Nisaburo Miki and other prominent Okinawan karate-ka also traveled to Japan where they too influenced the fighting arts development and subsequently helped give rise to other styles of karate.
While individual preference dictated karate’s practice on Okinawa, many who taught it in Japan realized that for karate to be accepted by Japanese society it needed a structured format that provided a historical foundation, standardized methods of training and continuity of instruction. By 1931, these changes were implemented and, in 1933, Karate was officially recognized by the Butokukai. With this came the formation of karate ryu-ha the four earliest being Goju-ryu-Chojun Miyagi: Shotokan-Gichin Funakoshi: Shito-ryu- Kenwa Mabuni and Wado-ryu- Otsuka Hidenori.
A concept that evolved in feudal-era Japan, the martial ryu-ha was developed by a warrior, or experienced practitioner, who compiled proven techniques and strategies into what they considered a complete syllabus of martial knowledge. Consequently one did not join a classical ryu but gained admittance to it and then became immersed in its teachings and camaraderie. Yet despite the presence of a group ethos, each warrior’s progression was charted separately within the classical ryu, its goal being to develop competent war fighters through a time consuming process based on integrity and quality. Because of this regimen the classical ryu were living entities, steeped in centuries old traditions, passed down through time from one appointed successor to another, a process leaving no room for offshoot dojos or competing headmasters within the ryu’s linage.
These classical traits were not incorporated into karate despite its practitioners borrowing liberally from the classical systems to enhance their own style of fighting. The modern karate ryu’s purpose was, and still is, to make the art accessible to the masses. Whereas the classical ryu are concerned with small groups of students the modern ryu is designed to facilitate multitudes of people. This, in turn, allows one karate ryu to have numerous dojos and hundreds of practitioners at the same time. Likewise, whereas the classical ryu stressed individuality the modern version emphasizes conformity and group cohesion, traits imposed upon karate by prevalent militaristic policies of the day. [i]
As the modern ryu gained dominance over previous methods based on personal style, the nature of karate became increasingly regimented and group orientated. Overseeing this process was the Butokukai, which before it recognized someone’s training as a legitimate style of karate required a standardized teaching syllabus to be present, the instructor deemed qualified and the kyu-dan ranking structure, employed to grade students’ progress. While establishing continuity, this institutionalization divided karate into differing camps, each with its own unique identity. Hence individual styles were compared against one another, instead of being considered interrelated parts that belonged to a larger entity.
Complicating matters even more was a difference in regional teaching styles, for while Japanese karate was regimented, Okinawan styles remained eclectic until after the war. In Japan competitive elements flourished while on Okinawa they were initially downplayed in favor of traditional approaches relying on kata. However, as free sparring became popular in Japan and on Okinawa, the partitions separating the two styles grew less obvious until the post-war period war saw both styles of karate considered as one in the same, a perception brought forth by unknowing westerners and Japan’s own economic revival.
More than 52,000 civilians perished during the battle of Okinawa, after which the island was forgotten as military bureaucracy concentrated on rebuilding Japan. This left the Okinawans in a tenuous position as many of them became laborers on military bases, while others existed on handouts from American soldiers. As George Kerr wrote about the island’s post war period: “For military men the Ryukyus became a place of exile from GHQ and Japan proper, and for ambitious civilians with the army it was ‘no man’s land,’ ‘the end of the line,’ or ‘the Rock,’ a veritable Siberia much too far from Tokyo’s neon lights.” (Kerr, Okinawa History of an Island People, 5)
This negligence hampered Okinawa’s rebuilding, whereas in Japan it was encouraged by American business interests and military doctrines. General Douglas MacArthur supported trade unions which distributed Japan’s wealth and helped build a thriving middle class. He also suppressed the power of family trusts that had controlled Japan’s economy for many years and encouraged American industrialists and scholars, such as W. Edwards Deming, to contribute ideas and technology to the rebuilding of Japan’s industry. Moreover, the 1950’s saw karate’s popularity rise again in Japan as General Curtis B. LeMay, a dedicated Judoka, instituted hand -to- hand combat programs for U.S. servicemen taught by leading Japanese Judoka and Karate-ka. This, along with Japan’s economic revival, enabled Japanese karate to achieve a place in the international spotlight which overshadowed Okinawan styles for years to come.
However, it was the western society’s own inability to distinguish between sport and traditional styles, Okinawan and Japanese teachings, which gave rise to contemporary beliefs that all forms of karate were the same. Adding to this confusion is karate’s introduction to the United States, Great Britain and Europe where it was promoted as either a sport or a martial art developed from centuries of battlefield combat. The latter being in spite of the fact that the styles introduced were not much older than the western karate-ka practicing them.
It was due to these oversights that many Westerners were left uncertain about karate’s identity. However, despite this predicament, karate’s regimented style of teaching appealed to many in the West, as it did to the Japanese, because of its linear nature, a by product of earlier British, American and European influences on Japan. Modern karate’s learning syllabus has a beginning, middle and end point, each defined by the ryu’s teaching syllabus and the kyu-dan ranking structure. Therefore, the student examines where he or she is along the ryu’s linear progression: “I know ten kata and hold a san-dan ranking so I’m one third of the way to tenth dan,” and thus a practitioner’s progress is automatically determined for them.
Although the modern ryu’s teaching syllabus has done much to promote karate world wide, it sometimes contrasts with how Chojun Miyagi, Choki Motobu and others of this caliber accessed their merits, which was on a day-by-day, technique-by-technique basis, within the intimacy of a small group of fighters. These were well versed and educated men raised in a culture where an apprenticeship could last ten years and the mastery of an art could take half a lifetime. Their definition of quality was based on traits which developed both one’s fighting prowess, as well as their character. Peripheral accoutrements held little, if any, appeal to them.
In Gichin Funakoshi’s book The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate Genwa Nakasone presents an example of how important a student’s character was when relating the story about sixteenth century sword master Tsukahara Bokuden, who, upon learning that one of his students employed a martial arts technique to avoid being kicked by a horse, dismissed the young man from his dojo. When asked why, since the young man was such a fine tactician, Bokuden replied, “A person with a mental attitude that allows him to walk carelessly by a horse without considering that it may rear up is a lost cause no matter how much he studies technique. I thought that he was a person of much better judgment, but I was mistaken” (Funakoshi, Twenty Guiding Principles, 40) Such traits, are the essence of all styles of karate, either sport or traditional-Japanese or Okinawan, because they enable us to become not only superior fighters, but better humans as well.
[i] Donn Draeger gives further insight into the differences between the two methodologies stating that, “Two aspects differentiate the shinsei budo from the classical ones. First, they are always exercised as sport activities. Secondly, whereas the classical forms depend upon the deliberate placement of technical hurdles on which to constitute the foundation of their disciplines, the shinsei budo forms tend toward the removal of as many technical hurdles as possible. Thus in the classical disciplines, the trainee is required to deal with a great variety of technical difficulties, the nature of which generates the process of spiritual forging called, seishin tanren. This is necessary to the goal of enlightenment of self-perfection. In the shinsei budo forms, however, the trainee is guided so that he may become physically skillful in the shortest possible period of time” (Draeger, Modern Budo Bujutsu, 9).