Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Our Asian Infatuation

Our Asian Infatuation


My lifelong involvement with the martial arts began when I was five years old.  That’s when a kid down the street began cleaning my clock on a regular basis, and after coming home battered and bruised one too many times mom told pop that it was time I learned how to fight.
          My father, an Army veteran, had boxed and played judo while stationed on Okinawa during the early 1950’s. He once described the island as being “war torn and small, a place where there wasn’t much to do,” and for recreation he spent his off duty hours in the post gymnasium working out or in the enlisted man’s club drinking beer.
 The martial prowess dad acquired on Okinawa was passed on to me with simple, but easy to understand instructions. For instance he would say: “This is a hip throw, use it to get your opponent on the ground so you can stomp the bejesus out of them” or “this is an uppercut, hit em in the breadbasket and when they double over, you’ve really got em.” Not once did I hear him utter something mystical and profane such as “embrace the mountain grass hopper, and you’ll become one with it.”
 Dad’s style of fighting combined both Asian and Western strategies into a simple, but effect means of self- defense.  Needless to say there was little fanfare during our training, but on the appointed day when it came time to confront my aggressor everything worked like a charm. With one punch to the nose I sent the bully next door home in tears and from that day on he never laid a hand on me again.
Ten years later my Isshinryu training began at the Harold Long School of Karate.   Mr. Long was a Marine Corp veteran as well as a living legend throughout the Southeastern United States. He had studied Karate while stationed on Okinawa and after being discharged from the Marines he began teaching in Knoxville, TN.
 Like all things related to the Marines, Mr. Long’s classes were very demanding and for those who couldn’t keep up he freely encouraged them to leave. He was a tough man who tolerated no nonsense and his instructors were a mix of police officers, professional bouncers, rough country boys and college students who fought like angry bobcats. Getting hurt during training was common and once I was punched so hard in the spine that I couldn’t feel the left side of my body for a week. I never told my parents though because I was afraid they’d make me quit karate.
 Although we studied kata, much of our time was spent free-sparring which in those days amounted to bare-knuckle brawling since foam safety equipment wasn’t very popular. One exacting drill we used was called “Bull in the ring”. It involved having ten people stand in a line outside the sparring ring, while one lone individual waited on the inside. At the command of go, each of the ten people outside the ring would run in and fight the lone person for thirty seconds before being replaced by someone else. If nothing else the drill helped you develop intestinal fortitude while receiving an agonizing beating.
Despite the quality and severity of our training there was an underlying assumption that the Okinawan’s and Japanese were better karate-ka than we were.  Many of us felt this way because for one, karate was born on Okinawa and two since it was an Asian fighting art we naturally assumed the Asians would practice it better. However when I expressed this opinion to my father he always replied: “If Japanese were such great fighters then why did they loose the war?” Needless to say his answer irritated me, but subconsciously I realized his first hand experiences outweighed my Asian infatuation.
Over the course of the following decade my estimates of Asian Fighting Arts practitioners rose continuously until I was employed by a Japanese electronics firm. Then and only then was my Asian infatuation finally laid to rest.  Junk food eating karate-ka, out of shape judoka’s, chain smoking kendo practitioners, wannabe samurais, you name it the Japanese have it. In fact they’re not much different than westerners in their pursuit of martial arts. At the time it was a startling realization, but it eventually helped me understand that martial prowess has nothing to do with ethnicity.
Since gaining main stream popularity 50 years ago the Asian Fighting Arts have swept through western society like a tsunami and by doing so have spawned an unhealthy infatuation that encourages westerners to ignore their own martial heritage. For instance today the Samurai are known as the fiercest warriors to have ever graced a battlefield, yet there were others who rivaled, if not surpassed them. One tribe of warriors being the Ancient Celts who used to paint their bodies blue then run naked into battle with only a sword and shield.  Others such as the Vikings, Hoplite’s, Huns, Franks and Knights Templar also fit this category.
Another example of our blatant infatuation is that until the rise of MMA competitions Aikido, Judo, jujutsu and Chin-na were heralded as the standards for grappling arts, yet the Ancient Greeks and Romans as well as English, French, Italian and Spanish schools of Renaissance fencing also included grappling, locking, throwing and trapping in their teachings.  Similarly the illustrations found in Hans Talhoffer’s Medieval Combat could be superimposed on the densho of most systems of Koryu Bujutsu. Let us not forget that wrestling has a long standing history in the west and before the wide spread popularity of golf men wrestled as a past time sport at county fairs, family gatherings and during holiday festivities.
Similarly we evoke the old masters and speak their names with great reverence: Funakoshi, Motobu, Miyagi, Yip Man and Musashi. However in doing so more celebrated western fighters and martial legends such as: King Arthur and Homer, Donn Draeger, Jack Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Ken Shamrock are ignored, nor do we consider that in today’s arena neither Funakoshi nor Motobu would last one round against Leonard or Shamrock.
Whimsically karate-ka and kung-fu practitioners reflect about the good old days, the period before the Asian Fighting Arts were contaminated and commercialized by westerners. History though shows us there has never been such a time because when karate was introduced to Japan many Okinawans strived to open up dojos and enroll a large amount of students. Hence the reason Funakoshi and Motobu hated each other and why Chojun Miyagi quit teaching in Japan altogether.[i]  
Furthermore the political infighting and lofty organizations common throughout the Asian fighting arts are often the result of over ambitious Asians and their desire to cash in on the Western market. For instance the Japanese Karate Association was established in 1949 with Gichin Funakoshi as chief instructor while the Korean Tae Kwon Do Association was founded shortly after the Korean War. Since then both organizations and their off-shoots, have achieved international status with thousands of members’ world wide paying monthly dues. These are just two examples of many such organizations in existence today that have been founded by Asian martial artists.
Sadly despite their own heritage, knowledge and skills westerners hardly ever credit themselves for having influenced the Asian fighting arts, nor recognize their own champions in the face of Asian practitioners. A good example of the former being that Isshinryu karate has almost died out on Okinawa but is currently undergoing resurgence thanks to Tsuyoshi Uechi, a native Okinawan, who consulted with long term American Isshinryu Karate-ka in order to revive the art. And where the latter is concerned many people are unaware that both Olympic Judo and Tae Kwon Do have long been dominated by Western fighters. Similarly Mark Wiley observed about the Filipino martial arts: “This, coupled with the tremendous influence of Spanish culture, prompted the evolution of eskrima, the “classical” martial art of the Philippines.  It was the Spanish rapier and dagger systems that had the greatest influence on it transformation from kali.” (Wiley, Filipino Martial Culture, p.49) Hence there was intercourse between Asian and Western cultures and the Asian fighters borrowed just as freely from the Western traditions as their counterparts did and continue to do so today.
It is time to recognize that the world wide proliferation of Asian Fighting Arts erases a cultural monopoly that has existed for far too long.  Ethnicity is no longer a prerequisite for teaching Asian combatives because there are now as many long term Western practitioners as there are Asians.
More importantly though is that by continuing to encourage the myth of Asian superiority Westerners fail to appreciate their own martial prowess which is sad, especially when considering the enormous contributions they have made to the fighting arts. To fall prey to Asian infatuation is understandable, but to embrace it is an unpardonable mistake no one should make. Fighting is fighting and when the mystic and hype is laid aside you’ll see that the Western traditions and practitoners are equal, if not superior to their Asian counterparts.



[i] Miyagi was actually bribed by a group of Japanese martial artists to award them rank. As Higaonna wrote, “This was clearly a request for Miyagi to grant members of this group black bet ranks.  Miyagi Sensei who in any case disliked the concept of ranks, immediately pushed the envelop away stating that he could not comply with the request.”  (Higaonna, History of Karat, 89-90)

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