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MICHAEL ROSENBAUM

COMPREHENSIVE KARATE - FROM BEGINNER TO BLACK BELT

CHAPTER FOUR: THE EMPTY HAND ART

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan was one of the world’s fastest growing military powers. Within a short period of fifty years, 1854-1904, the country had gone from possessing virtually no naval force, to having its western styled battleships annihilate Russian forces at Port Arthur during the 1904-05 Russo-Japan war. The feat both shocked the world and established Japan as an equal with Britain, France, Germany and the United States.

Much of the reason for Japan’s military success lay with the Meiji government (1868-1912) that abolished the Samurai class, replacing it with a conscript army drawn from all walks of life. Of this transition Richard Humble wrote that, “This was not done overnight – clans like the Satsuma continued to rebel as late as 1877. But the aftermath - indeed, the underlying purpose-of the Meiji Restoration was to make Japan strong enough on land and sea to hold her own with the European interlopers in the Far East. And this was done by the most direct means at Japan’s disposal: taking carbon copies of modern institutions - political, social, industrial, and military-from the European powers whom she was planning to emulate” (Humble, Japanese High Seas Fleet, 9). The new Japanese army was equipped with modern weapons and organized in the same manner as Western militaries. France, Britain and America all provided arms and training to the Meiji army where soldiers fought as cohesive members of their squad, platoon and company. The infantryman’s bolt action rifle replaced the samurai sword, and the machinegun became the battlefield’s dominating weapon. Firepower and small unit tactics took precedence over the Samurai vanguard, which traditionally had been considered the army’s most honored position since it was first into battle.

In addition to modernizing the military, the Meiji reforms also transformed Japan’s feudal society into a nation ruled by a unified government, thereby eliminating internal strife among rival clans. With this transformation, Shinto became a tool for projecting the emperor’s omnipotence and furthering government policies. Likewise, the teaching curriculum at Japanese schools espoused a nationalistic ideology designed to produce loyal citizens. As Mori Arinori, the minister of education from 1885 to 1889, stated, “The principle of education shall hereafter be to cultivate persons who will be the faithful subjects required by the Empire.” (McClain, A Modern History of Japan, 262). During this period the Dai Nippon Butokukai (Great Japan Martial Virtues Association) was established to preserve the classical martial arts (Koryu Bujutsu) and promote the Shin Budo, or new Budo, including systems like Judo and Kendo, which by 1911 were included in the school’s teaching curriculums.

At the turn of the 20th century, Okinawa had been under Japanese domination for almost three hundred years. During this time the practice of Tode had gone relatively unnoticed by the Japanese until the Sino-Japan war (1895-96) when an army doctor observed the well developed physiques of several Okinawan conscripts. When asked how they came to be in such splendid shape, their answer was “Te.” This sparked an interest among the Japanese who were constantly seeking new weapons and tactics to improve their military. Initially Japan’s military expressed interest in using Tode to develop the physical stamina and martial élan of its soldiers; however, given the lack of standardized teaching formats, the idea was abandoned. As karate historian Patrick McCarthy explained, “However, the military ultimately abandoned this idea due to a lack of organization, impractical training methods, and the great length of time it took to gain proficiency” (McCarthy, The Bible of Karate Bubishi, 53). Despite this initial rejection, Tode’s ability to develop sound minds and bodies became the focal point of a successful campaign, led by Itosu Anko in 1901, to make it part of the Okinawan schools teaching curriculum. Itosu, influenced by both nationalistic pride and western ideologies, saw in tode a means by which Okinawan youths could be molded into loyal citizens who would contribute to the growth of both Japanese and Okinawan societies.

This was the first time Tode had been offered to the public on a large scale basis. Before this event, it had been a very personal and time consuming practice in which the learning of Hojo-undo-supplementary exercises like strength training and sticky hands, along with basic techniques took several years. Traditionally the student was taught a small number of kata, sometimes only one, and often was the case that no two students were privy to the same kata. This was because many instructors felt particular kata were better suited for some individuals than for others given differences in body size, skill levels and personalities. Mori Higaonna wrote about Choju Miyagi and his way of teaching, noting that “Miyagi did not teach students all the kata of the system. Rather, after several years of Sanchin kata training, he selected one or two kata he felt suited that individual student which was called tokuigata” (Higaonna, History of Karate, 63).

Likewise, with its presentation to the public Tode class sizes increased and this too went against traditional venues. In his 1978 interview with Mr. Ernest Estrada, karate legend Hohan Soken (1889-1982), 10th dan of the Matsumura Orthodox Shorin-ryu, stated that “Back then, there weren’t large followings of students for a master of the warrior arts. Itosu Ankoh had less than a dozen students and he was one of the greatest of teachers at the time. My uncle had only one student, and that was me. He was still a practitioner with an ‘old mind’ and would only teach or demonstrate for family members” (Estrada, Interview With Hohan Soken, 1).

With Tode’s introduction into the public schools, such longstanding traditions were cast aside in favor of new ones that emulated western military parade drills. And while these drills enabled one Sensei to oversee a large group of students, it shifted Tode’s focus away from the individual, resulting in a group ethos being formed as practitioners underwent a bonding process induced by the rhythmic movements they performed during training.

While enhancing the group’s identity karate’s new syllabus reduced the individual’s ability to empower himself through the practice of karate. Cambridge don and literary historian C.S. Lewis noted about similar philosophies effects on western education: “Where the old initiated, the new merely ‘conditions.’ The old dealt with it pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds-making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation-men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda” (Lewis, Miracles, 23). Moreover, eclecticism, a long- standing tradition in the Okinawan fighting arts, would also be frowned upon. Other modifications brought forth from Tode’s introduction into the Okinawan school system included less emphasis on combative technique and more on physical fitness. This shift resulted in the modification of techniques to ensure safety during practice. Also included in the syllabus was Itosu Anko’s recently developed Pinan kata.

Itosu’s innovations did not stop with the Pinan Kata; he also authored ten precepts of karate which served as a guideline for the student’s moral and martial ethos. This regimen was consonant with the Meiji doctrines, and many Okinawans, bearing witness to the changing times, decided to embrace Japan’s worldviews rather than contest them. This willingness to incorporate Japanese perspectives meant that karate stepped out of the agrarian world and into the industrialized one.


To Japan


By 1921, Tode had become part of the Okinawan Police academy’s training program, as well as having gained island- wide notoriety. Tode was also considered by some of its leading practitioners to be a cultural asset, quite possibly the only indigenous cultural asset the Okinawans had to offer the outside world.

As its fame grew on Okinawa so did Tode’s reputation expand in Japan. While on a return trip from Europe in 1921, Crown Prince Hirohito witnessed a Tode demonstration at Shuri castle. In his biography, Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) spoke of the honor he had leading the demonstration and of the Crown Prince’s delight: “Later I was told that the prince said he had been much impressed by three things in Okinawa: the lovely scenery, the Dragon Drain of Magic Fountain in Shuri Castle and Karate” (Funakoshi, Karate Do My Way of Life, 43). Tode’s new teaching format would serve as a stepping stone for its acceptance by the Dai Nippon Butokai. Yet before being recognized, this Okinawan fighting art would have to be assimilated into Japanese culture.

In the fall of 1921, Japan’s ministry of education began planning an exhibition of martial arts to take place in Tokyo the following year. Chosen to represent Okinawa by the Okinawa board of education was Gichin Funakoshi, a retired school teacher. Funakoshi was selected because of his education background. Quite certain that he would give an erudite and scholarly presentation the Okinawan board of education was not disappointed. After Funakoshi arrived in Japan he tailored his demonstrations to meet the expectations of intellectuals and professionals, whose response was very enthusiastic.

Japan’s enthusiasm for karate was due partially to the low appeal classical Japanese martial arts held during the Taisho era (1912-26), a time when many Japanese considered these fighting styles outdated relics of a bygone era. But with karate, Japanese society saw something new, a method by which many believed they could achieve better health and cultivate their spirit. Therefore, different values were placed upon karate by the Japanese than those held by the Okinawans.

The Okinawans considered karate as a fighting art first, by which, through constant practice, one achieved better health and personal realizations. However, many Japanese saw it just the opposite. Karate to them was an endeavor by which one’s mind and body were first disciplined through rigorous training. Only afterwards did the practitioner enter its combative realms. Thus, two differing philosophies began to develop around karate’s practice, each with its own merits. For while its self-defense capabilities could not be ignored, karate’s ability to strengthen one’s spirit and body held much appeal too.

What was to have been a brief trip for Gichin Funakoshi, turned into a prolonged stay, and in a short time he had developed a following, including many university students. His monopoly however, would not last because others were to follow him.

In 1928, Mabuni Kenwa retired from the Okinawan police department, sold most of his belongings and at the urging of Jigoro Kano, moved to Tokyo where he planned on teaching his style of Tode. Both Funakoshi and Mabuni had been students of Itosu; however, their styles differed because Mabuni had studied Naha-Te with Kanryo Higaonna. It was due to Mabuni’s friendship with Funakoshi, that he decided to teach in Osaka, not Tokyo, thereby avoiding any chance of competition between the two men. It was also during this period that Chojun Miyagi and Choki Motobu both gained notoriety in Japan.

By the beginning of 1924, there were eight established karate clubs in Tokyo, a large number considering the relatively short time the fighting art had been taught in Japan. Much of the reason for Karate’s appeal was precipitated because of its reliance on fist and foot strikes. In a culture whose unarmed fighting had long been dominated by grappling arts like jujutsu, sumo and judo, karate’s strategies presented the Japanese with something new and exotic. And while jujutsu contains fist and foot strikes, karate’s rapid fire combinations captured the Japanese imagination. Thus, like all things new, it gained a devoted following which made the next decade a time of prosperity for karate. However, prosperity would have its price.


Militaristic Influences


The 1930’s were a tumultuous time in Japan which saw radical students and military officers’ call for a change in government due to the Tashio era’s (1912-26) failed policies at home and abroad. Ultranationalists began stressing Japan’s divine right to rulership over all of Asia, and it was through political intrigue that they gained control of the Japanese government. These events culminated on Sunday, May 15, 1932, when a group of young naval officers shot to death Japan’s Prime Minister, Inukai Tsuyoshi. Afterwards, Japan came to be ruled by a military government whose domestic policies sought to indoctrinate every man, woman and child with a martial ethos. By 1936, all school children were required to undergo compulsory military training, and war with China would erupt in 1937, thereby increasing anti-Chinese sentiments in Japan. The next eight years marked a dark time in the country’s history, one where no institution escaped the influence of Japanese military fascism. The Dai Nippon Butokukai, which regulated the practice of all martial arts in Japan, proved no exception to this rule and eventually helped channel the militaristic policies into karate.

In 1933, the Butokukai officially recognized Karate, thereby placing it on equal footing with Judo and Kendo. For the Okinawans, this was a great honor, but the Butokukai’s acceptance had stipulations. One was that the ideogram for tode (China Hand) be replaced with Karate-do, denoting empty hand or empty handed way, a change first promoted by Gichin Funakoshi who felt the art had long since metamorphosed into a Japanese endeavor. Other stipulations included the wearing of uniforms, use of the kyu-dan ranking structure, regimented teaching formats and that competitions, like those held in Judo and Kendo, be incorporated into karate. The Japanese sought not to preserve Tode the fighting art, but to use the new karate as a tool for developing strong bodies and militaristic mindsets. For not only did the Butokukai’s stipulations standardize the practice of karate, but they also mirrored the soldier’s lifestyle where uniforms are worn, a person is judged by his or her rank and the individual’s identity is directly linked to the group’s agenda. Soon after this development, karate’s competitive elements became more prevalent, a trend not too surprising considering the ultra- nationalistic policies of the day, for as Richard Sipes wrote about cultures and their inclination for combative sports, “Such sports are components of combative culture themes, and since warlike societies are widespread so are combative sports. This infers some propensity for consistency in group cognitive and behavior patterns but such consistency perhaps can best be explained as an outgrowth of group interaction mechanics and requirements. It need not reflect any innate propensity in the individual human” (Sipes, War, Sports, Aggression, 1973). Thus, the Butokukai’s recognition affected karate not only philosophically, but physically, as well.

Prior to karate’s introduction to Japan, kumite (fighting) and kata bunkai (application) had gone hand in hand. Kumite was the practice of a sequence of techniques found within the kata by two people at arms length. This encompassed body shifting, sticky hands, trapping, throwing, elbowing, kneeing, punching, as well as killing and crippling techniques. Much like a two party conversation where words are freely exchanged, so too was it in traditional kumite where one technique would negate another, thereby leading to variations of specific bunkai.

By 1936 University karate clubs in Japan were routinely meeting to exchange ideas, compare kata and spar. Sparring usually consisted of two forms, jiyu-kumite (free sparring) and jiyu-ippon-kumite (one step free sparring). Before this time there had been no competitive elements in karate, but with the introduction of free sparring (jiyu-kumite) and one step free sparring (jiyu-ippon-kumite), karate began mirroring kendo competitions where contestants fought in a square ring, all the while trying to strike their opponent with a decisive technique.

The new “competitive innovations” resulted in the modern karate-ka fighting at longer ranges, moving in linear patterns due to the ring’s box like shape, and concentrating on singular techniques which requires that each point scored be announced. Although physically demanding, it is a style of competition that leaves little room for counter punching, effective foot- fist combinations, slipping, bobbing or weaving since the most popular strategy is to rush in on a straight line and score a single point. Many of these alterations were first instituted by Gichin Funakoshi’s son, Yoshitaka Funakoshi, who had followed his father to Japan. Yoshitaka sought to make karate as popular as Judo and Kendo; therefore, he introduced the sidekick, roundhouse kick and back kick, all performed at a height inconsistent with traditional techniques. Nevertheless their colorful nature appealed to a younger audience. He also placed more emphasis on free sparring which made karate’s popularity spread amongst universities. Although Yoshitaka established the foundation upon which modern sport karate was built, his innovations diluted the combat efficiency of the traditional Okinawan fighting arts. Martial Arts historian Donn Drager noted the effects on karate as a whole when he wrote:
Japanese karate-do in general, under the influence of the younger Funakoshi, eventually became only a quasi-combat form because both weapons and throwing techniques were discarded. Furthermore, many of the techniques developed, if used under the conditions of serious combat, are reckless and liable to cause serious injury to the user. Nevertheless, because the execution of techniques in the JKA style requires the exponent commit his body fully in either attack or defense, this style produces a forceful action with a tremendous appeal to energetic young people. It is a style well suited to competition. Thus the JKA style has affected almost all sects of karate-do, literally forcing them to follow similar patterns of technique if they wish to attract new members and keep pace with the growing popularity of the JKA sport style (Draeger, Modern Budo Bujutsu, p.134).

Despite the combative deficiencies noted by Draeger, karate’s ‘sport influences’ remained, resulting in the omission of many traditional strategies from the fighting art owing to rules governing competition. The dialogue of technique was lost, leading to the belief that karate encompassed only striking with the hands and feet when as much as fifty percent, if not more, of its traditional strategies involved joint locks and throwing techniques. Grappling was not an entity apart from traditional karate; rather, it was an integral part of it. Similarly the fighting arts traditional range of combat was at arms length, but this too was overlooked.

The irony was that Chojun Miyagi had experimented with full contact fighting in 1930 but omitted it from his teachings given a lack of suitable protective gear. Had adequate safety equipment, which facilitated medium to full contact fighting, been available in 1930, then the inclusion of free sparring within karate’s training repertoire might have been conducted at closer ranges, resulting in a dialogue of technique being kept. This practice would have complemented traditional methods of practice instead of creating an identity crisis as to whether karate was a sport or a system of self defense.

As karate’s fame spread among Japanese universities, it came to be practiced by a generation of fighters who, transfixed by its competitive elements, looked upon karate as a sport more so than as a system of self-defense. Gichin Funakoshi expressed his concern about the growing sport tendencies, writing,
Sparring (kumite) is a form used to apply offense and defensive techniques, practiced in the kata, under realistic conditions, in which by prearrangement between participants one applies offensive and the other defensive techniques. It might be difficult for a spirited young man to understand the purpose of kata, so he will find it interesting after gaining some proficiency in the kata to practice sparring if he can find an appropriate partner and a suitable training area. However, it must be emphasized that sparring does not exist apart from the kata but for the practice of kata, so naturally there should be no corrupting influence on one’s kata from sparring practice. When one becomes enthusiastic about sparring, there is a tendency for his kata to become bad. Karate, to the very end, should be practiced with kata as principle method and sparring as a supporting method” (Funakoshi, Karate-Do Kyohan, p.211).

Despite Funakoshi’s warning, this trend continued and as its popularity grew, the word karate became synonymous with a grouping of sub-styles which exhibited strong competitive elements. This led many individuals to proclaim karate a sport, while others viewed it as a system of self-defense. And with the passage of time this division of identity grew stronger, thereby confusing the goals of traditional combative karate with those of modern sport karate.

michael rosenbaum

This extract is taken from Michael Rosenbaum's e book Comprehensive Karate: From beginner to black belt. If you've enjoyed this article, take a look at one of the books and DVDs below or visit the books page: