Headingley Karate
Practical Martial Arts for Self Defence

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Karate History - Conclusions - posted 14/05/19
Time to bring my series of blog posts on Karate history to a conclusion…

We've seen that Karate has a long history, over many hundreds of years. As well as indigenous Okinawan development it shares a common heritage (and periodic influence) with both Japanese and Chinese martial arts. It has been closely related over time with weapons practice. At least some Okinawan security forces studied both, presumably to aid in their official duties.

We can't say much about the centuries of Karate evolution, but we can dispel the myths about Karate being developed because of a weapons ban. Both of the supposed weapons bans that occurred were in fact nothing of the sort.

Karate has changed over time. However, by far the most important and dramatic change came about during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as a direct result of the Meiji Restoration, when Japan was propelled out of the feudal age and into the modern era. Classical martial arts at that time were in danger of dying out and so were re-imaged for a new generation. Karate put aside its functional purpose and became a method of character development, a 'do' art rather than a jutsu. Most of the rituals and techniques we now think of as synonymous with Karate actually originated in this period. Karate then also developed as a sport.

What’s the take home message? If you want character development, you can't do much better than traditional Karate-do. If you want fun and exercise, sport Karate is definitely an exciting, dynamic pastime. But if you want self-defence, then neither of these is the sharpest tool for the job. Better to find something closer to the original source. Or at least a 'do' version that has subsequently been 'reverse-engineered'. But choose carefully, to ensure your chosen art matches your goals.

You may disagree with my conclusions, but if you read through my previous posts below you'll find a considerable body of evidence pointing in the same direction. Any alternative theories about the development of Karate would need to explain the historical facts as outlined below.

The following posts are presented in chronological order:

Karate - Know Your History - posted 07/03/18
I've previously discussed the differences between 'jutsu' and 'do' in martial arts, and in Karate in particular. I find that the majority of karateka don't really know much (if anything) about the difference between 'do' and 'jutsu', and the changes that have occurred to Karate over the years.

We have this image that Karate has been transmitted unaltered down through the ages, from infallible ancient masters. Nothing could be further from the truth! Lets set aside for now the infallibility, or otherwise, of ancient masters. More importantly, just a little digging reveals that dramatic changes have occurred just over recent decades, never mind over the course of a century or more.

Many karateka don't even realise that Karate was originally an Okinawan, rather than Japanese art, and that it owes much to earlier Chinese arts.

If we wish to truly understand the nature of our art as we practice it now, we really need to understand something about its history. We need to bear in mind that a martial art develops in a particular social context. The art cannot be properly understood without also understanding something of the society in which it developed. So we need to learn something about the other martial arts of China and Japan, and we need to learn something about the general history of China, Japan and - of course - Okinawa. Only then can we begin to say we've got a good understanding of what Karate is all about.

To that end, over the next few months, I shall dip into some of this martial and cultural history, to summarise my understanding of the subject.

Early Okinawa - posted 13/03/18
Let's start with a bit of background.

Karate, as you're most likely aware, originated in Okinawa - not mainland Japan. Okinawa is an archipelago, a chain of about 100 islands (split into 3 distinct geographical groups) stretching between the southern tip of Japan and Taiwan. The largest island by far is Okinawa Island itself. Even that is quite small, about 60 miles long and only a few miles across. But because the other islands are much smaller, and perhaps because of its central location, it has long been the centre of Okinawan politics and culture.

People have lived in the archipelago for tens of thousands of years. They are clearly related to the Chinese and Japanese though they are culturally and genetically distinct from both. Recent genetic studies suggest that the Okinawans have lived in relative isolation for most of their time in the islands.

Given the proximity of both China and Japan, both of these much larger nations have had an impact on the development on Okinawan culture. It should be no surprise then that Okinawa's martial culture owes something to both, along with no small amount of indigenous development. However, we know really know next to nothing about the development of Okinawa's martial arts until really quite recently. Like any other society, there was a longstanding martial culture in Okinawa - the islands experienced plenty of war over the centuries as tribes were consolidated into small states and small states into larger ones. It is this process of gradual consolidation that I will explore next.

The Three Kingdoms - posted 19/03/18
In Okinawa a hunter-gatherer culture, relying in large part on seafood, persisted for a long time. Agriculture only took firm hold around the 12th century AD in what is known as the 'Gusuku' period. At this time the population began to shift from the seashore to higher ground inland. The gusuku from which the period takes its name were stone structures whose purpose is not always certain. Some were certainly fortifications and later became castles, but others never served that purposes. One theory is that they served some religious or sacred significance.

The tribal groups coalesced into larger groups until they eventually formed the 3 kingdoms: Hokuzan, in the northern part of the island; Chuzan, in the middle; and Nanzan at the southern end. Very little is really known about these 3 kingdoms, its not even clear whether they were genuinely separate or interdependent in some way. There are no Okinawan records of the period to rely on, what we know comes more from Chinese and Korean diplomatic records.

Again, there isn't really anything meaningful we can glean about the martial arts of this period. We will have to move a little further forward in time to start to learn anything about the development of Okinawan martial arts.

The Kingdom of Lew Chew - posted 26/03/18
The island of Okinawa was unified into one nation in the early 15th century. The central state of Chuzan absorbed the other kingdoms - Hokuzan in 1419 and Nanzan in 1429. Its not entirely clear to what degree this was a result of war or if there was already some degree of 'working together' under the same royal family. But there was war and Chuzan was the victor.

This was the beginning of the Ryukyu kingdom as we know it, or as the Okinawans pronounced it themselves: 'Lew Chew'. The new king, Sho Hashi, was an industrious leader who forged a new state and maintained an army to keep it under control. He also promoted overseas trade, especially with China. So Chinese influence increased from this point on. Not content with control of the main island Sho Hashi and his successors expanded their realm to include numerous islands up and down the archipelago. They conquered as far north as Amami-Oshima where they are known to have successfully struggled with the Japanese Satsuma clan for control of the island. To do so they must have had an effective naval capability to support the army.

What can we say about the martial arts of the period? Not a great deal, but it seems reasonable to assume they put more emphasis on the arts of the battlefield rather than unarmed civilian self-defence. So this would involve fighting in armour, using weapons such as the sword, spear and bow. In terms of Karate history we have at last reached a point where we can - in theory - begin to explore how the socio-political events of the time influenced the development of Karate. In other words, why Karate supposedly became an 'empty hand' martial art.

The picture shows the Okinawan castle of Nagagusuku as it appeared in 1853, when the American Navy visited.

The 1st Weapons Ban - posted 05/04/18
Karate developed in response to weapons being banned in feudal Okinawa. Right? Well, no. The reality isn't so simple. There were supposedly 2 weapons bans in Okinawa: the 1st by Sho Shin, one of the Okinawan kings in the 15th century; the 2nd, later, by the Japanese.

Lets look at the 1st of these. All the evidence comes from 1 document: a carving, known as the Momo-Urasoe Inscription. Sho Shin had it carved in 1509 and displayed at Shuri Castle (shown in the picture), to record his many successes. It was translated by the father of 'Okinawaology', Iha Fuyu, in the early 20th century. There were 2 articles in the document that relate to the weapons ban: a) that the 'Aji', or feudal lords, should relocate to the royal city of Shuri and b) that weapons of war should be stockpiled centrally in Shuri & Naha. Fuyu interpreted this as meaning that the Aji and their military forces were disarmed, along with everyone else, and their weapons stored for 'safekeeping' by the king.

Modern scholars interpret the document differently: the intention was to remove the military power of the Aji, but simply by controlling their movements & breaking their bonds with their own armies. The king would not exercise military authority through his feudal vassals, instead their armies would become directly answerable to his central authority. The armies kept their weapons but were gradually subsumed into the central Ryukyu army. Weapons would be stockpiled at Shuri and Naha, but simply to ensure their availability to the army. No-one was to have their personal weapons removed.

So it would seem that the 1st weapons 'ban' wasn't a ban at all. It could not therefore have been the catalyst that sparked the development of an unarmed martial art.

Early Japanese Influence - posted 09/04/18
Did Japanese martial arts affect the development of Karate? Perhaps there is evidence of some early Japanese martial influence on Karate. The first such recorded instance is that of Minamoto no Tametomo, shown in the picture. He was a Japanese warrior and member of the Minamoto family at the heart of the Hogen Rebellion of the 12th century. Unfortunately for Tametomo he backed the losing side and ended being banished to an outlying island. The story goes that from there he made his way to Okinawa, where he was welcomed by the king of Chuzan, and even married the king's daughter.

Presumably Tametomo took his retainers with him. Did he, and they, teach the Okinawan nobility their martial arts? Did that influence the subsequent development of Okinawan arts? I used to think so. But in researching this story I learned that it isn't actually true. Tametomo existed and was banished, but he didn't make it down to the Ryukyus. It turns out that this part of the story is a 17th century fiction, created to lend legitimacy to Japanese interference in the Ryukyu kingdom (the Minamoto clan were related to the emperor, so if the story were true then the Japanese and Okinawan royal families would be related).

So if Minamoto no Tametomo didn't influence Okinawan martial development, what is the earliest documented interaction? Truth is, all there really is evidence of is the 2 countries being at war. There is of course the Japanese invasion of 1609. Prior to that Japan and the Ryukyu kingdom fought for supremacy in the Amami islands at the northern end of the archipelago. So whatever they learnt from each other, it was primarily as military adversaries.

Early Japanese Arts - posted 15/04/18
We've already seen that, prior to the 17th century, we can't find evidence of Japanese martial arts impacting on the development of their Okinawan counterparts. Can we, however, assume any similarities between the development of the two? Perhaps. But to do so we need to understand something of the history of the Japanese arts.

Both weapons based & empty hand arts were taught in Japan in an organised manner from at least the 8th century. Empty hand arts involved both striking & grappling. Before the 17th century most ryu (formal schools) taught composite bujutsu arts, ie. multiple weapons were studied under one roof. That may or may not include empty hand skills, which we would now call 'ju-jutsu' though this is a fairly generic term. At the time they had many different names. We think of ju-jutsu being primarily a grappling art but that is a little misleading, some of these older arts put as much or more emphasis on striking.

The old bujutsu ryu were generally oriented towards the battlefield rather than civilian life. So participants would wear armour, which imposes limitations on the choice of technique. There might also be a blurring of the distinction between weapons use and empty hands. For instance, numerous ryu included 'senjo kumiuchi', ie. grappling in armour (shown in the picture). Everything was modified by the fact that both people are wearing 30-40 kg of cumbersome armour; empty hand impact on armour would have limited success. The focus might instead be on creating an opportunity to draw your own (or your opponent's) dagger and inserting it into a weak point in their armour.

What does this tell us about Okinawan arts of the time? Not much, but I think it reasonable to assume that they too were composite arts, geared primarily towards the battlefield.

Early Chinese Arts - posted 02/05/18
China is one of the world's oldest civilisations. No surprise then that it has a long and complex martial history. Many different Chinese martial arts exist today. No doubt many more have passed into oblivion. The story goes that formalised martial art practice begun at the time of the Yellow Emperor around 4,000 years ago. There have been numerous key players involved since then, probably most notably the monk Bhodidarma who introduced martial art practice to the Shaolin temple in the 6th century.

And there's probably about as much truth in the stories of Bhodidarma and the Yellow Emperor as there is in the story of 'Monkey', the mythical monkey king that I learned about from watching the 1970's TV series of the same name (shown in the picture).

What can we say for certain? Well we know that weapons techniques were studied and taught as early as the 5th century BC, during the Warring States period. Unarmed methods (including strikes, throws, joint locking and pressure point techniques) were documented at roughly the same time. So it is certain that Chinese martial arts do indeed have a very long history, although in the last thousand years not as well documented as their Japanese counterparts. We can also be certain that there really was a Shaolin Temple and the monks there really did practice martial arts. It is open to question to what extent these Shaolin martial arts influenced other Chinese arts or whether they were merely representative of the broader martial arts scene.

Given the longevity of Chinese civilisation and sophistication of its martial arts, we can reasonably assume that Chinese arts were a major influence in the developments of the arts in Japan, Okinawa, Korea and perhaps further afield.

Early Chinese Influence - posted 08/05/18
Given the long history of Chinese martial arts we should not be surprised if we find they have been a major influence on the development of Karate. It is certainly true that the Okinawans looked towards China culturally for a long time. They conducted diplomacy with China much more enthusiastically than with Japan (long before the Japanese invasion).

We know that Chinese martial arts influenced Okinawan arts in the 19th, early 20th and, according to Okinawan tradition, the 18th century too. But what about earlier influence? How far back can we go?

The earliest Chinese cultural influence usually cited is the arrival of the '36 families' in 1392. The story is that the Chinese emperor sent a group of envoys and craftsmen, and their families to live in Okinawa and teach their skills to the Okinawans. Apparently one of these skills was shipbuilding. Perhaps martial arts were also part of the package.

As it turns out, the earliest written reference to the 36 families is from much later. The term is first found in 1608 in Chinese diplomatic records, which detail how the Okinawan king petitioned the Chinese emperor to send a further '36 families'. The original group apparently settled in the village of Kuma (shown in the picture). There are still Okinawans today who claim lineage back to these early Chinese settlers.

Did the 36 families really exist? If so, did they introduce Chinese martial arts to the Okinawans? I don't know. And I don't think it really matters. We know that various Chinese travellers ended up in Okinawa both before and after the Japanese occupation. We know that Chinese culture has been a major influence for a long time. It seems inconceivable that there was no transfer of martial culture as part of that process. We just don't know exactly when and how.

Other Early Influences? - posted 15/05/18
We've seen that both China and Japan have had some influence on the development of Okinawan martial arts. Were there any other influences? I think perhaps there were. During the time of the Ryukyu kingdom, and before that the three kingdoms, the Okinawans were accomplished sailors. They traded not just with China, Japan and Korea but also with other nations down through the Philippines, Indonesia, as far as Malaysia and Java. It would be surprising if those other cultures had not rubbed off on the Okinawans.

Okinawa was a trading hub connected to numerous kingdoms throughout South East Asia. During the early Ryukyu kingdom period there was a particular problem with piracy in the region. There was a need for traders to defend their wares and their ships. So there is a valid reason for Okinawans to be interested in the martial cultures of other nations.

Can we see common threads between Okinawan arts and those other nations? I think so. If, for example, we look at the hubud lubud drills of Silat and the tegumi drills of Karate we can see a common theme. The principles they teach are core to the practice of Okinawan Karate. These principles are not just found in Okinawa and the Philippines. They're also present in many Kung Fu systems. Maybe China was the root from which the different arts developed? That may be too simplistic. What is clear to me is that there was cross pollination of martial culture throughout South East Asia. Which direction the influences flowed in I cannot say but, given Okinawa's location and trading links, I'd be surprised if it wasn't involved in this spread of martial culture throughout the region.

Why did the Japanese invade? - posted 21/05/18
Most people interested in Karate history know that Okinawa was invaded by the Japanese in 1609. Before looking at the invasion itself I want to examine its causes - why did the Japanese invade and why at that time?

The truth is that the Shimazu clan, located in the far south-west of Japan, had been trying to exert their authority over Okinawa for some years prior to the invasion. Both they, and subsequently the Tokugawa Shogunate (the rulers of Japan), had demanded tribute and military aid from the Ryukyu kingdom. Sometimes the Okinawan king complied, sometimes he didn't. Wealth and power are obvious reasons for one country to invade another, but there was a further complication in this case. During the 16th century the Chinese maintained a trade embargo against Japan - a punishment for what they saw as Japanese piracy. This was probably a little unfair. The nationality of the 16th century pirates, or wako, is still debated today - they were likely some mix of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Okinawan. But China blamed Japan and refused to trade as a result. The Japanese probably did have problems keeping piracy in their waters in check, given that they had been embroiled in internal warfare since the mid 15th century.

Okinawan traders exploited the embargo. They could trade with both countries, acting as intermediaries and getting rich as a result. The Shimazu clan looked on enviously. Japan was keen to trade with China. If the Shimazu could muscle in and control the trade (without the Chinese catching on), then they could be the ones reaping the rewards, rather than the Okinawans.

So there's a clear rationale for why the Japanese would want to invade. They just needed the right opportunity.

The picture shows Chinese Ming Dynasty troops fighting 'wako' pirates.

Japanese Unification - posted 29/05/18
Japan was riven by internal warfare from the middle of the 15th century. This is known as the Sengoku wars, or Japan's 'Warring States' period. Ultimately the country was unified under Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shogun's, at the end of 16th century. Come the end of the Sengoku wars Japan was awash with battle hardened samurai, who had known nothing but war, and an uneasy alliance of 'daimyo', or feudal lords. Some of the daimyo had supported Tokugawa and others hadn't. But he had to bend them all to his will, which he did successfully using a carrot and stick approach. That he managed to do is evidenced by the fact that Japan remained unified, under the Tokugawa Shogun's for the next 250 years or so.

One of the challenges facing Tokugawa was what to do with all those samurai, in addition to keeping their feudal masters in line. The Shimazu clan were a tricky one to deal with, given that they were relatively powerful and had opposed him at times during the wars. So he threw them a bone. He gave them permission to invade Okinawa and bring the Ryukyu kingdom to heel.

As I discussed previously, the Shimazu clan had been keen to control the Ryukyus for some time, presumably they just hadn't been able to devote the resources to it during the Sengoku wars. As one of my Instagram readers rightly pointed out, giving Shimazu the opportunity to control the Ryukyu trade with China kept them busy and distracted, so they weren't so motivated to meddle in internal Japanese affairs. So the scene was set - the Shimazu had a motive to move in on Okinawa and now had the opportunity too.

The picture shows a scene from the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the last major battle of the Sengoku wars. Note the use firearms, alongside more traditional weaponry.

Invasion! - posted 05/06/18
Finally we get to the Japanese invasion of Okinawa. We've seen why the Shimazu clan, from Satsuma in Japan, wanted to bring the Ryukyu kingdom under their control and why that opportunity finally came. The invasion came in 1609. It only took a couple of months. The Shimazu worked their way steadily down the archipelago towards Okinawa, without too much difficulty. They landed in the north of the main island and fought their way south in a pincer movement - a land force worked its way towards Shuri, while another force sailed with the fleet along the south coast to Naha. Throughout the campaign the Japanese had a distinct advantage in the form of a superior firearm - the arquebus. This was based on a European design and was distinctly superior to Chinese style firearms employed by the Okinawans. This may well have been the decisive factor in the campaign.

They Japanese did encounter stiff resistance at the port of Naha, but they simply turned back and made port further to the north. The land forces closed in on Shuri and, thanks to their superior firepower, were able to overcome the Okinawans without serious difficulty and the king was forced to surrender.

The campaign was over in short order. The king was carted off to Satsuma as a hostage, along with several members of his family and numerous retainers & government officials. There was no more the kingdom could do to resist. The king had no choice but to submit but to all the conditions the Japanese placed on him and was eventually allowed to return to Okinawa 2 years later.

And so ended the independence of the Ryukyu kingdom. Of interest to us now is the nature of its ongoing relationship with the Japanese Shimazu and how that may have influenced the development of Karate.

The 2nd Weapons Ban - posted 12/06/18
Following their successful invasion of Okinawa in 1609 the Japanese implemented a weapons ban. This was obviously a sensible thing to do on their part, to prevent the Okinawans getting ideas about reversing their defeat. But what did that weapons ban consist of?

Karateka generally believe that all manner of weapons were banned and that this subsequently led to the development of Karate. Well lets have a look at the specifics of the ban. Firstly, firearms were completely banned. Also, commoners were banned from possessing weapons of any sort. However, the nobility and the warrior caste (shizoku, the Ryukyu equivalent of samurai) were not banned from possessing personal weapons - they just couldn't own firearms. Finally, these personal weapons were to be controlled - the Japanese magistrates' office were to be informed of any weapons repairs or changes in ownership.

So the ban was not quite what I (and many others) understood it to be. The shizoku kept most of their weapons, they just couldn't own firearms. This makes a lot of sense. It was the Japanese superiority in firearms that was decisive in their victory, so naturally they wanted to keep them to themselves.

In fact the Ryukyu military continued to exist long after the invasion. More than once the Japanese required them to submit military forces for their use. They would certainly have needed access to their weapons to do that.

In summary, the 'ban' was not at all what we were previously led to believe.

The picture, drawn by a Chinese official in 1719, shows retainers of the Okinawan king, some of whom are clearly holding bladed weapons (naginata, basically a sword blade on the end of a pole).

The Japanese Occupation - posted 19/06/18
What was life like in Okinawa after the Japanese invasion? I used to imagine that there are patrols of Japanese samurai strutting arrogantly about everywhere, oppressing the Okinawans and generally behaving very boorishly. And the poor unarmed Okinawan shizoku would just have to suck it up and turn the other cheek.

However, the reality wasn't like that at all. The actual occupation lasted less than a couple of months. The Japanese didn't stick around in Okinawa. Instead they went home and, to ensure the Okinawans toed the line, they took hostages with them. They took the king, members of his family and a number of his important retainers with them. The hostages were allowed back in dribs and drabs, the king returning home after 2 years. The king's son remained in Japan for several years, not strictly a prisoner but an honoured 'guest' of the Shimazu clan.

Okinawa then was really militarily occupied for only the blink of an eye. Its relationship with Shimazu was that of a vassal state, typical of feudal relationships of the time. This was similar to the Shimazu's relationship with the Shogun in Japan. The Shogun could not station his troops in Shimazu territory, they had their own army and the Shogun depended on their cooperation. To maintain control he kept important family members, essentially as hostages, in his capital. This was how the daimyo (feudal lords) were controlled and peace maintained. The Shimazu simply copied the same model.

So for the next 250 years or so the Japanese presence in Ryukyu was not that of an occupying force, but was instead more like a diplomatic mission. And as long as the Okinawan king cooperated he was relatively free to rule without Japanese interference.

The picture shows the Okinawan king, drawn by a Chinese official in 1719.

Dispelling the Origin Myth - posted 25/06/18
Most people reading this will be familiar with the origin myth:

Karate was developed as an empty-hand art by Okinawans (nobility or peasants, take your pick) in response to being invaded by the Japanese and banned from carrying weapons. They needed to be able to defend themselves against their overbearing overlords, but weren't allowed to carry weapons. So they developed an empty-handed method of fighting, which they practiced in secrecy to prevent the Japanese finding out.

It's a simple enough story, but we can now see that it is not true. This is the beauty of studying history, not for the sheer joy of poking around in the past, but for what it tells us about where we are now.

Before I review my recent posts lets re-examine who practiced Karate in the past. I've discussed this previously but lets clarify - Karate was practiced by the nobility (shizoku) only. All of the recorded Karateka prior to the modern period (when Karate started to be taught in schools) were shizoku. ALL of them. Every single one.

So, to review my recent posts. We have seen that:

  1. The first weapons ban was not a ban at all (it was an instruction to ensure weapons were readily available to the military).
  2. The second weapons ban didn't apply to edged or blunt weapons. It only banned the shizoku from using firearms.
  3. The second weapons ban also disallowed peasants from practising martial arts.
  4. There was no Japanese occupation force - other than for a few weeks immediately following the invasion.
  5. The Japanese Shimazu clan actively wanted the Okinawans to be skilled in military arts - just not with guns.
In conclusion, the whole premise for how and why Karate developed is demonstrably wrong. Which begs the question of why did it develop and why is our understanding of that process so skewed?

Karate as Composite Bujutsu? - posted 03/07/18
We now know that Karate couldn't have evolved as a self-defence art to combat Japanese samurai. So how and why did it develop? I believe it developed from, and is the remains of, a composite Bujutsu system.

Composite Bujutsu is a name sometimes given to Japanese arts that started out on the battlefield during Japan's Warring States period or before. Bu means warrior, so Bujutsu describes the skills of the warrior. They were composite in that they included a whole range of skills, eg. empty hand, weapons, horsemanship, even swimming in armour. Often these skills relied on a core of common underlying principles. Over time the old bujutsu systems changed in different ways, especially during the peace from the 17th century onwards. Sometimes components such as individual weapon skills split into their own arts or joined together with components of other systems. Many Jujutsu systems originated in this way. Often there was a shift in emphasis from the battlefield to everyday life. Grappling in armour was augmented with, or replaced by, grappling in ordinary clothes. Covert weapons acquired greater emphasis, as did unarmed skills.

I contend that Karate underwent the same change. We already know that the transition from Karate-jutsu to Karate-do involved cutting out much of the syllabus - choking, joint-locking, throwing, vital points. But I think that the process went further than that and possibly started much earlier. The medieval Okinawan warriors studied bujutsu just as their Japanese counterparts did. Peace affected the development of their arts just as it did the Japanese. And so the Okinawan arts evolved in a similar way. That is my way belief anyway, I can't prove it, but I shall review what evidence there is.

Karate as Composite Bujutsu - Part 2 - posted 26/07/18
I've put forward the idea of Karate being the remnant of an earlier Okinawan composite bujutsu system. That would mean it was part of an Okinawan warrior tradition that originally dealt more with the battlefield than with civilian defence. As such it would have included battlefield weapons practice and related ancillary skills. Civilian weapons (overt or covert) might have been added at a later stage.

This contrasts with the idea of Karate being recently descended from one or more empty handed Kung Fu systems. Actually I'm sure both are true to some extent, I merely question that extent. I think that perhaps people overplay the importance of Chinese influence in the 19th and early 20th centuries, simply because more is known about that period.

Is there any actual evidence of Karate as bujutsu? A little. We know, for example, from Funakoshi's writings that his teacher Azato studied the sword and the bow, and horsemanship. These are all battlefield skills. Now it may be that Azato's sword skills were from Japanese Jigen Ryu rather than an indigenous Okinawan practice, or both. But clearly Azato was a 'renaissance man' studying both battlefield and civilian empty hand methods as components of his personal bujutsu. The origin of the techniques is secondary to the mindset.

We also know, from Hohan Soken of the Matsumura tradition, that historically Karate kata were at times practiced with covert weapons - the hairpins, or kanzashi, that Okinawan noblemen wore in their hair.

So all the components of a composite bujutsu system are there. Karate has at times been coupled closely with overt battlefield weapons and covert civilian weapons - even to the extent of the weapons being practiced through the medium of Karate kata.

The 18th Century - posted 21/08/18
We know little of Okinawan martial art practice of the 18th century. I've recently read a book that sheds new light on this period - 'Okinawan Samurai' by Andreas Quast.

This book centres around the writings of Pechin Chokushiki, an Okinawan shizoku (samurai), from the late 18th century. Chokushiki wrote a couple of documents for his son, on how to be a good samurai. He covered many aspects of life for Okinawan shizoku, including martial arts. He makes it clear that Japanese culture was very popular with Okinawan shizoku, or at least some of them.

Chokushiki was a student of Jigen Ryu, the Shimazu sword system, which he considered important to learn for cultural rather than practical reasons. He advised his son to focus on this and not bother with arts such as yahara or karamuto. Yahara is presumably another reading for yawara, which itself is an alternative name for ju-jutsu. The question is, does he mean Japanese ju-jutsu or an Okinawan equivalent? I don't know. Karamuto presumably refers to an Okinawan art but we can't say more than that.

Another name for an Okinawan art was tetsukumi. A few years after Chokushiki a Japanese observer wrote:

"The kenjutsu and yawara of Ryukyu are a lukewarm affair. The Ryukyuans are only said to be skilful in thrusting with the hand. This method is to break through or kill anything with the clenched fist. It is referred to as tetsukumi. Summoned to the Satsuma Resident Magistracy in Naha, a person who performed … tetsukumi struck a pile of 7 roof tiles and crushed up to 6 of these roof tiles with his strike. If thrusting the face of a person or the like, it would smash it. A skilful person thrusts with stretched-out fingers."

Its not much to go on, but that sounds a bit like Karate to me.

Early Teachers - posted 11/09/18
Prior to the 19th century we know little of any individuals involved in the practice of Okinawan martial arts. We do know of families who supposedly passed down martial arts over generations. The Kojo family, for example, are considered to have descended from one of the original Chinese 36 families and subsequently picked up a Chinese art somewhere along the way, which is now known as Kojo Ryu. There is also the Motobu family, who trace their lineage back to one of the kings of Ryukyu and have supposedly passed down their own family art for generations.

As for individuals however, the veil starts to lift in the 18th century. The most prominent Okinawan martial artist of this period was Kanga 'Tode' Sakugawa, born in the early to mid 18th century, 1733 being the year often quoted. 'Tode' was a nickname meaning 'Chinese Hand', a common way in which the Ryukyuans referred to martial arts originating in China - this indicates that his martial expertise was widely regarded in Okinawa. He trained under several teachers, one of whom may have been an Okinawan, Pechin Takahara (shown in the picture). Pechin is not a name, it's a title denoting one of the senior ranks of shizoku, Ryukyu's warrior class. Another of Sakugawa's teachers is thought to have been Kong Sun Kung, a Chinese military official who spent some time in Okinawa. His name is remembered to us via the kata Kusanku (or Kanku in the Japanese tradition).

As well as his empty hand skills Sakugawa is remembered for his skill with a bo (6 foot staff). The bo kata Sakugawa no Kon supposedly originated with him. He had a number of students, the best remembered now being Sokon Matsumura, one of the leading lights of 19th century Karate and often described as the father of Shorin Ryu.

The Early 19th Century - posted 25/09/18
In the first part of the 19th century life in the Ryukyu Kingdom continued pretty much as it had done for the previous 2 centuries. Presumably this was reflected as much in martial art practice as it was in other aspects of Okinawan culture. Change was coming, but that would not be until the middle of the century. For now, life carried on as normal.

There is little English language material to give us an idea of life (and martial arts) in this period, but one interesting event (for us) occurred in 1812. That was a visit to the Ryukyu Kingdom by the British Navy. One of the ships' Captains, Basil Hall, documented the visit in his 'Account of a Voyage of Discovery to the West Coast of Corea and the Great Loochoo Island'. 'Loochoo' was the closest rendering the English sailors could get to the local pronunciation of Ryukyu. Hall's account gives us a unique, if limited, insight into life in the kingdom at that time. There are no specific martial references but I find of particular interest the lengths to which the Ryukyu officials went in order to limit and control the visit the sailors' interactions with the locals and access to the royal court.

The picture, taken from Hall's book, shows a couple of Ryukyu shizoku (the one on the left is a monk). One important lesson that I learnt from my sensei was to be mindful of the cultural context in which a martial art develops. Look at how these men are dressed - their footwear, the topknot (not the monk), their large-sleeved flowing robes. These must all have contributed to how they prepared to meet violence. Whatever techniques they choose to use would need to work in their everyday clothes. Perhaps they might even try to use their clothes to their advantage in some way?

Karate for VIP Protection? - posted 09/10/18
The early 19th century saw the birth of a pivotal figure in the development of Karate - Sokon Matsumura. Matsumura began training under 'Tode' Sakugawa and became a bodyguard in the Ryukyu royal household. He went on to become the king's chief of security, serving the last 3 of the Ryukyu kings.

Karate wasn't the only martial string to Matsumura's bow, he was expert with numerous kobudo weapons and is believed to have studied the Jigen Ryu sword system. Who better to hold such an important position?

Matsumura wasn't the only Karate expert in the service of the king. We know that a number of notable practitioners held high office. Both Azato and Itosu for example held prominent positions, but there were plenty of others too.

This proliferation of Karate experts spending their working days close to the king has led some people to postulate that they held their offices because of their martial skills. While they might officially be employed as say, a scribe, given that they're regularly on hand they might equally be expected to take decisive action in the event of some sort of emergency. I find this a persuasive argument.

If true then it would be fair to say that Karate evolved, at least in part, as an art of VIP protection. The practitioner might place greater emphasis on the safety of their VIP (the king or other member of the royal family) than on their own safety. Perhaps we should expect to see techniques in the Karate repertoire that demonstrate this feature?

The picture is based on a daguerreotype, an early photo, taken of the Okinawan regent during the American Navy's visit to Okinawa in 1853. Some people believe that the regent's attendants are none other than Sokon Matsumura and his sidekick Anko Itosu - a lovely idea, but it can't be proven.

Karate today is not the same… - posted 23/10/18
Many karateka think that Karate has been handed down by the ancient masters unchanged and immutable from time immemorial - well, their style has anyway (given that many karateka think their own style is the one 'true' style anyway). Nothing could be further from the truth. Karate has evolved rapidly - and continues to do so. That evolution isn't new. I think it was in the 1930's that Gichin Funakoshi, widely regarded as the father of modern Karate, wrote:

"The karate that high school students practice today is not the same karate that was practiced even as recently as 10 years ago, and it is a long way indeed from the karate that I learned when I was a child in Okinawa."

What did he mean by this? Clearly he felt that there had been significant change since the 1920's, when he started teaching in Japan, but that the change between Okinawa in the 1870's and Japan in the 1920's was even greater. The question is - why? In reality martial arts rarely remain unchanged, change is hard to hold back. But something beyond just gradual evolution happened in the period Funakoshi was referring to. To understand what that consisted of and why it happened we need to examine the broader changes in Japanese society at the time. Japan changed enormously in the late 19th century - by a degree that cannot be overstated. This had a profound effect on Karate and other martial arts.

To understand this we need to follow through the socio-political changes that began in the 1850's and shaped Japan into the modern state it is now. And so, now back to Okinawa in the 1850's…

The Americans are coming! - posted 01/11/18
In 1852 the Ryukyu kingdom experienced an event unprecedented in its history, at least since the Japanese invasion nearly 250 years earlier. This was the unannounced arrival of the American Navy, a military force the like of which they had never seen. To be fair, the navies of other countries had visited before, but never in such force - either in overwhelming numbers or in advanced military technology. The fully armed squadron even contained a couple of steamships - something which must have been completely out of the Okinawans' experience.

The American were not there to wage war however, they were they to negotiate. And Okinawa was not their real goal, that was Japan. Okinawa was simply a stepping stone and a dry run for that adventure.

The aim of the expedition was twofold. The American government was keen to initiate trade with Japan but they were also concerned about the treatment of American sailors at the hands of the Japanese. Thus far when American sailors had attempted to trade with Japan they'd been seen off by canonfire; if they were unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked there they'd likely be imprisoned. The commander of the squadron, Commodore Perry, had been authorised by the president to negotiate on both counts.

The Okinawans tried their usual evasive tactics but to no avail. Perry demanded both an audience with the regent and various trading rights. The major requirement though, was the suspension of the isolationist policy. Perry had no desire to use military force, but he made it clear he was not going to take no for an answer. Ultimately the Okinawans had no choice but to capitulate, although Perry had to threaten military occupation of Shuri castle to assure their compliance. And so on to the real prize, Japan.

The Opening of Japan - posted 20/11/18
After Okinawa, the next stop for Commodore Perry's squadron of ships was mainland Japan. The Shogunate, the Japanese government, were completely backfooted by the appearance of the Americans, but they shouldn't have been. They must have been informed that the Americans had arrived at Okinawa. They'd certainly had advanced notice well before that - the American government had written to them stating their intent the year before, the letter being delivered via the Dutch trade mission at Nagasaki. Yet the Shogunate did nothing to prepare, they were frozen in inaction, able only to play catch-up to Perry's diplomatic advances.

As at Okinawa, Perry went to lengths to impress upon the Japanese his peaceful intent and the mutual benefits that trade could bring. There was, however, always the veiled threat of military action if the Japanese were not prepared to negotiate and to make some concessions.

At a personal level the Japanese were friendly and intensely curious about the newcomers, but at a bureaucratic level did everything they could to avoid or delay any negotiations. All to no avail. The Japanese had good reason to be suspicious, they were aware of how the European colonial powers had pillaged China for their own advantage and feared they would get similar treatment. But Perry played his game of brinkmanship brilliantly. The result was the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854. This guaranteed the safe return of shipwrecked American sailors, some limited trade arrangements and limited movement of Americans onshore.

This was a great success for the Americans. It paved the way for further concessions and for similar treaties with over maritime powers. Japan would never be the same again. And this was only the beginning...

The Kagoshima Incident - posted 29/11/18
After the Americans' success at forging diplomatic & trade relations with Japan, other countries were quick to follow suit. This led to friction between the Japanese & the newcomers. One such incident occurred in 1862 involving an Englishman, Charles Lennox Richardson.

Richardson was considered by some who knew him to be an arrogant fool. He met his match in Shimazu Hisamitsu, father & regent of the daimyo of the Shimazu clan in Satsuma. Richardson was out riding with friends when he came across Shimazu and his retainers going the other way. Japanese custom dictated that Richardson's company should dismount as Shimazu passed by. That was certainly not in line with Richardson's sensibilities and he outspokenly refused to. This didn't go down well with Shimazu. On his orders, his retainers attacked Richardson & his companions, killing Richardson and wounding the other 2 men. Their female companion was unharmed. This brutal act sent a shockwave through the foreigners in Japan. But the repercussions went further.

The British government demanded a huge sum of money from the Shimazu domain in reparation, & the execution of the perpetrators. Neither was forthcoming so Britain sent the Royal Navy to Kagoshima, the Shimazu capital, to press the matter. Things got out of hand, the British seized some Shimazu ships, were fired at by cannon from the forts on land & returned fire. The British had the advantage in weaponry. There was little loss of life on either side but the town burned, up to 500 houses being destroyed.

This was not the only incident of friction between Japanese & foreigners, but it's an excellent example of cultural arrogance & misunderstanding on both sides. Such incidents would serve to fuel a growing discontent within Japanese society.

Sonno Joi - posted 04/12/18
"Revere the Emperor, Expel the Foreigner!" This was the slogan of the Japanese Sonno Joi movement which grew in strength through the 1850s and 1860s. During this period many samurai became dissatisfied with the presence of foreigners in Japan and with the Shogunate's handling of the situation. They felt that too many concessions had been granted to foreigners, starting with the Americans at the Treaty of Kanagawa and subsequently with other nations. As we've previously seen, the Shogunate was backfooted by the Americans, but its difficult to see how they could have got a better deal however well they dealt with this new situation. The Shogunate began to look weak and ineffectual.

Events such as the Kagoshima Incident served only to pour fuel on this fire. As dissatisfaction with the Shogunate increased, support for the Emperor grew too. Many samurai harked back to a semi-mythical golden age in which the Emperor was in charge, Japan could hold its head up high and did not feel the need to tolerate foreigners. The samurai became polarised around two camps - the modernisers, who embraced change, contact with the outside world and all the benefits it could bring; and the traditionalists, who wished to preserve the old order but with the Emperor at its head rather than the Shogun.

For centuries the Emperors had been no more than figureheads. But this emperor and his court became increasingly emboldened to get involved in politics. The emperor began to make political proclamations of his own, eventually culminating in 1863 in his instruction to throw foreigners out of the country. Events were rapidly coming to a head - Japan could not be governed by both an Emperor and a Shogun.

Civil War - posted 20/12/18
Dissatisfaction with the Japanese Shogunate came to a head in 1868. Over the course of the 1860s it became clear to the Shogunate that their support was increasingly ebbing away, the situation becoming untenable. The Shogun eventually abdicated with the aim of returning power to the Emperor's court. It was too late. The Emperor ordered the Shogun's arrest and the dissolution of his house. The Shogun could not submit to that, so the result was then inevitable - war! On one side the modernisers, open to outside influence and loyal to the Shogun; on the other the traditionalists, loyal to the Emperor and hoping to wind the clock back to a time before any outside influence.

The war itself lasted a year and a half. It was followed by a number of subsequent rebellions.

So who won the war? The modernisers obviously, given that Japan subsequently transformed into a modern nation state with trade and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world? Actually, no. The war was won by the traditionalists. But it was a bitter-sweet victory. In order to win they had to 'do a deal with the devil'. They were forced to rely on modern weapons and military methods imported from abroad. The leaders of the movement made a stark realisation. The only way they could fulfil their dream of resealing their borders with the outside world and avoid being exploited by the European colonial powers was to modernise. Only by learning more about western military technology and only by undergoing their own industrial and social revolutions could they hope to realise their ambitions.

Of course, there were ultra-traditionalists who could not learn the lesson. Hence the rebellions. But the die was cast - Japan would modernise. The country would change almost beyond recognition.

The Meiji Restoration - posted 15/01/19
On the eve of civil war, in 1868, the Shogun officially handed power back to the Japanese Emperor. But it was too late to avert the war, during which the Emperor was formally crowned. He became the first Emperor to play an active part in Japanese politics in over 250 years. This became known as the Meiji (enlightened) Restoration.

Over the next decade Japanese society changed almost beyond recognition. The Emperor acquired genuine executive power, at the head of a wholly new government. The old order was swept away as the system of feudal patronage was dismantled. The daimyo (feudal lords) were paid off, generally becoming senior politicians and/or captains of industry. The rest of the samurai, deprived of their patronage, had to fend for themselves in a nation that now had little use for their talents. They even had the symbols of their samurai birthright stripped away from them - the wearing of swords in public and also the topknot, the traditional samurai hairstyle that only they had previously been allowed.

There are many examples from the time to show how dramatic this upheaval was. Even in far away Okinawa the repercussions reverberated. The Ryukyu Kingdom was formally abolished and became a part of the Japanese state. Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan, wrote of the social trauma associated with the abolition of the topknot. Law abiding and loyal subject though he was, he also had to falsify his records to make the best of the new situation. He falsified his year of birth so that he could obtain entry to medical school - those born before the Meiji Restoration were no longer even eligible to apply. As it was, as he still sported the topknot he could not attend anyway.

The picture shows the Meiji Emperor in both traditional and European dress.

A Brave New World - posted 22/01/19
The Meiji period, the years after the Meiji Restoration, were a time of tremendous change in Japan. Socially, politically, economically, industrially - the country transformed almost beyond recognition.

'Sonno Joi' (Expel the foreigner, revere the Emperor) had been a rallying cry prior to the Meiji Restoration. A new slogan for the whole nation was 'Fukoku Kyohei' (Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Army). The lesson had been well learnt - for Japan to be a strong independent force in the world the army had to be strong, and for the army to be strong the economy had to be strong. Japan had to undergo its own industrial revolution, it had to fast forward into the modern world. And so it began.

Before the Meiji Restoration many Japanese were understandably fascinated with the outside world. Given their long isolation, anything new was excitingly exotic. This fascination only increased after the Restoration. Many aspects of the old Japan came to be seen as anachronistic and irrelevant. Martial arts were perhaps a particularly embarrassing anachronism. What's the point in blokes in funny outfits running round with swords and spears when you can have mechanised warfare?

Previously martial arts teachers had no shortage of new students. Many samurai were even obliged, by the daimyo to whom they owed patronage, to study one or more particular ryu. Even if they weren't, it would be unseemly to be a samurai and have no skill with a sword. But now, interest was waning to the point where many ryu were in danger of dying out. The traditional martial arts simply seemed irrelevant in the modern world. The old masters, who had devoted their lives to learning and passing on their traditions, looked on in dismay. What could they do to preserve their arts?

The Genius of Judo - posted 29/01/19
Jigoro Kano grew up in the early Meiji period. As a youth he began studying Ju-jutsu and became adept in several different systems. He began teaching at the tender age of 22 and initially his approach differed little from that of his teachers. Gradually however, he developed his own approach, borrowing heavily from the systems he'd studied but placing 2 important components at the heart of his system: live practice (ie. free exchange of techniques) and breaking the opponent's balance before trying to throw them.

This was impressive enough, but it was where Kano went next that has ensured we are familiar with his legacy today. Like many martial artists of his time he saw that the arts were in danger of fading away, anachronisms no longer needed in the modern world. Kano however, had a revelation - for the martial arts to survive they had to adapt and change. They had to acquire some sort of relevance to society. As methods of war their time was gone, but he realised they could be bent to a new purpose. They could be used to promote character development through austere training, fostering the principle of Fukoku Kyohei (Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Army). Martial arts could be used to forge strong, but obedient, spirits in their participants. This was just the quality the self-conscious new empire looked for in its subjects.

And so was born the art of Judo - not a 'jutsu' art, but a 'do'. The prime concern shifted from methods of combat effectiveness to the way of character development through austere training. These were not new ideas but the shift in emphasis was both dramatic and new. This is Kano's legacy.

Judo - The Development of a New Art - posted 05/02/19
Jigoro Kano started teaching in 1882 and developed his art over several decades. The emphasis shifted to the development of techniques and sparring format that would allow students to vigorously test their skill against each other, but minimising the risk of injury. This led to many modifications to techniques and the rules of engagement.

Some techniques were removed from the syllabus as they just couldn't be practiced safely in a free exchange. Many throws were modified to make them safer. For live practice the person being thrown needed to be able to perform a breakfall. Many of the old throws were designed specifically to prevent that - the aim was to drop the enemy on their face, head, shoulder or hip so that they would be severely injured by the throw. The shoulder throw, seio-nage or ippon seio-nage is a good example of this - the idea in some old ryu was to drop the person on their head. It could also be done as an elbow dislocation, before throwing the recipient onto their head or face.

Other throws might be less life threatening but still injurious. O-soto gari for example originated as a kick to the achilles tendon (followed by the takedown). This could cause debilitating injury. In Judo it became a much safer reap.

It can be argued that these changes made for more effective technique as the participants can learn to do them against a 'fully resisting' training partner (within the agreed ruleset). There are valid points on both sides of this argument.

Kano introduced new techniques too. Kata-guruma for example, was based on the fireman's lift from western wrestling.

So the technical changes were significant, but this is only part of the picture. Next I shall explore the development of Judo's rituals and traditions.

Dojo Rituals and Traditions - posted 12/02/19
Martial arts aren't just collections of techniques or even principles. They're also about rituals and traditions - mechanisms by which arts are transmitted to a new generation of students.

We often think of the rituals and traditions of Japanese arts being immutable, carved in stone since the dawn of time. The truth may not be what you think.

Lets start with the uniform, the gi, used by many arts with minor variations. It was first developed by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, not much over 100 years ago. His attempts to devise the right uniform for Judo practice took inspiration from European dress as well as Japanese.

What about the belt? Kano again. He adapted it from a traditional sash and coloured it according to the practitioner's grade. For the colours he took inspiration from the coloured swimming caps of competitive swimming teams, giving birth to the mystique of the black belt.

But the grading system itself, that's traditional isn't it? No, Kano again. Previously most Japanese arts had a simpler structure just differentiating between students, practitioners, teachers and masters. Kano divided this up into the multiple kyu and dan grades.

The important stuff though, etiquette and discipline, they're inherited from the ancient samurai code aren't they? Maybe. But they have another more surprising influence. Kano naturally took inspiration for dojo etiquette, lining up in grade order etc., from the military. What few realise is that the military themselves actually copied many of their rituals from the west, from the armies of France and Prussia. They did so quite deliberately as part of their modernisation process.

So it turns out that a lot of the 'ancient' ritual we see in martial arts is quite modern and some of it copied from some very unexpected sources.

The Birth of the 'Do' Arts - posted 19/02/19
I've devoted 3 whole posts to the development of Judo. First I looked at why Jigoro Kano set out to develop a new art - to emphasise character development over combat skill. Next I looked at some of the technical changes he implemented in pursuit of that goal. And finally I looked at the rituals and traditions he created for his new art.

But why, on a Karate blog, have I devoted so much time to Judo? Its simple - Judo served as a template for the development of a whole bunch of new martial arts - the 'do' arts. These new arts became known as 'gendai budo', (modern warrior ways), in contrast to the koryu bujutsu (ancient warrior methods) that went before.

Some of the 'do' arts copied Judo's emphasis on competitive sport. Others pursued perfection, as measured against an arbitrary aesthetic (if you're not too concerned about combat effectiveness then it doesn't really matter what your measure of 'perfection' is, as long as its easy see when you've got it right).

All shared the same common goal however - character development through austere training. In pursuit of this, combat effectiveness was de-emphasised - for safety's sake and because it was deemed no longer necessary. The result was martial arts not for samurai, but for everybody. Martial arts that could be taught to larger groups in less time. All of society could benefit from this new approach.

Jujutsu gave birth to Judo. It would also give birth to Aikido, pursuing perfection rather than sporting success. Kenjutsu - the method of the sword - would similarly give birth to both Kendo (a sport) and Iaido (the art of drawing and cutting with the sword). The skill of archery would become Kyudo. Jojutsu (the art of the 4 foot stick) would become Jodo. And so on. And then, of course, there was Karate-do.

The Father of Karate-do - posted 26/02/19
Gichin Funakoshi is often described as the father of Karate-do. I think that's overstating the case. It doesn't take into account the efforts to popularise Karate made by some of Funakoshi's Okinawan contemporaries. However, its fair to say that Funakoshi's role was pivotal and that he made the biggest single contribution to the development of modern Karate-do.

Funakoshi was born just before the Meiji Restoration. As such, he grew up in a rapidly changing Okinawa. From a young age he studied Karate, his primary teachers being Azato and Itosu - 2 of the leading lights of Okinawan Karate.

When he arrived in mainland Japan in 1921 Funakoshi quickly fell in with Jigoro Kano, the prime mover in the development of the 'do' arts. Kano was very much Funakoshi's mentor, so its no surprise that he strongly influenced the subsequent development of Funakoshi's Karate. Hence we see in modern Karate many of the trappings of Kano's Judo - both in its rituals and in its underlying purpose.

Initially Funakoshi called his art To-te-jutsu, ie. 'Chinese hand method'. But by the 1930's he was calling it Karate-do, ie. 'Empty hand way'. Both of the words 'empty' and 'way' correctly suggest that the art had changed focus to emphasise character development rather than combat effectiveness.

We can track the changes that Funakoshi made in various ways, and so gain a better understanding of Karate both before and after this pivotal period. These include: analysing the clues Funakoshi left us in his written work; comparing his written works from different periods; and comparing his style - the Shotokan - with what we know of the Okinawan styles (either historical or contemporary). That will be the focus of my next few posts on Karate history.

Why Funakoshi Changed the Kata - posted 05/03/19
Sometimes Gichin Funakoshi was circumspect about changes he'd made to Karate. And sometimes he said it plainly:

"Hoping to see karate included in the physical education taught in our public schools, I set about revising the kata so as to make them as simple as possible. Times change, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too. The karate that high school students practice today is not the same karate that was practiced even as recently as 10 years ago, and is a long way indeed from the karate that I learned when I was a child in Okinawa."

He went on:

"...karate, as a form of sport used in physical education, should be simple enough to be practiced without undue difficulty by everybody, young and old, boys and girls, men and women."

What can we glean from this? Firstly, Funakoshi differentiated here between at least 3 different phases of Karate development: 'now' (whenever that was), 10 years previously and back in Okinawa in the 1870's. He was telling us there had been significant changes over that time.

He was also confessing to making significant changes to the kata. He didn't just make the stances bigger and the kicks higher (as evident by comparison of his 1925 book with later works). He fundamentally simplified them. Part of his agenda here was to make them more dynamic, to become a physical exercise regime in their own right. Prior to that physical conditioning had been achieved primarily through hitting the makiwara and various auxiliary exercises. At the same time, I believe he chose to de-emphasise the application of the kata. This made if easier to simplify them and make them more in line with his overall goal.

And that's one reason I go back to older versions of kata in my search to understand their meaning and application.

Comparing Kata, Old and New - posted 07/03/19
A club member was dusting off Bassai Dai, a kata he learnt in Karate-do. I showed him Passai Dai, the classical version of the same kata that I practice. Its clear that there's a close relationship between the two. There are differences between the individual moves but the sequences are essentially identical. I believe his version is a direct descendant of mine.

Looking past the sequence we can see major differences. The modern version uses larger stances, it looks much more dynamic. The old version isn't 'weak' but develops power in a different way. The result is visually less impressive but in my opinion more effective, at close range at least. This older approach to power generation is simply not possible in some of the larger stances.

Many of the techniques are essentially the same in terms of what the arms are doing. In many cases though, the same applications don't work using larger stances - a small stance is often a critical component of the bunkai that makes a difference between success or failure.

There is a bigger problem though. Throughout the kata some of the old moves have been replaced by something substantially different. Presumably this was part of the simplification made be Funakoshi or someone else who followed later in the same tradition. Take the 'knife-hand' movements at the end for example. If you look at photos of the new and old versions you can see how they are related. But how you get from one position to the next is quite different. The question is, were the changes made for practical reasons or just to simplify the kata? We already know the answer from Funakoshi's own writing - it was to simplify the kata. Does it make sense then to try to come up with bunkai for the new modified moves? Or better to go back to the root?

Where did Karate's Vital Points go? - posted 22/03/19
The simple answer is that Funakoshi got rid of them. We know for a fact that Gichin Funakoshi learned the use of vital point striking as part of the Karate he learned in his youth in Okinawa. We could reference the fact that other Okinawan Karate schools, less affected the by the development of Karate-do, still use vital points today. But we don't need to. Funakoshi told us himself, in his first 2 books in the early 1920's:

"With continuing research it is not unfeasible that as in judo and kendo our karate, too, might incorporate a grading system through the adoption of protective gear and the banning of attacks to vital points."

The picture I've used here shows Funakoshi himself using a single knuckle fist to strike a vital point on the face.

Its clear that, at one point, Funakoshi was flirting with the idea of Karate as a competitive sport, much like Judo and Kendo. Ultimately he backed away from that idea and came to decry the idea of competition in Karate. Instead he encouraged the pursuit of perfection, much like Kyudo or Iaido. But for a time he considered going in the sport direction and realised that striking vital points needed to be removed for safety reasons.

Kyusho-jutsu, the skill of striking vital points was an integral part of Karate. But Funakoshi saw that it had no place in his new Karate-do. So he reduced all the richness and depth of knowledge about how to traumatise the human body into 3 simple target areas - jodan, chudan and gedan - high, middle and low.

You can do effective bunkai, ie. self-defence applying the lessons of the kata, without using vital points. But you'll always be missing something, something that used to be there, something that would enhance and enrich your Karate.

What Funakoshi did next - posted 28/03/19
We've already seen that Funakoshi made significant changes in the development of his new Karate-do. He simplified the kata, deepened the stances, raised the kicks and ditched the vital points. To recap, this is not opinion. Its fact, verifiable by comparing Funakoshi's written works from different periods and Shotokan as the art we know it developed into.

Looking further into Funakoshi's written works, those of his students (notably Shigeru Egami, who started training under Funakoshi in the late 1920's) and comparison with his contemporary Karate instructors, we can shed light on other changes that he made. Here are a few other things we definitively point to and say that he removed from the syllabus:

  • Toe-tip kicks - typically replaced with the ball of the foot as a weapon.
  • Kicks to the legs - no surprise given that he made the kicks higher, but he even removed the knee strikes to the thigh that he explicitly described in his first books.
  • Joint locks - in his early books he showed one joint-lock, an arm-bar used to effect a takedown, but we know that his contemporaries Motobu and Mabuni utilised other joint-locks too.
  • Hikite - the 'pulling hand' as a method of controlling and unbalancing was out, but retained as a method of power generation.
  • Bunkai - As he got older Funakoshi became famous for lessons with much repetition of kata but no associated applications (so much so that eventually younger students found the lessons boring and had to be coerced into attending by their seniors).

There were numerous other aspects of training that Funakoshi changed over the years but exactly what starts to become a matter of opinion and conjecture. We can however point to the above and be clear that these were modifications and omissions that he carried out.

Karate-do Comes of Age - posted 02/04/19
I've detailed various changes that Funakoshi made to his art, but I don't think this truly captures how different his Karate-do was to the old Karate-jutsu. To fully appreciate the differences we have to look beyond written sources and take into account all that we know about modern Karate, other Okinawan Karate traditions, etc. etc. Inevitably much is down to personal interpretation, there are less certainties and more opinions. The following then is just my view...

Between the 1930's and 1950's Karate-do came of age as a fully formed martial way, with kihon, kata, various partner exercises and a competitive component. It was not just a variation or development of Karate-jutsu, it was a wholly new martial art. The similarity between the two was rather more cosmetic than most people realise.

The changes were far more than just removing some techniques and adding others. The brutal realism of the old Karate was replaced by ritual. Take for example the various formal partner drills practiced in different styles. The method of stepping forwards with a lunge punch, other hand on hip I think didn't really exist before this period. This combative distance was rather more long range than it had been. Such drills were an attempt to make the existing Karate movements fit into this new range that could a) be practiced safely and b) give students something to do with the movements they were learning. It didn't matter that it was unrealistic. Many of the old skills such as muchimi (sticking) and kuzushi (unbalancing) were not relevant to this new range and therefore fell out of use.

And so generations of Karateka came and went, not realising that their art had changed purpose and changed almost beyond recognition, bearing only a passing resemblance to the old art.

Choki Motobu's Karate - posted 10/04/19
In addition to Gichin Funakoshi there were several other Okinawans teaching Karate in mainland Japan in the 1920's. One such was Choki Motobu, though his Karate was very different to Funakoshi's, as the photos show.

Motobu was passionate about combat effectiveness, being quoted as saying: "Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defence". I'm sure there must be more harmful things, but this certainly shows his strength of feeling on the subject.

Motobu was of very high social status, a descendent of an Okinawan king. There is confusion about his martial pedigree, that for example he learned by spying on Karate teachers. But in keeping with his social standing he actually studied Karate with some of the foremost teachers of his day, including Itosu and Matsumura.

Motobu seems to have had some anger issues as a youth. He certainly enjoyed a good scrap and never shied away from one. He quickly acquired a reputation for his martial prowess, reportedly never actually losing a fight. Despite his fiery nature Motobu matured into a highly skilled and knowledgeable karateka. Even older though, he did not shy away from confrontation when it crossed his path. There are numerous stories of his encounters, both in Okinawa and Japan. One well documented incident occurred in Japan, when he fought against a foreign boxing champion who was taking on 'all comers'. To the crowd's amazement Motobu defeated the boxer with one punch.

Motobu is a much misunderstood figure in the history of Karate. Some think he was a radical innovator and I'm sure he did innovate (at least in how he organised his syllabus), but I think his main contribution was in keeping alive aspects of Karate that others were busy dropping or simply ignorant of.

Funakoshi versus Motobu - posted 16/04/19
You might think that Gichin Funakoshi and Choki Motobu, both Karate teachers in a foreign land, would become firm friends. But they actually despised each other. Why was this?

Each exemplified the kind of Karate they did - Funakoshi emphasised character development (do) and Motobu emphasised combat effectiveness (jutsu). But their differences went way beyond this. They each felt they had reason to be aggrieved by the other.

Some of Funakoshi's followers painted Motobu out to be a country bumpkin, an ignorant boor who only knew 2 kata. This was easy to do due to his poor grasp of Japanese, though he was actually of higher social status than Funakoshi. He definitely knew more kata but placed emphasis on how well students understood them, not how many they could perform. Motobu epitomised everything in Karate that Funakoshi was trying to consign to history. But it went deeper. Motobu told a story in which Funakoshi visited his dojo. They 'crossed hands' in a 'friendly exchange of technique' and Funakoshi very much came off the worst.

Motobu despised what Funakoshi was doing to Karate. He described Funakoshi as able to talk a good fight but having no real skill. But Motobu's biggest issue must have been around his fight with the boxer. When the story was published by a magazine they erroneously drew a picture of Funakoshi defeating the boxer. Motobu was understandably incensed. What should have been a great marketing opportunity for him turned out to benefit Funakoshi. That it contributed to people thinking that Funakoshi was a good fighter must have been intolerable to him.

All their animosity aside, personally I think both Motobu and Funakoshi had much to offer as teachers and ambassadors for Karate, whether from a 'do' or 'jutsu' perspective.

Itosu, the Grandfather of Karate-do? - posted 18/04/19
If Gichin Funakoshi can be considered the father of Karate-do, then its probably fair to call Ankoh Itosu its grandfather. Itosu was after all one of Funakoshi's primary teachers. But more importantly Itosu was principally responsible for Karate being introduced to the Okinawan school system. Itosu had a vision that Karate could be taught nationally to school children, to produce young adults who could better make a contribution to society (and the military). In 1908 he wrote a letter to the Ministry of Education to that effect. Although an old man he still carried some of the influence he had in his younger days as a government official of the old Ryukyu kingdom. Shortly afterwards his suggestion was taken up. Karate would no longer be something taught only in semi-secrecy to sons of shizoku. It would be available to the whole population.

Itosu is usually considered to be the originator of the Pinan kata. It is also known that he collected and revised a number of other kata. Given that, plus his clear desire to promote Karate for character development amongst (all) young people, we can see parallels between Itosu's approach and that of his student, Funakoshi. It seems likely to me that the process of simplifying and reorganising Karate's training methods that Funakoshi carried out, was actually just an extension of the work begun by his teacher. In other words, the process of the 'do-ification' of Karate began with Itosu.

Perhaps it goes further. Choshin Chibana, one of Itosu's students, supposedly reported that Itosu did not have applications for all of his kata. Other reports suggest that he focussed on conditioning at the expense of the tactics of combat. So maybe even Itosu was not terribly well versed in the old Karate of the pre-Meiji era?

Finding Okinawan Karate - posted 23/04/19
You can find Okinawan Karate in many countries nowadays. But what you'll find, even in Okinawa, will almost certainly be Karate-do. Finding Karate-jutsu is much more difficult, for reasons that are quite straightforward. The efforts of Itosu and Funakoshi to re-image Karate as a 'do' art was so successful that the old Karate-jutsu was almost completely supplanted by its offspring - not just in Japan and the rest of the world, but in Okinawa too. It goes further. The Japanese version became so successful that it even influenced the subsequent development of Okinawan Karate. We see that in the rituals - uniforms, belts, grades - developed in Japan then subsequently adopted in Okinawa. Not just rituals though, it also applies to technique and training methods.

This is quite apparent when you watch the training practices of most Shorin Ryu karateka. Think I'm overstating the case? Well I've met such karateka who've never done any bunkai; karateka whose Karate resembles Japanese Shotokan in every respect except the deep stances; even karateka whose Karate actually has the deep stances of Shotokan.

It seems there are very few styles of Okinawan Karate that haven't been affected by this process of 'do-ification'. That shouldn't be surprising, when you consider that most Okinawan teachers of the 20th century went through the schools' Karate system set up by Itosu. Perhaps it goes even further back. We've already seen reason to question how well Funakoshi understood the old Karate-jutsu. I think it's reasonable to question the 'jutsu' credentials of anyone who began training after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. I mean no disrespect by saying that but simply, and with an open mind, to better understand Karate's development.