Saturday, August 11, 2018

Rambling thoughts on the development of what became Karate

For a very long time I have been listening to those that berate karate as having become kids karate, for example the adoption of the pinan and other beginner kata, as their excuse to what is wrong with karate. I have never accepted their premises as accurate.



I have just started thinking of that problem from a different direction.


I believe everyone has been misreading the change.


Whatever name you want to put to the earlier martial practices of the Okinawan bushi which karate was integrated into their lives and roles. This changed when Japan gave the king a boot and afew years later eliminated their government stipends that many of them were living on. Life styles were shattered, purposes for existence disappeared.


The driving force behind the martial training of the bushi was swept aside. They were just discarded as a class, no longer having a purpose in the Japanese society that Okinawa became.


There was no idea of training children in their art(s). Nor any idea of sharing their art(s) with others. In fact many of the bushi families were now facing poverty.


The seniors who had the responsibility to train the young in their martial traditions, somehow made a decision to support their class, the bushi, and use karate training as a means to bind the young into their class. Continuing a tradition.


Of course not the same but something new, training as a binding force. This was not open to the general public, and of course it meant some differences as their life role no longer called on that training. But the persevered.


Then Itosu, who had instructed so many of them had a different idea, one to attempt to strengthen Okinawa in the eyes of Japan. Offering a version of their art to youth in school, for many reasons. Chief among them was preserving a bit of the idea of what would become karate, with the people for the betterment of society.


Many instructors followed suit, and shared with school children. Some began the export of karate to Japan. The modified version.


But another revolution was happening no one really talks about. Karate was being shared with the other Okinawan people. Not to be integral in their life role as the ‘bushi’ had, but as a training to supplement their lives. And I imagine for the most part those instructors ran those classes as they taught before there was karate. No doubt some of those school children grew up and joined those clubs, making them beginning on using the pinan kata (in which they were trained) a logical development.


But Okinawa is a small place. Older children inherited everything, they became the family head, owned  the property. For many reasons, including population pressure, they began to move out into the world (Japan, Singapore, Hawaii, and South America). Some of those people were also trained and they continued what was becoming karate (whatever the name) in those locations.



Things began changing. Where martial training for the bushi was integrated into their life role, these new students while training had new options. Some moved around to other instructors for many reasons. Some trained for a while then moved on for life reasons.


Karate did not lose value or lose its substance, at the same time it became a life choice.


Then WWII interfered, There was no time for structured karate. Many Okinawan lost their lives including many seniors who might have had a say on how karate developed in the future.


After the war,  devastation and economic depression. Training began again, some instructors found in the depression that was Okinawan life, they could make a living teaching karate to the American stationed on Okinawa.


Things kept changing. We literally have no records of what the Okinawan student turnover or retention rate was. But it certainly existed, regardless of the value of the training.


In the late 1960’s the Americans announced that they would turn over control of Okinawa to the Japanese government in 1972.


Seeing the writing on the wall, finding it better to appear to Japan they were with the picture, many Japanese practices were introduced on Okinawa (more formal systems. Rank, standardized uniforms, as well as other customs that were associated with the Japanese brand that was karate.)


Then 1972 happened. I have read many karate schools lost many students, because they now had employment from Japanese companies, and discovered that the Japanese working standards did not leave time for karate.


And the beat went on, change after change.


As I look back on it opening karate to more people might have been the most profound change, the rest ripples that of course still ripple.



And the big and, karate has not been here even 100 years. How it will survive and adapt is still a question. For one thing this is not Okinawa. We are not Bushi. What will survive the future is still to be written. Perhaps we can gain something from a clearer look at the past?

Friday, August 10, 2018

A memory of a simple Sherman Harrill Takedown

Small note: the following link does add some knowledge to what Sherman did.

Some speculation on martial training on Okinawa in the past

When we look backwards before what we know of as karate, things get very murky. There is just not a lot of documentation around.


You can find the names of several kata.

You can find the names of instructors.

There are a few examples of individuals describing training from that earlier time.


Which does not amount to a great deal.


Then I remember reading Joe Swift translation.

And  that work makes claims about those days. Within the book further details are revealed.
“For example, the Shuri bushi, who worked under the scribes, and treasurers, and justice officers, also worked as castle guards, tax collectors, finance officers, or agricultural and forestry officers and studied a martial art which was characterized by the horse riding stance, and light, fast techniques. This area was called Shuri-di.

The Tomari bushi, who worked in domestic law enforcement. Public welfare, construction as well as guarding the Chinese Sappushi, Satusuma envoys and Satusuma Admistrative office in Ryukyu, studied an art that stressed the ability to stand on the boats that traveled the two rivers (Asato River and Kumochi River) that spanned between Shuri Castle, Naha Port and Tomari Port. This art was called Tomari-di.”

… The guards on the ships traveling to China….”These guards were the Naha bushi and in order to deliver an effective technique on a rocking boat, their training stressed such methods as Sanchin stance and heavy movements. Their art was known as Naha-di.”
…….“Expecially Naha-di was influenced by the Chinese Arts, and more specifically
Fuijan boxing styles, and was just called Toudi (Chinese Hand).”

At another point in the book it defined these martial arts groups thus:

“ The martial artists (bushi) of the Ryukyu can be divided into five distinct groups.

First of all, the Shuri bushi, who were in charge of protecting Shuri Castle.
Next, the Tomari bushi, who were in charge of domestic law enforcement.
Third ,the Naha bushi, who were in chages of protecting the Chineese envoys (Suppushi) as well as the tribute ships sent from Ryukyu to China.
Next were the Udun bushi, who were involved in the politics of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Finally, the bushi of Naha’s Kume Village, who were in the service of Chinese imibrants.”
Of course the art(s) they practiced were different from what became karate.
One minor example there were no pynan kata as they had not yet been invented.
To make things clear none of us would have been allowed to receive that training.
They were members (bushi) whose place in Okinawan society was pre-defined in any case.
And having some small understanding of Okinawan society, I bet that responsibility fell on the first son to grow into the family bushi role and in time become the family head too.
So designated to receive the training and that would only be one aspect of how he would be trained. For he was being prepared for a role he would live. Duties to be trained, and martial training would just be one of those roles. In all likelihood not the most important function.
The instructor being one of the bushi himself  would recognize that and most likely reinforce that martial training was just part of the bushi’s responsibility, and he had to live up to all those rolls.
I would surmise the martial training, had a definite goal, one so the one being trained could fulfill his assigned duties. And when the individual was trained he would be prepared to perform the martial aspects of his duties.
Then there may have been a martial continual training program, to allow the bushi adept to retain the abilities they would use. I can also imagine fathers working out with sons for that very reason.
If the individual survived and family duties would permit, perhaps they would one day become an instructor.
Having such a defined societal role as those bushi is not one easily imagined these days. That was a very different world.
And exactly what those traditions were in actuality and how much or little they resembled what karate would become, is open for speculation.

Monday, August 6, 2018

I grow old

I’ve been the beginner learning my right foot from my left.
I’ve been the student learning the tools of my craft.
I’ve been the practitioner increasing the scope of my skills.
I’ve been the adept taking responsibility for the breadth of my art.

 I’ve been the instructor....
I guide the beginner.
I focus the student.
I encourage the practitioner.
I explore with the adept.
I draw out the instructor.
My vision is without bounds.
My abilities are less.
History but one tool in my arsenal.

 My studies have been vast, but my grasp of the circle is small.
I’ve found friendship and betrayal, joy and sorrow and loneliness.
And the utter certainty that I cannot pass my entire vision along.
None can walk my way, and their efforts are driven by their own needs.
Especially as I cannot take their freedom but can point the way.

 I remain the beginner as my body must be faced anew each day.
I remain the student learning the tools of my craft.
I remain the practitioner seeking to increase the scope of my skills .
I remain the adept trying to hold the sea in my arms.
I am the instructor.
I am senior.

 Perhaps I’ll be like Prufrock.
“I grow Old, I grow Old,
Shall I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled?”


When I studied Isshinryu breaking objects was not part of those studies. The senior instructors did have a strong breaking demonstration they presented on occasion. I also remember them practicing for those demonstrations, one of which I was also asked to help, but not for breaking.


In those days at some of the tournaments we attended there were breaking divisions. I noted that often those working for the largest breaks were often unsuccessful. I realized their breaks most likely worked in practice in their own schools. But when in less tranquile locations, such as the stress at a karate tournament, they were often less successful there.


When I had to move for work, the only art in Scranton, at that time, was Tang Soo Do Duk Kwan. Ihe head instructor was big on breaking. I have seen him drive nails into boards and then place his obi over the nail and pull it out with his teeth. He also would break the tops off full bottles of whiskey with his knife hand chops.


 I joined the program, and they had testing days about every 3 months. A component of the testing were board breaks. I had never done them and then I was in a testing and had to punch through one board. I did no.


The boards they used were not terribly difficult to break, I never trained for those breaks, just did whatever I was told.


Then the instructor decided to hold a bit east coast TSD tournament. And of course we were to compete in all divisions, Form, Fighting and Breaking for the Green Belts.


Then everyone began practicing breaking movements. Most were using flying side kicks for their breaks. I was not much of a flyer so I was told to do a double break. A front kick through 2 boards and a back side kick to immediately follow breaking 3 boards. Just prior to the tournament we were given our boards, in my case 5 of them.


At the tournament all of the other green belts tried flying side kick breaks, ones they had successfully used in preparation at the school. And as I already observed there is a lot of difference between doing that and performing before a huge crowd.


As it turns out all of them missed their break.


Then came my turn, One student held my two boards before me, another 2 students held my 3 boards behind me. I threw my front kick, the boards shattered, immediately I looked back over my shoulder and threw my back side kick. My heel went though those 3 boards. My breaks worked.


As it turned out I took first place that day.




Of course that day came and went, and in time was of no import whatsoever. Just a point in time.


At the evening show there was a black belt team who knocked of oranged being held above their heads on knives. Their group kicks splitting the oranges.


Before long I became a red belt at the school (their equivalent to a brown belt).


One night I was called up before  the class.


The instructor handed me a cindercap with a towel wrapped around it.


He then told the class I would break it with my head.


He explained how to hold the cindercap so the towel was over the center, Then how to prepare myself, and the way to make the impact with my forehead occur.


I remember holding that cindercap thinking ‘I am going to do this?’


I inhaled, preparing myself.


Then I put my forehead through the cindercap.


The cindercap broke, not my head.


Applause from the peanut gallery.


The truth was the next day I had a huge headache. My own price for listening to an instructor.


I then made a vow that I would not let anyone  else ever tell me to do something as foolish.

I kept that vow to myself.



Sidebar about the time I was promoted in TSD to Red Belt, Charles Murray moved to Scranton. I completed my contract to train another year in TDS (eventually becoming a 1st red there) but simultaneously resumed my Isshinryu training with Charles,


I gained much from the hard physical workout in TSD.That training also increased my kicking ability.


But there were differences in how I was being trained.


And Isshinryu always meant more to me, of course I started it first.


Breaking, been there, done that, then I moved on to more important things for me.



Saturday, August 4, 2018

Too soon alone

Back when I first made sho-dan and too soon was on my own there were no resources to rely on to direct my training. And to be honest I was probably the least of Lewis Sensei’s many black belts. My own observation, for I was far from the strongest.


Charles Murray had literally stuffed the Isshinryu system into me. The vision I retained of my instructors and my seniors, each of which were so powerful role models for me, that memory was the only reference I had.


I had the burden of 3 ½ years of study and nothing else to guide me. I felt the burden very strongly that I could not forget anything. And being human at times I did forget. I remember one day I started Shi Shi Bo and skipped into Urashie Bo. It took me a week to realize what the correct for was.  There was nothing like reference material.


Eventually I started making detailed notes of everything.


I used competition as a tool to help me remember my forms. That and competing against some of the best people in the country didn’t hurt either. Time passed and my karate grew stronger.


I trained with others and learned what they showed, but never at the depth of being their formal student. And none of them cared a bit what my Isshinryu was.


Time passed and from some books, magazines and some videos I came to see some of what others were doing. But at that time I really knew the difference of being trained by someone, the depth of that training. I noted their differences, was fine with their vision, and paid no further attention, I did have my own vision, that which my instructors shared.


Then after 25 years I met Sherman Harrill, he was fine that I followed the Issinryu of my instructors. What he did share was his vision of what Isshinryu application could be, a whole lot of sharing.


Certainly not the same as the American founders of Isshinryu experienced, but still a similarity in my experience did exist.


Sherman said it best “It is not what we have that is different that is important, rather it is what we share in common that is far more important.”


I have tried to live up to that vision of Isshinryu, that and the Isshinryu my instructors taught me.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Let’s Go To The Videotape


My Isshinryu was forged on the floor of Tom Lewis’ dojo, in intense training.

My Isshinryu was forged on the dojo floor with Charles Murray in intense training.

At no time was I handed a book or a movie and told to learn Isshinryu there.


(ok, there was one exception to that the time Charles Murray had borrowed Mr. Lewis’s Shimabuku movie and he had me teach myself Chia Fa from that movie.)

And that was truly hard work.


But with that exception my Isshinryu was what they shared with me.


That time I did see that Shimabuku movie, I noted there were differences from his kata performance to what I had been shown. But I always followed what my instructors taught.


While there were movies I had access to none of them.


Later video tape started to become available. Charlie even sent me one of him doing kata, a bit different from what I was shown.


But that was not what I was taught, and continued to keep to the way I was trained.


Then video tapes of kata became the thing. And I was curious and bought many, Not to study from just to see. I never shared them with students.


When I restarted my program in Derry, the local Boys’s and Girls club bought me a video camera to use. I did film my student’s efforts. But more for my reference than sharige video with them to study.


I had made video record mostly of my own training in system not Isshinryu.

I had made video records of my students progress.


Then the Big Event, for a decade I was privileged to study a bit with Sherman Harrill. He permitted me to film his clinics to retain the vast study of Isshinryu applications he studied on his own, and was sharing at his clinics. Furthermore I gained further understanding from his student John Kerker, who was very unique in his own right.


Hours of video tapes, and for the most part far beyond my ability to watch much of them.

For one thing watching hour after hour of their showing applications is far above human concentration for the most part. I only find I can view them in extremely small doses. Abet very useful extreme doses.


What I experienced was way more material than I could usefully use. But what a treasure trove to dive into from time to time.


What I did learn from watching those movies, VHS tapes, DVD, and eventual YouTube videos, was it was most important to realize how you were viewing what you watched.


When I realized what I was watching when I viewed kata video tapes was not just was I seeing what other systems were doing. I was seeing one slice of a kata study. I was not seeing the layers of a student moving towards that performance nor was I seeing where that performance would lead the study of that karate-ka years down the line.


To me kata was a tool, shaping the beginners capabilities, then a tool to hone those developed capabilities. For example around a decade into that study the body relaxes while performing that kata (no matter at what point the kata is studied – 10 year). And as the body relaxes it’s center lowers, which as the body lowers into the performance, the body increases the power it releases with that form. Of course the time can vary for an individual, but on the whole one begins to move toward maximum power about the 10 years point of study.


And that is not the end, as one becomes more used to moving relaxed, one begins to tap into what the whole study is about.


No doubt many of the kata performances on video are fine in and of themself. But they often to not snow where that performance is ultimately leading towards.


Through your own effort you can find solid (great) performance of an instructor made decades ago, and then later performances of that same instructor doing the same forms decades later, You can see the difference, time moves many things. Things not hinted at on a single videotape.


I have been trained by 8 individuals each of which is a powerful technician. Undoubtedly there are many extremely skilled individuals. Perhaps not equally skilled, but more than one person can count.


If I have learned anything there is no absolute limit to what human capability is.


The only purpose to training for me is to build students whose ability exceeds all others ability. And to build instructors who continue to let the same paradigm guide them. It matters not whether you succeed or not, but that you make the effort continually to do so.


In such light videotape of the best performance is but a step to train students to move through and then to work to exceed.


At the same time it is possible to learn a form at one showing in a clinic or from repeated viewing of a video tape. Providing you understand what you have is just what you have perceived the form is. Even 20 years or more work on that form can’t change that reality. It may be sufficient for you, but because there are those things you did not perceive, the result will be different too. You decide how important that is to you. Just as long as you understand what that effort represents.


You determine the value of a videotape. Now that YouTube has made them so instantly available, it takes little effort on you part to view them. What use you put that viewing is also up to you.