Saturday, September 4, 2010

Thoughts on Old Style Karate

As a recent discussion about how close contemporary karate instruction was to old style karate. I’ve tried to pull together a listing of those pervious practices. Trying to understand the past method of karate study can be difficult. I think it's safe to make some assumptions about the 1850-1900 time frame.

1. Karate was a public presentation at many festivals. On the other hand there were no tournaments, sporting aspects to the training.

2. If accepted for training you live in a walking distance from your instructor.

3. The instructor knew who you were in great detail as a member of your community. Your instructor may have had 40+ years into their own study when you began. The instructor was not recruiting students just living a private tradition.

4. You had a cultural obligation to follow your instructor's teachings, especially if you chose to train.

5. You were either a legacy student (through familiar connections) or were someone who passed the vetting process.

6. The training was private taught hands on, with no technical vocabulary attached. No terms for punch, block, front kick, bunkai were used.

7. You had no uniform.

8. You did not receive rank.

9. You had no specified syllabus of study, what you learnt, what standards were associated with the study was entirely at the hands of the instructor.

10. You study had no style name, no school name, it's tradition was passed only in oral history.

11. Your training may have moved to other instructors. Most of the instructors out of this era had multiple instructors. Due to your attachment to your instructor, they may have been the initiator of additional training.

12. The Makiwara and Kata were the primary components of training. Other components to training were not documented.

13. There is a very strong chance that the Bubishi was not available to Okinawan seniors at this time and may have entered Okinawa post 1900. If that is the case it may have had no influence on the movement of te towards karate.

14. There is no documentation how anyone truly trained. Length of instruction or depth of instruction. The best indication is the art of the students of that era who became instructors.

15. One of the differences between large group instruction and small group/individual instruction the instructor can more directly interact with the student.

16. Then there is the Time. Japan took control of Okinawa in 1871. The King was banished to Japan. The institutions such as the schools came fully into Japanese Control. The government stipends to the noble class abruptly ended, many of whom were reduced to poverty and a drop to the bottom of the social structure having to scramble to find work.

Older customs were ended by the Japanese government, this included wearing the traditional topknot.
This even extended to some of the kata movements designed to grab that topknot, why practice something that no longer existed. All of this would work to make the training more private.

One example of this came from Hohen Soken describing how the opening of Kusanku kata would be used to pull blades (in the topknot comb) from the hair to use with Kusanku technique.

17. Many of the Okinawan people began leaving, there was a shortage of land, there weren't many jobs to support them. This helped the movement of karate outside of Okinawa to the Okinawan communities forming in many lands.

We have direct comments on training in the 1850-1900 time frame. Funakoshi Ginchin "Karate-do My Way of Life" describes his earliest training with Itosu Anko on the Naifanchi kata years before Itosu Sensei created the Pinan kata. Eric Estrada's interview with Hohen Soken also describes his training in that time.

Additionally, interviews with and writings by Kyan, Motobu and Miyagi likely bridge back to those earlier days of training. Here are some links you may find helpful.

Interview with Chotoku Kyan - with Comments by Dan Smith
Karate-do Gariyaku – Chojun Myagi
Sayings of Choki Motobu - translated by Joe Swift
Interview with Hohen Soken

As you can see, it is impossible to duplicate those conditions today. Some can be replicated many cannot. But there is an underlying principle that karate moves with the times. It did then and does so today.


Victor Smith said...

This article was written as to how I understood Okinawa prior practices in 2010.

As time progresses and we learn more, our understanding changes. For example I do not think No. 6 is accurate today, and the vocabulary that was used was not the same as developed in Japan.

This exercise is to assist you to understand the roots of Okinawa. Not for a history test.

Victor Smith said...

While this was written in 2010 and I understand karate events somewhat differently today. I believe is is essentially accurate. As time passes, more information becomes available, But this was written to help my students reflect on what was karate long ago.

1.For one thing, prior to Itosu proposing the practice of karate for school youth, Karate would not have been considered something to be discussed with anyone outside of the ‘class’ that studied karate. They, such and you and I were not worthy, we were not the right class, the Bushi of Okinawa. What they actually did is speculation. There is almost no documentation that explains their practices.

2. You have to be careful comparing different time periods as having implications for earlier time periods. For example karate-ka taking trips in the 1930’s would not be the same as 1890. Where the travels were for very different reasons, such as avoiding conscription into the Japanese military, or those happening as Okinawa experienced migrations for survival of families to new lands. As things changed those changes do not necessarily reflect prior conditions.

3. While Okinawa was within the Japanese sphere of influence since the 1500’s at least, it was about 1870 that influence became more fixed.Many Bushi lost their incomes and were reduced to poverty. Okinawa’s king was removed from the island, and while he retained guards, there was no longer need of the Bushi class. Karate might have assumed a different role at that time, to preserve a Bushi tradition.

5. As Era’s pass, things change. At some point of time there was a train on the island, making travel easier. I may have facilitated some training. But I think it safe to say more was local in earlier years.

6. So far as I know it falls into speclation what ‘names’ were used in that most private training. When karate was introduced to the Japanese martial establishment (the focus of those books written in the 20s and 30s, not the general public, terminology was developed from Japanese, terminology that had different meanings to the general public. The term ‘bunkai’ to the public meant something like you would have the mechanic bunkai the car, or take it apart to fix it. It assumed a different context when used in karate discussions. Obviously karate was practiced with application studies. It just is an assumption what the term was prior to Mabuni’s use of bunkai in 1932.

7. What those prior practices were in a life time of training is speculation. Perhaps taking training as we see it and retro-fitting it on to the past. That might be true or it equally may not describe things then. As it was after a class thing, what time they devoted to training, was their own thing. There is no documentation to explain their practices in any case. One can speculate. We know many did less kata than today. Karate maintenance might have been different then too, once the skills were acquired. (which suggests a study on the difference of karate maintenance versus karate skill acquisition, as different from karate mastery which most did not seem to do.

8. It is difficult to mix different training regimes and times. The Naha karate with Hiagonna brought back that later became Goju was what an import around 1880, where Uechi was an import to Okinawa about 1948. (Certainly not to disparage those systems) Just that they might not describe what was Okinawan practices of earlier era’s.

The lack of documentation makes all of this disparaging at times, oral histories represent most of what we have to go on.