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?

1 comment:

Victor Smith said...

Treading cautiously I find I need to look further into the prior arts taught to the Okinawan Bushi. Be their name Ti or something else is nothing I can clearly answer. Nor can we clearly answer what that training consisted of. Certainsnly elements of which made their way into karate. But likely other training was involved, depending on which role those bushi were to hold.

I believe the most important thing to keep in mind was that the instructor was a bushi of that group himself. He knew what their role was to be because he had done it himself.

The training program was not intended to turn out instant self defense experts. Rather to work toward building knowledge, technique and power in the student to be able to fufill their role in the society.

And most likely there was continuing training required, perhaps when preparation for a new role was involved.

That there were group ideal standards was something each instructor would have been aware of and teaching towards.

This is a very different standard that most modern dojo hold themselves to. Not so much the same martial elements would be addressed, but the expectations given to new students that what they are learning will work towards ready self defense, especially when the time to build power and executable technique is not part of what the student is lead to expect.

Very different role definitions about what the modern dojo and instructor would become.