WHAT IS KARATE?
If you’re impatient, here’s the summary – karate is a martial art born on the tiny island kingdom of Okinawa of Chinese ancestry, absorbed into the culture of Japan in the middle of the twentieth century and conveyed to the rest of the world shortly thereafter at the end of the Second World War. But there’s a lot more.
Because of our desire to understand life, we often try to box it all up in easy-to-digest packets that we can set on our brain shelves and feel comfortable about. Religions are like that, trying to wrap enlightenment in ribbon and convince the world it’s true. But it can’t be done. We can’t explain supernatural with natural concepts, it’s impossible. The Tao that can be named isn’t the true Tao. If you can describe God, it isn’t God.
Karate feels like religion in that way. We want a definition, but there is none that can contain all the protruding corners of the art, no matter how many exotic names we invent. It defies containment. The moment we hold down one corner, another pops up. First it’s this kind of martial art, then that one, then it’s a way to enlightenment, then physical fitness, history, Olympic aspiration, you name it. It can’t be confined. It’s human experience. It’s life. Try to come up with one word that describes your entire life.
So where to start? To begin, we know karate’s roots lie in China. Various fighting arts had developed there for thousands of years, and since Okinawa took much of its culture from China, the fighting arts came along. But karate isn’t Chinese, It’s Okinawan, born of the need for survival on a tiny island subjugated by an overwhelming power. Karate grew among the upper classes of that island, in secrecy under fear of persecution, and came to be known by the rest of the world only after the subjugation ended and fear of retribution faded.
1600 to 1900
On the Japanese mainland, north of Okinawa, around 1600, a powerful, visionary warlord named Tokugawa Ieyasu, arguably the greatest leader in Japanese history, vanquished the opposition and united Japan. He ordained himself Shogun, military leader, all powerful and his successors ruled Japan for almost 300 years.
The story of karate more or less parallels that time period, a period referred to as the Tokugawa Shogunate. Why? Because, nine years after Tokugawa unified Japan, he allowed the losing side, the Satsuma, under the once opposition warlord, Shimazu, to “conquer” Okinawa. By doing so, Tokugawa directed Shimazu’s rancor to the south, away from his own capital at Edo in central Japan.
Many believe the Satsuma conquest cultivated the birth of what we call karate, because it initiated a 300 year subjugation of the island and forced the practice of martial arts into secrecy. The secrecy, itself, may have nurtured the art. It also created a need for a self-defense method that didn’t involve standard bladed weapons, since such weapons were outlawed.
Beginnings are difficult to pinpoint in almost any historical context, and everyone who tells the story has an opinion. Few historical movements ever claim an exact start and finish date, but 1609 and the Satsuma conquest of Okinawa is still useful for understanding the history of karate, keeping in mind that karate’s origins took root in China centuries before.
The Japanese set sail from the southern island of Kyushu with 3000 soldiers on 100 ships. The Okinawans had no standing army and maybe a few hundred very brave men to defend the homeland. Despite brief, fierce fighting, the Satsuma took over in weeks, captured the King, occupied Okinawa, and outlawed military weapons and the practice of martial arts for everyone except a few nobles and palace guards. Because of all that, a secret self-defense system blossomed.
But history is never swept under the rug and forgotten, especially in Japan, where families maintain detailed diaries of their obligations dating back hundreds of years. Imagine having an obligation to fulfill that was incurred by one of your ancestors during the Revolutionary war. That’s Japan.
In 1868, Japan again saw civil war. In that war, The Boshin War, the Tokugawa themselves were overthrown by a combination of Satsuma heirs, finally acting out their 268 year grudge, and wannabe businessmen looking to “open up” Japan to the wealth and enlightenment of the western world (a time dramatized by the films “The Last Samurai” for adventure and “Twilight Samurai” for reality). When it all settled down, Japan entered the modern era around 1900. In modern society, karate lost its martial importance and came to be the physical exercise, philosophical pursuit and tournament game we have come to recognize today.
After the Boshin War, the Emperor Meiji was restored to power in the so-called “Meiji Restoration”. The Emperor Meiji was a young, weak figurehead leader who became a noble excuse to wrest political power from Tokugawa. After that, Japan made Okinawa an official part of the country, a protectorate at first and later a province, and the old Okinawan Kingdom officially disappeared into the foggy ruins of time.
The Okinawans eventually became Japanese citizens, the world modernized and karate gradually lost its martial raison d’etre. Teachers began to teach it not for its ability to protect, but for its discipline, physical fitness, character development and/or simply to preserve ancient culture, like a living museum. Like the Japanese arts of judo, aikido and iaido, instead of a martial art practiced for survival, it became a path to physical discipline and spiritual enlightenment.
Gradually the practice of karate became more widespread and less secret. Once the Japanese stopped punishing them, the Okinawans opened their secret dojos. Around the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, when the world became gentler for awhile, teachers began to display their art to a larger audience. Itosu Ankoh, a one-time bodyguard to the Okinawan King, even began teaching it in middle school. Itosu, seeing it as a way to build citizens and pass on one of his country’s few real treasures, adapted the art into something like a physical education class.
In 1921, the young Japanese Prince Hirohito, later to become Emperor, visited Okinawa and witnessed a demonstration. He was intrigued, just as you and I were the first time we saw karate. He asked the Okinawans to send someone to Japan to teach and the secret box was opened. Karate was on its way to becoming the international sport we know today. The Emperor, like the rest of us, saw an authentic martial art that we both could experience first hand, a direct connection to an ancient world of Gods and warriors.
The evolution of karate as an actual fighting method, for all intents and purposes, ceased at the end of the 19th century, kept alive by a few dedicated teachers who tried to preserve the “old” ways. But even that didn’t last long. A couple of generations later their followers prac
tice it mostly as an interesting pastime.
From 1600 to 1900, however, there was a martial reason for the practice of the art – to avoid death and defend against the Japanese, an idea that still bounces around the Okinawan psyche. During those 300 years and the 1500 leading up to them, the practice of a martial art was taken seriously and people lived and died by their dedication to it. The techniques that we so lightly play with in class today were once passed on in deadly seriousness.
This article was assembled from personal experience, research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum), Earnest Estrada, Scot Mertz, Andreas Quast, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).
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