Robert Hunt

This blog takes a stab at the history, the characters, little known facts and general development of the Okinawan and related martial arts over the past 1,500 years with the intent of better understanding what it is we are really doing.

Sensei Robert Hunt’s Website:

  • What is Karate?

    March 13, 2017

    kobudo stamp 2WHAT IS KARATE?


    Robert Hunt


    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.4 girls doing kata

    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.


    Civil War

                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.


    Meiji Restoration

                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.


    Modern Karate

                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.


    signature .






    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).

    These articles are included in a free monthly newsletter email of the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center. If you would like to receive the newsletter, send your email address to

    Contact Robert Hunt directly at
    Facebook:  The Art and the Way
    Scottsdale Martial Arts Center:

  • Black Belt

    October 3, 2016

    kobudo stamp 2Black Belt

    Robert Hunt




    Ohtsuka and Funakoshi

    “Black Belt isn’t an award for which you can test.  It’s the person you have become.”
    In 1924, in his very humble upstairs room, Funakoshi Gichin invited his seven senior students to a gathering. They had been studying with him for about two years. Funakoshi had dug up some black ribbon and cut it into seven pieces, each long enough to fit around a person’s waist. Funakoshi presented those ribbons, along with a hand written certificate, to his seven students, Ohtsuka, Gima, Tokuda, Katsuya, Akiba, Shimazu, and Hirose, as an expression of his gratitude for their commitment to his art.
    Thus began the tradition of belt rank in karate.
    Of all the misunderstood aspects of karate, there is possibly nothing more misunderstood than this perceived pinnacle of the art, the nadir of the struggle – the black belt.  And what the black belt has come to represent is literally the story of modern karate. There had never been rank associated with karate during its 400-year gestation in Okinawa. It was a way of survival, not a political event. It would be like Wild Bill Hickok testing for a rank in gun fighting. Many Okinawans ridiculed the idea in the beginning, but, after the Second World War, most came to accept it, although the standards and time spent to achieve each level often vary so much as to be meaningless. The black belt took on a brand new meaning when the ancient martial art met up with western media. The idea of a “black belt”, a person who achieved the apex of martial prowess, caught on in the west like fire in a Eucalyptus forest and a culture blossomed around it. Movie writers quickly picked up on the symbolism and the financial potential. Karate school owners saw the marketing prospects. Black Belt Magazine opened publication.
    Soon the idea reached the ludicrous. One karate school created a membership card for its students who received their black belt rank. Alongside a photo of the recipient was placed a photo of their open hands, palms forward. The claim was that these black belts were so deadly their hands had to be registered.
    So what is a black belt, if not the ultimate warrior? Anyone who wears one, unless they are deranged, will quickly admit they are not the ultimate warrior (except me, of course, I really am). At its heart, the black belt is a bond between a teacher and a student.  Teachers have set a target based on their own or someone else’s standards and the student has achieved it. Anything else is what we bring to it.
    But, in its essence, the black belt is not an award that can be bequeathed. It is a symbol of what we have become, the person into which we have molded ourselves. The idea that a person could cram for a black belt test, honing fundamentals and two person drills and reviewing kata for the testing floor is ridiculous. That should be what we have been doing the entire time we have been studying – building strength and endurance, balance, movement and kata, power, speed and reflexes through endless practice. We can’t cram for it like an Algebra test. We can’t try out the test to see if we can pass and test again next year if we don’t. We are either there or not. The test is redundant. The black belt person has already been born out of the discipline of years of practice.
    Not until modern times did it appear and almost immediately get caught up in human illusion and mythology. Funakoshi and the Okinawan teachers who followed him from Okinawa to Japan in the 1920’s wanted karate to be accepted by mainstream Japan, which meant acceptance by a semi-governmental organization of the times called the Dai Nippon Butokukai which oversaw the development of the modern martial arts such as kendo and judo.
    Kano Jigoro created modern Judo out of Jujutsu in the 1890’s and became a leading martial artist of the burgeoning 20th century do arts. Kano developed a grading system based on color belts, to

    1930's Teachers

    1930’s Teachers

    introduce judo to schools and accommodate the idea of school grades. The ranks were six basic (kyu) levels, 3 white and 3 brown, and 10 advanced (dan) levels of black. Funakoshi mimicked the idea. Karate flourished in Japan and dozens of styles eventually developed.  The Butokukai began to take notice and in 1938 called for the styles to present their syllabi and ranking systems for acceptance as Japanese martial arts.  Over a hundred applied. Ultimately seven were accepted – Wado-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, Kushin-Ryu, Japanese Kenpo, Shotokan, Shindo Jinen Ryu and Goju Ryu.



    With that move, karate was brought under one organization and standardized into 10 kyu (color belt) levels and 10 dan (black belt) levels. It has remained more or less the same ever since, with the world accepting Japan’s lead, except for the occasional deviate who seeks more than a humble 10th degree and proclaims himself 12th, or 15th or even 20th.
    Funakoshi, by the way, never received more than 5th degree and many of his students, Shotokan funakoshi_gichin2ikon, Oshima Tsutomu, for one, would therefore never claim higher. The Butokukai was dissolved after the war. In time, the various organizations began to award rank themselves, a practice which continues today. The question of authority always arises. Who awarded what to whom? Some who had been around longest simply claimed whatever rank to which they felt entitled. Everyone mostly looked the other way – you accept me and I’ll accept you.
    The general structure has endured ever since and, even though much of the karate world no longer has ties to Japan, most modern schools based on Okinawan/Japanese karate use the idea of ten degrees of colored belts and ten degrees of black.
    If we work towards a goal, a rank, and finally become it, no matter what happens, we will always have the abilities we honed along the way. If we accept a political position, just for the sake of recognition, we will never gain the knowledge, but instead always remain just another politician. The karate journey, however, and the quest for the black belt has changed lives, thousands of them. Karate holds within it the seeds of greatness, of not giving up, of striving for perfection – at one time, perfection of technique for survival, but also perfection of our internal spirit.

    Therein lies the meaning – shodan is the first milestone on an endless journey toward the perfection of the human spirit.

    signature .






    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).

    These articles are included in a free monthly newsletter email of the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center. If you would like to receive the newsletter, send your email address to

    Contact Robert Hunt directly at
    Facebook:  The Art and the Way
    Scottsdale Martial Arts Center:


  • The Last Samurai Revisited

    August 31, 2016

    The Last Samurai Revisitedkobudo stamp 2    


    Robert Hunt


    We watched The Last Samurai the other day…again. Food for the soul for a modern martial artist.
    It’s mostly fiction, or Hollywood fictionalized history, but no less fun to watch, with nicely delineated good guys and bad guys, romance, action, and, finally, a movie about the martial arts that speaks to our cumulative hearts. Thank you Edward Zwick.
    There was a real last samurai, very similar to the one depicted.
    His name was Takamori Saigo, and the person on whom Algren’s character was based was a Frenchman named Jules Brenet. They didn’t fight together, they were not even on the same side, but they both existed at about the same time in history.Saigo 1 - Copy
    There are pivotal junctures in human experience when life takes a new direction in a short period of time, like the American revolution, for example. When things that have been in place for centuries change in a decade, history bends like bamboo in the wind.
    Such was Japan in the 1870’s suspended between the old and new world. It finally evolved into a clash between the Shogun and the Emperor.
    In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu had taken control of Japan at the battle of Sekigahara by defeating a group of clans, among which was the Satsuma clan from Kagoshima in the south. Tokugawa and his progeny ruled Japan for 260 years and forced it into isolation.  Foreigners caught there were executed and their death was not pretty.

    In 1854 Admiral Perry landed with a fleet of warships and warned that, if Japan didn’t open its borders, he would force them to and that he would be back in a year. Imperial Japan (the Emperor et al) was impressed with western military power and knew they had to somehow enter the modern world. They resolved to take over the country from the ruling Shogun, Tokugawa’s descendent, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.

    Tokugawa Yoshinobu - CopyThe situation was resolved with the Boshin war where Tokugawa was deposed and control was placed in the hands of the young, weak Emperor Meiji, not much more than a pawn.  The act was referred to as the “Meiji Restoration” to give it a noble feel, but it was the standard story of one side wrenching power from the other.
    Takamori fought for the Emperor, the Imperial Army, in that war and helped defeat the Shogun, but not so much to see Japan modernize as to regain power.  You see Takamori was Satsuma and his clan had been part of the losing side at Sekigahara, 260 years before. No one forgets anything in Japan.
    Takamori Saigo was happy to see the Shogun beaten and the Emperor in power, but not so happy to see all the modernization. For one thing, modernization meant doing away with the samurai class, their cushy stipends, and their position at the top of the Japanese hierarchy. They would no longer have the authority to chop off a commoner’s head if he didn’t bow low enough.

    Emperor Meiji - CopySo, ultimately, Takamori turned against the Imperial Army and, by extension, the Emperor Meiji in a series of battles referred to as the “The Samurai Rebellion”.
    The war lasted from January to September of 1876 and, contrary to the noble samurai in the Hollywood movie, Takamori did use guns. (He was noble, but he wasn’t stupid). There was even a final battle where Takamori and his warriors charged an overwhelming force of the Japanese army using only swords. But the reason wasn’t budo purity, it was lack of ammunition – they had run out of bullets.  In the final days, before that battle, they had taken to melting down metal statues and trinkets for bullets, smuggled to them by sympathetic civilians.

    But the elements were all there for a good film; a military hero ostensibly loyal to a weak, easily manipulated Emperor; capitalists who wanted to westernize the country and improve its army to defend it against other powers; modernizers who thought 260 years of isolation was about enough; but, alas, no Tom Cruise.
    The Japanese army was modernized in the Boshin war by French and German military advisors, (not American civil war veterans). That’s where the Frenchman comes in.
    The Algren character, Jules Brenet, was a handsome, dashing Frenchman sent to Japan in 1867 to train the Shogun’s army, which he did. He then fought with it against Imperial Japan (the Emperor, his manipulators and Takamori).  When Tokugawa lost, the French pulled out, but Brunet, caught up in the mystique of Japan, resigned from the French army and moved north to Hokkaido, where he formed a new “nation” and, in league with some Tokugawa loyalists, planned to take back Japan.
    It didn’t work out, of course, and Brenet had to be rescued and taken back to France where he rejoined the French army and became a muckity-muck.Jules Brenet - Copy
    Edward Zwick, who wrote, produced and directed the Hollywood film, used Brenet and Takamori based characters to craft his work of art, as well as the book, The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori by historian Mark Ravina. Zwick changed the Frenchman to an American because Americans buy more movie tickets.
    But what does this film have to do with our modern martial arts? Why does it speak to us so passionately?
    What this film so aptly depicts is the moment in Japanese history when everything changed.  The ancient world emerged into the modern one and the old ways were no longer needed. The martial arts evolved into martial ways – jutsu became do – what we do.
    This could be our story. Our arts, be they karate (karate-do, if you will), iaido, aikido, judo, kendo all stopped being martial arts and became something we could pursue without threatening anyone in power. The Imperial government did not want charismatic warriors like Takamori, seething in glorious dreams of rebellion in some far off corner of the island – and so they encouraged the “do” arts.
    The same thing happened about the same time in Okinawa with karate. The old masters died off and people like Itosu and Higashionna turned karate into less violent, gymnastic-like pastimes crafted to build the human body and spirit more than to fight.
    The interesting thing about the movie is that the disciplined practices that it depicted so well, are more creations from after the samurai rebellion, than before it. The unending practice of jujutsu, batto jutsu, kyu jutsu and the like simply for the sake of perfection is “do” not “jutsu”. In ancient Japan (and ancient Okinawa), warriors were practicing their arts (jutsu) for the purpose of killing, not spiritual development.
    Zwick’s depiction of the Japanese martial arts and their devoted practice to “sharpen the spirit” is part of the “bushido” nonsense put forth by Inozu Nitobe in his book Bushido: The Soul of the Samurai, at the end of the 19th century, but that’s a different story.
    The Last Samurai was a good job of Hollywood make-believe coupled with bits of Japanese history – an imaginative fabrication that articulates our own martial story so well.

    signature .

    These articles are included in a free monthly newsletter email of the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center. If you would like to receive the newsletter, send your email address to

    Contact Robert Hunt directly at
    Facebook:  The Art and the Way
    Scottsdale Martial Arts Center:

  • A Thing of the Spirit

    June 22, 2016

    kobudo stamp 2 A Thing of the Spirit

    The Karate Tapestry 25
    Robert Hunt


    Tom Handest never turned the heat on in the dojo.
    Twenty degrees outside. No matter. No heat.
    Cold? Practice harder.
    A white, metal-backed thermometer with a red tube dangled on a nail at the front of the room, a make-shift exercise meter teasing us to nudge up the mercury. We showed up at the dojo shivering on winter evenings but, after a few minutes sweating, embraced the cool air and forgot about the weather.
    I don’t recall how high the mercury ever reached, but it mattered little. In those early days, in the 1960’s, we were karate fanatics, training with survival in mind and the obsession that someday we might actually have to depend on this stuff for more than a trophy.
    Then, one night in the dead of winter, with a Pennsylvania blizzard wailing outside, I had my first taste of what karate was really all about.
    The usual punching, kicking, and shouting filled the tiny dojo with energy. Sweat beaded up on our foreheads, and our uniforms flapped around us like white, dancing birds. Abruptly, Sensei Handest stopped teaching, looked us over for a few seconds, strode to the door at the end of the room, and yanked it open. We shivered a bit as snow whistled through.
    New to the place, I wondered what was up, then stared in disbelief as he darted into the storm in his lightweight uniform and bare feet, bidding us follow.
    Follow? Follow where? Anyone notice our bare feet? Anyone notice snow just blew through the door? Anyone know the temperature? Anyone think this is crazy? Anyone care?
    I stood there with my mouth agape as my friend, Al Bean, and the other karate nuts obediently followed Sensei out the door, emptying the dojo until I was left alone.
    I couldn’t believe it.
    I looked around the now- vacant room and wondered what in the world to do. This didn’t make sense. Couldn’t a person catch pneumonia or something pulling a crazy stunt like this? Am I actually paying for this?
    My compatriots were rapidly disappearing into the night, and I was a confused statue. I looked down at my big, bare feet for inspiration and took a deep breath.
    Finally, I thought, what the heck? If they can do it, so can I.
    I hunkered down into my gi as far as I could hunker, determined not to be a pansy, and scampered into the snowy night, yanking the door closed behind me.
    That was it.

    with al bean

    The author (left) with fellow fanatic Al Bean circa 1969

    At that moment, as I followed them out the door and up the sidewalk in my white uniform and new, very white belt, into the dark winter night, jogging through two feet of fresh, cold Pennsylvania snow, wiping the whirling snowflakes from my face, an idea began to gestate in my pea brain. It was the first taste of real karate knowledge I may have ever had.

    You can do whatever you put your mind to—just don’t give up!

    As my bare feet pounded the icy sidewalk, I was briefly aware of the cold on my uncovered chest but soon realized that, like most fears, it wasn’t a big deal. We were heated up and stayed that way through the run.  If we didn’t stand around, our feet wouldn’t get cold (and we never stood around).
    We ran for twenty minutes, returning anxious to train.  It was a great run—one of many in my bare feet in the snow from that day on, including one through downtown on Christmas Eve.
    Running in the snow in your bare feet seems weird, I know, but it has its logic. Train like a warrior. Find your limits. Know possible from impossible, reality from limitation.
    Throughout history, the four-minute mile was considered sacrosanct and unbeatable until Roger Bannister broke it in the 1954 Olympics, with a time of 3.59.4 minutes. In the next Olympics a dozen people beat it. Nowadays one wouldn’t even consider Roger’s event without breaking four minutes. Did the human race suddenly get faster? Probably not. The rest of humanity’s limits are as imaginary as mine.

    I took that leap of understanding studying karate in Tom Handest’s little dojo alongside a half-dozen eager warriors seeking the same destiny—to plumb the depths of the mystical world of karate and forge bodies and souls into something known as black belt, not really understanding it, but driven to it like Vikings to the sea.
    Finding that dojo was either pure luck or destiny, maybe both. It wasn’t the best dojo in the world, but it set the framework for life. Sensei came up with dozens of limit-pushing tests, from breaking concrete to running marathons in July heat, but the first step toward an unrestrained future was the hesitant step out that door that cold winter night in 1967.
    Every class and all the training outside of class was dedicated to making us stronger and faster, more flexible, with better cardio, more powerful kicks and punches and an understanding that karate had to be pounded into the spirit, not left on the surface for people to admire. “Philosophy” meant – shut up and practice.
    We weren’t interested in practicing for tournaments.  Kata was training for self-defense. Sparring was practice for fighting.  Scoring points meant we were generating enough power to hurt someone. It was hard for a referee to judge that, but we knew if they were any good or not.
    Much has changed over the years.  People do karate for a thousand other reasons than what we did – and all of them valid.

    In 1901 Itosu began to teach school kids karate. It was one of those bends in the trajectory of destiny that throws the world off balance for a while, and it still resonates through karate.  It wasn’t evident then, but it became evident as time passed that karate had found a new paradigm.
    Karate training before that had been much like our training in Tom Handest’s dojo. Sparse, intense and brutal.
    But Itosu envisioned his Shorin Ryu as a vehicle for forging good Japanese citizens and a strong Japanese military. He wasn’t Japanese, of course, he was Okinawan, but he had made the decision that Okinawa’s future lay with Japan.  Many Okinawans didn’t agree, but it didn’t matter. That history was already written, and what Itosu taught went on to be the basis of “Japanese” karate, Japan’s adoption of the Okinawan martial art, filtered through Japan’s manufactured concept of “Bushido”, Inazo Nitobe’s fanciful 20th century re-envisioning of Japan’s martial past, a concept that military leaders purloined to drive a war machine in 1936.


    Kyan Chotoku and Students

    Itosu’s gymnastic version of karate went on to emerge in Japan as Shito Ryu, Shotokan, and Wado Ryu – the first two systems created by Okinawans who felt the same as Itosu and the third created by a Japanese who had no illusions of an Okinawan forebear to his art. Ohtsuka’s art was Japanese pure and simple.  He never even visited Okinawa in his lifetime.
    But Shorin Ryu karate, as a fighting art, didn’t disappear from Okinawa. Kyan Chotoku, younger than Itosu, was a karate force who maintained Okinawa’s martial tradition and didn’t water down his karate for kids and hobbyists. Choki Motobu was also a fighter and practiced karate for its martial possibilities, picking on bigger men just to try out his art. He was even turned away from Itosu’s dojo because he was too much of a brawler.
    One need only look at Kyan’s version of Matsumura’s Bassai kata compared to Itosu’s to understand the difference. Itosu Bassai (the Japanese Bassai Dai) was modified for gymnastic practice and emphasized personal development over martial prowess. It has 11 blocks before any strike happens and then goes on to block its way through Matsumura’s moves.
    Kyan Bassai, on the other hand, is battle. It boasts fast blocks and arm breaks, strikes to the eyes, and a dynamic, driving set of moves, whose bunkai is immediately apparent.
    Much of the karate practiced in Okinawa today is rooted in Kyan’s version of things. Kushanku (Kanku Dai) is an Itosu kata, Chatanyara Kushanku was passed down by Kyan.
    A few notable Okinawan martial artists, Chibana Chosin comes to mind, were students of Itosu and maintained his version of karate.  But many more, Zenryo Shimabukuro and Joen Nakazato, for example, passed on Kyan’s.  Shoshin Nagamine studied from both Kyan and Motobu.
    Much of the tension between modern karate (“Japanese” karate) and the more classical Okinawan version comes from this dichotomy. Okinawan style martial artists are forever pointing out the lack of martial reality in the Japanese based systems.
    And they are right.  But so what. We do what we do because we enjoy doing it.
    I practiced that kind of karate for 30 years, with fighting and self-defense always at the forefront of my intensions. I never once used it but I certainly came to understand it and gained immensely from the experience.
    But the last 20 or so years of teaching kata and karate history to kids has been very rewarding. I can see how Itosu got hooked.  The philosophy of Rick Warren’s book A Purpose Driven Life has been much more fulfilling than simple personal development and the hope that I learned enough to not get my butt kicked in a fight.


    I walked past an elementary school one Saturday in 1967 or 1968 and saw Tom Handest practicing. He kicked a basketball against a brick wall of the school, letting it bounce one time back towards him then kicked again, trying to maintain the rhythm without ever touching the ball with this hands. I watched for five or ten minutes, mesmerized by his diligent practice. I tried it myself one day but could never keep it going.
    Sensei was a lithe, bearded, willowy jumble of muscles and bones that I felt (and still feel) could seriously hurt a person. His knuckles were calloused and brown from striking the makiwara, then applying a Chinese hand medicine called dit dat jao to make them harder and help the healing. He seemed to train all the time. His only occupation was karate.  He hadn’t done well at school, and the twenty bucks a month that each of his half dozen students gave him, couldn’t have gone very far.  He always lived with a woman who had a job. It’s easy to see why.
    I am glad I spent those early years with him. He didn’t have a wide knowledge of karate (nor a deep one), in those days, few Americans did, especially in some backwoods corner of the Pennsylvania snow belt.

    b-ack belt

    The author receiving Shodan from Sensei Handest

    I left there in 1973 and never saw Tom Handest again, but the foundation that I absorbed in Sensei Handest’s cold and humble dojo forms the basis, fills my spirit and my own classes to this day, and sets the tone for everything karate that has followed. Any bad experiences in that dojo in the snowy Allegheny Mountains are long lost to the rosy haze of time, at least by me, and I don’t regret a moment there.
    I think about it, as you can see, from time to time. Sensei would be in his eighties now. Hard to imagine. He was much more like Kyan or Motobu than Itosu. He believed in karate as a fighting art and part of the entire being.
    Sensei recommended a book to me one time called Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, a fictional novel that wasn’t very good, but the name spoke volumes.
    Karate is much more than simply a fighting art.  It can be whatever we make of it, and it truly is a “thing of the spirit.”

    signature .







    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).

    These articles are included in a free monthly newsletter email of the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center. If you would like to receive the newsletter, send your email address to

    Contact Robert Hunt directly at
    Facebook:  The Art and the Way
    Scottsdale Martial Arts Center:

  • Karate and World Domination

    May 31, 2016

    Karate and World Domination
    The Karate Tapestry – Part 23
    Robert Hunt

    Why is karate a part of Okinawan culture at all? Why does it even exist? Where did it come from?
    The answer, in short – politics and the quest for domination.



    Okinawa was, early on, made up of three kingdoms – northern, middle and southern. The leaders of each claimed some connection to Japanese ancestry and tried to maintain power in their domains. There was a thriving trade, as Okinawa was centrally situated for the purpose, and Okinawan sailors sailed throughout Southeast Asia. It was during this period that the Chinese Ming dynasty rose to power and took notice of Ryukyu (Okinawa) and the trade possibilities.
    In 1372 Satto, the king of the central region (Chuzan), received recognition from the Ming in China, which the Asian world considered the center of the universe, and which immediately gave Satto status over the other two regions. In 1393 the Ming sent emissaries, merchants and scholars, to settle in Okinawa to teach Chinese language and culture and solidify trade. They also brought martial arts.
    These emissaries were the fabled “36 Families” (36 Bin Bun). There were not actually 36 of them, in fact the number varied as they came and went. The name had more to do with numerology than mathematics. (Sanseiryu means 36). They settled in the village of Kume (Kumemura or Kuninda). The village sat on an island, at the time, but has long since been incorporated into the larger island of Okinawa. Kume Village still exists as a section of Naha.
    In 1407 Satto’s son, Hashi, rose to power and subjugated the other two kingdoms, unifying Okinawa under one leader.
    All these early dates and kingdoms are important to Okinawan history, but, you say, so what? Well, the king who actually had an impact on our art came to power in 1477. His name was Sho Shin. And he is relevant.
    Sho Shin continued to unify Okinawa and as a precaution against insurrection, forced the other leaders to move under his watchful eye, to the capital, which he established in Shuri. In 1503, he also made some rules and erected a monument with a list of edicts, the 11 Distinctions of the Age.
    Edict number 4 forbade the private ownership of weapons.
    Sho Shin gathered the weapons and stored them in a warehouse. The political situation at the time was stable and the Okinawans had a reputation as a peaceful people, thus, collecting the weapons was not particularly difficult.
    This was a boon for you and me, as it encouraged the development of Ti, the empty handed/primitive weapons art we so avidly pursue. But, a century later, when the Satsuma invaded, a weaponless warrior class insured defeat, not that Okinawa could ever have withstood the Japanese onslaught, anyway. In the long run it probably saved a lot of the lives of noble warriors who would gladly die for their island country against insurmountable odds.
    Sho Shin’s mother, the person who engineered his rise to power and assured his political position was a Noro, a priestess. At that time the Noro had almost as much power as the king and presided over all religious activity. There were hidden groves and secret places known only to the Noro where men were forbidden to go. Women often also oversaw village politics. The men worked at fishing or farming and the women ran things. Possibly not a bad idea.
    The gentry who carried weapons and ultimately gave them up to Sho Shin were called “Bushi”, “Warrior Knights” who had a long martial tradition. There is ample evidence that ti existed at the time among the Bushi and possibly in a fairly organized fashion. These Bushi, now deprived of weapons, continued their martial practice, only now with bo’s, sai’s and empty hands. They became magistrates of the villages and, in effect, acted as a police force.
    One character alive during this period was a man named Akahachi. He ruled Yaeyama Island to the south and resisted the Shuri government. He was finally subdued and brought under Sho Shin’s banner in Sho Shin’s quest for domination over the rest of the Ryu Kyu islands. Akahachi was also purportedly a great martial artist and passed on to us bo and eku kata that bear his name. Yaeyama Island consequently became known for its weapon’s tradition and, as late as the twentieth century, martial artists were traveling there to learn kobujutsu.
    By the late 1500’s other political waves were churning. The western powers, particularly the Dutch, had developed arms and the ability to travel long distances by sea and wanted to dominate Asian trade. They were closing in on the islands to the south of Okinawa. Toyotomi, the leader of Japan at the time, saw Okinawa as a possible shield.
    Toyotomi also wanted to dominate Korea and wanted Okinawa to sign on to help and offer tributary (financial) support. The Okinawan king at the time, Sho Nei, refused, which enraged Toyotomi. It all settled down for a while when Toyotomi died on the way to attack Korea, but Okinawa’s fate was written in the stars. The Japanese, like elephants, never forget.
    Tokugawa came to power in 1600 with the battle of Sekigahara and the unification of Japan. One of the powers aligned against him in that battle was the Satsuma clan from Kyushu, at the southern tip of Japan, led by Shimazu Yoshihiro. Shimazu wisely decided, in the middle of the battle, that things were not looking good, slipped away and hastened back to Kyushu. For his affront, he was banished to a life in religious retreat and his son Shimazu Tadatsune took over, becoming immediately allegiant to Tokugawa. A period of peace ensued, but Satsuma soldiers chafed for battle.
    Their chance finally came in 1609 when Tokugawa decided it would be in his interests to dominate Okinawa, keep the Satsuma busy so they wouldn’t bother him, and, in addition, Sho Nei should be punished for his financial snub. Tokugawa told Shimazu he could “conquer” the island kingdom.


    Manchu Archers



    Conquering a weaponless nation was not all that difficult. Okinawan Bushi did drive the Satsuma back in certain places, but the outcome was a given and it was all over in two months.
    After the Satsuma took over, life on Okinawa became decidedly more difficult. All the trade goods on which they had prospered for 400 years were transshipped to Satsuma and Okinawa became a poor, occupied island that never returned to its once prosperous condition. The weapons edicts and martial practice were now enforced under penalty of death and ti went underground.
    China, if it even knew what was going on, ignored it all, having their own problems with the Manchurians who were knocking at their door with a vast army, in an attempt to dominate China. The Ming were vanquished in 1647 and the Manchu set up the Qing dynasty.
    The Shaolin monks and the various martial societies had been allegiant to the Ming, so the Manchu, eager to curtail insurrection, set out to quash them. This set off a scattering of martial artists that filled Southeast Asia with Chinese ex-patriots and still resonates today, probably one of the main impetuses for the spread of Chinese martial arts.
    The fate of one person in the midst of grand political currents is always interesting.
    Take Janna Oyakata.
    Oyakata was of Chinese heritage, descended from the 36 families of Kumemura. He was an advisor to King Sho Nei, during the years leading up to the Satsuma occupation. He was also vehemently opposed to any relationship with Japan and vocal about it. It’s hard to imagine what he expected to happen with the Satsuma controlling his island, but his opposition never seemed to ebb.
    When the Satsuma took over, they brought the king and his entourage back to Kyushu to parade around as conquered royalty and to insure no insurrections. Among the entourage was Janna Oyakata.
    The Japanese were familiar with Oyakata and his position and he was quickly condemned to death. But the Satsuma samurai appreciated warriors, even if they were enemies, and Janna was allowed one last request at his execution. He elected to perform what they referred to as an Okinawan dance. In those days, martial techniques were often hidden within dances and that is what Janna performed. In short, it was a kata.
    Janna Oyakata is a legendary hero in Okinawa to this day and his defiant performance of kata before Japanese executioners is a proud part of Okinawan history.
    The status quo remained for another 250 years and the next great political upheaval that effected our art was Japan’s introduction to the modern world as an equal to Western powers and, of course, it’s military leader Tojo’ attempt to control Asia through military domination.
    Tojo led the country almost to annihilation and used karate as a tool for the false bravado of the manufactured term, Bushido, accompanied by karate greats like Itosu, Funakoshi and Ohtsuka, who wanted to create soldiers for the patria. It all came to an abrupt halt, as we know, in 1945.
    The irony of this is that American soldiers who fought against an army imbued with the false bravado of Bushido eventually became avid aficionados of karate and the Asian martial arts and enthralled with the Budo concept. The result is that millions of people worldwide fervently practice the martial art of the Shaolin priests hounded by the Manchu, the art of Janna Oyakata, executed by the Satsuma, the secret art that allowed Okinawans to protect themselves and their villages during the occupation and the art that some karate teachers envisioned would build strong defenders of Japan.Sho Nei
    More people practice karate now than ever even existed on Okinawa throughout its entire history combined.
    We want to see karate as a personal pursuit that allows us to reach new levels of physical strength, self-defense and philosophical enlightenment.
    The truth is that: 1) if the Ming had not wanted to expand China’s influence, and 2) if Sho Shin hadn’t sought the power of a unified Okinawa, and 3) if his Noro mother hadn’t wanted the power behind the throne, and 4) if the Manchu had never had aspirations of conquering China, and 5) if Sho Nei had not angered Toyotomi, and 6) if Western ships hadn’t threatened Japan’s boarders, and 7) if Tokugawa hadn’t dominated Japan in a grand battle, and 8) if Shimazu had not changed his mind about fighting, and 9) if Tojo hadn’t sought Asian dominance, then you and I may never have heard of our unique martial art and would be playing baseball or soccer or something like that.
    Politics and power. Such is the tapestry of karate and of life.
    This article was assembled from personal 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).

    These articles are included in a free monthly newsletter email of the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center. If you would like to receive the newsletter, send your email address to

    Contact Robert Hunt directly at
    Facebook: The Art and the Way
    Scottsdale Martial Arts Center:

  • Goju Ryu Interrumpido

    April 18, 2016

    Goju Ryu InterrumpidoHanko


    Robert Hunt

    Spanish Translation by Javier Rojas


    Pensamos en el Goju Ryu como un estilo inconcluso. Pero, ¿por qué hacemos éso?, pregunta Jon Crain, un compañero de viaje.   mid

    Esta es una gran pregunta, una cuya respuesta toca el espectro completo de la experiencia humana —la guerra, la paz, el amor, la esperanza, el triunfo y la desesperación. En verdad, el estilo de cada maestro llega a estar completo el día que éste fallece. Hasta entonces, nosotros continuamos estudiando, practicando, expandiendo nuestro conocimiento y transmitiéndolo. Todo maestro que realmente merezca dicho título, hace exactamente éso. Si no crecemos ni cambiamos, apenas seremos un poco más que un loro.

    Sin embargo, la tragedia de Miyagi fue única dentro del mundo de nuestro arcano arte marcial. Él fue diferente. Mucho de los primeros líderes dentro del Karate eran políticos. Miyagi, por su lado, era un maestro de karate. Miyagi vivió durante la primera mitad del siglo XX, durante una época en la que la humanidad pasó de los latigazos a los cohetes de propulsión; del correo rápido a caballo, a la máquina de fax. No ha habido otro momento en nuestra historia que haya sido testigo de una expación tecnológica tan grande y tan acelerado.

    También fue una época de guerras mundiales, devastación y muerte más allá toda comprensión. Dos países, Japón y Alemania, trataron de dominar al mundo entero a través de la conquista militar. Dos hombres trastornados, Tojo y Hitler, dieron inicio a una conflagración que reclamó 70.000.000 de vidas. Difícilmente no hubo sobre la tierra ser humano alguno que no fuese alcanzado por la locura de ellos. Recemos a Dios que esto jamás vuelva a ocurrir.

    Mirar dicha locura a través del prisma de la vida de Miyagi Sensei aclara todo por completo, en especial para aquellos de nosotros que seguimos tras la pista de su arte.

    Adoptado por una familia pudiente, Miyagi pasó toda su vida (él murió en 1953) estudiando artes marciales y forjando un estilo a partir de todo lo que aprendió. El primer tercio del siglo XX fue un periodo muy intenso, marcialmente hablando, en Okinawa. El Karate, en su mayoría traído de China, fue esencialmente el único regalo que Okinawa podía ofrecerle al mundo entero, junto con personas como Higaonna, Itosu, Aragaki, Funakoshi, Miyagi y Mabuni que realizaron un esfuerzo grandioso en pos de su difusión, expansión y preservación.

    Sin embargo, Tojo invadió China en 1937 con la Masacre de Nanking con lo que cualquier intento de estudiar a mayor profundidad cualquier arte marcial de origen chino quedó condenado en su ChojunMiyagimayoría.

    En lo que respecta al linaje (marcial) de Miyagi, a algunos les agradaría muchísimo ser capaces de trazar una línea recta de Ryu Ryu Ko a Higaonna, de éste a Miyagi, y de Miyagi a algún dojo o maestro moderno en Okinawa. No obstante, y como cada uno de los emprendimientos realizados por el ser humano, el Karate no es lineal. Ni siquiera sabemos quién era Ryu Ryu Ko, por no decir que probablemente Higaonna sólo llegó a enseñar cuatro katas a Miyagi. Pero no fue sino Miyagi el que tomó las riendas, estudió junto con compañeros de su época, viajó a China e hizo un bosquejo de un estilo que florecía frente a él.

    Se dice sobre Miyagi, que él logró amasar una gran cantidad de notas e información acerca de la historia de su arte y de las artes marciales chinas y okinawenses en general, información que intentó incluir en el sistema que él mismo estaba afinando. Esto jamás llegó a suceder. Al terminar la guerra, Tojo utilizó la isla de Okinawa como un señuelo para mantener a los Estados Unidos a raya, mientras él averiguaba cómo anticiparse a la rendición. La isla fue arrasada.  Más de 100.000 habitantes, un cuarto de la población, falleció.  El hogar de Miyagi, su tan atesorada investigación, muchos de sus familiares y de sus estudiantes, especialmente Jinan Shinzato, se perdieron en medio de la locura de esta conquista militar.

    Algunos de los que le llegaron a conocer aseguraron que él jamás llegó a recuperarse del todo y que pasó los pocos años que le quedaron de vida tratando de juntar, de alguna manera, los cabos sueltos que habían quedado.

    Hemos llamado a su estilo inconcluso por causa de tan catastrófico evento y de cuán violentamente éste afectó su vida y su trabajo. Hay tanto que en efecto no sabemos acerca de lo que él intentaba hacer, tantas líneas de entrenamiento que quedaron incompletas así como tantas historias que no pudieron ser contadas.

    Tan sólo podemos especular, por ejemplo, acerca del origen, de dónde surgieron katas como Seifa, Seipai y Kururunfa, y porqué eran enseñados. Probablemente no hayan formado parte del plan de estudio propuesto por Higaonna, de lo contrario, Juhatsu Kyoda, un compañero de entrenamiento de Miyagi en el dojo, los hubiera incluido como parte de su estilo Tou’on Ryu. Estos katas pudieron haber llegado mediante un hombre llamado Kuniyoshi Shinkichi. ¿Quién era él?

    Si Miyagi creó o descubrió estos katas, ¿hubo otros más que él intento incluir? Mabuni incluyó 40 katas en su estilo, Shito Ryu. Los katas del Goju moderno, ¿son todos los que Miyagi quiso incluir o su tiempo se acabó antes de poder lograrlo?

    Miyagi creó el kata Tensho, así como los de la serie Gekisai. Se piensa que él pretendía crear otros 10 katas introductorios antes de enseñar los de origen chino. ¿Y qué hay del kata Shisochin? Él lo comenzaba con las manos abiertas, tal cómo los hacía Higaonna. ¿Por qué? ¿De dónde vino?

    Si el estilo de Miyagi está basado en el estilo de la Grulla Blanca, ¿qué hay de Hakutsuru? Miyagi fue amigo de Go Kenki, que solía enseñar Hakutsuru y que viajó con él a China dos veces. Hakutsuru significa Grulla Blanca y existe el rumor en algunos dojos de Goju que posiblemente Miyagi lo había incluido, o por lo menos hizo el intento, en alHigagunas de sus enseñanzas.

    Por otro lado, tenemos a los estudiantes de Miyagi Sensei. Yagi, Iha, Higa y Toguchi, todos ellos pasaron su tiempo con Miyagi antes de la guerra y continuaron con el Goju Ryu después de la misma. Higa incluso llego a tener un menjo (certificado) firmado por Miyagi y que lo acreditaba como instructor de Goju Ryu, el único certificado de este tipo expedido por Miyagi. Sin embargo, el Goju de Yagi y de Higa difieren entre así, y éstos a su vez difieren del estilo Jundokan de Miyazato, la línea principal de Goju Ryu posterior a la guerra, mientras que los tres estilos antes mencionados también difieren de las demás ramas de Goju Ryu que han surgido después de la guerra.

    ¿Por qué Miyagi no otorgó un certificado o licencia de enseñanza, atado con un lazo, a alguno de sus estudiantes? ¿Sería esto acaso porque Miyagi consideraba que su trabajo estaba incompleto?

    Para el Sensei Mabuni y su Shito Ryu, el proceso fue bastante directo: éstos son todos los katas que he incluido en el plan de estudio, cambien la postura atrasada por la postura del gato y memoricen todo.

    El Sensei Funakoshi abandonó Okinawa con una gran cantidad de información y pasó el resto de su vida ahondando en ella. Todo ése conocimiento acumulado, amplio como era, le hizo saber desde muy temprano que era su obligación enseñar. Todo ése conocimiento se convertiría a la larga en el estilo Shotokan.

    Del Shorin Ryu de Okinawa se transmitió todo aquello que sus antecesores han estado haciendo durante siglos, entrenando y trabajando para hallar la forma correcta de ejecutarlo.

    Pero Miyagi, él era diferente. Jamás se vio a sí mismo atraído por cuestiones de rangos y jerarquías cómo hacían los japoneses. Él en cambio pasó su vida entera estudiando y practicando las artes marciales chinas, expandiendo su conocimiento acerca de ellas hasta el mismo día de su muerte, cuando su cuerpo fue conducido por las calles en la parte trasera de una furgoneta del ejército de los Estados Unidos, mientras que soldados y policías por igual se alineaban a lo largo del camino para saludarle y rendirle sus respetos.

    Miyagi evitaba la política. Los otros en cambio, la acogían. Ellos se definían a sí mismos como a sus estilos según la política: luchaban por obtener reconocimiento, posición y dinero, un grupo de seguidores complacientos dispuestos a doblegarse.

    Todo esto está bien. La gente necesita dinero para vivir y el Karate es un bien que se puede vender. Sin embargo, Miyagi fue adoptado por una familia adinerada por lo que para él no fue necesario poner en venta su arte. Él podía darse el lujo de entrenar y enseñar por simple satisfacción. Él ni siquiera tenía pensado un nombre para su estilo hasta que Shinzato sacó el tema a colación. Sin embargo, al parecer su estilo no estaba terminado aún, cuando Miyagi sufrió de un ataque al corazón.

    Él modificó la posición de apertura de todos sus katas de antes de la guerra, la cual era una postura de piernas abiertas, a una posición de pies juntos después de la guerra, una postura de atención. ¿Por qué hizo esto? ¿Qué es lo que pretendía hacer?

    ¿Por qué el movimiento inicial de Seiunchin es diferente en el Jundokan que en los otros estilos? ¿Por qué los katas, según las versiones de Mabuni, son diferentes a aquellos del hombre que efecto creó los katas? ¿Cuál es la historia de Pechurin y Suparinpei? ¿Cuáles han sido los tesoros históricos que nos han arrebatado las bombas? Estaría sorprendido de que alguna vez lo sepamos.

    Yo creo que Miyagi era un gran hombre; un hombre sabio y humilde, dedicado a desvelar los secretos profundos e intrincados de un antiguo arte marcial, que jamás se vio afectado por los títulos, aclamaciones y posiciones de prestigio de la vida japonesa. Creo que él fue completamente destruido por lo que Tojo le hizo a su vida y a su tierra, y que se fue a la tumba tratando de encontrar algún sentido a todo ello. Pero ¿alguien ha podido en realidad hacer ésto? Quién en su sano juicio sería capaz de encontrarle algún sentido a una guerra en aquella época, más allá del sentido que le podemos encontrar hoy en día a una guerra que los hombres luchan en nombre de una religión en la que ellos mismos no creen.

    Miyagi tenía muchísimo más que ofrecer; él no había terminado aún. Quedan muchas preguntas que han quedado sin respuesta.

    Como dice el Sensei Lee Grey de Goju Ryu: nosotros definimos al Karate, no el Karate a nosotros. Si somos perezosos y carecemos de disciplina, así será el Karate. Si trabajamos duro y tratamos de alcanzar la maestría, aunque sea sólo un poco, así es cómo será el Karate.

    Miyagi definió el estilo Goju. Su vida y su estilo, su Goju, que tratamos con tanta insistencia de comprender, fungen como un recordatorio inmortal de lo frágil que puede llegar a ser la vida humana. Recordatorio de la inseparable conexión a lo bueno y lo malo que hay en este mundo en el que vivimos, y de la victoria de un solo hombre bueno.

    Una palabra final. Hay algunos que piensan que el Goju no debió haber seguido evolucionando después de 1953 y que es nuestra obligación mantenernos fieles al conocimiento que Miyagi llegó a amasar hasta la hora de su muerte. Aparte del hecho de que hacer esto es imposible, dada la gran cantidad de hombres que han afirmado ser los auténticos herederos del Goju, ¿debemos acaso pretender o pensar que Miyagi deseaba que algo así sucediera? Miyagi invirtió toda su vida en desarrollar sus ideas acerca del Karate a partir de más de una docena de fuentes. ¿Podemos pensar que era su deseo que, después de su muerte, todo esto quedara congelado o petrificado en la forma de una religión marcial?

    Estos artículos han sido compilados a partir de entrevistas y de mis investigaciones personales, así como del trabajo de John Sells (Unante), varios trabajos de Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, la Revista Meibukan, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (artículos sobre Artes Marciales Chinas Tradicionales), Benny Meng, (Museo del Ving Tsun), Earnest Estrada, Andreas Quast, Scot Mertz, de la Internet y de Takao Nakaya (Filosofía e Historia del Karate Do).

    Estos artículos son parte de un boletín gratis mensual enviado por correo electrónico por el Scottsdale Martial Arts Center (Centro de Artes Marciales de Scottsdale). Si este material ha sido obtenido mediante otra fuente, y desea recibir el boletín, sírvase a enviar su dirección de correo electrónico a

    Se puede poner en contacto directamente con Robert Hunt a través de

    Facebook: The Art and the Way.


  • Kobudo – The Ancient Martial Art

    April 5, 2016

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 22
    Sensei Robert Hunt

    Kobudo – The Ancient Martial Art


    The Karate Tapestry – Part 22
    Robert Hunt

    Empty hand fighting is great, but every once in a while it’s nice to have a stick in your hand.

    In its inception, karate was called Unante or Uchinadi and nothing about it implied fighting empty handed. The entire art was a combination of weapons, strikes and kicks intended to injure or kill.

    It’s only in modern times in Japan, shortly before the Second World War, that karate became only an empty handed art, with a new name to fit. Most karate in Okinawa has always included the practice of weapons.

    The kinds of weapon arts that emanate from Okinawa have existed in every culture from time immemorial – weapons fashioned from available material and in abundant shapes and applications. The same approach can be seen from the Hawaiian Islands to New Zealand’s Maori culture. Robin Hood’s side kick, John Little, carried an oak quarter staff, not all that different from an Okinawan bo.

    But, in Okinawa, the use of such weapons developed into a virtual art form, due to the prohibition of bladed weapons, first by Sho Shin, one of Okinawa’s unifying kings and later by the Satsuma occupiers.

    In our times, the Japanese word kobujutsu and later, kobudo, has come to describe fighting with weapons. But the words themselves have nothing to do specifically with weapon arts. Kobujutsu means “ancient martial art”; kobudo, means “ancient martial way”. Technically any ancient Okinawan martial art, from empty hand fighting to nunchaku, fits that definition. They are all “ancient martial arts” of Okinawa.

    Separating the weapon art of kobudo, from empty handed karate, came about with karate’s emigration to Japan in the 1920’s. The Japanese were interested in Okinawa’s empty handed art but not the rest. Kobudo in the Japanese mind was sword, halberd and bow. Okinawan weapons were low class, plebian. Conflating the tonfa and the sai with the sword, the “spirit of the samurai”, was akin to sacrilege.

    Much Okinawan kobudo derives, as we know, from China. Some of it also derives, ironically, from Japan.  Bushi Matsumura traveled to Satsuma on various occasions and studied sword and weapons arts which he mixed in with his Okinawan arts.  We like to think that karate and kobujutsu are uniquely Okinawan, but, it is interesting that the arts that emigrated to Japan from Okinawa may have actually begun in Japan.

    Some of the earliest Okinawan names associated with kobudo, some dating to the sixteenth century, were, (among many others): Sakugawa, Chatan Yara, Matsu Higa, Kurogua no Ji, Aburaya, Matsumura, Sueyoshi, Chikin Kraka, Kanegawa Gimu, Aragaki Seisho and Kanagushiku Ufuchikyu. Some we know from history, others mainly from the kata that bear their name. I list the names here for familiarity.  There is much more detailed information in John Sell’s book, Unante.

    Other kata bear the names of places in Okinawa, like the islands – Yaeyama, Tsuken, Hama Higa and Kudaka – and come from regional traditions of places like Gushikawa, Nishihara and the Motobu Peninsula.

    It is interesting, with such a wide ranging tradition of kobujutsu, and so many practitioners, much broader, throughout history, than the empty handed arts, that weapons arts aren’t more widespread and, in fact, all but disappeared after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Times changed, there was little use for bo and sai with guns around. Additionally, the empty handed arts came to be sponsored by the Okinawan school system as physical education and by people like Itosu for building strong bodies for the Japanese military. No such thing happened with the bo and sai.

    A few stalwarts maintained the traditions, however, and today the martial art world is filled with Choun no Kon’s, Matsu Higa tonfa and at least five versions of Tsukenshitahaku no Sai and Chatan Yara no Sai.

    Modern Okinawan kobudo boils down to three “major” groups. Style is not really a good choice of words, as there are abundant ways to perform with weapons that do not fit easy categories. The main groups that proliferate in Okinawa and Japan are the lineages of Taira Shinken, Matayoshi Shinpo, and Chinen Sanda, but it’s not difficult to stumble across an Okinawan martial artist, especially in Shorin Ryu schools, who doesn’t fit those categories. There is also a Ryuei Ryu weapons tradition from the Nakaima family.

    Chinen Sanda was a major influence on modern kobudo. Born towards the end of the Meiji era and dying in 1920, his life crossed over from ancient to modern times, much like Wyatt Earp’s life spanned everything from the gunfight at the OK Corral to talking pictures. Chinen’s style is fluid and constantly moving, not structured, like other modern styles that use karate stances as a base.

    Chinen Sanda is also known as Yamani Chinen. The words “Yama ni” translate as “at the mountain” and designate the place where Chinen Sanda lived (at the foot of a mountain). Sanda’s son, Masami, named the style Yamani ryu after his father and the name literally means “the style at the mountain”.

    Yabiku Moden studied from Chinen and established a kobujutsu society in 1911 similar to the karate preservation societies of the day. He was of major importance in preserving Okinawan kobudo. Ironically, though he was a student of Yamani Ryu, one of his own students was Taira Shinken. With that lineage, it is surprising that modern Taira kobudo bears little resemblance to modern Yamani Ryu.

    Taira also studied karate from both Funakoshi and Mabuni. He apparently overlaid his kobudo style and technique on a karate-like format. He traveled back and forth between Okinawa and Japan after the war until his death in 1970.

    Taira’s mix of karate and weapons has proliferated, taught to and passed on by, among others: Mabuni, Sakagami, Kuniba, Hayashi, Demura, Inoue and Akamine. One complaint was that Taira often changed katas, not surprising since it was such an unorganized art at the time and he knew so much.  Demura Sensei remembered that his teacher, Sakagami, asked Taira to stop teaching in his dojo because Taira was often presenting the same katas done differently.

    The third predominant style comes from Matayoshi Shinko (1888–1947). In the first part of the twentieth century he rode with Chinese bandits in Manchuria. There, he learned firsthand how to use an arsenal of weapons, including the tembe (shield), the surujin (rope and weight) and san-shio-pang (three sectional staff), as well as, of course, bo, sai, tonfa and the rest.

    Shinko’s son, Shinpo, expanded his father’s legacy.  He also became a Goju student of Higa Seiko and studied White Crane with Gokenki, as well as a wide range of other martial arts. Matayoshi’s unique style pulls the bo back to the outside of the arm, instead of the hip or underarm.

    We often think of Okinawan Kobudo mainly in terms of bo, sai, tonfa and nunchaku, but there were a wide variety of weapons that martial artists fashioned.

    The Rokushaku Bo (six-foot staff) also called Kon (from the Chinese word Kun), is the standard, honed-down tree limb, similar to the quarter staff of English history. It needs little explanation, but it is interesting that a foot (shaku) was very close in size in ancient Okinawa to the English twelve-inch measurement. Maybe feet aren’t that different the world over.

    The Sai, the three-pronged iron fork, apparently originated in China or Southeast Asia, but the origins are foggy. A similar weapon, the Manji Sai, is a metal device with one of the arms bent in the opposite direction.  It was often inserted in the end of a staff and used as a sort of a gaff hook by fishermen and a very deadly weapon.

    The Tonfa or Tuifa, a simple wooden handle, may possibly have been the handle of a grind wheel, but such weapons have also turned up in China and Southeast Asia predating the Okinawan version, so it is just as likely that Okinawan martial artists came across its use on their travels.

    The Kama is nothing more than a sickle, the kind I used as a kid on the farm to cut weeds.  You can still buy them in hardware stores.

    The Nunchaku may have originated as the two sides of a horse bridle or a rice flail, depending on who tells the story.

    The Eku is the oar used by Okinawan fishermen. Its diversion to a martial tool is fairly obvious. Many of the bo kata performed today were once performed with the oar.

    The Tekko or Techu are similar to “brass knuckles”, made from metal or wood and thought to have originated as a stirrup.

    The Surujin is a metal chain or rope with a weight on the end. This weapon was brought to Okinawa from China and is common in many Chinese schools today, but, ironically, not so much in Okinawa.

    The truth is that this short discussion of Okinawan kobudo barely scratches the surface. The art is a truly ancient martial art, documented much further back in history than karate and for one simple reason – who would face an opponent barehanded if they could use a weapon.

    As the adage goes – If it’s a fair fight, your strategy is wrong.



    This article was assembled from personal 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).

    These articles are included in a free monthly newsletter emailed by the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center. If this came from some other source and you would like to receive the newsletter, send your email address to

    Contact Robert Hunt directly at
    Facebook:  The Art and the Way
    Scottsdale Martial Arts Center:

  • Bunkai

    March 1, 2016



    The Karate Tapestry – Part 20
    Robert Hunt


    Someone commented once that a demonstration of karate application bears a striking resemblance to a World Wrestling Federation match.

    They weren’t far off.

    Here’s an idea – you step forward and punch at me and hold still. I’ll block, kick you in the head, then an arm bar, then I’ll sweep your legs out from under you and deliver a screaming blow to your prostrate body, fierce as a tiger, and then you grimace in imagined pain.

    What do you think?

    Such is a demonstration of (contrived) bunkai – the secret fighting techniques hidden within the kata that we learn and pass on and how we understand them, manipulate them and demonstrate them.

    The story of bunkai is truly long and winding, filled with myth, imagination, a few facts, untold misunderstandings, make believe, fairy tales and lies – pretty much like the rest of life.

    The original point of kata was apparently to preserve and enhance fighting methods among a predominantly illiterate fraternity of martial artists. A selection of techniques was strung together, memorized, practiced in an order and passed on. Over the centuries, those strings were modified, expanded and named, to fit the criteria of various teachers until, in modern times, they became calcified in karate “styles” and innovation ceased. Now we sort through ancient kata for understanding, much like an anthropologist sorts through ancient cities. We strain to glean hints to the meanings woven into routines created hundreds of years ago.

    It’s like trying to resurrect a language unspoken for a thousand years. We search for reason in movements envisioned hundreds of years ago in a faraway society that wore different clothes and perceived the world through an ancient looking glass that we can’t begin to fathom.

    But we strive, and, to some extent, succeed.

    Much of the problem we face is that kata have been modified, especially in the last century, by people crafting a style to fit an agenda. At this point in history, there are few people in the world, if any, who grasp the original intention of kata.

    This is particularly the case in Shorin line katas.

    Take Wado-Ryu. Without complicating the lineage, we can generally assert that Itosu modified old Okinawan kata (Bushi Matsumura’s and others) to render them understandable to the public; Funakoshi modified them again; Ohtsuka learned from Funakoshi (and Mabuni) and altered them into his vision of a karate-like art for Japan – Wado, the “Japanese Way”.

    Every step of the way, they were revised to fit some teacher’s vision of physical fitness, sport, political correctness or whatever else that teacher envisioned. To try to guess Matsumura’s bunkai from Ohtsuka’s kata is virtually impossible.

    The Shotokan version of Passai (Basai Dai), begins with a series of 10 or so blocks, depending on how you count them, before there is any strike. That doesn’t seem like an effective fighting method, “penetrating a fortress” with ten blocks and no counter strike. Wouldn’t last long on the street. Is bunkai hidden there somewhere? Was that someone’s vision of a way to teach fighting?

    Sometimes it seems like a take on the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

    “Wow, look how strong it is!”

    “Yeah, but it doesn’t make sense?”

    There are at least 11 versions of Passai that approach defense and counter attack in various ways: Ishimine, Tomari (Matsumora), Matsumura, Chibana, Tawada, Oyadomari, Kyan, Motobu, Itosu, Shotokan, and Bassai Sho. Each has its own similar approach, but several are very direct and filled with evident bunkai.

    Shotokan Bassai Dai isn’t. It was modified first by Itosu, then Funakoshi, then Nakayama. Most of the connection to Matsumura’s original has been washed away by modification for school or sport.

    In many cases a manual is almost essential to figure out if a block is actually a block or maybe a disguised strike. And manuals are non-existent, except possibly the Bubishi, which Patrick McCarthy has so obligingly translated for us. But the Bubishi is comprised of simple copies (of copies,

    of copies) of drawings that go back centuries. One needs a Shaman to translate it.

    A manual and a Shaman/Sensei would definitely help.

    Naha line katas like Goju-Ryu, Ryuei-Ryu and Uechi-Ryu are less enigmatic. The individual movements seem to have applications that more easily apply to the way hands dance through air. They are more evident than the block, block, punch, kick of many Shorin line katas. It is easier to ascribe martial meaning to the first move of Seiunchin than the first move of Kanku Dai.

    In fact, the very first movement of Kanku Dai, the dramatic “gaze at the moon” through splayed hands, is probably not martial at all. It is most likely something akin to a breathing exercise, like Chi Gung. Again, someone’s vision trumps reality and without that manual it’s hard to guess. We can make up whatever, but we should probably acknowledge the same when passing it on.

    If you watch Goju Sensei Lee Gray teach Kururunfa, you will become aware that he is teaching the meaning, as he envisions it, of the kata moves. They seem to come alive in his hands. This may be because Goju Ryu arrived in Okinawa much more recently (late 1800’s) than Shorin, which goes back several centuries.

    Find ten Goju teachers, however, and you will likely find ten versions, some very creative.

    The latest attack on bunkai has come from national and international team kata competition. Competitors are expected to perform a kata and then illustrate their vision of bunkai. The interpretations are incredibly imaginative, worthy of the best fight coordinator on any Jackie Chan movie. But, they bear little resemblance even to the apparent moves of the kata being depicted, not to mention the underlying meaning. Hard as I try, I can’t uncover any bunkai in any kata that encourages a defender to leap from an attacker’s shoulder to deliver a punch to a second attacker’s throat.

    But it’s sure fun to watch.

    Part of the problem is that we know so little about the culture of those ancient days.

    Hohan Soken, born in 1889 and a descendent, through an uncle, of Bushi Matsumura, described to Earnest Estrada (in Spanish, no less, due to Soken’s 25 years in Argentina) about practicing karate, in those days called Uchinan Sui-di, at the turn of the twentieth century.

    Okinawan Bushi wore hair pins, kanzashi¸ for decoration as well as to identify societal rank. They developed fighting techniques with the kanzashi and Soken remembers practicing kushanku kata with a kanzashi in each hand. That opens the door to some interesting interpretations.

    All karate in Okinawa involved weapons, it was part of every dojo. How can we begin to understand the meaning of empty hand kata that may or may not have even been developed for the empty hand? If we perform the Ryuei Ryu kata, anan, with a pair of sai in our hands, it opens up entirely new meanings.

    The other aspect of Chinese/Okinawan martial practice that affects bunkai is hand conditioning. In China, martial artists drove their fingers into sand and stone to develop weapons. They probably weren’t very good guitar players, but their fingers became as hard as the stone that honed them. The opening moves of the Goju katas were originally performed with open hands, until Miyagi decided it would be better to use the fists and hone those on a makiwara. What bunkai may have disappeared or misunderstanding arisen from that subtle adjustment?

    A third impediment to understanding bunkai is that kata have become, as in the aforementioned Wado Ryu, “stylized” for testing and group identification. Often the original movement has been replaced with something that “fits” better into a teacher’s vision. The low center of gravity of Shotokan, the high, snappy knife-hand blocks of Shito Ryu, the grounded intensity of Goju Ryu and the shoulder-high blocks of Wado Ryu are repeated without question, because we are mimicking some forebear’s idea of how that forebear thought things should be done.

    Passing tests is the goal, not learning to fight.

    In the end this is what makes karate so interesting – the discovery. The essence of karate is kata and the essence of kata is bunkai, yet we know so little. We reenact centuries-old routines and we imagine the battle within – within the kata and our own hearts, and it is truly the battle within our very own souls, the one we fight every day, that we strive to conquer.

    Perhaps kata helps.


    This article was assembled from personal 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, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).

    These articles are included in a free monthly newsletter emailed by the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center. If this came from some other source and you would like to receive the newsletter, send your email address to

    Contact Robert Hunt directly at
    Facebook: The Art and the Way
    Scottsdale Martial Arts Center:

  • Museum Pieces and Their Names

    January 4, 2016

    Museum Pieces and Their Names

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 19
    By Robert Hunt


    What’s in a name?

    Translating ancient Chinese kata names from a Chinese dialect into Okinawan, then Japanese, then English can conjure up some interesting imagery.

    “Penetrating a Fortress (or perhaps a Rock).” “Surreptitious Steps.” “King’s Crown.” “Extraordinary Hands.” “The Long Silent March.” “Four Calm Monks.” “Come, Stay, the Waves.” (Patsai. Naihanchin. Wankan. Chinte. Seiunchin. Shisochin. Kururunfa.) These are all someone’s colorful translations at one time or another of the names of those Okinawan kata, for the most part, meaningless, albeit sometimes very poetic.

    Then there are the numbers: 13, 18, 24, 36, 54, 108. (Seisan. Seipai. Niseishi. Sanseiryu. Useishi. Suparempai.) Why numbers?

    Where did those names all came from? The best answer is – nobody knows for sure. When you delve into the history of Okinawan karate, it is amazing how little anyone actually knows with certainty and how much is conjecture, fantasy, repeated error or wild guess, especially when it comes to the names of kata.

    Some kanji attempts by Joe Swift

    Some kanji attempts by Joe Swift

    Okinawa had no written language. They spoke a dialect called Hogan, and, like the Japanese, adopted Chinese calligraphy as their written language, but most Okinawans never learned to write. Higashionna, to site one famous example, was illiterate.

    Most also didn’t speak Chinese, specifically Fukien Chinese, the dialect from which many kata names derived. Therefore, Okinawans learned the names phonetically, that is to say, the way they sound, not the way they were written. Two hundred years later, when historians started to write things down, they dug up Chinese/Japanese characters that had similar pronunciations and extrapolated names.

    There are two major Chinese dialects – Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin is historically the language of the court and, in modern times, is what the Communists refer to as the “Common Language” and which everyone is supposed to learn. But it wasn’t the common language 200 years ago. Cantonese was the language of the common person. The two dialects don’t sound a lot alike. To further complicate things, Fukien is a regional dialect that most of the Chinese martial arts teachers spoke who influenced karate and it, in turn, has its unique sounds, different than the rest.

    Mix in the fact that almost every village in China has its own dialect, sometimes unintelligible to a village 50 miles away, and you have something akin to an Asian Tower of Babble. It’s no wonder no one knows what the kata names mean.

    Take Seiunchin, three syllables – sei, un, and chin. Find three kanji that have similar pronunciations and you might come up with – “long, silent, march.” A meaningless translation to a martial artist (unless you possibly happen to be a soldier). But recent evidence has shown that Seiunchin may have also been called something like Chaiunchin a hundred and fifty years ago so scratch the “long” thing. The change could have been someone’s take on the sound, or a speech impediment, or bad hearing, or who knows what.

    Liu Chiang Yi, a Feeding Crane teacher from Taiwan, who happens to speak the Fukien dialect explained that, in Fukien, the word “chin” means “power”. You would think that word would appear in someone’s translation. It seems self-evident that “power” and “karate” go together like “ham” and “cheese”. That could explain at least part of the meaning of NaifanCHIN, ShisoCHIN, CHINto, CHINte, SoCHIN or SeiunCHIN.

    Some names can actually be associated with something relevant. Wanshu may have been the name of a Chinese emissary to Okinawa in 1683. Kushanku was another Chinese visitor in 1750. Annan may have been the name of another Chinese (or a place in China).

    As for most of the rest. Your guess is probably as good as the next person’s.

    It is commonly repeated, for example, that the kata Rohai means “Crane on a Rock” or “Vision of the Crane” or something like that. But historian Joe Swift made this observation. The word Lohan in Chinese refers to a Buddhist who has attained enlightenment, particularly at the Shaolin monastery. Lohan Quan, the “Lohan Fist” or “Monk Fist” is another name for Shaolin martial arts. The word “Lohan” is pronounced “Lohai” in Fuzhou, the place in China where most Okinawans studied. A Japanese or Okinawan person pronouncing that word would pronounce it with an “R” sound rather than an “L” sound, hence “Rohai”. I think Mr. Swift is on to something.

    The numbered katas are a different story. Those actually are numbers. A modern Chinese speaker would even recognize them.

    But why numbers? What do numbers have to do with fighting? There have been numerous theories, the most often quoted being that they were at one time the number of moves, possible bunkai or possibly opponents in the original katas.

    Probably not.

    Another theory is that they were named for such things as the number of the room they were practiced in at the Shoalin monastery or something along those lines. A name for Shaolin fighting is the “18 hands of Lohan”, supposedly referring to the 18 different styles that were taught within the monastery. (Seipai means “eighteen”.)


    Numbers had special meaning for the Chinese. They still do. My phone number is 1456. In Chinese that is pronounced yi su wu lyu. According to Chinese friends of mine, that combination of syllables forms a sentence (kind of like “seven ate nine” in English). They say it is good luck and that I could sell my phone number in China for a handsome price.

    The idea of numbering kata may be linked in some cases to the number 108 and the Buddhist religion.

    Buddhism (as well as Judaism) is filled with references to 108. The number of Brahmans invited to the Buddha’s naming ceremony. The number of salutations to the sun. The japamala is a string of 108 beads that a monk wears, each representing a step to enlightenment. There are 108 delusions of the mind, such as abuse, aggression and ambition, to be overcome for enlightenment. The number of torments or defilements experienced by the Buddha.

    It’s interesting that the number 108 has meaning for other cultures and science throughout the history of man, as well. A google search turns up a bunch. Here are a few.

    In this formula, 1 x 2 x 2 x 3 x 3 x 3 = 108.

    For mathematicians, 108 is divisible by the value of its φ function, which is 36 (Sanseiryu, by the way.)

    In neo-Gnostic teachings, an individual has 108 chances (lifetimes) to eliminate his egos and transcend the material world.

    In Homer’s Odyssey, 108 suitors coveted Penelope, wife of Odysseus.

    In India, 108 (1-0-8) is the toll-free emergency telephone number.

    An official Major League baseball has 108 stitches.

    Who knew?

    It could very well have been the Buddhist influence from the Shaolin and the Chinese penchant for numerology that influenced the numbered names of kata. Suparempai means 108. Useishi (Gojushiho) means 54 (half of 108). Sanseiryu is 36 (3×36=108). Sanchin supposedly means “Three Battles”, but the “three” part is probably more important than the “battle” part and chin probably means “power”, anyway.

    Stabs at translations by Joe Swift and Mario McKenna

    Stabs at translations by Joe Swift and Mario McKenna

    (Does Sanchin times Sanseiryu equal Suparempai?).

    Seipai means 18 (36/2). There were 36 families that settled Kume Village. (There probably weren’t, but the number 36, as we see, has some significance.)

    In Buddhist philosophy, the road to enlightenment is divided into groups or sections which total 108. The names of kata may reflect that journey. It is possible that the number-names of kata originating in the Buddhist Shaolin monastery are named after those steps along the Buddhist journey to salvation rather than the number of moves of the kata, (which, by the way, never work out, no matter how hard I try to divide up the sequence).

    Three is a foundation number. The triangle is the strongest geometric form. Sanchin stance is described as a triangle with the feet as the base and the intersect is a point where lines drawn from the direction the feet meet.

    Three is also a basic rhythm of life – Blood, Sweat and Tears, The Three Musketeers, the Trinity, the beat of a galloping horse. Primitive man recognized this and attributed power to the number and the rhythm.

    Funakoshi apparently recognized the problem of ancient Chinese names when he introduced kata to Japan. The names meant nothing to the Japanese. In addition, the Japanese had no interest in Chinese martial arts, even if they had meant something, being, as Japan was, aspiring to Asian domination (specifically China). Knowing that, Funakoshi changed the traditional names of the kata to Japanese names, to (in his words) make them more meaningful to the Japanese.

    We want to think that his reasons were not influenced by Japanese bigotry. We want to think that the originators of our styles had pure motives, that they always told the truth and were honorable people. But it is difficult to look past the fact that Funakoshi passionately wanted his Okinawan art to be accepted by Japan, and that the Japanese were, at the time, incredibly racist, and that the very word “karate” was being changed from “Chinese Hand” to “Empty Hand” and that karate was being proclaimed a “Japanese” martial art. Politics always plays a part, and in the case of Funakoshi’s renaming, it would seem, a major part.

    There was a Shaolin monastery 1500 years ago. Everything in it and in China, itself, was influenced by Buddhist or Taoist ideas – numerology, lucky numbers, superstition and ghosts. Those ancient names of kata have filtered through almost two millennia of Chinese history and then through the prism of Okinawa. What we end up with are, as our friend Marlon Moore puts it, “museum pieces”, secret remnants of an ancient civilization, preserved outside of China and its various dynasties and Communist purges, to bubble to the surface in Okinawa in the 20th century, through people who probably had no more knowledge of the origins of names than we.

    What the names mean is probably lost to history. To try to force them to meld into 21st century thought is a difficult quest. We can only guess.

    We watch teachers confidently demonstrate bunkai and explain the origin and names of kata. But the more we study, the less we believe anyone knows and that the teachers so confidently expounding are simply repeating someone else’s mistakes as gospel.


    This article was assembled from personal 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) the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).

    These articles are included in a free monthly newsletter emailed by the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center. If this came from some other source and you would like to receive the newsletter, send your email address to

    Contact Robert Hunt directly at

  • My Bunny’s Karate

    October 8, 2015

    My Bunny’s Karate

    Shito-Ryu By Robert Hunt


    Over the past 50 or so years, (That long? We are getting old.) fortune has provided me an opportunity know several karate styles “from the inside”. That is to say, I had the chance to get beat on by punches and kicks delivered in a variety of ways. I started in Shotokan, then Wado during the years I lived in Pennsylvania, beginning in 1964. Upon moving to Arizona in the mid-seventies, I started over in Shi-To with Fumio Demura and Dan Ivan who had a sort of hybrid style due to Mr. Ivan’s years in Shotokan and Mr. Demura’s in Shi-To Ryu. Because Goju is half of Shi-To, I was introduced to that. Not content with an introduction, I took some pains to dig deeper into Goju.

    That leads to here…to one more conversation on style.

    Of the styles into which I have delved, Shi-To Ryu has served me the highest purpose. Not “best”. Best is subjective. Just useful for my goal, which was to learn as much as I could about Okinawa and karate, in general.

    Shi-Ryu has provided an overview of Okinawan karate, simply because a guy named Mabuni incorporated every excruciating detail from Okinawa he could amass. Therein, however, lies its Achilles heel – too much information makes depth of understanding elusive. But, we labor on.

    At the turn of the 19th to 20th century, Mabuni Kenwa studied from the two principal teachers in Okinawa – Higashionna and Itosu – the forerunners of ninety percent of modern Japanese/Okinawan karate. Higashionna learned his art in China from the phantom Lu Lu Ko (maybe). Itosu, a one-time guard to the last Okinawan king, studied Shurite/Shorin-Ryu from the legendary Bushi Matsumura. Both eventually introduced their versions of karate to public schools, Itosu’s in a “watered down” version for kids. (For a good take on the Itosu-Matsumura story, read the first half of Bruce Clayton’s book, “Shotokan’s Secrets…”)

    Mabuni (one seven-year-old budding historian in my kids’ class heard the name as “My Bunny”), a descendent of Okinawan Samurai or Bushi, was a frail child (weren’t they all?) sent to Itosu for toughening. Later, his friend Miyagi (of Goju fame) introduced him to Higashionna and he studied there through the last half-decade or so of Higashionna’s allotted time on earth.

    He got Itosu’s Shorin karate down, but who knows how much Goju he absorbed in those few years? Mabuni’s version of Goju differs from Miyagi’s, even though they were friends and dojo mates. Trying to work out why katas like Seipai are done so differently in Shi-To Ryu than Goju Ryu has complicated my life, consumed my tedious conversation and kept me awake nights. If you know, please tell me. At my age, I can use the sleep.

    To preserve his island’s one true heritage – karate – Mabuni blended the two methods he studied and dubbed it Shi-To Ryu after Itosu and Higashionna, using alternate pronunciations (Shi and To) of the first part of their names (Ito and Higa) to convey the idea of two styles in one. (I still maintain it could conceivably be pronounced “Ito-Higa Ryu”. And might suggest exactly that idea in a gathering. But someone else might say it would sound stupid and look at me as if I were a nincompoop. And they might even laugh a little. But I don’t care – sticks and stones…)

    Shi-To Ryu incorporates the majority of existing Okinawan kata. In addition to Itosu’s work and Higashionna’s, Mabuni appended a few others, like Nipai from the Chinese martial artist Go Kenki. Apparently not content with a kata list longer than the genealogy of Chinese Emperors, Mabuni even fashioned a few katas himself, just to top off the jug.

    The problem, in fact, is that he included so many katas that he seems to have left parts of some out. And who can master them all…or even remember them? I have lived to appreciate My Bunny’s ability to absorb and pass down 40 odd kata, without the support of an Iphone! (Not that I would resort to technology to steal kata. Heaven forbid!)

    What Mabuni bequeathed the world is essentially a synopsis of 300 years of Okinawan martial arts. After that, details are up to you. And legion. I have spent decades filling gaps.

    For example, (Sensei pronounces that phrase “fogidawmple”) a friend named Dan Carrington (now deceased) studied Shorin Ryu from the lineage of the Okinawans, Okuhara Buni and Kyan Chotoku. I learned kata versions from Dan that predate the modifications Itosu made and opened doors to understanding Okinawan kata that other styles do not offer.

    I also studied Goju Ryu from seasoned teachers, including my long time friend, Lee Gray, and was exposed to Higashionna’s approach and the underpinnings of Goju material from a more original source. (I still haven’t figured out the Seipai thing, though, so don’t forget.)

    The larger point is that karate is more than any single political structure can encompass, no matter how extensive. Mabuni did a good job, but, in truth, about a third of his syllabus is redundant and I rarely practice it, spending my waning years on the parts that are most instructive (and fun).

    After My Bunny’s death in 1953 the style veered off in a half dozen directions driven by former students, including his two sons who interpret and pass on their father’s work differently, both claiming orthodoxy. So many modifications have been fostered on the system by students-cum-masters, that nowadays it would take a time machine to learn the true style My Bunny stitched together.

    But I still have a few good years left. Maybe someone will invent one.