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:

  • An Ancient Man

    October 3, 2015

    By Robert Hunt


        Teruo Chinen died today.

        Our martial world is a little poorer.

        Chinen Sensei was a controversial person,but he was my friend for 30 years and a consummate martial artist.“Old school” hardly covers it. He was a throwback. Few people practice karate as hard as he did and few are as demanding on their students.

        Chinen was an ancient man trying to find a place in a modern world.That’s probably part of his problem. He didn’t fit well into our age of counterfeit  smiles and paper masters.

        I wrote the following article eight years ago when he visited Tucson, Arizona. Please remember him fondly. I can be as critical as the next person, but “when God lays his hand on a person’s shoulder, I take mine off.”

        This is how I will remember Teruo Chinen.


    As the Arizona night descended around us in a blanket of warm desert hues, the pale light from a kerosene yard lantern danced across the soft eyes of Teruo Chinen, reflecting the Chinese blood line of his Okinawan lineage,of which he proudly spoke. He chatted about his life in Okinawa, Japan and the United States, karate, Goju Ryu, Miyagi, China, Kung Fu, ancient Chinese Generals and an evening full of other trivia related to his lifetime of training in and teaching his Okinawan martial art to any aspiring soul who showed up.

    A cluster of mostly adult students sat quietly listening, absorbing the thoughts and feelings of this man who, because of his nationality and heritage, embodied, for them, the history and spirit of the art they pursued. As the evening passed, the students randomly rose to leave and were handed a certificate to commemorate the weekend. As the twenty or so people bowed goodbye and accepted the parchment, Chinen mentioned each one’s name and acknowledged something unique to their weekend’s training. They smiled and bowed again, appreciating the fact that this teacher, whom most had only met for the first time two days before, made the effort to learn their names and take interest in a brief moment of their particular time on earth.    The spectrum of karate teachers in the world today spans a wide arc that includes, on one end, a vast array of politicians- men and women who shake hands, pass out certificates,claim rank and sometimes make money. On the other end, reside a few who actually practice – that is, punch and kick and repeat endless kata. The far political side is often inhabited by pretenders who strut, pat each other on the back, make speeches and disparage others. The other end is inhabited by a handful of teacher-students, who spend most of their time sweating on a dojo floor, actually working at the mastery that politicians would claim. Out on the far reaches of that latter rarified end stands Teruo Chinen, to many, the embodiment of what karate might have represented during its four centuries of Okinawan life – a hard-muscled, quiet teacher who still practices his art daily, even after more than 50 years.

    As you listen, you notice that Chinen, unless prodded, doesn’t mention politics or position, his rank or that of anyone else. He talks only about the history of karate or how to become better and continually admonishes the ones who listen to practice harder. If the term “master” refers to a person who practices an art until they have completely absorbed it, then Teruo Chinen probably deserves the accolade, although he would never claim it.

    In the political sphere, there are those who wouldn’t agree. Mr. Chinen is not a very good politician and has his share of detractors. That doesn’t seem to matter to him and he is a man dedicated to his life’s pursuit more than most people, especially among his contemporaries.

    At 64, most teachers rely on their reputation, warranted or not. Chinen still works out regularly and, when he takes off his jacket to demonstrate Sanshin for a writer, the density of his muscles and the flow of his movement prove the fact.

    Chinen was born in Kobe Japan, in June of 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. His father, a seaman in the Imperial army, died on a suicide ship in 1944. Somewhere between Guam and Tokyo, the boat’s captain decided that he and his men should go down together in glorious ritual mass death. An American gunboat dragged two sailors from the murky waters to tell the story.    At war’s end, Chinen returned to Shuri, Okinawa with his widowed mother and a half dozen siblings to a ruined country and his uncle’s two-room house, with a canvas roof. His mother found work at an American airbase. Because his uncle was a policeman, this meager residence, more than most Okinawans had at the time, sat in the middle of a police residential area and, as destiny would have it, three doors away from Chojun Miyagi, a Hancho in the police department.

    Chinen, as a wide-eyed boy of 7 or 8, remembers seeing Miyagi in his garden dojo, with Miyagi, fatally ill and overweight, directing class from a chair. He also remembers standing in the street in 1953,watching Miyagi’s coffin carried through the neighborhood on an American army truck, the Okinawan policemen snapping salute as the body passed.

    He remembers helping carry the makiwari, chiishi, kongo ken and other training implements from Miyagi’s house to the new dojo that Miyagi’s student Miyazato Ei’ichi started and named the Jundokan. And he remembers studying there with a dozen or so other adults and children, trying to piece together the incomplete style that Miyagi taught.

    There were other Miyagi students senior to Miyazato. Chinen believes that Miyagi appreciated the fact and planned for it. To Yagi, the most senior, he bequeathed his robe and sash, the “flowers” of his training, commemorating the years the man had dedicated to learning the art. To Miyazato,the karate “soldier”, he bequeathed the training implements, the “seeds” of the art, knowing that Miyazato would carry on the training and pass on the art.

    This idea of “flowers” and “seeds” has been disputed. It seems Miyagi’s family gave Yagi the robe and sash years after Miyagi’s death. But it doesn’t matter. Chinen crafted the thought in those terms and it shows his respectful words for both men. In fact, I have never heard him be disrespectful of anyone, no matter what they have said about him.

    Chinen continued to study, off and on, in Miyazato’s dojo for another 6 years, earning a black belt (with no certificate) and learning the kata that tied together the bunkai  he had been practicing, since childhood. The bunkai, is the meaning of the kata moves. Chinen says that he learned that first, and, only after he had learned the basics, was he shown the kata that embodied them.

    In other words, the meaning of the moves and their application – the ability to fight – was the primary pursuit, in those days, in that dojo, and the kata were more or less a way to remember them. Consequently the individual kata have much less importance for him than form any karate students and teachers who often judge their own prestige and positionby the number and rarity of the kata they have dug up. Chinen relates the kata to the tip of the iceberg, and the bunkai-oyo to what lies underneath. Most of us spend our time polishing the tip, for tournaments and tests, and never plumb the depth of the art.    At 19, Chinen decided to pursue an education in Japan proper and, with his Okinawan passport in hand, traveled to Naha to board a passenger-cargo ship with pounding piston sand piles of boxes. He sailed 18 hours to picturesque Kagoshima on the southern tip of Japan. There he found a train to Osaka, where he stayed with an aunt for a couple of months and then on to Tokyo and a Shotokan dojo in a section of the city called Yoyogi, where his sempai, Morio Higaonna, already taught Goju Ryu on odd nights. Chinen remembers learning to spar Japanese style and “the little Goju boy from Okinawa”, as he referred to himself, getting the snot knocked out of him by the Japanese tournament competitors. Unlike many Okinawans, however, he sees sparring as an aid to training rather than a hindrance.

    Chinen stayed in Yoyogi for a couple of years trying to work at a college degree and then made a trip visiting various Goju dojo throughout Europe and Asia. He finally ending up once again in Okinawa at the Jundokan in 1972, sleeping in a dinky room above the dojo and training with Miyazato. This time he only stayed 3 days and, when it was time for him to leave, Miyazato called upstairs. 

    “Chinen!” he said.

    “Hai, Sensei.” Chinen answered.“Stop down before you leave.” “Hai, Sensei.”

    Chinen gathered up his few belongings and went downstairs. “You’re teaching in Tokyo, right?” Miyazato asked.

    “Hai, sensei”

    “Here, take this.” And Miyazato handed him a black belt. “Fourth degree.”

    His only other promotion came during Miyazato’s visit to the United States in the late 1980’s,shortly before the teacher’s death.

    “How old are you, Chinen?” he asked. “Fifty, sensei.”

    “You’re teaching, right?”“Hai, sensei.”

    “Here.” And  he handed Chinen a certificate for 7th degree. “Thank you, sensei.” Chinen said.

    That was how Chinen described his promotions and that’s as far as it went -no tenth Dan

    for the one among us who actually practiced karate all of his life.

    It is a bit ironic that Chinen even pursued a career in Goju at all. His family,his uncles and cousins, are well known for their dedication to ShorinRyu. One ancestor was Masami Chinen, the famed originator of Yamani Ryu Kobudo.

    Chinen moved to Spokane, Washington in 1969 to take over a dojo. The deal fell through, but he found work teaching at Gonzaga University and several community colleges around the area. He teaches there still.

    It is obvious, when you watch him, that Chinen is a professional teacher. He keeps the class both motivated and interesting. He teaches the technique, the philosophy and the history of karate, as well as the history of Okinawa and China that engendered the art.

    One thing that strikes an observer is how well Chinen speaks English. He explains, in detailed proper grammar, the depth of the art he is presenting, even using slang and argot correctly.

    Now days Chinen spends most weekends traveling

    around the United States and the world giving seminars to Goju Ryu schools as well as a variety of others. This interview took place in a Wado Ryu dojo in Tucson, Arizona.

    Chinen doesn’t care about the politics of styles and organizations. It’s all karate to him. In fact, he has taken to referring his art as Kung Fu, rather than “karate”or “Goju”, believing that Okinawan karate is simply he flow-through of the Chinese art, and, since the words “Kung Fu” more properly refer to someone who is working to master an art, (any art, from wood working to computer programming – the words literally mean “workmaster”) it reflects his belief in the benefits of perspiration over politics.

    Chinen represents a philosophy.

    That philosophy is that the art of karate is to be practiced diligently, and if so practiced, will offer an understanding that only comes from such dedication, an understanding of technique and application – of life and death. It’s the rare individual who continues to practice karate throughout a lifetime. For many it’s simply too much work. Most become content with the trappings of rank and position, thinking that somehow a black belt or a title is a goal, forgetting that anything doled out, by humans, for money, is suspect. In the end, the only truth one can hold to is the truth of work, and the master. The only real path to enlightenment comes from within.

    With the kerosene lantern consuming its last drops of fuel and the quiet Arizona night completing its warm decent and with most of the students departed, the evening’s discussion faded into quiet reflection. Chinen peered off into the darkness for a long second, as if waiting for some motivation to speak.The silence grew in the soft evening and, then, as the fingers of light danced across his Chinese eyes, he turned with a quiet smile and summed it all up.    “I’m a very happy man.”

  • Traditional Budo

    September 21, 2015

    Traditional Budo
    Robert Hunt

    History is myth.  How we view it depends on whose myth we chose to believe.

    If I were king of the world, (and I am convinced it would be a better place), there are two words I would expunge from the Big Book of Popular Modern Karate Terms. One is the word“traditional”, a term that always grates, the other is “budo”. I believe I read somewhere that it has been scientifically proven that the mere sound of those two words can raise a listener’s blood pressure at least 20 points, but I might be mistaken on that.

    There is a belief among karateka and Japanese oriented martial artists that there once existed some sort of mystic medieval Japanese warrior code by which samurai lived and died and which survives today through the Japanese version of Okinawan karate and other Japanese martial arts. It included, among other things, complete loyalty to a feudal lord, unflinching dedication in battle, uncompromising focus on perfection, anti-materialism, benevolence toward the less fortunate and ritual suicide in face of dishonor.  It was called budo “the martial way”, or bushido, the “way of the warrior.” But, like much else in our modern world, it is mostly a fantasy. Worse than fantasy, it became propaganda to motivate soldiers to murder.

    There were warrior codes in ancient Japan, but not the budo philosophy we so easily invoke. Samurai were ruthless survivors. They would betray their mothers (and occasionally did) if it improved their status or wealth or kept them alive in battle. The rare time they might commit suicide was in the face of capture and torture. They would benevolently cut the heads off of commoners who didn’t bow low enough. Perfection of technique was for the same reason that Wyatt Earp practiced shooting bean cans – survival.

    The idea of a budo spirit came about during the Tokugawa era, when samurai no longer actually fought each other and violent death became an abstract. Samurai became civil servants and had time to contemplate philosophy, and their myths.

    We like the idea of budo in the dojo, and what we imagine it represents. We want to believe we are emulating nobility, striving for ultimate perfection, reliving the warrior philosophy. It’s all good, a great philosophy by which to live, but budo, as it rolls off the modern tongue in karate parlance, is bogus.

    The idea of a specific and noble way Japanese samurai behaved was brought to the attention of the western world by Inazo Nitobe, who wrote a book called Bushido: the Soul of Japan. It was published in 1899, long after the samurai were gone. The word “bushido”, however, was rarely used in Japan prior to Nitobe’s book and most Japanese of the day never even heard of it.  Nitobe, a Christian who learned English from an early age, lived in isolated Hokkaido with Calvinists, had no training in Japanese history, married an American, attended John Hopkins University and lived much of his adult life in the west.  He wrote the book in English for western readers. It had to be translated into Japanese (against his  wishes).

    In 1899 the West only had a vague understanding of Japan. Japan was building an army and modernizing its government and infrastructure after 277 years of isolation under Tokugawa. Nitobe wanted to write a book that would Saigo Takamori portray his homeland in a favorable light, so he made up the fiction of the noble samurai. Humans, gullible as we always are, embraced it.

    Later on, the Japanese fascist government that burgeoned under Tojo, looking for a way to motivate soldiers, exploited Nitobe’s book to instill the mythological Japan-is-superior-to-the-world, fake samurai ethic in the peasant soldiers it drafted into the army. Real samurai were gone, now anyone could play samurai simply by fighting to the death for Japan and murdering anyone who stood in the way. One only has to look at the “Rape of Nanking” to see how effective it was. Japanese soldiers committed atrocities that would make ISIS proud.

    Post war Japanese karate was populated by men (and occasionally women) who were indoctrinated in, grew up on and preached the same simplistic budo myth – Japanese are superior, Westerners can never understand karate, “traditional” Japanese karate is the only valid art.

    But, alas, there is no traditional Japanese karate. Karate is not a traditional Japanese art.  Japan’s traditional martial arts are bow, lance and sword. Karate is Chinese/Okinawan.  What is commonly referred to as “Traditional Japanese Karate” are the martial arts created in Japan in the 1930’s based on the Okinawan art of ti, by people like Mabuni, Funakoshi, Nakayama and Ohtsuka, then accepted into the Butotukai. If Okinawan karate can be a traditional Japanese martial art, then the hula can surely be a traditional American dance.

    Even that pointless definition, however, has become so misused as to be meaningless. I once attended a seminar for a competitive organization. The moderator said that this organization was only for traditional martial artists and then displayed a screen slide showing the names of the styles therein. One name popped out – Shuri Ryu.

    Shuri Ryu was created out of the imagination of the late American, Robert Trias, in the 1950’s and 1960’s after exposure to some martial art towards the end of the Second World War. The katas he devised bear scant resemblance to any antecedents in Okinawa. If I make up katas to create my own style, will someone call it “traditional” in 50 years? I think the competitive organization’s founders were thinking money more than tradition.

    The battle of Sekigahara, in 1600, was probably the most important battle in Japanese history. Tokugawa Ieyasu had amassed an army of his own combined with the Daimyo’s he had convinced to join him.

    Part of the opposition was the Satsuma clan from Kyushu, under the direction of a man named Shimazu. This was the same group that later conquered Okinawa and arguably provided the impetus for karate. About halfway through the battle, Shimazu decided the fight was a bad idea, took his soldiers, snuck out and went home, leaving his comrades to the mercy of Tokugawa. Such desertions were common in medieval Japan. So much for samurai loyalty.

    At the beginning of the Meiji era, 277 years after Sekigahara, Satsuma descendent Saigo Takamori joined other samurai to make war on modernization in the Satsuma rebellion of 1877. You remember the movie (I have seen it three times).  An alcoholic Tom Cruise finds redemption among a noble group of samurai peacefully practicing batto jiutsu and contentedly living their lives according to the principals of budo when a newly minted, Western mimicking, whiskey drinking, evil capitalist wants to wipe them out to make room for his railroad.

    Hollywood only knows one drum beat, doesn’t it?  A broken American flees the worthless, materialistic society that has alienated him, to find redemption, salvation and a good Emperor Meiji woman, among a pre-industrial society of spiritually superior noble warriors who are being pursued and destroyed by that same American society – dances with samurai. Remember the scene in The Last Samurai where Katsumoto and company ride into town and the lower classes along the way bow. It wasn’t out of respect that they bowed.  It was fear of benevolently getting their heads removed at samurai whim, as was the privilege of the day under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Great budo there!  The masses were only too happy to see the oppressive samurai class dissolved. Saigo Takamori, on the other hand, wasn’t. It meant he would lose his rice stipend, his exalted position in society and have to go to work for a living. No wonder he rebelled. At the end of the Second World War there were Japanese who were tried as war criminals because they used American soldiers’ cadavers, and sometimes living American soldiers to test their sword cuts. Some were found guilty and executed. At least one went on to become a great sword master for American neo-budo-ists due to a lack of evidence.  If one is looking for people who are consummately disciplined, endlessly persevere and strive for ultimate perfection, one need look no further than Olympic athletes.  If one is looking for people who practice the true “way of the warrior”, with honor and dedication to their country and their compatriots, treat the less fortunate benevolently and faithfully follow leaders into battle, one need look no further than the United States Marine Corp. What is traditional karate anyway? Why is Shotokan or Wado Ryu or any other modern style traditional? Should Wado students adhere unerringly to and mimic unflinchingly the art that Ohtsuka made up – Ohtsuka’s rendition of Funakoshi’s rendition of Itosu’s rendition of Matsumura’s rendition of 17th century katas he picked up somewhere in Okinawa or China?  Where does tradition end and mindless imitation begin?

    The Japanese military as well as karate “masters” loved the idea of complete, unquestioning allegiance. It got Japanese soldiers to commit horrible atrocities and created a generation of loyal karate followers who never question a teacher no matter the lack of knowledge or how ridiculous the art taught.

    The word budo is simply a way to look down one’s nose at what other people do. “My karate is more valid than yours because you practice for tournaments and I only practice the real thing, using real bunkai and striving for perfection.”  I teach tournament kata to kids at the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center. The kids there practice and perfect their kata more than you or I or any other “traditional” martial artist ever did.

    You want budo? You want striving for perfection? You want dedication? Come to the dojo on Sunday morning and watch three rooms full of kids diligently repeating katas – quiet as
    a church except the muffled rustling of working uniforms slapping arms and legs. That’s spirit, not some fictitious ethic from medieval Japan.

    If you are interested in a view of the world of early Meiji Japan, where samurai accountants are surprised to encounter one among them who actually knows how to wield a sword, check out a film called Twilight Samurai.  Filmed in Japan by Japanese, it shows another side.

    As for “traditional budo”, you decide, but be careful where you use the words, you might raise someone’s blood pressure too far.

    For more information on this topic, please see: “The Way of Total Bullshit” –

    Mr. Hunt’s 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

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  • The Tragedy of Miyagi Chojun

    August 24, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 15
    The Tragedy of Miyagi Chojun
    By Robert Hunt

    Miyagi and KyodaMiyagi and Kyoda


    One of the tragic characters in modern karate is Miyagi Chojun.

    Venerated today by those who follow his path, Miyagi was one of the first to bring karate out from the shadows. He taught in Okinawan schools after the turn of the century, first under Itosu, by the way. He didn’t teach Higoanna’s nascent style until later on.

    Miyagi spent his entire life studying karate in one form or another. He became renowned in Okinawa and a sort of national hero. In the Okinawan language, they called him Busaa Maagushiku, “Miyagi the karate master.”

    He started with Higaonna at 14 years old in 1902. At times, Higaonna went to Miyagi’s fine house to teach and stayed for dinner. Born poor, Miyagi was adopted by a wealthy uncle who had no sons. This lucky happenstance afforded him the advantage of spending life digging through karate history, rather than scrambling for a living. It also afforded leave to travel to China and to cobble together his system.

    Higaonna Kanryo, Miyagi’s most important influence, studied in China in the 1870’s and 80’s, from, he said, a man named Lu Lu Ko (also known as Ryu Ryu Ko, To Ru Ko, Ka Chin Ga Ru Ru and a few other names). This is probably true, although Lu Lu Ko is an illusive character.

    Higaonna doesn’t seem to have made a big deal about studying from him, although Higa Seiko, who studied with both Higaonna and Miyagi, said that, as a boy, he listened to Higaonna tell his uncle (Higa Seihu) stories about studying with Lu Lu Ko. His uncle also said that Lu Lu Ko even visited Okinawa at one point, but there doesn’t seem to be any corroboration.

    Besides Higaonna’s word and Higa’s memory, the one fact that gives the man’s existence credibility is that Nakaima Kenri, founder of Ryuei Ryu, also said he studied from him. The“Ryu” in Ryuei Ryu, in fact, is in his honor. (The “ei” is the Chinese pronunciation of Nakaima).

    One snag is that Higaonna went to China about 40 years after Nakaima. Higa Seiko said that Higaonna described Lu Lu Ko as a very old man, so that could be valid. Miyagi said he saw Lu Lu Ko’s grave on a 1915 visit to China, which may be true.Someone else alleged that the man died in 1930, which most likely isn’t.

    Another conundrum is that Higaonna’s katas and Nakaima’s are not the same. Aanan, Heiku, Paiku, Ohan and Pachu, all katas that Ryuei Ryu identifies as coming from Lu Lu Ko, were not taught by Higaonna. Why would he learn less katas so many years later? It would be easier to understand the other way around.

    Higaonna most likely taught four kata – Sanchin, Seisan, Sanseiryu and Suparempei (Pechurin), all numbered katas starting with typical White Crane movements. The rest of modern Goju was probably added by Miyagi. Takao Nakaya points out that Kiyoda Juhatsu also studied from Higaonna, and Kiyoda’s style, Tou’on Ryu, only contains those four Higaonna katas (plus Jion from Hanashiro and Nepai, from Go Kenki). Kiyoda was a dedicated student, educated and from a good family. There would be no reason for Higaonna not to teach him the same as Miyagi.

    If all this is true, Miyagi literally created Goju Ryu, not just handed down what Higaonna taught. The Goju katas, including the heavy breathing, are different enough from Tou’on Ryu, as described by Mario McKenna, a Tou’on Ryu instructor from Vancouver BC, to lead one to believe that Miyagi innovated, possibly to fit his larger physique.

    The other Goju katas apparently came from somewhere else. Seiunchin, for example, is documented to have been around Okinawa at least from the middle of the 19th century so it could have been passed on to Miyagi by numerous people.

    The point of this is that the style now known as Goju Ryu was Miyagi’s personal lifework, not just a museum collection of Okinawan katas, like, for example, Mabuni’s. He groomed a successor, Shinzato Jinan to take over the system and kept volumes of work that he had found or written.

    It all crashed when Shinzato died in the war and Miyagi’s work was destroyed in the bombing of Okinawa. The war ended in 1945, Miyagi died in 1953. He had only a few years to piece it together again and he was sick.

    What we end up with are perspectives of Miyagi’s work and opinions of what he intended. We try to recreate Miyagi’s vision from the remnants of his instruction and the people who knew him.

    Miyagi passed on some Goju Ryu to Eiichi Miyazato, who formed the Jundokan upon Miyagi’s death. But Miyazato was only 23 at the end of the war and, for a couple of years, no one in Okinawa was worried about karate training as much as they were about surviving.

    Miyagi also taught Yagi Meitoku, founder of the Meibukan. Yagi started studying at age 14 in 1926, stayed allegiant to Miyagi and opened a dojo in 1949. Yagi also traveled to China and created five katas of his own for his “system”, so what he taught and what his heirs teach would probably not be considered “orthodox” Goju Ryu.

    Yagi has an interesting story of his own. He was descended from the founders of Kume village, the famous 36 families who emigrated from China in 1392. He is purported to be the 17th generation descendant of the legendary Janna Oyakata, an advisor to the king at the time of the Satsuma invasion, who believed Okinawa should remain tied to China. That didn’t fit the Satsuma plan, so they took Oyakata to Japan and executed him. But,admiring his warrior spirit, they allowed one last request which was to perform kata. Oyakata is revered in Okinawa for this valiant final act.

    Yagi MeitokuYagi Meitoku

    Yagi was of great assistance to Miyagi’s family at the time of Miyagi’s death. Several years later, in gratitude for his help, the family gave him Miyagi’s black belt and gi which are still displayed in the Meibukan dojo.

    A third Miyagi student was Higa Seiko. Higa actually started with Higaonna, himself, in 1911, at age 13. He was, in effect, a dojo mate of Miyagi. After Higaonna’s death four years later, Higa followed a young Miyagi as teacher. Higa was 17,Miyagi about 27.

    Higa opened his own dojo in 1931, which years later became known as the Shodokan. He was the only person of whom anyone knows who ever received a certificate from Miyagi to teach. It is proudly displayed in the Higa family home. Although Higa studied from Miyagi, he also studied in China and, like many teachers of the day, developed more or less his own system,adding his own concepts and kata.

    This was normal for the times. No one in Okinawa was proclaiming anything like the modern systems we know today.They carried on more or less in the Okinawan tradition of teaching a few students and expanding their own knowledge.

    Higa SeikoHiga Seiko


    The fourth person of mention as a student of Miyagi is Toguchi Seikichi, although he seems to have been as much a student of Higa as of Miyagi. He started training with Higa in 1932 and trained under both Higa and Miyagi until the war. He was sent to Indonesia in 1942 by the Japanese military and returned to a devastated Okinawa in 1946. He remained part of the Goju circle, later forming his own dojo, the Shoreikan, with his own innovations and eventually moving to Japan.

    Until about the war years, karate was an evolving art, not rigid with orthodoxy. This trend is evident in the Goju Ryu styles that exist today that derive from these teachers.

    Pre-war styles were fluid. Okinawans were studying and experimenting, traveling to China for more information and trying to understand their heritage, much like we are still doing.It was only after the war and the proliferation of Japanese versions of these systems that karate began to calcify around “Masters” with right and wrong ways of performing. Indeed, performing kata was an odd idea early on. Katas were training tools, not for entertainment or competition.Many still hold to that tradition.

    The evolution of karate is reflected in the sad end to Miyagi’s tragic life. Miyagi, himself, was still developing his system when Tojo sacrificed Japan at the altar of Asian domination. Miyagi never finished and his “style” was left incomplete. The only one who really knew it the way Miyagi intended was Shinzato. With Shinzato’s death, as well as the death of three of Miyagi’s children and all of his research destroyed, Miyagi was emotionally broken. He did what he could, but time ran out. The last couple of years he spent teaching from a chair, too sick to stand. When he died, the police escorted his body on the back of an American ammunition wagon and people saluted as he passed.

    Toguchi SeikichiToguchi Seikichi


    The Goju world has been trying to figure it all out ever since. Yagi, Miyazato, Higa and Toguchi all spent time with Miyagi and taught versions of his style, but each one seems to have seen different perspectives, like the five blind men and the elephant. That, combined with their own innovations, makes a lot of Goju Ryu history and technique difficult to verify and piece together.

    Here’s the lesson – don’t wait. Pass on what you know. There’s no point in taking your “secret” art to the grave. This stuff doesn’t belong to you and me anyway. It belongs to the world. To history. To the human race. We didn’t make it up. We just had the fortunate happenstance of stumbling on a dojo and the lucky wisdom to stay.

    Help weave the tapestry.


    This article was gleaned from personal research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy). 

  • Politics

    August 17, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 14
    By Robert Hunt

    Osamu Ozawa in make up for a film part
    Osamu Ozawa in make up for a film part

    Osamu Ozawa, known among karateka for the Las Vegas tournament that bears his name, was an eyewitness to karate in pre and post war Japan. I had the opportunity to travel with him on various jaunts for films or karate in the 90’s. Mr. Ozawa produced Japanese TV programs at one time and helped Dan Ivan in his Japanese movie endeavors, in which I had the good fortune to take part.

    One balmy evening in the early 80’s my wife, Robin, and I picked Mr. Ozawa up at the San Diego airport, at the request of a friend, and ported him to a tournament in Ensenada, Mexico. That evening, in a quiet hotel, with the window ajar and the cool Pacific breeze drifting through the room like a fragrant wraith, he recounted a story that illustrates the political fanaticism that was Japanese karate in the 1955.
    After the war, the Japanese were trying to pull karate together under the Japan Karate Association, the JKA. The idea was to unite the styles under one political umbrella and spread “Japanese” karate around the world, some say to refurbish the Japanese image as a balm on the still open wound of Japanese imperialism. The JKA eventually wound up as only a Shotokan group, but it was supposed to be more ecumenical.
    Not all Japanese wanted the JKA, however.

    Mr. Ozawa recounted to us that evening how he was sent to a meeting of martial artists on some Tokyo back street. Because he had studied with Funakoshi, he was part of the loosely affiliated Shotokan organization, a fragment of which he was supposed to represent.
    Karate has never been ecumenical, that’s why, through 60 years it has yet to enjoy Olympic status – no head instructor would ever concede authority to any other and every pretender to his own throne craved control. I suppose the adage “follow the money” was as much the cause as anything.
    On that dark street, in a seedy section of Tokyo, Ozawa was suddenly confronted by two thugs, one with a sword. They were probably Yakuza, Japanese mobsters who were trying to influence the art (which they eventually did.) They apparently didn’t want Ozawa to attend the meeting.
    When I asked him why, all he said was – politics.
    Whatever the reason, the thug with the sword raised it and attacked. Ozawa said the guy looked amateurish but still wielded a blade that was now slicing the air toward Ozawa’s head. Ozawa, fired up with fear and adrenaline and hardened by the cruel pre- war days of Shotokan training, jammed his left arm up in an instinctive rising block. The sword slashed his forearm. Ozawa shouted and slammed his fist into the man’s face.
    Rising block and punch, two of the first moves many of us learned in karate, proved their usefulness that day. The defiance took the men back and the shout brought attention.
    The two thugs ran. Ozawa dragged himself home, bandaged his wound and forgot about karate politics for 25 years, until, in fact, the evening I picked him up at the San Diego airport. He was about to start his new political career in karate which ultimately ended up with the aforementioned Las Vegas tournament. He rolled his arm over that night in Mexico to reveal the scar, lifted his Tequila and shook his head in wonder.
    Politics defined Japanese karate in those early days. In many ways it still does.
    In answer to a question about karate politics one evening, Demura Sensei casually tossed back that all human interaction is political. And he may be right. But politics seems to be uniquely embedded, right along with the fascination for the sword, in the Japanese soul and the very structure of their language and hierarchical society.
    Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan in 1600, after years of political maneuvering – cajoling, promises, betrayals, alliances, murders and ultimate victory at the battle of Sekigahara. He was a master politician.
    The Japanese occupation of Okinawa, arguably the impetus for the development of karate by a people deprived of weapons, was, in itself, political. The Satsuma, part of the faction who lost at Sekigahara, were allowed to “conquer” Okinawa. Tokugawa wanted them focused south, instead of on revenge against him, at Edo. A brilliant political move -sacrifice Okinawa, preserve your dynasty.
    The Japanese have lived on a few small islands with a too many people for 5,000 years. Polite politics were essential for the society to survive. Their language and their culture reflect it. Everyone has a sempai (senior) or a kohai (junior). Very few sit on equal planes, and everyone seems to instinctively know who bows lower.
    This ingrained inclination towards a smooth running society with an interwoven hierarchy fueled (and fuels) Japanese karate. Money, power, rank, influence and prestige are second nature, with position often more important than ability.
    Years ago, when I was a Sandan, a Japanese teacher from a completely different style offered to promote me to Godan if I would join his organization and help spread it in the United States. Even as a callow, naïve young man, hungering for recognition, I sensed that was a bad idea. After decades of reflection I understand why. If we work towards a goal, a rank, and finally attain 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. Had I accepted that offer, I never would have become a martial artist, but instead would have always been just another politician.
    In Okinawa, karate is generally an individual art. A makiwara and a sweaty gi are non-political. An Okinawa dojo more likely than not will be occupied by a random group of students practicing on their own, with a few black belt instructors floating around correcting and explaining.
    Every dojo in Japan, on the other hand, (and often in the west, by extension) has lines of students performing the exact same techniques, trying to look exactly alike, with a senior counting cadence.

    Karate sprang from a gentleman warrior culture as a way to prepare oneself for individual battle. Endless repetitions of strengthening exercises and the practice of fighting basics epitomized the training, much like one might see in the UFC, or any wrestling team. Japanese karate, in contrast, is defined by working one’s way through a color hierarchy to achieve the ultimate award of the black belt. The ability to actually survive battle is secondary.

    Nothing says that one is better than the other. In fact, a good argument can be made that turning karate into a political sport and motivating people through belt colors is what created a worldwide phenomenon and preserved the art.
    Whatever the case, this is the karate tapestry. It grows and expands, with so much interwoven fabric that a fighting art that is sport, philosophical path, physical education, hobby, way of life, political organization or occupation assumes so many realities that it is impossible to unravel.
    At 21, Osamu Ozawa was chosen by the Japanese military to be a kamikaze pilot near the end of the war. That privilege was a death call. Kamikazes didn’t return. They also didn’t use very good airplanes and, as fate would have it, his rickety one flipped over on takeoff and he ended up in a hospital. When he came to, the war was over. Talk about resigning oneself to death.
    In later years he moved to the United States and became a dealer in a Las Vegas casino, a much less noble pursuit than sacrificing life for country, but, in the end, I would expect, much more pleasant. He remained close to karate, and got serious about it again in the 80’s (after that trip to Ensenada) and lived the rest of his life as a karate “master”.
    His life spanned a rare corner of the modern karate landscape, from brutal pre-war training, to near death at the hands of a fanatic military government and then again at the hands of a fanatic Yakuza thug at the time of the political birth of our art, to running one of the biggest
    tournaments in the country.
    That life developed within him an iron will. Although, in the end, sickly and frail, he vowed to remain alive through one last tournament. It was a self-declared obligation he fulfilled. He died shortly after.

    Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Ivan passing time on a film set.Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Ivan passing time on a film set.

    Was he any good at karate? Was he a figurehead? Was he a politician? Was he the creation of a smart promoter? Or was he a classic warrior?
    I don’t know. But he certainly reflected the politics of our art and was a colorful thread in the tapestry that we are all weaving together.

  • Reflections

    August 10, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 13


    By Robert Hunt

    Dan Ivan 1948

       “As I walked through the neighborhood of fallen concrete buildings and remaining ashes of those that burned, the smell of hibachi cooking permeated the air. Looking around in the darkness I could see small flickering flames, fires built in cans to keep warm. It was Japan after the Second World War. It might as well have been Mars.” Dan Ivan, American karate pioneer, 2005

    Dan Ivan landed in Japan in 1948 with the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID). He recounted the above description to the author one quiet evening in his modest home in the desert north of Palm Springs, California, toward the end of his life.

       He studied karate after the war from Yamaguchi Gogen and also Obata Isao, an early protégé of Funakoshi. He received his aikido black belt from Gozo Shioda and received a shodan in judo and kendo as well. His years in Japan at the end of the war and his time in karate gave him a unique perspective.
       Mr. Ivan experienced both the dojo art as well as the martial art of karate, studying on hard wood floors by day and walking deadly streets at night. He also knew the sport, promoting countless tournaments over 40 years in the United States.
       He offers a unique perspective on karate after the war. To hear him tell of post war Japan was a mesmerizing experience.
       “The light bulb swayed back and forth on one bare wire, scattering light and shadow on the dark staircase below, randomly, like a shaky moonbeam on a cloudy night. I stared down the basement staircase and wondered if karate was worth the risk. The bombed-out buildings had the feel of a concrete graveyard, and who knew what the shouts meant?
       “Finally I mustered up some courage, took a few tentative downward steps and crouched to catch a glimpse of the room below. It was filled with Japanese men in white uniforms and they didn’t look happy. It was three years after the end of the war, miles away from where most Americans wandered and worlds away from any place I had ever been.
       “I eased my way down and stood there staring, not sure what to do. A room full of Asian heads rotated my way and I was certain, at least very afraid, that wartime memories might still prevail.
       “The teacher was short and solid, with shoulder length hair. He stopped class with a gesture. I bowed, the teacher bowed and I told him that I had been studying judo on the Army base. This guy happened to know my judo teacher and that was the binding factor. He smiled. I exhaled. He welcomed me to sit and watch and went back to his class. The guy turned out to be the later famous Gogen Yamaguchi, the “Cat” and we have been friends ever since.”Dan Ivan 2005
       Japan, at the end of the Second World War was devastated, virtually pounded into rubble by American bombing. Survival itself was the primary concern. Crime was rampant.
       Broken, defeated people in Okinawa and in Japan joined together to punch and kick in burned out buildings and fields. Why? Because karate transcends human experience. Karate, ageless and endless, more than your and my travails, breaks loose and finds its own path like water down a hill.

    The karate tapestry is made up of a millennium of people seeking its secrets and passing them on. Dan Ivan was one, Mabuni Kenwa was another. When a young Dan Ivan stumbled on karate at the end of the war, Mabuni was an old man with but four years left to live. They were separate link in the chain and their shadows crossed in the unique world of karate.

       Mabuni Kenwa was the second prominent person to arrive in Japan from Okinawa (in 1929, after Funakoshi) with a book full of karate. Born in 1889, Mabuni was the 17th generation descendent of an Okinawan warrior (Bushi) named Uni Ufugusuku Kenyu, a heritage from before the Japanese occupation. At about 13 years old, in 1902, he began studying with Itosu. Mabuni was friends with Miyagi who, in 1909, introduced him to Higaonna from whom he also studied, but probably not for long. Mabuni entered the military shortly thereafter for a couple of years and Higaonna died in 1915.
       It was Mabuni and Miyagi who did much to forge modern karate out of an anachronistic fighting art past its time. They formed the research society to organize and further the teachings of Itosu and Higaonna.
       Itosu and Higaonna were legends in Okinawa, so venerated that Mabuni felt an obligation to define and pass on their teachings. It’s as if you had learned gun fighting from Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok. When Itosu died, Mabuni practiced kata every morning for a year beside his grave.
       Mabuni started to create a style based on Itosu’s and Higaonna’s methods. He first called it Hanko Ryu, the “Half Hard Style”. Mabuni’s knowledge of kata and bunkai was called “encyclopedic” and his style reflects that, incorporating most of the Okinawan kata known at the time.
       When he later presented his style for acceptance by the Japanese Butokukai, he changed the name to “Shito Ryu” to reflect the two major influences on modern Okinawan karate of the day and his teachers – Itosu and Higaonna. “Shi” and “To” are alternate pronunciations of the first kanji of Itosu and Higaonna’s names.
       But Mabuni also changed the arts themselves to create his own vision, his own combination of Goju and Shorin. Shorin katas use a stance called renoji dachi, similar to a Shotokan back stance. Mabuni changed the renoji dachi stances to the Goju Ryu “cat” stance throughout his new style. He also straightened some of the angles of the Goju katas (Seipai, for example) into linear movements apparently to preserve the linear feel of Shorin. The style became light and fast with the cat stances and a shorter front stance.
       These changes have made for pretty tournament winning combinations, but illustrate the move away from martial applicability. Rare is the cat stance in any form of actual combat art – from judo, to boxing, to wrestling to MMA. Standing on one foot and tip toeing on the other is a shaky position, easily off balanced. But it looks pretty.
       The genius of Mabuni’s style was encompassing all of Okinawan karate and, in that tradition, it has further absorbed most of what has come to light since. He amalgamated thirty some katas from Shorin and Goju, then made a few up himself. Since then other Shito Ryu schools have added a plethora of bassai katas, Ryuei Ryu katas and a sampling of other stuff that popped up over the years. A person can get a general education in Okinawan martial arts by studying this one style. The drawback is that much of it is superficial. It almost has to be, containing so much material. To understand the katas in depth requires searching out older versions.
       Mabuni was exceptionally schooled in the martial arts. Besides Itosu and Higaonna, he studied kata and bo from Aragaki Seisho, sai from Towada Meganto, tuite (striking techniques) from an old warrior named Sakumoto and even dabbled at ninjutsu. He was considered the most knowledgeable martial artist to come out of Okinawa.
       Mabuni died not long after the war, in 1952, and his eldest of four sons, Kenei, claimed leadership (Soke). Later, Mabuni’s third son, Kenzo, also claimed to be Soke, so there ended up being two Soke’s in Mabuni’s Shito Ryu (although several people have since started off-shoot styles and also claimed the title). When third son Kenzo died in 2005, he was succeeded as Soke by his daughter.
       Mabuni taught classic karate and died long before the modern tournament era, but his amalgamated style, with its light, fast movement and endless list of kata has become a common favorite of today’s competitors.     Mabuni KenwaMabuni Kenwa
       Mabuni would be happy with tournaments, despite their drawbacks. To attain tournament excellence, students grill his kata into their muscles and bones until they drop, movements that once were grilled in similar fashion by Okinawan Bushi over 400 years. The goal isn’t combat anymore, tournament katas are only reflections of combat, but the discipline it takes to get there, and the sweat, instill many of the same characteristics that developed in the ancient warriors – perseverance, determination, endless repetition, perfection of the body, mind and spirit – in essence, the elements of do, the “way” we pursue.
       We think we know karate. We haunt dojos and learn katas. But we don’t know karate. All we know is a modern reflection of it, like an image in an ancient pool. Karate is much more than that. Karate is human experience. Fear. Power. Perseverance. Insecurity. Struggle. Failure. Triumph. Life. Death. People like Dan Ivan and Mabuni Kenwa knew this.
       They never met. They practiced different versions of the Okinawan art, but they both carried the path of the ancient warrior into modern times and dropped it on our doorsteps, (in Mr. Ivan’s case, literally) for us to retrieve and faithfully carry into the future.

    May they rest in peace.

  • Adrift

    August 4, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 12
    By Robert Hunt

    Oyama and bull
    Oyama and bull

    Once karate migrated from Okinawa and found fertile ground in Japan, everything changed. Linked to its Okinawan source, anchored by the old teachers and centuries of tradition, it remained, at least in intent, a fighting art with applications. Once unhinged from those roots, it emerged as whatever someone imagined – a sport, a capitalist’s dream, a political platform, a movie. When a boat breaks loose of its mooring, it drifts in whatever direction the currents lead. Such was karate outside of Okinawa. With no seniors around, with no heritage to which to be true, it drifted, and the inevitable shore on which it ran aground was…sports. The first Okinawan to introduce karate to Japan was Funakoshi Gichin. He was also one of the first to significantly alter the art. He and his son Gigo made many of the innovations that eventually became modern Shotokan – the wider stances, the exaggerated side kicks. Gigo died at the end of the war years, Funakoshi died in 1957. His student Nakayama Masatoshi continued to innovate and is probably the person most responsible for turning Funakoshi’s Okinawan karate into the Japan Karate Association sport vehicle.

    Funakoshi Gigo
    Funakoshi Gigo

    Funakoshi, Gigo and/or Nakayama created kata like Unsu (from Mabuni’s original version) and Empi (from the old Shorin version of Wanshu). Nakayama’s goal was to create routines that would be sport applicable – more athletic in nature (than martial). The taboo of adapting karate to something other than a fighting art had already been breached. Itosu had purged many of the kata of “deadly” techniques when he introduced karate to school children in 1901. His goal was to create strong bodies and moral citizens for Japan – not killer kids. It was a short step for Funakoshi to change them further. Funakoshi even changed the names. His explanation was to make them more relevant to Japanese people, give them Japanese names based on some element of the kata in place of the original Chinese ones. Wanshu was a kata named for a Chinese emissary to Okinawa in the 1600’s. Funakoshi dubbed it “Empi”, the Flying Swallow, and added a jump to illustrate. Kushanku was named for the 18th century Chinese who introduced his martial art to Okinawa. Funakoshi renamed it “Kanku”, the Rising Moon. It sounded something like Kushanku, had a philosophical ring to it and the first movement kind of looked like a person might be gazing at the moon through open fingers.

    Funakoshi’s reasoning is plausible but probably not authentic.

    In 1935, when Funakoshi was molding his art, the Japanese were attacking China to control natural resources throughout Asia. Funakoshi longed for his art to be accepted by the Japanese – impossible with Chinese names.  As usual, the desired narrative trumped veracity. Some say there was another reason. Okinawans are proud of their heritage and protective of it. Funakoshi was changing centuries old katas. As long as he gave them new names, he avoided explanations. People point fingers and accuse, but, the truth is, nothing stays the same, life is change, and so with karate.

    Funakoshi and Nakayama
    Funakoshi and Nakayama

    Over the centuries karate went through numerous changes, but, there were three major 20th century changes that affected what you and I do. The first was the reveal of karate from a secret fighting art to a public one, practiced by commoners after the 1868 Meiji “Restoration”, culminating in 1901 when Itosu started teaching in schools. No longer secret knowledge reserved for a few, it became the property of mankind and began the transformation from jutsu, a fighting art, to do, a way of life. The second change took place in the 1920’s when “research societies” organized and preserved this bit of Okinawan heritage. It became an academic pursuit as well as a martial one. Where did it originate? What is kata, anyway? Who taught whom? The third change, and the one that probably affects the 21st century student the most, was when karate took root in Japan proper. In Okinawa, the study was all about origins and methods, bunkai and history. In Japan, karate became sports and…politics.

    Organizations emerged, and “styles”. Systems were formed. Syllabi were developed for testing. Rank was bestowed on those who could mimic movement. The art became calcified in stances and basics. “Right” and “wrong” ways of performing kata became a common mind-set based, not on martial practicality, but on Mabuni’s slant, or Funakoshi’s or Otsuka’s or someone else’s. It wasn’t trivial, especially to the Okinawans (who still resent it). But, you and I have a lot for which to be thankful. Japan spread it around the world. The Okinawans never would have. We may not like that it changed, but at least we had the opportunity to learn it. Unless we were with the United States occupation forces, we may never have even seen it. There were hundreds of styles that sprang up after the war, founded by people who thought their way was the way. Martial arts were prohibited by McArthur, but karate dojo’s started anyway in the burned out buildings and basements of war torn Japan. Within a couple of years the prohibition was relaxed and dojo’s started popping up like ping pong balls in a swimming pool.

    Shotokan, Wado Ryu, Shito Ryu, Goju Ryu, Chito Ryu, Kyokushin, Uechi Ryu and a hundred others existed in Japan in the 50’s. And, as the Japanese are wont to do, they “organized” things, packaged karate into digestible bites with names for every possible movement or combination thereof. They tried for a unifying organization with the JKA, but karate people are an independent lot. An overarching banner never gained momentum. Olympic acceptance has been illusive for that very reason. Nishiyama and the JKA vied early on. Not much has changed since.

    In 1964, four styles were eventually christened “major” styles and grew to prominence – Goju, Shotokan, Wado and Shito. These still boast the largest following worldwide, although many small styles exist. (Nambu Kai, an off-shoot Shito Ryu organization run by Shigeki Uemura, an old friend, comes to mind.) That isn’t to say that these styles are intact as envisioned. They have fractured over time as politics and ego reared their heads. It’s hard to be an Indian when its such fun (and lucrative) to be Chief. But karate styles are a double edged sword. On one hand they opened karate up to the world as each sought to propagate itself. That’s how many of us, probably most, got involved. It allowed us to practice the ancient martial art in a modern setting. If the styles had not emerged, the randomness of the art would have impeded its growth. But styles also mean orthodoxy. This is the right way, that is the wrong way. The desire to make everyone look exactly alike is embedded in the modern art. Conformity is inherent in Japanese culture and nowhere more so than karate. Many a kata competition was won or lost because a judge thought a person turned fingers the wrong way, used the wrong stance or stepped forward with the wrong foot.

    After all these years, some tournament organizations have finally given up the idea of standard kata and no longer judge on such mundane criteria as putting the correct foot forward. Tradition is supposed to be adhered to, but dojo innovation is allowed. At first that felt strange, but as one considers the idea, it begins to have merit. Karate no longer has to be a mimicked performance, and the idea of a teacher teaching a student becomes more important than a universal, prescribed pattern.

    Of course it can also lead to gymnastics doubling as karate. Only time will tell.

    The Japanese saw karate through the lens of their budo mystique, deeming it a “do” sport, like judo and kendo, making it their own and tying it into their 5000 year old military history and “Way of the Warrior” mythology, ideas that were never part of the art in Okinawa. In fact, Japanese karate did become incredibly militaristic. Osamu Ozawa once described what training was like as a young man in prewar Japan – brutal to the point of sadistic.

    Torn from its Okinawan roots, karate became whatever someone wanted to make it. The Korean-Japanese strong man, Mas Oyama, (born Choi Yeong-eui) re-envisioned karate as a sort of no-holds-barred smash fest in his Kyokushinkai organization. He traveled the United States and demonstrated alongside studio wrestlers. He fought bulls in mock events, supposedly hacking off horns with knife hand strikes. This is about where many of us came in. Karate is an ecumenical art, that is to say anyone can do it and do it alone. We don’t need a sword. We don’t need a partner. We don’t need a mat. With a bit of introduction we can start down the path and eventually become master of our own universe.

    But we need an anchor, lest our art drift so far from its origin that it loses all sense of historical meaning and martial reality. We need a link to the past, something that resonates in our collective soul and moderates our future, some sign that the game with which we fiddle so intently has a heritage that is more important, more human, more real than our tournament squabbles and plated medallions.

    We need Okinawa.

  • Après la Guerre

    July 27, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 11

    Après la Guerre

    By Robert Hunt

    Oyata SeiyuOyata Seiyu


    Over 107,000 Japanese soldiers died in the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the Second World War and 100,000 Okinawan civilians, one fifth of the population. Women committed suicide, some taking their children with them, because the Japanese said Americans would rape and torture them.

    The island was obliterated, Shuri Castle reduced to rubble, almost all written archives destroyed, including, of course, karate.

    The Americans needed the island as a base for its final attack on the Japan. Tojo wanted a buffer to hold them at bay until he could negotiate a treaty that wouldn’t force a complete surrender. He planned to fortify southern Japan with every person who could carry a gun to slow the American invasion.

    The atomic bomb ended the war.

    The melancholy rebirth of a nation has a peculiar feel to it, at the same time in shock but hopeful of the future. The French gave a name to the confusing period – après la guerre, after the war.

    With nothing left but rubble, the Okinawans began to rebuild their country and their martial art. Many had nowhere to live. Chinen Teruo tells of his family moving back to Okinawa from Japan after the war, now sans father, and living under a makeshift canvas by an uncle’s house (in Miyagi’s neighborhood). When there was some semblance of habitat, the karate world began to piece itself together again.

    The Ryu Kyu islands came under U.S control and remained so until “reversion” in 1972. The Okinawans realized that American soldiers weren’t going to hurt them and life went on. The Okinawans had little to sell, but the one treasure they did have was their ancient art and it was American soldiers who found it…and bought it.

    Karate’s heart had been devastated. Mabuni, Funakoshi, and Motobu had moved to Japan. Most of the early research society members were dead. Chibani and Miyagi were the only seniors left. Chibana was over 60 and Miyagi had lost children, all of his archived writings and studies, Shinzato, his karate heir killed in the final years of the war, his health – and his home.

    Chibana was the first to teach again – in a field – and a few old students returned. Miyagi started his open air school in the ruins of his house, his “Garden Dojo” and students filtered back.

    But the years après la guerre were crushingly difficult. People were too busy rebuilding lives to devote time to karate.

    It wasn’t until the fifties, when life began to recover and American soldiers discovered karate, that it began to live again. The Americans had money and the Okinawan instructors found willing disciples among them.

    Uechi KanbunUechi Kanbun

       Uechi Kanbun was Okinawan but didn’t start teaching there. He started teaching his Pangainoon style in Japan. He moved back to Okinawa after the war and opened shop in Itoman. He died in 1948 of kidney failure and his son Kanei took up the task. Uechi Ryu was born. Soldiers like George Mattson found Uechi Kanei and Ueichi Ryu. Sensei Mattson received his black belt in 1958 and still runs his organization and provides instruction from his home in Florida.

    The fifties were a time of both tradition and innovation. This dichotomy can be seen with the Shimabuku brothers, Eizo and Tatsuo.

       Shimabuku Shinkichi took the name “Tatsuo” (Dragon Boy) after creating and naming his own style. His patch came from a vision he had of a sea dragon goddess (or a picture on someone’s wall). He called his style Isshin (One Heart).

    Shimabuku TatsuoShimabuku Tatsuo

    He had studied with Miyagi, Kyan and others and synthesized his own version based around Shorin-Ryu and Gojuryu, along with innovations, one of which was the vertical fist punch, the signature move of his style. Because of his unorthodox karate, he was sort of an outcast among other Okinawan teachers, but popular among Americans.

    During WWII, Japanese soldiers found out that Tatsuo knew karate and shielded him from the draft in return for instruction. Ironically, it was American Marines who found his dojo in the 50’s and became some of the first Americans trained in Okinawan karate.

    His brother, Shimabuku Eizo, 20 years younger, studied with Tatsuo as a child. Tatsuo introduced him to Miyagi, Kyan and Motobu Choki for further training. Eizo, a bit of a character, practiced at night in the graveyard to “purify his spirit”. He dabbled with his brother’s innovations but returned to the more traditional, forming Shobayashi Shorin Ryu with the intent of preserving the Kyan lineage.

    In order to assure authenticity, he put on a white belt and performed his katas for Chibana and Chibana’s student, Nakazato Shuguro, to make sure they were correct in the classical way (Kyan’s way). Eizo trained numerous Americans, among them the late Joe Lewis, of tournament fame in the 70’s and 80’s. Eizo’s American students introduced the lead leg side kick and the spin back kick to tournament karate.

    Another post war figure was Nagamine Shoshin, recognized in both Okinawa and Japan for his prowess and knowledge. He was a student of Kyan and, like Shimabuku, preserved Kyan’s version, but along with some Shuri katas – a combination of Tomari and Shuri techniques. He combined Matsumora’s (Tomari) and Matsumura’s (Shuri) names to create his Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu system. Japanese karate teachers Kuniba, Hayashi and Oshima all traveled to Okinawa to study with him.


    Shimabuku Zenryo, no relation to the Shimabuku’s mentioned above, began training with Hanashiro and Yabu as a child and later became a student of Kyan before the war. After the war he taught in an open field until 1962 when he built a dojo and started the Seibukan (the Holy Art School), based on Kyan’s instruction.

    It is interesting that most of the post war Okinawan Shorin Ryu karate that eventually found it’s way to the west came from students of Kyan and reflect his mix of Tomari and Shuri styles, rather than pure Itosu Shorin-Ryu, the back bone of the Japanese styles – Shito Ryu, Shotokan and Wado Ryu. This explains why the embusen, the pattern of the katas, is somewhat different.

    Miyagi died in 1953. His Goju Ryu spawned several teachers, none inclined to acknowledge another as senior. Higa Seiko had been a Miyagi student 30 years earlier and started his own Goju-Ryu dojo, but, although he was the only one that Miyagi had ever awarded a certificate to teach, others didn’t follow him. Yagi Meitoku was given Miyagi’s belt and gi by Miyagi’s family but other instructors didn’t follow him either. Toguchi Seikichi studied a little from Miyagi, then studied from Higa and his son Higa Seikichi. He also started his own style claiming authenticity, but moved to Japan and his impact ebbed. Miyazato Eizo was a young Miyagi student and judo player and cobbled together a following in his own dojo, the Jundokan. Some see him as Miyagi’s protégé but there is little agreement in the Goju world.

    Higa SeikoHiga Seiko

    Okinawan karate quickly became overshadowed internationally by the Japanese styles that came to dominate. Japan had power, influence, people and money, all things Okinawa lacked. That being said, the difference in technique can sometimes be striking. Okinawan karate maintains a strong, solid base and allegiance to bunkai, less affected by tournament competition than Japanese styles.

    I saw this difference first hand on more than one occasion. As regards Goju Ryu, I had been exposed to Yamaguchi’s “soft” form. At a Dan Ivan tournament in Santa Ana, California, about 1975, I watched a young Marine named Lee Gray stomp through a kata (Sanseiryu) that was more powerful than I had seen in any style. With a flash of perspicacity rare to my young, clouded brain, I introduced myself and, over the next 40 years, occasionally absorbed some of that Okinawan based power. Sensei Gray still teaches in Amarillo, Texas.

    I also had the opportunity to practice with a Shorin Ryu teacher, the late Dan Carrington, in the lineage of Okuhara Buni, Nakama Chozo and Kyan. He practiced a typical Okinawan no-nonsense style of karate kata that maintains the original bunkai, something that is often lost, or egregiously misinterpreted, in modern Japanese karate.

    There were other notable Okinawans in the post war years.

    Soken HohanSoken Hohan

     Soken Hohan returned to Okinawa from Argentina in 1952 after 30 years there and taught what he said he had learned from Bushi Matsumura’s son, Nabe. Soken preferred to speak old Okinawan (or Spanish) instead of Japanese. Nakazato Joen, a friend of Shimabuku Zenryo and student of Kyan, started a style he called Shorinji-Ryu which has a strong following today.

    Oyata Seiyu said he learned functional weapons and striking techniques from an old palace guard named “Ugushiku no Tanme” (Ugushiku the Old Man). Oyata eventually became famous in the United States for his tuite manipulation techniques and kyusho jutsu strikes which are purported to easily render a person unconscious.

    Okinawa gave up the vanguard of karate to Japan after the war. I’m not all that sure they ever wanted it. Okinawans aren’t inclined to large organizations, power struggles and politics. They seem to be more interested in understanding and developing the martial art that is their heritage.

    Oyata SeiyuOyata Seiyu

    Each of the teachers mentioned here really deserves an entire chapter, but space does not allow it here, maybe later.

    Much has changed in the ensuing years, but Okinawans guard their precious treasure like gold and the heart of karate still resides in the Ryu Kyu islands.


    This article was gleaned from my personal research as well as the work of John Sells (Unante) and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).

  • The Others

    July 20, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 10

    The Others

    By Robert Hunt


    We understand karate through the prism of a style. That’s how it was handed down from men who tried to preserve and organize it, each to his own vision. We are grateful to them.

    But karate styles are a 20th century phenomenon and, for the most part, the second half of the 20th century. From Okinawa, we know of Itosu, Higaonna, Miyagi, Mabuni, Uechi, Funakoshi, Shimabukuro because of the styles they created or fostered and because, for whatever reason, those styles endured, flourished and took root in the east and west.

    But there were others who populated the early world of Okinawan karate during its modern infancy whose names we should know and remember, if we are to grasp the entire spectrum of our martial art rather than just the corner of karate on which we first stumbled.

    Funakoshi popularized karate in Japan. Mabuni amalgamated it. Miyagi researched and synthesized. But what they were working with was hugely affected by the other karate students/teachers/masters around them, who didn’t form organizations, or send out emissary instructors, or happen to teach entrepreneurial American soldiers.

     Aragaki Seisho, dubbed Maaya (The Cat), bequeathed us the katas Unsu, Niseishi (Nijushiho), Seisan and Seiunchin, plus Aragaki no Sai, and Aragaki no Kon.Aragaki

    The kata Unsu, filtered through Mabuni’s style to end up modified by Nakayama for Shotokan competition, is among the most popular tournament katas of our day. Most of Aragaki’s katas have, as their embusen (their structure), a centrally placed protagonist defending attackers from various angles, much like the Taoist Chinese martial art of Bagua (Eight Trigrams) from which it may have evolved.Aragaki

    Aragaki was recorded as performing an exhibition of the kata Seisan in 1867 at the festival given for the departure of the last Chinese emissary to Okinawa before the Meiji Restoration. It was the first written recording of karate in Okinawa. Aragaki was also Higaonna’s first teacher.

       Aragaki was recorded as performing an exhibition of the kata Seisan in 1867 at the festival given for the departure of the last Chinese emissary to Okinawa before the Meiji Restoration. It was the first written recording of karate in Okinawa. Aragaki was also Higaonna’s first teacher.
    He died in 1918, a couple of years after Higaonna.
     Yabu Kentsu was called “The First Soldier” of karate because he joined the Japanese army in 1890. Fifty Okinawans applied and only three were accepted – Yabu Kentsu, Hanashiro Chomo and Kenyu Kudeken – all Itosu students.

       Ironically, Yabu’s son, Kenden, was a pacifist who moved to America to live his life in a Christian country. Because of this, Yabu was also the first Okinawan karate teacher to visit the United States (in 1921). He came twice and, on his way home after the second visit, spent some time teaching in Hawaii, making him, additionally, the first Okinawan to teach in America.
       Yabu and Hanashiro, Itosu’s young students, did the actual teaching in school in 1901 under Itosu’s direction. They both appear in a classic 1936 photo with Miyagi and others, of an early karate research organization.
       The fact that he joined the Japanese army when many of his countrymen fled to China to escape the draft is significant. His teacher, Itosu, was a firm believer in Okinawa’s place as part of Japan. Many Okinawans weren’t, Yabu’s son apparently among them.
       Yabu died in 1937.
    Hanashiro Chomo was also one of the first students of Itosu. A young Hanashiro initially taught gymnastics and was encouraged by Itosu to introduce karate techniques into his instruction. He taught in the first public school karate class in 1901 with Yabu, and was part
    of the first research organization, the Kenkyu Kai, along with Mabuni and others, formed in 1918 to preserve Itosu’s teachings.
       In one of the first books on karate, Hanashiro used the translation “Empty Hand” for Tode, the first person to use it publicly.
    It was a big step away from Chinese influence and toward Japan. In the 1920’s he was one of the leading teachers for karate instruction.
       Hanashiro died in 1945 in the battle of Okinawa.
       Kyan Chotoku is a favorite character. He has the very notable martial lineage of having actually studied with Bushi Matsumura towards the end of Matsumura’s life. Kyan was born into Okinawan nobility in 1870. He was very small and weak but his father succeeded in getting him on with the old Master. He went on to study and teach karate for the next 65 years.
       The many legends that surround him are colorful to say the least. He was alleged to have punched a stubborn horse on the side of the head, ringing it to its knees and turning it meek. He is also alleged to have killed several men in unarmed combat.
       Kyan studied in both Shuri and Tomari and is responsible for preserving many of the old versions of kata. He is, in fact, the one who passed on Chatanyara Kushanku to us.Kyan died in 1945 in an internment camp after the war. MatsuMatsu
       Matsu Kinjo (also Macha Buntaku among a few other names) went to China with Higaonna but, unlike Higaonna, stayed to study for 18 years. He returned to Okinawa and was deemed a great martial artist but never taught anyone. He considered what he knew too deadly to pass on. This makes one ponder anew what karate once was and how much it changed by the time it got to us. What did he know that he considered too deadly to teach and from whom did he learn it?
    Matsu died, like so many others, in 1945.
       Chibana Chosin, like Kyan, was a first person witness to karate well into our modern age. He was born in 1885, began with Itosu in 1900 and died in 1969. He was one of the lucky ones to make it through World War II and worked in a sugar cane field at age 60. He was the first person to start teaching karate in Okinawa after the war (in 1946).
       Chibana organized Kobayashi Shorin Ryu in 1933, an Okinawan style that still exists today. Kobayashi means “Small Forest” as does Shorin, named after the fabled Shaolin Monastery. He believed, as did Itosu, that karate came from the Shaolin. We are not certain why they were so sure.
       He was part of the original 1918 Kenkyu Kai, and is truly a link in the karate chain and a big, colorful stitch in the tapestry. ChibanaChibana
       Speaking of links, Fumio Demura said that he once had the opportunity to study with Chibana. Chibana talked about the move in Pinan Yondan where one turns left and then right with an out stretched fist, a front kick and elbow strike (back hand, side kick and elbow strike in Shotokan). Chibana said that, when he originally learned the move from Itosu, the out stretched fist was an open handed eye jab. Itosu closed the fist to teach kids in middle school a less dangerous art.
       Here’s a karate coincidence to ponder. If Chibana hadn’t mentioned that to Demura and, if Demura hadn’t mentioned it in an off-the-cuff conversation I was part of, I probably would never have heard it and would go on eternally assuming that the strange move was some kind of unorthodox block that never really worked, or (if you practice Shotokan), “Would a back knuckle strike and a side kick at the same time really work?”
       Ohtsuka of Wado Ryu must have felt the same frustration as the rest of us trying to associate some logic with the move. He simply turned it into a down block in his version of the katas.
       The late Dan Ivan, one quiet evening in his desert hideaway, explained that the theory behind a technique like Chibana’s from Pinan Yondan formed a crucial part of his own defense theory, when he was with the American CID in Japan in 1949, studying martial arts and chasing criminals through dark alleys and back streets.
       “Attack the eyes, the knees and the throat,” he said, “remove the vision, mobility and the ability to breathe.”
       It was a perfect, real world example of the use and wisdom of an ancient martial arts technique, almost lost because Itosu changed it, but ultimately preserved, at least for me, because Chibana had the presence of mind to mention it in a seminar with Demura.
       The early karate masters were attempting to learn a song without music and often ended up playing it by ear. Karate became very popular in Okinawa once it was revealed. It still is. But hardly anyone knew what it really was, it had been so secret. These men worked to define the essence of the art and package it into digestible bites so we can learn it. They were the root that showed the way to the teachers who gifted it to us.
       This article was gleaned from my personal research as well as the work of John
    Sells (Unante) and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).
  • Form – Mabuni and Miyagi

    July 13, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 9
    Mabuni and Miyagi
    By Robert Hunt

    If Itosu and Higaonna brought karate out of darkness, it was Miyagi and Mabuni who gave it light, or at least a light that shines on many of us. Where they learned their kata, who taught them, where those kata came from is still a considerable mystery. We thought we knew once, back when we knew everything. But, the more we learn, the less we know. In his latest book, Karatedo History and Philosophy, Takao Nakaya postulates that Higaonna may have never learned any kata in China at all during his alleged “draft dodger” years. Maybe there never was a Lu Lu Ko or maybe he was long gone when Higaonna arrived and Higaonna just needed a cover story. Maybe that’s why Nakaima claimed the same teacher 40 years earlier and why Miyagi never found Lu Lu Ko on his quest after Higaonna’s death.

    The trail of kata from Higaonna and Itosu to Miyagi, Mabuni and the rest is not, as noted, linear. Mabuni, for example, is alleged to have learned all Higaonna’s kata from Higaonna directly and incorporated them in Shito Ryu. That was the story. But Mabuni started with Higaonna about 1909 and went to the military about 1910 for three years. Higaonna died in 1915. Seems like a short time to learn 8 kata (well). Whatever the case, these two men, Miyagi Chojun and Mabuni Kenwa, were central to the development of Okinawan karate. Miyagi trekked to China in search of more hidden knowledge. They formed, along with the likes of Hanashiro, Kyan, Chibana and others, training groups to study and research karate, its history and its techniques – compare notes so to speak.

    Miyagi teaching Seiunchin
    Miyagi teaching Seiunchin

    Mabuni stitched together a virtual encyclopedia of Okinawan karate with his Shito style, based on the work of his two teachers, Itosu and Higaonna, hence the name (look it up). But, in many cases, Shito is superficial and requires more research to plumb the depth of the kata. Like an encyclopedia, however, it introduces – lets us know what exists. It was during these years, the 1920’s, that karate sacrificed much of its “martial” essence. It grew into more of a pastime than a way of fighting. The differences in styles revolve around variations in movement, not effectiveness of technique. A hundred years earlier karate fighters were feared. I get the feeling that, although respected, Mabuni, Miyagi, Hanashiro, and the rest, with the possible exception of Kyan, were not feared. Karate in 1925 was a jumble. Higaonna, Itosu and Aragaki were gone down the river of life and their protégés were left to sort it all out, master the language without a book. They had to paste together some semblance of organization, create it out of thin air. And none of them thought to right the story of their own efforts down, or, if they did, it was annihilated in 1945. So we still flounder from one tidbit of information to another even about them, believing shadow as fact.

    For almost 40 years I have wondered, for example, why, if they both studied from Higaonna, did Miyagi and Mabuni’s versions of what were supposedly Higaonna’s kata, differ so, and which was closer to the original. I still don’t know. Gives me a headache. What we do know is that Miyagi and Mabuni made a commendable effort to sort it all out for us. Miyagi cobbled together an approach based on Higaonna’s work and other stuff he later picked up in China. Mabuni based his on everything he could dig up. On October 25, 1936, a few of the leading Okinawan karate teachers had a meeting that was thought important enough for the Okinawan press to attend. You can read about it in Patrick McCarthy’s book. A few years ago, the Okinawan government dubbed that day “The Day of Karate”. It was a formational meeting to lay out what, for one thing, the word karate was going to mean. Would it maintain the original meaning of “Chinese Hand” or assume the new one of “Empty Hand” that was being bandied around?

    Okinawa was now a part of Japan and many were eager to be loyal subjects. The Japanese were at war with China. You figure it out. Miyagi returned to China twice after his teacher’s death and fetched other information for his newly cobbled style. No one is really sure what Higaonna had brought back when he went and what he learned in Okinawa, what Miyagi brought back, what he learned in Okinawa and what they made up. But we try. Miyagi and Mabuni, good friends whose families knew each other well (Mabuni’s son remembers sitting on Miyagi’s lap as a child), were driven to organize what they could glean from whatever source, into “styles”. In order to do so, they, along with the other aspiring Soke’s, developed a syllabus, a uniform and testing procedures to satisfy the anal demands of Japanese culture, and the dictates of the government body that oversaw the Japanese martial arts – the Butokukai. That systemization is what we have inherited. Not karate, but rather someone’s reimagining of it into a recognizable form we can digest. A shell within which to grow.

    Mabuni followed Funakoshi to Japan. Miyagi, except for a couple months in Japan and a brief visit to Hawaii, mostly remained in Okinawa. Because of this, it was Funakoshi’s karate and Mabuni’s that first saw light in the west. The adaptation of Miyagi’s Goju that arrived there first was a version lead by Yamaguchi Gogen, who claimed to be Miyagi’s anointed. Karate became so popular in Japan that, according to our friend Doug Jepperson, over 100 petitions were submitted to the Butokukai for recognition as styles. The four that emerged as “major” styles were Funakoshi’s Shotokan, Mabuni’s Shito Ryu, Yamaguchi’s “Japanese” Goju, and, Ohtsuka Hironori’s newly minted crossover style, Wado, “The Japanese Way”. A solid case can be made that the systemization of karate was the death knell for the fighting art. Large groups of students marching before a testing board is a far cry from a couple fanatics in a cemetery learning how to kill. But, had the organization part not happened, you and I would probably never have had the chance to taste this timeless art.

    The fact that it became organized, opened it up to soldiers like George Mattson and Lee Gray, stationed in Okinawa, and to the rest of us upon their return. The Japan Karate Federation also had a significant effect, dispatching emissaries throughout the world to spread “Japanese” karate and polish Japan’s image, so tarnished from WWII. Miyagi honed his system in Okinawa during the 1920’s and 30’s. World War II squashed his plans. The man whom he was grooming to take over, Shinzato Jinan, was killed in 1945. Three of Miyagi’s children also died and Miyagi, sick with hypertension, was a broken man. Somewhere around 1948, when McArthur allowed the Japanese to practice their martial arts, Miyagi started all over again.

    Man plans and God laughs.

    For the last couple years of his life Miyagi taught in his garden, because his house had been destroyed. It came to be called the “Garden Dojo”. He tried to pass it all on to a new crop of students, lead by Miyazato Eichi, an earlier student and judo player. When Miyagi died in 1953, Miyazato moved the few students into his own place and opened the Jundokan. Miyagi’s other pre World War II students eventually opened up their own dojos and taught their version. Today there exists an “old” version of Goju and a “new” version. The old one reflecting Goju prior to the war. The new one smoothed out to fit modern karate sensibilities. Mabuni’s encyclopedic system got itself restructured by a half dozen disciples in Japan, including, among others, Iwata, Hayashi, Sakagami, Tani, Kuniba and Mabuni’s own two sons.

    By 1950 the karate torch had drifted from Okinawa to Japan and another new generation of martial artists took over, ones you and I may even havemet. Modern Japanese, looking for the “real” karate, still travel to Okinawa, much like the Okinawans traveled to China for three centuries. Let’s thank Mabuni and Miyagi for taking the time to lay out a blueprint for us to follow to begin to grasp it all, to taste, even in its watered down form, the fighting art that developed in the Shaolin monastery, thrived during the Ming dynasty, gestated in Okinawa with the Japanese occupation, saw the light of the world after the Meiji restoration and brightens our lives so much today.

    Miyagi Chojun “I feel as if I walk alone on a distant path in the darkness. The further I go, the more distant the path will become, but that is why the truth is precious. If we go forward to find the truth of karate by all our strength of mind and body, we will be rewarded little by little and day by day. The truth is near, but hard to reach.”

  • Chaos

    July 6, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 8


    By Robert Hunt


    We yearn for our style to follow a nice, reassuring, linear path, from some ancient teacher straight to us. How comforting t’would be. Lu Lu Ko to the Goju dojo down the street. Shushiwa to Uechi to George Mattson. But, alas, it’s not. The foundation of karate was nothing like linear – in fact, it was chaos. There is nothing linear about karate training, anyway. Even today, if you practice Shotokan, it is not what Itosu taught nor even Funakoshi. Your Wado is probably not what Ohtsuka intended and there are a half dozen Shito Ryu’s, with Mabuni’s own two sons each offering different takes. The Meibukan, the Shobukan, the Seibukan and the Jundokan all claim Miyagi. Watch their kata side by side – you’ll scratch your head. There never was anything linear in karate. We all like to envision that ours is the “real thing”, handed down on stone tablets from some bygone Chinese Moses.

    Dream on.

    Once Itosu and Higaonna started teaching in schools, every one with a room big enough to accommodate 10 people and a dog started a program.The mix of teachers and students was mind boggling. Miyagi, for example, the purported inheritor of the art Higaonna learned from Lu Lu Ko, was an assistant instructor to Itosu – that other guy. All the names we associate with our history were jumbled together under a few bewildered teachers unearthed from the shadows of Okinawa’s past. Karate had been secret for 300 years and when it finally saw the light of day, it exploded like Chinese New Year. It is not hard to understand why. Look what happened in the United States after Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon movie. Dojo’s filled up like ant hills and you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Kung Fu master.

    In Okinawa, at the turn of the century, there were a lot of eager seekers comparing notes but few teachers with broad knowledge. They knew their own stuff, though not much about its history, and hardly anything about other styles. Karate had been secret and no one was blabbing. But it had been unleashed and, as they say, you can never squeeze the genie back into the bottle. Everyone wanted to know more. Karate had been “discovered.” Teachers were in demand. The Okinawan government encouraged the formation of a formal study group to delve into the origins and practices of their once underground native art. A few teachers began to bubble to the top of the soup. It wasn’t necessarily the best (It’s never the best, is it?), but, instead, the ones with the organizational skill, or the wealth to devote the time and energy, or, like most of history, in the right place at the right time. Miyagi had the wealth and time, as did Mabuni. Funakoshi was poor but had organizational skill and, apparently, desire. Funakoshi seems to be the main character of the karate drama in it’s modern infancy. He was a primary school teacher and organized demonstrations around Okinawa as early as 1906.

    It would be like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show touring the United States, which it did about that time. The fascination was the same. Exotic people demonstrating arcane arts theretofore only fantasized. The modern world getting a glimpse into the looking glass of history. A book could be written about that looking glass (Aha!). The beginning of the pretend era was at hand around the world. In the United States, pioneers had hunted real buffalo and fought real Indians. Buffalo Bill made a diversion of it. We now make movies about it. It’s fun to live in a pretend world. We, in the karate dojo, pretend…

    Back to Okinawa.

    Funakoshi was asked to give a demonstration to the crew of a visiting Japanese naval ship in 1912. The amazed Admiral signed up his officers for a week of lessons and returned to Tokyo with news about the exciting “new” martial art. Then, in 1917 Funakoshi traveled with a group of students along with Matayoshi Shinko to Kyoto, Japan to give a demonstration at a martial arts festival organized by the Butokukai, the first time karate had been seen publicly outside of Okinawa. After that, it was “Katy bar the door.” Groups of martial artists came together to tell the country about Ryukyu Tode Jutsu (Okinawan Chinese Hand Art) the common name for karate around 1920. They also began to train informally together. Some of their names were: Funakoshi, Kyan, Okugushiku, Tokuda, Yabiku, Mabuni, Gusukuma, Ishikawa, Motobu, Miyagi, Chibana and Tokumura. Never heard of most of them? Me neither. You can be the best there ever was, but if no one knows your name…? Buddy can you spare a dime.

    Karate’s big burst came in 1921.Prince Hirohito (later emperor of Japan,presiding over World War II) was on a trip to Europe and dropped by Okinawa. He was treated to a demonstration of Tode Jutsu at the ancient Royal Palace, organized by Funakoshi and featuring Miyagi performing Nahate and Matayoshi demonstrating weapons. The Prince was impressed. The following year, the Japanese Ministry of Education asked the Okinawansto send someone to Japan to demonstrate karate at another martial arts festival. The Department of Education of Okinawa chose Funakoshi, one of those mind bending points in history that changes it all forever.

    Why Funakoshi?

    You could pick a karate teacher out of the phone book in Okinawa and probably find a better practitioner than Funakoshi. He was a good organizer, a prolific demonstrator, but not known as a fighter. Gusukuma had allegedly defeated 50 men. Why not send him? Because Funakoshi was educated, a teacher, spoke Japanese and believed in Okinawa’s future as part of Japan. That’s why. He wouldn’t embarrass anyone. Probably a good choice in hind sight. In the 1920’s there were still Okinawans around who remembered the Japanese occupation. Karate teachers were very nationalistic by nature and more than a few wanted no trek with Japan. So Funakoshi got the nod and, at 53 years old, bid farewell to wife and kin and sailed away. Back home in Shuri, Naha and Tomari, however, things were still a mess. Today, with history filled internets, we can sort it out, sort of, although still not all that well. Thanks to writers like John Sells (from whose work some of this article is gleaned), Patrick McCarthy and others, we know a lot more than the early teachers. Imagine Okinawa in 1910 – the public school system in its infancy, the general populace just beginning to learn to read, secretive karate masters who didn’t even know the origins of their own art. Some thought it must have come from China. Others said it was Okinawan in origin. Many just didn’t know.

    There had never been systematic karate instruction. It was warriors training warriors to fight for real, not school teachers teaching school kids to become better citizens. Itosu laid the groundwork. He created the Pinan katas as introductory lessons for kids. He reinvented the fighting katas as physical education tools while trying to maintain the spirit. Others followed. Rudimentary styles arose that would later develop into what we recognize today. The study of weapons, which had always been a standard part of any teacher’s curriculum, began to fall away, as did the lethal aspects of karate, the killing techniques and the bunkai, the meaning of the kata. Karate was evolving into a structured pursuit, a coherent melody, like musical notes bouncing around Mozart’s brain suddenly materializing on paper.

    But without Mozart’s soul.

    When you stylize something, standardize it and package it for the masses, you lose a part of it. The belt tests in which I have participated over 50 years have been drivenby the desire to look just like everyone else, perform acceptable gestures, or endure a physical challenge – not survive battle. Standardization would be karate’s future, thanks in a large part to its incarnation in Japan. But in Okinawa in 1910 it was a dog’s breakfast, everyone trying to sort out how to box it into manageable bites, feed it to the masses and where to go from there. The more widely known karate became, the more mundane. The fighting art fell away and the social way proliferated. Out of the chaos of the age, a faux martial pursuita rose and grew and organized itself and proliferated into an international happening. The early masters eventually forged for us a coherent design around which to get our arms, a new concept from the shadow teaching of some ancient Chinese Shaolin Monk. It offered a place to start and a direction in which to go.

    Form from chaos.