The Karate Tapestry – Part 13
By Robert Hunt
“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.”
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 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.