Thursday, December 3, 2015

Traditional Okinawa Karate

There are differences between traditional Okinawa karate and traditional Japanese karate. So many differences that one could easily write a book about these - but to the uninitiated, they subtle differences are usually missed until they have years of experience in a variety of martial arts. Differences are present in kata, how a sensei (martial arts instructors) treats kata and how students (deshi) are treated by Okinawa sensei vs. Japanese sensei.

Japanese sensei focus on sport; thus kata in Japanese dojo must be done with exact and precise stances. Punches and kicks must be exact and there are no possibilities of variation in movement in any kata. To me, it's more like being a grunt in the Army. In Japanese schools, students are constantly stopped, held in position at certain points of kata while the sensei walks from student to student making minor adjustments. The 'ma' or timing and distancing are all important as focus is on winning kumite (sparring) contests and performing kata in front of an audience at competitions.

In Traditional Okinawa karate schools the focus on 'imi' or the meaning of the kata - something ignored by Japanese sensei. There is no concern for winning - contests are not part of traditional Okinawa karate and instructors recognize people have physical differences and abilities and try to concentrate on developing power and focus for self-defense training for each person. The meaning of kata is very important in Okinawa karate rather than the execution of the kata. In Okinawa karate, the student is taught what every move in every kata is used for and each kata is broken down into  self-defense applications that are practiced in insure the student can defend themselves. 

Just yesterday, I received a phone call from a representative from a coalition of martial artists who wanted me to join in competitions. I tried to explain to this person that traditional karate practitioners do not take part in competition as we consider karate to be a dangerous weapon and our focus is on self-defense and self-improvement. Apparently, he had never heard of this before - and said, "but I thought you were Shorin -Rye-U?" I simply said that most Shorin-Ryu (pronounced Roo) martial artists in particular, do not compete. Apparently this was too much for him to understand. But, we can not blame him, the blame falls on his sensei for not providing him with a history lesson.

Over the years, I trained in a variety of Japanese and Okinawan karate dojo, so here is my perspective about these two different systems of karate. While you read the following, keep in mind that karate is a unique martial art that evolved on Okinawa for hundreds of years and Okinawa is part of an island chain that lies between China and Japan that was an independent monarchy until 1879. Karate, an indigenous Okinawan art, was not introduced to Japan until 1917. It was later introduced to Hawaii in the 1930s and later to the US (Phoenix, Arizona) in 1946. Prior to its introduction on Japan, karate was not practiced as sport.

It is important to understand the circumstances of how karate was introduced on Japan. Karate was a secret for centuries, and then it was introduced in the Okinawa public school system by Anko Itosu in 1901, karate was unknown to the rest of the world, and it still took until the 1960s before people in the US began to recognize that karate was different than judo. When karate was introduced to Japan by Okinawan Gichin Funakoshi in 1919, and then again in 1922, it was touch and go as to whether or not it would ever be accepted by the Japanese. The Japanese thought of Okinawan people as country bumpkins - in other words - peasants with little social grace. Gichin Funakoshi had to modify karate, rename all of the kata giving them Japanese names; and, most importantly, establish a positive working relationship with Japanese judo founder, Dr. Jigoro Kano, before the Japanese would accept karate. The Japanese were so nationalistic that individuals like Mas Oyama had to change their names to receive recognition. Oyama was Korean by birth, and created a Japanese style of karate known as kyokushin in 1957. This type of backwards thinking by the Japanese still pervades, and is one of the primary reasons Japanese karate took a different path than Okinawan karate.

Last year, my wife's nephew was working in Hawaii transporting medical patients from their homes to various medical facilities, when he picked up one old Japanese man from his home (Hawaii has a very large community of Japanese and Okinawans). While driving him to a medical facility through a neighborhood known for high crime, Jeremy tried to strike up a conversation without realizing there was still strong nationalism with many Japanese people. Jeremy said, “Hey, you look like my Okinawan friend …” The Japanese man responded, “What a terrible thing to say that I look like an Okinawan” and demanded Jeremy stop the vehicle so he could get out and walk.

Most are unaware that there is a difference between Okinawa and Japanese karate, but there is a significant difference in how kata is practiced and perceived and the philosophical purpose of karate. In a Japanese dojo, kata must be exact with no room for variance in stances, there are distinct breaks in timing known as ma, and slow techniques are mixed with fast techniques. In Japanese dojo, students are constantly held in stances during both kihon (basics) and kata practice while the sensei walks around from student to student making minor adjustments to the position of feet, shoulders, knees, wrists, weight distribution, etc. There is also considerable emphasis on deep stances. 

I still remember an evening as a teenager too young to have a driver's licensee. On this particular evening, our karate class squatted, duck-walked around the dojo, did dozens of squat-kicks, squatted in kiba dachi (horse riding stance) with a partner standing on our thighs while placing their hands on our shoulders to add weight to our squats. We did a few hundred kicks - it was a tremendously hard workout for a young teenager with no previous experience in formal exercise prior to joining the Black Eagle Federation Karate dojo. Eight years later, I found basic training in the US Army to be a breeze after karate training. 

As the class ended, I had to walk home from the dojo through Fairmont Park (in 1964, the park was an unfriendly place often populated by older teens we called greasers who looked to harass younger teens. This was a much different time when bullying was condoned and practiced with impunity). The distance to my home was 1.5 miles - not much of a distance today, but for a 14 year old, it was a challenge. I had no strength left in my legs and had to walk stiff-legged all the way home. Periodically I would relax a knee and would collapse. Then I had to crawl to a tree, telephone pole, park bench, etc, to pull myself upright. I don’t remember being harassed while walking through the park on this night probably because the greasers felt pity on a handicapped teen.

At the time, I was training in kyokushin Japanese karate. Much emphasis was placed on kiba dachi as a fighting stance along with zenkutsu dachi (front stance). These were found in our kata. When I later trained in Wado-Ryu karate (Japanese) at the University of Utah, we focused on neko-ashi dachi (cat stance). In Shotokan karate (Japanese), the emphasis was on front and back stances (kokutsu dachi) with emphasis on deep and perfect stances. In Kempo Karate (Japanese) the emphasis was on kiba dachi.

Kata were performed more like a military drill team in the Japanese schools and were designed for tournaments and not practical. All of the Japanese systems taught kata with no explanation of application (known as bunkai). Thus, controversy developed as to the use and purpose of kata. In other words, there was no emphasis on bunkai. Sometimes (in Japanese dojo) we practiced kata with one person performing the kata surrounded by three to four attackers along embussen lines. The attackers were required to kick or punch as we moved from one technique to the next in the kata - it didn’t seem realistic and all techniques were designed for sparring.

Periodically my sensei in kyokushin karate taught some general self-defense, but the applications were never linked to kata. Much time was spent on sparring due to the sport karate emphasis and overall lack of understanding of kata. It didn't take long, but I was bored as we were not learning anything new. All of my Japanese sensei didn’t have much background in self-defense and none had any background in kobudo. Japanese karate focused on winning kumite (sparring) contests and all kata were performed for judges. In the final analysis, these Japanese martial arts were military like with little room for interpretation and an objective to win trophies. They were in direct conflict to philosophies of well-known Okinawan practitioners. Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate, stated, “The purpose of Karate lies not in victory of defeat, but in the perfection of its participants. Karate was all about improving the practitioner, not winning a competition. 

In Okinawan karate schools, kata were taught for muscle memory, balance, power and for self-defense. Bunkai (pragmatic self-defense) was the focus of kata and used to practice defending all kinds of attacks including grabs and also taught to help us develop power, focus, and an understanding of pressure points. This is the reason why those who study Japanese karate constantly ponder at the purpose of kata, but those who study traditional Okinawa karate continually practice kata along with self-defense and understand the importance of kata. In Japanese karate, kata has little purpose other than to please an audience. In Okinawa karate, kata and karate were considered to be the same, as stated by the late Grandmaster Shoshin Nagame.

In the past, there were no contests in traditional Okinawan karate systems, although through time, some Okinawan schools began to compete in the 20th century; but most kept in mind the purpose of bunkai (kata applications). Remember Mr Miyagi in the Karate Kid movie, he epitomized the purpose of Okinawa Karate.

The self-defense applications for each move in kata is very important in Okinawa karate rather than the execution of kata. Each kata is broken down into a group of self-defense applications that are practiced individually to insure the student can defend themselves. Individual applications can be referred to as mini-kata. These are sometimes referred to as Shinken Shobu no Kata also known as Kime no Kata.

Another difference in Okinawa verses Japanese karate is the execution of stances (dachi). In Okinawa karate, students start learning deep stances to build muscle strength, but as the student gains expertise, higher and more natural stances replace deeper stances. For example, zenkutsu-dachi (front stance) can be half the length of the Japanese stance. The Okinawan karate stances are meant to be practical for self-defense by being natural and quick. Whereas the deep Japanese stance is designed for competition.

In the past, Okinawa martial artists did not trust Japanese and would not teach the Japanese bunkai. Having a mindset that the Okinawan people were inferior, the Japanese martial artists never sought bunkai and instead borrowed some from well-established Japanese martial arts such as jujutsu, judo, aikido, etc.

Kime is very important in traditional karate - Kime is about power and focus in strikes and blocks. Every block should be as powerful as every strike. I remember attending clinics in the past when I had another soke send his students to train with me so they could experience power in blocks. These power blocks were taught to me in kyokushin kai karate. In addition to kime, all strikes and blocks need chinkuchi!

Chinkuchi is an Okinawa term that applies to explosive full-body power. Both Dai-Soke Sacharnoski and Bruce Lee have demonstrated this using a one-inch punch. Chinkuchi is an Okinawan technique not practiced in Japanese karate. It is similar to kime, which is a focused strike, but includes the entire body in striking and blocking - hip rotation, focused punch or block, last-second tensing of all muscles and joints followed by a quick relaxation of the muscles.

The philosophy of how to use kicks are different in Japanese vs Okinawa dojo. The Japanese karate schools kick low, medium and high (similar to taekwondo). High kicks are good in competition; however, Okinawan kicks are designed for knees, kidneys, stomach, groin, ribs - in other words - below the neck and mostly below the belt. In addition, the Okinawan kicks employ many kekomi geri (thrust kicks) as well as toe kicks. In Japanese karate, tsumasaki geri are unknown and never employed. To develop a good toe kick, one must train the big toe constantly to build toe strength. There are stories about Goju-Ryu’s Chojun Miyagi who periodically demonstrated his powerful tsumasaki geri by penetrating gas cans with his big toe! One of our martial art students, Dr. Bergkamp, traveled to Okinawa a few years ago on tour of some dojo and returned to Arizona with a very impressive bruise on his stomach outlining one big Okinawan toe with a couple of smaller toes. 

One must wonder how practical such kicks are in our culture. Unless you are a beach bum, it is unlikely you would ever use such a kick. So in our dojo, we will introduce this kick to our students, but it will not be a main focus until we all give up our shoes. 

Kobudo is a another example of differences between Japanese and Okinawan dojo. In all of the Japanese dojo I trained in, no weapons were introduced or practiced. This part of karate is completely ignored by Japanese karate schools. However, kobudo is a major part of Okinawa karate. It has been said that “Karate and Kobudo can be likened to the tires of a bicycle. Both are needed to make the bike move”.

In many Okinawa dojo, tools are available to build strength, endurance and callous. They are designed for the whole body, and include tools for strengthening wrists, fingers, toes and knuckles. In a book by Michael Clarke entitled The Art of Hojo Undo, many exercises are described with descriptions of traditional Okinawan strength training tools and how they are made. Hojo undo translates as supplementary exercises. For those who are serious traditional practitioners, these tools are a must, although there are many modern equivalents that can be used. Some tools used in hojo undo include: makiwara, chi-ishi (strength stones), nigiri game (sand-filled ceramic jars), ishisashi (stone lock), tan (bar bell), kongoken (sand-filled ring), tou (bamboo bundle), kakite bikei (blocking post), makiagi (wrist roller), ude kitae (blocking posts), and jari bako (sand jars).

Another difference between Okinawan karate and Japanese karate is the practice of toide in Okinawan schools. Toide is an Okinawan art that includes joint locks, throws, grappling, etc, similar to traditional jujutsu. Many toide techniques are hidden in Okinawan karate kata.

Japanese karate is tailored for large groups; whereas Okinawan karate is designed for small groups. This is one reason many Okinawan commercial dojo fail outside of Okinawa as they are not conducive to large groups needed to help finance a karate school. Most traditional Okinawan dojo rely on the generosity of their students and do not set high fees. Most are supported by donations. However, when Okinawan schools are attached to and supported by a university, they often draw large groups because of their educational value.

In Japanese dojo, the atmosphere is martial and there is often intimidation by senior students. However, Okinawan dojo are more family friendly and all members are encouraged to become friends.