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The practice of martial arts has come to be diverse in terms of the wide range of  arts and schools available and in terms of the population that is involved. Physical fitness and talent may only be required to a small degree, or they may be paramount to success. Students may be dedicated about conditioning, or they may be “weekend-warriors” whose primary physical activity is a class.  An instructor may be qualified in a technical realm but not be a good source of information in others, such as the nature of violence. The need for Evidence Based Practice (EBP) is just as high as in any other vigorous physical activity, yet appeals to tradition, history and authority and “experts” often lead students and practitioners to accept dubious information or ignore new information, which can have consequences on a number of levels. For this discussion, the practice of the various martial arts can be divided into two realms: recreational (i.e., oriented at self defense, fitness, cultural, etc.) and competitive (amateur or professional competition). Most of this discussion will focus on the recreational realm.

An extreme example of a lack of critical thinking and evidence-based practice can be found in  the cult of personality that has developed around Ueshiba Morihei, founder of the Japanese art of Aikido.

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It is always a good exercise to take account of our motivations as karate teachers and practitioners. Why do we continue on, year after year, teaching and practicing karate? Yes there are a lot of easy, canned answers: cultivation of character, preserving the traditions of the past, to learn to be able to defend oneself, to confront our responses to violence, force of habit. I am sure I am leaving many out.

I don’t think most people scrutinize this carefully. For a variety of reasons, answering this requires us to consider who makes up the community of people to whom we are responsible towards. When the answer is ambiguous it becomes nearly impossible to understand the extent of our responsibilities, and thus what it is we should be doing. The ‘why’ question becomes easier to address when we are clear about what we are doing, and equally important, about what we are not/ should not be doing.

There are those who regard themselves as hard-core ‘traditionalists’ for whom preserving tradition seems to be the ultimate objective. To these people the most important obligation is to ones predecessors in these arts. Of course it is useful and proper to give credit where it is due. We have an obligation to make sure our historical claims are accurate, but that seems like the extent of our obligation to the dead.

Many times in the thirty-plus years I have been involved with martial arts, I have seen abusive and insensitive behavior justified by appeals to tradition.

As a younger black-belt level instructor, I remember struggling with ethical dilemmas that should not have been complicated, however, my judgment was clouded by the imagined relevance of some mumbo jumbo associated with tradition.

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Garry Lever has posted an excellent discussion on the roots of Goju Ryu over at the Goju Kenkyukai blog. This is one of the more sober looks at the history of any karate group out there. Karate in general suffers from the effects of unnecessary myth-making and mysticism; as a result the histories of different practices and individuals are badly garbled and left open to some pretty silly stuff.  I think Garry hits this one head on- forget trying to pin down direct sources and secret transmissions; it’s more likely that Goju Ryu has it’s roots with a bunch of guys who knew a few things about fighting skills, getting together in the park to train. Hmmm…now why does that seem so familiar?

Check it out there

Follow the link for a veritable treasure trove of historical anatomy texts from around the globe. Some of them are amazingly detailed and accurate while others give some insight into how different people in different times and cultures perceived the human body.

Historical Anatomies on the Web

Last year I posted a link to a research piece on Dr. Bernard J. Bettelheim, the crazed European missionary and troublemaker extraordinaire who spent several years living in Naha, Okinawa. In that piece, I mentioned that Bettelheim spent considerable time translating the canonical Gospels into katakana and phonetic script of the local Hogen dialect.

Although Bettelheim records his success in translating the Gospels into katakana and the native Hogen, we can only speculate upon what he was actually able to get across in these attempts.

While looking online for more of Bettelheim’s diary, I came across copies of his translation of the Gospels of Luke and St. John, digitally archived at the University of Hawaii’s Japan Collection:

Treasures of Okinawa, Frank Hawley Collection

Some time after the Doctor’s departure from Okinawa (something that the Ryukyuan government tried to arrange from the moment he set foot on the island), a monument was erected in his memory by a group of foreign and Japanese Protestants. Like many, many other historically significant artifacts, this monument was destroyed in the bombardment of Okinawa during World War II. While looking at the link above I came across a digitally archived rubbing of the original monument, hosted by the university of Hawaii’s Okinawa Collection:

Sakamaki Hawley collection, Hakutokurei Kinento Takuhon (Rubbing of Monument to Bettelheim). It’s the 4th item down.

Mario McKenna has posted some very salient observations on the growing trend of slapping dubious historical connections and illustrious names together in order to sell a place/school as “the” origin of this type of karate or that. Give it a look for a very clear-headed perspective on the recent effort to increase tourism in Fuzhou by hyping it up as the birthplace of Goju Ryu.

Nahate Heresy

You know, people say Americans don’t care to learn about the world outside their borders, but some bright spark at the Tuscaloosa News in 1981 thought that the people of Alabama needed to know what was going on with karate in Soviet Russia.

Mario McKenna has announced the completion of one of his long-time projects, a translation of Nakasone Genwa’s 1938 “Karate-do Taikan” (An Overview of Karate-do). This is an encyclopedic book featuring kata and commentary by a who’s who of early 20th century karate adepts:  Shinpan Shiroma, Chomo Hanashiro, Mabuni Kenwa, Ohtsuka Hironori and Taira Shinken. Getting to actually read the book and see the content in context is very exciting news; if you’ve read some of Patrick McCarthy or Nagamine Shoshin’s books, diagrams and pictures from “Taikan” are sprinkled liberally throughout. Most non-Japanese speakers have never seen a large amount of the diverse and fascinating material that Nakasone and his contemporaries published. The gap that this has left in the informational record is truly saddening, since myth, hearsay and plain omission have filled the large holes. The literary realm of karate extends far beyond Funakoshi’s books, or the wave of propaganda and marketing that engulfed Japanese karate.

My hat is off to Mr. McKenna for investing the time and effort to translate these books and place them within the reach of the modern student. And to clairify, access to such works is important in that it allows us to look into the past and see what karate was not, as opposed to providing more fuel for the frivolent claims about the “traditionality” of a group or practice that seem to be preoccupying much of the karate world right now.

I recently purchased Mr. McKenna’s translation of Mabuni Kenwa’s “Kobo Jizai Goshin Jutsu Karate Kenpo” as an e-book (a review will be posted here soon)  and I am very impressed with his work. The translation of one of Mabuni’s books is in itself a valuable service, and the cost is extremely reasonable- a combination that is, unfortunately, often hard to find.

Ordering Information

Mario McKenna’s blog

If you have followed my posts over the last year you will have seen lots of links to videos of people using foam rollers to help relax overly tight soft tissue. Here is another video demonstrating self myofascial release techniques with the foam roller:

Cheap foam rollers break down pretty quickly so I have created an inexpensive, durable DIY alternative. It requires a two foot section of two inch diameter pvc pipe, some weather stripping foam, and (drum roll) duct tape.

Wrap the middle section of the pvc pipe with the foam weather stripping and then cover it with duct tape. The foam may break down, but it can easily be replaced, the pvc should last pretty much forever. I spent about four dollars for ten feet of pipe (cut into two foot sections), and about three dollars and fifty cents on the foam. I already had the duct tape so I spent less than eight dollars total. The entire project took about ten minutes.

Here are some pics:

By now most of our readers know that TKRI is affiliated with Harry Cook’s Seijinkai Karate-do Association. Below is a link to an interview with Harry that Shaun Banfield conducted and published on the Shotokan Way e-magazine.


SB) Of course, you also became an English teacher in Japan. Did you get time to train at many of the major dojos, and how would you describe training in the ‘heartland’?

(HC) My plan originally was to train at the JKA, but Terry O’Neill told me to go and see Higaonna. Once I had seen him I didn’t feel the need to bother with any of the others. I did train at Kanazawa sensei’s dojo every now and then but to be honest they were doing basically the same things I had been doing in the UK. I dabbled with a bit of sword and jo but the bulk of my training was at the Yoyogi Shurenkai dojo of Higaonna sensei. In most dojos training physically demanding, and some instructors are without any doubt racist bullies; they take advantage of foreign students and batter them while claiming they are teaching them budo. It is nonsense. I stress that this was a minority. Higaonna sensei was never like that; we got bashed yes, but everyone did, it was a natural part of the training.

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"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin


May 2020

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