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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

If you watch closely you will see two short clips from the TKRI demonstrations at the Missouri Botanical Gardens this year. Nice job guys.

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.

Note: I would like to acknowledge the enormous contributions of my teachers and training colleagues to my thinking on this matter: most notably Robert Miller in his essay “Modern Karate: A Reconsidered Pedagogy”; Dr. Gillian Russell’s essay “Epistemic Viciousness in the Martial Arts” and Harry Cook for providing a solid sounding board for my inchoate, all-over-the-place musings.

“Traditional Karate”: A Problem of Definitions

Over the past couple of years, an increasing level of conversation has developed amongst karate practitioners about what karate is. As practitioners of the fighting arts learn more about each other via books and the internet, and the rise of mixed martial arts has provided a yardstick for the superiority of this technique or that, the standard answers are becoming more and more inadequate. This process of reckoning is acutely noticeable on online discussion forums.  If you throw the question of “what is karate?” onto a discussion board, the replies will cover a very broad range of interpretations and practices. Some replies will take all facets of training and the contingencies of fighting into account and evaluate them carefully, while others will staunchly defend this major brand name or that as “the” keepers of correct tradition.” In an age where ideas and methods can be accessed at the click of a button and information is more available than at any other time in history, many karateka still insist on wearing blinders. Some who engage in these conversations become very distraught at the suggestion that their school of choice is not recognized by all as being the best (epistemic viciousness at its best), while others actively pursue new perspectives.

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Mario McKenna has posted another interesting video on his You Tube channel. Take a look.

Mr. McKenna’s You Tube channel is full of great stuff. I recommend that you subscribe to it (it is free).  It is a great way to enjoy good quality, informative, martial arts related videos without have to sort through all of the noise.

I followed a link from one of our visitors to a site called Okinawa HDR. The site features some gorgeous HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography of Okinawan landscapes, people and culture. There are some jaw-dropping, vibrant and haunting images here, and it’s easy to spend and hour or more getting lost in them.

Check out Okinawa HDR here

This link takes you to the photos

Click here to help out with an online survey about overseas interest in Okinawa.

Part 2 of 6. Footnotes, references, and demonstration video clips will be posted in the last entry.

A Tale of Two Miyagis
Despite the general scarcity of information in historical writings, there are at least two modern sources (available in English) that reference the ude makiwara and provide diagrams. The first, Traditional Karatedo Okinawa Goju Ryu Vol. 1 by Morio Higaonna, contains illustrations of several different types of makiwara, all of which are less common variations on the theme.

The round design pictured is comprised of a post of unspecified dimensions, with two intersecting cuts made into it lengthwise from the top. These cuts create four sections that serve as striking surfaces in lieu of a single tapered board. Rope is shown wrapped around the upper portion as a striking surface. The result is a makiwara that can be hit from all sides with presumably equal amounts of give.

No instructions for construction or usage accompany the diagram. Nor can any specific conclusions about its history be assumed. However, Higaonna trained under Miyagi An’ichi, a top student of Goju-Ryu founder  Miyagi Chojun. According to a recent interview, An’ichi was Morio Higaonna’s sole teacher, and An’ichi himself had been Miyagi Chojun’s only student at times.7

Miyagi’s teacher, Higaonna Kanyro, studied various boxing systems  in China as a young man, which  presents the possibility that the ude makiwara was brought back to Okinawa by him.  He may also have encountered the basic round striking post in China and later created the version pictured in Traditional Karatedo. If either is the case, then the  ude makiwara design shown is an artifact of Naha karate training as taught and propagated by Higaonna, and later Miyagi et al,  although the possibility that the design came from another source certainly does exist.

Notes From Matsumura Shorin Ryu
Another variation on the ude design appears in Bishop’s Okinawan Karate.8 This information comes from an interview with Seiki Arakaki, a late student of the late Hohan Soken, who trained in the Matsumura Orthodox lineage. When discussing makiwara training, Arakaki states:

“There were, and still are, basically two types of makiwara, the flat board and the round post. The flat one is used for practicing the straight corkscrew punch and the round one, which has one or two splits to halfway down the middle, is used for training the fist, elbow and the side of the hand.”

As for the makiwara itself, a clear drawing with measurements for the height of the post is included but no information for the diameter. The diagram indicates a 200cm long post that has been cut lengthwise four times as opposed to twice, resulting in eight flexible sections instead of four. The top of the post is also shown wrapped with rice straw rope.

As a royal bodyguard and officer at the end of the second Sho dynasty, Matsumura Sokon himself would have been privy to knowledge gained from exchange trips to China and resident Chinese envoys. According to Kerr’s work Okinawa: The History of an Island People, in the days of the second Sho dynasty “residence at Tomari suggested scholarship and association with the Chinese living there.” Given his access to these resources, it  would not be difficult to imagine that Matsumura introduced the ude makiwara from a Chinese source into the larger community.

But cultural diffusion seldom takes one path- Kerr continues,  “The Naha man was presumed to be less conservative, to be more knowledgeable in the latest songs and dances, the newest patterns and styles of dress, the latest slang.” And the Naha community was likely exposed to a wide spectrum of fighting- the ports there were backdrop to a shifting mixture of sailors from China, Japan, Korea, Siam, Java, the Pacific islands and continental Southeast Asia. The ude makiwara may have been an intentional import form China, or an incidental one from  exchanges at the ports.

Back to Goju?

Its tempting to attempt to trace this makiwara back to Matsumura’s days (via Hohan Soken), but Arakaki had more than one teacher. As well as training with Hohan Soken in Matsumura Orthodox Shorin Ryu from the 1950’s on, Arakaki had also trained in Goju-Ryu under Seiko Higa, who in turn was a student of Kanryo Higaonna (and later, Miyagi Chojun). Arakaki’s Goju background brings into play the possibility that the ude makiwara shown is a product of his Goju Ryu exposure, along the same lines discussed earlier.

Arakaki might well have come by this makiwara via his training under either teacher and lineage- but it may be that he knew it from an unrelated source, or that it was simply common knowledge via one or both routes of cultural exchange with China. If that is the case, the ude makiwara shown should have equivalent cousins in Chinese boxing systems that may well still be in use, or referenced in older reference publications and manuals. While it does not provide us with a definitive history, this information does suggest that either or both the Matsumura Shorin Ryu and Naha (Goju/To’on) traditions practiced (and practice still) with this design, and that it may have come to Okinawa as a result of inentional or informal exchange with Chinese martial artists.9

Without notes on the specific origins of any of the three versions (a tapered pole, a post with two splits, a post with four splits), its difficult to place these designs in context with karate’s historical timeline, or to compare the different methods of using them. However, given the reference in Motobu’s book, inclusion in Morio Higaonna’s work and the dual possible origins presented in Bishop’s (via Arakaki), it is safe to assume that the ude makiwara was at one point a relatively common piece of equipment in the generalized Shuri, Naha and Tomari karate circles that has been overshadowed in propagation and modern use by its flatter relative.

Visit this page for a concise listing of notable Okinawan karate figures. The information is brief but accurate, includes information on some rather lesser known figures, and there are links to a very useful appendix of Ryukyuan feudal social rankings.

"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


September 2019
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