There is a big push to get Karate into the Olympics which has a lot of people in the traditional Karate world talking. Obviously this raises many questions with different answers depending they type of Karate you train in.  Let’s start with the basics.

            While many believe that Karate is an ancient are, the etiology of the word “Karate” is recent, in 1920’s there was a committee which wanted a name for the family of martial arts from Okinawa.  These arts could be divided into four different families at the time, there were Shuri versions, Naha versions, Tomari version, and other versions.  Each family stressed something slightly different and at times students trained in various styles.

            By that time, some Okinawan Karate instructors had moved to Tokyo and were teaching their interpretations of Karate with some success.  Then as World War 2 ended Karate schools began to spring everywhere.  With this came the idea of tournaments and in 1949 the first document Karate tournament took place in Kyoto, it was a disaster and was predicted to be so.  EJ Harrison, the first non-Japanese black belt in Judo had said it before, Karate is not suitable as a sport as it's intent is too dangerous.

            Harrison was not the only person who saw the tournament Karate as a mistake.  Funakoshi Gichin, the man known as the father of Modern Japanese Karate stated many times that he hated the idea of tournaments and even said that the Karate he saw in these events was NOT his Karate. This did not stop Funakoshi’s students and their contemporaries from trying.

            One of the main problems with Karate tournaments has always been that the Kumite, or free sparing matches rarely lead to a clear winner so judges are used.  The errors in the point sparing were worked on and eliminated by Oyama, the founder of a full contact Karate called Kyokoshin.  While there are clean winners in Kyokoshin,
but makes karate more of a Muay Thai type match and so one could argue that if that if Karate is being considered Muay Thai would be a better choice as there is more protection for the athletes.

            In tournaments, many might argue that Kata is another event and again there are many problems with this, for one which kata are being used, why and what are the judging criteria?  Which Kata and style of Kata is very important as there are kata with the same name that are very different from other styles kata with the same name.
Even among the same style, different organizations might do the same Kata different.

            Styles will argue on how stances should look.  In my style we use a lean to maintain the natural curvature of the lower back, some styles do not and would mark points off for proper aligned back. Some styles pull their hands back when the punch others do not, some pull their hands to the hip others to the ribs and so many other
variants.  Besides the basic techniques, there are variations on how the kata is interpreted which is the underlying cause of these changes.  This makes it very difficult to rate a kata fairly.  If the judging were to be done on athletic ability and asthetics only then I would say that this type of competition already exists in the Olympics as a Gymnastics floor routine.

            To make things easier, the Olympic committee has decided to use the WKF as its basis for Karate, why this decision is unknown and I have my suspicions why but first who is the WKF?  The WKF or world Karate federation, is a MULTINATIONAL CORPORATION with its headquarters in Spain.  Think about it, Karate is a Japanese art and
the organization which is going to be put in charge of it is in Spain.  The next thing to know about the WKF is that they only recognize four styles of Karate, all of which have headquarters in Tokyo and only one has a branches recognized on Okinawa as Traditional Karate.

            Let that sink in, out of all the styles recognized as Karate on Okinawa, the Birthplace of Karate, only one branch is recognized and even the WKF Goju Ryu is very different from the Goju Ryu found on Okinawa.  Being that Karate is an Okinawan art, one would think that the Olympic committee would have gone to one of the
Okinawan organizations for input.  It would have been only rational that the Okinawa Ken Karatedo Rengokai, Zen Okinawa Karatedo Renmei, Okinawa Ken Karatedo Renme, or Okinawa Karate-Kobudo Renmei, all organizations on Okinawa which help regulate and promote Karate.

            While if karate should be an Olympic event is something that might need to be reviewed by better minds than mine, it is preposterous that none of the organizations from Okinawa will be consulted.  It is almost shocking that the Olympic committee is using a multinational corporation from Europe to separate Okinawa from one
of its arts.  I say almost shocking as it is a money thing.  Even as recently as 2014 the Olympic committee has been caught taking bribes from a HEROIN kingpin.  I wonder how much of a payola WKF made to become the Olympic head of Karate.

Let’s face the simple truth from the anonymous quote, “those who can- DO, those who cannot- CRITISIZE.”  I am not talking about the person who sees you and then shows you how to do it better, or at least differntly.  I am talking about the one who has a black-belt of the tongue or keyboard.

In all things there are those that talk but will never show their evidence, Martial arts are no different.  I am not saying that one should compete in another styles rule, but if they are going to talk and are called on it, they should not run away claiming they are not allowed to do something, claiming that their art is too dangerous. 

There are those that claim that they have a powerful art but will not put their art to the test.  That is something that we can respect about those that have entered MMA, they will fight even if they are limited by what they can use.  Even if the technique fails, I think people should respect the person who tried and failed more than the person who speaks and hides. 

To show a point, is a video of a man who claimed he could knock someone out without touching them.  This man had gone on Natural Geographic a channel that broadcasts throughout the English speaking world.  When his “No-touch-knockout” failed, people jumped on the man for being a fraud.  I say at least he had the courage to put his art to the test, unlike so many who talk but know that they do not have the skills they talk about.  It failed but at least you can say that he trusted his art enough to try it, I have to at least give him respect for attempting it.

There are other ways to show how something works, reliable historic references, if deadly one can use medical data to prove it happens, there are so many ways that this can be done but it takes a little effort. 

What I mean is if someone criticize another martial artist it and is asked to show their better techniques it is gutless to do anything but show the better techniques.  The claims that an art is too mystical or dangerous for exposition are the words of people whom hold their manhood cheap!   I am again not saying that there must be a fight to the death but that if one claims they have a technique better than someone else or that someone is doing something incorrect, they are opening a challenge.

What do you call someone who opens a challenge only to chicken-heartedly back down with claims that they cannot show what they know?  Let’s face it, on Okinawa there is Karate-day (October 25) where true masters of all styles put their skills on exposition.  Teddy Roosevelt said it best…

 

-“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

 

Next time you are a cowardly critic, step into the arena and prove your worth or acknowledge that your worlds are the cheap spouting of someone who cannot do.

            The weekend that I had the event for my book, “Cereus and the Rarest Thing,” I found myself reading from a chapter where I mention kentsuji so found myself talking about that type of pottery and learned something new about Karate.

            For those who are not familiar with Kentsuji, it entailed making a ceramic object, then breaking it and filling the fracture in with gold.  I was told that in Kentsuji, the breakage and repair of an object give the object history and it is that fixture that makes the object unique and beautiful.  In essences it is the history of the object and the imperfection that makes it perfect.

            After the presentation, someone told me that in ikebana, Japanese floral arrangement, beginners learn by using the movements of a master and they are not allowed to stray from them until the student reaches master level, then and only when the student has a firm understanding on what his art is about is he allowed to explore and eventually, if the artist has a high enough understanding, even change how he teaches the forms.  I was also told that for some tea masters the cup made via the Kentsuji techniques are preferred as the cut adds to the experience.

            Immediately I asked questions of both people on changing the basics and was told, “if you find a better way to do something why would you continue teaching a lesser technique?” 

            That was when I thought to all the variations of styles in Okinawan Karate and all the branches of Karate.  Having spent a lot of time looking at Pinan Shodan (Heian Nidan) I thought of it many variations when I tried to come up with the way it originally looked based on similarities of many styles.  It made sense to me, all those men who forged their own styles made changes to their Karate based on what they felt was important.  Motobu wanted a karate that worked in street fights so he taught his kata his way.  Funakoshi and his son wanted to get Karate accepted by the culture of Mainland Japan so made changes to make it possible, Chibana, Sokon, all the Karate pioneer did that but so did those more interested in business.

           I remember a conversation I had with my late Sensei, he told me that Ryu meant river and if a river is not moving and changing it is not alive.  He seemed to have told me to continue to search ways to improve my Karate based on the idea of Ikken Hissatsu and once I felt I was ready even change what he had taught me.  He asked for one thing in anything I changed, it must work in a real fight. 

            Currently, I am teaching what my sensei had taught me but was fortunate enough to meet a true master, one who taught me his Karate but challenged me to look at how to use it and eventually make modifications to suit what I knew. While I type I find it amazing that my Sensei seemed to want me to learn all I could, to form my karate through the Kata he taught me.  

            Karate now is varied, so we might talk about sport karate, dance karate, modern karate, and even traditional Okinawan Karate.  In this they all have their home and each of us who teach one version feel our version is superior for any number of reasons.  For those who like the sport Karate, be it as used in MMA, touch tournaments, or even full-contact knockdown, they have their reasons and techniques and based on their rules of competition that each can claim superiority over the other.  (I should say that even though I do not train for any of those, I find the MMA sport the most rational if one is going to compete in a martial art to claim it is effective)

            I know that many who think they go to “traditional” karate Kata tournaments will look down at the flips, choreography, and music of the more gymnastic inspired martial arts but is that not the next step in the competition karate?  Think about it, when people begin to change the Kata to impress judges by comical kiai, unusable stances, and long "dramatic" pauses both are changed for the purpose that they use.  

         It may be that my way of using clinical data and anatomical structure to determine what works based on Ikken Hissatsu is outdated as few will ever use it for self-defense.  It may be that teaching children to punch harder than adults is no longer needed and that the world is now only interested in flair rather than functionality.  Still, the Karate that I have been given, yes my Karate is a gift from my teacher, IS about functionality, it is about trying to end any encounter in one move.

 

           

While preparing to speak for the prestigious Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego’s Balboa Park, I looked at what aging experts call the Blue Zones,areas where people live longer, happier, healthier lives than any other places.  These are places where it is documented that people suffer a fraction of the diseases that commonly kill people in other parts of the developed world, and enjoy more healthy years of life.  In these populations disease like Alzheimer’s were largely unheard of until recent and seniors there continued to have independent lives needing little if any assistance.  

The five places called Blue Zones are Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Loma Linda (California USA) Nicoya peninsula (Costa Rica), and Icaria (Greece).  Immediately one can see that there is a variation in culture and physical characteristics in the populations.  Of these it seems that Okinawa has traditionally been the area that most gerontologists are focusing their attentions.

In 1985, academic articles began to appear on the longevity of people in Okinawa.  It was determined then that the life expectancy for men in Okinawa was 75 and 82 for women this trumps most countries today!  Even in 2015 the US life expectancy is lagging at a 78. 

Gerontologists found that for the most part, Okinawans that leave their island tend to develop life-spans of the country that they migrate to.  In essence, there is something unique to Okinawa.  The question becomes what is unique to that island?  Interestingly, I have met one extremely active Okinawan who is over 80 years old who lives in Michigan.  He the legendary Karateka Seikichi Iha.

There are always the typical answers:  genetics, diet, exercise, hygiene, even crime rates.  All of these have some effects but there are things that seem to be neglected, Okinawa’s Karate.  The reason that this is not really looked at has to do with the fact that there are many self-proclaimed masters of “Okinawan” karate who do not teach what they claim.  Many, due to the popularity of tournaments have been teaching something completely different.  Here, I will only use my style and related styles which can easily be compared to the pictures from prior to 1945 and other styles related.

 

Itosu Sensei at 81 with his students

A little history that will explain my hypothesis on why real Okinawan Karate must be looked at seriously if we are to understand why Okinawan’s have traditionally aged better than the rest of the world.  It is accepted that in 1901, Itosu introduced Karate to the public school system.  We find that in 2001, the first papers are published on longevity on Okinawa.  While it was not clearly defined, in 1945, there was somewhat of a ban on teaching martial arts in Japanese schools.  In 2010 the life-expectancy of Okinawan begins to shrink to the expectancy of the rest of Japan. 

Think about this, those in school between 1901 and 1945 lived longer than those born after 1945.  The difference between these people was that there was an end to a war, and Karate was no longer being taught in schools.  Even when the ban was removed, Okinawan Karate suffered.  In tournaments, the rules were written by mainland Japanese, the judges were not traditional Okinawan Karateka and so many, even on Okinawa began to change their Karate to make judges happy.

Still there are some who are attempting to keep the traditional Karate of Okinawa alive and in these lineages we see longevity, or at least improvement of health to senior ages.  Using my own lineage first, the founder of the style I do was Kensei Taba.  There is much documentation of those that practice Okinawa’s Karate living incredibly long lives.  For simplicity I used the Shogen Ryu lineage of Karate-do but it is easy to see that these are common to most Shorin Ryu styles. 

Iha Sensei with Makino-San 2013
Iha Sensei with Makino-San 2013

 

Working with the founder of Shogen-ryu, Kensei Taba Sensei, we find a man who was born in 1933 and died in 2012 at the age of 79 which is three more years than the average life expectance in the US.  The difference is that in 1945, Okinawa was the site of the bloodiest battle of World war two and starvations from 1945-1957.  The link between starvation and at an early age and shortened life-span and health problem has been well established.  I can vouch first hand that he trained me three months before he passed away.  I also learned that his father had died young, in his 50’s, from a cardiac related condition.  He outlived his father by almost 30 years!

Moving backwards in time we find that the three main teachers for Kensei Taba were; Shoshin Nagamine (1907-1997) who reached 90 years, Choshin Chibana (1885-1969) who lived 84 years, and   Hohan Sokon (1891-1982) 91.  These three men lived longer than what is seen in the modern US in  2015!

Taba Sensei’s three teachers themselves had various instructors.  Choshin Chibana was a student of Itosu Anko (1831-1915) lived to be 83 or 84.  What is amazing is the rest of the world had a life-expectancy of 48 years at that time.  Hohan Sokon was a student of Nabe Mastumura (1860-1930) who lived to be 70 years old when the life-span was around 50 years old.

Author with Taba Sensei and Makino-San
Author with Taba Sensei and Makino-San

 

The youngest of Taba Sensei’s teachers was Nagamine who had three instructors; Arakaki Ankichi (1899-1927), Motobu Choki (1870-1944), and Chotoku Kyan (1870-1945).  Arakaki is seen to have died young from a stomach ulcer at the age of 28 which is rare today.  Motobu reached 74 and Kyan died at 75.  The years that Motobu and Kyan died had been a time of war and starvation.  Even with Arakaki’s young age and the effects of starvation on 70 year olds, these three instructors had an average lifespan of 59 years, about 10 years longer than the population of the world.

Going back even further, three Karate instructors come up, Matsumura Sokon (1809-1899) who lived to be 90, To-te Sakugawa (1786-1767) died at 81, and Matsumora Kosaku (1829-1898) died at 69 we see life-spans that are above the modern averages.  Just looking at the known instructors, we see an average life-span averaging 78, and or 80 if we drop the highest and lowest ages collected.  These are above the average life-expectancy of the US in 2015!  These figures come to an average of 30 more years of life compared to their contemporaries. 

Another interesting aspect is that in the in the Okinawan Centenarian study homepage (http://www.okicent.org/study.html) one of the pictures is of Seikichi Uehara, the head of the Motobu Ryu branch of karate who reached 101 and even in his late 90’s he was training in Okinawan Karate. 

We can find plenty of men of Okinawan Karate reaching ages far beyond the normal life-spans of their times.  What is interesting is that when looking at the older pictures of Karateka we find that what these men trained in did not look like the modern “karate” marketed to people.

Contrary to this is a book written about how “Karate” shortens life-span.  On the cover we find martial artist from styles not recognized as Okinawan Karate.  In fact some of the more famous are martial artist who trained in or started the modern versions of Karate.   It may be that only by comparing the karate done with the pictures of Karate prior to 1945 can we really begin to see the difference.

While gerontology researchers are failing to look at the most obvious clues that true Okinawan Karate is one factor of longevity it might be up to those of us in Okinawa’s martial art who have to promote this.  Unfortunately, few people who teach “Okinawan” Karate teach it.  I would state that if it does not look like the pictures of Karate on Okinawa prior to 1940’s we should really begin to look at what we are teaching.

Karate in Shuri Castle 1938
Karate in Shuri Castle 1938

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