Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Karate Then and Now - Lecture by Charles Goodin and Sensei Pat Nakata

The karate that we see and learn today is much different than the original martial art developed in old Okinawa. 

Charles Goodin of the Hawaii Karate Museum and Sensei Pat Nakata of the Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Karate Association presented an enlightening review of the Karate’s history.  Their lecture "Karate in the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa Prefecture, and Hawaii:  How is Okinawan Culture Spread through Karate” was part of the Center for Okinawan Studies Lecture Series.  It was held February 9, 2012 at the University of Hawaii, Manoa Campus.

Karate Development in the Ryukyu Kingdom

Ryukyu became a tribute state to China in the 1370's. Strong trade relations existed then between Ryukyu and China's Ming dynasty.  As part of a cultural exchange between the two countries, the Chinese sent the famous "36 families" to Okinawa to live and share their crafts and skills.  Martial artists were among them.  They taught the Ryukyuans their Chinese techniques. 

Over time the imported Chinese fighting style combined with native Okinawan techniques to become “Karate.”  In those days the name was Tu ti, meaning “Chinese hand” or “foreign hand.”

Karate Practitioners in Old Ryukyu

Legend says that peasants learned karate in secret to rise up against evil Samurai warriors. While romantic, it isn’t true.  Peasants were too busy trying to survive the harsh island life to have energy or time to devote to learning martial arts. 

Mr. Goodin presented evidence that only the gentry classes of Okinawa practiced Karate.  About one third of the population then was gentry class. They had assigned duties and were paid to perform them.  Learning martial arts would have been part of these duties.

Different Karate Styles for Shuri, Naha, and Tomari

Different schools arose in Okinawa based on the areas where they were practiced. 

Shuri castle was the home of royalty, with many foreign visitors.  The Shuri-te style was therefore more refined.  Practitioners could not show their calloused hands to visitors.  Shuri-te named their katas, or formalized practice routines, after the names of the people who created them. 

Naha, the port city, was where the bulk of the 36 Chinese families settled.  So the Naha-te style more closely aligned to Chinese methods.  Typical of the Chinese system at the time, Naha-te katas were named by numbers. 

People in the port city of Tomari had great exposure to sailors from other lands, and many diverse travelers and fighting methods.  The Tomari-te style was a mix of Shuri-te and Naha-te styles. 

Karate Training Then and Now

Old karate did not use gi's or belt systems.  These came later after Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan.  Before that people practiced in their street clothes. The belts or sashes they wore reflected their gentry rank, not karate rank.  Karate had no ranking systems. 

Unlike today, classes were small.  A sensei taught only a handful of students.

Training in Secret

Sensei Nakata indicated that ‘death’ matches were common at that time.  So people tried to keep their karate knowledge a secret to avoid being challenged to a duel.  They did not train in secret to avoid detection by Japanese samurai.

Karate in Okinawa Prefecture

In 1879, Japan abolished the Ryukyu kingdom and the gentry classes, and started to force more conformity to Japan ways in Okinawa.  There were consequences for Karate.

 The gentry class now needed to find work to support themselves.  Because of this, many karate teachers and other artisans had to perform for commoners and others to earn money.  The result was that karate and other Okinawan arts became widely available to the public.

Japan also did not like the fact that Karate used the characters for "Chinese hand."  So the name was changed to mean "Empty hand" to remove the Chinese reference. “Empty hand” also suggested a mysterious Zen-like quality that was more Japanese than Okinawan.

Modern Karate

Karate had always been considered a deadly art to be used only for self-defense.  In 1900 Sensei Itosu introduced Karate into the school system as a way to train Okinawan boys to become better soldiers for the Japanese army.  Over time, the Judo system of wearing gi's and using colored belts for ranks was adopted. Sparring tournaments were also added, something that old karate never engaged in.

Karate’s History in Hawaii

Many famous Karate men visited Hawaii over the years and the speakers reviewed a long list of names, too many to cover here.  They showed many old photos of these great masters and their travels to Hawaii.

Karate Philosophy and Okinawan Spirit

The goal of karate is to save your opponent, not to kill him.  Ryukyu, a small kingdom living under the shadow of both Japan and China, did not have the option to attack first.

Sensei Nakata and Charles Goodin spoke of how true karate expresses the Okinawan spirit.  The five principles of karate are:
·         have humility and respect for others
·        develop one's mind through training
·        always try your best
·        develop awareness so that you can avoid unnecessary conflict
·        develop the essence of martial character - bravery, honesty, justice, etc. 

Starting postures in traditional Karate kata embody these principles. The left hand always covers the right hand.   The right hand symbolizes power and the left hand passivity.  By covering the right with the left, you are expressing that you do not want to fight.

A story by Sensei Nakata summed it up.  Sensei was counseling a child who was getting into fights all the time. The child asked, “Sensei, when is it ok to fight?"  Sensei answered, “When you are ready to die.”


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