Old-school karate still alive and kicking in 21st century Okinawa
Traditional Asian martial arts are under siege; modern combat sports dominate. But karate's mecca is staying relevant
Turn on your TV anywhere in the world and Asian traditional martial arts are virtually invisible as bloody, but slickly produced, mixed martial arts (MMA) promotions lure viewers by the millions.
In China, in a humiliation for classical martial culture, a series of traditional kung fu masters have been flattened by MMA fighters with embarrassing ease – in front of the cameras.
Meanwhile, across much of Asia, children in schools and purpose-built gyms learn, not traditional martial arts, but the modern Olympic combat sport of taekwondo.
Amid these trends, can Asia’s classical fighting arts remain viable? The sleepy Japanese backwater of Okinawa offers one answer.
From this tropical island sprang arguably the world’s most widely exported martial art, karate-do. Today, it remains the home of the karate substyles Goju-ryu, Shorin-ryu, Shorei-ryu, Isshin-ryu and Uechi-ryu, all of which are now practiced worldwide, alongside more recently created mainland Japanese styles such as Shotokan, Wado-ryu and Kyokushinkai.
Okinawa is keeping its native art globally relevant while maintaining its reputation as a martial arts mecca by promoting karatetourism. The concept was spearheaded by Classical Fighting Arts – a US-based, global organization promoting traditional karate – and supported by island tourism authorities. Now a decade old, the initiative has embedded karate tourism as a niche, but full-fledged industry.
One sign of this industry’s prominence was the March 2017 opening of the Okinawan Karate Kaikan (Okinawa Karate Hall). Costing a cool $67 million, it is gorgeous. Anybody who has trained at a dojo in a strip mall or a multi-purpose gym would think they had died and gone to karate heaven.
Another is the existence of the Dojo Bar, Okinawa’s only karate-themed pub – probably the one bar in the world where nobody would ever start a fight.
Karate enthusiasts travel from all over the world to train in the Okinawa schools of karate to rediscover their roots and to improve their techniques. And they are in good hands, because there is something special about the old Okinawan masters.
In Okinawa, practitioners train for life. The training is far more intense than that found in most Western dojos and the average Okinawan karate practitioner spends significantly more time on conditioning, both in terms of building overall stamina and toughening their bodies.
That explains the alarming and vivid black-and-blue welt this writer discovered on his abdomen after Minoru Higa – a master born in 1941 – called me up to demonstrate a technique. The impressive result came courtesy a causal slap in the stomach with the back of his hand.
A more televisual example of prowess was on display during the annual Naha Great Tug-of-War Festival. The tug of war is preceded by the hatagashira (banner display). The banner is a ten-meter high pole, with decorations at the top, weighing about one hundred pounds. Each of Naha’s 14 districts have their own team of banner bearers, usually from the karate dojo in that district.
One person will carry the pole, holding it straight up, while walking in an agonizing low stance. They will carry it until they are on the point of exhaustion, then trade off to another person in the group. This goes on for one and a third miles. The average person would have difficulty holding the stance for more than 30 seconds without any weight; holding it with a hundred-pound pole is nothing short of amazing.
So what do the men who master and teach these kinds of skills have to say about the modern trends surrounding global martial arts?
Old arts, hard men
“My way is traditional,” said Tsutomu Nakahodo, who born on November 25, 1933 and is an Uechi Ryu 10th dan black belt master. “I trained every day, except Sunday. More, harder training, everyday, which affects the intensity of the training. Training was primarily kata [solo forms] and jiyu kumite [free sparring]. There were no tournaments.”
Like anyone who owns a TV, he is familiar with MMA. He is not impressed. “If they demonstrate control it is OK; not enough techniques, you have to create the body to ensure no injury,” he said. Is there any MMA on Okinawa? “It will never happen here!” he thundered. “Local people would never allow it!”
Nakahodo admits he is “very disappointed” by the trend, given that so many people believe MMA is more effective than karate in a real fight.
However, such thinking fails to distinguish between karate as it is generally taught in the West, and karate taught in Okinawa. From the Okinawan perspective, not all karate is equal. While Okinawans appreciate that their native art has spread worldwide, they would not call it true karate.
As the island is one of the politest places in the world, it is difficult to get people to speak bluntly. But most Okinawan instructors think karate lost much of its effectiveness once it left home.
The downside of globalization
Karate’s globalization in the 20th century originated with the efforts of Gichin Funakoshi, an Okinawan who organized a demonstration for then-Crown Prince Hirohito in 1921. Funakoshi was subsequently invited to teach karate on the mainland, supplementing such native Japanese martial arts as judo and swordsmanship.
Funakoshi is widely regarded in the West as the “father of modern karate,” and is the founder of the Shotokan sub-style. After World War II, karate – particularly Funakoshi’s school – spread worldwide.
But while Funakoshi was undoubtedly a diligent student and had trained with some of Okinawa’s best instructors, some claim he was not a great master himself. And once he came to mainland Japan to teach, he made changes that made it easier to teach to large groups, but arguably diluted karate’s combat effectiveness. Perhaps the greatest change was the introduction of karate tournaments, which had not existed on Okinawa.
Zenpo Shimabukuro, a 10th dan black belt master of the Shorin-ryu style of karate, who was born in 1943, called Funakoshi “the father of sport karate” but criticized the sportive format: Due to it, “Karate moved away from its traditional form,” he said.
Still, he conceded that karate and its ancestor arts have always traveled, mutating along the way.
Though its roots are disputed, Shimabukuro believes that the origins of karate lie in Indian martial arts. From India, they moved to China, becoming kung fu, then to Okinawa, where they transitioned to karate. But as a result of karate’s 20th century globalization, “quality is very loose,” he said.
He noted that while there is both sportive and traditional karate even in Okinawa, most island practitioners remain firmly traditional. “I feel sport changed traditional so much,” he said. “We try to preserve our traditional karate!”