3 Remarkable Karate Observations from Okinawa – Here We Go Again

Wassup my ninjas?!

As you may, or may not, know I arrived in Okinawa exactly a week ago. A sweaty week, to be more precise. Indeed, the island of no chairs (and birthplace of Karate of course) is hot, humid and…

...awesome.

As expected.

This is my seventh trip to Okinawa, if I remember correctly. However, I have yet to go on any really epic Karate adventures, as I usually do. So far I’ve just been cruising around different islands (Ikei-jima, Miyagi-jima and Hamahiga-jima), posing for high-kick pictures with giggling schoolgirls and trained my butt off in super-secret-awesome-stuff-I-can’t-mention-or-I’ll-forever-be-expelled.

And this is on a BAD day.

By the way, some of you Kobudo nerds will probably recognize the word Hamahiga up there, a common name for some kobudo kata (sai/tonfa). Yes, it stems from a man named Hamahiga pechin who lived on Hamahiga island.

And yes again, he was awesome indeed.

Anyhow, though I might not have discovered anything significantly share-worthy at the moment, I still have observed a couple of small but interesting Karate things this past week. So I thought, why don’t I sum it up for you guys? Might be fun.

So, without further ado, straight from the birtplace of Karate, here’s 3 Remarkable Okinawan Karate Observations (ROKO) from the past week.

They’re pretty random, but maybe something will catch your interest:

ROKO#1: Kata have c-h-a-n-g-e-d.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking:

“He’s lying! That bastard! The Okinawans don’t change kata, only fat McDojo chefs do that! Okinawans are holy people, sent to earth by [insert your favorite god here] and would never dare to mess with their legacy!”

No. Sorry. Wrong.

This Sunday I went to this awesome (btw, is somebody counting the number of awesomes I’m using in this post?) tournament for instance, and ended up chatting with some old friends of mine. And, as it turns out, there were quite many changes in kata (like Anan and Suparimpei) since last time I was here! We compared details and discussed about the changes for quite a while.

Like, now you’re supposed to attack at the same time as you kick, not before you kick, and the ippon-kamae hikite is completely removed and the hand is now to be twisted the other way around and…

Et cetera.

I first noticed this many years ago with some Kobudo kata (which I even recorded). New moves were being added, old ones were being discarded, and every time I returned to Okinawa some kata had always changed in some way.

It was no secret though, they often admitted it, always coming up with an explanation (sometimes good, sometimes bad).

So, the question that inevitably pops up is:

Should I keep doing it the “old” way, or change to the “new” way everybody is doing now?

A dilemma many Karate-ka (foreigners in particular) undoubtably have faced in their Karate careers.

Of course, last Sunday at this awesome tournament (videos will be up as soon as I come home… in two months!) some people were still doing the “old” way, like me. That’s still okay. You can do however you want.

But the new people won the tournament.

Suck on that one.

ROKO#2: Say hello to Nipaipo.

You know how I once wrote about the ‘reverse influence’ on Okinawan Karate? How Japanese changes, additions, rituals and customs that sneaked into Karate during its transition from Okinawa to Japan is slowly reinfluencing Okinawan Karate back?

Well, I wasn’t shitting you.

Ladies and gents, let me introduce you to the latest addition in the Okinawan kata family, slowly taking over every dojo in your neighborhood.

Nipaipo.

Straight outta Japanese Shito-ryu.

Seriously, a couple of high ranking Kobudo sensei have even asked me the past week if I know this “mysterious” Nipaipo which they have been seeing, and where it comes from. Lately it has been popping up everywhere in Okinawa!

Needless to say, it’s not an original Okinawan kata (codified from Neipai by Mabuni Kenwa into Shito-ryu’s Nipaipo) per se.

But apparently everyone has started doing it.

I was actually observing a random Shorin-ryu class at the Budokan (public martial arts center) yesterday evening, and even some old folks were desperately trying to keep up with the times, imitating the younger black belt kids enthusiastically practising this exotic “Nipaipo” kata with its unorthodox moves. Pretty strange sight.

Oh, and guess what kata one of the female finalists did in the awesome tournament last Sunday by the way?

Yeah.

Nipaipo is here to stay.

Time to redefine stuff…?

ROKO#3: Gaijin revolution.

Here’s something weird:

Okinawans rarely go to the beach.

Some of the world’s best beaches, with beautiful diving and snorkeling can be found in Okinawa and its vicinity. But strangely enough, there’s more tourists than Okinawans caring.

It’s like, they know the ocean is there, so they don’t bother!

It’s not interesting.

And the exact same thinking applies to Karate.

Last Friday I met this awesome American Karate instructor in Shureido (local martial arts gear shop) who had been living in Okinawa basically his whole adult life, practising and now teaching Karate (to the Okinawans!), and he was noticing some stuff for sure.

We spoke for a while, and one of our conclusions were that foreigners are surprisingly often more interested, more enthusiastic and more skilled than many Okinawans when it comes to Karate and Kobudo!

Dang.

That’s like… imagine if you would go to Mexico and start a boxing gym! Or go to Japan and start a sucessfull Sumo stable. Or go to Italy and start a pizza parlor!

Sounds impossible?

It’s happening right here in Okinawa.

Young Okinawans are interested in cool stuff. You don’t think your native folk dances or old folk songs are cool, do you? Well neither do the new generation of Okinawans. Old = boring.

Karate is not exotic enough.

But for foreigners it definitely is.

I mean, if you travel around half the world just to train some kicking and punching, you’re bound to be more interested in kicking and punching than somebody who lives next door to it and never even looks at it!

When foreign people from across the globe needs to teach you your own culture, you know something has gone terribly wrong.

I predict a very interesting future…

_____________

Okay, that’s it for now.

I actually had five more observations in store (like why Japan isn’t world leaders in Sport Karate anymore (plateauing and periodization), how I designed Shureido’s newest t-shirt (not yet released!), the recent popularization of the Taira-style Kobudo kata Choun no Kon, incorporation of realistic self-defense methods in Karate etc.) but I don’t want to overload your brain any more than necessary. Plus, I got some heavy laundry to do, yo! This sweat doesn’t magically evaporate as planned!

Now, please, feel free to share your ideas on these three observations.

What are your thoughts?

Change is the only thing constant, right?

26 Comments

  • Sonny Loque
    Same thing happening in the Philippines regarding Filipino Martial Arts. Changes in methods, new techniques, new weapons, and most of all more foreigners learning and getting more skilled and knowledgeable than locals.
  • Also my sensei Inoue Motokatsu hanshi sometimes maked some changes in karate or kobudo kata. This was no problem for me but it become a problem when I come back to my dojo from Japan and show the changes to my students and some of them though that it was I who learn them wrong from beginning and now try to make it right with the explanation that my sensei has maked this changes...Also in ZNKR iaido (Japanese Kendo Federation) they every year have a meeting with the masters in Japan there they diskus if they will make some changes in some kata this year. Sometimes they change some little details just to make the students feel that they have to start to learn the kata they already done 10 or 20 years time from the beginning again!
    • herrle 58
      Hmmh, if you are allowed to test the students up to black belt, why tell them aubout the changes anyway? Maybe your sensei decides to change back again?? ;-) The whole changing problem is boring (to me at least 37 years). Art is made by man, not otherwise. If a change is made by a master AND reasonable, ok. But would`nt it be better to better call it Inoue no-whatever then? No offend, just my belief! :-o
  • Adrian
    I am a little confused in relation to to what you wrote about the kata Nipaipo. I have always understood that this kata comes from Go Kenki, a Chinese White Crane kung fu practitioner who taught the form to Kenwa Mabuni. If my preceding statement is accurate, you are right in one regard, it is not an original Okinawan kata, but a Chinese form.
    • Correct: Neipai is from Go Kenki. However, Mabuni sensei Karateized it into Nipaipo during his crusade in Japan :)
    • Diego Romero
      actually, nepai is an okinawan kata. the chinese form is called ershiba (or at least romanized like that. don't have the hanzi on hand, nor do i even know what they are :p).
      • Nope, it's not. Neipai is just the Japanese pronounciation.
  • Ilja
    I'm also resigned to periodical changes in Kata and can't remember a longer period of time without changes in e.g. Annan and Suparimpeideal with this adjustment pressure! :)but..."(...)ippon-kamae hikite is completely removed (...)"wait, WHAT???
    • Yeah, dude. Sakumoto sensei's new way, which will be the world standard in a couple of years ;) You'll see the videos... :/
  • Moeter
    Hey Jesse, why didn't you add a Nipaipo picture?Also I don't understand why you are so suprised about changes in kata.. Since I learned Anan 3 years ago from Shinichi Hasegawa sensei it has changed 823572935^n times.. slightly but steady. Also did Suparinpei, Nipaipo, Heiku, Paiku, Chat Kus, the Pinan katas and [insert random kata here]!And please write an article about the spelling of Anan.. :)
    • 1. Because I don't have the time to search the whole frickin world wide web for a Nipaipo picture (Usami always gets the job done! :)) and 2. The remarkable thing is really tyhe paradox that the Okinawans are steadily changing bigger and bigger things - and being quite open about it - while still being stuck in numerous other impractical training methods, rituals and traditions which they'll probably never change. To use Sport Karate as an example; There's a good reason why the Japanese aren't best in the world...
      • Moeter
        When I search for nipaipo pictures at google now.. I get a chat kus picture of usami from your blog :) well done!I've started periodizing my training like you proposed in this really interesting article that you wrote. But in the last 3 months I improved more, because I am now able to train with a japanese girl who came to germany for studying here.What I want to say is, learning karate the "japanese way" makes you so much better, while periodization only gives you more strength, stamina and rapidity. But I guess you know that.
        • Yeah, for technique they are unsurpassed!
  • Garin
    Hi JesseI am quite disappointed that the newer, modernized versions of kata were more likely to win over the the "old", traditional version. Kata is kata. When done correctly, both are awesome and beautiful to watch. Shame on the judges!Nipaipo...my favorite kata!!!! Been doing it for years here in Hawaii. Do you know which "version" is sought after? Tani-Ha? Manubi-Ha? Hayashi-Ha?
    • They're doing the JKF version (2nd shitei kata, Japan only). I guess that would be Shitokai then. Yeah, the funny thing is, last year I saw a high school girl getting disqialified for changing a chudan kick to jodan level! I guess it all depends on exactly *what* you change, *how* you change it, and *who* changes it...
      • herrle 58
        True, (now joking) maybe they just read your article "6 reasons for changes in kata" and wanted you to remember WHO makes the change is what matters ;-).... And if you want to win a kata tournament, you better show what the judges want to see :-( made that experience once in a style-open, as a fool i was i chose seiunchin (discovered they where after kicks).
  • Tony @ MMA
    Hey Jesse, This is an awesome post. Fantastic depth in your knowledge of Karate. Thanks, Tony
  • I've been at The 30th Okinawa Prefecture Karate Championship, too. Kinjo from Matsu-Honbu dojo was judging when a girl does what would be a new shiai version of nothing else but Tomari no Passai... I don't think it's cooler than the original, though. But the production is better (i.e. sound effects, timing, etc.). But the hypnotization phase in Yoi should be reduced from half a minute to something lesser. There was even somebody who applauded afterwards, if I'm not mistaken; at least one or two times. Must have been a friend or so. Finally, leaving I passed by one of the finalists on the stairs afterwards, carefully evading to much eye contact, he - looking at me - two times pretended with a grunting sound as if he would have throw up. lol Hell, I was lucky to get out of there alive...
  • Dojorat
    Changing kata has always happened. The okinawans who learned from Chinese teachers did it with the forms passed on to them. If they had not, there would be several original Chinese arts in Okinawa instead of karate. What is truly a shame and indeed very sad is when changes are made for the sole purpose of impressing people who really know nothing about karate and have little or no understanding of a kata`s aims. Kata were not made to impress an audience and should never ever be changed for that. Changing kata for winning tournaments destroys the the effectiveness of the techniques and the essential fighting principles contained. I also see it as an insult to all the masters who dedicated their lives to preserving and passing on karate. When I think of how much time the old masters dedicated to learn just ONE kata before being taught the next(years in many cases) I cannot understand why anyone would want to change them just to look `awesome`.
  • Tim Herlihy
    Perhaps in the not to distant future dojo kata we have learnt as Tomari Passai,Chatan Yara Kusanku etc will fade away and no longer be concidered closer to the original and or koryu version.Shiai kata performances dominate / dictate how the public view these forms and to them any other version may seem strange.Jesse san,how on earth to you manage to get to Okinawa so freqently.I wish i had a boss like yours.Andi,if your there hope all goes well in Naha.( i didn't realise Shinjo san was a kata judge )
  • lesley
    hi,i might be moving to vietnam. just wondering if you know where i can find details of any clubs. i used to train shotokan, but now train at a local wado ryu club. can anyone help me, please.
  • Peter Sbirakos
    What this post highlights is that kata is an ever changing, organic martial movement. Following a specific syllabus in a particular organisation (in order to full fill specific requirements so as to advance in rank) or compete in a tournament that has specific rule sets for kata so as to be judged against fellow competitors is totally fine. What this post also means to me, is that most Okinawan Schools make very little money compared with their Japanese counter parts and adherence to the syllabus. But obviously you need to follow a syllabus to get somewhere... Great post! :)
  • This is the umpteenth time you showed the photo of the poor guy getting kicked in the nuts
  • Rick Langenstein
    Hey Jesse - San , great article. Interesting, Kuda Sensei said back in 1986 that one day you'll have to come to America to learn old Okinawan karate. Also, I have an old videotape of that nepaipo kata being done in the mid 90's. Same kata, head smash and all.
  • Timo
    They change the kata....but do they also change the bunkai then? Otherwise it seems pointless. My sensei says one does not exist without the other...
  • Jesse I especially liked your observation about Nipaipo. Right on the button ! Yes people have been going mad for it especially for those wishing to use it for competitions. I have been asked repeatedly to help train people in this Kata over the past year. Even some very high ranking people are interested in being able to do this and pass it on. Keep writing your observations and doing your Youtube segments they are enormously informative and great views.

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