The Okinawan Karate Myth

By Jesse | 19 Comments

Imagine that you are living in a small village, hidden deep in a valley somewhere in a land far away. Let’s say that this rural village is a quite primitive society. You don’t have any telephones or computers.

We’ll even, heaven forbid, say that you don’t know what iPods are.

Shocking, right?!

Anyways, you are a villager here. You work hard all day in the fields, just like everybody else. But… there is one special thing about this village.

You have a dance.

A special dance that your people have been doing for ages. Your great grandmother’s great grandmother even did it when she was a girl. Nobody really knows who invented it, all you know is that it is a tradition. And staying true to the tradition, you do the dance every night - around a big fire along with the rest of the villagers.

It’s great.

Let’s call this dance Etarak.

(Yes, I seriously need to work on my imagination).

The dance, Etarak, is done in weird traditional clothes. You also do these advanced - somewhat dangerous -movements, while you chant a bunch of old mysterious words.

Now, one day, while you’re working in the fields, you hear some astonishing news.

A couple of other villagers have travelled to the big city, to the civilization, to spread your Etarak dance to the rest of the country! They believe that practising Etarak would benefit everyone, and perhaps put your tiny village on the map.

And sure, why not? ”A great dance like Etarak shouldn’t be hidden in some secret village” you say to the others, but actually you think it’s a foolish idea. You’re laughing on the inside.

”Why would anybody else want to learn Etarak? They have their own dances in the big cities, they don’t need it. And besides, they don’t understand it! Well, I guess we’ll just have to see…” you think for yourself.

So imagine the look on your face, when a couple of years later, some of these villagers come back to your village - telling you what a great success Etarak has become in the rest of the country!

Everyone is eager to learn it, so they even had to modernize it.

”Upgrade it a little” was the phrase.

And they show you. All of the advanced movements were gone. Replaced with very basic movements, so that ”Etarak is more safe to practise for everyone”. And the clothes! The clothes have been changed. Now you are supposed to be wearing these strange jackets, ”So that everyone can be more on the same level, you know?”.

Your friends are trying to convince you, but the they’re having a hard time. ”Okay, so the moves have been simplified, and the clothes have evolved. What else?” you ask.

”Well… then there’s the name. We decided that it should be changed to ’Odetarak’, because it’s better in many ways. Oh, and then we introduced competition too. And a ranking system.”

You are speechless.

”It’s great. Etarak it more popular than ever before. Sorry, I mean Odetarak. The old ways are dying man! Either recognize or step aside, because this is going to be huge!” your friends say.

Leaving you to make a choice.

The end.

And this was the story about how Karate was re-introduced to Okinawa.

Sort of.

You didn’t see that one coming, did you? Or maybe you did. (If you didn’t catch it, Etarak is Karate backwards. I told you I need to work on my imagination!)

Anyhow, the re-introduction of Karate to Okinawa is a chapter in the history of Karate that is not often told. We know that the major introduction of Karate to mainland Japan was done by seven people Funakoshi Gichin, Mabuni Kenwa, Miyagi Chojun, Chitose Tsuyoshi, Gima Shinken, Toyama Kanken and Motobu Choki.

So far so good.

And then we know that Karatedo exploded, spreading like the bird flu.

(And nobody was more surprised than the Okinawans by this!)

But something that is often overlooked is the fact that this ”new” Karate also spread back to Okinawa! It was, along with its many modifications and modernizations, re-introduced into the Okinawan Karate community.

With various, interesting, results.

But I will not tell you more about how this influenced (read: changed) what everyone today thinks is ”Traditional Okinawan Karate”. Instead, I will tell you about a friend of mine who really embodies this whole thing. You could say that he is a product, a direct result, of the re-introduction of Karate to Okinawa.

Hopefully, you will be able to draw some smart conclusions for yourself when you’ve read about him.

To begin with, this friend of mine exists in real life. Yes, I do have many imaginary friends, but this one I didn’t make up.

His name shall remain anonymous, but for the sake of this story, let’s call him Ushi-kun (he kind of reminds me of a bull, which is ”ushi” in Japanese).

Ushi-kun is a black belt holder in a small Karate dojo in Okinawa. He is one of seven or eight sempai in his dojo. His sensei is a 9th dan black belt. Very famous and respected in Okinawa.

Ushi-kun has had his black belt for a long time, and he might even be a second grade (nidan) black belt. I’ve never cared to ask. But his belt is quite faded.

Ushi-kun is 17 years old.

And I know this might come as a shock for some people. ”A black belt is a great honor that needs to be earned sweating at least twenty gallons of blood, during at least thirty years, enduring hard work and pain, blah blah…”

No.

Wrong.

In Okinawa every other kid has a black belt. It’s nothing fancy. Seven year olds have black belts. It’s, after all, the first grade (”sho”= first, ”dan” = level).

It’s nothing special.

We just think it is.

So, anyway, Ushi-kun trains a lot of Karate. It is definitely a part of his identity. He trains Karate in school (at his high school Karate club), and after school (at the dojo). On weekends too. Every day.

Like all high school kids in Okinawa, Ushi-kun has no hobby or free time. It’s school and school-related activities that make up his life. These activities are mostly sports, and Ushi-kun’s chosen sport is Karate.

Ushi-kun loves to compete.

In fact, if he couldn’t compete, he probably wouldn’t be doing Karate. I think he would be doing baseball like everyone else. Or he would be out chasing girls.

Believe it or not, Ushi-kun is one of the top competitors in his age class in Okinawa. He is constantly either #1 or #2 at the biggest tournaments around, and he occasionally travels to mainland Japan for big tournaments.

In Okinawa, there are only two people that have beaten him.

The first is another sempai at the same dojo (who is one year older than him), and the other is a Uechi-ryu guy. In fact, if you’ve seen my videos from Okinawa, you will probably remember this Uechi-ryu kid.

If not, here’s a video:

To be honest, Ushi-kun doesn’t like this kid at all. In fact, he frequently imitates him, by making his front teeth seem really big, stare like a zombie, and do the same kata that he does (Uechi Seisan) above. It’s hilarious. Every sempai is laughing.

Oh, and one last thing! If you would ever mention to him that you practise Kobudo, Ushi-kun would look at you like you had just farted in public. Then he would go back to playing with his cell phone.

So, now that you know some background info about Ushi-kun, let me tell you two episodes I remember from training with him.

The first one was one night when we were doing kumite.

The training at Ushi-kun’s dojo is always kihon, and then kata. Or, kihon and then kumite. Depending on what the sensei is in the mood for.

When I think about it, I never saw a single arm lock, takedown, strangulation, hook punch, hammerfist, throw, low kick, knee attack, elbow smash or even some kind of grab or hold being taught.

Anyway, this night it was kumite time.

Just like kata training, every move was to be done under the count of the sensei. “Kamaete! Ichi, ni, san…” our jodan mawashi geri, jodan ushiro mawashi geri and jodan ura mawashi geri were flying around.

Ushi-kun is quite short, but being the athlete that he is, he had no trouble kicking me in the head.

Tonights class was extra special, because we were allowed free sparring for ten minutes. And here is where this thing happened. It might not sound like anything special to you, but it clearly was for me, or else I wouldn’t remember it like I do.

”Rei… hajime!” the sensei shouts.

We start bouncing. Ushi-kun is keeping his hands low, just like everyone does. I still don’t know why. And I use it.

I duck a little, feint to the right, and then switch, kicking him with my right foot easily on the top of his head. I did what we call a gyaku mawashi geri. Not a clean hit, but still.

Ushi-kun immediately stops.

His eyes become twice as big.

His jaw drops.

”Oh my god, what have I done?!” I think. “Did I break some golden rule?” My thoughts were cut off by Ushi-kun:

”KARATE?!” Ushi-kun exclaims, while staring at me like he’s just seen a ghost.

”What does he mean?” I remember thinking. Of course I do Karate! I said ”un”, which is ”yes” in informal Japanese.

”KARATE?!” he says again, even more surprised, his eyebrows almost touching the ceiling.

Then he demonstrates the kick I just used on him. A gyaku mawashi geri. He says ”Hontou ni?” which means ”For real?”

He laughs.

I let out a small chuckle or something, and we continue sparring.

Okay, that was the first episode.

Here’s the next one:

One Tuesday evening, before training had started, everyone was warming up by themselves. The sensei had not yet entered the dojo, so people were chatting, stretching and doing some random techniques.

When I entered the dojo, I shouted ”Kombanwa!” just like everyone else, and then started walking to one corner (under the AC!) where I usually stretch a little. During my way there, I passed a mirror, and for some reason, I let out a left jab, right cross, left hook, right uppercut combination.

Very light, you know, just for loosening up.

For fun.

And that’s when I hear somebody laughing behind me.

I turn around, and guess what I see?

Ushi-kun is imitating me, along with some other black belt sempai, and they’re having very fun! I laugh back at them, and throw some more combinations.

So one of them yells ”bokushingu!”

That’s the Japanese pronounciation of “boxing”.

I felt sorry for them.

End of episode two.

Now, judging by these two episodes, what are you supposed to think?

Maybe this doesn’t even say anything to you, but to me it does. And Ushi-kun is not some special case! Oh no. He’s like every normal Karate kid in Okinawa. Except he’s a little better at performing tournament kata than most.

He is the next generation of what we in the future will refer to as Karate masters

“To a worm in an apple, the world is an apple”, a wise man once said.

This is Okinawan Karate today.

About the author

Jesse Enkamp is a Karate Nerd™, #1 Amazon best-selling author, national team athlete and founder of Seishin - the world's first crowdfunded & crowdsourced gi. He thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

19 Comments

  1. Davide.c

    July 2, 2010 at 1:52 am

    and that’s incredibly sad…

  2. Batman

    July 2, 2010 at 4:12 am

    Just wow :/ Stuff like this makes me feel even more blessed than I usually do that my teacher does his thing the way he does. I’ve done karate maybe three or four months and know there are hooks and uppercuts etc in karate. Not what I’d expect from Okinawan karate :s Is that sort of karate at least labelled differently (like sport karate or whatever)? Or is it like it is in the UK, pretty much the luck of the draw?

  3. Drew

    July 2, 2010 at 6:42 am

    Just goes to show…you’ve gotta keep an open mind about stuff and look beyond the obvious.

  4. Andi

    July 2, 2010 at 7:29 am

    Chibaruou! :O)

  5. Andi

    July 2, 2010 at 7:30 am

    Oh, I meant Chibaryou! :O)

  6. Andrew

    July 2, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    I see exactly what you mean. All they see is kata, tournaments and points.

  7. Marie

    July 2, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Another great post Jesse. I discovered your blog a week or so (by way of Jorge Morales’ blog) and I’ve really enjoyed reading all your posts. As a relatively new Karateka (only 8 months or so) you’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you.
    xMx

  8. Igor

    July 3, 2010 at 3:10 am

    I still remember people going WOW! when our guy (probably the best in the club) used a double leg MMA style throw on a karate competition, probably the first time in the country… It was an awesome moment ::)

  9. frederic Lecut

    July 3, 2010 at 5:30 am

    Very Interesting Jesse, I naively thought the original Okinawan Karate had survived untouched in Okinawa. So where do you go if you would like to practice the way Tsuyoshi Chitose was practicing 50 years ago ? Are all these things lost ?

  10. Diego Romero

    July 5, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    reminds me of one time i was doing a playful spar with a sport karate kid, and the people watching were all yelling muay thai because i was in neko ashi with my hands open.

    made me chuckle, tbh.

  11. S. Ferraro

    July 14, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Wow,

    It is truly sad that this mentality exists. Karate is one of the worlds oldest recognized martial arts, so looking at newer forms of jitsu and so forth will only unlock the “hidden” bunkai within your kata (I use hidden lightly because if you are looking at the correct technique, it’s not that hidden is it?). Chibana Sensei (Shorin-Ryu Karate) said (The artcile may be posted in this forum) that karate should be influenced by the practitioner and he should allow himself the opportunity to add to his karate, like a pond with no streams running in or out, it will be stagnate and die, this is probably why most individuals reach Shodan level and quit, they think it’s the end… it’s only the beginning.

    Karate is only as good as the person who trains in it. Like Aristotle once said, “we are what we repeatedly do.”

    Arigato,

    Steve

  12. Everett Churchill

    September 27, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    My sensei has lamented for several years how orthodox, old-style karate has all but died on Okinawa, due to the influence of Japanese, competition-oriented organizations that seem to be co-opting the vast majority of Okinawan dojo into their ranks. His father, a very well-known but quiet sensei, told us around 20 yrs ago that “in 20 yrs, if you want to learn real Okinawan karate, you’ll have to go to the U.S.” Sadly, this seems to be coming to pass.

    • Jeff Hazelbaker

      November 16, 2011 at 6:15 am

      I would have to respectfully disagree. I have lived here and practiced for 28 years. Too many Americans take what little they learn and make the rest up and take it back to the US only to pass their limited knowledge on to unsuspecting students that would not know karate from the moon. There are still many old style dojos here thats honor the history and the art and the masters that brought karate to be what it is. Has it changed? Sure, but everything evolves, but to make a general overview of what karate is on Okinawa is not a fair assesment. Just my two cents.

  13. Brian

    November 23, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    Our school has officially stopped going to competitions for this reason. Too much time is spent on training for the rules of the game rather then remembering that this isn’t a sport martial art. I still believe competition has value, but for me, it distracts me from my true focus.

  14. The Strongest Karate

    August 23, 2012 at 11:41 pm

    Oh my god…if this is the attitude of those in the birthplace of Karate then has the mantle of tradition-holders fallen to the “gaijin” like us?

    From your name, Jesse, I am guessing youre a westerner like me (this is my first time on your blog). And for the sake of Karate, I sincerely hope that what you experienced in “episode 2″ was just some local boys being a little jingoistic toward their big, foreign, visitor, rather than not understanding the value of the techniques you were mocked for. But given his surprised response in “episode 1″….*sigh*

  15. Jeff

    August 26, 2012 at 5:17 am

    I can appreciate what Jesse is trying to do! I bought his book and it’s definitely worth the read. I practice Shorin Ryu here on the island of Okinawa. I am the only foreigner in my dojo and even though I have lived here for 30 years I still was kept at a distance for many months. It took showing up every single night and never being late or missing a class and working my ass off for them to take me serious. I am now part of something so much larger than me and have a new family that would do anything to help me grow as a karateka. My dojo and the teachers I have are true to the Okinawa traditions and make sure they are passed on. Our training is true to the Ryuku way. Trust me real and traditional Okinawa karate lives on. I see some of the so call American karate teachers in the states that have totally bastardized Okinawa karate and I am at times embarrassed for them. Study long, train hard and keep the bullshit away from the art.

  16. Odie

    December 16, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Te —-> Tode —-> Karate (Present)
    Changes are inevitable… Adapt to those changes… Just like the old masters do..

  17. Nixon

    March 26, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    “To a worm in an apple, the world is an apple”, a wise man once said… Probably one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard!!!

  18. Jeff

    March 27, 2013 at 3:36 am

    Great story, with some interesting twists and observations.

    I train in what I consider to be a fairly traditional dojo in Yomitan. Most of the adults in the dojo are older gentlemen with youngest being 33. The oldest youth is 13. So you see we are missing a large group of would be players.

    But what I see from the older karateka they are open to just about anything, although they do not care much for kobudo other than numchucks. Even the oldest of them when doing a freestyle warm up will throw in a few boxing moves or something else even more odd.

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