The Real McCoy – East & West

It was a warm June evening in downtown Shuri. The sun was beginning to set, and I was getting a ride back to my apartment in an old Mercedes from my Kobudo sensei in Okinawa. Of course he didn’t need to, but he insisted.

We had been at some kind of party, of course.

Sometimes I wonder if they even do anything else in Okinawa – Karate, Kobudo and partying.

Anyway, back to the story. Sitting in the passenger seat, thinking about what I had seen and heard during the evening, I thought I would break the silence by asking my sensei a question. He seemed tired.

“Is our dojo famous in Okinawa?” I okinawaasked.

And when I think about it now, it sounds like a strange question. But I’m a foreigner, so they are used to it.

My sensei turned to me and looked surprised.

“Well, yes, of course. Very famous. Why?” he asked.

I didn’t know what to say. I just mumbled something and looked out the window. I noticed some school children were on their way to practise. Probably yakyuu (baseball).

“Yes, why? Why had I asked that?” I thought. “Now he probably feels offended, like I think his dojo is inferior to other dojos. What a stupid question”.

There was silence.

I thought it would be best if I didn’t say anything more.

We came to a red-light. And by the way, there are way to many red-lights in Okinawan cities. And they last way to long.

More silence.

Getting uncomfortable…

He stared forward, I stared out the side window. An old lady was closing her yaoya (vegetable shop) for the day. She must have been at least 90.

My sensei suddenly broke the silence. It seemed like he wanted to explain something, like he felt my earlier question needed a deeper answer.

“Many Okinawan people don’t know real Kobudo. They can’t see” he said. “They don’t know the difference. What is real, what is copy? Everything looks the same. Karate people don’t know” he continued.

“Hai, hai…” I nodded understandingly. Somehow I had expected him to say something like that.

I felt a little bit sad for him.

And I understood exactly what he meant. Being one of the last true lineage holders of authentic Okinawan Kobudo, he had spent the last years really trying to spread the art, travelling all over Okinawa, teaching everywhere.

Still, like he said, most people can’t see the difference.

I remember earlier when I had heard about a well-known traditional Goju-ryu dojo where they had started doing Kobudo. How? Well, they did their normal Goju-ryu kata, except they put Kobudo weapons in their hands.

The kata Seienchin with sai was apparently getting popular.

I’m not making this up.

So I really knew what my sensei was talking about. He can immediately see if somebody’s Kobudo is authentic or not. But to someone who doesn’t know real Kobudo, everything looks good.

So it’s easy to make things up. Even in Okinawa.

And thats brings me to what I really want to discuss. One of the greatest myths that exist in Karate today:

The belief that the Okinawan and Japanese masters of Karate and Kobudo knows everything there is to know, and holds the keys to mastering the art.

Simply because they are from Okinawa or Japan, the birthplace of Karate/Kobudo.

The plain truth is that this is not the case.

However, we in the West love to hear the stories of the little, old, grey haired half deaf, half blind masters who have magical powers and hold secrets nobody will ever know (except their most loyal disciples) and so on. Secrets that a Westerner will never get their materialistic, money-hungry hands on.

In other words, Western practitioners often tend to place their Japanese/Okinawan teachers on pedestals that they would never even consider for an American, or European, teacher.

Why is that?

Because the Japanese sensei is better? Because the Japanese teacher has a higher grade? Because he has better credentials?

Or because the Japanese sensei simply is Japanese?

Let’s start saving for that plastic surgery folks…

The other side of the coin of this myth is that:

If you’re not getting your Karate/Kobudo from a Japanese/Okinawan sensei, then you’re simply not getting the real deal.

Nope.

I can’t agree with that either.

It is my belief that no nationality or “race” has a monopoly on doing, teaching or even understanding Karate and Kobudo, even though masters like Masatoshi Nakayama wants us to think that (by writing things like “Karate-do is a purely Oriental martial art” in the introduction to his book ‘Best Karate Comprehensive’). Not Japanese, not Okinawan, not American. Karate and Kobudo transcends national boundaries.

Some people just have a head start.

That’s all.

The Okinawans definitely have one, since it’s such an accepted part of their culture.

I mean, no one is saying that there are no great Japanese/Okinawan teachers. In fact, there are plenty (why shouldn’t there be?). However, we should recognize that there exists superb Western teachers too, who have discovered many things that Japanese/Okinawan masters have not.

Some of them will never.

Mainly because they aren’t allowed – partly because of their heritage and position, but also because of the square Japanese society and restrained culture that they live in. But, to be honest, their inflexible mindset is slowly changing as the new generation of Karate and Kobudo masters is formed…

I’ve met some of them, so I know.

There is a great quote on this topic, by the American anthropologist and scholar Joseph Campbell (1904-1987):

“An oriental expert of an oriental tradition will, by virtue of his race/nationality, always command more respect in his field than his occidental counterpart.”

And this is the exact reason Western teachers think they need to have a ton of photos of themselves with Japanese/Okinawan masters on their homepages.

It makes it more “real”, somehow.

This is the reason Western teachers always feel they need to prove themselves “worthy” of being a Karate/Kobudo sensei by name-dropping Japanese/Okinawan teachers on their homepages (me included, though I try to avoid it).

This is the reason Western teachers buy “authentic” ranks and Japanese-style diplomas with fancy signs on them and hang them proudly on their dojo walls. It’s basically the reason we do all of the stuff in Karate that we don’t understand but still do.

It’s quite sad, but that’s the way it is.

And will be.

Until people gradually learn to see.

To see the difference between what’s real and what’s not.

I will leave you with a quote by late Karate master Nagamine Shoshin (1907-1997) who once said the following:

“Foreign karate enthusiasts are too gullible, and blindly accept whatever their teachers tell them to be gospel. We have as many fakes, phonies, and frauds right here in Okinawa as you ever thought of having in America or elsewhere.”

The world is round.

Don’t be trapped in a square.

13 Comments

  • Joey Paden
    Jesse. I like your stuff. Been reading since your Okinawa Tournament posts (2 months),. No, I'm not Okinawan, nor have I been to Okinawa, but I train & teach kata & ippon kumte like no tommorow. This is what I've been taught is their way. I'm Isshin-ryu under A.J. Advincula Sensei, yes I'm name dropping but some of the things you write, I've heard from him. Cool stuff. Google "Isshin-kai." Kanpai
    • Hi Joey! Thanks! Haven't been to Okinawa? What are you waiting for!? :o Btw: I met some 4th dan Isshin-ryu guy in the World Tournament (guess who won ;)).
  • Igor
    Some people just have a head start. My sensei didn't have any... He started karate at age 9, in his small city there wasn't any, but some kids were coming there for summer vacations, and he made them show him the katas and prakticed on his on, for a long time before he had a real teacher, and went to tons of seminars and stuff... And the fact that he worked so hard on his own, read so many books, means to me way more than the fact that he studied under Kase on his seminars...
    • Igor, that's a great story! Self learning is the only true learning. Though your teacher actually had a head start... on the kids who started when they were 10 ;)
  • ANDREY TAMPA BAY FL
    2009-11,9. 1 30 AM.OSHU !!HERE IN AMERICA WE HAVE THE BEST.WHEN YOU THINK KOBUDO THERE IS ONLY ONE !!MASTER FUMIO DEMURA OF CALIFORNIA.HE IS VERY VERY GOOD,AND HE TEACH KARATE AND KOBUDO SEMINAR TO EVERY ONE.SHOTOKAN WADO RYU TEAKWONDO STUDENTS.EVERYBODY IS WELCOME AND RECEIVED RESPECT THAT THEY DESERVE.HE IS TRULY THE BEST.ABOUT THE EAST WEST RELATIONSHIP.WELL HERE WE CALL ITTHE :ALMOND EYES SYNDROM.IT IS NOT BECAUSE YOUR MARTIAL ART TEACHERSENSEI, SHIHAN IS ORIENTAL THAT HE IS BETTER THANA CAUCASIEN.IN ENGLAND THEY HAVE MASTER STEVE ARNEIL.HIS TEAM WON WORLD CHAMPION IN 1972 IN PARIS,THE IMPORTANT IS TO TRAIN NOW .ON THE OTHER HANDS2 KARATE/KOBUDO TEACHER IN OKINAWA DON T TALK EACH OTHER.BE HERE IN OUR OWN COUNTRY WE TALK EACH OTHEREVEN IF WE ARE FROM DIFFERENTS ORG.SOMETIMES YOURS BEST FRIENDS BELONG TO OTHERORG THAN YOURS.THANK YOU.KEEP TRAINING.WISHING YOU ALL THE BEST.ANDREY ... TAMPA FL. USA.
  • Tintin
    Jesse, Only found your blog a few weeks ago, and have been reading with much interest. Always thought provoking. Keep it up. Thankyou.
    • That's what I do ;)
  • Saxon_Thor
    Regarding Kobudo: I get the sense in the circles I associate with, that Taira Shinken and his lineage, was/is the be-all, end-all, last word on traditional Okinawan kobudo (except for maybe the Yamani-ryu Bou-juitsu). Do you concur with this assertion?On another note, I really appreciate your videos and commentary. I feel like I've finally found an online "home." I was able to view Cha-tan yara Kusanku for the first time EVER on your site, and now I am obsessed with learning it. This is the first time I have ever been truly focused on learning a Shuri (Itosu-kei?) kata, as mostly I have been inclined to focus on Higaonna-kei kata (perhaps b/c my body-type is more inclined to such).May the "G-d of Karate" continue to smile upon you, your efforts, and your good health.Saxon-Thor
    • Saxon-Thor:Welcome! I'm flattered :)About Kobudo: I agree somewhat. Taira-lineage Kobudo might, maybe, be considered more "traditional" so to speak, since it hasn't been as exposed in America and Europe as Matayoshi Kobudo, for example. It's is more "pure" maybe.I mean, try finding ANY advanced Taira-style kata on Youtube (Hantagwa no sai, Kojo no sai, Soeishi no kon, Sueyoshi no kon, Choun no kon, Chatan Yara no kon, Urasoe no kon, Sesoko no kon, Kongo no kon, Shirotaru no kon, Yonegawa no kon, Tsuken no kon, Chinenshichanaka no kon, Surujin, Timbe/Rochin and so on.)You won't find it.You will only find Matayoshi or Yamane versions. So... Taira style seems a little more "secretive" so to speak, and might therefore be considered the "be-all, end-all, last word on traditional Okinawan Kobudo" by some.But the real reason is that not many people know those kata to begin with.That's what I think.
      • Saxon_Thor
        What I seem to take from your statement, is that the reason the Shinken-kei (Taira-kei? Not sure if the former or latter name is the western surname equivalent) methodology is considered so authoritative is b/c specifically of their ignorance of the advanced kata, and if they knew (of) them, they would see it's not some magical, death style, but just different. Is that interpretation of your response correct?On secrecy of Shinken-kei kobudo: Do you think the secrecy stems from its association with Shito-ryu, and the nature of Kenwa Mabuni's contribution to training of Japanese intelligence and special forces during the war (including the close ties and collaboration with Seiko Fujita)? Now I realize the Shinken-kei methodology was taught and proliferated to masters of other styles, I'm just curious if you think the Shito-ryu association set the precedent for it's clandestine-like communicative instruction.
        • Taira is the family name.No, they don't ignore the "advanced" kata. It's just that there are so many kata in the Taira syllabus, meaning: not many people know the more advanced ones.Another stylist might easily know all kata in their respective system (Matayoshi/Yamane etc.), but that is rarely the case with somebody training Taira Kobudo. There are very (and I mean VERY) few teachers in the world who knows the "whole" Taira syllabus, especially the more advanced kata.Other systems are more easy to "master", since they don't have such a vast syllabus, making them seem "less advanced" to people who put quantity over quality (meaning: most people).And yes, I think the fact that Shito-ryu is (or rather was) connected to Taira Kobudo might be another factor which makes it seem more legit than other systsms, at least in the eyes of people who know about this connection.
          • Saxon_Thor
            Thank you for your response. Very informative and clarifying.
  • I know you are not implying this, BUT, the reverse also need to be said. Just because you are learning from a Japanese/Okinawan instructor, does NOT mean that it is inferior to the "more progressive western sensei," either. Too many people seem to think that way nowadays, despite never having REALLY trained with an Okinawan or Japanese teacher...

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