The Cloud of Karate – Where Things Went Wrong

I don’t know about you, but I have tons of metaphors for describing Karate.

Most of them are pretty strange, involving stuff like cookie dough and M&’M’s (just… just don’t ask), but some of them are more comprehensible.

One of my favorites is “the cloud”:

Imagine for a second that Karate was originally a gigantic “cloud” emerging from the far away Ryukyuan island of Okinawa. A great cloud consisting of a plethora of scattered ideas, tactics, techniques, tricks, theories and skills related to civil self-defense – collectively referred to as Karate.

Nothing was ever written in stone.

While some Karate pioneers adviced for certain theories and ideas (for instance Itosu Anko felt it was very important to emphasis the stomp in kata Naihanchin/Tekki), other masters advocated the exact opposite (Motobu Choki taught his close student Nakama Chozo that having a swift and silent stomp in Naihanchin/Tekki is very important). [Source: Nakamoto Masahiro, oral testimony].

Karate was a cloud consisting of a bunch of general ideas of self-defense, as taught and shared by different individuals, with different skills, during different times, on an island.

The reason I use a cloud is because you can’t really grab a hold of a cloud.

It’s non touchy.

Ungraspable.

The Karate Cloud

Now, really interesting stuff happens when winds start to blow.

Slowly, the Karate cloud travels over the seven seas, throughout the world, casting a visible shadow over different cultures and continents that is floats over. And obviously, in that shadow stands certain individuals with highflying plans, who see a chance to reach up and rip away a piece of this cloud for themselves.

Gradually, as the cloud soars the world, more and more people reach up and pull a piece down; using that small piece to bring fortune and fame for themselves as they “educate” their fellow citizens about the wisdom and knowledge inherited in their precious piece of white fluff.

Sometimes they might even tell people (either because they truly believe so, or because they want to deceive people) that they are holding the whole cloud in their hands!

Regular people don’t know, of course, that it’s merely a fraction.

(Yes – a cloud in space. Sue me.)

In this way, the small pieces of cloud that we are seeing all over the world today are but a tiny part of the original Karate cloud.

And not only that, but these cloud pieces are today applied and studied through a different set of cultural (and moral) eyeglasses, which contort and color the view of the cloud, giving it a totally different appearance and meaning (in favour of the time and place you live in). The relatively modern Okinawa-Japan WW2 Karate 3K (Kata, Kihon, Kumite) war machine support movement is a fine example of this (hint: it’s still going on in other countries).

Hey, I never said my metaphors were easy to follow!

But that still doesn’t mean they don’t totally rock.

Anyhoo… this whole “original-Karate-cloud-spreading-over-the-world-being-chopped-up-and-twisted” gave (and continually gives) birth to most of the difficulties we are experiencing today in Karate. Because those valuable shredded pieces of the Karate cloud are in fact often stored in…

Yup, you guessed it.

Boxes.

All over the world.

One of my favorites being perhaps best summed up and exemplified in the following famous quote, apparently said by the late Ed Parker, grandmaster and founder of “American Kempo Karate”:

“When pure knuckles meet pure flesh, that’s pure Karate…”

I really don’t agree – at all – but the quote is very understandable when you think about the cloud metaphor. Think about it. In fact, many (maaaaaany!) people have a similar view of Karate. It’s about being brutal. About punching people in the teeth. About being proud of yourself and your country, and not taking crap from anyone. It’s about showing no mercy, being a big boss, being a… man?

In linguistics we would call this “bollocks”.

Please, please, don’t soil the painting of Karate with your nationalistic, flag-waving, macho-man finger paint. And no amount of Freudian bad-childhood-memories-that-you-need-to-compensate-for-in-your-adult-life paint either.

Just stop it.

As if to add insult to injury, the Ed Parker quote (which I am sure went straight to the hearts of his target market) has the word “pure” in it, as to say “look, dude, I know you’re very stressed out in this crazy world, and that Karate is very complex and time-consuming, so I’ve broken it down for you into it’s pure essence, and this is it:”.

No.

Sorry.

It’s not.

Looking back at the original cloud of Karate, we find numerous quotes which tell us that Karate is something completely other than destruction, hurting, maiming or killing stuff/people. In fact, letting your “pure” knuckles meet somebody’s “pure” flesh seems to be the least of what “pure” Karate really is. I mean, just have a look at these examples:

  • Matsumora Chikudoun Pechin Kosaku [1829 – 1898], perhaps the most prominent authority of old Tomari-te style Karate maintained that, “mastery of Karate-jutsu was never made possible without first illuminating the “world within”.
  • Mabuni Kenwa [1889-1952], founder of Shito-ryu Karate, concluded that understanding the deepest meaning of Karate-do first and foremost meant transcending ego-related distractions to find inner-peace (which he made perfectly clear in a brilliant poem where he wrote that “when the spirit of Karate (Bu) is deeply embraced it becomes the vehicle (a boat) in which one is ferried across the great void to the “world within” (described as “bu”-island).
  • Motobu Choki [1871-1944] a principal authority of Karate-jutsu, and unquestionably one of the historically most controversial figures in Karate, wrote in 1927, that “in seeking to understand the essence of Karate we must search beyond the immediate results of physical training and not place too much emphasis upon competition or record breaking but rather to seek wisdom through self knowledge and humility.”
  • “Bushi” Matsumura Chikudoun Pechin Sokon [c 1809-1901], the Miyamoto Musashi of the Ryukyu Kingdom, who was regarded in Karate history as the principal authority of the self-defense traditions that ascended in the castle district of Shuri (Shurei-te), once wrote; “To all those whose progress remains hampered by ego-related distractions let humility, the spiritual cornerstone upon which karate rest, serve to remind one to place virtue before vice, values before vanity and principles before personalities.” [source: P. McCarthy, “Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts”]

And then of course we have the same ol’ numerous Funakoshi quotes (“perfection of character…”, “clean up your room…” etc.).

See what I’m getting at?

To me, it is amusing how this macho Karate mentality previously described not only goes against every moral fibre deep inside all normal people (who sometimes seem to have an urge to publicly state the opposite, probably due to lack of self-confidence) but also how this regrettably carries over to other philosophies and ideas in Karate, like “Karate ni sente nashi”.

For those of you who have no clue, “Karate ni sente nashi” is a famous saying in Karate, often translated as “There is no first attack in Karate”.

This, of course, is just for girls.

Right?

Real Karate Warriors© have no problem striking first, letting the pure flesh of their enemy meet their pure knuckles. I mean, if somebody is eyeballing you, just punch them in the mouth, right? It’s cool. It’s hip. It’s awesome. It’s “pure” Karate.

And to back it up, these people often choose to pull out the big gun, namely quoting the Japanese military strategy of “go no sen, sen no sen, sen sen no sen” [basic explanation here for you newbs], saying that attacking before your opponent does is perfectly allright, because it is a part of ancient Japanese military strategy.

Sure it is.

But that’s not the point.

If you have ever studied even a tiny bit of Japanese, you will have learnt that the particle “ni” (as in “Karate ni sente nashi”) has numerous meanings. “To” something, “in” something, “at” something, or “on” something being the most common. In other words, it is a directional particle, indicating toward who or what the action of a verb (in this case sente “attack”) is directed.

So, now that you know this, have you ever considered another meaning for “Karate ni sente nashi”?

  • “There is no first attack in Karate”
  • “There is no first attack against/towards Karate”

That second translation is just as linguistically correct as the first (popular) one. But it changes the meaning completely, doesn’t it?

In fact, I would say that the meaning now becomes similar to the famous Vegetius’ quote on warfare in the ancient Roman empire:

“Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum.”

(“If you want peace, prepare for war”)

– “Epitoma Rei Militaris,” by Vegetius (Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus)

Karate is not war.

No matter how much you, your culture, your sensei, your grandmaster, your nation or your friends want it to be.

Karate is achieving peace, through preparing for war.

There is no “first attack” against Karate, because the reason for our whole art’s existance is preparing against perhaps, possibly, eventually, maybe one day in the future being attacked. Think, no, REALLY think about it. When you go to sleep tonight, think about how that ancient Roman Vegetius dude – who lived over a thousand years (!) before Karate was even formulated – knew a lot more about Karate and its cornerstones than most of us do today.

Protecting… defending. Understanding through preparing. Humbleness.

Not mindlessly attacking and destroying.

But, as long the trashed cloud of Karate continues to slowly float around our atmosphere, casting shadows over new places here and there, with fortune hunters continually ripping it apart and examining it through their different sets of glasses, I guess we have nothing left to do but concur with Konishi Yasuhiro [1893-1983] one of the most influential pioneers of modern Karate, who once wrote that:

“Karate strives to build character, improve human behavior and encourage modesty.

It cannot, however, guarantee it.”

18 Comments

  • Leo
    The 1595 Club displays a quote from an Italian author, Vincentio Saviolo: strikes the last thoughts of this article: "THE MORE SKILL A MAN HATH OF HIS WEAPON THE MORE GENTLE AND CURTEOUS SHOULD HE SHEWE HIMSELFE, FOR IN TRUTH THIS IS RIGHTLY THE HONOUR OF A BRAVE GENTLEMAN, SO MUCH THE MORE IS HEE TO BEE ESTEEMED: NEITHER MUST HE BE A BRAGGER, OR A LYER, AND WITHOUT TRUTH IN HIS WORD, BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING MORE TO BE REQUIRED OF A MAN THAN TO KNOW HIMSELF." (http://www.the1595.co.uk) .. Maybe there is something like "the spirit of the warrior", which is similar in any culture and has definitely not much to do with popular images.
    • David
      just one word: Yes!
  • Geoff
    Interesting article. I wonder whether you could clarify your comments about Itosu and Motobu's views on the stomp in Naihanchin/Tekki. As I read it, you are actually saying that they both thought it was important however the context of what you were trying to say suggests that Itosu was against it and Motobu for it. Thanks.
    • Itosu Anko felt it was very important to emphasis the [loud] stomp in kata Naihanchin/Tekki. Motobu Choki taught his close student Nakama Chozo that having a swift and silent stomp in Naihanchin/Tekki is very important.
      • Geoff
        Thanks for the clarification Jesse.
  • Stu
    Jesse,Truly excellent summary. It explains all the reason why I keep leaving karate clubs and yet continue to be drawn back to training alone.Keep up the great work.Stu
  • Szilard
    My folk dancer friend does not approve of martial arts. According to him, if you want a good workout do folk dances, and the stile he is in is really just as acrobatic as any martial arts, there is even a small portion of stick fight in it. He refuses to see it as a stick fight, according to him it is just a stile element to emphasize the macho side of that particular dance, it could be done just as well using a bucket of flowers instead of sticks, they use sticks because that does not wear as quickly from the rather massive strikes then a tulip would. I usually tell him at this point that he must have made a vow of blindness, for which he asks me whom do I want to beat up with all those martial arts skills I learn. The question I think the way he poses it is irrelevant, but in general it is valid. It gets even worse: I got in my life several times in situations where using martial arts would have been absolutely justified, and I never did, I always relied in this situations on my big mouth and talked my way out of it. Still, some of them was very iffy, even today I have no idea how did I get away with it. Even my friends said I am crazy, I should have run as fast as I can, but there is the trouble, I am not a really good runner. So then who do I want to beat up? I don't know. I hope I will never be in a situation where I will really have to use any force. But if I couldn't fall back to fighting, I wouldn't be able to stay cool and talk my way out of the situation when things go bad.
  • Víctor
    “Karate strives to build character, improve human behavior and encourage modesty. It cannot, however, guarantee it.” May I ask about the source of that quote? I read it recently somewhere else, but I don't remember right now in which book (maybe "Karate-do Taikan"?), and I seem to remeber it wasn't Itosu's but Konishi's... Now I'm puzzled...
    • Yes amigo, there exists some confusion here! FYI, McCarthy quotes both Itosu and Konishi on this one. Personally I think it originally comes from one of Konishi's books. Did he, in turn, quote Itosu there? Don't know. Let me know when you find out! ;)
  • Lenny
    You took that Ed Parker quote out of context. It originated on the internationals when he got asked about superiority of styles. The full quote is "When pure knuckles meet pure flesh, that's pure Karate, no matter who executes its or whatever style is involved." So basically he said that he doesn't care what style someone is using, in the end it depends on what he can actually use in a fight.
    • Thanks for the info. Makes it even more depressing.
  • Oscar
    How hard is to understand that your worse enemy and the most difficult to overcome is only yourself? But maybe this is understood as beating up your behind with your own heels. Imagine that as an opposite reaction for someone who is eyeballing you. I guess is not something that a “true macho” would do nor it is much of a showoff, right?... I think I'm babbling here. Sorry, I guess I don't have comprehensible metaphors. I share the depressing feeling though.
  • Karate Guy
    I like the cloud analogy. It would be awesome to have more documentation in the original thoughts that created it, but then again would it be anymore clear? Thanks!
  • Kurt Fischer
    Personally, I am a shotokan, judo and nihon ju jitsu black belt but have, somewhere along the way, started studying other karate styles and other martial arts. So today, when I practice kata, I practice more non-Shotokan kata then Shotokan, not that it matters. I listened to my body and chose what suited me best. Shotokan as a style, and even all of my black belts became completely irrelevant (I never even wear them or gi when I practice with my friends) – somewhere along the way. Not to mention chit chat, trivia, or which kata some «would be grand master from Japan» thinks should be performed in a tournament or not!? Silly. I have no need to argue with anyone about which style is better, why Funakoshi and Motobu hated each other, why should we perform that and that kata in tournaments, why shotokan sucks and shito ryu or goju do not etc. If I really had to choose a rule, I'd stick to only one (by chance stated by Funakoshi, although I am not his fan, or anybody's fan) – there should be no styles in Karate ... or in martial arts in general. Because in the end – one can find all styles in Karate and Karate in all styles. Very simple, but comes with experience. If you really cared for Karate or any martial art it would do you a world of good to do a lot less – chit chatting and much more – researching, thinking and practicing. The reason why I posted this is only because such immature approach is on the rise in the world, which is the reason martial arts are what they are today – a McDojo product. One doesn't have to be a Zen monk to come to a conclusion that whatever you do in life is best left – unnamed. For that reason perhaps Funakoshi did not wish to name his style (school)? Suffice it to say – I practice martial arts. If I explained, or even tried to explain, my attitude my feelings towards martial arts with mere words, I would be degrading the whole concept – myself most importantly. Same thing if I made Karate the center of my world – so it is not. A modern misconception is – everybody is invited to practice martial arts (Karate included). They are Not. Those who should – will find a way to mastering martial arts (or anything in life).Kurt Fischer
    • Leo
      Fact is that the invitation is spoken every time you research it on the internet. It is a market. Today I saw XMA on YouTube and felt ashamed. But then again this and McDojos attract certain types of people and I find it quite comforting that they soak up and ward off a good share of them. Let them jump around and cry out their souls. Some even call this therapy.
  • Paul
    Great article, except for your over-interpretation of Ed Parker's quote. I think you unfairly read too much into it. Parker himself might be called patriotic, but he wasn't some jingoistic meat-head.
  • Ady
    Eastern philosophical way of thinking vs douchebag egocentric western thinking.

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