When I was six years old, my parents signed me up at a local karate class. I’m not sure why; perhaps because, as the smallest kid in my class, they thought I’d need to toughen up to survive primary school, or maybe they just wanted me out of their hair on a Saturday afternoon. But whatever the reason (definitely the latter) I took to it like a hyper-hydrophilic mallard to water. A combination of my slight stature and an uber-competitive streak made me the ideal karateka [practitioner of karate]. However, by the age of ten, due to my new obsessions with football and swimming, I ended up quitting the sport I had loved and to which I had dedicated half of my young life.
But then, in 2019, after eight years living in Japan, I saw a poster for Shotokan karate at my local gym, and with no little trepidation, I contacted Ohnishi-sensei with a tentative email. “Hi, I saw your poster and was wondering if you could give me some information about your association,” I wrote in my poor Japanese. “No problem,” came the reply. “We train on Wednesday. See you then.” Bugger. No excuses now. I felt obliged to go. And I am so glad that I did, because it was through Ohnishi-sensei that I learned the true meaning of karate.
Well, not the true meaning as in the direct translation, as I already ‘knew’ that. It came, I believed, from the kanji characters 空手, the first, ‘kara’, meaning open, and the second, ‘te’, meaning hand, denoting it as a form of unarmed combat.
Another thing that I ‘knew’ was that karate came from the Okinawa islands, then called the Ryukyu Kingdom, at a time when the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled over mainland Japan de-weaponised the islands in order to stymie potential uprisings. As a result, the Okinawans developed karate as a way to oppose their samurai occupiers, practicing in secret, turning their bodies into lethal weapons of resistance.
However, both of these things are actually quite wide of the mark. Firstly, though the Tokugawa did instigate a Japan-wide katanagari [刀狩 sword hunt] as a way of deterring commoner rebellions against the samurai classes in 1683, the Ryukyu kings had already implemented such a practice in the 15th century. Furthermore, tales in which Okinawans battled with their mainland samurai overlords with nothing but their bare hands are, according to historian Isaac Meyer, apocryphal.
In fact, karate stemmed from traditional Okinawan forms of self-defence called ‘te’ some 500 years ago, though there are theories that it may have come from India via China 500 years before that. Whenever it did arrive, it was certainly influenced by Chinese kenpō, evidenced by the fact that the original kanji characters were written as唐手 [Tang/Chinese hand]. Furthermore, many of the early leaders of the three main forms of Karate – Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te – had Chinese connections, with Higashionna Kanryō, the originator of Naha-te, spending years in China, as did Sakugawa Kanga, the teacher of Matsumura Sōkon, whose student Itosu Ankō went on to become known as “the Grandfather of Modern Karate.”
During this time, karate remained the preserve of Okinawans, being brought into public school education in 1905. However, it was another of Itsou’s students, Funakoshi Gichin, who introduced it to the mainland. Following the fall of the Tokugawa empire in 1868, Japan had become enamored with western ways, deeming them more civilised than those of their own, and as a result, the symbols of samurai culture fell from vogue. This all changed as Japan embraced militarism in the later 19th century, a nostalgia for the mythologized ‘bushido’ [way of the warrior] increased, sparking a desire to train boys and young men in ways that would prepare them for battle better than the western sports of baseball, soccer, and rugby that were growing in popularity.
Yet, there remained a stigma around martial studies and their connection to the ousted warrior classes, a situation that changed when Jigoro Kano rebranded jiu-jutsu [柔術, soft (combat) method] as judō [柔道, gentle way]. Here, the emphasis was on the ‘dō’, which denoted a focus on spiritual self-improvement through physical activity, mirroring the muscular Christianity and Judaism movements of the mid- and late-19th century (see also kendo, aikido, kyudō and iaido). Inspired by this development, Funakoshi went about remodelling karate, beginning with name; as Japan was involved in a military incursion on the Chinese mainland, references to the Tang dynasty would have to be removed, and he thus replaced the first character 唐 with its homonym 空, adding a third symbol道 to create 空手道, karate-dō, the way of the open hand.
To be accepted by Japan’s more ‘civilized’ society, this cosmetic change alone was not enough, and Funakoshi also went about redeveloping and renaming the kata, the sequences of moves performed to demonstrate the form and expertise of the karateka. This was a critical alteration, because though kata had existed for centuries, Funakoshi’s modifications not only made the names easier for mainland Japanese to pronounce, but they also helped transform karate from being a form of self-defence and attack, into a martial art, with a heavy emphasis on the art.
Having developed his form of karate, a combination of the Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū styles, in 1928, Funakoshi’s first dōjo opened in Tokyo in 1938, and his acolytes dubbed it ‘Shotokan’ after his poetry sobriquet, Shoto [松濤 pine-waves, or the movement of pine needles when the wind blows through them]. Thanks to the karate demonstrations that Funakoshi organised at universities throughout the length and breadth of the mainland, and the fact his changes simplified the more complicated Okinawan moves so that they could be easily taught to schoolchildren, Shotokan quickly became the most practiced form of karate in Japan.
Though karate did have its black days – like other budō [武道 martial arts] it was a propaganda tool of the Japanese government during WW2 and later banned by the occupying American forces – today, thanks in part to Funakoshi’s student Kanazawa Hirokazu, who established dojos globally (and, incidentally, was the teacher of Ohnishi-sensei) it is practiced by some 100 million people in 192 countries, making it the most practiced in the world. Of course, many of these are drawn to the kumite [組手, grappling hands] combat aspect of karate as a sport, and many others have become karateka for the kudos (and who hasn’t met one of those guys – and yes, it’s always guys – who crowbar into conversation that, “actually, I do karate and I could break your neck before you could blink, and yeah I have nunchaku at my place, want to come round and see me practice?”) after watching Karate Kid too many times, but to me, thanks to the influence of Ohnishi-sensei, it is the art inherent in the kata that is the true beauty of karate. During the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, watching Ryo Kiyuna and Kiyou Shimizu win gold and silver respectively, you can see how this onetime mode of self-defence has been elevated beyond combat to a thing of beauty and precision, an expression of power, athleticism and elegance, all composite parts amounting to an elevated art form.
If you are interested in getting involved in karate in Nagoya, there are loads of dōjos to be found. To discover the one nearest to you, check out the list on the ever excellent Kikuko-Nagoya.com website.
Kiyou Shimizu.jpg by Martin Rulsch wikicommons CC BY-SA 4.0
Nijukun by wikicommons public domain
Ryo Kiyuna.jpg by Martin Rulsch wikicommons CC BY-SA 4.0