Do I Really Need To Learn Karate History? — Karate Philosophy


Hello and onegaishimasu! Do you know where karate
comes from? Let’s take a look way back into the history of Okinawa to find out!
I’ll start out with my personal history! I started training way back in August 2002,
and I haven’t stopped since! I spent 15 years at my home dojo before I had to move
to a different state. I achieved the rank of Shodan Ho in December 2012, and then a
year later I achieved the full rank of Shodan black belt. Unfortunately, due to moving around
since then, I haven’t been able to test for higher ranks, but I’ve had the joy of
training a lot of new techniques, which is what really matters!
My sensei at my home dojo trained under Nakasone Kinei, who was a student of Toguchi Seikichi. Toguchi Sensei was one of the senior students of Miyagi Chojun Sensei,
the founder of Goju Ryu. My sensei also trained in Matayoshi Kobudo, a style of ancient weapons
fighting that I was also lucky enough to be able to train in. There’ll be an upcoming
video on that so keep an eye out! When I moved out of state for school, I had
to find a new dojo. Fortunately, I was spoiled for good choices. The dojo I eventually moved
into had a slightly different lineage than my home dojo. My new sensei trained with Sensei
Ronald Taganashi, a student of Peter Urban who founded USA Goju Karate. Sensei
Urban was a student of Yamaguchi Gogen Sensei who himself was another student of
Miyagi Chojun Sensei. But who did Miyagi Sensei learn from? He was
the founder of Goju Ryu, but there must have been some karate prior to him for him to learn,
right? No one really knows exactly when karate began,
but we know where. Okinawa, which used to be called the Ryukyu Kingdoms, is where karate
first started being developed. Back then, it was known as “te” or “dee” meaning
“hand” (手). However, this old style was nothing like karate nowadays.
Okinawa had a lot of trade with China, and one of the biggest imports was Chinese kempo.
The village of Kume in Naha in particular had a lot of Chinese ambassadors, many of
whom wanted to demonstrate and teach kempo to the Okinawans.
Patrick McCarthy, a karate historian, puts forward the theory that many of these martial
artists would train together and develop their techniques in Matsuyama Kouen, a park
in Kume. You can still visit this park today, to see where some of the greatest karate practitioners
developed their skills! These empty handed martial arts became really
popular on Okinawa, possibly because Sho Shin, a 17th century king, banned weapons across
the kingdom. Every town had its own unique style of fighting, born from necessity and
innovation. In the 1800s, a martial artist from Naha named
Higaonna Kanryo traveled to Fujian Province in China. After some time there,
he began to study White Crane kung fu under a teacher known as Ryu Ryuko. He spent 13
years studying, during which time he got a copy of the Bubishi, a Chinese book about
martial arts that many people consider the foundation of many styles. However, Ryu Ryuko
never awarded Higaonna Sensei a teaching license, and it’s very likely that Higaonna trained
with other teachers during his travels. Eventually, however, he returned to Naha to
found Naha-te, a style based on what he had learned.
Miyagi Chojun Sensei began training at the age of 14, and after impressing several teachers,
he began studying under Higaonna Sensei. He was very dedicated to practice, and became
one of Higaonna’s best students, staying by his side until his death.
After losing his teacher, Miyagi traveled to China to try to find Ryu Ryuko’s dojo
and retrace the steps of his sensei. While he was unable to find who he was looking for,
he learned from White Crane masters and brought back a form called Rokkishu which he would
later adapt into Tensho, one of the kata that would go on to define Goju Ryu
When Miyagi Sensei returned, he founded a dojo where he taught karate, but didn’t
yet name his style. In 1930, Miyagi Sensei sent one of his students,
Shinzato Jin’an, to the coronation of crown prince Hirohito. As the story goes, after
his demonstration, Jin’an was asked the name of his style. Since there wasn’t one,
he improvised the name “Hanko Ryu”, meaning half hard style. When he returned to Miyagi
Sensei’s dojo, he related this story to his teacher, who thought for a time before
deciding on the name “Goju Ryu”, or hard/soft style. He chose this name from Article 13
of the Bubishi, a poem about the way of fighting, from the line describing the inherent In-Yo
or Yin Yang balance in breathing. And that’s where Goju Ryu, my style of karate,
comes from! Everyone who practices Goju can trace their lineage back to Miyagi Sensei
one way or another. Oh boy that’s a lot of information. In my
first draft of this script, it’s over 500 words, just on the history. Why go through
all the trouble to learn this stuff? Does learning history help you learn karate?
A lot of senseis seem to think so. My first black belt test was 4 hours long, and after
going through every technique, every kata, every bunkai and every drill, as well as sparring,
we finished by taking a test on history and meanings of the names of various kata and
techniques. Why was this important? Well to give a full explanation I would have
to ask “what is the point of learning karate?” And that’s a really interesting question,
one that basically every video on this channel will be exploring, but I won’t even try
to answer it here, because I don’t want to make a three hour long video. So instead
I’ll run through a few reasons why history might affect your training.
One thing that a lot of karateka worry about is the authenticity of their style or lineage.
The problem is, that kind of thing is very hard to determine. Even for just Goju Ryu,
Miyagi Sensei never named an official successor, so it’s hard to tell whose lineage is more
or less authentic. And even Higaonna Kanryo may have not received a teaching license.
But does that mean that what he taught, or what any of Miyagi Sensei’s students taught,
is inherently less effective? A paper I read while doing research for this
video includes the quote “martial arts and martial artists do not in and of themselves
need history”. This is from the perspective of efficacy, of what’s needed to actually
do self-defense. And this is true. I can talk at length about my lineage or the history
of the style, but none of that improves my technique. None of it improves, or even affects,
the embodiment of the martial art. But history might still have some benefit.
One thing that the karate community talks about a lot is “McDojo”s, which is a term
for some dojos that sacrifice quality of training for making money. Knowing your lineage, and
your school’s lineage, can help you make sure your training is actually effective.
There’s an ongoing debate about whether it’s better to do a technique effectively
or with historical accuracy. On one hand, some dojos can use “tradition”
as an excuse to not update techniques. Because it’s “how it’s been done”, you can
get stuck doing ineffective techniques like holding your hand at your side uselessly.
YouTuber and inspirational figure Jesse Enkamp talks about updating bunkai, or applications,
to use that hand as a hiki-te, or grabbing hand, at short distances. You can’t let
tradition force you to train impractically. However, looking back at the history of your
style can help to find interpretations that have been lost to history. Karate kata are
notorious for having lost a lot of complex applications to a push to simplify and standardize
the art as it became a sport. A lot of the history of these kata reveals the actual meaning
behind a lot of the abstract moves, and can make your practice a lot more practical. Though
its easy to forget watching someone perform Shisochin or Kururunfa, those forms were originally
developed as practical ways of teaching and internalizing a lot of techniques in a short
form, and every move has several applications behind it that can only be found in bunkai,
or through historical research to uncover the original use of the technique.
By way of a closing remark though, I want to talk about how tradition ought to be used.
We should remember that Miyagi Chojun Sensei, as well as Funakoshi Gichin, Itosu Anko and
every other karate master came from a long and proud history of synthesizing different
fighting traditions, testing to see what worked, and updating the old to make it new. Many
kata have been simplified over time, and history can help us both appreciate how the art was
developed and uncover the more complex and effective techniques, but as karateka, we
can’t let the focus on history blind us to the long tradition of adaptation, improvement
and updating. Maybe, tradition and practicality don’t have to be fully at odds with each
other. But what do you think? Should karateka learn
the history of their art? Leave your friendly comments down below, and also like this video
and hit subscribe for more overthinking of karate. As always, you can find sources I
used coming up with the idea for this script in the dooblydoo.
And no matter what, train hard, and arigatougozaimashita!

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