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Thread: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

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    Cayuga Karate is offline
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    Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Six months ago I began a videoblog (http://cayugakarate.com/blog) dedicated to exploring the potential link between Chinese military arts and Okinawan empty hand arts. I would like to share my work with the contributors on MartialTalk.

    It would be helpful to briefly review the historical context of the Chinese presence in Okinawan.

    Between the late 1300s and the late 1800s, the Chinese engaged in the tributary system of trade with numerous peoples throughout Southeast Asia. The Okinawans, due to both their location, as well as their seafaring skills, had an important role in this trading system which became an integral component of the Okinawan economy and social system. In support of the tributary system, the Chinese established a substantial presence (36 families)in the Kume Mura village in Naha. Throughout much of the 500 year period of tributary trade, Okinawan tribute ships were vulnerable to piracy and the Chinese had strong motivation to ensure these ships were appropriately protected against attacks. It was not uncommon for the Chinese to send military personnel to Okinawa. (Funakoshi lists five Chinese by name as teachers of Chinese martial systems to Okinawans. Four of these were described as military attaches.) And while the origins of Okinawan of karate will forever be clouded, due primarily due to the secrecy in which it was practiced; there is some belief that the Chinese are a significant source of Okinawan kata.

    If we accept the proposition that the Chinese placed a high value on tribute trade with Okinawa, we should consider the possibility that the Chinese would want Okinawans to have the military skills necessary to protect Okinawan tribute vessels on route to China. We do have a record of Chinese military officials engaged in teaching the Okinawans martial arts. If that were true, we should at least consider the possibility that these arts could have been used in a military context, specifically protecting Okinawan tribute vessels.

    Based upon this historical analysis, I have proposed the following hypothesis. Okinawan kata, at least those taught by Chinese in Okinawan, have origins as Chinese military arts, and were taught to help ensure the protection of tribute trade.

    Prior to the emergence of firearms, the bladed spear (which I will refer to as a "spear", rather than use the more uncommon term "halberd") was a common weapon used in military combat. While long spears were common on the battlefield, short spears were quite common throughout the Chinese military. Short spears (about the height of the person using it) would have an obvious advantage (compared to long spears) in defending a ship against pirates who had been successful in boarding, and therefore, we should expect that the Chinese would have passed on arts specifically for use with the short spear.

    The hypothesis proposed leads to the question: do Okinawan kata have movements that could propel a spear in useful, effective fighting combinations?

    It is the purpose of my videoblog to further explore this question. Since July, I have documented 30 hours of training and instruction (mostly training), and have documented the movements of 20 kata for use with a spear. Over the next several years I will explore the movements of these 20 kata, and 20 others, for use with a spear.

    In general, I will record a minimum of 1000 repetitions of a kata, in some cases many more. I want to have some minimum level of competency before I take the opportunity to share what my training in a kata has taught me about the uses of the spear movements found within each kata.

    While I expect many to be resistant to this novel hypothesis I have proposed, I am hopeful that some might find my ideas useful. There are many karateka engaged in the study of kata, who are perplexed at how some of the movements could be used in effective fighting combinations. For many, there are some movements in kata that just don’t seem to model actual fighting.

    I am eager to engage those who would be interested in exploring this very different approach to the analysis of kata.

    My blog, over time, will also contain a thorough review of the available literature regarding the origins of Okinawan karate, the history and impact of the Okinawan-Chinese trading relations, and the effects of the Japanese occupation and banning of weapons of warfare. I have posted some of that information already.

    Before I close, I need to make some very important points. I have said nothing here that would imply that I don’t believe many kata movements are useful in fighting. That is because I believe that kata contain all sorts of great empty-hand fighting applications. I also believe that some movements don’t seem to have much usefulness in actual fighting, but that does not detract from the fact that I am an ardent believer in the practice and use of Okinawan kata for empty hand fighting.

    Second, I recognize that the history is terribly incomplete and that drawing any speculations is difficult. As I document the historical record, this will become more clear. For those kata that predate 1900, we will never know for sure which are of Chinese origin, and which may be of uniquely Okinawan origin. Without question, the kata have been modified in ways that make them uniquely Okinawan, and in ways that don’t resemble the way that Chinese kata, both empty hand and weapons kata, are practiced today.

    Nevertheless, regardless of whether the kata have changed, the question still remains. Do the Okinawan kata today, in general, provide for effective spear combinations? I will review a broad cross-section of common Okinawan kata, 40 altogther, in an effort to demonstrate that they do.

    As I have brought this issue to other forums, some have asked questions about the relation of Okinawan kobudo to the issue I am studying. Please note I make no arguments at all about Okinawan kobudo. While some of those weapons may have been used to defend tribute ships, I don’t see what motivation the Chinese would have had to teach the use of those weapons in preparing Okinawans for combat with armed pirates. The Chinese have had thousands of years experience in the use of the spear in military combat, and I see no reason that they would have chosen to instruct the Okinawans in bo, tonfa or nunchuka, as these are non-bladed weapons. In military combat, at least prior to the adoption of firearms, preference was clearly given to bladed weapons. And while the kama is bladed, the short length makes it not nearly as effective as a spear. (I won’t argue with the Sai one way or the other. They are effective throwing weapons, and could very well have had a role.)

    I do not mean to minimize the role that Okinawans played in the development of karate, as it is practiced today. There was an art of te that predated the rise of the Ming and the development of Tributary trade. However there was substantial Chinese influence throughout the development of the art, and today karate can be viewed as uniquely Okinawan, from the way they train, to the way they practice kata. I do not mean to minimize their obvious fundamental role in the development of their art.

    What I do hope to do is to ensure that students of the art do not overlook the importance of the Chinese role in this development. If indeed Chinese military personnel had a role teaching forms to Okinawans, and if these forms survive today with a strong resemblence to the original movements taught, then we need to consider the Okinawans as transmitters of Chinese information, and we should look to the motivations of the Chinese as to why they taught these forms. It is accepted that the Chinese taught empty hand systems for empty hand self-defense. I believe that this assumption should be questioned.

    I fully recognize the complexity of this subject, and I am sure this post will elicit all sorts of questions from the contributors here. I will do my best to answer all issues raised. I am most interested in the discussion of kata movements, so if anyone has in interest in pursuing those specific discussions, I would be most obliged. But I have a strong interest in fleshing out the historical record, and would appreciate all information that contributors can share on this topic.

    -Mike Eschenbrenner
    Cayuga Karate
    Ithaca, New York, USA
    Last edited by Cayuga Karate; 01-12-2010 at 07:15 PM.

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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Mike,
    My first 2 questions would be why you started on this path, why you think it's important?
    My third question would be why the spear and not the sword, which seems to be a very good close quarter fighting weapon.?
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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Mike, thanks for the interesting post. I look forward to reading any future articles although I have to admit spear work interests me not at all.

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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Maybe it's just me, but I find the whole idea that karate is in fact chinese spearfighting very amusing. Those okinawans sure don't know what they've been training for all these years
    Timo Saksholm

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    Thumbs up Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    I've always thought Okinawan karate was its own animal with influences from China, Japan, and perhaps even some southeast Asian countries. It's not a samurai art although many would like such a connection. I'm also not convinced it stems from Chinese military spear training either, but I'll certainly read any articles Mike chooses to write and share.

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    Mushi Mushi Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Within kata are many moves that could be used with with a weapon. I have seen traditional goju kata performed with Tonfa and Sai in particular. In FMA the moves with sticks can be replicated without the sticks to good effect. So it makes sense to me that many kata can include weapons. The question becomes, what came first? My feeling would be the answer is contained in the name. Kare (empty) te (hand) is relatively recent. Prior to this it was simply te and linked to its region of origin, hence Naha-te Shuri-te and Tomari-te. If the karate we know had developed with a weapon, such as the spear, why would it regress to open hand? I do not doubt there are many links to military training in the MAs but I feel that karate was designed to use when there was no weapon available.
    Like the others I look forward to reading more.
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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Ok, for argument's sake, let's say that the karate kata are really spearfighting techniques. Why is it then that separate weapons kata for bo and e.g. nunti exist? Also, and more importantly, why is it that nobody in Okinawa seems to have made this connection? Why have they all this time practised with only bare hands? Why all these generations of masters insist only on teaching bare hand stuff? Surely you have some evidence, not just guesswork, to support the theory?
    With my previous karate instructor, we practised some empty hand kata with weapons, e.g. Chinto with a bo (or was it jo, can't remember anymore). Does that make Chinto a bo kata? No, it doesn't!
    Timo Saksholm

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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Quote Originally Posted by K-man View Post
    If the karate we know had developed with a weapon, such as the spear, why would it regress to open hand?
    Does there have to be a linkage at all, even if it's true that many of the kata adapt remarkably well to usage with weapons?

    The Goju karate and kobudo taught to me from my teacher came from two distinct sources. Although we often mixed and matched drills, we understood that our kobudo did NOT come from Miyagi Sensei.

    Perhaps an interesting exercise would be to look into some of the southern Chinese fighting systems to see how they do things. As I understand it, the White Crane system has distinct forms for weapons and empty hand practice, too. At face surface, I would have thought there would be more examples of the same form teaching both weapons and unarmed techniques.

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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    I think you'd be getting closer to the truth if you researched the Pechin and looked at Kobudo. The empty hand kata are well researched and really aren't weapon kata. Although, many of the same principles can be found in weapon kata. Karate is a quasi-civilian art. It was practiced by nobles and middle class Okinawans and it was practiced by officials who acted under the authority of the King.
    "Violence is a stick sharpened at both ends. When it is stuck it into others, it sticks into the wielder."

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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    TShadowChaser,

    May I call you Sheldon?

    You wrote:

    My first 2 questions would be why you started on this path, why you think it's important? My third question would be why the spear and not the sword, which seems to be a very good close quarter fighting weapon.?
    Great questions. Let me start with the third. I would never argue that the sword is not a superb close quarters weapon. It may well be the best. However, the short spear has both the benefits of being able to be wielded like a sword, with the added benefit of increased range. While the sword has excellent thrusting capabilities, they are no match for the spear, which can be anchored against your body during the thrust, for a level of stability the sword can never match. Before I discuss range in more detail, let me point out that there are historical sources that discuss the use of the spear in defending tribute ships. For example in Nagamine's Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters, he wrote:

    ... As the book, Okinawa, 1000 Year History describes, all trubute ships that sailed the treacherous waters between China and the Ryukyu Archipelago during feudal times were equipped with a turret, artillery, and weapons such as arrows, spears, guns and explosives.
    Please note that the text does not mention swords.

    Nagamine also goes on to write:

    It was the responsibility of the captain and crew to be able to defend their cargo and their vessel against attacks during a voyage. Hence, proper training in the combative disciplines was essential. Designated the official vessels of the Ryukyu Kingdom, tribute ships carried both valuable cargo and important passengers to China. Tribute was the single most important aspect of the Ryukyu's social economy, and, therefore, no expense was ever spared in ensuring the safety of the cargo, passengers and crew.

    In the event of an assault, which was quite frequent during feudal times, passengers who were skilled in combative disciplines were, by order of the King, commanded to aid the crew.
    Above, I discussed the value of a spear's range compared with a sword. I think this can be best understood when considering fighting movements, one after the other, in two opposite directions. A traditional katana is approximately 40 inches in length. A short spear is nearly the height of the warrior. For me, that would be about 66 inches. When I extend my arm out in front of me, my hand begins about 18 inches from my body. Let's look at the range of two directions. We can measure the range of spear thrusts with arms only with no movement of the torso towards either targets. Limiting my body to a simple 180 degree turn, I measure the length of a stab first in one direction and then in the opposite direction using the full range of both spear and sword. The range of the sword is less than 10 feet, and the range of the spear is over 14 feet, over a 40% increase in range.

    In the melee of battle with allies and enemies all around, the ability to quickly shift direction and thrust into the back of a nearby enemy is highly valuable. The range of a short spear is optimized for this multi-directional kind of combat.

    Compared to the sword, the short spear also has greater range in spinning movements and can be spun about in ways that make it difficult for even a skilled swordsman to attack. In Secrets of the Samurai, the authors wrote:

    According to the literature of the bujutsu, an expert spearman trained in any of those schools was studiously avoided not only by single warriors armed with the formidable katana, but ever by groups of warriors whom he cold scatter with an intricate, yet impenetrable and deadly circular dance–his long weapon cutting, thrusting, slashing, and parrying as it cut through the air around him in a series of murderous whorls.
    The length of the spear would also make it more valuable in the use of the stabbing motions needed to prevent a pirate from boarding a vessel, and for use as a javelin for throwing at enemies at all stages of a conflict.

    This is not to say that military personnel on a ship might not wield multiple weapons. For example, it was quite common for Samurai of the times to carry both swords and spears, and this may well have been the case on Okinawan tribute vessels.

    While there are movements in kata where the hands are together, and can be used for sword movements, there are many movements in kata that use push-pull motions where the hands are separate, moving in opposite directions. These movements are useful for a longer weapon with a much bigger split grip, as compared to the spear.

    In short spear fighting movements, where the spear is held at one end, blocking is done not only with the end of the spear near the blade, but with the end of the spear between the hands. These blocking movements require a wide split-grip. Compared to spear movements, done with the hands apart, sword movements, almost uniformly, have the hands close together, and all blocking is done with the blade. Sword movements simply do not include the push-pull movements that are found not only in empty hand karate, but in virtually all traditional bo kata.

    In looking at kata to see whether some might have military origins, the first question to ask would be: "why?". Why would the Chinese want to educate the Okinawans in military arts. Looking at historical sources, we all should be able to acknowledge that Okinawan was a seafaring nation and Okinawa seafarers, especially those engaged in tribute trade, required spear-fighting skills. (Nagamine writes that the captain and crew were responsible for defense of their vessel, their cargo, and their passengers.)

    The next step is to consider how Okinawan seafarers might have come to learn their spear arts. One source could well have been the Chinese, particularly military personnel who were in Okinawa to support Tributary trade.

    Is there evidence to support that Chinese military were engaged in the training of Okinawans in combative disciplines. Although the historical record is woefully incomplete, there is indeed some evidence that Chinese military personnel played a role in teaching Okinawans combative arts. Miyagi mentions Kume Mura security personnel as likely sources of Okinawan arts. Funakoshi names five Chinese by name as teachers of Okinawans in combative arts. Four of these he describes as military attaches.

    If the Chinese were responsible, at least in part, in teaching Okinawans military arts designed to ensure the viability of tribute trade, a follow up question would be whether any of these arts survived.

    We have kata that have survived, many of supposed Chinese origin, many reputed to be very old. We can examine these to see whether they would be useful in propelling a spear.

    -Mike Eschenbrenner
    Cayuga Karate
    www.cayugakarate.com/blog
    Ithaca New York - USA

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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Mike, this is a very interesting topic! Although I do not practice okinawan, chinese, or japanese styles particularly, the history of techniques and form history very much intrigues me. The gaping holes in history and the revisionist history that is rampant in many martial arts is quite frustrating leaving much to speculation. I don't think people should get defensive or insecure about exploring the possibilities of influence from other nations.

    The same holds true with Korean arts. The peninsula of Korea was a common gateway from China to Japan/Okinawa. I have read accounts of form history originating in China, being passed to Korea, then to Okinawa/Japan, and then sometimes back to Korea again. Other times coming from China directly to Okinawa or Japan via boat, then to Korea.. . I cannot believe that there was absolutely no cross-over between nations and skills. Customs, skills, religion, etc.. . are all ultimately spread when trade routes and commerce occurs between nations.

    Forms such as Bassai and Chinto are practiced by my art, and I have read that these forms were originated from the So Rim Sah school in China. But I digress, I look forward to reading what you find over the journey of your research.
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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Quote Originally Posted by Cayuga Karate View Post
    For example, it was quite common for Samurai of the times to carry both swords and spears, and this may well have been the case on Okinawan tribute vessels.
    Samurai? On Okinawan vessels? Say what!?!
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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Quote Originally Posted by SahBumNimRush View Post
    Forms such as Bassai and Chinto are practiced by my art, and I have read that these forms were originated from the So Rim Sah school in China
    Interesting. I've never heard this, which naturally doesn't prove anything. Do you have any material at hand about this connection? Also, does So Rim Sah "translate" into Shaolin temple?
    Timo Saksholm

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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Sheldon wrote:

    Mike,
    My first 2 questions would be why you started on this path, why you think it's important?
    I began my formal karate training in Shito Ryu in 1976 under a student of Hayashi. Kobudo was a basic part of our curriculum. I believe that by 1983, I had learned 35 empty hand kata, and a number of weapons kata. I moved to an area with no Shito Ryu and trained under a superb Shotokan teacher where I trained in both Shotokan kata, and a different kobudo system. One glaring lesson learned is that while every virtually every movement in the kata of these comparative system is similar, virtually none are identical.

    My wife at the time trained in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu. Compared with Shito Ryu, the Pinans, Naihanchi and Passai overlap, and have lots in common but little identical. But all the other kata even those with the same names, were completely different. Chinto, Gojushiho, Wanshu, Kusanku, Anaku, all had a few similarities, but a great variety of differences.

    My wife's brother was a long term Goju student. Again, compared to Shito Ryu, all the kata were the same, but different, with remarkably few movements done exactly the same way in both systems.

    I moved again, and found an Okinawan Kempo dojo, and learned once again the kata were all different. I moved again, found a great Shidokan system (under Iha Sensei) and experienced deja vu. All the kata movements are similar, yet virtually none identical. Both of these systems had there own kobudo systems distinct from what I had learned elsewhere.

    Ten years ago I inherited a dojo that I had been affiliated with for over 20 years. I quickly learned why teaching few kata has advantages over teaching many. If you want your students to really understand a kata, and all the ways it can be used in empty hand fighting, then the fewer the better.

    I liked to practice what I preach, and so I personally abandoned the practice of virtually all the kata I had learned and focused on just a few. For a lengthy period my students and I practiced just one. My goal was to be able to apply these movements in realistic fighting applications and that just required a substantial amount focused training. And with regret, after years of training and enjoyment, I abandoned kobudo as well.

    But I could never stay away from Kobudo forever. Several years ago I attended a Matayoshi seminar at a friend's dojo. The training lasted about six hours, about 4 hours of bo and two hours of sai. I borrowed a heavy bo (a beautiful Tokaido weapon) for the training and I was determined to use it for the full session. We began the session with grip changes. Holding the weapon out in front, one palm up, one down, switch. After about 4 minutes my forearms were on fire. We went close to 10, and by then I could barely hold on to the bo.

    By the time we got to sai, I was pretty much focused on not dropping them. My arms, wrists and hands were just exhausted.

    That training was a real eye opener. Never in my karate training had Kobudo had been practiced with that level of intensity over a six hour period. I walked away exhilirated and debilitated feeling both weaker yet stronger.

    To use an old expression, the scales fell from my eyes. I had experienced a practice of kobudo that strengthened in a way that in my opinion, empty hand kata practice just doesn't. There were many reasons why Okinawan karateka were so strong, but I came to believe that for many, kobudo training was a vital factor.

    I decided to try to take this lesson in an attempt ot improve my empty hand kata capabilities. I adapted kata movements for a bo, soley for purposes of strength training. And I believe I achieved results. After a few reps of movements using a heavy bo, my kata felt stronger when done empty hand.

    Of course a number of movements with the bo didn't really make much fighting sense, and some kata movements had to have pretty drastic alterations to be used with a bo. But what I found, quite surprisingly, is that many, especially push/pull movements for thrusting and stabbing seemed to make perfect sense, almost like they were designed for a long pole of a weapon. In hindsight I suppose it shouldn't have been so surpriing, since that's what we find in bo kata. Many push-pull movements we use for empty hand strikes are nearly identical to movements used to propel a bo. (The angle of the hand is of course a bit different.)

    I then began to wonder about the many kata movements where the hands moved together, those that did not seem to work with a bo. I experimented with a sword, and surprise again, many seemed to make sense. But not all. The push-pull movements designed that worked so well for the bo just did not map to sword movements.

    One day I was spinning a hanbo, and marveled at the similarity to the opening of an old kata. I tried using this short stick in other movements in the kata, and was thrilled that it could be held at the end and be used as both a sword-like weapon when the hands were together, and a spear-like weapon when the hands were apart. From there I worked hard in the trial-and-error process of "reverse-engineering" of the kata that I practiced regularly. And from there, I began the evaluation of a much broader set of forms. The key to the discovery was the concept of the short spear. The length of the bo prohibits many spinning motions one can do with a short spear when holding it at the end.

    One attribute of my years of training that I brought to my analysis was, as noted above, my experience training in different systems of karate and in the variations of movements found within these systems. What I have found should be of interest to many. It all works.

    In training in a particular combination, one key fighting concept is variability. The defender is not always a certain distance. His weapon may not always be held a certain way. And to deal with variability, we need to be able to adapt movements on the fly. A subtle change in length of stance, path of hand movement, or direction of a body turn can alter the weapon path in useful ways.

    Let's consider an example. The first forward direction found in Kusanku and its variants (Kushanku Dai, Kanku Dai, Kosokun Dai) is done in different stances in different systems. From the short cat stance in systems descending from Kyan, Mabuni and Toyama, to the slightly longer back stance found in systems descending from Chibana, to the yet longer back stance found in systems descending from Funakoshi, to the more forward stances found in the systems descending from Soken and Nakazato. I put up a post (http://cayugakarate.com/blog/?p=833) on my blog with links to to video.

    All of these stepping variations, and the associated hand movements and body turns, can be used to propel the spear in useful ways.

    To get back to the original question asked by Sheldon, why do I think this study is important? For a number of reasons. First, I find it interesting. Second I value the utility of the movements. Karateka for years have grappled with how to make use out of many kata movements. For those who are frustrated in their attempts to get meaning out the use of kata, I propose an alternate path of investigation. Third, I enjoy the practice. I have begun to explore practicing Okinawan kata the way forms are practiced in China, smooth and flowing. And fast. Finally, and perhaps most important, I find the brisk pace that I now do kata, to make the spear go as fast as possible (simulated fighting) is just a great way to train.

    My primary audience are those young students who are at the beginning of their careers training in kata. For those who are looking for better answers to their kata questions, I believe some might find value in what I share. I recognize that many with the most years of training will just find my ideas too iconoclastic to take seriously. So I look to the new generation of karateka, our future teachers, to consider my ideas on their merits, and not through the lens of 30 years of karate training through a very different lens.

    Thank you for the questions.

    -Mike Eschenbrenner
    Cayuga Karate
    www.cayugakarate.com/blog
    Ithaca, New York - USA

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    Re: Do Okinawan Kata Have Military Origins

    Timo wrote,
    Ok, for argument's sake, let's say that the karate kata are really spearfighting techniques. Why is it then that separate weapons kata for bo and e.g. nunti exist? Also, and more importantly, why is it that nobody in Okinawa seems to have made this connection? Why have they all this time practised with only bare hands? Why all these generations of masters insist only on teaching bare hand stuff? Surely you have some evidence, not just guesswork, to support the theory?
    Although I am sure you are aware of the state of the historical record, I believe a brief review would be useful.

    First, there are numerous sources describing the secrecy in which all martial arts training was practiced in Okinawa. This secrecy has resulted in a very barren historical record. To make matters worse, what record existed was decimated in WWII. In Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters, Nagamine writes:
    [T]he entire populated areas of great Naha, including Shuri and Tomari, were completely annihilated by the horrifying air and naval pounding they took during the assault on Okinawa in WWII. Anything not destroyed by the direct strikes, was incinerated by the perpetual fires which ensued. Countless thousands of lives were lost in the holocaust, national treasures were destroyed, ancient landmarks obliterated, important property vaporized, and records of every sort simply vanished.
    It is quite expected to get called out for not providing evidence that the Chinese taught military arts. But the truth of the matter is there is little in the historical record that sheds any light on this issue, one way or the other.

    The Chinese established a presence in Okinawa in the late 1300s to support tribute trade. This tribute trade required military protection. Tribute trade carried not only goods to China, but senior members of the Okinawan aristocracy. These were the very same kinds of individuals who learned Chinese culture (writing, history, philosophy, dance, etc.) from the residents of Kume Mura. It was widely known that passage to China could be dangerous. It seems obvious to me that all capable passengers would want to have some skill in fighting off pirates. Their lives may have depended on it. There can be no doubt that the crew needed skills in military arts, as it was their mission to fight off pirate attacks. A successful pirate attack could well have meant the execution of all passengers. From the pirate’s perspective, it would be better not to have surviving witnesses. Piracy carried a certain death penalty in China.

    Some might argue the practice of these military arts, required for tribute trade, was simply outside the scope of Okinawa existence, that this practice simply never would occurred. It can be argued that there is no documentation this existed, so why even bother to consider it. After all, there was a well documented weapons ban. This argument typically leads to some kind of statement to the effect that the Okinawans had their (non-military) kobudo weapons, so why would they have any reason to have use for spear arts.

    Some might acknowledge that some of this military training (in support of tribute trade) must have gone on but might believe there was some kind of "Chinese wall" separating military arts from empty hand arts, and never the twain did meet. This is an obvious conclusion one can make when looking at the only evidence we have that survives from the Chinese instruction of years past; empty hand kata. The assumption, the speculation in my perspective, is that the separate spear arts, since they were distinct and separate from empty hand arts, must have died out at some point.

    This assumption would seem to imply that spear arts can only be practiced with a spear in hand, and that since no common Okinawan arts are practiced with spear today, they must have vanished over the years.

    But when it comes to evidence (or the lack thereof), it can’t be stressed enough that neither side has some compelling set of historical documents. To those asking for my historical documentation, I have the following questions: “What historical records are there regarding specifically what the Chinese taught the Okinawans in the 1400s? The 1500s? The 1600s? The 1700s?”

    And the answer is that there is no documentation to support any conclusions other than that there was instruction from Chinese sources in Okinawa. If anyone has more, I would be very grateful if they would share it.

    The only true evidence that has survived is the kata. From them, there are a variety of speculations regarding their origins, their purposes, and why they were taught to the Okinawans. The standard speculation is that because of the weapons bans, the Okinawans had no need to learn military (aka spear) arts. Regarding the question of why the Chinese would flout the ban on this instruction and teach the Okinawans, it could be argued that the Chinese shared all manner of Chinese culture. From there, perhaps a speculation could be made that this cultural transfer extended to the teaching of empty hand martial arts, despite this instruction being forbidden by the Japanese. Is there evidence to support that claim, specifically that the Chinese taught empty hand arts to Okinawans, solely for the purpose of empty hand self defense? It's unlikely.

    I do know of some evidence that appears to contradict it. Regarding Kanryo Higaonna’s efforts to learn Kenpo from the Chinese, Eiichi Miyazato has written:

    Kanryo Higaonna Sensei, very strong, even as a young boy, took an interest in Karate at a very early age. He himself trained in “tee” but, by chance one day, he stumbled upon Chinese Kenpo. The splendid feats that he witnessed fascinated him so much that he went around all the prominent houses in Okinawa and asked them to teach him. Unfortunately for him, the common practice of the time was to keep the art veiled in secrecy, and the more famous the house was, the more pride they took in this secrecy. Considering the fact that those within the family who practiced the art didn’t share their knowledge even with their own family, an outsider receiving instruction was virtually unheard of.
    Recognizing the numerous sources describing the secrecy of the practice of kenpo in Okinawa, I would tend to believe that Higaonna’s experience more the norm than the exception. Yet Funakoshi describes four Chinese teachers (3 of which were military attaches, one a sailor) as having taught 22 Okinawans their arts.

    Some might just brush off this disparity in sources, one that it was difficult to find instruction, and one that documents several Chinese teaching a number of Okinawans. Should we expect such a disparity. I would argue in support of that with the speculation that the Chinese, especially military envoys, would tend to break a Japanese decree only when it would suit their purposes. Do I have evidence of that. No I don’t. Do others have documentary evidence on the motivations of Chinese in teaching empty hand arts. I would be very surprised if any exists in support of that position.

    Timo asked "more importantly, why is it that nobody in Okinawa seems to have made this connection?" This issue is a complex one, and I can't martial all the evidence in this forum post, but I will make a small start.

    I would argue the following.

    1. At the time these kata were taught, they served several purposes. Training in these or any martial arts is good exercise, something useful throughout one’s life. The Okinawans learned all manners of customs and norms from the Chinese and fully integrated them into their lives. It is widely believed that many Okinawans learned Chinese arts and practiced them for their lifetime. Whether the Okinawans studying them were only interested in the military purposes, or improving their empty-hand self defense capabilities, or because it was great exercise and good for one's health, or because it raised them in stature in the community, or because they just liked the training, or some combination of these factors, we will never know.

    2. Once one learns certain movements for use in propelling a spear, they can often be used effectively in completely different empty-hand applications. The speed and power of many arm movements needed to quickly propel a spear can be seamlessly applied to blocking and striking combinations. This is found in a number of Asian arts including Aikido/JuJutsu where sword movements are used, empty-hand, to defend against the sword. This is the oft-derided reverse-engineering model of self-defense. Take some sequence of movements you can do well (fast and hard), and see how you can apply it to in ways not related to the original purpose of the training.

    3. The weapons ban prevented the carrying of the spear, and hence it had no utility as a weapon in Okinawa, outside its role in protecting shipping vessels, and perhaps the Ryukyu king. I see no reason why should Okinawans would have wanted to have preserve weapon arts that for a weapon that was illegal? Rather, if those some of the same movements that were useful in propelling a spear, were also useful in fighting empty hand, why not just practice empty hand, since that was the only way that one could use the movements in self-defense. Not only did the average Okinawan not get attacked by pirates armed with spears, even if he did, he would not have the spear needed to fend them off.

    4.Finally, there is an complex issue that needs mention, one where a few sentences can do it no justice because generalizations can so often lead to misunderstandings. Nevertheless, I will try.

    The Asian cultures, in general, have an approach to instruction, that would tend to preserve the practice of something, even if the purpose of it was not well understood. Many aspects of a number of Asian cultural arts are highly stylized. Kabuki dance is but one example. Kerr records the incredibly complex kowtow rituals the Okinawan royalty engaged in on their tribute travels to China. Today, in Asian cultures, teachers have far more authority than in many western cultures and instruction is typically more of a uni-directional learning process, with teachers providing instruction, and students absorbing information. This is a very simplistic overview of a very complex issue, but nevertheless I believe it could well be a factor regarding why we have the karate kata we do today.

    Asian cultures, in general, have historically provided a fertile environment for the transmission of cultural information, generation to generation. We see that in the martial arts. Fathers were expected to train their eldest sons. And eldest sons were expected to toil under their father’s instruction, and so the cycle would be repeated. If, say in 1700, an Okinawan seafarer studied a Chinese military art, so that he could better defend his ship, he would have trained intensively in that art. And he would have passed that art down to his eldest son. If his son was not a seafarer, would the father have taught the use of the spear? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe just the empty hand version of the kata was all that was taught. Maybe the integration of that old weapons art, done empty hand, with the added concepts of ti, made for great fighting combinations.

    This is a way in which the arts could have slowly but inexorably split apart, the old military arts falling by the wayside, and the empty-hand components surviving due to the generational transfer of teaching, father to son, that was so common in Okinawa and other Asian cultures. This is an inherently complex subject that I will write more extensively on in the future.

    Mike Eschenbrenner
    Cayuga Karate

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