Was Funakoshi Gichin a "sell out"?

Discussion in 'Karate' started by isshinryuronin, Jul 13, 2020.

  1. isshinryuronin

    isshinryuronin Purple Belt

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    Funakoshi, "The father of modern karate", was a traditional Okinawan master who studied with Itosu Anko in the "old ways" of toude/todi. His time predates the wearing of a gi and even the name "karate", itself. It was his efforts in popularizing this art that are responsible for all of us practicing and treasuring it today, 100 years later. But at what cost?

    It was Funakoshi who transformed the art by introducing it to the public schools in Okinawa, and later, Japan. To do this, as most of us know, he simplified the kata, removed many of the truly dangerous techniques, and even changed the names from the native Okinawan language (Hogan or Uchinaaguchi) to Japanese. Karate became something different and was sent on a new trajectory.

    It was this "watering down" of the art for the masses that eventually allowed it to reach millions. But, at the same time, what was passed on was a shadow of the original. It is only since this new millennium, what was lost is gradually being rediscovered thanks to a realization that there is more to karate than we thought.

    Did Funakoshi sell out the Okinawan legacy in order to popularize it and make it more acceptable to Japanese sensibilities?
     
  2. O'Malley

    O'Malley Blue Belt

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    This resonates with me. Aikido also has a similar history. Its founder, Morihei Ueshiba, was by all accounts the best martial artist in Japan. His strength attracted many talented martial artists as he rose to fame. But the person who popularised the art worldwide was his son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba. He did his best to create a viable aikido organisation and sent teachers abroad, among which his father's students, to spread aikido.

    Yet, Morihei's art was very esoteric. He talked about "standing on the floating bridge of heaven" as the foundation for aiki, a harmony of energies within the body. This was actually a technical description but no one had the necessary knowledge to properly decipher it: it was a classic Chinese concept coated in Oomoto-kyo terminology, on which he put his personal spin. The art required a lot of severe ascetic solo training and the techniques were hard.

    Because of this, Kisshomaru simplified aikido. He took away the esoteric language and changed the form and concepts behind the techniques. It is because of Kisshomaru that most aikidoka talk about "blending with the opponent's ki/attack". It is his doing if techniques look so circular. And, if aikido is seen as "the art of peace", it is because he thought that it was great marketing: the whole "peaceful martial art"/"we protect the opponent"/"we never attack first" thing is a gimmick to differentiate aikido from judo or karate.

    Was Kisshomaru a sell out? I don't think so. While he definitely created something different, he managed to spread the art to an extent that his father would probably never have reached. He allowed people to practice a simple, cooperative martial art that one can learn in a couple of years. Everybody can learn it, no matter their physical condition. And it looks nice as well.
    The price to pay, for those of us interested in Morihei's ways, is a continuous - and perhaps impossible - struggle to revive old school aikido, even in the lineages not affected by Kisshomaru.

    I'll conclude with some short videos. The first one shows the founder. The next two show lineages independent from Kisshomaru, while the last one features Kisshomaru's grandson, the future head of the Aikikai. I hope this brings a useful perspective to your interrogations.




     
    Last edited: Jul 14, 2020
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  3. Rat

    Rat Master Black Belt

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    Would he have had a choice for the changing the names to Japanese? I didnt think what ever the body that regulated martial arts in the 1900's would have recognised it with Okinawan. (i dont know its name)

    That just doesnt seem like something that you can soley pin on him, given that body probbly wouldn thave recognised it without adjustment, like they also removed the grappling because it would have competed with judo and jujutsu.
     
  4. _Simon_

    _Simon_ Senior Master

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    Very interesting thoughts @isshinryuronin!

    Not much to add, but yeah whilst true that he may have removed aspects, watered things down etc, it's quite possible that not one of us would be practicing karate if he didn't do that. All compleeeetely hypothetical of course haha, who knows how things would have progressed!

    And I wonder how many things have been watered down, but as a result, resulted in its mass spread? And whether that was beneficial, or detrimental to the art/subject?

    I love the direction and evolution karate has taken, and more importantly I feel its division into having different appeals (sport, self-defence, "way") may be a good thing, and perhaps it's up to the individual as to what aspect of karate we wish to focus on or delve into.

    It's interesting... I've seen the effects of what a short-term watering down does to a martial art, but long term you see what people it brings, and then a portion of those want to delve into it more.

    Curious what others think :)
     
  5. wab25

    wab25 Black Belt

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    Funakoshi did make changes to the art, in order to get it to Japan and to make it popular. However, he also understood the changes he made and why. He did teach and explain the more realistic / dangerous parts. He did show where they are in the Shotokan kata. (I don't know if he got 100% of the old ways and applications in there... but he got a lot of them in there) I believe that his hope was that if more people were able to train, more people would look deeper, and find the older original teachings... which was preferable to the arts dying out.

    The issue is that those who came after Funakoshi watered it down significantly more. Today, if you go down to a random Shotokan school, with a million karate competition trophies in the window... and suggest that gedan barai is a throw or that age uke is an arm break / dislocation... they will giggle at you and shrug it off. If they allow you to demonstrate those applications, they will tell you that you are stretching to far away from the kata, or the original intent. At best, they will say its possible, but definitely outside the norm. What is interesting is that those applications, gedan barai as a throw and age uke as an arm break / dislocation... come from Funakoshi himself. If you read Funakoshi's own description of the Shotokan kata, and of the different techniques... he describes them much closer to the original arts and applications.

    Somewhere between Funakoshi and what we have today, many things got lost. I think much came from people not understanding and many times being too afraid to admit they don't understand... so they take their best guess, and we take it as gospel. Yes, "uke" could mean "block." Yes, this "block" would be blocking down. So, what comes up that you would want to block? Oh... a kick. This "block" is in the middle... so is this punch... therefore, mid "block" blocks mid punch... Sometimes it works out, even if its not the most efficient way to do the task. Other times, it breaks your arm.

    In order to more fully understand what Funakoshi put together, we need to better understand what he created... not what many other people interpreted, in the telephone game manner, from what he taught. The biggest key here is humility. You have to accept the possibility that you do not yet have the right answer. Your instructor / master might not have the right answer. Only then will you be able to go back and research, to see what was in Funakoshi's art. Until we understand the art that Funakoshi created, we won't be able to truly know how much he may have watered it down, or sold out or whatever.

    The first step is to realize and accept the possibility, that you might not be right, and that even your instructor / master might have it wrong. If you and your instructor / master are the type that cannot be wrong... well, you are kind of stuck. If you can accept the possibility of being wrong... then you have the opportunity to start researching and studying and learning.
     
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  6. Flying Crane

    Flying Crane Sr. Grandmaster

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    Videos of the Founder are always intensely interesting to watch.
     
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  7. isshinryuronin

    isshinryuronin Purple Belt

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    Yes, one important point from karate's expansion into the masses is that the masses are not homogeneous. Just like if 10 very different people look at a painting, they will like it and interpret it in different ways. So, some see karate as an art or way, a sport, or a self-defense system. Maybe a blend of these and other facets. If this evolutionary trend continues, will karate diverge into 3 or 4 different entities to the point we will need to have different names for each? Or can they co-exist under the same umbrella?

    Several masters during the 1930's (some of whom aided in the popularization of karate) lamented the new emphasis of sport competition, even back then, and the lack of heart in many of the ever increasing number of practitioners, so this discussion is nothing new. I don't know if one can put a label of "good" or "bad" to the changes in the art (except for crap instructors.) Maybe it's just natural evolution and it will take us wherever it goes.

    Part of it may go full circle and lead us back to the "original" Okinawan toude style of pre-1920. Other parts may continue to diverge in other, hopefully beneficial, ways.
    I started this thread with the idea of bringing karate's past, present and future together to be seen as a whole and get a better grip on my own views, and for others to do the same. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing from an intellectual POV. So, I'll stop thinking about it and do my MA the way I feel like.
     
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  8. isshinryuronin

    isshinryuronin Purple Belt

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    Agreed. I think this is where his mindset was, but maybe he overestimated his hope in people. Plus, people don't know what they don't know. But in recent years this is finally changing (thanks to the discovery and translations of historical writings on karate) and we are starting to really appreciate what karate was and can be.
     
  9. _Simon_

    _Simon_ Senior Master

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    Well said :)

    And yeah I guess it's up to the individual practitioners as to their interest levels, and if curious enough want go deeper. Some will want surface level, others will sense there's more to it all and look further into it.

    But good point at the end there too, and it helps me assess it as a whole and see what it means for me to, and how I want to proceed.
     
  10. O'Malley

    O'Malley Blue Belt

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    Maybe one can see all the variations as a sign of the art's richness. It allows one to pick and choose from many "flavors" of karate in order to build one's own. For example, if you're interested in self defense, learning the traditional toude would be useful but doing sports karate may teach you about timing, footwork and speed in a safe environment. Plus, it would pit you against trained fit opponents. Likewise, by working with a kata-oriented teacher, you may learn about proprioception in a way that you can then apply to your whole technique. As long as you stay true to the art's principles (e.g. you don't make up BS techniques), it's good IMO.
     
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  11. TaiChiTJ

    TaiChiTJ Brown Belt

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    i found the following title very helpful in researching the evolution of karate into modern times :

    Hidden Karate: The True Bunkai For Heian Katas And Naihanchi
     
  12. Acronym

    Acronym Purple Belt

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    I think he made the Katas flashier and some of the mechanics more "to the point". If you watch old Okinawa mechanics it looks like salsa mechanics when they punch, and very upright. Better or worse, it's a very plausible alternative..

    But It is also quite possible that Funakoshi removed some of the more violent elements in the grappling.123
     
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