—Got your attention, didn’t I? –Especially all you karate folk out there, I bet.
Actually, I’m not casting aspersions on karate; far from it. The same could be said of several other popularly taught martial arts, but in particular, I wanted to note that karate as taught nowadays may be only half the art it was when it was first developed. Or one-third, come to think of it.
First: if there is no weapons training in karate, then a whole lot of stuff is just lost. In Hawaii, there are a plethora of Okinawan and Japanese style karate schools that do include Okinawa kobudo, or traditional Okinawan weaponry. Although taught somewhat separately, as a wing of Okinawan martial arts, it augments and reinforces “empty hand” techniques. Some schools eschew weapons work, for whatever reason. I think that’s a bad idea. Working with weapons is fun, first of all. It’s a great switch from the usual karate training. Secondly, as anyone who has done unarmed and armed training will attest, weapons work sharpens your unarmed skills in terms of greater understanding of force projection, distancing and timing.
Many Shotokan schools appear to have no weapons work at all, for example. That’s unfortunate. I recall seeing the late Shotokan master Asai Tetsuhiko give a seminar and he pointedly encouraged the karate students to study traditional Okinawan kata outside of the usual Shotokan oeuvre, as well as pick up weapons work. (And he showed some amazing defensive techniques which utilized almost aikido-like movement and throws, more on the grappling part a bit later in this article.)
So that’s one third of karate. The other third is, of course, what people are currently doing: Karate kata, arranged or free form sparring, basics. Auxiliary training, such as hitting makiwara, bags, other people. That’s basically karate as we know and love it.
But…and here much of the following is my opinion, reinforced by two threads of thought, one based on observation and research, and the other anecdotal: If you don’t become cognizant of some form of grappling, you’re only doing half-assed karate, not the full-buttocks version.
Here’s the more salient argument: Last summer (2009), I was advising Charles Goodin (http://hikari.us) on putting together a show on Okinawan karate in Hawaii at the University of Hawaii. Charles is the founder of the Hawaii Karate Museum and the Hikari Dojo, and practices a very traditional (but innovative) form of Okinawan karate. The show was commemorating his donation of hundreds of priceless books on karate to the Asia Collection of the UH Library. Goodin, besides collecting books from all over the world, spent years interviewing and collecting artifacts and photographs of karate teachers and their training in Hawaii.
Among the many historical photos on display, Charles had several photos of prewar Okinawans known for their karate participating in Okinawan sumo. Some of the photos showed them posing, bare-chested, with trophies, or in judo-style outfits. Other photos were of them actually grappling with each other on the turf, using grips on each other’s belts, Japanese sumo-style.
Charles said he discovered that many, many Okinawan karate players of the prewar era were very much involved in Okinawan sumo. The Okinawan version of sumo was much more like a form of freestyle wrestling than the current style of sport sumo. Or, it was a lot like judo, with a multiplicity of sweeps, trips and hip throws. When he probed further, the really, really old guys (or their descendants) said, yes, many of the old masters would note that in order to truly understand karate, one had to know grappling. Karate kata wasn’t just punching and kicking, it was also imbued with a lot of grappling techniques, and to not know how they were applied is to not know half a kata’s meanings.
That was a revelation to me, although I suspect Charles and other highly trained karateka knew this.
So not only is a block in a kata not necessarily a block, it may not even be a strike! It could be a lead-in to a throw. How would you know? Only if you practiced some form of throwing and grappling.
My other argument is more anecdotal. In my jujutsu class is one student who is a high ranking karateka. He said that many times, a light bulb goes on in his head when we are doing a kata and he realizes the movements and setups are exactly the same as some odd, problematic (like, “what the heck does this MEAN?”) movements in many karate kata. Sometimes previous breakdowns of the kata using only punching, blocking and kicking explanations are insufficient or forced, but when he studies some jujutsu techniques and sees how it mirrors a movement in a single person kata, he says it all makes a whole lot of sense.
Those two examples, now that I think about it, are not isolated arguments. In a recent documentary program, Morio Higaonna showed some higher level Goju-ryu methods. They involved blocking and trapping a strike and dislocating the limbs of the opponent; very, very jujutsu-ish, but all apparently part and parcel of his Okinawan Goju-ryu style.
Even when I was training in karate, many decades ago, before karate sparring became more regulated and rules-bound, my Japanese-style karate sensei thought nothing of grabbing a slow or errant punch or leg of mine and then sweeping me to the mats, to be followed by his gleeful use of some judo pins, chokes or arm-bars. He said that in Japan, sparring used to be just that kind of rough-and-tumble affair. When you closed the gap and got up close, nothing kept you from throwing your partner to the ground and grappling.
I don’t think karate folk need to return to that kind of sparring, which led to a lot of concussions, sprains, chipped teeth, black-and-blues and all sorts of abrasions and black eyes. But I do think that if you leave out a study of grappling: throws, locks, pins, etc., you leave out half the knowledge contained in karate kata. You run the risk of forgetting how to follow up a punch or block with a sweep or lock, as one smooth and wholistic methodology of combat.
The best karate teachers, such as Charles or Higaonna sensei, will incorporate grappling as an integral part of learning the bunkai (explanations) of the kata, and introduce separate training lessons regarding break-falls, throwing, locking and dislocating techniques.
The problem is that so much has already been lost, and so many karate folk don’t really know this. It has to be recovered. The good thing is that it’s all there, right in plain sight, in the kata.