Sunday, May 6, 2012

Thought Experiment: the history

Last time, I suggested we try a thought experiment: assume something is wrong with our fundamental understanding of kata. How would we know and how would we fix it? If you remember the joke, in which a misunderstanding of basic principles becomes unquestioned "truth," the misunderstanding is resolved by going back to the source.

So let's go back to old Okinawa.  From the 11th century until 1477, when the king of Okinawa, Sho Shin, banned the private ownership of weapons, Okinawa enjoyed a burgeoning martial arts culture due to a political alliance with China (1377) and a rich trade with the neighboring peoples of South East Asia and of course Japan.  The banning of the private ownership of weapons in 1477, and a second ban on weapons ownership in 1609, when Japan took possession of Okinawa, forced the development of karate along a peculiar path.  These events created a motivation for unarmed fighting.  They created a reason for maintaining secrecy.

Billy Blanks, creator of Tae Bo, wasn't the first to market a wildly popular, albeit watered down, fighting system as exercise.  In 1901, Anko Itosu introduces such an exercise program to the Okinawan school system as part of its physical education curriculum.  In order to make the practice suitable for children many of the martial applications were deleted or obscured.  A few decades later, in 1931, Gichin Funakoshi, a student of Itosu,  introduces "karate" to the Japanese school system.  Again, like the prior introduction of martial arts to public education in Okinawa, there is a winnowing out of martial technique.  In addition, there was a deliberate obscuration of Chinese and other influences in karate, and a move towards sport.  If there were a great book of karate/kata, it should be clear by this brief history that many chapters were redacted.  So, when critics of bunkai say that there are no hidden technique in kata, they are partially correct.  It is no wonder that many karateka who have devoted years of practice and study know little of it.  How could they?

Returning to the joke that inspired this thought experiment, we are the monks who upon opening the sacred texts in the vault, find them to be neither original nor complete.  What to do?  Can we remain content with reduced content?  If your answer is in the affirmative to this last question, read no further.  You'll probably get upset.