Top / Articles by theme / Education / Karate as a tool for Education

Karate as a tool for Education

Age old wisdom addressing contemporary problems.

By Michael Clarke

The past two decades has witnessed an unprecedented growth in the number of people becoming attracted to karate, and today, there are said to be in excess of fifty-million karateka. This number is impressive, as it suggests that karate is perhaps the most popular and widely spread Asian martial art in the world. But, with the popularity of karate so widespread the question must be asked…is the activity that most people are involved in today still karate? By spreading the art around the world so rapidly, and so thinly, has the essence of what karate is suffered: is karate dying from its own success?

Throughout karate’s long history in Okinawa, each generation of sensei have pointed to the next generation of students and lamented the decline of their art. It seems the idea that karate is in decline is a common reaction when one generation of karateka begins to give way to the next. In 1992, I was able to visit the Kodokan dojo of Nagamine Shoshin sensei (1907-1997) in Kumoji on a number of occasions. As the originator of Matsubayashi-ryu karatedo, Nagamine sensei was born on July15th 1907 and was approaching his nineties when I met him. Through an introduction by my teacher, the late Miyazato Eiichi sensei (1922-1999), Nagamine sensei was happy to meet with me a number of times and discuss his ideas about karate.

Perhaps because of his age at the time, he was 84 years old and had already been practising karate for sixty-eight years, Nagamine sensei’s conversation was less about the physical techniques of karate, and focussed instead on the philosophical and even spiritual characteristics that are the foundations of the ‘way’ of karate. When I raised the subject of karate as a tool for education, this is what Nagamine sensei told me…“In karate we have a principle called Shin Gi Tai. Shin means your spirit, Gi means your technique, and Tai means your body. To do karate well and to understand it properly you have to harmonize these three things within you. Today in karate training there is an over-emphasis on Gi and Tai, the techniques and the body. Shin, the spirit of a person, is often left behind. Technique and power seem to be the reason why some people are doing karate these days, but this was not the case sixty-years ago.

Today there is a tendency to forget the building of a student’s spirit and character, but this kind of maturity is very important and I want to emphasize this point. The development of karate as a sport or business is the reason for this decline. To adopt the principle of Shin throughout your karate training is very hard, and to be successful takes a long time. It is much easier to train your body without the discipline of Shin.

Your ability to do karate techniques comes from your body and your knowledge and practice of them, but wisdom comes from your mind, and your heart. Your ability to make the techniques work comes from your feeling for karate, not only your knowledge of it. I would like to see more attention put on education, we must educate students on the importance of achieving a good feeling for karate through the development of Shin.”

I can hardly believe that almost a quarter of a century has already passed since my conversations with Nagamine sensei. I was not new to karate in 1992, nor was this my first time in Okinawa. When I met with Nagamine sensei I had been practising karate for eighteen-years and had already spent time training at the dojo of Higaonna Morio in Makishi in the early 1980’s. But, as I sat in the Kodokan dojo I understood, instinctively, that I was receiving a ‘lesson’ from Nagamine sensei that would be of great benefit to me in my ongoing karate education.

The age old wisdom found in Nagamine sensei’s words is undoubtedly lost to younger generations of karateka because it is rarely passed on to them by their instructors, but I must ask: why? I don’t have all the answers to the problems faced by karate these days, but it seems to me that even before Nagamine sensei formed his opinion that karate was in danger of losing its soul, earlier generations of karateka than his also held a similar view. Arguably the most famous karate teacher outside Okinawa is the late Funakoshi Gichin sensei (1868-1957). He began to study karate even before the art was known by that name. For Funakoshi sensei the art of ‘Tode jutsu’ was a method of physical training and moral education that was conducted in secret under two of Okinawa’s most skilled ‘bushi’ of that time, Azato Yasutsune (1827-1906) and Itosu Yasutsune (1831-1915). In common with many of Funakoshi sensei’s generation, new students were accepted for training not because on their ability to pay, but on the strength of their morality and character.

The life story of Funakoshi Gichin sensei is well know in the world of karate, as it was his generation that was responsible for introducing Okinawa’s empty hand fighting style to mainland Japan, where it later spread to the rest of the world. An educator, and an accomplished poet as well as karateka, Funakoshi sensei believed in the idea of ‘Bunbu ryo do’, the way of culture and warfare combined; and in one of his poems, now immortalized on his monument that stands in the grounds of Engaku-ji in Japan, he wrote the following, “To search for the old, is to understand the new. The old, the new – this is a matter of time. In all things man must have a clear mind. The way – who will pass it on straight and true?”

I sometimes wonder if the difference between the old and the new in Funakoshi sensei’s poem is not related to the passing of time its self, but to the aging of each karateka. Could it be that the essence of karate only reveals its true purpose as a karateka matures, having experienced many years of practice and personal investigation? When I think of the saying “There are no short cuts in karatedo”, I think of myself as a young man in my teenage years already striving hard to become skilled in karate; and how, in spite of all my efforts, progress was slow. Now in my sixties, and with over forty years of karate training behind me, I can appreciate that understanding karate has required me to ‘let go’ rather than ‘accumulate’. Finally, I am approaching the meaning of ‘Mu’, the clarity of mind that comes from a lack of conscious thought. If I can live for another twenty or thirty years, I think I may be able to grasp the idea of ‘Mu’ and improve my karate.

In 2011, when I visited the Kyudokan dojo in the Tsuboya district of Naha to speak with Higa Minoru sensei in my capacity as a journalist, it was not the first time I witnessed the deep level of karate practiced there. As a much younger man I stood silently in the darkness outside the dojo one evening, and watched the late Higa Yuchoku sensei (1910-1994) teach his students. The year was 1984, it was my first time in Okinawa, and, already exhausted from training with Higaonna Morio sensei, I discovered the Kyudokan dojo as I made my way home. At that time I understood little of Okinawa, its karate, or Ryukyu’s long history and rich culture; with ten years of training in Japanese Shito-ryu, I arrived in Okinawa searching for the roots of karate. I had no idea that karate was a martial art born from the struggle faced by the population of Ryukyu over many centuries.

The essential lesson I learnt from speaking with Higa Minoru sensei is captured in the expression, ‘Kyu do mu gen’, meaning, ‘to study the way is endless’; the same idea which gave rise to the name Higa Yuchoku sensei chose for his dojo. Given the number of times this principle is mentioned on the internet and in books and magazine articles featuring karate, it is an idea that many karateka today appear to appreciate; but I wonder how this can be when so much of karate today continues to be concerned with sporting contests and conducting business. Perhaps, as Nagamine sensei pointed out to me over twenty years ago, “…there is a tendency to forget the building of a student’s spirit and character, but this kind of maturity is very important and I want to emphasize this point. The development of karate as a sport or business is the reason for this decline.

Okinawa is indeed the cradle of karate, and will forever be its spiritual home. Nevertheless, the number of Okinawan karateka is rather small when compared to the overall number of karateka in the world. A growing number of none-Okinawan karateka have studied karate seriously, and practised their art for over fifty, and sometimes even sixty years; understanding this reality, it becomes clear that the future of karate does not lie in the hands of Okinawan karateka alone. Indeed, given the rise in ‘karate tourism’ in Okinawa in recent years, the island has become less of an attraction for Western karateka who are serious about their education. For them, being transported to and from their comfortable Western style hotel to the Prefectural Budokan in large groups to mingle with a number of famous sensei, bears no resemblance to authentic dojo training, and therefore has no value. Indeed, beyond the idea of attracting a particular kind of tourist, such ‘karate holidays’ seem rather childish.

Discovering for yourself the right way to approach a sensei, of gaining access to his dojo, and of being accepted by his students, requires developing the “…spirit and character” that Nagamine sensei spoke of, and draws attention to the idea behind the words Funakoshi sensei wrote in his poem, “…the way, who will pass it on straight and true?” Is it possible to grasp the true meaning of karate when everything is done to make things ‘convenient’ for the student, I don’t believe it is. If studying the way of karate is endless, as Higa Yuchoku sensei believed, then the possibility of becoming lost is also great. When I met the late Gibu Sokuichi sensei (1941-2012) of the Butokukan dojo in 2011, again, in my capacity as a journalist, our conversation touched upon the principle of ‘Jinbun wo motte’ or, ‘not loosing yourself’. Gibu sensei mentioned that it was something that can happen to karateka when they begin to focus on matters that have nothing to do with karate. I was unsure of what he meant at the time, but later, when I became lost myself, Gibu sensei’s wisdom proved to be an important lesson for me.

In 2005, in the second floor theatre at the Tenbusu shopping complex on Kokusaidori, I attended a karate symposium. A number of sensei from various ryuha spoke at length about the unique characteristics of Okinawan karate, as well as answering questions from members of the audience. After a short break for lunch, many notable sensei returned to the stage to demonstrate their karate and kobudo. It was an impressive display of skill and spirit that found a great deal of appreciation from a well informed audience, many of whom were also karate and kobudoka. Although the demonstration provided several moments to remember, I was impressed the most by an answer given earlier by Higaonna Morio sensei when he was asked by a member of the audience about the growing number of foreign karateka visiting Okinawa? Although Higaonna sensei’s exact words have faded from my memory, the essence of his response has stayed with me. Higaonna sensei expressed his opinion that foreign karateka visiting Okinawa should be received by the entire Okinawan karate community in order to make their experience a very special one. This he said should be done by introducing visitors to karate through Okinawa’s unique culture. 

Since that time, Okinawa has seen a previously unimaginable increase in visitors, all eager to connect with sensei and dojo that can provide an authentic experience of Ryukyu kobudo and Karate. In this regard, only the Okinawa Karate and Kobudo Liaison Bureau has, for some time, worked hard to assist individuals and small groups from around the world, by introducing visitors to sensei who are willing to teach them. Such connections and dojo visits provide a very different experience to the large groups of ‘karate tourist’ that fly in twice a year to sample, in comfort, the martial arts of Okinawa. But, I ask myself, without sacrifice is it possible to discover if you have the strength of character to overcome the obstacles that must be faced when learning karate. Long ago, Itosu Yasutsune sensei wrote, “Karate strives to build character, improve human behaviour, and encourage modesty; however, it cannot guarantee it.” I believe that the ‘karate tourism’ organized by foreign businessmen, and supported by some karate sensei in Okinawa, does little to uphold the principles mentioned by Itosu sensei.

If the spirit of Okinawan karate and kobudo is to survive and flourish, and continue to remain unique, then it has to find a way to separate its self from sport and commerce; in my opinion this is best achieved through education. So, rather than cultivate their celebrity, sensei at every level can support karate better if they took to heart the words attributed to Bushi Matsumura Sokon (1809-1901) when addressing the fundamental principles of karate, “Let humility, the cornerstone upon which karate rests, serve to remind you to place virtue before vice, values before vanity, principles before personalities.” Using karate as a tool for education rather than a source of entertainment may seem like a dream, but I believe it is possible, and is continuing on a personal level today, in dojo throughout Okinawa and around the world.

« »