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Shotokan's Secret: Expanded Edition
The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Fighting Origins
By Bruce D. Clayton, Sarah Dzida, Cassandra Harris, Raymond Horwitz, Wendy Levine, Edward Pollard
Black Belt BooksCopyright © 2010 Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Place and the Time
Shotokan's Secret: Hard-style karate was invented in the mid-1800s by the bodyguards to the king of Okinawa. These unarmed guards were often outnumbered by armed and aggressive enemies. To defend themselves and the royal family, they were forced to turn their bodies into lethal weapons.
To make this argument, I need to take you back to 19th century Okinawa so you can see for yourself how this came about. In this opening chapter, we will set the stage for our drama. The material may seem familiar at first, but within a few pages, we'll be exploring paths you haven't seen before in a karate history book.
The problem with published karate history is that there is too little information about things that made a difference and too much about things that did not. In particular, karate historians have entirely overlooked the enormous political pressures that shaped and then destroyed the Okinawan way of life in the 1800s. To understand the men who invented linear karate, we have to understand the danger they were in.
There is a dramatic story behind the birth of karate, but we must assemble it from tiny fragments scattered among a plethora of truly irrelevant information. Leafing through karate history, one feels like an archeologist sifting through tons of dirt for a few fragments of broken pots. This chapter, and the next, present the few fragments that matter and place them in context so we can see what they mean.
1.1 lsland of Conflict
The Shuri Crucible was born out of simple geography. The island of Okinawa is one of those unfortunate places that will always be a battleground. There are half a dozen places like this in the world, where great powers come into conflict.
Okinawa is a semi-tropical island similar to Hawaii. It is the largest island in the Ryukyu (or "Loo Choo") Archipelago, which stretches from Japan on the north to Taiwan on the south. Okinawa has sugar-cane fields, beautiful beaches and palm trees. The waters off Okinawa are rich with ocean life, including a large population of humpback whales. These whales, oddly enough, played a significant role in the history of karate.
The island is large enough to have a solid population of tax-paying farmers and fishermen but too small to support a standing army. It has a very attractive harbor at Naha, situated halfway between Japan and China. Throughout history, the Okinawans have had China looming on one side and Japan on the other. Okinawa could neither run nor hide and was not strong enough to resist invaders. Naturally, the island has been conquered by both powerful neighbors.
The Okinawans are a long-suffering people. Their name for themselves is the Uchinanchu. They have their own language, uchina guchi, which is distantly related to Japanese and Chinese in the sense that English is distantly related to French and German. A person who grew up on Okinawa in the 1800s could not make himself understood in either China, Japan, or Korea, even though all three languages are written using the same kanji characters. Since Okinawa was halfway between Japan and China, they had, and still have, a constant need for translators.
1.2 Shuri, Naha, and Tomari
At the local level, the development of linear karate occurred mainly in Shuri, the capital of Okinawa, in and around Shuri Castle. People also speak of famous karate masters who lived in the nearby seaport villages of Naha and Tomari. One prominent figure lived in Asato village on the road from Tomari to Shuri. Every history of karate mentions these famous landmarks.
Residence at Shuri marked a man as a member of the court, or one associated with it in daily service; residence at Tomari suggested scholarship and association with the Chinese living there. [Residents of Naha included] the venturesome seafarers, the traders who matched their wits with Korean sailors, the Chinese merchants driving their hard bargains, and the Japanese who sailed these seas as privateers.
In the 1920s, there arose a karate myth that these three communities were somehow isolated from one another and that different kinds of karate "developed" separately in the three locations. This story served the needs of the time, but it has no historical basis. It is important to realize that these "villages" are all part of the same small community. The whole Shuri/Naha/Tomari triangle is about the same size as Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or Central Park in New York City. If you wanted to fly from Shuri to Naha, you'd just taxi the airliner to the far end of the runway and get off.
The men who invented linear karate spent their entire lives in this limited area. It is very hard to justify the idea that a martial artist who grew up on the streets of this community was significantly "isolated" from anyone else who lived there. Let's set that myth aside and look a little harder for the truth.
1.3 Second Sho Dynasty
Okinawa has been populated since the end of the last ice age, but the period we are interested in is known as the Second Sho Dynasty. This dynasty was founded when an ambitious accountant saw an opportunity and took it in 1470, declaring himself Sho En, King of Okinawa. The island had nominally been the property of China since the Chinese conquest in the seventh century. Okinawan kings have always ruled under a license from the Ming Emperor in China. Sho En petitioned the Emperor for a charter to be King of Okinawa and was approved. Reading about Sho En, there is no doubt that money changed hands. He was an unprincipled rascal.
This would not concern us except that his son, Sho Shin, was one of the great kings of Eastern history. In his nearly 50-year reign (1477-1526), Sho Shin transformed Okinawa from a collection of bickering warlords to one nation under a strong central government. He built a palace on a hill at Shuri, moved the scattered Okinawan warlords into nearby townhouses where he could keep an eye on them, and collected all of their swords in a warehouse. His building projects stimulated the economy, and for about a century there was peace and prosperity in Okinawa. The historical accounts may be exaggerated, but you get the impression that Sho Shin was a genuinely benevolent dictator. He turned his impoverished island into a peaceful and prosperous kingdom.
Having taken away civil war as the primary diversion of the Okinawan nobility (the keimochi), Sho Shin wisely drafted them into his new government and established hereditary stipends for various government offices. He put the disarmed warriors to work by creating a bureaucratic ruling class who staffed the government offices at Shuri Castle. Every family had perpetual job security as long as they were loyal to the Sho dynasty. (There were less than a hundred keimochi families, so the government could easily employ two or three members of each family at a time.)
Sho Shin established a hierarchy of classes within the keimochi. The royal family was at the top of the pyramid, of course, and the former warlord families formed a princely second layer. The third layer was devoted to the ministers, who were the powerful department heads of the government. After the third layer came four ranks of keimochi who were government employees (not unlike the system of salary ranks used in the U.S. government today.) These nobles were granted the special title of peichin, which was similar to being a knight. Saying "Peichin Takahara" was like saying "Sir Takahara."
The peichin nobles were assigned jobs in government service, such as tax accounting, law enforcement, map making, diplomatic relations, translation, warehousing rice and sugar (their version of banking) and keeping official track of Okinawa's complex family genealogies.
Since these knights could not carry swords, they needed some other outward sign of their noble status. They adopted a unique, turbanlike hat, the hachimaki, as the badge of their high rank. The color of the hat declared the wearer's exact status. They also wore their hair in a tight bun, or topknot. A special silver pin, stuck through the topknot, served as a second method of declaring rank. The size and design of the pin served as a form of heraldry to declare a family's exact status. Other signs of high keimochi status included the haori topcoat, with its floor-length skirts and enormous belled sleeves; and tabi, the split-toed socks one wears with zori sandals. Peasants were not allowed to dress so ostentatiously. Peasants wore a pullover smock and little else.
Disarming the warlords established an Okinawan tradition of life without visible weapons, a tradition reinforced and continued by subsequent historical events. This stopped petty wars but proved somewhat short-sighted in the end. The absence of weapons made Okinawa a little too vulnerable.
1.4 Shogun leyasu Tokugawa
One of the important factors that led to the invention of karate was the genius of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the warlord who took control of Japan away from the imperial family in a series of battles and intrigues at the beginning of the 17th century. Tokugawa was not a benevolent dictator. He was a ruthless tyrant with a genius for enslaving people. Once he had declared himself shogun, or military dictator of Japan, he set about establishing a dynasty. To secure the shogunate for his family, Tokugawa issued a series of proclamations designed to make revolution against him impossible. Tokugawa created a strictly-regulated society in which freedom, innovation and new ideas were not only forbidden but were regarded as dangerous. The punishment for the slightest infraction was torture and death.
The Tokugawa edicts allocated land to specific friends of the regime. The land grants made Tokugawa's samurai allies wealthy (but not wealthy enough for any one samurai to build an army as big as Tokugawa's). In return for their wealth, the samurai families were required to administer the economy and taxes of the nation. They were also to ruthlessly enforce the rules of correct behavior.
If you had lived during the Tokugawa dynasty, you would have found that every aspect of your life was regulated and spied upon. Every profession had a list of rules to follow. These rules controlled how you did business, what clothes you could wear, what kind of house you could live in, what kind of person you could marry, what kind of gifts you could give your children on their birthdays, where you could build your outhouse, and the exact limits of where you could go and what you could do without explicit overlord permission. Any sign of independent thought was evidence of rude behavior, and death followed swiftly.
It is hard for us to imagine the severity of punishments in Tokugawa's Japan. Crucifixion was common for crimes as small as the theft of a radish. Mothers were crucified with their babies strapped to their chests, so the mother had to watch her baby die of thirst before succumbing herself. The samurai showed great ingenuity in devising other novel forms of execution, such as boiling victims to death in volcanic hot springs or beheading them with a saw instead of a sword.
A criminal could be certain of execution, but often his family died too, and sometimes the punishment included neighbors, friends and entire villages. In one situation, 35,000 people were put to the sword--one throat at a time--to purge a province that had become too tolerant of Christians.
It is no wonder that the Japanese people developed a culture where the greatest virtue was to follow the rules and behave exactly like everyone else. This was the only way to protect one's family and friends from accusations and retribution. The fear of being different even forced left-handed people to pretend to be right-handed. In ancient Japan, a man who discovered that his wife was left-handed had legal grounds for divorce.
The people memorized the rules of behavior by creating kata, which were rituals that exactly prescribed how to perform everyday activities like dressing, bowing and cooking. If you followed the kata exactly, you were following the rules and your family was safe. The Japanese tea ceremony is an example of kata taken to a high art, as is the ceremony of sword making.
Since all questions had been answered in advance by the shogun's edicts, anyone who raised his voice to ask questions was a dangerous freethinker. Such a person would be punished for being inquisitive, and punishments were harsh.
Tokugawa's conquest of Japan in 1600 was assisted by a stranded English sea captain named Will Adams. Adams helped Tokugawa by building ships and forging cannons for the dictator. Tokugawa took a lesson from this experience: new foreign ideas and new foreign technology could be a threat to his heirs. He issued orders to seal the borders of Japan and allowed no commerce with Western societies. As a society, Japan went into suspended animation. This edict applied to the home islands but was also enforced on outlying provinces such as Okinawa. Contact with the West was prohibited, avoided, strictly regulated and sometimes severely punished for the next two and a half centuries.
The Tokugawa shogunate lasted from 1603 to 1867. The policy of isolation was successful until 1853 when U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry sailed a squadron of warships into Tokyo Harbor and demanded at gunpoint that Japan open her doors. By that time, Japan was so far behind the industrial West that she couldn't really refuse.
Tokugawa had been right. His dynasty lasted only as long as Western ideas could be locked out. The Tokugawa regime lost face and everything else within 15 years. Revolution ensued. The shogun's dynasty ended. The Japanese imperial family resumed control of the nation in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Japan began a program of ambitious industrial modernization that led directly to a series of wars with Russia, Korea, China and, ultimately, the United States.
Tokugawa's influence is still very evident in modern Japan, and also in our formal karate classes. We have Tokugawa to thank for the fact that students line up, sit down and stand up strictly by rank; must all wear identical clothing; and must all tie their belts in exactly the same way.
In many karate schools, it is considered rude and disrespectful to ask questions of the master. Your next promotion might be deferred by a year to teach you humility. This makes an important point about karate history. You can learn the techniques and kata by imitating the teacher, but you can't learn about history that way. You have to ask questions. In most karate organizations, the seniors are distant, unapproachable and do not tolerate an inquisitive attitude. As a result, the seniors themselves never learned very much about karate history. They can't answer our questions. They don't know.
Ieyasu Tokugawa is still very much with us. For the purposes of this book, the important thing is that he created a police state in which subjugated people could not own weapons and contact with the West was absolutely forbidden. This proved to be a deadly diplomatic problem for a small, disarmed island with a strategic seaport.
Tokugawa's tomb is the original source of those three famous monkeys who advise that we "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil." At least, that is the Western interpretation. In the original Japanese, the saying is more stark: "Hear nothing. See nothing. Say nothing." This was the parting thought from the man who taught a nation to live in terror.
1.5 Satsuma lnvasion
In 1609, Lord Shimasu of Japan's southern Satsuma province trumped up an excuse for war by claiming that the king of Okinawa had insulted him. With the blessing of the new shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, Shimasu sent 3,000 soldiers into the Ryukyu Islands with ambitions of conquest that were quickly realized.
The battle for Okinawa was fierce but brief. The Japanese invaders lost 57 men. They killed 539 Okinawan fighters who had been hurriedly armed and were unprepared for war. Mass killings happen when the invaders have firearms and the defenders have never used their grandfathers' rusty old swords. The Satsuma victors liked the idea that Okinawa was unarmed and suggested pointedly that this policy should continue. This order remained in force for the next two and a half centuries.
The invaders had an agenda of economic exploitation. The sugarcane plant was a new discovery, and Satsuma understood its economic potential. The Ryukyu agricultural base was reorganized into sugarcane plantations, and the islanders were pressed into service in the cane fields. The enslavement was especially bad in the northern Ryukyus, where this period of history is remembered as sato jigoku, or "sugarcane hell."
Excerpted from Shotokan's Secret: Expanded Edition by Bruce D. Clayton, Sarah Dzida, Cassandra Harris, Raymond Horwitz, Wendy Levine, Edward Pollard. Copyright © 2010 Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Black Belt Books.
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