Ryukyu Martial Arts Research 琉球武道研究

The practical development of karate by mirror of history

The practical development of karate by mirror of history / by Itzik Cohen
The article briefly discusses the practical technical aspect of karate techniques in the light of history. In the origin and development of the techniques and in the changes and adaptations that have passed over time.
    For an in-depth reading on the subject, you will find references at the end of the article.

The karate that is familiar to most of us is the one with an athletic and competitive nature, or the one in the context of simple self-defence relevant to our time and environment. In the context of combat, martial arts in general, including karate, have undergone a significant transformation over time. The pragmatic combat motif was replaced by other fields to meet time and environmental requirements. In many cases the aesthetic motif replaces the combative mean. We even made it wise to harness karate for various therapeutic needs in areas such as motor difficulties, ADHD and more. Yet classic Okinawan karate that focuses on producing power and personal empowerment is less common and lesser known. Even more than that, karate’s roots lie in the centuries preceding the 19th century, in which karate developed for professional security demands for government service. That is Ryūkyū-di 琉球手.

Stages of karate by history

We often tend to perceive and analyse objects and subjects from our contemporary point of view that matches our environment. Tracking the roots and development of earlier karate’s techniques, that is Ryūkyū-di 琉球手, requires us to take an objective and open approach, including history and geopolitics research.
As mentioned, in the context of combat, martial arts in general including karate, have undergone a significant change. For example, rules were conducted in the competition arena for both reasons, to prevent or minimise damage from the participants and to enable objective judgment. Adjustments were made in karate’s therapeutic field to meet the needs. Traditional karate emphasises culture and heritage and with time styles and kata(s) categorization was created and developed. The techniques were adapted to the new goals and frameworks constructed in the modern era.
As mentioned, the roots of karate, it’s development and it’s use prior the 19th century, lie within the official security arena, personal security, guarding sensitive places and accomplishing special missions such as securing diplomatic and merchant ships as well as diplomatic delegations.
Clues to these techniques are found in earlier kata(s) such as Kushanku (Kusanku), Passai (Bassai) and Useishi (Gojushiho).
The transition to clenched fists as a dominant means occurred in the second circle of karate’s environment, that is the civilian one at the end of the 19th century onwards.
The use of blocking or launching a punch is most common today. However, we identify grappling elements that belong to tactical and operational combat, and their value usually fades over time. An example is the use of joint locks, wrestling and Kaishu 開手 (open hands), which were more dominant in earlier kata(s). An additional approach offers action at a group level that requires teamwork cooperation. Other security scenarios may inquire individual level not as prevalent street fighting or simple self-defence, but for professional official security mission.
These technical and tactical components tend to lose their value over the years due to changing environment, goals, intention and the nature of the practitioners.

In Passai-kata, two Tsuki (Morotte-tsuki) are launched simultaneously with the back slightly bent. Operative course of action offers a personal security staff pushes a potential attacker, or assassinator within the historical context, towards his colleague, and from there to outside the sterile area. Of course, this approach may also be used as self-defence in the civil environment, for example as a release from a grip or a choke.
Passai Bunkai

Useishi-kata (Gojushiho), begins with a kneeling movement and a “defensive technique”. A deeper investigation at the operational level related to the historical context reveals an action of taking over an aggressor while immediately lowering him to the ground. Such a scenario may be carried out in the framework of personal security.
Useishi Gojushiho Bunkai

Kata is a template in which knowledge, principles and ideas assemble to compound content for practice as well as pass it on.
Therefore, the questions that arise regarding the effectiveness or relevance of kata’s techniques will receive logical and clear answers, and moreover, operative answers. These answers depend on the environment and past purpose of the technique. At this point we will be able to delegate the concept of the technique to the current arena.
To preserve the kata’s historical capsule of information we must understand the importance of the kata’s DNA, and not simply change it. If a kata has changed then valuable accumulated knowledge may be lost, and with it, the essence of the art will disappear over years. At the same time, it is possible to create variations and add to the knowledge without losing all that was developed previously by the well skilled and experienced ancestors. This is the true continuity and progression of the art and is reserved for the few Sensei who deserve it.
Let's not forget that even though we have deep and extensive knowledge available today, the practical experience was in the hands of the previous generations. Even if they didn't always know how to explain a certain topic academically, they knew very well what works and what doesn't, from experience.
From the operational aspect, what is not practiced repeatedly does not meet a high operational level and will not be effective. The repetitive practise, learning of the lessons and the experience in the field have great significance and a decisive influence on the success of the execution of the technique (and the entire operation in the military aspect).

Kata has multi-dimensional aspects such as traditional, combative, health, therapeutic, popular sport, professional sport etc. The intention is different in each of them.
Each aspect contains a few layers. For example, we may practise same kata concentrating stances and stability, focusing on each movement with a stop between techniques, emphasis on waist or Tanden, flow in movement, slow and soft movement, maximum speed, intensity, or power, change of direction or pace, and many affirmations.
In each layer, we may build different ways and levels of practice.

What did karate’s techniques look like in the past? How did they develop as they are today? How can they be adapted to nowadays diverse purposes, whether these are health purposes, popular or professional sports, basic or advanced civilian self-defence, or professional close-combat within a security framework?
What elements the genetic code of karate consist of? How was it developed from the centuries prior the 19th century to the present day? How do we continue to develop and practice it without losing valuable accumulated knowledge?

To understand and answer these questions, I dedicated the writing of the book: Karate’s genetic code: Ryūkyū-di 琉球手 - The pragmatic facet - Perceptions of techniques over time.

A diagram and explanation of personal security teamwork scenario, you may find in my previous book: Pathways of Karate Development: From Ryūkyū -di 琉球手 & Tou-di 唐手 Via Okinawan-te 沖縄手 to Karate 空手.

For those interested in deepening their knowledge and broadening their horizons about the environment and the manner in which karate developed, I offer to read my first book, the fruit of ten years of research. Which awarded in 2017 “Writer of the year” by the International Ryukyu Karate Research Society. The book: Karate Uchina-Di: Okinawan Karate: An Exploration of its Origins and Evolution.

Itzik Cohen

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