Lost in Translation
by Sensei Nago Matsuyama
Modern Karate has become very different from the Karate that had been trained over the centuries in Okinawa, or after it was brought to the Japanese main island, for that matter. You may say that it is progress or that it is retrogression. It depends on how you look at it.
To pursue the original meanings or purposes of the techniques in Kata, we first have to understand why and how the changes in Karate have happened, and then trace them back to the originals. Those changes have been made on a few occasions.
The Okinawan masters who came to the main island of Japan were forbidden to pass down the true meanings or applications to the Japanese and taught superficially with less information. Therefore, our seniors who trained under them had to try to translate what they learned with their knowledge and experience in Budo with the Japanese Bushi-Do Seishin (Bushi-Do Spirit, or Samurai Sprit) behind it. That was the natural interpretation for them, since Bushi-Do Spirit was an important part of Japanese culture and tradition.
I believe that this is how they started developing the Japanese style of Karate and modifications were made, not intentionally but honestly and purely, deviating from the Okinawan Karate, which was based on a different cultural background. The approach to the martial arts in Japan was heightened by Bushi or Samurai as a way of life in which they gave themselves a higher moral or code of honor and respected their opponent at the same time. However, in Okinawa, Karate was more like a means of survival – win a duel, whatever it takes.
We can find a typical example of this in interpreting “Ikken, Hissatsu,” meaning “One Blow, One Kill,” because there are different philosophies behind it. In Okinawa, it means to throw a finishing blow after grabbing an opponent, pinning him down or taking him down to make a confrontation for sure, as in “Hiki-te” (grabbing and pulling an opponent with one hand whenever you attack.) On the other hand, in Japan, it means to throw one clean finishing blow without any hesitation, putting everything into it, like one full swing with a Japanese sword — “Win with grace, and lose with grace, as well.” This is what Bushi-Do Spirit is all about – living and acting gracefully and decisively with pride under any circumstances and respect to others as well as opponents. I believe that this is how we started losing the close fighting techniques behind the movements in Kata – grab, hold down or throw an opponent followed by a fatal punch or kick, which originally were the principal techniques in Karate.
Another reason for the change happened when Karate started spreading a little in Japan.
Those who made efforts to expand Karate in Japan wanted to make it the third Budo, following Kendo and Judo. To differentiate Karate from Kendo and especially Judo, which uses throwing, pinning and choking techniques as its primary techniques, and claim Karate as the third Budo in Japan, they removed the close fighting techniques, similar to the ones in Judo, from the training curriculum, intentionally. This is why Karate became specialized in Dageki-Waze (punching and kicking.) Therefore, Kata, which was the fruit of many years of pursuit in Karate by great masters in Okinawa, started becoming just a formality or losing its importance in Karate.
Especially when competing in Shiai (tournament style competition) which started in the mid 1900s became popular, the change was accelerated and became much clearer and greater. As a spectator sport, Kumite, which used to be the way to confirm the effectiveness of the techniques in Kata, became the game to compete for just its speed and timing, not so much for its effectiveness, and Kata became the game to compete for just its beauty in forms and flawlessness in movements regardless of the meanings behind them, so that it looks good for spectators.
Now that Karate is becoming a very popular “sport” to compete, not too much to pursue as Budo, it is time for us to go back to the origin by tracing back the meanings in Kata, I believe. That is the reason why I started holding the Kata Application Clinic, so that I can share my views in Karate with you in depth, which is difficult to do enough during regular classes.
I will try to hold them regularly, so don’t miss them!