Nope, not a sarcastic title. They really weren’t that good.
“I will now risk excommunication and utter a martial arts heresy: many modern authors have much more to say of practical value than do the masters and classics of old.”
Models of cultural comparison can be problematic, in that they often lead to gross overgeneralization and emphasize the differences between cultures while neglecting their similarities. With that in mind, cultural gaps are one of the major sources of misunderstanding in traditional martial arts.
East Asian cultures are largely Confucian-based, and one of the primary tenets of that belief system is “filial piety”, i.e. ancestor worship. This translates to respect for both tradition and authority. Parents and grandparents are held in very high esteem, and family lineage scrolls are prized possessions. The same is true in martial arts, where lineage is used not only to determine Ryuha or style, but, in many cases, quality as well. Some lineages, especially more direct ones to an original source, are of greater prestige than more obscure sources, even if the resulting technical skill is the same.
This bleeds into the narratives about Okinawa’s martial arts pioneers as well. Books such as Richard Kim’s The Weaponless Warriors and The Classical Man, Nagamine Shoshin’s Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters, and Mark Bishop’s Okinawan Karate gives us stories full of superhuman feats including levitation, puncturing walls with fingertips, and kicking ceilings that are over four metres tall.
Certain common narratives–for example, the disciple who is rejected several times by the master before ultimately being accepted as a student, or the sickly child who becomes healthy because of their training–are archetypes that are not meant to be taken as literal truth. Buddhist texts often do the same, using identical stories in a wide variety of biographies. In the tradition of Chinese training manuals, authorship was commonly attributed to a long-dead historical figure as a form of tribute–and again, it was understood that this was not meant to be taken as literal truth.
So what are we supposed to understand when reading the obviously embellished tales about the great martial artists of the past? And, realistically, how would these figures have fared in the world of modern martial arts?
Most Things Improve:
In a Ted Talk titled “How Not To Be Ignorant About The World”, Professors Hans and Ola Rosling discuss the misconception people often have that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The reality is that most things across the world are improving.
Across all sports and physical activities, feats of speed, strength, and endurance are routinely being rewritten by today’s athletes. Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile was a groundbreaking accomplishment, but entirely unremarkable by today’s standards. In 1920, roughly a century ago, the winning time in the 100 metre dash at the Olympics was 10.8. In 2016, the person who finished last in the finals did so in 10.6 seconds.
It would be absurd to believe that, for some reason, Karate is the only exception to that trend. While the old masters were, by all accounts, outstanding for their generation, it is hard to believe the common sentiment that they would be superior martial artists if a time machine could transport them to today’s epoch.
For the multitude of famous Karate figures from the 19th Century, there is only oral testimony to account for their skill and prowess. However, for those who lived into the early 20th Century, the development of video technology allowed us a brief glimpse into the standard of mastery at the time. Unfortunately, it appears to have been not all that high.
It should be acknowledged that these videos are often taken when the individual had passed their athletic peak, and age may be a factor in how they perform. However, the video evidence of Funakoshi Gichin, Chibana Choshin, and Higa Seiko is not particularly impressive. Compared with modern standards, these kata are lacking in body dynamics (especially hip rotation) and explosiveness. I’ve included the links below so you can judge for yourself:
Funakoshi Gichin (Tekki Shodan): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOfMJtZqn0U&frags=pl%2Cwn
Chibana Choshin (Passai Dai): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JCasTOeuqk&frags=pl%2Cwn
Higa Seiko (Suparinpei): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x88M38nBTY8&frags=pl%2Cwn
What the great masters said can also be a demonstration of limited knowledge. There are many examples of this, but here a couple notable ones. Funakoshi Gichin explains the double block in Pinan (Heian) Sandan as a method of blocking a simultaneous punch and kick from the opponent. Kanazawa Hirokazu explained the movements in Chinto where you slap the inside of your thighs as a way to distract the opponent before attacking them. All practitioners of Karate seem to have heard a few explanations like this that hold absolutely no practical value, handed down from our teachers’ teachers.
Historical study reveals that the Okinawan masters had limited access to martial arts knowledge. Many like Aragaki Seisho, Higaonna Kanryo, Matsumura Sokon, and Kojo Taitei went to China to get greater exposure to the skills that were available, and of course these lessons were passed down from generation to generation to preserve the precious information that they could get a hold of.
Today, this type of information is not rare. The airplane has made mass migration commonplace, and with it, skills that once would have been highly localized have become widespread. Now any major metropolis would have not just one, but a choice of highly qualified instructors who teach martial arts from all cultures and eras. Although it isn’t a source of skill, YouTube definitely can aid in one’s awareness of the strategies and techniques that are used in various disciplines.
Our ability to cross-train and access information that would have been highly exclusive several hundred years ago puts us at a competitive advantage to previous generations of martial artists, and gives us a stronger foundation on which to build our practices.
In the context of their times, and considering the limited resources at their disposal, there is no doubt that Okinawa’s masters accomplished commendable things. However, the common sentiment that the practitioners “were better back in the day” is not an intelligent demonstration of loyalty to a tradition.
All significant achievements, whether intellectual, scientific, or athletic, should be recognized within their context. In the same way, the narratives about Okinawan Karate’s founders should be acknowledged as important landmarks in history, but insisting on their superiority to today’s standards of physical prowess and proficiency is not a worthwhile use of time.
1 Kennedy, Brian and Elizabeth Guo. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey.Blue Snake Books, 2005. Pg. 132.
2 McCarthy, Patrick. “Matsuyama Koen Theory.” International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Blog, 2013. https://irkrs.blogspot.com/2013/03/matsuyama-koen-park-theory.html,Accessed 2019-08-03.
3 Lowry, Dave. The Essence of Budo. Shambhala Publications, 2010. Pg. 162.
Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 140.
Kim, Richard. The Weaponless Warriors. Ohara Publications, 1974. Pg. 87.
Nagamine, Shoshin. Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters.Tuttle Publishing, 2000. Pg. 2-6.
7 Kennedy, Brian and Elizabeth Guo. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey.Blue Snake Books, 2005. Pg. 118.
Rosling, Hans and Ola. “How Not To Be Ignorant About The World.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, 2014. https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world,Accessed 2019-08-03.
Wood, Robert. “100m at The Olympics.” Topend Sports Website, 2010. https://www.topendsports.com/events/summer/sports/aths-100m.htm,Accessed 2019-08-03
“Athletics at the 2016 Summer Olympics – Men’s 100 Metres” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_2016_Summer_Olympics_–_Men%27s_100_metres, Accessed 2019-08-03
Funakoshi, Gichin. Karate-do Kyohan. Kodansha International, 1973. Pg. 63.
Cook, Harry. Shotokan Karate.Page Bros Ltd, 2009. Pg. 259.
Nakaya, Takao. Karatedo History and Philosophy. JSS Publishing Company, 2007. Pg. 3, 8, 46, 86.