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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mercy in the Melee: Another Answer to "What is Karate?"

My blogospheric friend, Dr. Pat Parker--cardiac rehab guy, martial artist, notorious Presbyterian, and jalapeno-grower extraordinaire--occasionally posts video clips and or commentary answering the question, "What is karate?" They are always informative and interesting and have inspired me to take a stab at answering the question in my own way.

What is karate? The simplest answer is that, as far as my reading is concerned (I don't pretend to be an expert, or to have actually been to Okinawa, or to speak the language, etc., etc., etc.), it is the unarmed portion of the warrior-class martial arts of the Ryukyu archipelago, though it is not really easy to totally separate it from the weapons arts of that area, and in my not-so-expert opinion, they really should be considered together.

On a technical level, karate is a multifaceted art, comprised of a blend of indigenous Okinawan technique influenced by the continuous importation and reimportation of Chinese martial arts. Okinawan ti and tegumi seem to have influenced it, and it soaked up what the famous Chinese families of Kuninda brought to Okinawa, and what visiting Chinese emissaries and merchants brought--Monk Fist and Tiger Fist and White Crane, and probably others. As far as I can tell--and God knows this isn't authoritative, it is just my opinion--some of its footwork and certain other elements may have been influenced by the sword handling of the Japanese.

It makes brilliant use of the mechanics of human perception, that is--by the closest analogy I can make--like stage magic, it takes advantage of the way people naturally perceive and react to movement, so that often, the person on the receiving end of a technique never really sees it coming. Nerve techniques are everywhere, in the strikes, locks, and throws. All of this was "cooked," if you will, into a state of extreme efficiency by the pressures of dealing with the Okinawan political situation in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

Obviously, this body of knowledge is better preserved in some modern karate organizations than others. Some, including some of the largest and most famous, seemed, until recently, to have been completely unaware that their formal exercises, or kata, contained much in the way of joint locks, for example, let alone nerve techniques. It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I am convinced that this body of knowledge is best preserved in RyuTe.

But that is not all there is to karate. Karate, certainly as it has been taught to me in RyuTe, and generally throughout Okinawa, to judge from what I have heard and read, is also characterized by a profound respect for the value of human life--not only the defender's life, not only the lives of those being defended, but also the attacker's life. It is true that karate has its share of potentially lethal and disabling techniques, but killing and crippling opponents is not its goal. Its goal is to protect life. Ultimately, it is an expression of mercy--mercy shown to your own family, in the act of going home alive and unharmed, that you may continue to contribut to their well-being and development; mercy toward the defenseless, whom you may end up protecting, that they may do likewise; and mercy to attackers, that they might live to see the error of their ways and to embrace a new way of living.

The goal in karate is to protect human life wherever possible. It is mercy in conflict, mercy in the arena, mercy in the melee.

That's what karate is.


  1. Today, I started my son in martial arts. This was his idea. He wants to play football but he does not regulate his body temperature very well and the Oklahoma heat plays heck with his body.
    So he and I thought about some kind of activity that he can get involved in without being outside. Wrestling was an idea, we are still talking about it. But recently, he decided he wanted to do martial arts. So I checked out a couple of places. Read a few of your blogs (I do respect your opinion and thoughts on this particular subject to be honest) and read a few Wiki articles on different martial arts.
    So today we got him enrolled in and started his first class in something called Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate at Haggerty's in Midwest City.

    Do you know anything about Goju-Ryu Karate and/or Haggerty's? Any info on the subject would be helpful.

  2. (split into more than one comment)

    I have never practiced Goju Ryu; I have a soft spot for it, though, for more than a few reasons, not least of which is that my own teacher, before switching to RyuTe more than 25 years ago, spent more than a decade practicing Japanese Goju Ryu. We still practice some of the exercises he learned from his Goju Ryu teacher.

    I'll try to be brief and give you the general lay of the land. If you choose to look into it, you will quickly find that Goju Ryu is one of those martial arts that possesses a vast literature and inspires fierce loyalty on the
    part of many of its practitioners. You have probably already clicked to find posts here mentioning Goju Ryu, and you may find some of those
    interesting. There are also several links in my sidebar to Goju-related sites, one of which is Haggerty's. Here they are:

    Goju Kenkyukai
    Soliday Goju Ryu
    Katie Carr's Mannford Institute of Goju Ryu
    Stillwater Goju Ryu
    Gillkey's Karate

    Goju Ryu is a karate system formally systematized by Chojun Miyagi on Okinawa in the early part of the 20th century. It looks a bit more "chinese" than some other Okinawan systems, no doubt due to the fact that Miyagi and his teacher, Kanryo Higaonna, both spent time training in China.

    Even within Miyagi's lifetime, Goju spread to the Japanese mainland. After Miyagi's death, Goju Ryu fractured a bit as an organization. As far as I can tell, Miyagi never formally named a successor, and there are, as a result, several subsystems of Okinawan Goju Ryu, one of which is Toguchi Seikichi's Shoreikan Goju Ryu, which is the one with which Haggerty's karate is affiliated. Japanese Goju Ryu is also widely available in Oklahoma.

  3. If you had asked me to recommend someplace in Oklahoma City, I would have suggested, first, the RyuTe instructor in Edmond (though I don't actually know if he is taking students) and then Haggerty's. I frankly can't stand the way they are about uniforms--I'm not a fanatic about traditional uniforms, but dadgummit, some of the people in that place look like they are dressed up to join the circus--but based on what I have seen on their website and what I have seen on Youtube (if you search Youtube for "Haggerty's Karate" you will find some clips of some kid's brown-belt test) I would say that your child is likely to receive an excellent education in basic techniques and kata--and kata, Otter, is supremely important in Okinawan karate. I did not see anything on Youtube indicating that they went into advanced kata application, but I didn't see anything indicating that they didn't, either. In either event, learning the kata well is extremely worthwhile--it is through kata that a karateka--karate practitioner--learns the motions that will be used in self-defense situations. If your son doesn't learn advanced applications at Haggerty's, as long as the kata is well-learned, he will be able to pick up applications somewhere else. You can learn some of them via video or books if necessary, though if you go that route, I would caution you to work them extremely carefully and slowly. Advanced karate applications can wrench and snap joints or tear ligaments with greater ease than may be apparent at first.

    I do not recall Haggerty's site saying anything about hojo undo, which is the--ummm--Okinawan gym equipment peculiar to Okinawan Goju Ryu. Possibly the single biggest difference between Okinawan Goju Ryu and Japanese Goju Ryu is the emphasis the Okinawans place on developing physical strength and fitness with the hojo undo tools, and I recommend you ask the folks at Haggerty's about it.

  4. There are a great number of books involving Goju Ryu, but I will confine myself to mentioning three: the ones that were written by Toguchi Seikichi, since that is the lineage at Haggerty's. The first is Okinawan Goju Ryu: Fundamentals of Shorei-kan Karate and the second, written many years later, is Okinawan Goju-Ryu II: Advanced Techniques of Shorei-Kan
    . The third is Mike Clarke's excellent The Art of Hojo Undo: Power Training for Traditional Karate. I would frankly be shocked if these were not for sale at Haggerty's, but if not, you can order them from Amazon when you want them.

    In general, my opinion of well-taught Goju Ryu is that it produces tough, fit practitioners with a hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach to self-defense. Most schools in this country overemphasize tournament fighting, which, in my opinion, is fun but completely unrelated to real self-defense. Most schools never touch on kata applications that go beyond the basics, but the kata itself is perfectly fine and good schools, probably including Haggerty's, will teach at least some basic and useful applications. You are not likely to find much in the way of nerve strikes at most Goju schools, though there may be some. If your son practices hard and remembers that the self-defense techniques are all in the kata, not the sparring, he may well find Goju Ryu both useful and fascinating. If RyuTe were not available to me, Goju Ryu is one of the systems to which I would give serious consideration. I would take it over Taekwon-do any day of the week.