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Thursday, October 20, 2011

More Thoughts on Taekwon-do, RyuTe, Ed Parker, American Kenpo an' Stuff

Beware: this post rambles. You have been warned.
I suppose, for the sake of people not familiar with this blog--that would be the overwhelming majority of people in the world--people that are just "driving by," so to speak, maybe looking for information on American Kenpo, I ought to briefly recap my experience in martial arts, just so you'll have an idea of where I'm coming from.

I first started martial arts with a class at age of fourteen, something called "Polynesian-Chinese Karate." I knew nothing at the time, had absolutely no idea that this was an offspring of Hawaii's melting pot of martial arts (from what I understand, it's more or less a meld of kenpo and Hawaiian lua, if you wanted to know). It didn't matter that I knew nothing. I was only there for a couple of classes, and the only memory I have is of a sparring session, wherein the other kid complained to the instructor, "He hits hard!"

Then I wound up in a local taekwon-do school, I suppose you could say by default. You see, although Japanese Goju-Ryu was huge in Northeastern Oklahoma at the time, and by huge, I mean it had been pretty much the only game in town for quite a while--OK, you're wondering: Lou Angel brought it to town, having learned it under Peter Urban. Lou later traveled to Japan and studied directly under Gogen Yamaguchi, and was awarded higher dan ranks whilst he was there. Lou taught in Tulsa for quite a while, promoted a pretty fair number of black belts, a number of whom still teach--or their students teach--around the area today. Some of these guys were fairly well known back in the day, like Billy Briscoe, widely reputed as having "the fastest hands in the West."

Another guy that came up in Lou's organization was Gary Boyd, who was my teacher's first teacher. Gary was a special case. According to my teacher, he never tested for black belt. It seems that Gary's job afforded him the opportunity for considerable travel, and it was his custom to visit dojos wherever he went and ask to train. He collected kata, and he loved free-sparring (at which he must have been, given the stuff I've seen from my own teacher, darn near brilliant). At any rate, as a brown belt, he wound up in Gosei Yamaguchi's dojo--yes, Gogen Yamaguchi's son--and beat all the black belts present in free sparring, whereupon Yamaguchi Sensei handed him a black belt, saying, "Nobody beats my black belts but a black belt, so here--you're a black belt!"

Some story, eh? You would think it inevitable that a would-be karate student in Oklahoma would wind up in Goju-Ryu, but as it happens, shortly before I started training in martial arts, the Goju community in Northeast Oklahoma was absolutely rocked by a series of events that led to Lou Angel leaving the state, never, as far as I know, to return. I have heard the story and will not go into it. Others who know it better can tell it on their blogs if they feel so inclined.

I knew nothing of what was going on, but I did know, and so did my mom (she was a single parent at the time), that the hot place to go for karate training in Tulsa at the time was a school run by a Korean immigrant who later touted himself as one of the world's top taekwon-do "coaches"--and he did indeed coach at least one competitor who, if I recall correctly, medalled in the Olympics. He was also the first teacher of a man who later achieved world-wide fame in the kickboxing ring (I am not exaggerating--world-wide fame) and several other people who did quite well over about a four-state area in tournament fighting competitions.

Taekwon-do as it was taught then, and as taught by this man, was different from much of what I have seen from taekwon-do people over the last fifteen years or so. Most of what I have seen over the last fifteen years or so has been nothing but beat-crap-out-of-each-other-with-wildly-unrealistic-for-the-street-kicks stuff, so completely removed from its karate roots (Okay, I know some taekwon-do guy out there is climbing out of his skin at that comment, so let me digress: No, taekwon-do is not the modern-day version of a centuries-old Korean warrior art. It is the result of a fusion between Japanese karate and some indigenous Korean kicks. Live with it.) as to be completely unrecognizable. Taekwon-do back then was (and still is, in some organizations) very hard to distinguish from Shotokan karate. Even the forms--kata, hyung, poomse, whatever you want to call them--were just modifications of the Shotokan kata.

I got up to blue belt--the rank just below brown--with this man, and if nothing else, I learned how to hit pretty darn hard and improved my coordination, which, at the commencement of my training was absolute crap, quite a bit. Then, for reasons I just honestly don't recall in detail, I dropped out. I started and stopped a couple of times over the next few years, spending time with one of my first TKD teacher's students, then with the karate club at the university I was attending (where I made it to brown belt) and then with a gentleman from Korea who also ran a donut shop. I was working at Arby's at the time, and couldn't afford diddly, so I managed a special deal with this guy. When I wasn't working, during the daylight hours, I would just come and sit and answer the phone. In return--free lessons!

The school wasn't very old. I soon made it to first gup (ikkyu in Japanese) and I was the senior student. And it was just about that time that I really began to understand that something wasn't quite right with taekwon-do.

There I was, within spitting distance of getting my black belt, and one day, when my instructor and I were alone, I was sparring with him, and I suddenly realized that I was manhandling him--that he might outpoint me, but if I really chose to press it, it would have been him getting hurt, not me. Now, it is true that I was no midget (about five-ten and about 180 pounds at the time) and he was a little Korean guy, but he was a sixth-degree black belt and I couldn't help but think that if, not even being a black belt, I could "handle" a sixth-degree black belt, then maybe taekwon-do was never going to be, for me, the ferocious fighting art that I had always heard that karate was. You see, I had had my suspicions for a long time. I had read Richard Kim's book, Funakoshi's autobiography, and several other books, and I knew that karate was supposed to be bad, that genuine experts were supposed to be able to achieve remarkable effects, but the reality is that I had never seen any such things and had been training and waiting a long time so as to reach a skill level where karate's "badness," if you will, would show up.

It's not that I believed taekwon-do was useless, mind you. I had used it--simple reverse punches to the solar plexus--several times to put a stop to attempted bullying in high school. I was quite capable of manhandling the other students in my instructor's school. And I had this abiding conviction that there was something there, for I found it impossible to believe that people would preserve kata for so very long if there was nothing to them. I had heard the instructions about "chambers" and "blocks," and, knowing no better, accepted them, but with a grain of salt.

I mean, some of that stuff was just impossible to believe. You're going to "chamber" for a block on the right side of your body by first withdrawing both hands to the left side? Seriously? But I didn't believe the old masters were stupid, either.

I knew there had to be more.

Well, eventually, I quit Arby's and joined the Marine Corps Reserve. During our last week in boot camp, we were allowed to visit the PX, and on the cover of BLACK BELT magazine, which I bought, was a man named Seiyu Oyata. The article was about the hidden meanings of kata, and you can imagine that I was interested. At last, here was someone saying that my suspicions were right--the kata motions weren't useless, but they weren't what I had been taught, either.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I got back home and, through sheer dumb luck, found that someone was actually teaching Taika Oyata's system (known then as "Ryukyu Kempo," now as "RyuTe") in my city. This was amazing. I joined the class and was there regularly for some few months, happy as a clam.

Then I got married, and, as those of you who are married know, things get complicated. I dropped out of the class and didn't return for a long time. So long, in fact, that I had an almost-grown son. Life had grown somewhat more manageable, and he had an interest, and at first I thought, "Well, we'll take a look at the Shotokan class at First Baptist, it's probably the best we can do, we'll order some of Taika Oyata's tapes and see if we can't apply some of what we see to what we do in Shotokan." But then I thought, "Well, who knows? Maybe my old teacher is still teaching."

At first I couldn't find him. He certainly wasn't teaching publicly. I finally found a stray blogospheric reference to him, and then--duh!--decided to look him up in the phone book. He had since become a very sick man, but he remembered me, and after talking with me and my son, agreed to take us on as private students in his home. We have been with him now for some little time, and it has been amazing. He's about to turn 63, and is an oxygen patient, not very big, not strong at all, and he can make the techniques work on me and my son. He is living proof that real Okinawan karate works, that it's skill and knowledge that rule, not size and strength. He validates everything he says by his ability to make the techniques work on healthier, younger, larger, stronger people.

So, there I am. Not as "brief" as I initially intended it to be, but I warned you that the post rambled!

Now, about American Kenpo. Obviously I do not practice the system and am never likely to, but it has intrigued me for a while, as have other "American" martial arts, like Danzan-Ryu jujutsu, Budoshin jujutsu, Small-Circle jujutsu, Vee-jitsu, Kombido, Kajukenbo, and so forth. I mean, I can see how these things arise...

...pardon me while I digress for a moment. I have to tell a story about a local kenpo teacher, one I heard from my own teacher.

You'll recall that I said Japanese Goju-Ryu was once the game in town around here, only to lose first place to taekwon-do. However, there was a kenpo school here for a while, a franchised one, and the teacher was a man of considerable ability who remains quite well known around these parts, although, as far as I know, his teaching is limited to a handful of students in the Tahlequah area.

My teacher told me that this man once attended the local state fair and got drunk whilst he was there. The local sheriff's department was providing security and made their intentions to take him in known, and he said fine; he wasn't going to resist, he would go with them, but not to touch him--he couldn't stand to be touched. Now, I know that makes no sense at all, but you have to bear in mind that the man was drunk. Well, the deputies had already put out a call for backup, for the man was known to them, and as deputy number four arrived on the scene, overhearing the conversation, it climaxed with deputies one, two, and three trying to take the kenpo teacher down from behind in order to cuff him. In a trice, the kenpo teacher had downed all three deputies and turned to the fourth one, who, not being a fool, announced that he wouldn't touch the kenpo teacher, just, please, sir, would you take these and cuff yourself?

In court, the first three deputies naturally wanted the kenpo teacher to serve time for resisting arrest, battery, and so forth, but when deputy number four took the stand, he confirmed everything the kenpo teacher had said and the judge tossed those charges, apparently on the grounds that deputies one, two, and three were idiots! The kenpo teacher was found guilty of being drunk and disorderly and that, apparently, was it.

My teacher had a job in city government at the time and deputy number four, in addition to his duties as a deputy, was one of my teacher's employees, and that is how he heard the story. Hope you enjoyed it.

As I was saying, I can see how these things arise, especially given my experience with taekwon-do. I mean, you get some training in something, you can tell something's there, but you can also tell you haven't quite got the whole picture. So you start seeking out knowledge from other sources, hoping to fill in the gaps in your "picture." How many people have you known who have achieved black belts in karate, and then judo, and then aikido? A lot of people are satisfied to leave it right there, apparently content with the idea that karate really is mostly block-punch-kick and you have to get grappling from elsewhere. Some of the arts I mentioned above really don't amount to much more than collections of techniques drawn from karate and judo and, maybe, arnis. I don't blame the founders of those arts. What would you do if you came home from military service with a black belt in Shotokan and your neighbor came home with a black belt in judo, and you went to the same church? Or something like that?

But American Kenpo seems different to me, and I think it is different principally because of Ed Parker.

Now, there is more than one theory of how American Kenpo came to be. It may very well be that some people came here to read this post just to see what this no-name blogger had to say about its history. I am not going to get into an argument about American Kenpo's history with anyone, so if you disagree with me, that is fine, you are not the first and you will not be the last. I may well be wrong and if I am, I will still go home and sleep well.

Having said that, for those of you who haven't heard it, the story in many kenpo circles is that James Mitose was born in Hawaii and was then sent back as a lad to Japan for training in his ancestral religion and martial art, that art being a variety of kenpo. He then came back to Hawaii and taught a number of students.

Mitose eventually left Hawaii. My understanding is that he was eventually arrested on the mainland, charged with being an accomplice to murder, and died in prison. That much seems to be fairly certain. However, I don't believe that story about James Mitose bringing an ancestral Japanese martial art to Hawaii at all. You can poke about the web for people making arguments for it and arguments against it, and in my opinion, those making arguments against it have much the better of the argument.

What I think happened is this: Mitose picked up a smattering of martial arts from only-God-knows where and combined it with what he had seen of Okinawan karate. If memory serves, both Choki Motobu and Chojun Miyagi made visits to Hawaii within Mitose's lifetime. I think (though I cannot prove) that Mitose took what he had learned and turned it into a temporary means of making a living. You may wonder how he was able to do this, probably not being what we think of as a genuine karate master, and all I can tell you is that in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king! Back when I was in taekwon-do and defending myself with a simple reverse punch, the people on the receiving end of that punch, simple as it was, certainly thought that I knew what I was talking about.

I don't think Mitose had to be a real "master" for people to be impressed with him.

One of Mitose's students was William K.S. Chow, who had apparently learned some kung fu--what kind? Heck if I know--from his father. "Thunderbolt" Chow took what he had learned from Mitose and blended it with his father's kung fu and passed the result on to, among others, Ed Parker. If nothing else, it was rough stuff and the people behind it had a vital--vital--interest in being able to stay alive on the street.

Parker took the art to the mainland and, as far as I can tell, kept "cooking" it. You can see a real progression in Parker's kenpo from his first books to his last. Although I am convinced that he added to what he learned from Chow (I have read at least one source that strongly suggested he spent some time training in Hung Gar kung fu), it does not appear to me that he just added techniques willy-nilly to his system. It appears to me that he really attempted to understand what was going on anatomically and in terms of kinesiology, and he made a serious effort to systematize what he had learned and come up with. Parker, as far as I can tell, accepted and absorbed what he had an opportunity to learn, but he didn't blindly accept it. He kept asking himself, "Why does it work? Can it be improved? Can I prove that it works in real life? Is it the best way to do it?" His life vis-a-vis martial arts appears to have been a continual process of absorbing, refining, and improving whatever he could find, from whatever sources were willing to part with it. It intrigues me because it seems a peculiarly American approach to martial arts, and because it seems to me that it is the same approach that the Okinawan masters of karate took . If Ed Parker's American Kenpo isn't the equal of classical Okinawan karate (specifically RyuTe), it's not his fault. The Okinawan masters carried out their research over the course of centuries, and through Taika Seiyu Oyata, it is still going on. Ed Parker had only his own lifetime and during it, he created an art that while, again, not the equal of classical Okinawan karate, is sure as **** better than most of the "karoddy" (to borrow a term from Openhand) that you find around this country today.

At least when it's taught well. That is an issue. Not every kenpo instructor out there is a good one.

Oh, well. Just some meandering thoughts from a middle-aged man without any particular claim to expertise. Hope I didn't bore you too much.

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