Recently, I joined a number of martial arts and karate groups on Facebook. As I am furthering my own journey into the historical and cultural study of karate, I’ve found it helpful to engage in constructive dialog regarding martial arts.
One such exchange occurred with a gentleman named Dr. Herman Bayer. In our discourse regarding the role and function of kata, he mentioned that he had written a book on the subject. His book, “Analysis of Genuine Karate: Misconceptions, Origins, Development, and True Purpose” delves in to a wide range of topics regarding the current state of karate and karate-derived martial arts.
It is a quick read that contains comparison and contrasts of Okinawan karate styles and their descendent Japanese and American styles.
What’s in the book?
The book is organized into three chapters: “Okinawan Karate’s ‘Japanization’, ‘Americanization’ and ‘Commercialization'”, “Arguments to Maintain Okinawan Karate in its Originality’, and “Empirical Evidence and the Laws of Physics to Support the Sociocultural and Historical Arguments”. Let us briefly examine the chapters.
Chapter 1: Okinawan Karate’s ‘Japanization’, ‘Americanization’ and ‘Commercialization’
As most first chapters should be, this chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book because Dr. Bayer clearly defines what is and is not Okinawan karate by simply restating what the governing bodies in Okinawa recognize. To my surprise, my main “style” (such as it is), Shitoryu, does not make the list, and is categorized as Japanese. Dr. Bayer, rightly, makes the point that the only ones who get to determine what is and is not Okinawan karate are Okinawans.
In Japan, by contrast, Okinawan karate is regarded as a subset of Japanese karate because of the (fairly new) incorporation of Okinawa into the Japanese political sphere, and the Japanese belief in the superiority of Japanese budo. Interestingly, other than karate there are few other Okinawan cultural traditions that seem to have been claimed as Japanese. (We’ll get into this in a future post.)
The separation of Okinawan and Japanese karate is important to the discussion in the rest of the book, because Dr. Bayer lays out an argument that Japanese karate is a “disarmed” version of Okinawan karate. The dividing line laid out in the book does not seem to have any exceptions.
Obviously, the farther away from Okinawa one gets, the more one strays from the original form and function of karate. Dr. Bayer broadly categorizes karate and karate derivatives into classical (read as “Okinawan”), traditional (Japanese karate merged with Japanese budo concepts – sometimes referred to in the book as “karatedo” to separate it from “karate”), and sport (bunny hop sparring and baton twirling with swords, etc…).
Here is how Dr. Bayer explains the distinctions. Classical karate is and was designed as a self-protection/self-defense fighting style with very damaging and lethal techniques. Traditional karatedo is geared towards self-perfection and as such puts more emphasis on strengthening ones mind, body and spirit using martial arts as a way to do it. In this way, one could theoretically use yoga or rugby to achieve the same result since, as Dr. Bayer claims, the goal is not about the lethal arts anymore. Then there is sport karate – it is flashy, dashy and fun. It is certainly athletic. But (and I completely agree with the author here) it is devoid of anything resembling its classical ancestor – one may as well compare Bengal tigers with house cats.
There are a number of other fascinating threads in this chapter, and in the words of Miyamosh Mushashi, “You should investigate this thoroughly.”
Chapter 2: “Arguments to Maintain Okinawan Karate in its Originality”
Dr. Bayer lays out three key reasons to keep Okinawan karate intact. Much of this chapter is actually a restatement of the previous chapter in different ways.
Rather than restating the three reasons here, I’ll sum it up in one statement (which pretty much sums up the chapter), unless you are Okinawan, if you change or alter Okinawan karate from its original officially recognized forms, it is no longer Okinawan karate. Period.
In this chapter, he also discusses the idea of “never changing kata”, but doesn’t develop this as far as I had hoped.
Chapter 3: “Empirical Evidence and the Laws of Physics to Support the Sociocultural and Historical Arguments”
In this chapter, Dr. Bayer attempts to analyze two of the hundreds (thousands?) of changes between classical karate and traditional karatedo. At this point in the book, he’s limited his analysis of the two categories to two styles: Shorinryu (classical Okinawan karate) and Doshinkan (traditional Japanese karatedo). Any bastardizations by sport karate are simply (rightly) ignored.
He cites three examples: training methods, execution of the cat-stance (Neko ashi dachi) and the execution and change of Nianhanchidachi (a narrower fighting stance).
We’ll take the last two first. Dr. Bayer does some back of the napkin math to show the differences in the ability to close distance using certain stances, power generation, and even physiological stress. To be completely frank, some of the issues that he cites (straightened cat-stances) are things that I have never experienced in over 30 years of training in Japanese or Okinawan martial arts. Some arts, like Shotokan, don’t really use cat stances, but in my experience, when they teach it, it is taught correctly.
The change in nianhanchidachi, which is a pigeon-toed shoulder width stance, is more problematic because it is the less understood stance of the two that the author highlights. Admittedly, I still get this stance wrong more often than not.
Finally, back to the training methods, Dr. Bayer lays out a short list of differences in the training methodologies of classical karate and traditional karatedo. One of the more puzzling differences that he cites is one of a structured curriculum. He has spent a great deal of time studying both Shorinryu and Doshinkan. His observation of Doshinkan is that it lack structure in terms of both rank progression and in the kata that may be incorporated into the style, and then carries that observation over to all Japanese styles. Having studied numerous Japanese styles myself (Shotokan, Kyokushin, and apparently, Shitoryu) I have never seen a lack of defined standards or kata from any dojo or any sensei with whom I’ve studied. This seems to be a peculiarity of Doshinkan.
However, one observation to which I agree is that, in general, Japanese karate is not overly concerned with the self defense applications of kata. The practice of kata for strength, conditioning and self-improvements often seems to be its own reward.
My opinion on this book is mixed. Like Shotokan’s Secrets (review here), it is evident that Dr. Bayer conducted a great deal of research in preparation for his book. However, Dr. Bayer, unlike Dr. Bruce Clayton, tends to stick with facts.
Still, the book suffers from two important shortcomings. First, Dr. Bayer has a clear bias (so do I, but I’m not writing an “objective” book on the subject). Second, Dr. Bayer uses his extensive working knowledge of two specific styles and draws conclusions about all styles labeled as Okinawan or Japanese.
Having been a Shitoryu practitioner for the better part of a decade, I do not share Dr. Bayers assessments of the weaknesses of what is apparently a “disarmed” Japanese style. The difference in focus between Motobu-ha Shitoryu and Shotokan (another style that I’ve studied extensively) is stark… and if Dr. Bayer were to level the same criticisms of Shotokan as he does at Doshinkan, most of them would stick.
That said, I do not know if my exposure to Shitoryu’s emphasis on natural stances, throws, locks, nerve strikes, self-defence, and other supposedly Okinawan-only concepts are also a result of Sensei Rob having also studied Gojuryu, Motoburyu, and Motobu Udundi. Maybe we’re an exception to the rule, but I suspect not.
Truthfully, I was expecting a bit more analysis on how changes to kata impact their self-defense applications. I can think of at least 20 changes that Shotkan makes to the Pinan-series of kata (called Heian in Shotokan and other derivate styles). This is where the principle of “Never changing kata” could have been explored in more depth.
Despite the shortcomings, Dr. Bayer raises some important points about who gets to determine what is and is not “Okinawan”, how sportifying and pushing karate into the Olympics changed (for the worse) and delves into some of the problems of commercializing martials arts (which we really didn’t touch on earlier in this review). If nothing else, it is a good think piece that should give serious karateka some pause to ascertain whether their specific martial art matches up with their goals for their studies.
All-in-all, I’d recommend this book. Despite some of my specific disagreements with statements within the book, it sets up the discussion for what should and should not be considered as karate or even martial arts. It sets out the idea that some arts, like traditional karate, retain enough of the form of Okinawan karate to regain much of the function. Doing this requires changing some deeply held institutional artifacts, but it can happen. Most importantly, it serves to pay homage to the forbearers of karate and of the gift that they’ve passed on to the rest of us.
Thank you for reading. Until next time.
The goal of the Shindokai Kobujutsu Research Society is to join the efforts to restore information that was lost about the traditional Okinawan martial arts and elevate their status legitimate self defense systems that are applicable to our times. In some cases, we can piece together bits of information that is scattered around the world like a bunch of forensic historians. In other cases, we just have to experiment with concepts, just like the forbearers of karate did, and figure out what works (and then ditch the rest).