Recently I posted asking how many people in certain group on Facebook that talk about Okinawan Karate have actually been to Okinawa, trained there and how often. The primary reason I asked is because it seems that forum is full of a lot of experts who like to talk about Okinawan and the Karate that comes from there yet I was curious how many actually have ever gone there. During the post I learned some very interesting, and very disappointing, things about the “experts” who comment on the Karate that is Okinawan.
It would appear that everyone wants to be an expert in a martial art today. Many of the people who comment on Facebook have a dojo, a black belt and teach something. That being said it also appears that quite a few people who state they teach “Okinawan Karate” in the US actually do not, regardless of their connection to it. How did I come to this conclusion? By watching those that post, checking out their personal pages, their business pages and their “Associations” they belong to. I would stand pretty firmly on stating that about 70% of them have no connection to Okinawa and around 50% of them have never even been there to train or just experience the culture of Karate’s country of birth.
In this particular post there were also many people who teach some sort of mixed up American version of some kind of martial art commenting with things like:
“I don’t believe you have to go to Okinawa to learn Okinawan Karate.”
“There are many bonafide experts in Karate that have never visited the arts’ country of origin.”
“Just because you study in a particular place doesn’t make you an expert of anything.”
“Potatos, potatoes lol…. you folks know what I am getting at.”
“Whether one travels to anywhere to train the knowledge and understanding have absolutely nothing to do with quality”
“I think the same thing when people mention their Irish heritage every five mins but have never bothered to go to Ireland.”
Heck one guy even went on to compare it to Baseball over there versus here, which has absolutely no comparison or basis to the argument so I let that one slide because it was pointless to argue a mute point.
So let me address a few of the things and why the commentators were wrong. First the person who said you don’t have to go to Okinawa to study Karate is correct. You can find all sorts of “Karate” in the USA but IF you claim to teach Okinawan Karate then he is incorrect because the best place in the world to learn how to do it properly is Okinawa. In the USA many people are duped into believing they are studying Karate when in fact it is some mixture of arts that was thrown together by someone who never trained in Okinawa and has no idea what Okinawa Karate really is. Well, in my dojo, we train and study Shorin Ryu Shorinkan and it IS Okinawan Karate. In order to learn it properly so I give my students authentic training for their hard earned dollars I do travel to Okinawa every year as well as attend seminars and still attend classes with my own Sensei. This way I know I am “doing it right” and my students are getting the REAL THING.
As far as bonafide experts in Karate that have never visited the country of the art’s origin I will agree but they are experts in only what they believe is Karate, not Okinawan Karate. The history of Karate in America is puzzling because most of it was pieced together in the more popular arts. In some systems that I have seen that claim to be Okinawan Karate they have Shotokan Kata in their grading curriculum. Shotokan is from JAPAN, not Okinawa. In others they teach Kobudo (weapons) by adding a weapon to an empty hand form and modifying it. That is not Okinawa Kobudo in any way, shape or form. This is an issue and while there are people that teach who are experts in those arts they are not experts in Okinawan Karate…big difference. If you claim to teach Okinawan Karate you should have some sort of verifiable lineage and attachment to an Okinawan Dojo or you are not Okinawan Karate. (I bet that comment will upset some people but it is the truth).
Just because you travel to Okinawa and train there doesn’t make you an expert…really? Well for those who only go occasionally or have no attachment to a Sensei that goes regularly then I would agree. But those that go yearly or semi-yearly and have done so for 5, 10 or more years I can bet they understand Okinawan Karate better than those that don’t which, by definition, does make them an expert…thus proving that statement wrong completely.
As far as the “you say potatoh and I say potahto” statement goes, well I would expect that from someone who wants to claim to teach and art but has no concept of the culture, history or way it is over in Okinawa. Okinawan Karate systems are very unique compared to much of what we see in the USA. They have little interest in the sport side of things and more interest in actual practical use of the skill set they are learning. They examine beyond the mere punch / kick ideology most “Karate” schools in the USA have and go into the physical science, kinetics and why things work. The training is also very much health related for longevity in Okinawa versus the beat the snot out of each mentality we see made popular by MMA here in the states.
As far as the “Whether one travels to anywhere to train the knowledge and understanding have absolutely nothing to do with quality”…I would agree if the person went once, twice or maybe a few times over the span of several years but those who go there on a regular basis, be it yearly, every other year or every three years, I can bet they know their Okinawan Karate better than those who don’t…but you can’t tell people that because everyone wants to be an expert ya know. Personally, from having been to Okinawa several times now I can say the quality of my students has increased, our understanding of the art has quadrupled and we know we are teaching it properly…not just making things up or modifying things that suit our “idea” but rather asking the person in charge of the system to make sure we have proper answers and, yup you guessed it…QUALITY.
In terms of the Ireland comment I just laughed. Being of a nationality has no bearing on the quality, expertise or understanding of a martial art…nor can it be compared to it. I am German, my family is German and Austrian. Even if I had never traveled to either country that would still be my “heritage”. In terms of Okinawan Karate we don’t have heritage, we have lineage. Lineage demonstrates where our Karate has come from, how it has developed and how it should be PRESERVED. I know a guy that claims to teach Shorin Ryu. He has the same Kata we do in our art. His Sensei learned from the same source but the Kata are not the same. They were modified for tournament winning. This gentleman has no idea that the Kata are not proper, nor does he understand what is being done in the Kata. This happened to him, not because he chose it, but rather because he never investigated his own art and just took his Sensei’s word for it. Had he gone to Okinawa and trained he would have found out first hand and perhaps we would have understood why I said that he was teaching an Americanized version of Shorin Ryu instead of getting all huffy about how it is Okinawan Karate. Well bits and pieces of it are but in essence he is wrong.
Like many Sensei out there I often ask myself if I am training, studying, performing, teaching and understanding the art I offer the right way. I have done this many times over the years I have been training in Okinawan Karate too, as well as my earlier years when I trained a different martial art. Now, to some, it may not seem like it matters because they win trophies and their students do too but that doesn’t equate to much when it comes to teaching what you claim to offer unless it is sport Karate. I am the first to admit that I was not very confident when I began teaching at all. I often wondered if I was qualified, even though I was licensed to do so. There were many times I wondered if what I was teaching was correct or if it was wrong. In order to make sure I did two things many years ago. First I began training on a regular basis with my own Sensei to be corrected and get answers to questions I may ask as well as those of my students. Secondly I sacrificed a lot of things to make sure I could go to Okinawa yearly. I go without vacations, going to the movies, going out to dinner and much more just to make sure I have the savings to travel there yearly.
I am a licensed Shihan and 6th degree black belt in Okinawan Shorin Ryu Shorinkan. If I am going to claim both of those I had better be TEACHING IT PROPERLY. If not then I am, in fact, teaching and Americanized version of the art. I offer a service to teach Okinawan Karate. I market that I teach Okinawan Karate. I market that I teach Okinawan Kobudo. I don’t want to be that guy who just makes stuff up and sells it to his students as being something it is not. I also don’t want to be that guy who runs out and pays some association big bucks just to be ranked up and call myself Master, Grand Master or whatever…and YES that happens all the time. I can think of many people I know who are teaching who were low rank black belts and all of the sudden they are Master level ranks overnight. Every single time I ask them about their “rank” they state some association name that probably has never seen them even perform a Kata.
So, in closing, while it may not be important to that 70% of the commentators in that group, to me what I claim to teach better be what I train, what I do and I better have gone to the source to make sure I am not cheating my students out of their money too. I also want to make sure that when I comment in group as if I am an expert (which I don’t really see myself as) that I have the ability to back it up with my lineage, my own training and the art I teach. That is called integrity and most martial arts schools market that, along with honor and respect, but don’t really get the concepts of any of them.
I know that people in the USA place a lot of emphasis on sport in determining who is an “expert” but trophies and titles in a tournament do not make you an expert…it just means you are good at tournaments. Trophies don’t prove you art is better than another art either…they prove you were better than the person you competed against that day…that is it. Same thing goes with fighting in a cage. Sport is competition against an opponent in a controlled environment. It is not reality, it is not self defense and it is definitely not a street fight. Heck even the BJJ founders, the Gracie Family, have completely backed away from supporting MMA…that should speak volumes on that topic.
Regardless if you put the term “Okinawan” anywhere in your marketing, certificates, dojo or art then you should be connected to a dojo and Sensei in Okinawa. If not then how can you honestly say you teach Okinawan Karate…you have no idea if you do, if what you are doing is right or if it is correct. As for me, well those days of questioning what I do, what I teach and how I do it have been over for a long time. The secret? I went to Okinawa and learned what was right, what was acceptable and what was just wrong. My students deserve the absolute best from me and they are there to learn Okinawan Karate so that is what I better make sure I teach them.
Please note I am not commenting on Japanese Karate, yes it is not the same as Okinawan. Even though I hold rank in two different Japanese Karate systems I don’t feel qualified to comment on them because I have never been to Japan to train in their Karate. Hence the word Integrity comes into play again. Anyway I have a busy week ahead of me and just wanted to document my thoughts. Have a great weekend all.
Steven Franz, Rokudan Shihan