(This is a fictional story with fabricated characters and events. Resemblance to real life individuals or incidences is purely coincidental.)
Coby’s black belt was beginning to show the first signs of frayed, white strands around the edges. He was by no means a master, but had become a regular at Yahara Sensei’s dojo. He fell in love with karate at a young age and never found a reason to stop. That is, until his work moved him hours away from his old home. He faced a choice – quit training, or find a new teacher for the first time since he started his martial arts journey.
Luck was with Coby as he was browsing schools online. Konishi Tsuyoshi, a nearby instructor, taught the same style as Yahara Sensei. Coby visited the Konishi school and was asked to sit and watch a class. Coby observed Konishi Sensei take command of the room, gliding across the floor in a stern and disciplined manner. Konishi lead the students through a brief etiquette ceremony, and then began the class. The training was hard and heavy. Konishi expected focus and effort from the students; anything less was met with a disapproving glare.
Coby shifted in his seat nervously, feeling a combination of fear and admiration for the Sensei. When it came time to sign up for class, Coby agreed. It was such a sharp contrast from his days with Yahara Sensei. He recalled his old teacher fondly; certainly Yahara made his students work and sweat, but he always had a grin on his face and music to his step. This would be a change of pace for certain.
* * * * * * * * * *
Coby trained diligently with Konishi Sensei. At first he found the dojo challenging, but soon came to welcome the rigorous workouts. It wasn’t until a full year had passed that Coby actually sat down with his teacher in a more informal setting, chatting and getting to know the man as more than just a Sensei.
While relaxing with Konishi Sensei at lunch Coby pulled out a small laptop. “Look Sensei,” Coby said. “I found an interesting video online. This appears to be some form of Jujitsu. They spend a lot of time closing distance and going to the ground. What do you think?”
Konishi Sensei eyed the video, then shook his head disapprovingly. “Too much time on the ground,” he said. “That’s exactly where you don’t want to be in a fight. While you’re down there, that close, you can get kicked by other people or stabbed if the opponent has a hidden knife. We always train to prevent going to the ground.” Coby nodded his head, accepting the obvious wisdom of the statement.
Later that week Coby returned to his hometown to visit family. While there, he stopped in to see Yahara Sensei. They sipped tea together and Coby recalled the Jujitsu video. “Yahara Sensei, there is a video online I would like you to watch.” “Ohh?” Yahara remarked, “Ok.” Coby showed the clip of Jujitsu practitioners throwing and grappling. Yahara Sensei stroked his short beard and eventually said, “I had a friend once who was tackled from behind while walking down the street at night. I bet he could have used some of these techniques to recover from the disadvantage, or, at least, escape the ground more easily.”
Coby hadn’t considered that possibility.
* * * * * * * * * *
Two weeks later Coby found himself enjoying more down time with Konishi. “Sensei,” he said.”I’ve got another video for you. This time it’s karate.” Coby showed a clip of two practitioners in flamboyant uniforms performing jumps, kicks, and rolls throughout their kata. Konishi Sensei shook his head in dismay. “How can this pass for karate?” he asked. “This resembles nothing of the art from my homeland. We work so hard to preserve the culture, kata, and art of karate. Yet here we have people propagating something completely wrong.” Konishi’s disappointment was palpable, and Coby wondered how the practitioners in the video could excuse their wayward performance.
Remembering his previous experience with Yahara Sensei, Coby decided to show the video to his old Sensei the next time he visited home. Yahara watched the video thoughtfully. After the performance concluded, Coby remarked, “What do you think Sensei? Certainly this doesn’t resemble the karate we do.”
“True,” Yahara Sensei said. “But you can see the passion with which they perform. We should appreciate their commitment to a craft.”
Coby found himself less-than-convinced. What if people continued to post videos of fake, watered down karate? It could increase in popularity and the real art could be lost forever.
* * * * * * * * * *
Coby continued to train diligently. He focused less on the internet and more on the dojo, until one day he stumbled upon a video of the very same style of karate he studied. Surprised and excited to see someone who’s kata and techniques resembled that of his instructors, he decided to approach Konishi once again. “Sensei,” he said. “I know our style isn’t the most widespread in the world, but I found someone else performing our art online. Take a look!” Konishi Sensei viewed the video, then pressed his lips thinly together while shaking his head. “This is not good Coby-san. I know the man in the video. He lacks our understanding of kata and application. You can see it all the way down to his foundation and his stances. Of all people to post videos online, it should not be him. This speaks to his arrogance.”
Coby understood Konishi Sensei’s point. It was definitely audacious of the man in the video to think he was the best representative for the style.
When last Coby and Yahara Sensei spoke, Yahara provided thin answers to Coby’s concerns. Nevertheless, Coby still respected the man’s opinion. He visited home a few weeks later and arranged to speak to Yahara once again. “Sensei,” he said. “I found a video of our style online. Would you take a look?” Coby showed the video to Yahara, waiting tensely and attempting to read the old man’s face as he watched. After the video concluded, Yahara nodded and scratched the small hairs of his beard.
“What do you think Sensei? Should this be posted online?” Yahara Sensei looked up in surprise. “That is not for me to say Coby! I do not control the actions of others. However, if it raises awareness of our style’s history and methods, I don’t see the harm in it.”
“But Sensei,” Coby replied. “Don’t you think this man is lacking foundation? Doesn’t he seem arrogant in his own knowledge, despite how much he lacks?” Yahara Sensei sighed, then said, “If we are all overly humble and choose not to share, the art will die with our humility. Even if this gentleman is not the best, perhaps it will inspire students to seek out the more senior teachers of the style.”
Coby considered the matter closed, but Yahara Sensei continued, “Coby-san, your critiques have merit. But be careful. The spirit of karate is not one of judgment, but of acceptance. One of support and protection, not of aggression. When watching others we may not see what we think karate should be, but our aim is to help them, not to steal their passion from them.”
“Sensei,” Coby replied. “isn’t it our job to protect our art and see it preserved properly? Aren’t we doing a disservice to others by not correcting videos like these?”
“I admire your sense of duty,” Yahara said. “But if you wish to make others richer, do not begin by stealing what they already have. Find what is valuable in what they do, and do your best to build on it. If they truly aim to achieve their best, they will likewise find the wisdom in your teaching and correct their path. I don’t dismiss the faults you observed in your videos…but I hope you see the importance of the mindset in which you judge.”
Coby thanked his instructor, and bid him farewell…until the next meeting for tea.
Kano Jigoro was a unique martial arts figure. Born into a financially stable family in the sake business, Kano had access to certain societal perks from a young age. One perk that he put to great use was education. A student of classic literature, philosophy, and pedagogy, Kano quickly became one of the bright minds of his day. Amongst his regular studies, he dedicated much of his life to the pursuit of Jujitsu.
A man skilled in both martial arts and philosophy was considered ideal by the Samurai in a post-warring-states Japan. What made Kano different than a typical warrior though was his ability to innovative teaching methods and push his ideas to the public.
Kano was born in 1860, coming into adulthood right as the Meiji Restoration was picking up steam. One of the key elements of the Meiji Restoration was an “opening of doors” to Japan, providing access and legal trade to outside nations. While many Japanese citizens and lawmakers resisted the idea of mingling with foreigners, Kano saw it as an opportunity to grow. Not only did Kano do significant work to get Judo and Kendo involved in the Japanese school systems, he was constantly looking for opportunities to enhance and empower Japanese culture as it related to the outside world.
In 1879 President Ulysses S. Grant embarked upon a worldwide goodwill tour and visited the Emporer of Japan. While there, Grant witnessed a Jujitsu demonstration, of which Kano played a part. This demo sparked an interest in Jujitsu and Judo which quickly worked its way back to the U.S. Professors and men of influence in the United States began traveling to Japan in order to train and invited Judo instructors to America in order to share some of their art.
The steady spread of Judo persisted throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s. Concurrently, in the early to mid 1900s karate was beginning to reveal itself to the outside world, including Japan. It was the combination of Judo’s existing popularity, karate’s early exposure, and war that ultimately brought the Okinawan fighting art to the United States.
1. Judo Inspires and Intrigues a Young Generation
In the 1920s through the 1940s a generation of young Americans were born into a world that possessed ready access to The Far East. They might not have realized it, but just a few short years before their birth Japan had been a completely closed country wherein visitors without express permission to dock could be executed on sight. However, to the youth of the 20’s-40’s a new and interesting sport was working it’s way from Japan, often through Hawaii, and into the United States. It was Judo, and with the skills of Judo, it was said, a small man could toss about a much larger man with ease.
Men such as Yamashita Yoshitsugu, Tomita Tsunejiro, Maeda Mitsuyo, and more had been teaching and putting on demonstrations for a number of years in the US. Judo was even seeping into pop culture as professional wrestling demonstrations frequently featured mysterious Judo players with inexplicable skills.
Young men and women of this generation grew up with a sense of mystique surrounding the Asian fighting arts and wondered if they too could master these methods. When World War II struck a number of men were sent overseas. After the conclusion of the war many of these men were stationed in Japan as peacekeepers. It was during that time they had an opportunity to search for Judo. Directly after World War II America had placed a “Peace Clause” on Japan, disarming them and quelling many activities that were seen as martial in nature. However, Judo was deemed more of a sport than a fighting art and so it was allowed to stay. In addition, karate had been integrated into the University system and also adapted to be a sport. The American servicemen in Japan, while looking for Judo, sometimes found karate instead.
From the time of World War II all the way to the Cold War and eventually the Vietnam War, American men were sent to Okinawa to maintain peace and prepare for combative engagement. These men also sought out Judo. There was Judo to be had on Okinawa, but karate was in even more abundance. It was that initial generation of servicemen, both in Japan and Okinawa, that truly started the birth of karate in America when they returned home from duty.
2. Judo Provides a Framework for Schools
When the American servicemen returned from Japan and Okinawa they were rarely well-off in terms of finances. They had earned a living while in the service, but it was still difficult to secure a large building to train in. As a result, the much more established Judo locations proved enticing both in terms of cost and accessibility.
There are many examples of some of the earliest karate pioneers borrowing time and space inside of Judo halls. In the Vine Street Dojo in Cincinnati both Harvey Eubanks and William Dometrich established their programs. Chris DeBaise, a protege of Peter Urban, taught Chuck Merriman inside the dojo of “The Judo Twins” in New York City. The examples are plentiful, and there can be no question that the facilities established by Judo helped karate in its earliest stages.
3. Judo Lays the Groundwork for Competition
Karate in the United States has grown in two primary ways, one as a traditional means of self defense, the other as a sport. The impact of competition karate was immense throughout the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s. While it has tapered in its cultural impact, tournaments and competitions are still an important part of karate’s culture. Judo helped set the scene for that development.
In 1953 the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) created its First National Judo Championships in San Jose, California. Judo had been a staple in smaller contests throughout the American University system and was creating well attended, well operated events. Meanwhile, at that time, there were barely more than handful of operating karate schools in the United States. In 1946 Robert Trias had started his fledgling program down in Arizona. Other pioneers like Ed Parker, Cecil Patterson, and more would come later, but by the time they were established Judo was already operating at a nationwide level.
When pioneers like Trias ultimately organized and staged their own events, there was a strong example set by the Judo governing bodies. This was important not only as a guidepost for the likes of Trias, but also as a precedent for the American government in how to handle Asian martial arts in a sporting arena. Before Judo, homegrown combative sports like boxing and wrestling were the primary focus. Judo broke the ice and proved that a foreign art could sustain massive appeal.
It can be funny to think about how young karate is internationally. We think of it as a practice rooted in generations of tradition (which it is), and yet it is still in a state of growth and experimentation. Some of the earliest pioneers of the karate in the West are still with us, and for that we are thankful. We as karateka should also be thankful for the tireless work of those Judo players who came over from Japan, braving a new world to share their art. We should also remember the early American Judo players who had the courage and curiosity to take on a different culture, get thrown around countless times, and share what they learned with the world.