” A long time ago, there was a karateka whose name was Machaa Buntoku or Kinjo Matsu in Itoman village, Okinawa. He was born in 1867. People said that he had been practicing karate in Fuzhou city, Fujian province, China and mastered the fighting arts in depth.
Hearing about Machaa Buntoku, Miyagi Sensei, the founder of Gojuryu, visited him together with Sensei’s disciples, Jin-an Shinzato and Seiko Higa. Miyagi Sensei asked him to show them his best Kata that he mastered in China. Then Machaa Buntoku put on Hachimaki (=headband) and performed a strange dance in front of them. He danced and danced. Seeing his strange dance, Seiko Higa thought this old man must be crazy or mad because of his old age. Jin-an Shinzato who was yet young at that time lost his temper to see his dance and told him “OK. Dance is enough! Show me your fighting technique! I will be your opponent.” Shinzato delivered a karate blow at him, but Shinzato was thrown down by the dancing old man and hurt his back. He lost face. Everyone there felt awkward about it, so they bowed to the old man and went home. On the way home no one spoke.” – by Kiyohiko Higa, Translated by Sanzinsoo
Dance has always been an important part of Okinawan culture. Ranging from the famous Eisa Dance During Obon Festival to rarely seen village dances, the breadth of Okinawan musical expression is almost as diverse as it’s martial arts. What many people don’t realize is that martial arts and dance did not simply coexist throughout Ryukyuan history, but came together in very important ways so as to preserve the essence and spirit of Okinawa itself.
In this article we’ll explore how and why dance and karate intermingled. We’ll also discuss how the concepts preserved in dance are important to the understanding of karate as a complete life protection system.
Our study begins primarily in the 1600s. Before that time both dance and martial study existed, but we have very little information on how they might have influenced each other. However, in 1609 a cataclysmic shift in Okinawan culture and history occurred, bringing on a sharp need for secrecy and subterfuge.
The Shimazu Clan of Satsuma, Japan had a long standing claim on Okinawa, but their concerns on mainland Japan never allowed them to focus much on the small island chain. Unfortunately, as the Warring States Period dragged on and Tokugawa Ieyasu made his push for dominance over Japan, the Satsuma Samurai found themselves on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara and ultimately the war. Ieyasu, once comfortable in victory, realized the bubbling cauldron of potential trouble that the Shimazu represented. Instead of allowing them to fume away and scheme their eventual reprisal, Ieyasu suggested they set their sites on conquering the Ryukyu island chain to the south which had for years skirted their responsibilities and tributes ‘owed’ to the Japanese.
The Shimazu clan, seeing an opportunity to extend their influence and test their skills once again, agreed and set sail. The Okinawans, while fierce fighters and brave warriors, were under-equipped and under-manned. They stood little chance against the Satsuma fighting machine.
Going Underground and Adding Disguise
When the Satsuma conquered Okinawa they laid down a series of rules. First, they realized that Okinawan weaponry was already centralized around Shuri (the general populace was disarmed so as to avoid splintering factions on the island). The Satsuma decided to go one step further and remove all potential for a standing army on the island. The only individuals allowed to have weapons were the highest warrior and royal families, and most of that was just for ritual. In addition, the Japanese planted roaming informants known as metsuke to keep an eye on all Okinawan activity and either report misconduct or cut it down directly.
As a result of the Satsuma occupation the Okinawans had to be extremely cautious regarding the militaristic arts they demonstrated. Practicing tode (the predecessor to karate) and kobudo (weapons arts) became a dangerous proposition, even when training in private. As such, many teachers took their arts ‘underground’ and only studied at night or in locations away from prying eyes.
The royal court at Shuri became aware of their conundrum: they needed to continue developing their skills in order to protect the king but could not openly practice their most effective techniques. Being privileged members of Okinawan society, they still had rights to art forms like calligraphy, poetry, and dance. They decided upon an ingenious solution…bring the worlds of dance and martial arts together.
The Dancers with Dangerous Hands
“The te-waza in Tuiti are believed to arise from variations on three hand applied positions that correspond to those used in the Ryukyuan Court Classical Dances: oshi-te (forward push hands), ogami-te (supplication hands), and koneri-te (kneading hands). Positions appear in the earliest poetry collection of Ryukyu, Omorosaushi (1531-1623), and gestures seem to have been used in rituals and ceremony in ancient Okinawa. These gestures are said to have been incorporated into the court dances by Tamagusuku Chokun (born 1684), who was connected to the Motobu Udun.” – MotobuRyu.org
Tamagusuku Chokun may have been an important figure, but the overall integration of dance with martial arts cannot be traced back to a single individual. Most villages on Okinawa and the outlying islands had their own cultural dances serving varying purposes, including celebrations, tributes, and commemorations. However, there are two specific ‘groups’ who did extensive work in building and preserving dance, and must be mentioned explicitly.
The first group is women. Ancient Okinawan culture placed women in positions of high regard when it came to spirituality, history, and cultural expression. As such, while dance was expressed by both genders it frequently fell to women to preserve and transfer forms. It was only natural then for the women to uphold dancing traditions even as the resident martial experts infused deadly concepts into the movements.
This example is the Hatuma Bushi dance executed by Chibana Kazuko:
The second group that requires further mention is the Shuri court. The court eventually involved individuals like the great Matsumura Sokon, but was centralized around the Motobu family. For generations the Motobu’s were responsible for the protection of the king and served as his closest aids. They often traveled with him and were always present during court events. The Motobu’s also represent the longest discernible linear lineage in Okinawan karate history. They developed and preserved Motobu Udun Di, the Palace Hand.
The Motobu’s were an interesting group because not only did they have to protect the king, but also had to put on impressive demonstrations whenever Chinese Envoys came around. Even though Okinawa was dominated by Japan after 1609, trade with China still took place. This was unusual since economic and political relationships between China and Japan were extremely strained at this time. As a solution, the Japanese and Chinese played a clever game of look-the-other-way while on Okinawa so as to continue trading with each other through the Okinawans. As we’ll see, that continued connection to China was integral in the martial/dance development of Okinawa.
Flowing Fundamentals from Across the Sea
“There is a clear correlation between traditions of martial arts and the dances which are indigenous to regions in which those martial arts may be found. In Okinawa it is likely that Chinese martial arts and dances influenced the interpretation and performance of Okinawan martial arts and dance.” – Hakuda Ryu
Many of the connections between dance and tode seem to relate back to fundamental Chinese sources. The effects of Chinese chuanfa on tode is undeniable, and the flowing grace of Chinese techniques seem to have lent themselves naturally to dance. The Chinese families who settled on Okinawa (predominantly in Kumemura) were heavily involved with court life. Therefore, it is a likely possibility that dance and martial arts were simultaneously influenced by the respected Chinese residents.
One important aspect of integrating Chinese elements into dance and tode was the full range of effective damage those techniques allowed. The royal court and guard were responsible for a wide variety of activities, ranging from killing intruders and pirates, to subduing rabble-rousers, to performing for Chinese Sapposhi (dignitaries). As such, they needed a full arsenal of techniques that could quickly and effectively activate pain compliance, mechanical compliance, or lethal force (very much like modern day police officers). In fact, there was an element of honor in control specifically associated with the royal family’s martial practices:
“In addition to the hard techniques of strikes and kicks, Motobu Udundi had a system of joint locks and throws called Tuiti . Among the Ryukyuan Royalty, use of Tuiti was passed down in secret only Udun among the Motobu. The aim of Tuiti is to subdue an opponent without causing harm, in the spirit of royal benevolence.” – MotobuRyu.org
The Motobu traditions were certainly unique, but the concepts of preserving tode via dance manifested all across the island.
Modern Examples of Dance in Action
Thanks to the efforts of a few skilled martial artists and Okinawan culturalists we have examples passed down to us of Okinawan dance. Even more valuable are those individuals who have preserved some of the meaning behind the movements.
Our first modern example demonstrates that tode wasn’t the only beneficiary of dance preservation; kobudo was just as positively affected. In fact, in the days of the Satsuma occupation it may have been even more important to preserve weapon arts in a hidden manner.
|These skilled ladies execute a graceful and powerful dance using shortened Eiku (oars). The practitioners are clearly formal martial artists as well as able dancers:||__||This Ryukyuan festival demonstrates multiple different weapon dances set to music. The forms are probably modern influenced, but still provide a wonderful connection:|
Next is one of the most important karateka of our time, Uehara Seikichi. Uehara Sensei was the heir of the Motobu Udun Di line (the first none Motobu to claim that title). He worked diligently to explore the connections between his art and the popular dances of Okinawa. In the following video, a skilled dancer performs Hamachidori and Uehara Sensei explains some of the most basic tuiti joint locking concepts hidden within. Uehara Sensei also executes an important footwork concept known as Tachu Gwaa in which he walks around his opponent using a very natural posture:
‘Dance techniques’ are not just relegated to graceful and slow demonstrations. When used in earnest they can express the most fundamentally effective aspects of karate. They also tend to excel at ‘chaining’, providing opportunities to strike/grab/kick/bend/push in a smooth series without pause.
Bill Hayes Sensei occasionally demonstrates a portion of technique based off the popular dance Kachashi. The intriguing thing about Kachashi is that it has fundamental movements similar to those expressed by Uehara Sensei in the video above. However, it is also considered a ‘freestyle’ dance form. Hayes Sensei uses this set of concepts to execute a string of techniques that combine striking, tuiti, kicking, and kyusho activation. Furthermore, he enters the ‘dance’ against full speed attacks.
Neglected but Important
Dance is not (and probably will never be) a well known part of karate’s history. It is not useful in tournaments and does not particularly appeal to Western sensibilities. Nevertheless, some of the most effective and important aspects of karate are contained within and understanding karate history is impossible without factoring in all of the cultural elements that were so crucial to survival on the island.
While dance is certainly not required to be a good karateka, being aware of it honors the efforts of prior generations of both men and women on Okinawa and helps modern practitioners grasp the full possibilities of the art.
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I recently attended a training seminar with two very well respected, highly skilled kenjutsu practitioners. Despite a taxing travel schedule they were both very giving with their instruction and I certainly took away a few things to think about.
The primary instructor of the seminar was Kishimoto Chihiro, Iaido Hachidan (8th degree black belt) and former Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iaido Committee Chairman. He was joined and assisted by Kato Shozo, AUSKF Vice President of Education and Kendo Hachidan as well as Iaido Nanadan (7th degree black belt).
For a quick introduction to each instructor, view the short videos below:
|Kishimoto Chihiro Sensei||Kato Shozo Sensei|
The seminar itself was broken up into two major parts. The first consisted of Kishimoto Sensei sharing some of his philosophy on training as well as exploring connections between iaido and kendo. The second part involved Seitei Waza demonstration, instruction, and correction.
Kishimoto Sensei imparted many ideas of interest, one of which caught my attention in particular which I would like to share today. He described the three levels of visualization one can achieve during iaido training.
Exploring the Three Levels of Visualization
Visualization is extremely important in iaido. After all, the art consists of drawing and cutting in thin air (or at worst against rolled up tatami). Unlike kendo there is no fierce opponent screaming and leaping at you. It is up to the practitioner’s imagination to create an opponent upon which to execute technique. This may sound easy, but while striving for technical competence in iaido even getting started with visualization can be a daunting task. Kishimoto Sensei expressed visualization progression in the following manner*:
- Visualization Level 1 – A Weak Opponent Easily Defeated
- Visualization Level 2 – A Well Matched Opponent of Equal Skill
- Visualization Level 3 – A Stronger Opponent with Superior Technique
All practitioners start at level 1 when beginning training. I should say, once the iaidoka learns how not to fall down and hurt themselves, they then begin at level 1. A level 1 ‘opponent’ barely exists in the mind of the practitioner and only performs simple maneuvers. The imaginary antagonist will fail to preempt even the most sloppy and slow of draws. He/she will succumb to any wobbly strike and will be thoroughly blocked during any and all counter attack attempts. A level 1 opponent only attacks when our block is ready and moves conveniently into range for all strikes to land flush.
Once the basics of iaido waza are executed competently (which can take a long time) the practitioner is free to think more clearly about their opponent and their own body movement. It is at this time that ‘reality’ starts to kick in. The practitioner can begin to understand why their instructor has been making so many subtle corrections. Excessive movement can give away intention (just like in the video above with Kishimoto Sensei). Poor body posture can lead to weak cuts that wouldn’t slice through clothing let alone bone. Improper foot movement can leave the opponent out of optimal range. At level 2, the practitioner can instill concepts that they now understand into the opponent, and thus can make personal adjustments with educated intent. At this level an iaidoka will know when mistakes and flaws would have resulted in dueling failure.
Many years are spent exploring level 2, trying to execute waza with exacting precision and understanding. The ultimate goal is to arrive at level 3 wherein the iaidoka can create an imaginary opponent of superior strength. At level 3 the practitioner needs ultimate composure and zanshin. Full fighting spirit is required to even sit in the presence of such a powerful opponent. The enemy is faster, more skillful, and more patient. Only a perfect performance will result in victory, and the death of the enemy will be palpable.
Visualization Levels Applied Elsewhere
Kishimoto Sensei’s explanation of visualization levels stuck with me because I had heard similar ideas before. One question Bill Hayes of Shobayashi Ryu Karate likes to ask is: “what is the worst part about kata?” The answer he provides is simple: “we always win”.
Even the most raw beginner will survive their kata practice, landing every punch and blocking every counter attack. Of course, Hayes Sensei goes on to explain that the real value of kata training is when you can feel the intent from your imaginary opponent and can execute technique with the same intensity and focus as if you were in a life and death struggle.
I am always excited and intrigued when high level concepts appear in multiple places. I find it encouraging that no matter what particular martial route you or I find ourselves on, there are masterful teachers discovering and sharing as much as they can.
As a final note, from personal experience and teaching, try not to obsess or rank your visualization abilities. The mere act of patting yourself on the back, or judging yourself harshly, will only distract from the task at hand and slow down your progress. Besides, if you declare yourself a level 3 practitioner, what motivation will you have to continue refining and challenging yourself?
This is one of those little martial paradoxes – learn it, then forget, then contemplate it, then forget it, repeat…
Lately I’ve been studying two works by Rory Miller, a highly experienced martial artist and corrections officer. I say ‘study’ because simply reading the material wouldn’t result in any long term benefit. Miller takes decades of experience inside law enforcement and applies it to the civilian world. The information is important enough to warrant the kind of serious focus one might expend in the dojo.
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It is a traditional martial artist’s responsibility to differentiate between the timeless aspects of an art and the timely. The human body has not changed significantly since the beginning of recorded history. As such, the brilliant individuals that developed effective classical arts should still be heeded carefully. Of course, the tools and environment in which man lives has been changing constantly. Therefore, it requires an adaptive mindset to adjust and improve with the times.
Think of it this way – gunpowder may be old, but efficient and concealable hand guns certainly are not. Furthermore, law enforcement ‘back in the day’ was often as complex as chopping off a limb or tossing someone in a dungeon for X amount of years. Nowadays, law enforcement is a little more subtle.
Training and Teaching with the Law in Mind
It’s often said (accurately) that martial arts training should consist of simple, repeatable tactics that can work under high levels of stress. As such, clouding the mind with complicated thoughts of lawsuits and use-of-force specifics may end up leading to tragedy. On the other hand, in the modern world even the most obvious cases of self defense can lead to extensive jail time, loss of job, and utter disaster for individuals and families.
It turns out martial arts for life protection is a little more complicated than we all would hope.
Even more thought provoking than training with the law in mind is teaching with the law in mind. After all, instructors only see their students for a few hours each week. Is it up to the sensei to focus on technique and leave the law study outside the dojo? Is it even ethical to try to define the moral line where self defense should be used as opposed to staying hands off for legal purposes?
Addressing Tough Force Questions
Balancing the law and effective self defense can be extremely difficult. Most of the time martial artists have to come to a personal conclusion about when and where they will use force, and to what extent (control, pain, damage, death). Unfortunately, coming to a personal conclusion is not necessarily the same as coming to an informed conclusion. That’s where Rory Miller comes in. He provides a foundation of information that helps demystify legal factors of force and gives the reader tools to quickly navigate murky situations, even when the best possible outcome is the death of another human.
These two books, “Force Decisions” and “Scaling Force“, are not necessarily a pair. By that I mean they can be read separately with no sense of lacking. However, I found reading them in close succession to be informative and useful.
“Force Decisions” is set up in the following manner:
* Training – Explaining how police officers are trained and what they are taught when it comes to force on the job.
* Checks and Balances – Describing what happens to an officer if his/her behavior is called into question.
* Experience – Exploring how on-the-job incidences come to inform and enhance an officer’s ability to use appropriate force.
* About You – Explaining how to take the lessons from law enforcement and apply them to citizen life.
Throughout the book the author provides a series of ‘hard truths’ which help readers understand the conundrums they may encounter when thinking about force seriously.
“Scaling Force” is more focused yet also more extensive. In “Force Decisions” Rory Miller touches upon the levels of force officers have at their disposal and the circumstances in which they might use it. “Scaling Force” takes that concept of a force continuum and explores each and every phase in detail, adding the thoughts and experiences of Lawrence Kane as well.
“Scaling Force” is set up in the following manner:
* Intro to Violence – Describing common scenarios and mental states in which violence occurs.
* Level 1 Presence – Using authority, body language, etc to de-escalate and control.
* Level 2 Voice – Using tone, volume, etc to dominate or dictate a conversation.
* Level 3 Touch – Using non-damaging physical contact to calm, direct, or distract.
* Level 4 Control – Using technique to restrain or control a violent situation.
* Level 5 Less Lethal – Using strikes, bone breaks, sprains, etc to eliminate a violent threat.
* Level 6 Lethal – Using lethal force to eliminate a deadly threat.
One of the most important concepts stressed in the book is the lack of clarity or linearity in which the force continuum is used. Activating the right level at the right moment is a combination of situational awareness, training, and wisdom (ie knowledge applied in real life to optimal effect). If that sounds difficult, trust that it is. One might be tempted to forget all this and just go with the old saying: ‘I’d rather be judged by twelve than buried by six’…but with resources available like these books relying solely on that mindset is lazy rather than courageous.
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