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The Effects of Japans Assimilation of Culture on Okinawan Karate Kata by Harold R.Wisner

The Effects of Japans Assimilation of Culture on Okinawan Karate Kata by Harold R.Wisner

The Effects of Japan’s Assimilation of Culture on Okinawan Karate Kata

by Harold R.Wisner


This essay will examine the effects that Japan’s assimilation of culture had on the way Okinawan Karate kata was taught and trained in after its introduction to Japan in the 1920’s by Gichin Funakoshi and how those changes carried through into kata training in the Twenty-first Century. The history of Karate has many variations with the truth probably lying somewhere in the middle. Karate has undergone multiple layers of transformation over the years with all linages of the art leading back to a man by the name of Sōkon “Bushi” Matsumura who lived from 1797 until 1889. The changes that occurred within the training of kata are probably the most important and detrimental to the art as a whole. Kata, simply described as prearranged movements against invisible opponents, has always been an essential aspect of Karate training. The Okinawan culture, which relied on oral traditions, utilized kata as the “oral tradition” to pass on self-defense and combative applications from one generation to the next. Due to cultural, social, economic, and political influences on the Okinawan people after Karate was introduced to Japan, the study and understanding of kata often lacks depth.

Everything one needs to understand about the art, whether mentally, physically, or spiritually, is encompassed within proper kata training. How kata has been taught, understood, and the number of kata trained by a practitioner today, is not the same as the way it was done a century ago in Okinawa. Although many claim to teach the true versions of the original Okinawan kata, there are many, many variations of each kata. It is not necessarily important which variation is known or how many kata one trains in, they all hold great knowledge and importance. What is important is how one goes about interpreting the information within the motions of each kata. Without interpretation, much of the purpose of kata is lost. The purpose and intent of the instruction of kata has been heavy influenced by Gichin Funakoshi's introduction of Okinawan Karate to Japan in 1922. Since then, the many cultural, social, political, and economic factors have played an essential role in the modifications of kata and Karate in general, leaving Modern or Japanese Karate far removed from its Okinawan origin. In the last few decades through historic research and the process of reverse engineering of kata, referred to as bunkai, many practitioners are rediscovering the highly combative applications that are embodied within the art of Karate kata that have become lost from the many layers of Japanese influence over Okinawa as a Japanese Prefecture.

Japan’s History of Cultural Assimilation

There is no secret when it comes to the mutual distaste that exists between Japan and China. This is brought up because Okinawa, the largest island in Ryukyu Island chain where Karate originated, was greatly influenced by Chinese culture through trade for hundreds of years prior to Japan’s seizure of the island. Ironically, China had also unwillingly “given Japan its writing script, government framework, religious and philosophical traditions, literature, art, and even pastimes.”  China also perceived herself “as obviously superior to the Japanese” due to Japan’s “failure to model themselves upon the Chinese more perfectly.”  The Japanese seemingly had an innate “ability to select elements of the Chinese culture and modify them to suit their own temperaments and situations,” a tradition that they continued in the nineteenth century with “their “aping” of Western ways.”  The Chinese had a long lasting “avuncular attitude towards its island neighbor” in which “Japan simply did not count.”  Despite Japan’s reliance on the mainland for its development and sense of self, Japan returned its negative sentiment with resentment and eventually revolt to prove its global position of authority through war and attempts at imperial expansion in China’s peripheral zones of influence in Korea, Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands, and attacks on mainland China such as the Rape of Nanking in 1937. Although not as abruptly harsh, Japan’s superiority complex and suppression over the Okinawans resulted in immense alterations to Okinawa’s cultural, political, social, and economic wellbeing.

Okinawan’s Struggle as a Japanese Prefecture

The adaptation and modification of Okinawan Karate into Japanese culture is one more example of Japan’s openness to the assimilation of other cultures into their definition of self while at the same time exhibiting their desire and ability to do things in their own manner expressing their independence, regional dominance, and their part in global development. “Beginning in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Japan’s government sought to assimilate Okinawa Prefecture politically, ideologically, and culturally under the Japanese state.”  The Japanese dominance over the Okinawan people during this process was very detrimental to the Okinawan psyche and way of life. To avoid prejudice and discrimination, the Okinawan people pressured by “popular attitudes, government policies, and many of their own community leaders,” opted to adopt Japanese culture while “discarding or concealing their own.”  The Okinawan people had little choice if they were going to survive in there new circumstances. With the onslaught of WWI and labor demands many more Okinawans fled to the mainland Japan. By 1925 approximately 20,000 had arrived and over 88,000 by 1940.  This lead many Karate instructors to work on the mainland in order to be able to send money back to their families, many lost their lives supporting Japanese war efforts. The changes that occurred within Karate may only be one small part of the Okinawan culture that was affected during this time. However, due to these transitions in Karate, unlike many other components of Okinawan culture, it has become studied and acknowledged worldwide. Karate’s assimilation into Japanese culture opened the door for the broad range of martial arts to be transcended around the world due to Western military interaction in the region and their desire for the exotic. This second adaption into the Western culture added to and reinforced many of the changes that occurred due to Japanese influence.

Approaches to Karate 

The art of Karate can be broadly broken down into three aspects, do meaning the way, jutsu meaning the art or skill of, and most recently, sport. Sport or the competitive approach is most popular and can be fun but is very limiting in the grand scheme of combat, self-defense, and the spiritual understanding of self; due to rules, limitations, and objectives. The understanding of the terms do and jutsu are essential to understanding the development and modifications of the karate. Do translates into the “the way” (also relating to the spiritual aspect of training) referring to the perfection of technique, the development of character, and the understanding of self, as in the sports of Judo and Japanese karate-do, or the arts of Aikido and Iaido. Jutsu, on the other hand, translates to the “art or skill of” referring to combative applications of an art such as Jujutsu, Aiki-jutsu, Iai-jutsu, etc. The purpose behind one’s art, whether sport, do, jutsu, or a combination of the three, is a major determining factor of the approach one takes to teaching and learning the art. Okinawan Karate, as it originated, fostered a balanced development of both the do and jutsu aspects. Sport Karate did not come into existence until after WWII.

Before proceeding any further, it is important to understand the previously mentioned term bunkai. A great majority of Karate training revolves around the training of kata and this is where the most drastic loss of the basis of Okinawa Karate occurred. The loss of the foundation within kata resulted in the application of a highly debated concept called bunkai (boon-ki) which did not exist at all in Okinawan Karate since “before 1900…the study of application was essential part of the process of learning kata.”  Bunkai has often been translated as hidden or secret movement or simply as application. However, the literal translation of “bun” is “to separate” or “breakdown” and “kai” “to understand.”   To give it more of an exact English translation, bunkai means to analyze implying that it is more of a process than an end result. Bunkai is often applied to Kata or a movement as a whole, rather than the individual motions that go into each movement which have been labeled as techniques, i.e. down block, spear hand, outside crescent kick. The word and concept of bunkai is a Japanese term, not Okinawan, it was not necessary in Okinawan training because, as mentioned, the applications where taught in conjunction with the kata.  It was only after practitioners became disconnected from the origins of the kata, that kata began to take on different meanings and purposes.

Introduction to Japan

Before the assimilation of Karate into the Japanese culture there was no ranking system, no organized competition, no mass instruction, no specific training uniforms, or any standardization of any kind. In order for the acceptance of this art to occur, Karate had to do some assimilation of its own, which resulted in a number of intentional and unintentional modifications. It is understandable that the Japanese wanted to make adjustments to the structure of the art in order to suit its needs and desires, but why and how did so much of the core content become misplaced along the way? This process did not occur overnight with the decision of one person or a small group of people, it occurred over generations of often unconscious changes and adaptations due to direct and indirect influences of culture, economics, and politics.

Many books have been written describing the above process as well as origins and lineages of Karate.  Through research one will find many contradictions and different versions of the same story. The story told is often based on the perspective, objectives, and historical context of the author. Through the comparisons of different text from different approaches to the art, a researcher must come to their own conclusion of what are the possible “truths,” knowing that their own understanding is also limited and skewed by one’s “own situatedness.”  Accepting a broader spectrum of possible reasons or applications may be more functional and thought provoking than searching for a singular truth.

Karate was first introduced to Japan in 1922 by an Okinawan man named Gichin Funikoshi (1868-1957) when he was asked to perform at a physical education exhibition sponsored by the Ministry of Education. This introduction began karate’s transformation into Japanese or Modern Karate. Despite the name, the art always has and always will be in a process of development. Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate  and considered the “father of modern karate” claimed that there “is virtually no written material on the early history of karate.”   Who invented and develop it and where it originated and evolved is still under great speculations and “may only be inferred from ancient legends that have been handed to us by word of mouth and tend to be imaginative and probably inaccurate.”  Much of this is owed to the history and culture of the region relying on oral traditions as opposed to written records. To get an idea how far Karate has come in a short amount of time, Karate is now a globally practiced sport while Funakoshi recalled a time, until 1901, when Karate could not be practiced legally in Okinawa.  It was also around this time, based on an exhibition by Funakoshi, that Karate began to be taught in the Okinawan school system. Funakoshi was born in the Okinawan capital of Shuri in 1868, the same year as the Meiji Restoration. Having been born during this time era was very influential in Funakoshi’s experiences in Karate and in Okinawa which allowed him to take part in a time of great change in his country and his art.

What’s in a Name and Karate’s Popularity?

Karate has held many titles, including Okinawante, toudi, bushi no te (warrior’s hand) or just te and Nahate and Shurite. The latter names are based on the cities of origin of which each variation of the art derived from, one school holding roots in the Chinese boxing arts of Wutang and the other Shorinji Kempo.  Another of Funakoshi’s contributions to karate was standardization of the kanji used to write the word. Although he was not the first to use the new form, he was the one who popularized it. The original kanji meant Chinese hand, while the current kanji standardized by Funakoshi represents empty hand. Funakoshi was not able to give any exact time when Karate replaced the usage of te. Both kanji of the first part of karate were pronounced kara, with the second kanji, te, meaning hand. Funakoshi believed that Karate had a Buddhist spiritual foundation and the concept of empty as it relates to the Buddhist religion was an appropriate representation. Contrary to Karate having a Buddhist foundation, Anko Itosu (1832-1916), who was one of Funakoshi’s primary instructors, denies any connection between Karate, Buddhism, or Confucianism in the introduction of a letter titled Ten Precepts. This letter was written in 1908 to the Okinawan school system arguing why Karate should be taught to all school students as a contribution to military development.  Itosu opens the letter with this statement so it must have held some great importance. It is ironic that Itosu’s student strongly contradicts this belief forcing researchers to question the truth even further.

Another proposed explanation for the use of empty, was the implication of only using one’s hands and feet as weapons, which may have resulted from a weapons ban during the Fifteenth Century.  However, Okinawan weapons training, known as Kobudo, is an essential aspect of most practitioners training. Another, yet controversial, cause behind the name change was to break away from Karate’s and Okinawa’s deep rooted Chinese influence. Nonetheless, such a change reinforced sociopolitical tensions and initiated disconnection from a deep-rooted cultural identity.  Funakoshi, further “establishment of karate as a do, or Way, with deeper meaning than mere fighting technique, was a philosophical turning point which made possible the assimilation of karate into the traditional Japanese martial arts.”  Funakoshi gave great gratitude to Okinawan Karate for his life’s experiences, yet, a simple change to the art resulted in a total restructuring of what he loved.

Today, there are many different variations of Karate referred to as ryu, which means school or style. Through the Japanese assimilation of culture into Okinawa, even Okinawan Karate is more Japanese than Okinawan based. This includes the naming of the vast array of ryu, such as Shorin-ryu, Isshin-ryu, and Goju-ryu. “Styles were given names in the social confusion after the Second World War, when the financially hard-pressed Okinawans realized Karate’s commercial value and opened an array of ramshackle private gyms.”  After WWI the U.S. Administration in Japan prohibited practice of Judo and Kendo believing it instilled militarism, making karate a desired “safety valve” for young people.   As interest increased after the war there was a shortage of qualified instructors due to the “comparatively brief history of Karate in Japan, war damage, and a discontinuance of karate training during the war.”  Karate began to become dehydrated due to the fact people were willing to train under anyone who had claimed to have any knowledge of Karate resulting in “instant Karate instructors.”  With no prior knowledge of Karate, newcomers to the art did not know what to expect or look for in a qualified instructor.

Karate was never unified as a single art, so there needed to be a way to differentiate between the various versions, whether good or bad, so adding a label became essential. Funakoshi however, believed “all these ‘schools’ should be amalgamated into one” in order to ensure that Karate-dō may pursue an orderly and useful progress into man’s future.”  The art was never a single art and to have done so may very well have limited its development by not allowing different perspectives and approaches.  However, it is often the most well-known styles that are written about, an art being popular, does not equate it to being the best. Popularity is what attracted more practitioners and allowed the art to spread no matter the actual depth or function of the art.

The popularity of the art increased worldwide during Vietnam when Okinawa became an essential military base for the United States.  The servicemen took great interest in this exotic hand to hand art, but not all Okinawan practitioners were willing to teach foreigners. The servicemen only received versions of the art that only a handful of Okinawans and Japanese were willing to teach. They also limited the servicemen to what the instructors wanted them to know, unwilling to share their entire art. It was these servicemen who brought the art back to the United States teaching the art to the extent that they understood it. After the popularity of the art went global, Okinawan’s themselves went overseas to teach.  Any country that received an influx of Japanese or Okinawan immigrants, also received an introduction to Karate.

True Okinawan Karate?

Too often, people allow themselves to be blindly guided in many aspects of life, Karate has been no different. There was a time when the master chose the student and not everyone was privileged with learning Karate. “Prior to 1879, martial arts on Okinawa had been reserved solely for the upper-class families” and was only taught to a few select family members.  Original knowledge of karate and its history was only passed down to a hand full of practitioners which limited the possibility of wide spread understanding. After 1879 “few ordinary folk were able, if willing, to practice” Karate.  These examples limited the transcendence of the art even before it was introduction to Japan. If one was to converse with instructors from various styles of karate and disciplines of martial art, they would concluded while most know a great deal about their own art or lineage, they have very little knowledge of any arts outside of their own discipline. This indicates a lack of martial arts research outside of what has been directly passed down to them by their instructor. 

With the transition from Okinawa to Japan, many of the origins, truth or otherwise, were lost or dismissed in the process.  Much of Okinawan culture and its martial arts held great Chinese influence which was perceived as inferior by the Japanese.  During its introduction into Japan, “Okinawans themselves, who, during the pre-war militaristic Japanese administration years, foresaw the role karate could play in the military machine and, with typical propriety, disguised its Chinese roots.”  In reference to Okinawan kata, Funakoshi explained that even before the end of the 1920’s “no one had any idea how they had come into being” and “people found them difficult to learn.  Funakoshi “set about revising kata to make them as simple as possible” to learn and he also took on the responsibility of giving the kata Japanese names.  This expressed the Okinawan manipulation of its own culture during its assimilation into the Japanese culture losing much of its authenticity, purpose, and value.

During an 1978 interview, the great grandson of Bushi Matsumura, Hohan Soken (1889-1982), founder of the Shōrin-ryū Matsumura Seito Okinawan Karate Kobudo Association, expressed his aggravation of what the training and teaching of karate had become between the 1920’s and 1950’s.

I found that there were two kinds of students - one was a dedicated and motivated student who wants to learn the Okinawan martial arts. The other is an individual who only wants to say he is learning karate. There are more of the latter. It is the latter that you see everywhere. They say that they ‘know’ karate or that they ‘use to’ practice karate - these are worthless individuals.

This mentality was far removed from his “old style” of training which was “done in secret so that others would not steal your techniques” and only taught to the most serious family members.  Training in Karate in Okinawa was a privilege and an honor, something one held in high regards with respect and gratitude for the opportunity to do so. The commercialization of the art turned it into a commodity and luxury activity, which was done for prestige as opposed to a way of life.  

Because so little was understood about the art, few people knew the difference between real and false training, making traditional training nearly impossible. Many of these false instructors made their way into what was known as college Karate clubs further spreading the “simplified, free-fighting, and showy version of the art, with little effort on kata.”  Young Japanese students “opted for success and popularity over content and depth.”  Morio Higaonna, born in Naha Okinawa in 1938 is the founder and Chief instructor of Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do Federation, expressed in the following excerpt the changes that were taking place during his early years of being a black belt in the late 1950’s and the introduction of tournaments, the first championship was held in Tokyo in 1957.

Many practitioners, some who claim to practice traditional karate, will add high kicks to demonstrate flexibility, change stances for easier balance, alter body position to create power, distort the timing of technique to give the impression of speed, and make pointless snapping noises with their uniform. To this they add grotesque facial expressions and over emphasized points of focus which reduces kata, the very essence of karate, to the level of a theatrical performance. 

The first championship was held in Tokyo in 1957 and the purpose of a competition is to put on the best show and win. Japanese culture altered aspects of kata for the aesthetics and a flashy performance. The foundation and purpose of Okinawan Karate was functionality and effectiveness in application. Self-defense and combat is not pretty, it is not supposed to be, and it needs to work. What is functional does not always look good and what looks good is not necessarily functional. In conjunction with these changes, instructors simplified and changed kata, often due to their own lack of understanding. They began to teach more kata to make learning the art easier for the masses and to make training more interesting and less repetitive, “soon, whole generations of students would learn Karate without studying applications – and then they would become teachers.”  Karate became a physical version of whisper down the alley with each generation taking from and adding to the art.

The Kata Debate

Every Karate instructor understands the many potential benefits of kata training, there is no argument about that, but just how deep is the wealth of knowledge that existences within these movements beyond muscle memory, focus, coordination, and mental and physical conditioning? Kata is often translated as form or formal exercise, a prearranged series of movements fighting off multiple attackers. This is all fine, but what has occurred is that the learning of these kata has been simplified to rote memorization of many kata with little or no real understanding of the depth of real-life combative knowledge encompassed within each kata. Kata has long been an essential, yet extremely misunderstood aspect of Karate. Many Karate practitioners spend years mastering the movements of Kata without ever really understanding them. The history of the art and its adaptation into the Japanese culture has been a major influence of this change of Karate being a do/jutsu art to mainly a do art losing much of its credibility as an effective form of combat and self-defense.

With these adjustments, many martial artists have contemplated the many uses of kata, including exercise, perfection of technique, understanding of body mechanics, timing, combative meaning, origins etc., but even with decades of research many conflicting perspectives still exist.  Bobby Lowe (1929-2011), who was prominent Chinese America master of Masutasu Oyama’s (1923-1994) style Kyokushin Karate, established the first Kyokushin School outside of Japan and was the International Committee Chairman of the International Karate Organization claimed that “the primary purpose of these katas is to stress coordination of the mind, body and eye movements, and various hand and leg techniques.”   This addresses only the do aspect of the art leaving out the jutsu. All of the above are important to kata training; however it ignores the original purpose of the art which is for self-defense. Bryce Fleming states that “Japanese themselves consider kata to be good for little more than training kihon (basics techniques) and have little interest in application training.”  Having been so far removed from its origin, it is easy to understanding how the Japanese came to this perspective of kata.

Scott Langley, the technical director of the Irish branch of the Japanese Karate Shoto concluded in 2002 that “kata has one overwhelming use, that is to teach one how to use one’s body…[kata] is a step by step method of learning how to use the body to its maximum efficiency,” he also believes that due to the course of history “real or actual ” application is lost forever and focus should merely be on body mechanics.   This Western perspective of Funakoshi’s style, once again closes the door on the investigation of the possibility of infinite self-defense application all together. With each passing generation, the use of kata continues but the practitioners understanding and desire to understand diminishes. Remember, bunkai is a process and not an end result, the knowledge and understanding one person gains from the investigation of kata may not be the same as another person’s. Through comparisons of discoveries everyone can gain a more thorough understanding of kata and self-defense.  In the long term, there should be a very fine line between one’s kata and one’s kumite (ku-me-tay). Kumite means “crossing of hands” referring to the exchange of techniques between two opponents (sparring and/or self-defense). Therefore, Karate should be practiced, “with kata as the principle method and sparring as the supporting method” as commented on by Funakoshi.   Kata gives a practitioner the ability to train combative application in solo, utilizing visualization of motion against an imaginary attacker, similar to that of shadow boxing. This was a necessary aspect of training in Okinawa when training was only done in private and often one-on-one with one’s instructor. Langley’s statement of using kata to learn how to use the body is very true, yet limiting, but holds true to the Japanese cultural perspective of training as opposed to the Okinawan.

Most instructors also teach many more kata than are necessary to gain a sufficient combative depth of understanding, if bunkai is applied appropriately. Mark Bishop records more than fifty empty hand kata not including weapon’s Kata in his book Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques and Bobby Lowe supports this same claim,  while Morinobu Itoman (N/A), in his 1943 book The Study of China Hand Technique claimed sixty but only mentions forty-two kata.  However most styles teacher roughly eighteen to twenty-six of these kata with Isshin-ryu teaching as few as eight kata. Bill Burger claimed in the introduction of his book Five Years One Kata that before the wide spread teaching of Karate, a master may have only trained in one, two, or three kata, each one containing its own style of fighting.  Far too much time is spent memorizing drills than is spent actually understanding them. Each kata represented a completed fighting system when understood properly, not a series of complete fights by simply stringing self-defense applications together.

Hidetaka Nishiyama and Richard Brown in their book Karate: The Art of “Empty Hand” Fighting speak a great deal about the physical and mental attributes of kata training, however they fail to mention anything beyond the outfighting or sport perspective of the training. They mention how “students of karate are urged to master a variety of them (kata), rather than concentrating on any one.”   Their expression of mastery of kata and technique is limited to the ability to perform movements quickly and on an unconscious manner without a real connection between kata and kumite. They explained that the primary emphasis of the Japanese Karate Association, which was organized by Funakoshi in 1948, is its building of character traits.  In these examples, the do and sport aspects of the art totally replaced that of the jutsu.

There have been many stories told that the old master, when teaching kata or a technique, only described it as “like this,” as in to mimic the motion that they were preforming.  With mass instruction and the publication of books, movements began to be assigned labels, such as strike, block, or kick to describe them. Once a movement has been designated a label such as head block, or judan uke in Japanese, it takes on a limited range of possible applications. The labeling of techniques limited both the mind and body. Kata slows down movements and creates pauses in motion to allow for an instructor to check for proper form. If a technique it executed incorrectly it could result in serious injury. Before mass instruction, the publication of books, especially those with picture, and standardized grading systems, the name of a motion was irrelevant. During public demonstrations, a teacher may show a technique a closed fist punch to the body, “so as not to look too brutal,” when in reality it was meant to be an open hand eye poke, the same held true for more combative applications of locks and submissions.  These simplifications and labeling of techniques took a great deal away from the actual application and effectiveness of the art creating a tunnel vision and “label trap” that is difficult to look past.  In the grand scheme, a block is a strike, is a grab, is trap, is a lock, is a throw. Each labeled motion can be used as a wide variety of applications; hence all a student needed to know was to do it “like this.” However, this understanding was inadvertently removed from the vast majority of training, then that level of training got passed on to the next generation of students. If a student is never taught a specific choke, lock, or takedown, how are they expected to see those same applications within the movements of their kata? Many of these applications are too difficult and dangerous for the physical ability and maturity level of children, so they were not taught that level of application. As these same children grew up and went on to teach students of their own, they could only teach their students the level of understanding that they knew themselves. After the assimilation of the art, and the combative applications were no longer taught in conjunction with the kata resulting in an understanding gap that could not be filled. Intensify the focus on the do, and half the art becomes displaced. With some much of the “why” lost in translation through Japanese assimilation, it may only seem natural to have a focus on the “how.”

Another aspect of Kata that is often over looked or denied all together is grappling. Many agree that locks and throws exist within kata and this is where there definition end, but what happens after the confrontation goes to the ground. Charles C. Goodin, historian and curator of the Hawaii Karate Museum, “recognizes the Aikido, Judo, and Jujutsu-like elements” within Karate.  The perspectives of Goodin and those of Iain Abernathy, who is a historian, author, well-renowned seminar facilitator and leading exponent of applied Karate in the UK, are rapidly gaining momentum. Abernathy claims, “If you study - as opposed to just practicing - your katas, you will know that karate does contain a vast amount of grappling techniques such as Close Range Striking, Throws & Takedowns, Chokes & Strangles, Arm Locks, Leg & Ankle locks, Neck Cranks, Wrist Locks, Finger Locks etc. are all included within the karate katas.”  With the dominance of sport application “techniques such as biting, crushing the testicles, gouging the eyes etc. are banned and yet these are the norm (and a highly effective 'norm') in a self-defense situation.”  In the ideal situation one would not want to end up on the ground, but rarely is life ideal.  To think that the Okinawans did not take in consideration the necessity of defending one’s self from the ground utilizing all aspects of their art is naïve.

To even think about preforming kata rolling around on the ground like one was rolling around with an attacker would look pretty silly. Many movements or concepts within kata are implied in order to not take away from various possibilities a single motion can mean. Rolling on the ground by one’s self looks more like a scene from Flash Dance than a combative art. In an ideal situation, of course one would not want to get into a wrestling match on the street; however going to the ground is a very likely scenario unless a knockout occurs. Ground fighting today is offend associated with the rule restrictions of Jiu Jitsu and cage fighting, two competitors, one referee, no outside intervention from friends or spectators, and a limited usage of effective striking techniques. Environmental factors of a real life confrontation can be a real game changer. To not address grappling would be like telling the attacker to put the knife away because it was never covered that in class, oh, and don’t forget, shoes must come off.

The study of bunkai is often observed solely from the movements seen in kata, not from a defensive angle of the person who the application is being applied on. If, for example, a kata teaches the practitioner a sweep or throw, putting their opponent on the ground, it only seems rational that the Okinawans took into consideration what to do if they were the one being thrown. There is an old Okinawan proverb that says Nana korobi ya oki, which means fall seven times, get up eight times, referring to an indomitable spirit.  With this indomitable spirit in mind, it is unlikely that after receiving a throw, that an individual would be calling it quits. It would only be natural to continue to defend one’s self from the ground and why would one think that these applications from the ground are not also found within the same kata as the initial throw, expressing both sides of a physical confrontation fully. After deep scrutiny of the Japanese perspective of Karate and the comparison to the words of late Okinawan master, the Japanese approach loses validity.

Once again movements cannot be taken at face value and the motions within the techniques must be carefully compared to the applications of the most well-known ground fighting art, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as well as other locking based arts such as Jujutsu. It is important to recognize the difference in spelling with Jujutsu, which is Japanese and Jiu-Jitsu. Jujutsu, which means gentle art, was developed over thousands of years in Japan as both an empty hand and weapon yielding art of the Samurai. While including strikes, this is primarily a throwing and joint manipulation art that was used to work around the body armor of the Samurai. Punching armor used to protect against a sword would not be very effective, but the armor was also designed for mobility making joint manipulations and throws feasible. Jujutsu, whose name was first written in 1532, was coined by Hisamori Tenenuchi when he officially established the first school of Jujutsu in Japan. From Jujutsu and by 1882, Jigoro Kano developed a sport version called Judo, meaning gentle way. Grace/Brazilian Jiu-jitsu followed by the Gracie family after having been introduced to Judo in 1914 by Esai Maeda, who was a Jujutsu champion and student of Kano. The Gracie family, mainly Helio Gracie, modified virtually all of the techniques to rely on “leverage and timing rather than speed and strength” to compensate for his frail build.  Ground fighting as a long history in the Asian arts, it is very unlikely that none of it ever made its way into Karate, whether introduced by the Chinese or the Japanese.

No one really knows what all these motions were supposed to translate into and considering bunkai as a process of analysis, after comparing the motions in Karate, Jujutsu, Aikido, and BJJ applications, it becomes hard to deny that Karate kata holds a great deal of ground fighting applications, however the motions are done from a standing position. Hohan Soken also claimed in his 1978 interview that “Karate is much more than simple punching and kicking and blocking, it is the study of weaponry and of grappling,” he continues, “as a youngster on Okinawa, grappling was taken very seriously and it was not uncommon for individuals to suffer broken arms and legs as a result of taking part in this light form of entertainment.”  Soken said that grappling “practice was very common during the Meiji / Taisho era (turn of the century) but with the Japanese influences, these methods have almost disappeared.”  While many Karate practitioners fully deny any grappling in Karate, Soken clearly negates this notion. This aspect, referred to in Okinawa as “tuite,” are the joint manipulations and takedowns often associated with Aikido, Japanese Jujutsu, and Brazilian Jiu jitsu, but in reality were contained within the Okinawan arts and not separate from it. These movements are disguise in kata and when done in solo, as kata, are often mistaken for blocks, strikes, and kicks as their labels suggest. Despite such claims most Karate practitioners ignore this aspect of training and for those that do address it, categorize it as BJJ or mixed martial arts. Ground fighting was and should essential to all karate training. These movements can be implied similar to implying a head butt, an eye poke or a hair pull within kata or are misinterpreted due to labeling or a lack of understanding in joint manipulations and takedowns. 

Taking into consideration much of kata today is preformed to look good and not for its practicality and the knowledge gap that was created over time, it is understandable how many movements of practicality have been altered or dismissed to match the aesthetics that the Japanese sought after for show and competition. This process resulted in kata losing much of the meaning. The Japanese assimilation of Karate created a long lasting negative externality on kata training and understanding which has discredited Karate in its ability to have practical self-defense application.

It can most likely be credited to the recent mix martial arts craze, cultural connections and technological advancements that are now allowing more and more Karate practitioners to delve deeper into the applications of Karate kata. This is a slow process since many are strongly attached to their current understandings and the perception of tradition karate. It is not easy to admit when one has had it all wrong for decades and needs to retrain one’s self in a new direction. It is however easier to just call it mixed martial arts as if adding something new to it as opposed to pulling something old out of it that has been overlooked for nearly a century.

Through the previously discussed primary and secondary sources, it can be seen that the Japanese assimilated Okinawan Karate into their culture occurred in a very similar fashion as they did Chinese and Western cultures previously. Okinawan practitioners had many of the same negative reactions to the changes made as the Chinese did when their culture was manipulated into the Japanese way of life, often looking down on Japan and the modifications. It is uncertain if this is an extension of Chinese culture within Okinawa or strictly Okinawan resentment of the raping of their culture. Considering Karate in Okinawan is part of their cultural identity and Karate in Japan is a sport, it is unlikely that the Okinawans felt a need to compete in their cultural identity.

It was the Okinawan Gichin Funakoshi, who purposely introduced Karate to Japan in the first place and not a Japanese person directly stealing it. Even Funakoshi was unsettled with the many changes that began to occur. Did Japan really destroy and disrespect other cultures in their modifications or is it merely self-expression and reinvention of old ways? Should the Chinese and Okinawans have taken such offense to it as they did? Western culture seemed to take pride in the Japanese desire to borrow such things as technology, social systems, infrastructure, and educational methods and baseball.

Kata, although a major aspect of karate training which has received a great number of changes over the years during Japan’s assimilation of Okinawan Karate into its culture, it is only one paradigm of the many changes that occurred in the overall art. Not all changes were as detrimental to the art of Karate as were the ones to kata. Without Japan’s acceptance of Karate and the changes to have enhanced not only its popularity but also the enjoyment of the experience, the art of Karate may have been lost entirely.

The number of books, articles, and text written on karate is nearly infinite. While the arguments continue to flourish over lineage and authenticity, the only aspect that really matters is the practitioners understanding of kata. Kata is the foundation and syllabus of everything the art entails. Rank, competitions, the wearing of gis, patches, and affiliations are only fluff. One can stripe all the fluff away from Karate, and kata will still remain. The purpose of Karate was self-defense, in self-defense there are no rules, only survival. Kata was the means used to record, practice, and transcend combative information from one generation to the next in a culture that relied on oral traditions. As portrayed, oral traditions can change greatly the further from the origin they travel. One’s understandings of individual and collective history assists in writing their individual and collective schemas, the better understanding one has about the past, the better of an understanding one can have about themselves in the present. Only through understanding the social, cultural, economic, and political history of Japan’s assimilation of Okinawa culture and Karate, can the practitioners of the art come to understand and appreciate the art to its fullest.

Harold Wisner © Copyright 2015



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