Who put the Bu in Karate-Do? by Ben Eayrs

Who put the Bu in Karate-Do? by Ben Eayrs

Ben Eayrs is the Kilted Karateka, a Karate and wellness fanatic. He has been following the warrior path ever since stepping into the Dojo at the age of 9.

His key motivation is to allow Karate to be the support for people when they need it as it has been for him.

As a History graduate who has practiced Karate for most of his life he applies his skills and techniques into researching the truth behind Okinawa’s renowned Martial Art.

He spends his spare time analysing kata and writing articles for his website thekiltedkarateka.com


Who put the Bu in Karate-Do? by Ben Eayrs

The Bu in question is the term for Warrior, as in Budō - Way of the Warrior. If you have trained in a Japanese style of Karate, even some Okinawan styles you will have heard this term at some point. Either that your School offers to train you in Budō, that your training is consistent with Budō or that a certain way of training is identified as being Budō.

It is often associated with a sense of learning “traditional” Karate. I use these quotation marks for reasons that I will go into.

But first, let us take a step back in time….

In the year 1868 the Meiji Restoration took place on the Japanese mainland, and with it came the democritisation of its people and the removal of the class system that had prevailed for the previous 700 years - most notably the removal of the Samurai class and all its trappings.

Gichin Funakoshi was born at this time and even spoke of being forced to remove his top knot in order to be accepted into medical school.

In 1879 the Ryukyu Royal Family were removed from power and Okinawa came to be ruled under the newly established Japanese government.

It was a time for Japan to modernise and to become more Western, so the old ways had to be removed.

However, the Samurai class, now seemingly dismantled from high positions of society actively sought to push their way of life onto the culture of Japan.

"It was not until the Meiji Restoration, when the Tokugawa regime was seemingly dismantled, that the samurai class was able to effectively project their ideological influence further afield than ever before by offering a viable way to the other subcultures of Japan to adōpt the samurai lifestyle. As Ueno so elegantly puts it, “Democratization meant not the “commoner-zation “ of the samurai class, but the “samuraization” of the commoners” (Ueno 1987: S78).”

The elite of society were now allowing the lower classes to learn and practice their way of life, their philosophical outlook and their Martial Arts.

Enter the Dō

The Jutsu of the old Martial ways was deemed outdated and no longer of any use to a Government favouring a new Japanese Army which now trained in Western military tactics and the preference of guns over bows.

The Martial Arts were no longer for the battlefield but for the Dōjō, only now taught as personal self protection, as a way of tapping into the "traditional" culture, and as a sport.

As a means of spreading, and thus protecting, the old Martial Arts modern versions came into existence, the Jutsu was soon replaced by Dō, and a number of warrior practices were no longer taught as purely a form of combat, but a spiritual journey of self discipline and discovery. Extolled along with the adoption of the Warrior code.

The Warrior Code, or Bushidō, was promoted in the work of Nitobe Inazō's 1900 publication of "Bushidō: The Soul of Japan". Written in English, and later translated to Japanese, was primarily to aid in promoting Japan to western audiences.

It was this term, Bushidō, which originated in 17th century Japan, that came into common usage since Nitobe Inazō's publication.

Much like the European creation of the “noble” knight, adhering to a set code of honour, so to did Japanese society become plunged into a rose tinted version of Samurai history - keenly taken up by the Japanese Army and the rising militarism of the country as Mark Ravina writes regarding the Hagakure:

"Rather than an account of samurai tradition, this work serves as an example of what the Japanese army thought Japanese soldiers should believe about samurai practice."

Karate has entered the game

Karate, or at the time of the Meiji Restoration, Te, Toudi, was an Okinawan tradition that was now going to have to move with the times.

In the past it had evolved to weather the political changes of the Ryukyu Islands. Te was the term given to the traditional fighting form, which became mixed over time with other fighting arts of southeast asia, most notably Southern China.

It had perhaps grown from the weapons ban imposed by the first ruler of the Shō kingdom, further propagated by the ruling elite of Okinawa who serviced the Okinawan rulers with bureaucracy and protection.

It then survived during Satsuma control in the 17th Century either in secret or as was permitted to the ruling class of Okinawans charged with maintaining civil peace.

However, a different threat now came with the Meiji Restoration and it was left to the thinking of the Okinawan Te masters at the time as to the best solution; a solution that had occurred already on the Japanese mainland.

It is a telling point that Itosu Anko had knowledge of the changes being made across Japan and its outlying territories, which as I believe, he then used to make changes in order to protect Karate, and in 1901 it become more inclusive and intertwined with the Okinawan School system.

This was before even that of Japan's inclusion of Judō and Kendō into their respective School system in 1911.

The dangerous movements were hidden, the teaching of lethal applications were removed from the syllabus and in Itosu Anko’s letter, Tode Jukun (10 Precepts of Karate), dated October 1908, he writes to draw the attention of the Ministry of Education and Ministry of War in Japan:

“In the past, masters of karate have enjoyed long lives. Karate aids in developing the bones and muscles. It helps the digestion as well as the circulation. If karate should be introduced beginning in the elementary schools, then we will produce many men each capable of defeating ten assailants. I further believe this can be done by having all students at the Okinawa Teachers' College practice karate. In this way, after graduation, they can teach at the elementary schools at which they have been taught. I believe this will be a great benefit to our nation and our military. It is my hope you will seriously consider my suggestion.”

Itosu even quotes the Duke of Wellington regarding how the battle of Waterloo was won firstly in the School playgrounds of Britain.

If you read the "Ten Precepts of Karate" you will also notice, in how I read it at least, a brushing aside of Karate's Chinese roots.

In 1921 a display of Karate was presented to the Japanese Emperor Taishō and then in 1922 Gichin Funakoshi was requested to display Karate at the Tokyo Sports Festival; although arguably a number of Okinawans had in fact introduced the teaching of Karate on the Japanese mainland prior to this.

A number of prominent Japanese martial artists were introduced to Karate at this time and influenced various changes that were to make it more inclusive within Japan, with the approval of the growing military dominance in the country at the time.

Nishiyama, Ohtsuka, Kano, Konishi etc. were to add aspects of the other Japanese Martial Arts onto Karate, some of which was adopted into the Karate taught in Okinawa.

However, there was still a distinction between Karate on the Japanese mainland, and of that on Okinawa.

For me, this is where it gets really interesting.

But firstly, a little clearing up to do.

Upon further research it seems that the “ban on weapons” as indicated by various historical sources should be called into question due to the mounting evidence to the contrary.

A lot of what has been described as a “weapons ban” has in fact been down to a misinterpretation of what can be described as a reorganisation of weapons.

During the reign of King Sho Hashi, at the end of hostilities between the three principalities, with the middle principality, Chuzan, triumphantly establishing the Ryukyu ruling dynasty from Shuri castle, the weapons held by soldiers of the kingdom were simply accounted for and organised into a system whereby they were primarily stored for use for the protection of the kingdom and the Ruler, not for local wars.

Thus the highly skilled fighters of the age were not stripped of their tools. So how then did Karate grow?

Perhaps it is simply the obvious answer that being able to fight with your bare-hands was essential for anyone wanting to excel in combat. To rely solely on one weapon could spell disaster once it’s removed.

It is also important to note that those well skilled in the Martial Arts would have understood the underlying principles that connect all fighting techniques and being empty-handed was not something difficult to explore.

Regardless, the Karate of the 20th Century was a shadow of its former self, more so on the Japanese mainland, becoming altered to fit the mould of Budo.

It was also at this time that the Japanese establishment sought to have Karate placed into a category so that it became  identified as a purely pugilistic practice.

Put up your Dukes

Kenwa Mabuni is perhaps most famously outspoken regarding this particular change:

“As up to now [1938] karate has only partly been introduced in Tōkyō, people who exercise karate in Tōkyō believe that it solely consists of atemi (punching) and kicking techniques. When talking about gyaku-waza and nage-waza they assume that these only exist in jūjutsu and jūdō. This way of thinking is exceedingly counterproductive with respect to karate itself and can only possibly be attributed to a lack of knowledge.”

So then, with such extensive changes being made upon Karate, especially to that in Tokyo - mainly with reference to Shotokan - it must have been different back in Okinawa.

Snap Back to Reality

Aside from the changes previously stated to incorporate Karate into the Okinawan School system and thus be accepted by the Japanese establishment, there was also a number of changes being made that was being imported from the Japanese mainland.

The Karate of Okinawa would have been very alien to how the Japanese would expect it to be taught:

“Karate on Okinawa was taught in an informal manner. Students were assigned tokuigata (individual forms) at the discretion of the instructor. No ranking system existed, so there were no established criteria for advancement. Students were either sempai (senior) or kohai (junior). No recognizable uniform (gi) was used. Karate was indiscriminately referred to as di, bu (martial arts), or Toudi. This individualism was alien to the Japanese concept of wa (harmony). Japanese martial arts were structured around the ryûha system propagated by the Dainippon Butokukai. A ryûha included an historical continuity, methodological transmission, and pedagogical style.”

There may well be many who would continue to teach this way, however, much of Karate was now openly taught, to large groups, and perhaps now in a more pedagogical fashion.

The Gi, the belt ranking system, the ryuha, lining up by rank - these changes were also taken on by the Okinawans which as Noah C. G. Johnson writes:

“...those Okinawan masters responsible for such changes sought to make the art something more in line with the Japanese martial art tradition, or budo. The acceptance of these changes by practitioners in Okinawa (both instructors and students), who were not themselves engaged in training with Japanese from the mainland, signals their own role in such modifications of the art. Either as actors with their own agency who found value in these changes, or as the victims of structural forces that capitulated to the assimilation programs of the Japanese government, these practitioners modified their practice to align with the ideologies of mainland Japan”

The question is, where did these “Traditions” come from?

Return of the Jidai

As we know, Kano was the creator of the Judogi which was to be altered into the Karategi, along with the belt system, but Kano was merely following an ideological movement.

As part of this ideology the uniform was symbolic in nature which Donohue points to it’s significance as “a statement of individual conformity and identification with the group”  -Donohue, John {1993} "The Ritual Dimension of Karate-Do." in "Journal of Ritual Studies 7(1)": Pp. 113

Madis writes regarding Yabu Kentsu who greatly understood the effect of the connection between physical exertion, group identity and the wearing of uniform with the further introductions he made upon Karate:

“A former officer in the Japanese army, Yabu [Kentsu] introduced many procedures still practiced in karate schools worldwide... These innovations included... bowing upon entering the training hall, lining up students in order of rank, seated meditation (a Buddhist practice), sequenced training, answering the instructor with loud acknowledgment, closing class with formalities similar to opening class. Most of these procedures already had been implemented in judo and kendo training and reflect a blending of European militarism and physical culture with Japanese neo-Confucianism, militarism and physical culture. However, these procedures did not exist in China, or in Okinawan karate before Yabu” ( Madis 2003: 189).

Johnson further states:

“These practices also signal a distinct shift from the karate practiced on Okinawa as described earlier (Friman 1996, Krug 2001, Mottern 2001) and mark the beginning of what is thought of as 'karate' today. Through the adoption of the sport and militaristic elements, as well as the spiritual philosophies of Japanese martial culture, karate was able to find a place in the culture of mainland Japan. Often supported by and disseminated through the government, these adaptations of the practice found their way back to Okinawa and were largely embraced both by masters and students. To this day, in Okinawa as well as Japan, students wear the gi and colored belts, line up in order of rank and drill in precise lines.”

So who put the Bu in Karate-Do? Where did the various practices thought of as being “traditional” come from?

In essence the Budo culture came from the Japanese Military, the new ruling elite previously from the Samurai class disseminating their “culture” to the general populace, and the practices taught by the European powers which the Japanese Army was pushing to base itself upon.

This begs the question, what then are we practicing when we Bow upon entering the Dojo, when we sit in Seiza, ushered to meditate, or line up by rank, when we reply Oss at every command?

What are we talking about when we state the major divide between “sport” karate and “traditional” karate?

Should we not question what is termed “traditional” and perhaps attempt to understand why Karate came to be practiced in its present form.

Perhaps we should all spend less time focusing on the differences as what can truly be said to be the true way?

As a last thought, if all that we practice as “traditional” is merely a modern creation, can we not then practice Karate as we want, foregoing Japanese etiquette, or would that destroy the very fabric thought to hold together the moral code of which modern Karate was founded on?

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