Feature Article of the Quarter


By: C. Bruce Heilman (IKKF President)

In the recent past there seems to have been a lot of discussion on some internet martial arts discussion groups with respect to who had the "right or correct" way or most "authentic" version of this or that (style, kata, etc.). While I admit that I am a very traditionally focused individual (and by some referred to as a "dinosaur" for my beliefs in the way in which I think a dojo should be run, and an organization should be operated) I really have to propose IMHO (in my humble opinion) that all of this energy focused on who has the "best system" or "most authentic" system or "oldest" kata is really a waste of time.

Yes, I do believe in keeping the old ways straight and preserved for future generations - no question there. However, I do not believe that any one individual "has the best way", nor does any system. I also admit that while I have more than a passing interest in the history of traditional Okinawan martial arts, I only consider myself a "white belt" before the likes of true historians such as Messrs. John Sells and Patrick McCarthy, George Alexander, and others. Also while I have not had the pleasure of personally meeting all of the old generation Masters in Okinawa, I have been fortunate to meet with a number of them over the years - and the surprising thing is that these senior teachers such as Nakamine, Nakazato, Odo, Oyata, E. Shimabuku, Uechi, Gima, Konishi, Toguchi, Miyazato, Matayoshi, S. Toma, Kakazu, Uezu, Kise, etc. while representing a variety of systems, and having lineages in some cases to the same teacher or groups of teachers - all proved to be EXCELLENT martial artists in their own right. Yes, there were and are differences between what each of them teach - but IHMO these differences are what make the Okinawan and Japanese martial arts so alive and vibrant. A long time friend of mine - Nick Adler once said a wise saying to me over dinner, that..."no one ever teaches the things that they are poor at" - I always found that to be quite to the point.

Differences result from the personal influences that each generation of teachers gives to the art that they pass down to the next generation. Thus IMHO the value of maintaining our arts "traditions" as taught to us by our teachers is derived from the point of "historical preservation" and not necessarily related to making one a better martial artist than someone else.

Changes stemming from personal influences typically result from the favored bunkai of the teacher in question. When we compare the katas of Seikichi Odo and Seiyu Oyata (both having 12 kata coming from Shigeru Nakamura) one can see that although the katas were basically the same some ten years ago, Oyata Sensei's katas have slowly been adjusted as more and more of his bunkai is incorporated into the base level execution of the forms. In the case of Odo Sensei, his influence can be clearly seen in the use of "uniform movement and manipulation concepts" found common to the weapons katas handed down by him, even they come from a number of diverse sources.

Further it needs to be noted that we as teachers and our teachers before us have all tended to teach differently over the years. Some of these changes come as a result of our "learning more" and "correcting mistakes" that we made when we were younger and thought we knew it all. Some of the revisions just come from a greater understanding of what we are doing and how everything comes together. It never ceases to amuse me when I think I have something figured out, it never fails that I become exposed to another new piece to the puzzle. To me this is what "always being a student" is all about - the never ending quest for improvement. Thus, this is one example of how students can perceive changes from their teacher over time.

It also has to be recognized that the students perceptions themselves also play an important role in creating differences to crop up over time. Place a room of students in the same seminar and each will go away from the training with a slightly different "perception" of what was taught and what was "important". It is just a natural condition of human learning that each of us perceive the same situation differently. This is why the IKKF is dedicated to a strong ongoing training focus, as it is my opinion that only through this process of "continual repetition" will be able to maintain our quality and technical uniformity.

Another way these "changes" or "differences" crop up is that many Okinawan teachers tend to teach according to the level of the students understanding, and only upgrade their technical abilities when the student demonstrates by their technique or by their understanding that they are ready for further refinements. It goes without saying that sometimes a student is just not ready for refinements and as a teacher we know that to subject this student to refinements will not be productive. Thus, it is easy to see how we can have a number of individuals who have trained with the same Okinawan teacher come back to the states with little differences evident in the way they perform their techniques / katas, etc.

The final way I see how "differences" occur is as a teacher ages, in many cases there creeps into their katas some adjustments to their movements - we generally refer to this as the "old mans" katas. As an example, techniques such as "double flying kicks" in Chinto, become "walking kicks" when performed by a 70-80 year old practitioner. It doesn't mean that they still do not exist in the system, it is just that the teacher may no longer be physically able to perform them. In the style that I practice - Okinawa Kenpo Karate Kobudo - we have seen over time a subtle change in emphasis from strong power and longer stances, to more technical finesse and somewhat shorter stances emphasizing more mobility (our "flying kicks" still stayed in, however sometimes performed against a shorter attacker). These changes resulted from the aging of the styles Master (Seikichi Odo) and the deterioration of his health. The end result in my opinion has been an enhancement of the system by Master Odo to that which will be handed down to the future generations.

There is one last area that can result in differences in kata within a style and that sometimes comes as a result of political / organizational influence. In some instances changes have been made to present an "organizational distinctiveness" to the standardized katas.

As a final comment, I think that sometimes students have a tendancy to place their oriental teachers on too high a pedestal. It is important to honor our teachers and respect their accomplishments, but lets not deify them. While there are many great martial artists among the old masters in Okinawa and Japan, they are also human and have their various strengths and weaknesses.

So in closing, let us all recognize that good martial artists come in all sizes and from all systems. If one keeps their eyes on the "similarities" that make good martial artists, then one can then come to view the "differences" as "opportunities for learning" and not necessarily something that makes one person better than another - that is decided on the dojo floor.

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