Karate and Modernity: A Call for Comments

Filed under: — craig @ 1:25 pm

This posting is the introduction to a work in progress, sans footnotes, references, and italics. Like me, its akward and verbose, for which I apologize. I’m posting it because it has come to my attention that I am not the only historian working on the modernization of karate, I have recently heard from Ethan Savage of the University of Oregon. It is important for the two of us to coordinate a bit to make sure that we don’t step on each other’s research, and it is an opportunity to share our insights and hopefully help each other. And, of course, I welcome the responses of all froginawell readers.

Black belts on white uniforms, vigorous punches and high kicks identify karate worldwide. In karate practice sessions, the synchronized performance of esoteric maneuvers by groups of practitioners arrayed in rows before their instructor form the core. Although many karate styles emphasize competition over the so-called effete “dancing” of “traditional” styles that “begin and end with kata,” all karate practitioners decry the sportification (suspōtsuka) of karate. The synchronized performance of callisthenic maneuvers and some form of competitive sparring coexist in both jissen “real combat” and traditionalist styles. Practitioners subscribe to the generic philosophical regimen of the Japanese martial arts in which strict discipline and rigorous, persistent practice lead to individual spiritual development. Karate is a Japanese budō, (martial Way) which means that it symbolizes a unique and immutable ethno-national, virile spirituality that simultaneously instills and expresses invincibility, health, and morality. All also agree that karate is an ancient art. Beyond this, authors of karate history describe its origins as “murky” and “unclear;” they state that karate developed on Okinawa as a combination of primordial native arts and Chinese imports, typically describing an organic coalescence about five hundred years ago. The lack of further details, they say, results from karates covert, outlaw status. After the 1609 invasion of Okinawa by the samurai of Satsuma, their fear of karate had driven it underground, off the record, and under the historian’s radar. Banned from using the katana, Okinawans had polished their art in secret, bare-handed, had transmitted it at night and only among their intimate acquaintances. With modernity, much changed. For one, names. Old karate, that of the misty past, had been just te, hand. Then came the Chinese influence, a conjugation that birthed tō-de, Tang hand. Only when Okinawa was brought into the fold of modern Japan in the 1900s did the moniker take on its true form: karate, the empty hand.

And yet, in the 1921 Ryūkyū Kenpō: Karate, the first fully published karate text, little of this appears: karate is not a dō, lacks mythology, and is frank about recent Chinese influences. Reaching further back, to the unpublished writings of Itosu Anko, karate lacks even a name, makes no claims on the spirit, and mentions history not at all. Beyond that, the writing is in Chinese. Strangest of all, and most easily overlooked, is that through the 1920s there was only really one name: karate, the Chinese hand.

What are historians to make of this? Shall we dig through the historical record to discover the origins of these various traits? Plucking belts and uniforms from the history of judō, synchronized movement from the colonial period obsession with military drill, the division of new, jissen styles from their “traditional” parents—deriving their sport-orientation by the subtracting traditionalism of the latter? Shall we pursue the trail of karate until it vanishes in the mists—the inscrutable because unrecorded history of a vaunted tradition? Shall we satisfy our unsated curiosity with conjecture about the date, the exact origin, the means of transmission of Chinese martial arts? What about the possible secret meaning of every ancient mention of hands? And, at the end, do we recombine our findings into the tapestry of karate—a patchwork of once discrete elements that merge when viewed from afar? Alternately, does the historian perform some alchemy—combining one part judō, one part military drill, three parts secrecy, and four parts China—adjusting ingredients and portions, timings and temperatures to arrive at the correct recipe for modern karate?

These are viable methods for valuable goals, but I will take a different approach, proceeding from a different conclusion. (For to identify the components of modern karate is to start from the conclusion—to look at the final product, whole, inert, prone on the examination table; to dissect the adult in search of the infant it conceals.) I will start with the conclusion that karate was born old, asking not: how did karate foretell itself? but: when did karate authors begin to question their origins? From what vantage point did they look back and decide, a little spontaneously and even a little arbitrarily, that what their ancestors practiced was karate, or tō-te, or just plain te? In other words, perhaps they made such fine distinctions between these terms, not because such distinctions had always been made, but because those terms told the story of who they wanted to be.

I will not ask: how traditional is karate? but will instead investigate the means and meanings of that word. Labeling karate a tradition relieves it of the obligations of a rigorous historicity; or rather, it establishes a distinct set of historicized expectations. This relationship between tradition and history is problematic: by definition, every tradition needs a history to anchor it in the bedrock of origins; and yet to the extent that history is the description of change across time, especially in the upheaval of modernity, it undermines the validity of traditions by questioning immaculate transmission. Martial artists claim both this kind of unblemished pedigree and acknowledge (tout, even) changes that are sometimes quite radical. To accomplish this, martial arts historians judge changes by whether they preserve an original “spirit” encapsulated in the word dō. This spirit eludes definition: it is both immutable and under constant threat; it is both a weapon with which to attack the heretical, and an impervious protective amulet; it animates the tradition, makes it possible, but cannot be demonstrated. For karate, it is both the reason to practice and the least of afterthoughts. To understand how karate’s modernizers navigated the difficult terrain of historicism we must ask: how did they discursively generate this elusive spirit? where did they find it in practice? how did the make it both necessary and unobtainable?

Similarly, I will not ask: is karate a sport? Instead I ask: why do karate practitioners concern themselves with the question, and when did they begin doing so? All sports have histories, and maintain to varying degrees the traditional aesthetic: baseball has a tradition closely linked, but not limited, to American national identity, as cricket does for England. Even other of the Japanese martial arts, like judo, may be described in this way. But the same is true, to a lesser degree, of all sports—if sprinting had no tradition, why would anyone still recollect the accomplishments of Jesse Owens, whose speed is surpassed? For most practices, history and tradition peacefully coincide, if only because one dominates the other. But karate is somewhat unique in that the authors of its history pit tradition against sport, and visa versa. They state that theirs is “more” than a sport, even while competition forms an integral part of its practice. Why this discrepancy? What of sport is to be feared? To combine questions of tradition/sport: Why do its historians balance karate simultaneously on the descending slope of tradition and the up-escalator of modern sport?

I am not concerned with the questions: what of the Chinese origins of karate? what can we learn by putting their modern forms side by side? how do we measure their similarity and what would it tell us? do we identify and subtract Chinese affinities, and call the remainder purely Okinawan? In other words, do we attempt to derive the race of karate? I will contemplate the uses of a Chinese history for karate, its advantages and disadvantages: what did karate historians gain from careful manipulation of the place of China, and Okinawa or Japan, for that matter, within their liturgies of karate history? I will not add my voice to those debating when tō-te became Okinawan, and when karate became Japanese. Or make my own speculations about combinations, routes, and transmissions. I want to know: why must the unwritten history of karate be made to speak? And why must it remain selectively mute, able to say only specific things, and those with no specificity? But most of all: why does karate need a history at all?

The Multiplication of Karates

Although Japan’s annexation of Okinawa is most often described as “internal colonization” when it is mentioned at all, to those involved it was nothing so trite. After Japan officially annexed the Okinawan island group in 1874, widespread and severe derision of Okinawan culture as “backwards” and “uncivilized” replaced the official, and even then, limited, appeals to racial brotherhood and tacit sovereignty that had legitimized annexation. This discourse located Okinawa in a degenerate past and Japan in an enlightened future, and posited that only by reckoning with Japanese modernity could the country’s newest citizens hope for an improved future and the cessation of browbeating. For the next three decades Japanese administrators and segments of the Okinawan intelligentsia urged the “reform” of the Okinawan character through the purgation, right down to un-Japanese sneezes, of cultural elements that diverged from what were described as the homogenous norms of the “main islands.” Some responded by fleeing to China. But for the majority who remained, China gradually changed into the ultimate symbol of a revolting and fetid past. By the turn of the century, as assimilation (dōka) projects began to bear fruit, discursive treatment of Okinawa changed again: this time to emphasize the essentially Japanese identity of Okinawans, to claim that Okinawans had “always already” been good Japanese.

It was around this time that archeologists discovered that the Japanese race was a mixture of several distinct “native” peoples. Among these groups were ancestors of the Ainu, Koreans, Mongolians, and a lesser group that had long ago relocated to the Ryukyu Islands. This “proved” that, whether they realized it or not, Okinawans (and every native of East Asia) had always already been Japanese. But there had also been a fifth group named—paradoxically—the “original Japanese”. Okinawans, it turned out, had always already been Japanese, and they had also always already been second-class Japanese. Corroborated by linguistic and literary evidence, this convinced most that Okinawans comprised a prodigal “branch house” of the Japanese race and that the Japanese were the “parents” of all East Asia. Perhaps it should be unsurprising that after thirty years of an “assimilation” that saw the eradication both reminders of Okinawa’s affinities with China and many practices, like hand-tattooing, that were distinctly Okinawan, cultural affinities with Japan suddenly seemed uncannily numerous. Discovering this veritable theme park of breathing history, leading folk scholars concluded that Okinawa “preserved” intact Japan’s natal form. Ethnographers discovered that surviving Okinawan music and speech were ancient “subsets” of their Japanese counterparts, unchanged remnants on an island that time forgot. Japanese generally accepted this construction, flattered by their two-fold superiority as the providers of ancient Okinawan culture and of the template for Okinawan modernity. As Okinawa transitioned from the geographic exterior, “gaichi”, to the internal rural, “inaka”, Japanese began to discriminate against Okinawans as their primitive cousins rather than as primitive foreigners; “modernized” Okinawans came to regard “holdouts” as so many anchors holding them down, embarrassing them before their new friends; and the same scholars and activists who discovered the Japanese pedigree of Okinawa extolled their fellows to better themselves for the sake of their prefecture and their nation. The groups extolled Okinawans be proud of their identity—insofar is to be Okinawan was to be Japanese—and at the same time to become more like the “home island” Japanese—insofar as to be Okinawan was to be not Japanese enough.

Under this “always already Japanese” formulation, Ryukuan cultural elements remained viable only insofar as they could be brought up to speed with their erstwhile Japanese counterparts; the “subset” hiatus ended as soon as it was declared. Karate practices were no exception. Moreover, for karate in specific and Okinawa in general, modernization and Japanization were mutually defining terms. As they sought to promote their art to Japanese, Okinawans quickly realized that the in addition to the many parallels between Chinese and Okinawan martial practices that constituted a potentially fatal liability, there was also the matter of the non-modernity of karate. To restate, not only did Okinawan martial practices possess passé references, it also lacked required accoutrements. Modernization, for one, required that karate recount is history; modern things, especially traditions, do not materialize from the ether, they emerge from the cocoons of their pasts. Every modern entity can and must describe its history, explain and justify itself with a narrative that begins, transgresses a middle, and ends in a re-beginning called modernity. Karate could not move in the present without accounting for its whereabouts and activities in the past, and it could enjoy no fraternity with modern, Japanese traditions without first presenting a pedigree that linked it to narrative of the divine origin of all Japanese martial arts. Yet karate had no history, only a disparate smattering of legends that told no intelligible story. Karate historians had much to explain: Was karate born of the teachings of Daruma in China, the font all Japanese martial arts? (An easy one! They get harder.) Not just, when did Chinese martial arts begin to influence Okinawan arts? but more importantly, when and under what circumstances had this influence ceased? What, exactly, excused Okinawan martial arts for lacking what had become the paragon of the Japanese martial spirit after the end of the Tokugawa era, the katana? When so many Okinawan practices were being eliminated, why should karate survive? And most difficult of all, why did karate carry as its moniker the character for Tang China, the ancient name of Japan’s newly sworn enemy?

But the historical imperative was not a simple descriptive one, for it included certain strategic silences. They needed to know the details of their mystical origins, but they also needed to be at a loss to make a full accounting of the middle of karate history. Make no mistake: karate history soon had a middle, but it was indistinct—an outline with many precise gaps, a carefully composed picture of fog—because along with the questions that required answers were ones that could not be asked at all: Why could no 1920s karate practitioner trace a lineage more than two generations without arriving in China? Did Okinawan martial practices that had not come from China exist? What did karate texts tell, and in what language did they tell it? The answers to these questions needed to remain buried, or at least open secrets, in order for karate to achieve legitimacy, because any explanation would inescapably have been a story of betrayal.

There was also much to learn, for modern martial arts excelled at presenting themselves, and karate did not. Public demonstrations, books presenting instructive pictures and verbal descriptions of movements were necessary skills for the modern martial artist. Karate practitioners did not automatically know how to move in a modern way—to match words to movements and movements to words. They did not know how to express the ideology of karate movement for the spectator, the reader, and the viewer of photographs. And once it had been presented in books and on stages, karate had to match this representation in practice. Karate had to be rendered presentable to masses and rendered performable by masses. It is not that the modern period was the first to see movement rendered on paper or performed for an audience, but that in the modern period it became imperative that movements be justified in terms of their presentations more often than for their effects. That is to say, effects were judged on form rather than on result: not, did it work? but, did it take the proper form? not, how did it feel? but, is it a faithful mimicry? not, was it timed so as to produce the proper result? but, did it maintain an exact simultaneity? not, did it meet the circumstances? but, was it an exacting repetition? This is because in modern movement efficacy results from proper form, naturalness flows from faithful repetition, and proper timing from simultaneity.

The conditions placed on karate were therefore doubly contradictory: karate needed a modernization that declared its traditionality, and it needed to found this ancientness on a history that effaced much of its past. Yet this double bind also held a double opportunity—the imperative to construct a history for karate history almost from scratch meant that whatever displeased its authors could be dismissed as aberration and disavowed. The strategy they adopted was to multiply karate, not just in the present, but across time: in telling the story of karate’s beginning, middle, and end they created three karates. Faults could be sloughed off into one of the karates that existed only in the past tense: it was too late to deny connection to China, but amputation and cauterization was still possible. Conversely, the three karates could be united by continuities consisting of whatever pleased their creators: they could depict their predecessors as always secretly engaged in a Japanese identity by casting the troublesome name of karate as a subtle subterfuge with a second, secret, and entirely Japanese meaning; they could lay the blame for many of karate’s shortcomings on Japan itself: “Satsuma forced us to act un-Japanese.” This process of writing karate history spanned many drafts; it was written and then immediately rewritten; meanings were fixed and then radically rearranged; in terms of the above questions, they changed their answers and revised their strategies of refraining. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that the project has never been completed—because once undertaken, narration its can never stop: not only must new events be recorded, but so must a new past. In executing this, karate authors borrowed heavily from the narratives of native Japanese arts, from the archeologists and ethnographers of long-secret Japaneseness, and the gurus of racial physicality. Karate proponents responded to the imperative of a traditionalizing modernity by creating new historical narratives in a process that simultaneously identified karate predecessors, gingerly detached them from contemporary karate, and sorted them into a chronology that transformed Ryukyu from the destination of Chinese martial practices into karate’s, and Okinawa’s, point of disembarkation in the direction of Japan.

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