Okinawa and Setting Examples
by Richard Barrett

As most of you reading this will know, Okinawa is the birthplace of Karate. The past decade has seen an increase in foreign visitors hoping to practise in the dojo of famous teachers. The rise of the internet and the ease in which one can reach the island these days makes this a much more attainable dream for the average karateka. Add to this the popularity of the 'Karate package holiday' option which many are now jumping on the bandwagon with, and it creates quite a different dynamic to the traditional 'teacher / apprentice' manner of learning Karate which was the ONLY way practise was conducted in the not so distant past. For those dojo and sensei who are not actively involved in this promotion and marketing of budo, it must cause concern for the future of their dojo and associations. What many visitors to the island might not know is that Okinawa is the poorest prefecture of Japan, with the highest rate of unemployment. Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that so many might be tempted to compromise their values in order to make a living? The lucrative market of foreigners with cash on the hip and egos to boost must be quite a difficult draw to avoid for all but those of the highest character. If you are offered a high grade, do not be surprised if this has little to do with your ability in Karate, but more your ability to attract high numbers of students and generate revenue. Interest in Karate, and cultural arts in general in Okinawa, is dwindling in the younger generation. The future lies in the foreigners, and the Okinawans know this.

Okinawa Budokan
Okinawa Budokan

Some years ago I remember hearing a story of a kancho in an Okinawan Karate group, getting drunk one evening and awarding two of his foreign students very high grades whilst in his intoxicated state. Now, it would have been nice if these students in the days following, gave back these certificates and realised that a mistake had been made, but instead they went back to their country as newly appointed 8th or 9th dans, proud of their 'achievement'.

Another example I heard a few years back was of a professional Okinawan Karate group who had a large following in a certain country and for whatever reason, half the group had decided to leave and join another association. Within weeks the head of the original association flew to this country to conduct seminars, host meetings, and held a grading which everyone passed. A new shibucho was appointed and the kancho flew back to Okinawa, empire intact, everyone happy.

In the last couple of years I  heard another story (I should stop listening to so many stories) that in Okinawa you could even get a grading in the Taxi from the airport to your hotel! This year on Okinawa, various groups have had Gasshuku, and some are already being advertised for next year. On the surface this is no bad thing, but when you look more closely at the schedules they are usually three days training, then a grading at the end, which of course everyone passes.

Now, I appreciate that these groups have to make money. They have their expenses and it is nice for foreign students to grade on Okinawa. The students have paid a lot of money to get there and a promotion is a nice memento. The problem I have with this is; have these Gasshuku now become little more than fund raisers? Without the bonus of a rank advancement, how many foreigners would continue to attend? Now I am sure that in each group there are sincere sensei who are doing their best for the visitors when they arrive, but also I see that a few at the top of these groups see an opportunity to make money. They have seen the latest Karate workshop holidays come and go, can witness other groups making a good living from Karate, so why shouldn't they? The problem is that by giving gradings away and taking the fee they are belittling what these grades should stand for. They have become little more than souvenirs.

Gradings should mean something. But, from what I see these days they have become largely irrelevant, cheapened by those of bad character and poor abilities proudly boasting of their high grades. What should rank represent? Shouldn't the personality of the student have some relevance, or their contribution to their art? How can an Okinawan sensei know what this stranger is really like, and therefore form an opinion on their character? Do they even care? If a grade is only based on the physical performance or amount of years spent practising Karate, then so be it. That's its only value and the level of the art you practise. I personally believe that Karate is worth more than that and the grading system should reflect this.

When I first started Karate back in 1974 I started to read whatever books were available. From the start I could see that Karate training was supposed to be more than something physical, that the mind and character of the practitioner was to be challenged as much as the body. Over the years I observed good and bad examples of what I thought we were all practising, naively believing we were all on the same journey and wondering how some of the bad examples had slipped through the net. I have now come to realise that some people just want escapism, to train in a group, switch off their everyday troubles and have a sweat. Two hours later they can get changed and re-enter regular life as they know it. Karate can be put back in its box, ready to be taken out again the following week. Others may take it a bit more seriously, read a few books, possibly surf the net, watch a lot of YouTube, even visit Japan or Okinawa. Others take more seriously still, actively studying their art with their mind, body and soul. Gradings should reflect the differences between these three types of students.

In "Memories of my sensei, Chojun Miyagi", by Genkai Nakaima, he wrote "Miyagi Sensei preached the truth of Karate, the soul of Karate masters, the way of man or morality". On page 20 of Shoshin Nagamine Sensei's book "The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do", he recites an Okinawan poem from 1663; "No matter how you may excel in the art of Te, and your scholastic endeavours, nothing is more important than your behaviour and your humanity as observed in daily life".

Karate training has, and should always have within it, a moral backbone which is studied as much as any kick or punch. Obviously karateka train on different levels and some only apply and take what they want from Karate-do depending upon their personal reasons for training. Some seek gradings and recognition, and I guess the higher the grading the more important they feel? So how can each group regulate all these different approaches and attitudes? This is the problem with gradings...

If you are in a sports related Karate group I guess the champions will be the highest grades. If you are in the professional/commercial groups, the highest grades will have the most dojos and members. The standards and reputation of each association will and is judged by how outsiders view its members, especially its highest grades.

Those who have made the journey and reaped the rewards of their training should be shining a light to all those walking the path behind them, for they are the living examples of what we are all trying to aim for, aren't they? This is what gradings were supposed to stand for, wasn't it?

Richard Barrett awarding shodan
Richard Barrett awarding Shodan to one of his students
(Shinsodo Dojo, Oct. 2013)

So this leads us to the conclusion that all authentic karateka should be working toward a certain standard that the past Karate masters have left us. This is our legacy, and each association will have its own values and therefore grade accordingly. This takes us back to the people at the top and their intentions behind awarding a grade. It takes a special sensei to be able to read the true nature of the student. Remember those stories when students were vetted for their character before being allowed to start training, or being asked to leave if they started to show bad attitude as their ability improved?   No??? It is up to those in charge of the various dojo/associations in Okinawa to maintain a certain standard and value. To preserve the true soul of Karate-do and pass on the art as it should be....... or..... they can just take the money.

Okinawa used to be the one place to find authentic Karate......... now I am not so sure.

Richard Barrett
December 2013

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”