This book collects 29 essays on karate—specifically, traditional Okinawan Karate–into a slim volume. I suspect the essays were initially either magazine columns or possibly blog posts because they all weigh in at a similar length, i.e. six pages. This isn’t to say they weren’t reworked or edited for inclusion into the book, it’s just conspicuous that the chapters to stick to such a tight word count restraint. It’s also evident in the lack of cohesive organizational structure—i.e. the essays don’t build on each other or reference each other, and it doesn’t read like a book that was built from an outline up. This isn’t meant as criticism (that’s coming later.) It’s a perfectly respectable approach to building a book, and the word constraints probably made the book more concise, and the lack of rigid organizational structure likely made it more creative.
Lowry covers a wide range of topics that a student of karate (or one considering becoming one) might find valuable. The questions addressed include: How does one keep motivated? Which is better a teacher who is technically a genius but morally a jackass or one that couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper sack but is the pinnacle of virtue? Does one need to go to Japan to get high level training? How important is rank and a black belt? Does one need to hit things? What was training like in the old days? Some chapters deal more with technical aspects of common techniques (e.g. side kicks, stance, front thrust kick, etc.), but not in a highly technical or detailed manner (e.g. there are no graphics in the book.) Other essays deal with the philosophy of martial arts (e.g. “victory is in the scabbard”) and/or foreign concepts that may seem strange to a Westerner (“buji kore kaere meiba,” or “it’s a noteworthy horse that can return its rider to safety.”)
I found the book interesting, although it’s not my favorite Dave Lowry book for reasons I’ll get into below. The author does provide interesting insight into the history and development of karate over time. For example, I learned that historically Okinawan karate teachers weren’t so interactive with students as one expects today (this reminded me of what I’ve been told about old school yoga teachers who would quietly watch from a seated position at a distance.) I was also fascinated by the discussion of how “ikken hisatsu” (killing with a single blow) wasn’t a part of Okinawan karate in the early days, though it’s a ubiquitous (if ridiculous) feature of the tactics of many karate styles today. However, one is left feeling—as one sometimes does as a student of Japanese martial arts—a little like one is being told to shut up and accept that it’s just the way it is.
Any book that begins with an apology for sounding pretentious is likely going to be grating in places, and Lowry doesn’t disappoint in that regard. He does display some of the “self-congratulatory smugness” that he claims wasn’t his intent. It’s most notably seen in gratuitous assertions that he puts across as truisms but which seem more controversial. It feels as though he figures that you bought the book because you take him as the expert and will defer to whatever he says. A lot of said assertions involve accepting the traditional way because it’s such a grand avenue to personal growth and development—except that it doesn’t seem like it is. (It seems like a good way to build an army—e.g. blind obedience and faith-based martial arts [by this I mean eschewing competition and randori—free form training / sparring–in favor of form-based practice], but a poor route to personal growth. Note: maybe the preceding sentence is entirely wrong, but you won’t find out why in Lowry’s book because he takes the virtue of the traditional approach as axiomatic.)
Having leveled my criticism, I will say that Lowry is great at explaining himself and making analogies as necessary. He is incredibly knowledgeable. The book is readable and frequently interesting. I’d recommend it for martial artists—whether they practice karate or other styles/systems—but some readers are likely find it more appealing than others. I suspect the more in tune one is with the traditional Okinawan and Japanese approach to martial arts (i.e. in Lowry’s words if you practice “serious karate”) the more satisfying you’ll find this book (you, too, can radiate the glow of self-congratulatory smugness.) If you question the value of the traditional approach and wonder on what basis one should take it as superior, then you’ll probably find the book less satisfying—but still thought-provoking.