BOOK REVIEW: The Karate Way by Dave Lowry

The Karate Way: Discovering the Spirit of PracticeThe Karate Way: Discovering the Spirit of Practice by Dave Lowry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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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.

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“Ankō” Itosu Transforms a Thug

Source: "The Okinawan Times" February 28, 2006

Source: “The Okinawan Times” February 28, 2006

One day Yasutsune “Ankō” Itosu walked down to the waterfront to have lunch at a local restaurant. As the renowned karate master rounded a corner, a ruffian leapt forward, launching a punch at Itosu-sensei’s midsection. The elderly Itosu subtly shifted his position and the punch glanced harmlessly off his ribs. But Itosu trapped the thug’s arm before the young man could retract it. Pivoting to face the same direction as the young hoodlum, the karate teacher scanned his surroundings seeing that the young man had friends nearby, but they weren’t coming to his assistance.

Maintaining a vice-like grip on the young man’s forearm, Itosu-sensei switched the arm under his other arm–attacking pressure points as he did.

Establishing control and taking the fight out of the young man with jolts of pain, Itosu said, “Come join me for lunch, we have much to talk about. But first, what is your name.”

“Kojo, everybody calls me Kojo,” the young man said through gritted teeth

“Pleased to meet you, Kojo. My name is Ankō Itosu,” the karate master said.

Itosu led Kojo into the restaurant. At a cursory glance it looked like the older man was walking arm-in-arm with the younger. The two sat down side-by-side.

“So, Kojo, do I know you? Have I done something to lead you to give an old man such a start?” Itosu asked.

“No. My friends dared me. They told me you were Itosu-sensei. We often come down here to test our skills,” Kojo explained.

“And how does your karate teacher feel about this?” Itosu asked.

“Uh… well, I don’t have a teacher,” Kojo replied.

“Ah. Then that’s the problem. You’ll become my student. Your technique could use improvement, and you need to stop this brawling, and especially stop trying to scare old men,” Itosu explained as he released the young man’s arm.

Kojo was taken aback, but didn’t dare turn down the teacher’s offer. He never brawled again, and eventually became a committed student.

Robot Karateka Threat Underwhelming

Worried that Terminator-like robots may kick humanity out its pole position among sentient beings? You can sleep well tonight. A news report today suggests that the Karate Kid’s kicking dominance is not yet under threat by Robo-karateka.  In other words, Ralph Macchio can still out kick the state of the art karate robot. The Cobra Kai’s plans to achieve world dominance via a fleet of Karate androids have been thwarted for the time being.

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Warrior’s Path James Sidney (ed.)

The Warrior's Path: Wisdom from Contemporary Martial Arts MastersThe Warrior’s Path: Wisdom from Contemporary Martial Arts Masters by James Sidney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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My upfront apology: Having drafted this review, I noticed that the book comes off sounding like a bunch of old folks being curmudgeonly about the current generation. As I read this book, that wasn’t the feeling I got. Therefore, it may be a matter of the points that resonated with me, and be more reflective of myself than the martial arts sensei (teachers) who have chapters in the book. [That being said, young readers be forewarned that your generation does get blasted upon not only in this review, but by the sensei in question.]

Fifteen prominent martial arts teachers offer their insights in this book. The group is in many ways homogenous. All fifteen teachers are practitioners of Japanese gendai budō (the modern-day martial arts that developed after the Meiji Restoration [1868]; as contrasted with kobudō or koryū bujutsu, i.e. old school martial arts). All of these martial artists were born in the 1910’s and 20’s and began their study of martial arts in first half of the 20th century.

These teachers are a bridge between the founders of these arts and the arts as we know them today. In a few cases, they are also bridges between kobudō and modern martial arts. For example, Hiroshi Tada was a student of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido. While we think of O-sensei (Ueshiba) as a gendai budō practitioner because he founded a modern school, he was brought up on kobudō. Furthermore, students of Gichin Funakoshi (the Shotokan karate founder), Jigorō Kanō (the Kodokan judō founder), Hironori Ōtsuka (the Wadō-ryū karate founder), and Dōshin Sō (the founder of Shōrinji Kempō) are represented.

This book is particularly important in that several of the teachers in it have passed away since the book was published. Time is receding for this generation’s thoughts to be saved for posterity. A cursory google search revealed that at least four of these teachers have passed away: Hidetaka Nishiyama (2008), Tatsuo Suzuki (2011), Keiko Fukuda (2013), and Ron Nobuto Omoto (2013.) However, some were more well-known internationally than others, so there may be a few others that passed on without attracting the attention of English-language websites. However, the youngest of them is 84 (the oldest believed living is 97), and so it’s safe to say there may not be many more chances to hear these people’s wisdom.

I’ve pointed out the homogeneity of this group, but there’s also a diversity about them. Practitioners of karate, judō, aikidō, shōrinji kempō, kendō, kyūdō, and Atarashii Naginata are represented. Despite the notoriously male-dominated nature of Japanese martial arts, at least there are two women’s voices in the mix. While all of the artists are of Japanese ancestry, they’re not all Japanese by citizenry. There are two Americans and two Canadians among the bunch, and one individual who was born in China. There are also individuals who were born in Japan but moved abroad to places like France and Brazil to spread their art.

There are a few themes common across multiple of the commentaries. It might be tempting to dismiss some of these points as the “back-in-my-day” sentimentality of the aged, but their experiences are sometimes too similar to lack veracity.

First, several of the teachers said there was much less doggedness in recent generations than in their era. People come into the dōjō (a martial arts school), dabble a little, and–if they’re not constantly entertained by new and fancy techniques–they quit. As a result, there are many practitioners who possess a vast repertoire of technique, but they aren’t skilled in any of it—and even more who get nowhere. The theme was that there is no fast-track to success in budō, one has to work at it day in and day out. It should be noted that all of these individuals were born before 1930, and yet were still teaching / training in 2003 when the book was published.
Second, this generation devoted considerable effort to developing the mind as well as the body. With the availability of better nutrition, training equipment, and sport science, young martial artists may be physically fitter than ever on average (I’m talking about competitors not those using martial arts as a fat camp), but they are also mentally weaker than ever—with limited attention spans and emotional control. Present-day martial arts students often give little credence to the value of training the mind or carrying a martial arts mindset outside the dōjō. Several of the teachers in this book mentioned practicing Zen or some other form of mental exercise, and some emphasized the importance of carrying the clarity and intention of the dōjō about everyday life.

The problem with this is that the martial arts become a young man’s game, and there becomes a lack of experience. A student does a martial art for a few years and then abandons it because his or her physical athleticism isn’t going to increase. This decreasing physical capacity translates into becoming a weaker martial artist. The only way to grow in the long-run is to become mentally stronger, more self-confident, and having better emotional control.

The problem is that this mental strength and confidence often becomes confused with arrogance or cockiness. But as Nobuyuki Kamogawa (kyūdō) points out, the problem with arrogance is that one can’t see one’s weaknesses—and, thus, can’t grow. While Japanese arts may seem overly-formal (and there can be truth to that), it shouldn’t be forgotten that part of what this formality does is (potentially) build mental discipline and humility.

I think Toshiro Daigo best summed up the problem of not living the art. He said, “But to young Japanese people, judō becomes judō when you put on your judō costume. So without the costume, judō doesn’t exist.”

Third, judō, karate, and kendō teachers bemoaned a shift away from the pursuit of victory by decisive technique (e.g. the the ippon.) Over time, there has been an increased reliance on building up a win by minor points. In judō this may mean trips instead of throws; in kendō it means going for the forearm rather than the head. In other words, competitors have become more risk-averse and less bold. Concern about this is two-fold. For one thing, there’s a worry about the dilution of these arts, but there’s also concern about the sport becoming less interesting to watch and thus losing its following.

Related to the previous two criticisms is a concern about training to build champions, while forgetting to forge good students. This was emphasized not only by some of the sport-oriented art teachers, but also by Hiroshi Tada. Tada, as an aikidō practitioner, is in the unique position being the only one of the teachers to practice a non-sport martial arts system.

Fourth, several sensei suggested the importance of learning for oneself. One of the teachers, Rod Nobuto Omoto, was an uchi deshi (live-in student), and he—as in the old days—spent a lot of time doing chores while getting little to no training. The point is not so much to criticize the younger generation, but to inform them that they must take the reins of their martial arts practice. This may come to a surprise because the educational experiences they are most used to is having information handed to them in as learnable a form as possible.

Fifth, there was a general disdain for the idea of thinking of one’s art as being inherently superior to all others. Masao Takahashi (judō) and Mitsusuke Harada (karate) both made this point. Harada proposed that abject faith in the superiority of one’s art encourages the development of martial artists who cannot defend themselves. If you think your system is inherently best, you may begin to rely on that illusion of superiority rather than on the advancement of your own skill.

Sixth, the importance of mutual benefit was emphasized throughout. Of course, for the judo practitioners, the idea of jita kyoei (self-perfection, mutual benefit) is one of the two Kodokan budōkun (martial arts maxims.) [The other being seiryoku zenyo, or maximum efficiency.] Shigeru Uchiyama said that the belief in Shōrinji Kempō (whose practitioners are also Kongo Zen pupils) is that of “…living half of your life for yourself and half for others.”

A couple of other points that caught my attention were brought up by individual teachers.
Keiko Fukuda expressed concern about women being trained in the same manner as men, and, thus, using too much strength. The 9th dan was concerned about injuries resulting from this over-reliance on strength. This is an interesting point which I hadn’t given much thought. No doubt it’s a controversial point as well. It’s hard for me to comment about whether Fukuda is just old-fashioned and a product of her time and culture (which is, I’m afraid, highly misogynistic) or whether her point is valid. However, I’d be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt as she was an extremely impressive woman.

Lest one think that these are all just traditionalists trying to keep the traditions alive, consider a quote by Yoshimitsu Takeyasu that speaks otherwise. “Not all traditions are good but we have to identify the ones that should be kept.” Rod Nobuto Omoto said simply, “Tradition is not important.” However, I think Omoto’s point is more nuanced than it seems (and perhaps more Taoist) in that what he seems to be saying is that if you make the tradition important it becomes about the tradition and not the what lies beneath the tradition (e.g. values, etc.)

Omoto also offered a great deal of thought-provoking insight into death. It was clearly a topic that he’d reflected on not only as someone coming to the end of his life, but also as one who practices budō.

I think this is an important book for martial artists of all stripes. However, I think that even non-martial artists might learn a thing or two from the insights of these old masters.

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