Okinawan Conversations #2
By Mike Clarke
Matsubayashi-ryu is one of the main schools of Okinawan karate emerging from the Shuri-te tradition. It’s founder, the late master Shoshin Nagamine [1907 – 1997] lived a life only few could imagine. He had learnt his karate from some of the islands great karate sensei, Ankichi Arakaki, Chotoku Kyan and Choki Motobu, and today his karate system is taught and practised all over the world. Though no longer with us his ideas and methods live on. Today, Matsubayashi-ryu karate-do is lead by the late master’s son: Takayoshi Nagamine sensei.
A gifted and passionate karate-ka himself, “Soke” Nagamine has taken up the reins of leadership and yet continues to find time to train him self in the art of karate. He confessed to me to feeling a sense of gratitude for the life he has lived and for the many students, friends and advisors he has within the karate world.
I met Soke Nagamine for the first time in 1992, when I interviewed his father. On that same visit to Okinawa I watched him demonstrate kata at the re-opening of Shuri-jo, Okinawa’s royal palace and symbol of the Ryukyu kingdom’s former glory. The dynasty may have gone and the palace itself reduced to being little more than a tourist attraction, but Soke Takayoshi has lost none of his zeal for karate and in his own way is keeping alive an Okinawan tradition that has spread around the globe.
His life these days is divided equally between his home in Okinawa and his home in America. He first travelled there as a young man and spent many years teaching karate from his base in Columbus, Ohio. As he approached his sixtieth year of life and his fifty-third year of continuous training, I had the opportunity to visit him in the Kodokan dojo, Naha. Though showing signs of its age these days, the Kodokan dojo was built and opened in a time before karate had travelled to the rest of the world. A time when the virtues involved in the understanding of karate kept many from learning it’s secrets. The obligation placed upon those who trained in karate-do back then, to develop one’s self and to view life from a deeper and more profound point of view began in dojo like this one.
As more and more Westerners [American Military Personnel] took up the challenge of karate, ways had to be found to transmit the philosophy that underpins the physical training. So, on one of the walls a sign [in English] was hung. Written on October 1st, 1961, by the dojo’s founder Shoshin Nagamine, it offers the following advice:
Ethics Of The dojo
Courtesy, Cleanliness, and Diligence
First of all, purify your mind.
Cultivate the power of perseverance by strengthening your body and overcoming the difficulties that arise during training.
The dojo is a place where “guts” are fostered and superior human nature is bread through the ecstasy of sweating through hard work. The dojo is a sacred place where the human spirit is polished.
Your seniors and Black Belts are well aware of these facts and therefore you, the beginners, are requested to help make your dojo a sacred place, by keeping in your mind the above things and strictly observing the following:
1/ Always keep your karate-gi clean and take them home after use.
2/ Help clean the dojo.
3/ Be well versed in the precepts for mastering karate-do.
4/ After use, be sure to place the training equipment where it belongs.
Beside this sign hangs the “Precepts for mastering karate-do” it reads:
1/ He is human and so am I.
2/ It is an imitation of self-limitation on my part, if, I cannot accomplish whereas others can.
3/ Discard this imitation: if he practises three times I must practise five times.
4/ If he practises five times then I will practise seven or ten times.
5/ Do not turn to others for help, Musashi Miyamoto once said: “Pay your respects to the gods and Buddha’s, but never rely on them.”
6/ Earnestly cultivate your mind as well as your body and believe in yourself.
7/ Karate may be referred to as the “conflict within your self ”, or a life long marathon that can be won only though your creative efforts.
What follows is something of the conversation I had with Soke Nagamine as we sat in the Kodokan dojo one afternoon in February 2005. I have not transcribed everything that was discussed, as some of what I learn during such meetings, I keep to myself. Should you wish to go deeper into the world of budo, find your own way to make it happen!
Sensei, can you please explain the fundamentals of Matsubayashi-ryu karate-do?
“Yes, there are three kinds of technique. One technique is “rhythm”. Then there is what we call, “rhythm-two”. Let me explain, basic rhythm is to develop timing so you can block then you are attacked, and then you can hit back from your block. With rhythm-two, you can black and attack at the same time. “Rhythm-three” is the ultimate technique and this is where we don’t block, instead, we attack the attack! Even against a kick we can use rhythm-three. I think it’s a little hard to explain in words this is why I demonstrated on you, I hope you don’t mind?”
[Note: Nagamine sensei demonstrated all three kinds of rhythm on me with great success, and with just enough discomfort for me to ‘feel’ his point, after I had been invited to attack him with both punches and kicks].
In karate, we must learn to take a hit as well as give one, how do you train people to develop a strong body?
We have tools like the chi-ishi and tan, and of course the makiwara. Training with these tools not only makes your muscles strong, but your bones and your tendons strong too. You can say that the main reason for us to train with these tools is to develop muscles and tendons that can deliver “snap!” We don’t want bulk or a big size, we are looking to tone our bodies so we can have fast reflexes and move quickly.”
Your dojo has quite a few makiwara, two by the front door, and more along the side, what is the aim for you when you train with this tool?
The makiwara allows you to practise making “impact” in a moment, over a short distance. We learn to use our hips with power as we train with “koshi”. This means we don’t wind-up our hips, or push with our body. Instead we use koshi. Like an explosion it comes from our hara, and this makes karate very hard to deal with. The older you get the more you have to make your karate have this kind of power, and not be a big drain for your body.
You see, if you want to have big power then most people will train to have big movement, big wind-up and twist and so on. But this kind of technique takes time [to execute] and is very powerful but a little slow. Also you need more distance between you and opponent so you have space to do the big wind-up. But, in our karate we have a saying: “Go from minimum distance, to maximum power.” Then, we include the three dimensions of the block, shifting, and attack at the same time. This is how we get power in our karate.
When did you start training in karate?
I began training with my father when I was seven years old, now I am fifty-nine years old, so I have trained in karate for almost all my life.
Was your training any different from the others students in the dojo?
No not really, in the dojo everyone was treated the same, me included. But afterwards, in our home life away from the public classes, I received a lot of discipline from my father.
For example, if students did one hundred punches, then I would have to do four or five hundred punches, the same with all the basic techniques.
Because of who your father was, were you expected to train in karate?
No. He never told me I had to do it. But watching him when I was a boy, really made me want to do it. In fact, he always demanded I did my homework and any jobs I had to do first before I was allowed to practice.
Did you find it easy to do karate or was it difficult?
I found it difficult, and in some ways I still do. I guess there are some genius people around who can do karate very easily, but my way was to just try harder and harder over a long period of time. Sometimes I have had a plan, but it didn’t always work out the way I wanted, so I just keep trying.
Do you have a favorite aspect of karate that you like to spend more time on than others?
If you think about your karate and analyse it as a martial art, you see that the kata were not designed for competing [as in sports] against another person. My father, and even people older and senior to him, told me that around one hundred years ago when you did karate you didn’t have a public class. Each sensei, would teach their students separately, not together. So it was possible that you could start training and meet somebody, say ten years later, who might have been training with your sensei for the same length of time, and you didn’t know. In those days people kept it secret and never told anyone they trained in karate. It was something they did for themselves and not for others to know about. It is very different in our days. Back then each student was taught at their own level and the sensei would give the student different things to work on accordingly. Of course back then money was not really a question either. It was all about culture, discipline, intelligence and character.
Are there people who were training when you were a boy, still training?
Also, if you had not ‘entered the dojo’ what do you think your life would be like today?
Ha! I don’t really know. Perhaps I would be a car salesman, or a schoolteacher or something like that maybe. And yes, there are still some people training from my early days.
You mentioned training in karate in olden times, do you think karate has changed since then, or perhaps the kind of people training has changed?
Well, inside [a person’s mind] I think it’s all the same, but, there might be some changes in the way some people interpret karate today, even from as recently as forty years ago. This has to do with people’s cultural background I think. Even on Okinawa now there are many who just see karate as a kind of a sport instead of a martial art.
Sometimes I am asked: what is the difference? It’s true some sports are tough like boxing or professional kickboxing they’re very tough. But no matter what, all sports share the same definition. They have tournaments and the participants are trying to improve their ‘record’ or previous result.
Karate is not like this, it is the study of death and being alive. Yes, death and being alive. If a person opens a karate dojo it is important they know and understand this philosophy. Martial arts cannot compete with sports because they have a different philosophy. In sport you compete against someone else, or perhaps your own record, but in martial arts you only compete against your ‘self’.
Do you think western people understand the difference between karate and karate-do?
Yes they do, some people anyway. Many western people have been training a long time and they understand things better than some people here [Okinawa]. It all depends on the person and if they are open to such ways of thinking. Even physically, western people can be better at karate due to their bigger bodies and greater strength. It all depends on the philosophy in their soul.
What does your personal training consist of these days?
Kata mostly, and also I meditate. Also I try to think about the philosophy of martial arts. Unfortunately some of this philosophy is lost in translation, for example, do you know the Kempo Hakku [The eight laws of the fist, as laid down in the bubishi]?”
Yes I do.
The translation of this into English, that most people are aware of, did not go very deeply and so many have a false understanding of what these words mean. Let me show you what I mean. Here:
Jinshin wa tenchi ni onaji
This means your “self” and the rest of the universe, are not separate entities.
Ketsumyaku wa nichigetsu ni nitari
The circulation within the human body is very much like the circulation of the sun and the moon, and the other planets found throughout the universe. However, the moon and the sun are like an extension of your self. This is a little bit of a departure from the Christian [Western] way of seeing things.
Ho wa goju wo tondo su
Tondo su means, the law of nature or law of the universe. Therefore when we inhale and exhale we can achieve both the strength of “go” and the softness of “ju”, the power and muscular strength of Naha-te or the “snap”, explosive force of Shuri-te. All shorin-ryu try to use this snapping action. It’s like touching the tail of a lobster, “Snap!”
When Master Miyagi Chojun was looking for a name for his karate, he took the name “goju” from this line.
Mi wa toki ni shita gai hen ni ozu
This says that we should keep our bodies ready so that we can change to any circumstances that might happen. For fighting this means we should be able to change our defence and counter-attack according to the other person’s attack on us. Straight on or coming around from the side, we should be able to change. Always ready to adapt, even to our circumstances in life too.
Te wa ku ni ai sunawa chi hairu
This means that once you are being threatened and a fight is imminent, as soon as you look at him, your guard is off and you can strike.
Shintai wa hakarite riho su
This is talking about our feet and how we should move. Sometimes our front leg moves first and sometimes our back leg, according to the movements of our opponent. But always we should keep them at the range and distance that suits us, not them.
Me wa shiho wo miru wo yosu
This addresses our ability to predict the opponents next move. The advice given is to remain conscious of things in all four directions. Use your peripheral vision and be aware of how people are positioned in front and around you.
Mimi wa yoku happo wo kiku
This says we should try to be aware, by listening, of even the slightest movement or sound, behind and to the side of us. We must be able to watch out for even a shapeless shape, and we must be able to listen for even the soundless sound.
The advice in kempo hakku is deep, and is not just a list of directions.
If you had some advice to give to karate-ka, what would it be?
Well you know we human beings are not perfect, not at all. I believe my father was a very fair and honest man, and he would often say to his students, me included: “Rectify your mind, and always look to your feet.” What he meant was that we should always be ready to do karate. He was talking about our mind, our attitude. Always remember what it was like to wear a white belt. “Sho-shin”, have a beginners mind. We must never think we have become something big in karate. No matter what, every day when we practice we realize there is something more to learn.
Thank you sensei: Domo arigato gozaimashita!
About the author: Mike Clarke is the author of many articles published in many martial arts magazines around the world. He is also the author of a number of books including Roaring Silence available from http://www.martialartspublishing.com/.