Traditional Shorin-Ryu Karate and Kobudo has origins in Okinawa. Shorin-Ryu translates as Shaolin Style indicating it originally was developed at the Shorin-ji Shaolin Temple in China where it was created by combining combat techniques with Zen. Today, Shorin-Ryu Karate remains one of the primary karate arts taught on Okinawa, and now in Arizona.
There are differences between traditional Okinawa karate, traditional Japanese karateand Korean taekwondo: so many differences that one could write a book about them. To the uninitiated, these are subtle and overlooked until a person has years of experience in martial arts.
Japanese sensei focus on sport; thus kata in Japanese dojo must be done with exact and precise stances. Punches and kicks must be exact: there is no possibility of variation in movement in any kata. In Japanese schools, students are constantly stopped, held in position at certain points of kata while the sensei walks from student to student making minor adjustments. The 'ma' known as timing and distancing, are important with focus on winning sparring contests & performing kata in front of an audience.
The focus in most traditional karate schools is on 'imi' or the meaning of kata - something that is ignored by most Japanese sensei. The meaning of kata is very important in Okinawa karaterather than execution of kata. In Okinawan karate, the student is taught what each move in every kata is used for, and each kata is broken down into self-defense applications that are practiced to insure the student can defend themselves. There is no concern for winning: contests are not part of most traditional Okinawan karate schools, and students aretaught to develop as much power and focus as possible for self-defense and karate taught as a dangerous weapon.
Keep in mind that karate is a unique martial art that evolved on Okinawa over hundreds of years, and Okinawa is part of an island chain that lies between China and Japan. Karate, an indigenous Okinawan art, was not introduced to Japan until 1917 and not accepted until 1922. It was introduced to Hawaii in the 1930s and later to the US (Phoenix, Arizona) in 1946. Prior to its introduction to Japan, karate was not practiced as sport.
It was not until the 1960s that people in the US began to recognize karate as different from judo. When karate was introduced to Japan by Gichin Funakoshi in 1917, it was touch and go as to whether or not it would be accepted by the Japanese. The Japanese thought of Okinawan people as country bumpkins - in other words - peasants with little social grace. Gichin Funakoshi had to modify karate, rename each kata to give them Japanese names; and, most importantly, establish a positive working relationship with Japanese judo founder, Dr. Jigoro Kano, before the Japanese would accept karate. The Japanese were so nationalistic that individuals like Mas Oyama had to change their names to receive recognition. Oyama was Korean by birth, and created a Japanese style of karate known as kyokushin in 1957. This type of backwards thinking by the Japanese still pervades, and is one of the primary reasons Japanese karate took a different path than Okinawan karate.
In 2015, our nephew worked on Hawaii transporting patients from their homes to various medical facilities, when he picked up one, old, Japanese man (Hawaii has a large community of Japanese). While driving to a medical facility through a neighborhood known for high crime, Jeremy attempted to strike up a conversation without realizing there was such a strong nationalism with many Japanese people. Jeremy said, “Hey, you look like my Okinawan friend …”. The Japanese man responded, “What a terrible thing to say that I look like an Okinawan,” and demanded Jeremy stop the vehicle so he could get out and walk!
Most are unaware that there is a difference between Okinawa and Japanese karate, but there is a significant difference in how kata is practiced and perceived and the philosophical purpose of karate. In a Japanese dojo, kata must be exact with no room for variance in stances, there are distinct breaks in timing known as ma, and slow techniques are mixed with fast. In Japanese dojo, students are constantly held in stances during both kihon (basics) and kata practice while the sensei walks around from student to student making minor adjustments to the position of feet, shoulders, knees, wrists, weight distribution, etc. There is also considerable emphasis on deep stances.
I still remember one evening as a teenager. On this evening, our class squatted, duck-walked around the dojo, did dozens of squat-kicks, squatted in kiba dachi (horse riding stance) with a partner standing on our thighs while placing their hands on our shoulders to add weight to our squats. We did a few hundred kicks - it was a tremendously hard workout for a young teenager with no previous experience in formal exercise prior to joining the Black Eagle Federation Karatedojo. Eight years later, I found basic training in the US Army to be a breeze after karate training. When the class ended, I had to walk home through Fairmont Park (in 1964, the park was an unfriendly place populated by older teens called greasers who looked-forward to harassing younger teens). The distance to my home was 1.5 miles: not much of a distance today, but for a 14-year-old, it was a challenge. I had no strength left in my legs and had to walk stiff-legged all the way. Periodically I relaxed a knee and collapsed. When this happened, I crawled to a tree, telephone pole, park bench, etc, to pull myself up. I don’t remember being harassed while walking through the park on this night, probably because the greasers felt pity on a handicapped teen.
At the time, I was training in kyokushin Japanese karate. Much emphasis was placed on kiba dachi as a fighting stance and zenkutsu dachi (front stance). These were found throughout our kata. When I later trained in Wado-Ryu karate (Japanese) at the University of Utah, we focused considerably on neko-ashi dachi (cat stance). In Shotokan karate (Japanese variety of Shorin-Ryu), the emphasis was on front and back stances (kokutsu dachi) with great emphasis on deep and perfect stances. In Kempo Karate (Japanese) the emphasis was again on kiba dachi.
Kata were performed like a military drill team in Japanese dojo and designed for tournaments. All Japanese systems taught kata with no explanation of application. Thus, controversy developed as to the use and purpose of kata. Sometimes, in a Japanese dojo, we practiced kata with one person performing kata surrounded by three to four attackers along embussen lines. The attackers were required to kick or punch as we moved from one technique to the next. It didn’t seem realistic and applications were designed for competition sparring.
Periodically our sensei in kyokushin karate taught general self-defense, but the applications were never linked to kata. Much time was spent on sparring due to the sport emphasis and general lack of understanding kata. It didn't take long, but we all became bored as we were not learning anything new. None of my Japanese sensei had much background in self-defense and none had background in kobudo. In the final analysis, the Japanese martial arts were military-like with little room for interpretation. They were in conflict to philosophies of well-known Okinawan practitioners. Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate, stated, “The purpose of Karate lies not in victory of defeat, but in the perfection of its participants”. Okinawan karate was all about improving the practitioner, not winning competitions.
In the Shorin-Ryu karate schools, kata were taught for muscle memory, balance, power and self-defense. Bunkai (pragmatic self-defense) was the focus of kata and used to practice defending all sorts of attacks and taught to develop power, focus and body hardening. This is the reason why those who study Japanese karate constantly ponder at the purpose of kata, but those who study traditional Okinawa karate continually practice kata along with self-defense and understand the importance of kata. In Japanese karate, kata has little purpose other than to please an audience. In Okinawa karate, kata and karate are the same, as stated by the late Grandmaster Shoshin Nagame.
Each kata is broken down into a group of self-defense applications that are practiced individually to insure the student can defend themselves. Individual applications can be referred to as mini-kata, sometimes referred to as Shinken Shobu no Kata also Kime no Kata.
In Okinawa karate, students learn relatively deep stances to build muscle strength, but as the student gains expertise, higher and more natural stances replace deeper stances. The Okinawan karate stances are meant to be practical for self-defense by being natural and quick. Whereas the very deep Japanese stances are designed for competition. In the past, Okinawa martial artists did not trust Japanese and would not teach the Japanese bunkai.
Kime is very important in traditional karate - Kime is about power and focus in both strikes and blocks. Every block should be as powerful as every strike. I remember attending clinics in the past where another sensei sent his students to train with me so they could experience blocking power. These power blocks were taught in kyokushin kai karate and I still use them today. In addition to kime, all strikes and blocks need chinkuchi! Chinkuchiis an Okinawa term that applies to explosive full-body power. If you ever have a chance to watch Tadashi Yamashita, you will see a visual explanation of this explosive power. Chinkuchi is similar to kime, which is a focused strike, but includes the entire body in striking and blocking - hip rotation, focused punch or block, last-second tensing of all muscles and joints followed by a quick relaxation of the muscles.
Japanese karate schools kick low, medium and high (similar to taekwondo). High kicks are good in competition; however, Okinawan kicks are designed for knees, kidneys, stomach, groin, ribs, shins, ankles - in other words - below the neck and mostly below the belt. In addition, the Okinawan kicks employ kekomigeri (thrust kicks) as well as toe kicks. To develop a toe kick, one must train the big toe to build toe strength. There are stories about Goju-Ryu’s Chojun Miyagi who periodically demonstrated his powerful tsumasaki geri by penetrating gas cans with his big toe! One of our martial art students, Dr. Bergkamp, traveled to Okinawa a few years ago to tour dojo and returned to Arizona with a very impressive bruise on his stomach outlining a big Okinawan toe with a couple of smaller toes. One must wonder how practical such kicks are in our culture. Unless you are a beach bum, it is unlikely you would ever use such a kick. So in our dojo in Arizona we will introduce this kick to our students, but it is not a main focus.
Kobudo is a another example of differences between Japanese and Okinawan dojo. In all of the Japanese dojo I trained in, no weapons were introduced or practiced. This part of karate is ignored by most Japanese karate schools. However, kobudo is a major part of Okinawa karate. It has been said that “Karate and Kobudo can be likened to the tires of a bicycle. Both are needed to make the bike move”.
In many Okinawa dojo, tools are available to build strength, endurance and callous. They are designed for the whole body, and include tools for strengthening wrists, fingers, toes and knuckles. In a book by Michael Clarke entitled The Art of Hojo Undo, many exercises are described with descriptions of traditional Okinawan strength training tools and how they are made. Hojo undo translates as supplementary exercises. For those who are serious traditional practitioners, these tools are a must, although there are many modern equivalents that can be used. Some tools used in hojo undo include: makiwara, chi-ishi (strength stones), nigiri game (sand-filled ceramic jars), ishisashi (stone lock),tan (bar bell), kongoken (sand-filled ring), tou (bamboo bundle), kakite bikei (blocking post), makiagi (wrist roller), ude kitae (blocking posts), and jari bako (sand jars).
Okinawa Karate sketch by Soke Hausel
Another difference between Okinawan and Japanese karate is the practice of toide in Okinawan schools. Toide is an Okinawan art that includes joint locks, throws, grappling, etc, similar to traditional jujutsu. Many toide techniques are hidden in Okinawan karatekata and practice in bunkai.
Japanese karate is tailored for large groups; whereas Okinawan karate is designed for small groups. This is one reason many Okinawan commercial dojo fail outside of Okinawa as they are not conducive to large groups needed to finance a karate school. Such dojo rely on the generosity of their students and do not set high fees, and many are supported by donations - this is a problem as donations never come from Western students who do not see the value that Okinawan students see. However, when Okinawan schools are attached to and supported by a university, they often draw large groups because of educational value. In Japanese dojo, the atmosphere is martial and there is often intimidation by senior students. However, Okinawan dojo are more family friendly and members are encouraged to become friends.