The Great Karate Myth presents 30 years of research into the Chinese forms brought to Okinawa by some of the early pioneers of Karate. These forms (kata) became the source material which Karate was originally developed from into the empty hand art practised globally today. The research led by Nathan Johnson and documented in several publications (Zen Shaolin Karate, Barefoot Zen and The great Karate Myth) has passed through several distinct phases, altering its course as various discoveries were made and new information was aquired. In this documentary we will show that the forms and techniques sourced in the creation of specifically Goju-Ryu and Uechi Ryu (Naha-te) were originally concieved to be practised and applied with weapons (In this case Sai). The film will break down the function of the forms, context and environment for use, how and why kata were developed and the purpose they serve in cultivating skillful use of the Sai. It will also be clearly demonstrated why kata and forms practise serve as a poor vehicle for empty hand fighting and self defense. Our aim is to make this film available for free online and two types of DVD available with extra material. the standard DVD will contain the documentary plus the bonus film "Kusanku - A Work in Progress, and the Expanded edition will contain the bonus film plus interviews and an instructional presenting the complete breakdown and application of the kata Sanseriu with the Sai.
Following Senior Kodoryu instructor Matt Turner's excellent article on institutional discipline (https://martialsubjects.org/2016/04/08/institutional-discipline/) it is worth discussing briefly the passivity that develops in Karate students and how the lack of a critical approach particularly when it comes to kata study has lead to many assumptions and contradictions regarding the content of kata becoming the accepted norm.
Most of what is taught about kata is taken on face value, trust is placed in the instructor, lineage, grade and reputation etc. Combine this with a passive approach to learning which arises from the dojo discipline and the result is that many questions that should be asked never see the light of day.
Take one of the most common statements made about kata, that they are complete systems of self defense. How could this be true? How could a kata encompass the totality of self defense and violence and be rightly labeled complete? Most of the applications taught are based on the assumption that the confrontation is one on one and that no weapons are in play, this very dangerous assumption becomes embodied in the movements and techniques applied against the aggressor. How would the movement change and the technical repertoire differ if the possibility of being stabbed,cut or a third party jumping in and stamping on their head were considered? If kata is indeed as is commonly sold 'complete' then surely it should encompass surviving against more than one person or the possibility of a weapon(s) being used or presented amidst the chaos as well as a myriad of other important factors otherwise the statement would surely not be true??
Another popular assumption is that the original functions of kata are lost and we can never know what was intended for the antique forms when they were created. If this is true then how could it be known that a kata is complete system of self defense? and why should this assumption be accepted and repeated? "We don't know what the kata were originally for but they are complete systems of self defense", I'm sure the irony is not lost here.
Why do students not question and critically examine what is taught to them? why is evidence not demanded? part of the reason is the dojo culture of respect and discipline (or silent obedience) which is all to common in Karate. Should a Karate practitioner be happy to believe what they are told? or perhaps it is a time for a shift towards a more critical approach especially if the desired learning,skills and information might one day save their life.
The antique forms inherited from China and preserved in Okinawan Karate arrived from varying sources and have their roots in different functions and uses. Some encode military skills and the use of weapons while others were developed for policing, bodyguards and civil arrest/control. The popular assumption that these kata were all developed for empty handed self defense against a single unarmed opponent is a modern belief that just doesn't stand up against any real scrutiny and examination.
One source for Chinese forms and techniques generally overlooked and quickly dismissed as it would ruin the self defense beliefs of many is the culturally rich Chinese opera traditions. Stage combat and choreography is nothing new and as with all the arts in China it was cultivated to the highest standard. Within Operas and public performances of the arts complex choreography showcasing stories, myths and legends coupled with gymnastic excellence produced 'fight scenes' as convincing and as visually spectacular as what many enjoy today in the movies.
Techniques and postures which are physically demanding and at the same time immensely impractical within the context of a violent confrontation might historically belong on the stage. Movements inspired by practical martial skills presented in visually impressive postures and stances make for great choreography and may just be the 'Why' behind several antique forms.
Therefore it is important to not overlook this context and cultural tradition as one possible source for some of the kata inherited in Okinawa when researching the original functions.
A slightly older clip showcasing Nathan Johnson's (and Kodoryu members past and present) research into the kata Naihanchi and the form's original grappling function which catalogs joint locking techniques to be applied in a civil arrest context hence no striking or brutalizing of the person being restrained.
1. The Stooge. Always have a willing subject happy to have a Jason Bourne routine performed on them. They must not resist, deviate from the script or show any emotional content. Essentially the stooge must be the complete opposite of a psychotic, unpredictable attacker intent on committing real violence. Another essential quality of the stooge is to only attack at the right time and wait patiently for their cue to attack or it may upset the bunkai flow which would mean having to start all over again.
2. Scripted attacks. Attacks should always be agreed upon beforehand removing one of the key problems in violent confrontation which is the difficulty in predicting when and what a person will do. A well scripted attack will lack any real intent, commitment and will be an isolated technique setting the stage for the reactive bunkai. One of the many benefits of agreeing beforehand what the attacks will be is that concealed weapons, rapidly escalating violence and other people getting involved in the scenario can be confidently ignored guaranteeing victory every time.
3. Conflicting body habits. Always have at least a dozen bunkai for responding to every attack. Having 20+ responses to a wrist grab, lapel grab or straight Karate punch wont really cause conflicting body habits it simply proves what a wonderful bunkai collection a person has and woe to anyone who dares to perform a single attack in a one on one duel. Being spoilt for choice in how to respond isn't confusing for the brain and body, having 20 kata mash-ups for taking on the fearsome oi-zuki (and other deadly attacks) can only make you more effective in the heat of violent confrontation.
4. A liberal approach to kata. Having a liberal approach to kata means being inclusive of all styles, versions of kata and having the freedom to create as many applications as humanly possible. This is essential so that no one's feelings can ever be hurt and more importantly everyone's opinion is equally valid!
5. Sweeping statements. Always be sure to make sweeping statements like 'kata are complete systems of self defence' or 'kata contain all the principles of fighting' without ever backing up such statements or offering any proof. Ending up in a critical debate could mean deviating from point 4 resulting in feelings being hurt and even worse someone might be wrong.
6. Credibility. Always maintain a veil of credibility by quoting famous Karate teachers (ideally Okinawan), so that it appears there is a strong link between the old and very very new. Even if many of the old masters didn't teach any kata applications don't worry, a bit of mythology can only enhance the bunkai experience.
Please contact us with any comments or questions by emailing Tom Maxwell at firstname.lastname@example.org, thanks for reading!!!