Okinawan Karate

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Kiyoshi Tsuha

    Main guest

    With some 50 years’ experience, Tsuha, who runs his own dojo in Urazoe, is one of the world’s foremost experts on Okinawan karate. Alongside his efforts to shed light on this martial art's little-known roots, he also works to promote Okinawan karate overseas.

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February 9, 2017

Okinawan Karate

*You will leave the NHK website.

Alongside karate, the various "ways of the warrior" that Japan has exported to the world include such venerable disciplines as judo, aikido, and kendo. What all of these martial arts have in common is an emphasis on spiritual development. Not only do you learn how to fight, ideally you also become a better person.

Okinawan karate, however, takes a very special approach. As we learn in this edition of Japanology Plus, the aim is to perfect techniques without ever needing to use them. Even if attacked, the practitioner of Okinawan karate will only strike at an opponent as a last resort -- but pity the individual who forces such a turn of events.

Nowadays karate is known the world over, but in its original form in Okinawa, the discipline is so true to the fundamental ideal of non-aggression that there is no competitive version.

Instead, the most traditional dojo (training spaces) focus on a relentless pursuit of perfection through the repetition of forms (kata), which may be put into practice in kumite, a drill with simulated adversaries.

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The principal focus of Okinawan karate is self defense, shifting to attack only when all other alternatives have been exhausted.

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Kiyoshi Tsuha shows Peter how the motions internalized via kata might be employed in a real-world situation.

It's hard to say if the demanding routine of Okinawan karate helps to shape character, but confidence, modesty and good humor are among the appealing traits shared by the exponents of the art that we meet in the show, including sensei and researcher Kiyoshi Tsuha; Zenpo Shimabukuro, a 60-year veteran who treats us to a demonstration of the highly technical kusanku kata; Uechi-ryu expert Kiyohide Shinjo; and Takeshi Miyagi, who even manages to exude a benign aura as he encourages Matt Alt to break a thick wooden board with his bare fist in Plus One.

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The kusanku kata involves a complex sequence of moves achievable by only the most advanced exponents.

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Experienced practitioners of Uechi-ryu karate hone their bodies to the extent that they can even snap a baseball bat with a single blow.

If these teachers are typical of those who practice Okinawan karate, then this week’s edition may well encourage viewers to seek out their nearest dojo. But to any parents concerned about the potential damage to a child's knuckles, remember that in the early years it is normal to focus mainly on perfecting the all-important kata.

We also get a glimpse of how the friendly, inclusive atmosphere of the best dojo enables even small boys and girls to train alongside grown-ups. This welcoming attitude may make Okinawan karate an excellent choice as a martial art for the whole family.

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Okinawan karate welcomes students of all ages and genders.

With the profile afforded these days to high-octane, full-contact combat sports like boxing and mixed martial arts, both of which have also found Japan to be extremely fertile territory, many people are drawn to the thrill of the combat itself, and to the human drama that plays out as combatants leave it all in the ring or octagon.

In the face of such raw excitement, Okinawan karate may seem understated and traditional, but therein lies its charm. Studying this time-honored discipline at the source takes practitioners beyond the merely physical. Competitive egos are subsumed into the pursuit of a much deeper underlying philosophy that serves to craft human beings who are thoroughly trained in both mind and body.

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Matt focuses all his energy on breaking this wooden board.

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The Uechi-ryu school of Okinawan karate puts their students through punishing physical training to raise their pain threshold.

Also appearing

Zenpo Shimabukuro

Since taking up Okinawan karate at the age of nine, Shimabukuro has been a student of this martial for over six decades. He gives us a demonstration of the kusanku kata and a breakdown of the skills it teaches.

Kiyohide Shinjo

Shinjo is an instructor of Uechi-ryu school of Okinawan karate, which is known for the particularly grueling training through which exponents hone their physiques.

Takeshi Miyagi

Instructor at an Okinawan karate dojo in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, Miyagi puts Matt through his paces.

*You will leave the NHK website.