Saturday, May 25, 2013

Anko Itosu's Ten Lessons of Karate

Anko Itosu (1832-1916), an Okinawan Shuri-te master, was a progenitor to what would eventually develop into one of the major systems of modern karate: Shorin-ryu. Shorin is the Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese Shaolin (small woods). Itosu's most famous students were Choshin Chibana and Gichin Funakoshi, the latter who brought karate to mainland Japan (c.1920) and adopted the colored belt system from the indigenous art of judo. Hitherto there was no 'ranking' system in karate, but it would take some years before the belt system caught on in karate's birthplace of Okinawa. Funakoshi was especially interested in developing karate as a budo form -- a life skill as it were. Actually some of his ideas, such as teaching karate to children and to sedentary adults for exercise and health, were likely taken from Itosu.

In 1901 Itosu introduced a modified version of karate to the Shuri Jinjo Elementary School. He removed some of what he felt were risky techniques and developed new, short practice forms that kids could pick up easily known as pinan kata. Within a few years Itosu secured teaching jobs at colleges and in 1908 wrote a letter to the Education Department on Okinawa which summed up his philosophy on karate, or as it was more commonly referred to at the time as To-te (lit. China-hand) or tode:

Tode did not develop from the way of Buddhism or Confucianism. In the recent past Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu [a forerunner to Goju-ryu] were brought over from China. They both have similar strong points, so, before there are too many changes, I should like to write these down.

1. Tode is primarily for the benefit of health. In order to protect one’s parents or one’s master, it is proper to attack a foe regardless of one’s own life. Never attack a lone adversary. If one meets a villain or a ruffian one should not use tode but simply parry and step aside.

2. The purpose of tode is to make the body hard like stones and iron; hands and feet should be used like the points of arrows, hearts should be strong and brave. If children were to practice tode from their elementary-school days, they would be well prepared for military service. When Wellington and Napoleon met they discussed the point that "tomorrow’s victory will come from today’s playground."

3. Tode cannot be learned quickly. Like a slow moving bull, that eventually walks a thousand miles, if one studies seriously every day, in three or four years one will understand what tode is about. The very shape of one’s bones will change.

Those who study as follows will discover the essence of tode:

4. In tode the hands and feet are important so they should be trained thoroughly on the makiwara. In so doing drop your shoulders, open your lungs, take hold of your strength, grip the floor with your feet and sink your intrinsic energy to your lower abdomen. Practice with each arm one or two hundred times.

5. When practicing tode stances make sure your back is straight, drop your shoulders, take your strength and put it in your legs, stand firmly and put the intrinsic energy in your lower abdomen, the top and bottom of which must be held together tightly.

6. The external techniques of tode should be practiced, one by one, many times. Because these techniques are passed on by word of mouth, take the trouble to learn the explanations and decide when and in what context it would be possible to use them. Go in, counter, release; is the rule of torite [lit. releasing hands].

7. You must decide whether tode is for cultivating a healthy body or for enhancing your duty.

8. During practice you should imagine you are on the battle field. When blocking and striking make the eyes glare, drop the shoulders and harden the body. Now block the enemy’s punch and strike! Always practice with this spirit so that, when on the real battlefield, you will naturally be prepared.

9. Do not overexert yourself during practice because the intrinsic energy will rise up, your face and eyes will turn red and your body will be harmed. Be careful.

10. In the past many of those who have mastered tode have lived to an old age. This is because tode aids the development of the bones and sinews, it helps the digestive organs and is good for the circulation of the blood. Therefore, from now on, tode should become the foundation of all sports lessons from elementary schools onward. If this is put into practice there will, I think, be many men who can win against ten aggressors.

The reason for stating all this is that it is my opinion that all students at the Okinawa Prefectural Teachers’ Training College should practice tode, so that when they graduate from here they can teach the children in the schools exactly as I have taught them. Within ten years tode will spread all over Okinawa and to the Japanese mainland. This will be a great asset to our militaristic society. I hope you will carefully study the words I have written here.

— Anko Itosu. Meiji 41, Year of the Monkey (October 1908).

In spite of some bold claims such as making the body like iron, taking on ten attackers and references to militarism it is said that Itosu never had to use karate in a real confrontation in his eighty-three years. This is either a product of immense luck, especially during his time, or more likely his virtue and character that were forged from his life of training, perfecting, and teaching karate.

Mark Bishop 1999. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, styles and secret techniques. Tuttle Publishing.
Shoshin Nagamine (trans. by Patrick McCarthy) 2000. Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters. Tuttle Publishing.

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