One may dispute whether it is necessary at all to preserve a lethal martial art like Okinawan karate today. Shouldn't a changed world abolish such brutal techniques? Indeed, in a perfect world there would be no violence and no need for self-defense. But only ideals are perfect, not people, who remain as prone to violence as ever.
The Romans used to say, "si vis pacem para bellum"— "If you want peace, prepare for war." The Pinan/Heian kata series, which is taught in many karate styles, is rooted in the same thought process. Its name means "peaceful and safe."
In Miyagi Chojun Sensei's words, "Do not strike others and do not allow others to strike you. The goal is peace without incident" (quote in Chambers et. al. 2020, p. v).
This realistic view of human behavior and its correlated strategy of deterrence is not shared, let alone understood, by everyone—above all not by sheltered individuals who have had limited real-life encounters with ill-intentioned persons and no experience with physical combat, which does not make the approach less effective or reasonable in today's imperfect world as this metaphor explains:
As long as there are predators, being a sheep or acting like one doesn't prevent a predator's attack. To spin this metaphor further: only the teeth and the strength of a defender stop the predator, which leads one to think of the—unfortunately often misunderstood—phrase that "only persons capable of great violence may call themselves peaceful; persons not capable of violence are not peaceful, they are harmless."
How quickly people can turn to violence, even in today's so-called "civilized" societies, could be observed during the May/June 2020 protests and demonstrations throughout the USA, when a despicable act of deadly police misconduct created unpredictable ferocious riots and other disturbances within a few hours, which then went on for several weeks, even months in some places. Whether this violence was justified or not is seen differently by different stakeholders; it is not the author's intention to comment on it politically. His point is that an apparent powder keg of frustration, rage, hate, envy, and radicalism was touched off and that violence is not just an occurrence of the distant past, but a latent reality in today's societies as well.
On the other hand, life undoubtedly did change, at least in "civilized" societies. We no longer face constant violence; we no more fight numerous local battles, we are no longer engaged in hand-to-hand combat; and the vast majority of us are not permanently threatened by robberies, attacks, or oppression like our ancestors, and the ones of our Asian fellow karateka were during centuries of oppression, crime, unrests, and power struggles in ancient Japan—situations like the one described in the last paragraph excluded.
Hence, many mind-sets changed, and some martial arts training turned went in another, "peaceful," direction—meaning that it became spiritual, meditative, and health oriented rather than combat oriented. That may end up in budo philosophies, in a different martial-arts Do for Japanized karate. But it doesn't change the nature of dentou Okinawan karate, which is a lethal martial art for serious violent encounters, one that has to be trained with utmost solemnity and as if in actual combat, envisioning bodily damage, even possible death, in every technique.
Still today, "karate is first a fighting art" as Doug Perry Sensei, 10th Dan Shorin Ryu, Kensankai, points out (Perry 2018, p. 286 ff) and at a training camp he further stressed that "there are no silver medals handed out in a life protection situation". Martial arts are martial arts, period, not "gymnastics arts"—though gymnastic exercises to stretch and to build up muscles and strength may of course be included in karate training.
In spite of its lethality, the purpose of dentou karate training is not the use of violence, it is gaining self-control, especially in situations loaded with threats and aggression, and where blood pressure and adrenaline levels are off the chart. Surprisingly enough, when seriously studying Okinawan karate and accepting its traditional self-defense goal, the indivisible combination of self-defense capabilities with physical, spiritual, and moral development increases the odds of students developing non-violent mindsets.
Creating Peaceful Minds
In this sense, studying lethal Okinawan karate creates more peaceful minds—even in the case of initially hair-triggered violent teens. Several prominent examples support this argument. For instance, there are Okinawan masters like Yamashita Tadashi Sensei, 10th Dan Shorin Ryu, Shorinkan, who used to be an angry and intense kid, and who changed during his training under Nakazato Shugoro Sensei. And there are Western masters like Michael Clarke Sensei, 8th Dan Goju Ryu, Jundokan, born in Ireland and living in England for thirty years before immigrat- ing to Australia, who, at the age of seventeen, was already a veteran street fighter doing hard time. Shito Ryu and Goju Ryu training turned his life around, a development he later describes in Redemption–A Streetfighter's Path to Peace (Clarke 2016). Along with many others, these karateka provide examples of the—perhaps surprising—fact that the training of dentou Okinawan karate creates peaceful minds. Peaceful minds are based on peace within oneself, and a peaceful mind constitutes the first basic prerequisite for a peaceful togetherness of people with different personalities, backgrounds, values, and opinions.
Dentou Okinawan karate training contributes to peace not only internally, within a society, but also in relations to other societies. When analyzing the role of karate-practicing communities as part of transnational cooperative structures, Samantha May from the University of the Ryukyus concludes that through this international conglomeration of kindred karate spirits "peace may be visualized . . . as an active, creative practice based on voluntary membership in a worldwide community" (May n.d., p. 1); this is supported by the fact that "'traditional' martial arts offer physical skills, moral codes, rituals, roles, and hierarchical relationships which, taken together, creates the perfect environment for psychological collectivism" (Partikova 2018, p. 49).
Comparable thoughts were already introduced in 1982 by Uechi Kanei Sensei in his "Letter to All Karateka of the World," where he expresses his strategy for peace through cultural exchange of karate, because in his view "karate can bring people together from different countries in a universal brotherhood and sisterhood similar to the ancient Stoic notion and contemporary cosmopolitan perspective, which asks people to consider others' well-being regardless of nationality" (Swift n.d., n.p.). Along these lines, eight Okinawan masters, representing all three Okinawan styles, visited the USA in 1999 to hold a series of special trainings under the motto of "World Peace Through Karatedo" (Hayes n.d., Vol. 3, Issue 2, Summer, p. 1).
The peaceful outcome of dentou Okinawan karate training was labeled as "possibly surprising" earlier, because based on the psycho- social theory of learning, one would assume that karate training increases aggression. This learning theory identifies imitation as one of the core factors of social learning, meaning that aggression is supposed to be learned through the imitation of violent, aggressive behavior— and karate training most definitely practices full-force violent techniques. Learning aggression through karate training, however, does not typically happen in traditional karate dojos.
Not just isolated case studies, but several experimental studies substantiate the fact that practicing traditional martial arts reduces aggression (Macarie/Roberts 2010). A comprehensive evaluation of scientific studies on the impact of martial arts on aggression (Martin 2006) clearly shows that a traditional karate training approach reduces aggression and " is an effective way of transmitting desirable values . . . and, over time, indoctrinates students with the idea of respect, a sense of consequence, a sense of personal responsibility, and a sense of connection to the self through a strong mentor" (ibid., p. 2).
However, according to the analysis, the results are different for non-traditional martial arts schools. Several scientific experiments show that aggression scores of students in these non-traditional schools did not change over time, while they went down for students at traditional martial arts schools (Martin 2006, p. 3f ). This may perhaps be attributed to the fact that "in modern sports karate . . . the fight takes place mainly in the attack and not as it once was, in the defense and counter- attack" (Mudric/Rankovic 2016, p. 72).
Other scientific research goes as far as suggesting martial arts training "to be a legitimate form of therapy, for both 'neurotic' and some chronically mentally ill patients" (Weiser et. al. 1995, p. 1). The earlier mentioned concept of "psychological collectivism" "may provide one explanation for how non-Asian practitioners function in such training environments and how the traditional Asian martial arts can work as psychosocial therapies" (Partikova 2018, p. 49).
That aggression is reduced through training of traditional karate does not, however, come as a surprise to karateka who understand the true driving force behind and underneath inappropriate violent behavior: low self-esteem and a sense of inferiority, which usually go hand in hand with hidden aggression and anxiety.
This subconscious emotional state is the breeding ground of aggression, anger, hate, and envy. A statement like "because of fearing defeat I sometimes attacked more forcefully than necessary" (Oyama 1987, p. 116; translated by the author) unintentionally touches on the psychological explanation of the related and important psychological mechanism called over-compensation" (Dreikurs 1981, pp. 30f.). The psychological mechanism of over-compensation explains why some unnecessary aggression is triggered in situations that could have been resolved differently, more constructively, and without the use of aggressive over-compensation. "Fear is the emotional correlate of feelings of inferiority; and thus, a fearful, discouraged individual is dangerous" (Bayer 2000, p. 71; translated by the author) because of being prone to overcompensation, and, for all intents and purposes, prone to use "damaging physical violence in everyday life—and in the workplace producing emotional damage through degrading, scheming, or 'intellectual destruction'" (ibid. p 71).
The good news is that, when looking at it the other way around, this underlying and explosive combination of low self-esteem, feelings of inferiority, and hidden fear can be reduced by developing true combat skills. Through building up physical and mental strength, inappropriate overcompensating and aggressive tendencies lessen and eventually even vanish, since traditional karate training creates new self-definitions of capability and new self-perceptions of being able to successfully defend oneself and others. Unavoidably, self-confidence and courage eventually will improve and reduce feelings of inferiority.
As Fang Quiniang Sensei, the young Chinese woman who created the White Crane Gonfu style, puts it, as quoted in Article I of the Bubishi: "True power and wisdom come from within and are reflected without . . . This is the way to transcend ego-related distractions . . . People who truly understand the fighting traditions are never arrogant or unscrupulous, and never use their skill unjustly" (McCarthy 2016, p. 159).
The above is an excerpt from Analysis of Genuine Karate: Misconceptions, Origins, Development, and True Purpose by Hermann Bayer, Ph.D., publish date October 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594398438.