Every year, only interrupted by COVID19, students of the US-dojo I train at join our sensei for a trip to Okinawa for our continuing education in Karatedo and Kobudo at its source, at our Honbu Dojo on Okinawa, the “Birthplace of Karate”. The experience of such a trip to (Kara-) Te’s origin is invaluable, though it is difficult to put into words the specific feelings you go through as a karateka when you start to grasp why and how the milieu of the Ryukyus shaped our art the way it did.

If you are open, humble, willing to learn and to understand, you dive into something special. A particular world opens up to you, a holistic learning experience―somewhat new but familiar nevertheless through our art’s philosophy, values, tradition, and etiquette― which you already encountered in your sensei’s teachings, but which now brings its inherent components to life.

Okinawa is a Mindset

What is this peculiarity? It could be the laid back, kind, open, honest, caring, and modest disposition of the locals. Or it perhaps is your Okinawan sensei bringing you to your limits and beyond through a specific steaming training experience in a hot and humid, non-air-conditioned traditional dojo. Maybe it is coming close to the island’s rich and unique history congealed in monuments, shrines, symbols, customs, traditions, and historic landmarks. Then there is the impressive and humbling experience of standing in front of tombs and monuments of our Karate grandmasters who passed their wisdom and their knowledge into all the kata and routines we practice today―but supposedly it is the combined impact of all that and of more, which brings me to my opinion that Okinawa is not just an island and not just the “Birthplace of Karate”, but that “Okinawa is a Mindset”. If you don’t feel that when visiting, you’ll miss the full richness of Karate. This richness opens up to you especially on a Sunday in October, on Karate Day, when more than 2,000 karateka demonstrate kata together, moving individually but connected by their spirit and by the ebb and flow of their shared rhythm, like a swarm of fish or a flock of birds.

The “Day of Karate” in Naha, Okinawa

In the year 2005 the Okinawa Prefecture Assembly passed a resolution declaring October 25th Karate no hi, the “Day of Karate”. This date connects back to the year 1936, when at the famous “meeting of the masters” it was decided―though not without substantial political sway by mainland Japan’s Karate officials against reluctant Okinawan masters―to adopt the official name of “Karate” [in its connotation of “open hand”] for the island’s genuine martial art “Te”. While I here neglect the political aspects of that meeting and the involved change of the art’s purpose from jutsu to do, from self-defense to self-development (you find details and explanations on all that in my books, Analysis of Genuine Karate Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), we all agree with this date’s importance for Karate’s evolvement into a worldwide recreational and athletic activity, and we applaud the Okinawan officials’ decision to preserve this special day in history.

Since then, the Okinawan Prefecture and Okinawan Karate circles hold commemorative events on October 25th every year; specifically, kata demonstrations by headmasters of the Okinawan Karate styles at the Karate Kaikan, a beautiful training hall for dentou Okinawan Karate, erected 2008 with ostentation as the Okinawan Karate community’s response to the Budokan, which was built by mainland Japan’s budo officials in 1996 as a training hall for Japanese martial arts native to the mainland. Whereas the top-of-the-line kata spectacle at the Kaikan is reserved for invited guests only and not easily accessible for Western karateka, the mass demonstration of kata the following Sunday on Kokusaidori [the main street in Naha, Okinawa] is open to all spectators.

However, I was honored twice. In 2019, my US-sensei and accompanying students were invited into the closed circle at the Kaikan on October 25, and we had the privileged two-hours opportunity to watch and learn from the most senior Okinawan Karate authorities. Then, in 2023, we were personally invited by Hanshi Nakazato Minoru [Chairman of Okinawa Ken Karatedo Rengokai, and President of Shorin Ryu Shorinkan as well as of Okinawa Kobudo Kokusairengokai] to participate in the kata demonstration on Kokusaidori as members of the Shorin Ryu group in “Area IV”, in one of the areas designated to the four official Okinawan Karate and Kobudo associations which constitute the umbrella organization Okinawa Dento Karatedo Shinkokai that represents all of traditional Okinawan Karate.

The feeling of being part of a group of 2,000 karateka [as the only two foreigners amongst our Okinawan brethren in Area IV] doing Fukyu One Kata together, followed by Naihanchi Ichidan and Passai Dai, and closing up with 100 middle-punches in a horse stance, I can only express as being honored and humbled to the core. We shared pure joy when re-encountering fellow karateka we have not seen since 2019, we felt the respect of our Okinawan friends when performing kata as fast and as precise as they do, and we burned and cut our bare feet together while stepping and standing on a sunbaked and coarse street for more than two hours.

After this emotionally and physically challenging event, I found it necessary to clear my head by recollecting the impact and meaning of Karatedo and Karate-jutsu for me personally. A multitude of places and situations allow, nay “forces”, a karateka on Okinawa to reflect on their personal interpretation of their art. In my case, taking in the breathtaking beauty of Hacksaw Ridge, which strangely contrasts the horror this place endured during the Battle of Okinawa, I looked back how Karatedo became my fundamental approach to everything, and I found three main areas how Karatedo and Karate-jutsu formed my life and me in person, which could be a roadmap for a fellow karateka as well.

How Karatedo and Karate-jutsu Impacts Lives

1. The obvious: mental and physical strength. Karatedo helped me to understand continuous improvement while pursuing an endless path without ever reaching a finish line, though giving one’s best in every move and all the time. Such a mentality served me well in my professional career and in my private life on many occasions. Karatedo further helped me to maintain a flexible mind while growing older, because it requires to permanently learn new things and to figure out endless applications of moves, what they nowadays call “brain exercise”. Not only that, Karate of course aided me physically to gain strength and overall health, as well as to understand and to control my body and my movements. All this strengthened my brain and my organs, improved my immune system, and maintained physical mobility and mental flexibility into my mid-seventies.

2. The hidden impact: self-control and self-confidence under pressure. Karate-jutsu allowed me to develop situational awareness and combat capabilities. Focus, timing, distance, angles, and the art of receiving and giving enabled me to hold my ground in fights, which initially was one of my goals when I started to train in the early eighties. This allows me to stay confident and in control, to reduce anger and fear; to remain calm under pressure in challenging situations and to think before I act. Thus, I was able to master some extreme situations while sailing through a storm, literally as a skipper, and allegorically by resolving the challenges of life.

3. The better person: increased humility and reduced egoism. I learned that I, myself, am my biggest enemy in my “fight within myself”, that my mistakes are not as important as correcting them, and that giving your best every time will only get you so far. Instead, the path never ends and getting feedback to improve is necessary. All that makes it easier to recover from setbacks, to stay humble, to continuously learn, and to maintain a “beginner’s mindset” despite what I think I’ve achieved.

Thus, I am on my way from a self-centered academic to a modest person, a karateka who encourages others to achieve their goals.

The above is an original article by Hermann Bayer, Ph.D. author of Analysis of Genuine Karate 1: Misconceptions, Origins, Development, and True Purpose, Publication Date October 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594398438 and Analysis of Genuine Karate 2: Sociocultural Development, Commercialization, and Loss of Essential Knowledge, Publication Date July 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399244.