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TO KUROHIME VIA KARATE

Reflecting on life’s amazing twists and turns

by C.W. Nicol

I came to Japan in October 1962 to learn martial arts.

Since the age of 14 I had practiced judo — taught to us at the YMCA in the leafy, western English town of Cheltenham by an ex-marine commando hard man. At 15, I met my first Japanese person, the legendary judo master Gunji Koizumi, who had been sent to Britain by the Kodokan Judo Institute toward the end of World War I to teach judo. That was still at the time of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. Two world wars later, Koizumi visited us in Cheltenham, and his skill and his gentlemanly manners seemed, to this then 15-year-old hairy-bottomed Briton, nothing less than awesome.

It was about then that I first heard about karate. An American military policeman called Mike Devito, stationed at a local base, used to come and train with us at weekends. He regaled us with tales of a mystical fighting art called karate, whose practitioners could kill with a single blow. At that time, when I sometimes had to tussle with Teddy Boys — local townie louts with slicked-backed greasy hair, funny long jackets with velvet collars and “drainpipe trousers” — that facility sounded rather handy. However, in the mid 1950s there were no real karate instructors in Britain.

By 1962, I had gleaned enough about karate to believe its origins were in Okinawa. I almost hero-worshipped Mike, and liked Americans in general. But as much as American music, films and literature loomed huge in my life, by the age of 22 my feelings were turning against the mayhem in Vietnam.

Returning at that time from an expedition to the pristine peace of the Arctic, I had no wish to go to islands under U.S. military occupation. However, judo friends in Montreal had told me that in the early years of the 20th century, an Okinawan master had gone to Tokyo, and that there were now several schools and styles of karate flourishing there.

Stagger and dodder

So, in October 1962, Tokyo became my destination. Stemming directly from that, I now live in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, and have done so since 1980. Beneath my study and library is a small dojo, or gymnasium, where I still stagger and dodder through the practice of karate despite worn, creaky joints and an ongoing battle of the bulge.

On a few occasions, however, karate — whose Chinese characters are generally translated as “empty hand” (although I prefer to interpret them as “open hand”) has saved my life. It has given me lifelong friends all over the world. And it has provided a kind of focus and balance that other physical activities could not.

As I get closer now to 70, I have to confess that if asked what karate is, I could no longer come up with any of the easy, standard answers I did when I first gained a black belt at the age of 24.

But to explain that apparent difficulty involves traveling again to the archipelago of Okinawa, strung out as it is like a necklace glinting across the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea. Comprising more than 150 inhabited islands, many isolated by distance, ocean currents and storms, and often surrounded by deadly reefs, the small populations on these specks of land each developed their own language and culture, and were historically often in sometimes hostile competition with each other.

Meanwhile, China’s influence on Okinawa has been huge. No small wonder. You can see Taiwan from the southern islands. China’s official contact with Okinawa, which they called Liu Chi’u (Ryukyu), began in the sixth century. By 1372, Chinese-Okinawan relations were official, with the King of Okinawa declaring allegiance to the Ming Emperor of China. This greatly increased China’s cultural influence on Okinawa — including in the martial arts.

Okinawa had been a unified kingdom since 1429. Between 1432 and 1570, it established 44 embassies in Annam (modern Vietnam), Thailand, Malaysia and among the many kingdoms of Java. All these embassies included warriors attuned to the fighting arts. Their experiences were bound to feed into the culture back home.

Among the many influences was the fighting style of the Shaolin monks, who had originally been brought to China from India. Over the centuries, such arts mingled with older fighting styles introduced from elsewhere in Asia.

With their small, scattered island populations, Okinawans had to learn to defend themselves — and with all this knowhow in the air, they developed a fighting art known as tode, te or ti — which basically means “hand.” It was a style of fighting that emphasized quick killing or maiming of an opponent. It certainly wasn’t a sport.

When I first practiced karate, I was told a simplified version of its origins. According to this, samurai from the fiefdom of Satsuma in southern Kyushu subjugated the Okinawan archipelago in 1609. They then banned Okinawans from the use of bladed weapons such as swords and halberds. Consequently, native warriors developed and polished their traditional arts into a more clandestine form of self-defense, in which agricultural or seafaring tools — such as sickles, flails, hand-mill handles and oars — were used to augment otherwise unarmed combat.

After subduing the islands, the Satsuma authorities still needed to recruit local officials to help police the populace, and although these Okinawan warriors did not carry swords, they bore long fighting staffs and steel truncheons with widely curved hilt guards known as sai. To this day, sai, usually used in pairs, are deadly weapons that augment karate moves and can be used by the truly skillful to overcome spears or swords.

The practice of karate has been a huge influence on my life, but it wasn’t until 1975 that I finally got to Okinawa. I was seconded from Environment Canada to the Ministry of External Affairs in order to become the Assistant Manager of the Canadian Pavilion at the International Ocean Exposition. What a fabulous gig! I stayed for eight months in Okinawa and became enamored of its food, drinks, music, dance, martial arts, coral reefs and pretty well everything else except the huge expanses of priceless land still occupied by U.S. military bases. And that was even though Okinawa had officially reverted to Japanese rule.

Greedy construction industry

That return to Japanese rule, however, also gave the green light to a greedy and politically well-connected construction industry to “develop” — actually, to ravage for profit — the islands. More environmental havoc has been wreaked since the reversion to Japanese rule than was ever inflicted during World War II.

But as economically subdued as they may be, or otherwise pandering to the artificially bloated construction industry, ordinary Okinawans must also admit to and share the blame.

Despite a sadness nearing despair over changes to the environment that I have witnessed over the past 30-odd years, I still love Okinawa, and gladly accepted the chance to do a documentary television program in an NHK World series called (in English) “The Japan the Japanese Didn’t Know.” Rather a grandiose title perhaps, but a central theme on the origins of karate runs through the program — and besides, few Japanese know much about the history and culture of Okinawa, even those who have practiced some karate.

The last bit of filming we did was on April 14 this year. We went to Yagaji Island, Nago. This is reached by a long bridge across beautiful coral reefs. Our filming was during the annual shii mii devotions, when Okinawans visit their family tombs to clean them and have a party in memory of their ancestors. We chose our location because there the tombs are cut into the rocks along the shore. These folks’ ancestors were immigrants to this part of the Okinawan kingdom, and land was too scarce for any to be given over to graves.

The tiny, uninhabited island is also named Yamaton Chuumi (“Japanese forest”), because legend has it that a lone Satsuma man once lived there (what kind of fascinating tale that would be!). To get to this tiny island of tombs, people wait for low tide and then cross the mud flats on foot. The islanders allowed us to film and the weather was fine. A few white clouds scudded across blue skies, and tiny white butterflies were fluttering over the tidal flats. Undisturbed by our passing, platoons of white egrets stood on sentry duty aboard fishing boats resting on the mud.

By then, only three of the shoreline cave tombs remained to be tended. The others had been neglected, their stone entrances smashed open by crashing typhoon waves. Broken shards of funeral urns were scattered on the muddy shore. I think somebody must have tidied up the bones. Shii mii visiting parties can be quite lively, with shamisen playing, singing and dancing. This group was rather quiet. The people cleaned up the area in front of a single tomb, changed the flowers, placed offerings, burned some packs of yellow grave money, then spread out blue plastic sheets on which to sit and enjoy sushi and other tidbits washed down with beer and awamori (liquor distilled from Thai rice).

Until the 1950s, it was the custom in Okinawa to leave the dead in a temporary grave for a few years. Then, when the flesh had decayed, the bones were cleaned with awamori, put in a funeral urn and placed in their final resting place in a family tomb. On this island, family bones all went in the same urn together, presumable until it was full.

A solitary old man

While the surviving relatives were having their little party, a solitary old man was wandering over the tidal flats, turning over rocks and catching small crabs. When I wandered out and asked if he intended to cook and eat them, he answered no, explaining that the crabs made a fine fishing bait. An osprey darted over the flats, then rose and darted on a fish in the calm water beyond. The osprey, the herons, the quickly scuttling crabs and the strange little perambulating, jumping mud-skipper fish carried on with what they did.

I, meanwhile, stood apart and alone for a while — remembering the American Mike Devito, and wondering about all the tides and turns that brought me to this corner of the world.