The most important source to assess and to reinterpret the old narratives of karate schools

A narrative is a report that adds meaning to, and influences the perception of events among a target group. It is related to a specific field (cultural, political, etc.), conveys values and emotions, and is subject to modification over time. The function of a narrative is to establish and legitimize a desired truth.

All schools of karate have their own narratives, which establish tradition, lineage, personal relations, technical background (sport, combat, streetfight), a philosophy and the like. Narratives are also used to differentiate one’s school from others, and to highlight one’s own importance relative to others.

In other words, the official narratives of the various schools almost became the world view of its members.

The narratives of the major karate schools – such as Shitō-ryū, Shōtōkan, and various branches of Okinawa Shōrin-ryū – were created and became established during the postwar era, i.e. after 1945. These narratives are interpretation attempts of the information available at the time, for instance, the writings, oral traditions, and techniques handed down by a certain founder. Persons like Matsumura and Itosu are highlighted in various written and technical narratives to establish and concrete a legitimized or orthodox tradition. For example, prefixes of famous people were added to kata names, such as in the case of “Matsumura Rōhai” of Shitō-ryū, which in fact did not come from Matsumura at all. With more and more primary information being unearthed, the supporting pillars of many of those old narratives start to crumble, and not to the particular joy of their votaries.

There is one primary source that was unavailable to any of those who formulated the narratives of the various karate schools in the postwar era. This is Motobu Chōki’s Watashi no Karatejutsu.

The book Watashi no Karatejutsu contains knowledge, firsthand information, and original accounts imparted by Motobu Chōki and printed already in 1932. Why, then, wasn’t it considered by everybody when it was published already in 1932?

Well, the existence of the book was unknown until the 1980s!

In the 1980s, the wife of a deceased student of Motobu Chōki send the book to Motobu Chōsei. This is the only known original edition in existence! The date 1932 is printed in the publication info page in the book. But it has never been published publicly. Motobu Chōsei produced a number of private facsimile reproduction of the book and sent the original back to her. At that time, the book was still unknown to the public.

Appearance of the 1932 original edition

Then, in 1993, Motobu Chōsei and the Nihon Karate-dō Morobu-kai published an official reprint of the book.  There were maybe 200 or 300 of this edition, many of which were given as presents to students or to libraries.[1] Like this, Watashi no Karatejutsu by Motobu Chōki became available to the public for the first time, albeit in a relatively small number.

At some point in time, Motobu Chōsei also gave one of the 1993 editions to Iwai Kohaku (aka Tsukuo). Later, in 2000 Iwai republished the book by himself.[2]  At this point in time, it became more widely available in Japanese karate circles. 

But Western karate circles also noticed the significance of this book. At first, Joe Swift sent a letter to Motobu Chōsei, showing his interest to translate the book. But Patrick McCarthy also worked on it and published in 2002. While his work is a compilation of all sorts of material on Motobu Chōki, it also contains a translation of Watashi no Karatejutsu of 1932.

In other words, the knowledge, firsthand information, and original accounts imparted by Motobu Chōki in 1932 came to be known in Japan only 60 years and in the West only 70 years after its original publication. 

Moreover, the postwar narratives of karate – Shitō-ryū, Shōtokan, the various branches of Okinawa Shōrin-ryū – were created and propagated without knowing or considering the information provided by Motobu Chōki.

What does it all mean?

Simple. It means that Motobu Chōki’s Watashi no Karatejutsu is the most important source to assess and to reinterpret the old narratives of karate schools.

For example, in order to correctly assess and interpret Itosu’s technical tradition, you need to study about Bushi Nagahama, and that you can almost only do by using Watashi no Karatejutsu.

By the way, I am in the process of publishing an English translation of this text in early 2020. Motobu Naoki sensei, grandson of Chōki, and I have been working on this translation for quite some time.

Footnotes

[1] Motobu Chōki: Nihon-den-ryū Heihō Motobu Kenpō. Sōjinsha 1993. 本部朝基著:日本伝流兵法本部拳法。拡大復刻版。壮神社、平成5年。

[2] Iwai Kohaku: Motobu Chōki to Ryūkyū Karate. Tōkyō, Airyūdō 2000. 岩井虎伯:本部朝基と琉球カラテ。愛隆堂、2001。

© 2020, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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