George Mattson’s response

by George Mattson

George Mattson’s response to a Uechi student who proclaimed that his style is closer to the original Chinese method than other Okinawan systems. Comment was made on the “Cyberdojo”:

To Karateka on the Cyberdojo:

I have enjoyed reading the ongoing exchange of viewpoints for the past six months, happily allowing others do the work. . . however, after the messages involving Uechi-ryu origins, style purity etc., I felt it necessary to jump into the fray:

The Uechi style as practiced today, technically can be traced back to Kanei Uechi, son of the man who first taught the style outside of China. The movements that evolved over the Kanei Uechi teaching years are quite different in subtle, but important ways than those taught by Ryuyu Tomoyose (Kanbun Uechi’s first student) in Japan. As I visit Uechi dojo throughout the world (including Okinawa), I notice many style changes, which, while maintaining the system’s essence, differ dramatically from what I originally learned on Okinawa back in the 50’s. As far as I remember, there never was a single version of Uechi. I used to drive my teacher crazy, asking him “which variation of a move is the correct one.” He would always reply, “…the one that works for you”.

Masters Kanei Uechi and Ryuko Tomoyose always stressed the benefits of Uechi-ryu that came from the correct practice of the art. The movements should be a journey, not a destination!

I see too many teachers of the martial arts who get locked into a “style” and never grow beyond simple technique. They lose the purpose for doing the movements . . . getting “stuck” defending an understanding of what they did 10 , 20 or more years ago, blindly working harder and harder accomplishing less and less.

The “ryu” or style is, I believe, unique to the Japanese culture and practiced by some in the West with an almost religious fervor. Instead of admitting that movements must relate to individuals and that the teachers role is to help the student in developing his/her individual style, many teachers tend to try and fit everyone into a template that the instructor builds through his/her “style.” If you don’t fit, your options are few! (Find another teacher or denounce your teacher and rename what you do to another “ryu” with you becoming the new 10th dan grand master!)

In China, where less emphasis is placed on pecking order, rank and style, a person can have many instructors and usually practices more than one type of movement. Instead of emphasis on styles and the ego related problems associated with the founder and his/her role with students, the Chinese associated what they were doing with different animals from which the moves are credited. The Chinese instructor’s role was one of a chef, rather than an assembly line worker. The Chinese instructor had many tools to choose from when accepting a person as a student. When Kanbun Uechi left China, he became a living “time capsule”, preserving through his dedicated and “ryu” obsessed students, the movements that were lost in China with time, evolution and assimilation. Uechi-ryu is still there, just in different packages.

During two visits to China as part of a project to discover our Uechi “roots”, I was pleased to find teachers and students who performed techniques that contained what might be called Uechi “signature” moves. Although it would have been great to discover a hidden away school in the mountains where “Uechi” Sanchin, as we know it, was still being practiced, such a possibility was a long shot.

It has been my experience that a style’s value is linked more to the teacher’s ability than any intrinsic superiority of movements associated with a system. I’ve always found dojo to mirror the attitude, intelligence, creativity, imagination and personality of the instructor. Uechi instructors, and probably representatives of other styles, who are bullies, will end up with a small group of equally dedicated bullies. These dojo provide a very small and questionable service to the community and certainly are unable to tap the underlying spirit present in the martial arts for the benefit of their students or the community which they serve.

I would like teachers of Uechi-ryu to look very carefully at how they present and teach the art of Uechi and not so much on the placement of fingers and toes. Understand that pounding on students in class may make for great entertainment for visitors but is unlikely to help your students or build enrollment. Get back to the essentials of Uechi. . . leave the circus acts to the carnival side shows and out of the dojo.

If we want to identify with something uniquely Uechi, I strongly suggest that teachers emulate the way the old masters taught and the way they treated their students. Masters Kanei Uechi, Ryuko Tomoyose and Seiyu Shinjo were powerful martial artists and were extremely influential within the Okinawan Martial Arts community. Yet they were humble, gentle and caring individuals who taught students how to tap their Sanchin energy and strength with probing touches that built confidence, strength and natural breathing. This is the Uechi “ryu” I would like to see preserved.

George Mattson

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