Sep 11 1996

Training on Okinawa in the 50’s

I wrote the following, in response to many CyberDojo articles being submitted about the “modern” dojo and “modern” training methods. Much of the discussion included lots of training that had very little to do with karate. Some of the participants asked about training on Okinawa, especially as karate was practiced many years ago. My statements brought quite a bit of mail and a phone call by Uechi students who were a bit shocked and somewhat confused over what I had written. Judge for yourself… GEM

I’m getting exhausted just reading about the many exercises modern dojo have incorporated into their workouts. During our lifetime, many of us will go through this phase of testing ourselves and our students in the name of superior karate training. If throwing a few kicks, punches and blocks in a kata is good, then testing oneself during training by throwing 10,000 punches, kicks and blocks in drills must truly be great!

Recently a fellow CyberDojo friend asked me to write an article for a new publication. He asked me to write about the “good old days” on Okinawa and “what was the training like back in the 50’s?” One of the areas of training that I remembered was the absence of calisthenics type of exercises. I learned a warm-up set of basic exercises that included a techniques from the kata. Most of the emphasis was on the actual karate. . . kata (forms), bukai (applications), Kumite (prearranged and freestyle sparring), Kotekitae (arm conditioning) and strength drills (use of various devises to enhance the muscles used to deliver karate techniques).

My classes with Tomoyose Sensei lasted about 2- 21/2 hours and were quite strenuous. I don’t ever remember leaving a session with a feeling that I hadn’t put out 150%. . . but the energy was spent doing karate, not just exercising. The training was quite different than any exercise program I had ever participated in before, which caused me to question everything I was learning. When I asked Tomoyose the difference between the Uechi-ryu training and Western exercises he stated that all the strength, speed, coordination, accuracy and most importantly the “spirit” comes from the kata. . . and most especially from Sanchin!

Although we practiced specific techniques from kata as drills, Tomoyose stressed that this was to help learn the sequences of the moves . The ability to use the movement comes from the kata. He further clarified the issue by saying that the farther removed the techniques were from the kata, the less effective they became. Learning a snapping-block (Hajiki-uke) as part of a kata, creates a different and more effective “muscle memory” than a block simply repeated a thousand times in the form of a drill.

Although he allowed me to practice on a makiwara (pounding stake), he repeatedly emphasized that it was unnecessary and actually blocked correct development of both the punch and the fist-weapon. As a 19 year old, I was more interested in feeling the pain and exhausting/exhilerating feeling of hitting that board than hearing what I believed to be the truth. Yes, I knew that Tomoyose was correct. . . my body and mind would develop best through the kata. . . but it felt so good to hit that board! (Tomoyose had a makiwara in his backyard and had in the past practiced on it. As a youth, he had learned Go-jyu under Chojin Miyagi for five years and was familiar with all the traditional Okinawan strength-training devises of the era.)

On Saturdays I would work out at Master Kanei Uechi’s dojo, where he would critique my progress and make recommendations to Tomoyose regarding my training. Master Uechi was an innovator and believed in expanding the teaching of the art to include the general public and possibly the world! In this regard, he embraced all the generic Okinawan training tools and innovations that he believed would help his students become better Uechi-ryu practitioners. This was a bit at odds with Tomoyose’s deeply felt beliefs regarding the training. Like his father, Tomoyose felt more comfortable with the Chinese way of training rather than the Okinawan and later Japanese influenced methods.

In Wakiyama Japan, the original dojo where Kanbun Uechi (The man who studied the original moves in China) first taught, no exercises were taught as part of the class. . . at least not in 1966. Ryuryu Tomoyose, the first student of Kanbun Uechi (father of my teacher) and then head of the dojo, claimed to teach only what Kanbun taught him. Ryuryu only learned Sanchin and Seisan kata, which he continued to teach. Additionally, his class was heavy influenced by two person drills with emphasis on arm conditioning and free style sparring.

I don’t know exactly when Kanei Uechi created the additional kata of Kanshiwa, Kanshu, Seichin, Seiryu and Kanchin, but I do recall that Kanshiwa and Seichin were part of my original training back in 1957-58. Additionally, Kanei had already created a two person drill (Yakusoku Kumite) which I called Kumite #1. When I returned to Okinawa in 1965, Uechi Sensei had just introduced Kyu and Dan Kumite,(which replaced the old Kumite #1) and the kata Kanshu, Seiryu and Kanchin. He also formalized the exercises. He had created a set of 10 warm-up exercises, (Junbi undo) and Supplementary exercises (Hojo undo). The Junbi-undo were the original ones I had learned. Simple stretching exercises beginning with the feet and finishing with the neck. The Hojo-undo were movements from the kata. . . blocks, punches, kicks and elbow strikes. . . with a few steps thrown in.

Hope all this trekking down memory lane and reliving a snapshot of times past is of some help. Its been fun for me.


One of the more interesting letters was sent to Okinawa . . . essentially asking if what I had said was still true today. Gordi Bryette was kind enough to share with me his response. . . and gave me permission to quote him in this article.

From Mike Murphy to Gordi Breyette:
I don’t know if you have been reading the cyberdojo lately, but recently GEM wrote a letter concerning training on Okinawa. I was wondering if what he said is accurate [today]. In case you haven’t read it, he stated (I’m paraphrasing) that Tomoyose sensei didn’t believe in training with makiwaras, etc. He said that all your training could be got through practicing your kata instead. Do all, or most, of the Uechi dojo train heavily with the various conditioning tools?

Gordi Breyette’s reply:

I did read the letter from GEM – in fact, he sent it to me at the same time it got posted, so I have an isolated copy to print out and give my students, if I wish.

I was going to put together a commentary to send him personally, and since I am on the subject, will cc this to him as well.

The gist of it is that he is right – most Okinawan Dojo do have and use much training equipment these days, but many foreigners misunderstand the usage – Okinawan karate-ka build their strength and endurance over long periods of time and mostly through exploration of form and kata, and use this equipment sparingly. In most Okinawan dojo, use of this equipment is sort of like a curative for a specific weakness – a medicine, if you will! Weak punches may be strengthened by various means, including use of certain heavy training equipment. Weak wrists and shoulder joints can be trained by proper use of the makiwara or chisa training. Weak or poorly-balanced kicks may be balanced and focused through use of the heavy bag. However, many foreigners, who visit for only short periods and see this equipment in use at the dojo while they are there, go home later thinking that such practice must be constant. Since they see only a tiny fraction of a year’s worth of training, what they see is generally accepted as a static norm – and so they firmly believe that a daily pounding of fists, lifting weights, even kicking the bags – is all very necessary and very Okinawan! While it is true they saw such training on Okinawa, they didn’t see it all.

One qualification, please – this does not apply to ALL “foreigners”, as I have seen and heard many others ask specifically about such training and receive an answer they didn’t expect – and have modified their personal training (and teachings) with outstanding results. Enough visitors do, however, go away with little understanding of this, or have not asked enough questions or seen enough training, and are today injuring themselves and their students because of a misunderstanding.

In no dojo I have seen downtown is any such training mandatory. I have seen great fighters do bagwork only occasionally, and same with makiwara training, chisa training, and so forth. They work till they have accomplished a certain feeling of ability, looseness, stability in the wrist joint or hip, balance, etc. – then go on to effect an application of this training in kata, bunkai, and kumite. The object of bagwork or makiwara training, etc. is to feel balance and power in the technique – not to do more bagwork – and apply that to the sparring partner, or the street situation!

To be honest, I have also seen great fighters and kata performers do an ENORMOUS amount of bagwork and other strenuous training with dojo equipment – but only during a specific point in their training, and mostly to remedy a specific weakness they have discovered in their form – be it fighting or kata. Once corrected, all this extra exertion tapers off except for occasional periods of “maintenance training”, and this is far less intense than the initial corrective training!

TOMOYOSE Sensei once said something to the effect (not a quote – a paraphrase) that all this equipment training has its place in a student’s life – but only as tool for the understanding of proper body dynamics and motion, and to help learn and practice a good application safely. All such training can be overdone, and overdevelopment in any one area can lead to an imbalance in others.

While we Americans often feel we can find a perfect balance no one has yet found, we as humans naturally tend to gravitate – whatever we might say or feel about the situation – toward our favorite form of exercises or drills, and neglect the others, or just pay them a passing acknowledgment. This is why we are always in need of Seniors who have been down that route before, and were corrected by their Seniors, who in their turn were corrected long ago, and onward. This is when the practice sessions become really hard and strenuous – because we have to do things other than what we really want to do!

I love to hit the makiwara, too – but I also have to stop hitting objects that present no dynamic challenge when I feel the hip motion is good, the shoulder is locked down correctly but still mobile, the wrist is straight and tendons tensed properly to protect the wrist joint, and the follow-through is strong. At that point, the makiwara training has served its purpose – and I am ready to work application in a “less static environment” so to speak. So, the strengthening is accomplished on the inside – not in showing large, callused, deformed knuckles and broken cartilage, but in strong and proper form, good snap in the punch, a clean twist to the delivery at the end, and good internal control of power.

In essence, the power and the real fighting is in the kata – not in the bagwork, etc. The equipment so cherished by many foreigners today is only a set of training tools, and such training, like anything else, can be overdone.

You may quote me.

I reread my article and felt that a number of issues raised might be misunderstood, especially the remark about the makiwara. I sent the following to help clarify this one point.

Excellent and very accurate explanation Gordi. I should have more fully explained my comment about Tomoyose Sensei’s views, but each of my statements might be misunderstood, and I didn’t wish the post to turn into a book!

Tomoyose’s believed in the 50’s and spent a great deal of time trying to get me to understand, the differences between the original Uechi-ryu and the Okinawan contributions. He felt is was important, as part of my training, to keep the history straight. Knowing the differences didn’t affect the way I trained, nor the way I eventually taught when I first returned to America.

Tomoyose emphasized that the makiwara was a tool, to be used to strengthen the tendons and muscles used for a punch. . . not to develop the punch! And certainly not to develop the knuckles! Kanbun taught that the makiwara, (improperly used) created pillows on the fists. Tomoyose often chastised me for abusing the makiwara, showing the weakness in my fist by pressing the end of his thumb between the spaces in my bruised knuckles, smiling as I cried out in pain!

The Okinawans are rightfully credited for adding a dimension to martial art’s training that include the makiwara. Properly used, these devises can help speed up the strengthening of weaknesses in the individual. Such training should be carefully supervised by a competent instructor. Some very traditional teachers believe that these “weaknesses” will be corrected through the kata. . . a bit more slowly, but more healthful and more accurately and that outside devises were not necessary. Tomoyose, I suspect, falls into this category, although he has never gone on record with this view. My statement that “…he repeatedly emphasized that it was unnecessary and actually blocked correct development of both the punch and the fist-weapon. . .” should have been “… and improperly used, will hinder the correct development…” The problem with makiwara training, is that the teacher is very seldom standing over the student as he/she is working on it. And how many students do you know, use it properly????

Tomoyose was fearful (at least back in the 50s), that too much emphasis was being placed on the devises, and not enough on the kata. In spite of the fact that I abused the makiwara and taught a very “extreme” Uechi style upon first returning to the States, Tomoyose’s repeated messages to me were never forgotten. For the past 20 years I’ve been trying to right some of the damage that I started by introducing many exaggerated Okinawan training methods to the outside world and I have been attempting to get teachers to at least understand the philosophy taught by Tomoyose Sensei. . . even if they choose not to accept this more moderate approach to Uechi-ryu. (They, like me, may decide years from now to reevaluate their position. But if they don’t know any other philosophy, they and their students won’t have a choice!)

The West will add their innovations and “devises” to the marital arts, now that so many “eclectic” styles and spin-offs of legitimate systems have been created. It is important, as Tomoyose pointed out many years ago, that we understand where it all came from and how it was done at that time. History will determine if all the devises and modern training innovations have indeed been an improvement or not.

I wrote the post for the Cyberdojo, in response to the many people who were proudly talking about the “extreme” training programs in their dojo. I felt compelled to “shock” them a little, by getting them to think a little bit about what they are doing in the name of karate.

Best, George

Reply by Gordi:

Please feel free to use this wherever you would like. I have found that your article (thanks!) plus my commentary, and your final response to both Mike and me, put together a very powerful statement about “old-style” training – which is often mistakenly viewed as quite a “modern” approach to training. We as Americans have to learn to trust those folks who have been involved in this training as a cultural part of their lives for so many centuries – they had the answers decades before we had the questions.

As I reread everything we have written on this subject, and couple it with what I have been taught and told for so many years, a three-word axiom which applied to ALL my training comes to mind: CONSIDER SAFETY FIRST! Any training which injures or causes disability – other than the expected sore muscles or occasional bruise – must be avoided at all cost! Building power (different from strength) must be accomplished slowly and gently, without damage to the body and spirit of the practitioner or the partner. Even the most severe Sanchin test is built up in a slow and healthy manner, strengthening the body as a whole and teaching the student to integrate body parts safely into a whole and complete unit. This is the message of Sanchin, and karate in general – become a “Whole Person”. This simply can’t be done by going overboard, endangering one’s health for the sake of procuring a set of scary-looking knuckles but compacted metacarpals, huge biceps, triceps, and pecs but no sense of balance when punching or blocking, great abs but no understanding of breathing, muscular legs but poor posture especially in the lower back, and so forth. One CAN have all these desirable attributes – only by balancing the training and going it slow. On the other hand, I have never met a great Okinawan or Japanese fighter who looked like Arnold.

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