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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, June 19, 2005

Karate kids of yesteryear

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Because karate would not come to Pat Nakata, the determined adolescent from Palama went to karate.

Karate back in the 1930s, seen in these photos from the upcoming exhibit, was just becoming prominent in Hawai'i, and teaching styles varied from instructor to instructor.

Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i

"One of our neighbors was Okinawan, and I would see these old Okinawan men going to his house," recalls Nakata, now 61. "I couldn't see much, but I would watch them punch and kick. One day, I went up to the door and asked (my neighbor) if he would teach me."

But in the 1950s, karate instruction was still largely a private matter, and not one easily extended beyond traditional boundaries. The neighbor was an Okinawan man practicing a martial art developed in Okinawa and imported to Hawai'i by the first wave of Okinawan laborers in 1900. Nakata was sansei, his grandparents immigrating to Hawai'i from a main island of Japan. Even though Okinawa was a prefecture of Japan, the cultural distinction was enough for Nakata to be turned away.

That would have been the end of the story had Nakata simply given up and gone back to the judo lessons he had been taking since age 5. But Nakata — who will be a featured performer and honored guest at the "Hawai'i Karate Roots: 105 Years of Karate in Hawai'i" exhibit at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i — wasn't about to let his destiny slip away that easily.

In 1956, he approached Walter Nishioka, who taught karate at the Moiliili Community Center and asked to be his student. This time ethnicity wasn't the issue, age was. Nakata was a few months shy of 13 and Nishioka wouldn't teach anyone under 18.

"So I dropped by every day that they practiced," Nakata says. "He would see me waiting outside before practice and they would close the door. I did that for two or three weeks until one day he came outside and said, 'You really want to train, don't you?' "

Nishioka told Nakata to get a uniform and come back.

Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i
'Hawai'i Karate Roots: 105 Years of Karate in Hawai'i'

Opening reception:

11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday; exhibition continues through Aug. 19.

Featured: 130 photos, 12 rare karate books and 30 antique weapons; demonstrations by karate practitioners and instructors

Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i

Free, 945-7633 Hawaii Karate Kodanshakai: www.hawaiikodanshakai.com

Destiny grasped.

Nakata proved himself worthy, to the point where, when Nishioka opened his dojo doors to other young students a couple of years later, Nakata was called on to lead the classes.

"I practiced two to three hours every weekday and six to eight hours on weekends," Nakata says. "I'd get up at 4 a.m., doing road work, training, punching my father's papaya tree."

After graduation, Nakata went to Japan to study under Hironori Otsuka, the founder of Wado Ryu Karate, and then to Okinawa, where he was a student of Chosin Chibana, one of the most influential karate masters of his time.

Nakata says he and others who studied karate in Japan during the early rise of the art were indoctrinated in a style that was "more brutal than today."

"Today it's easier and there is more explanation," he says. "... You don't leave bruised and battered like we did."

And yet, Nakata holds tight to the enduring values of karate, both as an active instructor and as vice president of Hawaii Karate Kodanshakai, an organization of local karate elders.

"With the move toward westernization, there's been a tendency to make karate more of a sport," he says. "With Kodanshakai, the first priority is teaching self-defense and character building, which also includes the physical fitness (aspect)."

Chronicling century

Karate historian Charles Goodin shows off a 19th-century flail of wood and metal as he prepares an exhibit at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i. Goodin is also a karate instructor.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Nakata's story is just one of thousands in the 105-year history of karate in Hawai'i. Many more will be shared at the Japanese Cultural Center event through carefully documented photos, books, antique weapons and other collectibles gathered by Charles Goodin, founder of the Hawaii Karate Museum.

"There's the myth that karate was developed by Okinawan farmers to defend themselves against armed samurai," Goodin says. "But if you look at who the teachers were at the time, they tended to be Okinawan nobility and upper-class people.

"It's historically accurate to say that the early karate people tended to be people of means, people who could go to China, receive an education and come back with chuan fa (an early Chinese martial art). Over time they said let's take the best of the China arts and our own tradition, and the result was karate."

In fact, Goodin says, karate was first developed at the height of the Okinawa Ryukyu Kingdom, an independent government rising in the intersecting trade routes between Japan and China.

However, by the time karate was brought to Hawai'i by the first group of 26 Okinawan contract laborers, in January 1900, Okinawa was an impoverished prefecture of Japan.

"These people were very poor and coming from the poorest prefecture, and there was a lot of prejudice," Goodin says. "So when karate landed here, it was landing with a minority group."

Goodin, whose mother is Japanese, was born in Massachusetts and moved to Hawai'i in the seventh grade. As a child, he studied judo in Japan, where his Air Force father was stationed. He took up karate as a Radford High School student and later studied the Matsubayashi-Ryu form of Shorin-Ryu karate under Rodney Shimabukuro. A respected teacher in his own right, Goodin established the Hikari Institute (which includes the museum) to help study and preserve the history of karate in the Islands.

Ahead of its time

Some Japanese weapons will be part of the exhibit. Weapons are very much a part of karate, despite the "empty hand" misconception.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Goodin suspects the art may actually have arrived in the Islands as early as 1896 with an Okinawan named Kisaburo Kawakami. His son was a known practitioner and, as Goodin notes, "usually if the son knew karate, the father did too."

In any case, karate in Hawai'i actually pre-dated karate in Japan by about 20 years, Goodin says. While the martial art may have been known by Okinawans in Japan, instruction didn't begin until Gichin Funakoshi started teaching in the university system around 1922.

But even in Hawai'i, karate was something of a secret, passed down discreetly in homes and backyards within the Okinawan community by men like Chinzen Kinjo, Seio Morikone, Seichi Urasaki and others.

The early form of karate was different than that practiced today. Known early on as karate-jutsu, the art mixed the punching, kicking and blocking skills of Chinese chuan fa with Okinawan grappling (similar to jiu jitsu) and extensive weapons training.

Modern karate reflects the simplified version that was taught on a wider scale in Japan and to U.S. troops during World War II.

Forget that 'empty' hand

Today, many are familiar with the English translation of "karate" as "empty hand," but the actual origin of the word refers to the martial art's Chinese roots.

In the Okinawan language Hogen, karate was originally called tudi — tu (a derivation of Tang as in the Tang dynasty) meaning China, and di meaning hand — China hand.

In Japanese, tudi was pronounced tode (sometimes written toude) or tote.

Another way of pronouncing China was kara, which can also mean empty. However, the kanji characters for kara meaning China and kara meaning empty are different.

"In the 1930s, the Japanese decided they didn't want to practice 'China hand' because they had wars with China and, while they used Chinese language for writing, they weren't Chinese," says karate historian Charles Goodin. "So they sanitized it. They changed the kanji to 'empty hand' because it sounded like a zen concept — very Buddhist, very neutral.

"It was revisionist," Goodin says. "They essentially said, 'let's not emphasize the Chinese or the Okinawan origins of the art.'"

The "empty hand" translation has led some to believe — mistakenly — that karate does not involve the use of weapons. In fact, weapons of several kinds have long been a part of karate.


Hawai'i Karate Museum: museum.hikari.us; 488-5773

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai: seinenkai.com

Hawaii Karate Kodanshakai: www.hawaiikodanshakai.com

As with the Chinese hsing, karate fundamentals are taught in sequences of movements called kata. "These are good because they preserve techniques in sequences that can be replicated," Goodin says. "...They go from movement to movement with transitions and with variations in timing, just like a dance." (Nakata says that in the early days, students might spend years learning and refining a single kata.)

Karate didn't become prominent in Hawai'i until the 1930s.

From the late 1920s until 1934, several karate masters — including Kentsu Yabu, Choki Motobu, Mizuho Mutsu, Kamesuke Higashionna and Chojun Miyagi — visited Hawai'i.

Mutsu and Higashionna in particular were interested in establishing karate clubs like those in Japan. Along with local

Okinawans Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro, Seishin Uehara and others, they helped establish the Hawaii Karate Seinenkai (youth group), which extended karate instruction to non-Okinawans and helped promote the art to the Hawai'i community and to American GIs passing through.

Karate went back underground during World War II, when Japanese cultural practices brought suspicion and the threat of internment. That was followed by another fertile period for karate instruction, when American servicemen trained in karate in Okinawa brought the art back to Hawai'i.

Changing with times

When karate was first brought to Hawai'i, there were no specific forms, no belt system and no tournaments.

"When we look at karate now, we think of the forms as very fixed," Goodin says. "When you do shotokan you do this, when you do shodan you do this. But in the '20s, there were no styles. It was about who your teacher was and where he was from geographically. It was like hula: Each teacher could have their own flavor and way to do it."

All that had changed by the 1960s with the advent of formal instruction schools and professional teachers.

"In Hawai'i, local teachers had regular jobs, and they'd work full-time and teach karate on the side," Goodin says. "But if a teacher came from Japan, a professional teacher, they had to pay for a place to teach, as well as housing, family expenses, food, medical and all of that. To cover that, they had to figure out how to get and keep students."

Where part-time instructors might turn away 90 percent of potential students, the new breed of professional karate teachers often had no such luxury. And with larger classes needed to cover expenses, the method of instruction had to become more generalized and more emphasis had to be placed on marketing the dojo.

"You could say a tournament is a good way to test people, but you could also say it's a good way to build public interest and get students," he says. "It also makes good business sense to promote rank because you can charge for testing and certificates. There's nothing wrong with that if you have to pay for a place and cover expenses, but it's not the old way."

The old way is what Goodin tries to preserve with his dojo. There, you're a white belt until you earn your black belt. Lessons are $5 a month until you become a black belt, then they're free. The dojo doesn't participate in tournaments and only rarely takes part in exhibitions.

"There are different ways to approach things, and it's all good," Goodin says. "What is important is that there is understanding. You can do the kata and not know what it means, but that's like saying the Pledge of Allegiance without knowing what the words mean."

Goodin says he hopes the exhibition at the Japanese Cultural Center will help promote a broader understanding of karate. "It's a way to say 'thank you' to the karate people who gave us so much," Goodin says. "It's ... a way to remember that the essence of karate is restraint, consideration and respect for the dignity of human life."

Reach Michael Tsai at 535-2461 or mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.