I was lucky enough to stumble across the delightful, generous, warm and wonderfully sharp person that is Brenda through a Facebook group for women who practise martial arts. In a discussion on the role of martial arts in recovery and healing from mental illness, Brenda posted her short piece on the body-mind-spirit connection, plotting out her journey as a martial artist in correlation with the unity of body-mind-spirit. I was moved by her love for karate and the way she conceptualised her relationship between these three elements of herself. Following on from this early interaction, Brenda and I have been exchanging ideas and emails around karate, martial arts and her book ‘Dancing in the Kara of Te’.
(Brenda is a black belt in Okinawa go-ju (hard-soft) kara-te with over 23 years of experience and is the founder of Salt Spring Shorei-Kan dojo on Salt Spring Island, Canada)
Dancing in the Kara of Te opens with a look into the first written account (in 1816) of Okinawan dance and kara-te. The dance witnessed by a British colonialist was performed by a remarkable Okinawan man called Maehira. I wanted to know more about Brenda’s relationship with Kara-te and its roots in Okinawan dance.
(Naha port, Okinawa, from Captain Basil Hall’s journal depicting his 1816 encounters in Okinawa)
I realise that you mention in your writings that you don’t feel sufficiently historically grounded to render a deep historical recollection of Okinawan kara-te. However, I found your account very informative and riveting …
Brenda: Much appreciated, but such caution is necessary. The Caucasian-Canadian wife of the good friends who hosted me in Okinawa took me to task about any non-Okinawan daring to say anything about the place and people. To my shock, she ended our friendship over my refusal to state any opinion about one of our very senior white-guy teachers performing a kata to western music. I was a junior belt then, so didn’t think it my place to say, plus she and I both knew that he had cleared his music choice with the Okinawan head of the entire international organization. When you lose a friend over such a thing, it’s very daring to write anything about Okinawa, even as a tourist who hopes that in-depth, on-going study allows for careful comment.
I would very much like to understand your opinion on the presentation of kara-te as uniquely “Japanese”, and whether you think that this term is historically placed to encompass kara-te’s Okinawan roots. Does the idea of kara-te as Japanese obfuscate its origins and cultural grounding?
Brenda: Absolutely. Even in “The Karate Kid” movies, old master Miyagi rejects being called Japanese, insisting on “Okinawan”. In Okinawa, albeit for only one brief visit 25 years ago, I saw, heard about, and talked with numerous young Okinawan women who refused to date or marry Japanese men. A movie that embodies the dichotomies and confusions about the Okinawan-Japanese-American amalgam is “Hotel Hibiscus”, 2002, which I can’t find to stream, download, or buy now. Too bad. Here’s a summary.
I watched it with my sensei, a rare Japanese man to marry an Okinawan woman (met when he was studying the history of Okinawa and karate for his master’s thesis at Okinawa’s Ryu-Kyu University). He helped me understand much of the symbolism and depth that I’d have missed otherwise, starting with the hibiscus being the Okinawan symbol of loss of “mabui”/spirit, i.e. death. Scroll down to Mabui here, where the movie is mentioned.
If you have time, please read Gichin Funikoshi’s autobiography, which covers the difficulties Okinawans faced when taken over by Japan. You can get a used copy for a good price here. He also makes clear, by stating three times in different ways, that the karate way is not competitive. He’s spinning in his grave over how it’s been turned into a win-lose sport by Japanese and American interests who have severed the movements of the art from their Okinawan roots and purposes. What most of the world knows today as “karate” shouldn’t bear the name. It’s fine for what it is, but it most definitely isn’t karate, which, by definition, is the karate-way.
In terms of understanding dance and kara-te, do you find it useful to separate the two?
Brenda: Impossible. There is no separation. “The essence of the karate way,” my teacher’s teacher, Seikichi Toguchi wrote, “is the ability to smile at any occasion.” Not that you do smile, except when appropriate, but that the ability is always there. That’s the dance inside – the karate way, which is a deep expression of the Okinawan way. There is no karate itself, there is only the karate-way, which has a dance inside, or it’s just movement craft, not even an art.
What do you think would be the outcome of teaching martial arts as being integrated with dance? You mention in your writing that you believe that teaching the inner kara-te dance could help students aspire to a kind of flow and integration of dance with their martial arts –
Brenda: First, the karate way is not a martial art. There’s nothing martial – Mars, the god of war – about it. I consistently call it a self-defence art, which it most certainly is, plus a whole bunch more, because it’s always karate-DO, or the way, the path, the journey of body-mind-spirit integration where one never throws the first strike, then invoking every possible strategy to avoid striking to get to win-win solutions. These strategies go through four stages: getting away, changing the dynamic with good humour, positioning to de-escalate, then taking physical control such that the person feels inordinate pain, with the risk of breaking themselves if they dare to move. Only when dire injury and death are in the balance is it okay to strike, then striking and killing are done as quickly and efficiently as possible, to end the problem mercifully.
‘The first priority of kara-te is to serve justice – to do oneself justice, as well as our relationships, our community, the world beyond, and the art itself.’ This is such a beautiful mantra to live by! I’m really curious, how do you feel you’ve been able to apply this to your own kara-te journey and wider life? How has this mantra transformed for you as you’ve made your way through your kara-te journey?
Brenda: Nothing has transformed for me. As a kid, like all kids, I had a profound sense of what was fair and not fair. I never let go of my “justice antennae”, nor my certainty when others are played for fools, dupes, suckers, scapegoats, powerless beings, as well as demi-gods, above others, etc. It’s the ultimate disservice to the human soul, leading to all the ills of the world.
At age 10, I started to actively consider what it takes to be a good teacher – to pass on the best of what we know and have learned. While taking an M.Sc. in Education, I learned about many, many teaching theories and applications. While some addressed justice indirectly, none had any overt method for ensuring that it’s done, for all students individually and collectively, for the subjects at hand, for the greater world and good. Only when I stumbled into the traditional Okinawan karate-way did I find the philosophy and tools needed to do this. Despite having some crappy teachers, with the egos of too many of them destroying everything they’d worked for and hypocritically said they believed in, the art kept shining through.
The karate-way, when understood and lived, becomes a self-correcting art. The answers are within it. This makes it a self-teaching art, a self-purifying study. Thus, the karate-way purifies the body-mind-spirit integration of those who follow this path. Which is to say, it has clarified who and what I have been all along, no transformation whatever, rather coming into my own. There is no arrival, because there’s no such thing, just continual strengthening of the foundation of justice, so that key truths come clear, from which trust can grow, leading to win-wins every step of the way, inside and out, for one’s self, those encountered, the community, and the larger world.
The karate-way is also a dream, a spirit, a ghost, a shadow-art. We can only achieve these things when we acknowledge these things and learn to dance with them.
If you’re interested in reading Brenda’s book ‘Dancing in the Kara of Te’ in full, you can purchase the book on her website here.