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Review Published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts

Cook, Harry. 2001. Shotokan Karate: A Precise History . Dragon Books. 8.5 X 11.5 inches. 328 p. Available only in a hard cover edition from Dragon Associates, Inc.; PO Box 6039. Thousand Oaks, CA 91359 800/717-6288 $75.00.

In the last few years, a small number of extremely good books have been published on the Japanese/Okinawan martial arts, books which have made important contributions to our understanding of these martial arts. Shotokan Karate: A Precise History is the most recent addition to this select list. This book is one of the two or three finest historical treatments given to any martial art, and it is not merely a first class reference work, it is also a grand read. For once, the cliche is true. It does belong on the shelf of every serious karateka and martial artist.

The history of Shotokan is a matter of considerable general interest, and the author's treatment of his subject includes topics of concern to all karateka and most other martial artists. Shotokan's influence on public perceptions of karate and the martial arts has been enormous, and it has had a great deal of influence on karate in general. Most karateka are at least familiar with Shotokan in its JKA version, and many senior karateka in other styles have trained in some form of Shotokan, even if only briefly. The author, Harry Cook is one of the most prolific and informative writers in the martial arts field today. Mr. Cook is a highly skilled martial artist who has been training since 1966. He is a high ranking karate-ka (4th dan in Shotokan, 2nd dan in Goju-ryu [under Morio Higaonna]); he has also trained with Chinese internal systems, Okinawan Kobu-jutsu, and Brazilian Capoeira; and he holds an instructor's certificate in Muay Thai. Mr. Cook has a degree in Chinese from Durham University in England and lived in Japan from 1977 to 1980. His acquaintance with these languages and cultures was of obvious advantage to him in the historical research for this book.

The book is copiously illustrated, and although the reader may recognize some photographs, many have never been published before. No effort has been spared to provide the reader with an attractive book which will last. The paper is of excellent quality; the pages sewn, not merely glued; and the cover durable and attractive. This book is designed to be solid and to withstand frequent readings and consultation without appreciable wear or damage. And this is a good thing. Shotokan Karate: A Precise History means exactly what it says. This is Shotokan as it was and is. The book is firmly based on thorough research, and the path taken by modern Shotokan Karate to reach the form in which it is taught today, is very carefully documented. The text is extensively footnoted, with references to an appendix which contains material too ample for the footnote format. There is a very useful glossary and index. Valuable as such a treatment is, this is not merely a dry organizational history. Numerous stories concerning the more famous karate-ka and extensive quotations illustrate and give vibrant life to the historical narrative. There is a great deal of new material. However, the value of the book consists not only in the presentation of this material, but also in the way it is arranged and interpreted, with the historical data providing compelling support for the author's interpretations. Among the more sensitive subjects discussed are: the role of militarism in the 1930's; the cherished but exaggerated sempai/kohai relationship; the influence of the Japanese university clubs, especially at Takushoku University; the effect of competition; ki; the loss of bunkai training; and the distance which modern Shotokan has traveled from the idealism of Gichin Funakoshi. These topics are all examined carefully, critically, and fairly. Essentially, the book is a narrative history beginning with the development of karate in the Ryukyu Islands to describe the roots of Shotokan Karate in Shorin Ryu.

The author places considerable emphasis on the life of Gichen Funakoshi and his goals in bringing karate from Okinawa to Japan. Gichen Funakoshi was a classical Confucian gentleman who possessed a deep understanding of karate. He attempted to express Confucian ideals in his karate and transmit those ideals through karate to perfect the character of his students. Although Funakoshi discovered that he had to change karate in order to encourage its acceptance by the Japanese, he never lost his Confucian approach to instruction with its emphasis on courtesy. But, Shotokan karate gradually evolved in a society increasingly infected by a destructive military influence antithetical to high ideals. The students at university in Japan in the 1930s were strongly affected by the militaristic indoctrination which was a salient part of everyday life during that period. All university students are at an age when they are extremely vulnerable to this sort of indoctrination and social pressure, and the young Japanese were no exception. They brought militarism into karate from outside society, rather than allowing Funakoshi's ideals, as expressed by karate, to influence society by transforming their lives. The result was to bend the training away from the founder's intentions and to subvert his goals. Shotokan karate and its social value were diminished. Mr. Cook does a great deal to restore recognition of Gichen Funakoshi's son, Yoshitaka Funakoshi who, as a master instructor, 's guidance. World War II took many of the senior karateka to duties and responsibilities outside of Japan, and these men missed the changes in Shotokan as it continued to evolve during the war years under Yoshitaka's increasingly important influence. When those men returned to Japan after the war, they became aware of the changes which had occurred in their absence, and they did not like them. Even the great Masatoshi Nakayama refused to accept the three Taikyoku Kata and Ten-no Kata and denied that they were taught by Gichen Funakoshi. This denial is clearly shown to be untrue. As a result of the tensions between these returning seniors and those who had trained with Yoshitaka, Shotokan karate split into two groups: the Shotokai and the powerful Japan Karate Association (JKA). The deep respect that Funakoshi's students had for their master and his even-handed treatment of these groups helped to hold Shotokan together. But immediately after his death, Shotokan Karate irrevocably split. Animosity among senior men led the JKA administration to commit a major breach of good manners when they failed to send a senior representative to Funakoshi's funeral. This public lack of respect was bitterly resented, and the separate Shotokan organizations followed different paths to become new, if closely related, styles. The JKA and the Shotokai each have separate chapters in this book. After Gichen Funakoshi's death, increasing emphasis was placed on competition within JKA Shotokan, but open tournaments were shunned. In particular, Hidetaka Nishiyama has always strongly disapproved of his black belts participating in open competition. This emphasis on sporting competition within the style has distorted the training, diverting attention to tournament techniques. Classical weapons are not taught at all, in spite of the existence of kata techniques designed to counter such weapons. There is now far too much emphasis on group training in basics. Instructors have neglected kata application to the point where their students find it increasingly difficult to counter techniques from other styles and arts, especially at close range. The senior Japanese instructors are well aware of these trends, and they sometimes deplore the effects that sporting competition has had on Shotokan. However, they are unable to abandon competition, and often display a contradictory enthusiasm for tournaments. Shotokan karate instructors, and especially those from the JKA, rarely permit cross-training and never encourage it. Mr. Cook comments: "As the stress in following a Way lies in action, it follows that while a teacher may be very valuable, the ultimate authority is the student's own experience. The teacher's role is to create situations whereby the student learns from experience, and blind faith in anything is regarded as ultimately pointless. This has a long tradition in eastern thought. The usual cliche offered by Shotokan instructors is that a hunter who chases two rabbits catches neither. I've often thought that these instructors might do better to reflect that the hunter facing a charging lion has a much better chance of survival with a double rifle than with a single shot weapon."

Shotokai has not emphasized sporting competition and has taken a very different path from the JKA, tending towards mysticism. Shigeru Egami had a definitive influence on Shotokai, and considerable space is given to this remarkable man. Although Shotokai training is rigorous, dependence on mysticism in training often results in ineffective technique. The author's experience indicates that when such techniques are demonstrated, results may depend more on the belief of the man being hit and his unconcious cooperation with his instructor than on the amplification of the strength of the technique by mystical forces. Mr. Cook describes the introduction of JKA Shotokan to the west and its subsequent development there, particularly in France, Britain, and the United States. He also examines the famous JKA instructor's course and discusses the careers of some of the remarkable men who passed through that course to bring JKA Shotokan from Japan to the rest of the world. These men became the senior instructors for various national organizations affiliated with the JKA. His discussion of developments in the west is largely limited to the final chapter of the book, but that chapter is of sufficient length to allow him to fully develop his subject, including brief and informative biographical anecedotes concerning the most influential European and American karate-ka.

As Shotokan developed and grew internationally, many fine karate-ka and instructors were trained in western countries. These people are often able to see Shotokan from a different perspective from the Japanese, and sometimes, disagreements between senior instructors have caused national and international Shotokan associations to split, giving birth to new organizations. Regrettably, many of these disagreements have been marked by an increasing tendency to prize organizational growth and status above karate itself. This is especially evident in the disputes which have marred national and international competition, resulting from the enthusiastic emphasis which is wrongly placed on winning. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the occasional disagreements between senior instructors and the resultant fragmentation of organizations, Shotokan has remained a vital and popular martial art, and it has continued to grow.

However, it is possible that the future of Shotokan has moved to the west from Japan, and interestingly, Mr. Cook concludes his story with: "it may be in the West that the Way of Shoto will survive as Gichin Funakoshi would have wished."

Robert E. Dohrenwend, Ph.D.

 

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