28C. A Sporting Business

In the previous two essays I attempted to set the stage for understanding the conditions of Okinawa and Japan at the end of 1945. It was from these nations that karate was to come to America. What affected these nations, the war, the mentality of the nationalistic people, the oppression, the defeat, the devastation, was to affect the exportation of karate from these lands.

It was the end of 1945. Japan had lost the war. It was defeated but not destroyed. Japan still had an extremely strong nationalistic consciousness. The Americans had defeated the Japanese by superior technology, more powerful economic institutions, better natural resources and distribution. Immediately after the war ended Japan wanted to learn the “secrets” of the American institutions but still considered the American people quite barbaric and socially primitive. Japanese leaders set about devouring all the information they could from the Americans. Japanese youth who could afford travel attended American universities. Japanese leaders sent many of the brightest students by scholarship to America to complete their education. Aircraft industries switched to manufacturing automobiles after learning mass production and the assembly line efficiency of America (Fuji Aircraft switched to making Subaru). Financial institutions learned from American counterparts about investing and crediting for profit (Sumitomo, Mitsubishi). Industry learned American technology, quality testing and robotics (Sony, Nikon). Universities sent professors to America to learn the best and return to Japan to teach. Some institutions copied curricula and courses (Waseda, Tokyo Universities). Japan was going to learn how America defeated it.

At the same time the end of the war brought major changes in the organization of the martial arts. After the war General Douglas MacArthur moved quickly to secure Japan. He closed the military academy and war offices of the Dai Nippon Butokukai. With this sweeping move he cleaned out the military officers and military intelligentsia of the nation. But along with the military he closed the remnants of the ancient war arts of archery, swordsmanship, juijutsu, karate, judo and even horsemanship and swimming. I am sure it was not his intention to close the arts but under the profoundly dangerous conditions of occupation MacArthur took no chances.

The ramifications of such maneuver to the martial arts were immense. In one pen-stroke MacArthur decertified all persons holding certification in any of the martial arts in Japan and Okinawa. The instructors of the various arts were suddenly on their own.

Now let’s look at Okinawa, the fatherland of modern karate. Okinawa’s population shrunk from 400,000 to 300,000 people in only a couple of months. Its institutions were destroyed. Ninety percent of its buildings were blown apart. Its fields were pock-marked with bomb craters and its irrigations systems were non-functional. It didn’t even have seeds to plant for the next year. The people were starving and suffering from pestilence and disease. They didn’t have medicines, nor hospitals, nor doctors, nor bridges, nor transportation. They were basically imprisoned on an island without resources, waiting to die.

The American GIs occupying Okinawa had money and were looking for something to do. The Okinawans, on the other hand, were starving and destitute but had nothing to sell to the Americans occupying their once proud island. The Okinawans did have many unmarried women because of the loss of men in the war. They sold them in prostitution and as “comfort girls” to the lonely GIs. But the GIs had more than enough money for the women, and some GIs were looking for something other than prostitutes. Some teachers of the martial arts in Okinawa soon found the American GI, although big in stature and build, had an extremely useless form of fist-fighting. They also discovered that the American GIs were willing to pay high prices to learn to fight the Okinawan way, especially if a goal was involved.

Teachers began to accept American men into their schools. Competition to get GIs raged between schools as instructors tried to make money to feed family and friends. Advertisements went up that a GI could “learn the secrets” and be a black belt in just six months. The short-term contract went over great with the GIs who were scheduled to return to the US in less than a year. They could get their black belt in their spare time in just a few months for what they considered very low prices. Some schools would charge what we today value at $100 for a black belt (1997 prices).

And, perhaps we should not criticise the instructors too greatly either. The money they gained was often shared in the community to help feed the family and friends of the instructor. And we shouldn’t forget that an influx of money meant that the community could “import” materials and foodstuffs from other communities (including the military bases which seemed to have an abundance of food). What the instructors did was not morally wrong; they helped their communities survive by selling a “product” which would raise money for the community.

To come back to the main point, however, the martial arts instructor sold his art for what he could get to survive in these desperate times. Unfortunately a for-profit motive had arisen and was not easily to be controlled. As the number of service men in Okinawa and Japan fell during the 1960s and 1970s more creative opportunities had to be devised. Some instructors, noting that the GIs were returning home after only a short time in training, and knowing how difficult it was to recruit new GIs to train, suggested, for a percentage, that the GIs open schools of their own when they returned to the US. This made a profit for the sensei in Okinawa while opening new markets in foreign countries. Thus, many such US martial arts “masters” were born. (Mr. Kim has often repeated that “America is the land of the green belt sensei.”)

This enterprise of “franchising” dojo in the US for a percentage of the profits led to dilution of the art. The franchising sensei did not supervise the dojo but was an absentee landlord of the school. He collected money and lent his name to the school. The student who had opened a US school may have trained for six months or less when he appeared certification in hand, black-belt around his waist to open a martial arts school. But what did he know? How much could a full-timed employed military person in Okinawa learn from a sensei in less than six months?

Yet, I remember going to just such schools in the late 1960s. I was still a white belt in karate but had several years of training when I went. One in particular I remember well. The instructor was boastful, arrogant and a high-pressure salesman. When I observed him his kihon, kata and kumite rated at less than green belt in the bone fide schools I had previously attended. When asked about how long he trained in Okinawa he was elusive. But he was a good businessman, that is attested by the fact that he still runs a school in the same location (1997).

The “miracle” black belt was born out of necessity in post-war Okinawa. Never will I fault one of those masters for doing what had to be done in a destitute, starving island community. He had something for sale that could save some of his family and friends from starvation. He sold it to survive. But as time went on and Okinawa re-developed self-sufficiency the for-profit motive continued and even worsened. Many martial arts teachers continued to sell their art. Cost increased until they charged exorbitant prices (by 1960 the cost was $1500 for the same black belt in the same six months as cost $100 before). These same teachers expanded the “franchised” dojo concept to include mail-order black-belt certificates, teacher certificates for franchised dojo, etc. These quick-borne miracle masters had not learned the art; they only knew some techniques. They weren’t processed thru the living experience of martial arts as shugyo or sozosha. They knew a little about kihon, kata and kumite and perhaps some protocol and a story or two.

Returning now to Japan, a new enterprise was born. In Japan the economic opportunity of exportation of martial arts was realized a few years later than in Okinawa. The idea of creating a world-wide organization of karate with millions of participants was appealing to several organizations including the Japan Karate Association (JKA). They pushed forward with the idea of a multi-national, perhaps Olympic, competition organization. The first one to jump on the exportation of karate in a mass program was the JKA but it was soon followed by others such as Mas Oyama’s Kyokushinkai.

The first local tournaments were held in 1953. These were the trials which were to set the international stage of tournaments and they were the first karate tournaments in world history. They were condemned by the karate master Gichen Funakoshi. But the tournament drive expanded rather than retracted. In 1954 the JKA held the first Japanese national karate tournament. It soon became the standard from which to measure karate thru out all of Japan and was called the All-Japan Karate Championship. A sport was born.

Soon afterwards Sensei Oshima was sent to Los Angeles, California, USA as an official representative of the JKA. The multinational organization had its start. The emphasis of the organization was to create a karate product which the people would buy. Fighting, self-defense and competition were the main stays of the organization, but competition was the big one. The idea of selling their art as an art was not practical for several reasons; first the Japanese believed that the American was far too undisciplined and unrefined to learn the art to any degree; second, the Japanese knew that America would respond to competition much faster than to art; and third, the Japanese wanted their art to remain theirs.

In 1960 Nishiyama was sent to LA. Unfortunately for Mr. Oshima, Mr. Nishiyama pulled rank on him and took over Oshima’s LA dojo. Mr. Nishiyama’s task was paramount and he stopped at nothing to complete it; to create a karate tournament organization in the US with eyes towards the Olympics.

Less than seven years after the JKA created the very first karate tournament in the world the United States National Karate Championship was born. Mr. Nishiyama was on his way towards his goal. Although the tournament hailed a motley crew of black belts the standard was, perhaps, as high as green belt for first place. There were far more street fighters present than karate-ka that first year but the competition was to improve over time. The idea of competition appealed to the Americans. They flocked to Mr. Nishiyama. But the Japanese nemesis appeared; military control. And when this nemesis reared its head and Mr. Nishiyama didn’t do things the way the “miracle masters” wanted, they split off and made their own competitions and their own national events. America became a land of twenty National Championships, all the only “true and certified” National Championship in the United States.

The late 1960s competitions held the likes of Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Frank Smith, Ray Dalke and Robert Leong (our own Mr. Leong). The standard of competition was being set, but, behind the scene and unconscious to anybody the measuring stick for martial arts was also being established. Competition gave credence to karate. One could go to a tournament and see who was “best.” All the person had to do was to look at who won. I remember going to tournaments and hearing people quit their school right there and join with another school because the other school’s students won the tournament! The standard of excellence in karate was being set at tournaments.

“Objective evidence,” one person told me, “who wins is who’s best. I want to train under the best, only the best.”

I was young in the martial arts then but somehow I thought this person missed a point. It took me years to find the point I somehow felt had been missed that day, but that is an issue for another discussion.

America was not opened as a land for expanding the art in martial arts. It was opened quite by necessity, economic necessity. Its future grew as larger organizations, like the JKA, expanded the sport of karate into a national event. Once America was opened the pragmatic nature of Americans refined the art to a sport, then refined the sport as a measuring stick to compare all karate against. But, something was and is missing here too; the art.

The wily old master sitting on the mat at the shomen of the dojo in Okinawa did not mean to pass the secrets of the art to the Americans. In the post-war years the master needed to stay alive and to help others struggling to survive in his community to stay alive. He sold a part of his art; the “how to fight” part; the least important part. He retained the how to live and die part, the spiritual part. He retained the artistic part where experience, teaching and creative expressiveness came into the art. And, he was right in doing so. Afterall, the Americans soon set the standard for their country in competition, not in art. The Americans wanted fighting and tournaments.

The Americans didn’t know the menkyo, nor were they interested. The wily old master knew it took a lifetime of study to master the menkyo and the GI didn’t have more than six months to a year. What could he sell? He sold what he could when he needed to, then slipped back into obscurity.

In the late 1950s Japan started to compete with American businesses. Japan had been defeated in the Second World War. It was not going to be defeated again. But the new war was in business not violence. The same samurai spirit of the war emerged in business as was attested by the improvements made in post-war production. Its cameras excelled. Its automobiles took the American public by hoards. Its sound technology matched any in the world. Its televisions and videos became second to none. Japan bought up American land, industries, technologies, department stores, and even banks. In this massive business war Japanese karate super-organizations looked for the niche to make money and retain power. It was in the control of competition, the Olympics.

Karate was exported attached to a bill to be paid in full.

Some people argue that we are still fighting the Japanese in the Second World War. The weapons of this war are economic weapons, they say, rather than bombs and bullets. Others believe the Japanese have won the Second World War already. I don’t know these things. I only know that karate in the US was brought here originally because of economic necessity and later organized as a big business with the Olympics being the main determinant of who is to be the leader of that business.

Susan wonders why the thousands of Sensei in Japan and Okinawa haven’t exported the deeper aspects of their art.

First, there is little to no room in view of the competition aspect of karate. We, in America, are often confronted with why we don’t compete in the tournament circuit, or why we don’t use gloves and full-contact. Many people associate competition with karate. The idea of karate as art is almost beyond the comprehension of many people. Masters in Japan don’t export the art because there just isn’t much of a market for the art in America. And perhaps the masters really aren’t interested in competition so they stay at home running their own small dojo.

Second, the art takes a life-time not a few months. Masters remain silent to anyone who is unwilling to devote many years. Americans want quick results, and immediate gratification. Some people think that three to seven years to become a black belt is way too long. With reference to the study of his art the old master in Okinawa thinks in terms of decades, not months or years. The American attitude of moving, changing jobs, changing hobbies and quick results prevents American karate-ka from maturing to the point the teacher desires. The teacher would rather remain at home than to partially train a megapolis of students.

Third, the Japanese have always considered us (and still consider us) as quite socially undeveloped, perhaps even to the point of barbaric. Many masters do not even consider the possibility of teaching their art to such unrefined people whether these people are in America or Americans living in Japan. The master just remains silent, teaching his “secrets” only to the native Japanese. (I know. I have been in such schools and felt this discrimination full force.)

No, Susan, the Japanese and the Okinawans don’t teach us the menkyo. It takes too long; we are too barbaric; and our modus operandi has already been cast in competition.

Thank God for Mr. Richard Kim.