Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: Shotokan Secret by Bruce Clayton

I read this a few months back and wanted to put my summary thoughts into the same place.


Clayton makes a lucid argument that a lot of modern karate's development occurred in the lifetime of Sokon Matsumura and that most of what we know as karate was created by Okinawan nobility (Shuri-te) for the purpose of protecting the king, not by farmers or laborers (Naha-te and Tomari-te).  This lines up with Kenei Mabuni's sentiment that Shuri-te is the true root of karate, despite his father's inclusion of Naha-te kata in the Shito-Ryu. He also adds a lot of context to the idea of "village-te" by pointing out that the area between Shuri Castle, Naha harbour and the village of Tomari could all fit into Central park in Manhattan - suggesting that it would have been mostly impossible for a Tomari-te or Naha-te to develop in isolation (everyone knew everyone else).  Finally he gives a great historical sketch of the difficulties faced by Okinawa being caught between China and Japan with the periodic influx of rowdy foreign ships using the undefended port of Naha whenever it was conveneint - which was of course punishable by death under the Tokugawa shogunate - all while the Okinawans were more or less, weaponless.

However by saying that Shuri is true karate, that most of karate is the work of Matsumura and Itosu and that Shotokan is the true lineage of karate, he manages to completely takes for granted the hundreds of years where indigenous fighting arts would have been developing in Okinawa.  "Okinawa-te" or "Ti' was a combination of native fighting methods and Kung Fu that had been coming to the island for centuries.  He dismisses the hundreds of years when these arts would have been exposed to Okinawans - both the nobility and the commoners - and then says that Shuri-te is somehow a purer form of karate which by extension makes Shotokan the purest modern style.  All things that he can't possibly know.  And all things that, even if they were true, never made any karateka safer or better - an empty comparative exercise.  He uses imprecise terms like "linear karate" to describe Shuri-te, calling it a revolution, as if no one punched in straight lines before Matsumara. He takes the expression 'Ikken hissatsu' in its utmost literal sense - one strike, one kill - as if it is commonly held that these men often killed people with one punch - and says that it is what sets Shotokan karate above and beyond other styles.  I'm really curious if Clayton possesses the ability to kill me with one punch.  Unnecessary conjecture on almost every page.  He makes contradictory statements - at one point he says that Ikken hissatsu has nothing to do with vital points, only to later reverse his statement; at another he says that sabaki and footwork was a problem that linear karate solved, later he says that sabaki is good.

Incredibly, a book that was badly in need of an editor, in fact had 5 editors. Removed of its bias, it could have been a classic for all karateka, despite its focus on Shotokan.  In the end it just descends into a thinly veiled apology for Shotokan practice, while subtly diminishing most of the other lineages of karate and most of the other martial arts generally - but IN THE SAME BREATH claims that most of the virtues of Shotokan karate are actually hidden!?!  Which is childish, unhelpful and false.  Haven't martial artists gotten to the point where we can all agree that people make a style what it is, not vice versa?  That the "best" style practiced lazily, badly, without direction or introspection, will produce a weak person and poor karate?   That there are no 'secrets' that can't be determined on your own through hard, honest training?  Matsumura wasn't a great karateka because he killed people with one punch (which, by the way, he didn't) or punched in straight lines.  He was great because he'd mastered a discipline and that discipline allowed him to subdue an attacker.  It is likely that his mastery would have involved finding a proper balance between advancing AND withdrawing, punching and blocking, moving in straight lines and flanking, strengthening body and mind.  Then he passed it along.  

Clayton is like the person who looks through a pinhole to try and appreciate the night sky or as Bruce Lee said "focuses on the finger that points at a star, while missing all the heavenly glory".  Karate isn't good or effective because of one or two arbitrary things - pulling our fist to our hip or punching in a straight line.  It is good and effective because karateka work long and hard to make it good and effective.