Photos by Emily Isaacman
Photos by Emily Isaacman

Okinawa Kenpo: Birthplace of Karate fights for tradition as Olympic sport goes global

by Emily Isaacman
Stripes Okinawa

SHURI — Kina’s karate dojo is easy to miss, hidden in a small wooden house set back from a narrow side street. The darkened front yard looks abandoned, save for makeshift barbells — two cement blocks connected by a steel pole — sunk in calf-high grass.

The dojo itself isn’t much. It’s more a shack than a studio, with a gaping hole left in a wall by a typhoon and cracks in the plaster. A 2012 calendar hanging in the back instructs students: “It’s better to do something one time than be told to do it 100 times.”

One night last March, the hardwood floor creaked as teenagers in white karate uniforms with “Okinawa Kenpo” patches chased their sensei across the room and punched blue striking pads strapped to his forearms.

“Hai! Oh, good punch!” teacher Josh Simmers yelled, alternating between Japanese and English. “C’mon, more, more!”

The six students then split into pairs to drill a series of moves known as “kata.” The sequence of kicks and punches finished with half the students thrown to the hardwood floor and their partners’ fists inches from their faces.

The “Okinawa Kenpo Karate-Do Kyokai Kina Dojo” was founded more than 30 years ago in Shuri, an Okinawan castle town considered one of three places on this southern Japanese island where karate developed over the centuries.

While places like Kina’s dojo are considered the home of karate, the martial art has spread far from its roots.

In the decades since World War II, karate has gone international, with some 100 million practitioners around the world. Next summer, the sport will reach the pinnacle of global acceptance when it appears for the first time at the Tokyo Olympics.

But traditionalists say the transformation of karate into an international competitive sport threatens to undermine its centuries-old focus on spirituality and character. As athletes around the world train for Olympic medals, Okinawan karate activists and the local government are mounting a campaign to preserve their time-honored karate style.

Experts agree there are little or no technical differences between international sport karate and Okinawan karate. But Okinawans argue the intention and spirit of traditional karate is different from the international style.

International sport karate focuses on scoring points and winning competitions. Traditional karate emphasizes a lifelong commitment to understanding the art per intentions of the founding masters. Traditionalists consider titles won in competitions irrelevant and temporary.


Toshimitsu Kina, 77, demonstrates how to use a traditional karate weapon called sai. Kina has trained in martial arts for more than 60 years.

The dojo run by Toshimitsu Kina, 77, is one of nearly 400 neighborhood dojos in Okinawa that claim to teach karate in its foundational form.

Kina has dedicated himself to martial arts for more than 60 years. He holds a third-degree black belt in judo and a ninth-degree black belt in karate, the second to highest level.

But even Kina’s dojo is adjusting to changing times: Kina transferred his weekly class to Simmers, an American Army veteran, this year. Kina now monitors training sessions like the one that night in March from a seat in the corner, arms folded and bushy white eyebrows furrowed.

It was not an easy transition. Simmers, 43, trained in the Okinawa Kenpo style in the U.S. under Kina’s top protege. When Simmers moved to Okinawa in 2015, he waited almost three years before securing an invitation to Kina’s dojo.

“You had to prove yourself,” Simmers said. “Especially as an American.”

Accepting a foreigner, though, doesn’t mean buying into the way karate is practiced outside Okinawa — even in other parts of Japan.

The international sport karate community has spent decades pushing for a spot in the Olympics. When Kina was asked about the 2020 games, he just shrugged.

“It’s completely different from what we do,” Kina said. 

‘Martial art of peace’

Little documentation can show exactly how or when karate began, but historians trace its foundations to Okinawa when it was the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom starting in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

The most commonly understood account claims karate began as “te,” an open-handed fighting technique inspired by Chinese martial arts. Japan annexed Okinawa in 1879, and karate became popular on the mainland in the 1920s.

The so-called “martial art of peace” suffered greatly in World War II with the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, which killed some 200,000 people and reduced the island to rubble.

Kunio Uehara, chief of the Okinawa Karate Information Center, said the spirit of karate helped survivors cultivate patience and hope as they recovered from the war. He likened the effects of karate in Okinawa to attending church in the West.

“This culture helps people inside,” he said. “Mentally, not physically.”

The U.S. military occupied Okinawa from 1945 until it was turned over to Japan in 1972. American soldiers stationed here jumpstarted karate’s internationalization as they brought the practice home with them.

“The Karate Kid” movies appeared in the 1980s, and dojos started to become common across the U.S. But Uehara said training in Okinawa for one or two years, as American troops did, was not enough to learn an art that takes a lifetime to master.

Now Okinawans are working to assert ownership of karate.

The local government moved to guide the development of karate in 2017 with the establishment of the Karate Kaikan, a sprawling white complex with training halls, a research room and a historical exhibit showing how karate evolved into a global phenomenon.

“Our goal is to make sure karate is not changed,” Uehara said.

Karate is also becoming part of Okinawa’s tourism industry.

Uehara said the best way to teach foreigners “correct” karate is to invite them to Okinawa to experience first-hand the traditional form. He helps arrange classes for visitors at the Kaikan or approved dojos, and a growing number of “karate tours” take foreigners to karate monuments, shrines and dojos.

Uehara visited America in 1980 on a study abroad trip. He said the Americans’ training looked easy, and their motions weren’t sharp. He noticed they tied their karate belts on the side of their hips, while Okinawans always form the knot in the center for the “fighting spirit.”

He said he was astonished.

“U.S. karate is another karate to me,” Uehara said. 

Commercialization

Less than three miles from Kina’s dojo, British-born James Pankiewicz teaches traditional karate to people from all over the world in an atmosphere far from Kina’s worn-down shack in Shuri.

A large white sign runs atop the length of the storefront, about a 10-minute walk from Kokusai Dori, Naha’s main tourist drag packed with vacationing Chinese. Compared to dojos like Kina’s, the Asato Dojo is easy to find.


Kunio Uehera, director of the Okinawa Karate Information Center, stands in front of tournament posters in his office at the Karate Kaikan. Uehara connects tourists with Okinawan dojos to help spread traditional Okinawan karate.

“My dojo is a bit of an exception,” Pankiewicz said.

The Asato Dojo has red mat floors often seen in sport karate studios. A section in the back of the room presents shirts and other merchandise for sale.

As recent as five to 10 years ago, foreigners needed contacts in Okinawa to visit and train at dojos, Pankiewicz said. He opened his dojo in 2018 as part of a growing push to make Okinawan karate more accessible. One class costs about $19.

On a Tuesday night in March, Pankiewicz led consecutive sessions of supplementary exercises and karate technique to visitors from Brazil, China and the U.S. They spoke different languages and came from separate schools of training, yet they all wanted to practice where karate began.

“Okinawa, for karate, is a mecca,” Pankiewicz said.

The first half of the night involved a training circuit to strengthen muscles needed in karate. They punched with dumbbells in their hands to practice maintaining alignment while fatigued and lunged across the floor holding heavy “gripping jars” in their hands to strengthen their core.

Pankiewicz timed the exercises with an app on his smartphone.

After practicing “kata” and wiping the floor with paper towels — cleaning the dojo is a customary practice — Pankiewicz invited his students across the street to his other business: the Dojo Bar.

Commercialization is on full display here at Okinawa’s first karate-themed, international-style sports bar.

“This place is like a karate geek’s paradise,” James Newman, a tourist from Washington state, said as he walked in.

Sharpie-signed signatures of names, countries and dates cover the walls. Patrons can pick from western or Okinawan foods including cheesy potato wedges, gyoza, Caesar salad and somen noodles.

Photographs of famous karate masters crowd the space above the fully stocked bar, and T-shirts for sale hang in the back. A Hawaiian-style shirt with pictures of the Dojo Bar and karate practitioners had a $110 price tag advertising “karate island wear born from the cradle of karate,” referring to Okinawa.

Around 10 p.m., Newman mingled at the bar with a Brazilian man and Simmers, the teacher at Kina’s Dojo who also trains with Pankiewicz. They started a heated discussion over the best type of karate uniforms, known as gi, based on observations from class that night.

Simmers and Newman made plans to go to Shureido, a karate equipment shop nearby, to pick out a new uniform the next day.

Simmers said the bar serves as a launching pad to help tourists connect and find places to train.

“If you don’t have a Dojo home, you come to the Dojo bar,” he said.

‘It’s our duty’

In April 2016, four months before the International Olympic Committee approved karate for the Tokyo Games, Okinawa’s governor created the Karate Promotion Division to preserve and pass down “Okinawa Traditional Karate.”
“It’s our duty,” said Tetsuo Yamakawa, the karate division’s director.

One problem the Okinawa karate community faces is that the island is not well-known as the birthplace of this martial art — not even within Japan. A 2017 survey by the Karate Promotion Division found 96 percent of respondents in Okinawa knew karate originated on the island. But that number dropped to less than 35 percent in the rest of the country.

The numbers illustrate a divide between Okinawa and Japan.

Okinawa has been part of Japan for nearly half a century, but people refer to karate as either Okinawan or Japanese. Both categorize karate as culture, rather than a sport, but they are separate organizationally. Japan has a national karate organization that does not include Okinawan karate.

Yamakawa intends to raise the profile of Okinawa karate’s more than 80 “kata” by registering them on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Kata are the codified sequences of movements at the core of the artform’s practice.

Each kata, Yamakawa said, carries meaning, and changing even slightly one of those movements changes that meaning.

This goal is one of many included in the office’s 20-year “vision” for preserving and protecting traditional Okinawan karate. The document describes the mission of traditional karate to carefully develop karate as it was created by Okinawa’s predecessors.

It outlines ways to promote karate tourism, organize international events and improve communication among the many styles in the Okinawa karate community.

No goals reference the Olympics.

Earlier this year, the IOC announced karate would likely not appear in the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. Several national karate associations condemned the decision. The World Karate Federation launched a social media campaign defending the sport before the committee finalizes the decision in December.

Yamakawa did not see this as a big deal. To him, an Olympic medal is less valuable than passing down karate in its true form. He said he wants the world to experience the discipline, confidence and kindness traditional karate can impart.

“We want to make this world happy through this karate training,” he said.

In 2018, the government organized “The 1st Okinawa Karate International Tournament” to judge competitors on how well they adhered to traditional forms. The event in the Kaikan’s main hall drew more than 1,000 people from about 40 countries.

But not everyone in Okinawa agrees with using global outreach to preserve a treasured tradition.

In March, the Okinawa Karate Information Center released the first public list of Okinawa dojos. Of the 386 dojos recorded in a 2016 survey by the center, only 191 agreed to be included.

Kina’s dojo is not on the list.

Though an American now teaches class, speaking English while everyone else speaks only Japanese, Kina’s dojo remains like a family.

Kina grows banana trees in his dojo’s backyard and shares the fruits with his class when they’re ripe. When his home was destroyed in a 2016 fire, Simmers and another American organized a fundraiser.

Simmers said this show of support, in addition to running into Kina at various karate seminars and tournaments, helped him gain Kina’s approval.

“I think that opened up his eyes a little bit, opened up his heart a little bit,” Simmers said.

Kina promoted Simmers within months to a fourth degree black belt. At Kina’s dojo, this level denotes a licensed teacher who is allowed to accept fees for classes.

After class that night in March, the group bowed to each other before cleaning up.

Students slid across the wood on their bellies, rolled over and wiggled back. They contorted into backbends for the final pass, inching across the floor upside down.

Huffing and puffing, they sat around a green punching bag strapped to a pole in the center of the room and waited for Kina to initiate the last routine of the night.

Kina stood from his chair. The students and Simmers kneeled before him. A boy led a call-and-response and they all sat quiet for a moment, eyes closed. They bowed their heads to the floor.

Each student told Kina five good things they did in the past week.

“I did the laundry,” one boy said.

“I threw out the garbage,” another shared.

Kina gave his students Snickers and crackers before they scrambled home in the darkness.

Someday Kina will select a disciple to follow his path as president of the Okinawa Kenpo organization. He hasn’t made an official announcement since he’s still healthy and able to lead, but there’s speculation he will choose his brother or the senior student who trained Simmers.

Sometimes, after the teenagers go home, adults show up — black belts only — and Kina stays an extra hour to teach them himself. In traditional karate the close bond between master and student is valued more than a room full of participants.

No adults came that night, though.

The dojo was now quiet. The sliding doors opened to the front garden. Bricks that Kina used to break with his bare hands lay outside in the overgrown grass.

Alone with his thoughts, Kina wandered to a post dividing the open-door frames and began to punch.

His fist thumped on the wood over and over again.

Emily Isaacman is in her third year at Indiana University, where she is studying journalism and political science. Emily traveled to Okinawa over spring break for a reporting course. She works for IU’s student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student.

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