Okinawan Diaries Part 2

Written by Mike Clarke

Those who give & those who take

On his most recent of many training trips to Okinawa, Mike Clarke visited a host of karate masters from different dojos, including a few old friends. Here, he relates how the influx of foreign karateka and wannabe masters has affected the island’s karate culture.


When I wrote my first series of ‘Okinawan Diaries’ for Blitz back in 2006, it was to give readers who’d never been to Okinawa a chance to glimpse the island home of karate. Now, just a few short years later, the number of Australian karateka and kobudoka travelling to experience Okinawan training for themselves has grown dramatically. Today, Okinawa is awash with gaigin (foreigners), and almost every dojo I come across these days has its share of either resident or visiting students from overseas. However, the number of visitors experiencing an authentic insight into Okinawan karate and kobudo, and what each has to offer is, to me at least, unclear. For once again, I met a quite a few visitors on this trip behaving as if they were ‘on holiday’, and treating the dojo they were visiting as if the sensei should be grateful they were training there! What many visitors to Okinawa fail to realise is that the Okinawans don’t need us; in fact, they, and their karate and kobudo, will get along just fine without foreigners turning up at their dojo doors asking for instruction.

While in Okinawa, I made my way out to the town of Nishihara on the eastern side of the island. I go there regularly to call on Tetsuhiro Hokama Sensei, 10th Dan and head of the International Kenshinkan Goju-ryu Karate and Kobudo Association. I don’t practise Goju-ryu the same way he does, but still, I always learn a lot from spending time in Hokama Sensei’s company. Like many senior karate sensei on Okinawa, his generosity can be a little overwhelming at times, and I’m often left wondering what I did to deserve such consideration and hospitality. But here’s the thing: the transmission of karate in Okinawa is not based on the passing on of techniques alone; for here still, the traditional relationship between teacher and student remains. Okinawan karate, to be properly understood, has to be absorbed through an understanding of the culture from which it emerged. It is culture, rather than cash, or the simple-minded instruction of technique, which give karate value to those who study it at its most profound level. Hokama Sensei is more than just a karate teacher, and I have been present in his dojo when local people (non-karateka) have come to call on him for advice. His position and influence within the Nishihara community reaches far wider than the floor of his impressive dojo.

With the ease of travel and cheap airfares these days, more and more Western karateka are finding their way to Okinawa; and with the increase in numbers have come the increase in those who have come to bolster their already bulging egos. Nothing like a few photos of you and ‘the man’ to show the folks back home just how good you are. It’s not uncommon to see foreigners in an Okinawan dojo these days, but when I see them arrive in large groups, it usually means they are tourists, not budoka. They may well do a bit of training during their stay, but they are not taken seriously as karateka. Okinawan sensei are, by and large, good natured, and they may well allow visitors to set the pace. If you display an inability to train hard, they are as likely to take it easy too. After all, they wouldn’t want to embarrass a visitor by highlighting their lack of maturity.

Unfortunately, a number of Australians have sought to take advantage of this generous spirit and have used it to advance their own pathetic fantasy of being a karateka back home. One particular karate ‘master’ from Western Australia comes to mind. A self-promoted instructor of almost every karate style under the sun, his scheming and deception over the years has been relentless and continues in Australia to this day. On his one and only visit to Okinawa a few years back, he and his followers caused Hokama Sensei untold problems and huge embarrassment. Although the ‘master’ from WA never set foot in an Okinawan dojo in his gi, except to have photographs taken, he managed to convince Hokama Sensei to arrange an introduction to some of the island’s political dignitaries; the resulting ‘photo opportunities’ only adding to the arsenal of paraphernalia the fraudster uses in his ongoing scam back home.

So, how could this happen? How could a karate teacher of Hokama Sensei’s standing be fooled into believing his visitor, who was, in reality, a con artist? It is done incrementally, like a dripping tap slowly wearing a hole in a brick. His con starts with a letter of introduction, followed by more letters, then the phone calls, and then the incessant pleading. I’ve seen the letters; they made me want to throw up! Along the way, a few half-truths are slipped in the con artist’s story, and, as with all good scams and lies, these serve to enhance his facade of credibility. In this case, the WA ‘master’ used a photograph of himself being presented with an Order of Australia medal by the Queen. However, in all his correspondence with Hokama Sensei, he took great care never to mention the court case and conviction he received in Western Australia for forging Dan-rank certificates from a legitimate karate organisation some years ago.

The Okinawans are a gracious people; they see the good in folk and want to help. In such a society, it is not so difficult for fraudsters to operate. But if you go to Okinawa for training, never forget: the lessons the Okinawans impart depend entirely on the way you conduct yourself, both in the dojo and outside of it.

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