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I am working with Graham Noble on an interview of Sensei Pat Nakata, who first trained with Sensei Chosin Chibana in 1962. Nakata Sensei mentioned that at that time, students were not required to bow when entering and leaving the dojo, at the beginning and end of class, or at the beginning and end of kata.

When I went to Okinawa in 2002, I also noticed that there was much less emphasis on bowing formalities. I saw students who entered and left the dojo without bowing, which would be considered improper in a Japanese dojo.

Connecting my obervations with Nakata Sensei's, I started to think, "were bowing and other formalities added to Karate on mainland Japan?"

I think that the answer is in the affirmative. Such formalities were followed much less in Okinawa. Today, if they are followed, it may be as a result of Okinawan instructors copying the way things are done on mainland Japan. If they do it in Japan, Okinawans should do it too. Right?

It is a little like the term "oss." Okinawan sensei generally do not use it. However, if they teach enthusiastic Japanese or foreign students who expect them to say "oss", they might end up doing so. See Os - Osu.

Courtesy is essential in Karate. Okinawa is known as the land of courtesy. However, there is a big difference between the feeling of courtesy and the technical formalities of courtesy. Bowing is a formality. It is more important that the student feel courtesy -- merely learning to bow correctly is unimportant (because it can be done without the right feeling).

The ranking system, titles, the gi, belts, and much of the formalities of Karate were created, added on, or adopted in mainland Japan. People who learned there probably assumed that they were always part of Karate, but they were not in Okinawa (until they were copied).

Even the kanji for the name "Karate" was different in Okinawa. In Okinawa, "Tang (or China) Hand" was used. In Japan, this was changed to "Empty Hand." Today most people use "Empty Hand" and assume that it has always been used. But it was not popular until the 1930s. Before that, "Tang (or China) Hand" was used almost exclusively.

Why eliminate "China?" Okinawans were very close to China -- that is where and from whom they learned Karate. Japan fought wars with China. How could "China Hand" be taught on mainland Japan? In fact, how could "Okinawan Hand" be taught? Okinawans were a distinct minority in a land where the majority ruled.

My point is that we should not assume that the things we take for granted in "Karate" came from Okinawa. Many things, including a focus on formalities, were added on mainland Japan. I am not saying that this is right or wrong, merely that we should be aware of it.

Please also see Bowing in a Circle, Parts 1 and 2.


Charles C. Goodin