Reviewed by Jesse Hill
“Okinawan Karate: Teachers, styles, and secret techniques” by Mark Bishop is an extensive work that attempts to chronicle the complete history of karate on Okinawa from its humble beginnings to the modern schools in all their diversity. This mammoth task was undertaken over many years the author spent on Okinawa training with and interviewing many of the people involved in the early days of modern karate. The author’s attempts to be thorough and impartial were admirable, especially considering the obstacles to such goals. The Okinawan culture has a much more reverent view of their ancestors than most Western cultures and as such they are prone to slight exaggerations of certain people’s skills and the amazing feats they performed. Also the history of karate is very convoluted and shrouded in mystery, due primarily to the fairly poor historical records surviving to the modern day and the inconsistencies which invariably arise in oral histories.
The author's critique of many of the martial arts is intriguing, as his background in shiatsu massage condemns the harshness of many martial arts. I found it an interesting dichotomy between the reasons for studying martial arts and the necessities to ensure one can actually apply them if needed. To me it is hard to believe that one could be an effective fighter without ever striking anything or conditioning to generate a strong weapon.
I found it interesting how many of the Okinawan masters who were interviewed by Bishop held sport sparring in low regard. The fact that most of them found the Japanese style of scoring, which sounded similar to our point fighting rules, to be inadequate and not a true representation of skill in kumite. I was glad to hear that many others share the opinion we hold of sport karate as being not good.
The specific remarks on Isshinryu were unfortunately very brief due to the apparent rudeness of Kichiro Shimabuku. Within the brief comments though, I found some rather confusing statements, such as the Isshinryu fist being described as detrimental to health. I have turned this over in my mind ad infinitum and have failed to come up with any reason to support this statement. This is the clearest example of the information in this book being slightly questionable. That is not to say that the author was trying to be deceptive or skew any facts, but rather that much of his information based more on the opinion of the karateka he spoke to, rather than empirical research or factual evidence. In many cases the evidence he puts forth seems to make sense, in other cases it seems rather improbable. I do not feel that this diminishes the value of the book or the credibility of the author; I just feel that one must retain a healthy amount of skepticism while reading, and to decide for oneself what information is relevant or useful to their martial arts training.
Some of the topics discussed in "Okinawan Karate" did make me stop and think about my own training. It made me analyse what we do and why we do it, and to look for any possible sources of injury in the drills we practise and what measures could be taken to reduce the possibility of injury. The topic of “secret techniques” was interesting if a little overemphasised. As was freely admitted by many of the instructors, there are no “secret” techniques, but rather it is the understanding of the technique and different ways it can be used. This is an important part of Isshinryu training, the ability to look at the techniques and see different applications for them. Bunkai is one the most important aspects of learning kata, and one that can easily be neglected. The similarities between the organisations in Okinawa and those in North America, with regard to internal politics and squabbling, just goes to show that people are people wherever you are. Yet I did find it somewhat disheartening as I had hoped that the Okinawans could somehow rise above the pettiness and just celebrate the martial arts and dedicate themselves to furthering the ancient traditions and advancing the techniques to new levels of greatness.
All in all “Okinawan Karate” is a great read if a little hard to get into at first. The sheer amount of information it contains is slightly daunting, but one must remember that the point of the book existing is reference. You do not have to memorize it. I found the book to be thought provoking and well written, even when I did not agree with what the author was saying he was compelling enough to make me stop and think. To me that is the mark of a great writer, and shows the education value of the work.