Karate, Budo and Racism

Some say that the first man to introduce Karate to the West was a hero of the Sino-Japanese War, master Kentsu Yabu, who began teaching Japanese immigrants first in Los Angeles and then in Hawaii since the 1920s. “During the Twenties and Thirties,” as stated by John Stevens in his book Three Budo Masters, “Japanese immigrants, increasingly subject to unjustified racist attacks, were eager to learn judo and karate”. Thus, a former soldier of the most nationalistic army in the world of that times found himself as an immigrant, teaching its fellow countrymen, also immigrants, to defend themselves from nationalistic, racist and xenophobic intolerance from a part of the inhabitants of the foreign land that they had chosen as their new home.

Gichin Funakoshi, the great Okinawense master who spread and someway founded the modern Karate, inspired and advised by Jigoro Kano (the creator of Judo), worked to transform what had been the art of Okinawa into an universal discipline, making it adhere to the new Budo concept elaborated by Kano himself: no more jutsu, which simply means technique, but do, which means way, path, lifestyle. So, inspired by a famous Zen tale, he changed the name of his art from Chinese Hand to Empty Hand. Funakoshi himself, in his book Karate-do, explained the meaning of that change: as you can not fill a cup already filled, you cannot learn Karate without first emptying your mind and your hands (the ideogram Te, hand in Japanese, symbolizes alsothe activity, the act of doing) from selfishness, anger, wickedness, and dishonesty.

Morihei Ueshiba, the man who, in a certain sense, completed the transformation started by Jigoro Kano from Bujutsu to Budo, was a fervent scholar of the philosophical religion called Omoto-kyo. According to this doctrine, the purpose of the righteous man is to transform every daily actions into a form of art through a constant search for formal and inner perfection inspired by righteousness, brotherhood and benevolence. He argued that many existing religions come from the same source and that all nations of the world will progressively come together. The task of every Budoka and Budo master is to encourage this process of progressive reconciliation between peoples and cultures.

Hironori Otsuka, the Wado-ryu founder, in his book on Karate-do wrote: “He who truly loves himself will love the others too. If there is no happiness for society, it will not even exist for the individual. Abilities, elevated through the practice of martial arts, such as virtue, good feelings, unbreakable spirit and physical vigor, are the driving force behind the acceleration of peace and harmony, which is the fundamental idea of Budo practice”. Otsuka also talked about the “right fist” identifying it with the Karate-do’s very essence. “The correct use of the fist, or the path of Karate”, he explained, must be done with an honest and just mind. If your mind is not straight, you will inevitably fall into the bad-fist”, which is the exact opposite of Karate and Budo. It is violence.

These are the foundations of the Karate-do. The roots by which the Budo universal tree draws its nutrients: harmony, respect, benevolence, righteousness, humanity, peace.

For this reason, finding so many so-called Karate masters often and willingly indulging in expressions of xenophobia, intolerance and racism on the on social media, is a particularly painful circumstance. These people, teaching Karate, play an important educational role for the younger people. A role that can easily become negative and anti-educational, if conducted without the necessary righteousness.

A Karate Master who publishes violent, intolerant, and divisive content, fueling lower and petty feelings such as discriminatory anger, resentment to the less fortunate, and hate on a racial, ethnic or national basis does not only betray the most elementary Human values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but the very foundations of Karate-do and, in fact, put himself into the muddy and smelly territory of the bad-fist and violence.

I wonder if the time has come for the various Karate organizations to do something.

In Italy, the CONI – Italian Olympic Committee, in its regional expressions, is starting some communication campaigns against racism. I would like these initiatives, which have not yet been highlighted and spread the way they deserve, were immediately shared and embraced by the Fijlkam,  the only Italian Judo, Karate, Martial Fight and Martial Arts Federation recognized by the National Olympic Committee. With the impulse of Fijlkam, I imagine that the Coni-recognized Sports Promotion Associations, which here and there are already doing something, would make an even greater contribution to what must become a real cultural battle against inhumanity and sports disvalues.

But the communication campaigns, albeit important, alone are not enough. A Karate teacher is a point of reference for his students. A point of reference not only about technical and sports stuff, but also about humanity and ethics, especially in the traditional practice. I therefore believe that these behaviours should not be further tolerated and that the incompatibility between teaching and racism should be enshrined in the statutes and regulations of each federation and each sports promotion association. Also providing sanctions such as suspension, cancellation of degrees or qualifications and expulsion.

And I would like to know why – and with what arguments – all this things are not yet done.

What do You think about?