10. Morio Higaonna
9. Gichen Funakoshi
Mr. Shoto himself, the father of modern karate, the founder of the Shotokan and one of if not the most important reason for the growth and expansion of karate in the world. Funakoshi was the most ardent advocate for karate in mainland Japan, the chief emissary from Okinawa to Japan. I place him in ninth place but in reality he is co-equivalent with number 8 on this list, a man that he reportedly did not get along with very well, Choki Motobu. Funakoshi and Motobu, to me, represent the two extreme positions in karate thought: Funakoshi the idealized representative of karate as do, Motobu the idealized representative as karate as jutsu. It is clear that Funakoshi Sensei believed with all his heart what karate could do for the spirit, that its ultimate aim lay beyond victory or defeat, but "in the perfection of the character". This is an important development in karate, as the deeper spiritual and psychological potentials of the training are in reality a rather novel and fashionable development, not at all in keeping with the majority of karate history. But it was an immensely significant development and if karate had remained simply underground, no-holds barred brutality, it would be less than half of what it was meant to be.
8. Choki Motobu
Again, co-equivalent with Funakoshi, "Motobu the monkey" is the voice of practicality in karate that is more or less lost to the ages. Had he founded an enduring style or codified his thinking into a publication, I feel he would be as important a father to karate as Funakoshi. But his abrasive manner in life has clearly had lasting consequences upon his legacy - few dojos have a picture of Motobu hanging at the front of the class. Which is a genuine shame, because what he has to say is simple and essential: If you've never been punched hard, in the face, you don't and can't know karate. Getting punched hard in the face is the reason why you practice in the first place. It's to prevent having to feel that pain, that visceral brutality, that humbling vulnerabilty. To deal with that brutality, the nature of violence, you must face it and be willing to dispense it to others. This is the hardness of karate-jitsu, the "go" in Goju, from which the softness of karate-do, the "ju" in Goju, must emerge. To be unwilling to fight when you are unable to fight is meaningless - it isn't a measure of your character, it's just a necessity. Karate-do, the strength to not have to fight, can only exist after you have karate-jitsu, the ability with technique to destroy your attacker at a stroke. The peace must come first from a place of being willing and able to wage war. But so much of karate starts from the perspective of character without the harsh reality that builds it in the first place. What little of his thought has been put onto paper has given me a clear appreciation for bumps, bleeding and bruises - they are not nuisances or failings of my karate, they are proof. Proof that I'm going in the right direction.
7. Tetsuhiro Hokama
The master of the Kenshi-kai, Hokama Sensei is a kobudo and karate disciple that embodies the idea of the musha shugyo, the warrior's pilgrammage, the lifelong journey. Hokama Sensei runs a karate museum in Okinawa and is basically cited in every book on karate worth a damn. His commitment to the spiritual, physical and academic dimensions of karate are strong in my mind and have left a lasting impression. It isn't enough for me to love karate in a physical sense. My love must ultimately manifest itself not only in what I learn and what I teach: I must also make my love of karate express itself through my own unique contribution to the academic literature of karate. Karate, more than any other martial art, needs a strong literary foundation, it needs a museum. Unlike kendo or judo or aikido, karate is dispersed, far-flung and most of the most important things done on one side of the karate world are all but unknown to the other. If we, who understand what karate can offer that people lack, truly value karate, we must deepen the meaning of the practice and disseminate it in a responsible cohesive and practical way. History and research is an obvious source of inspiration in strengthening karate today and producing learning material relevant to our age is essential to strengthening karate tomorrow.
6. Tetsuzan Kuroda
Not a karateka, but nonetheless, one of the finest budoka in all the world, Master Kuroda is the sensei of the Shinbukan Kurodo dojo and the heir to five unique centuries-old martial disciplines (Komagawa-Kaishin ryu kenjitsu, Shishin-Takuma ryu jujitsu, Tamiya ryu-iaijitsu, Tsubaki-Kotengu ryu bojitsu, Seigyoku-Ogurirryi Sakkatsujitsu). Impressive on paper but what is his technique like?
In a word, lightning.
Kuroda Sensei is the physical embodiment of a very important principle of budo - one that my own sensei had shown me but I never realized or could put into words. Kuroda sensei is not big. He is not broad. He does not appear strong in the conventional sense of the word. But budo doesn't care at all about that. Budo is not about what you don't have. It about maximizing what you do. Kuroda sensei doesn't have big muscles or great weight. But speed has nothing to do with conventional notions of strength, true speed comes from form and method. The smallest person in the world with a weapon is just as if not more dangerous than the largest person in the world with the same weapon. This is the difference between budo and other methods. Other methods of increasing performance are about adding: adding strength, adding weight. Budo is about subtracting - subtracting tension, subtracting fear. Subtracting ego until all that is left is the moment and the movement.
5. Bruce Lee
I shouldn't have to speak long about this. So I won't. Instead I'll just copy a well-known anecdote about the master of Jeet Kune Do (which is one of the few martial philosophies made in the last 50 years that I actually recognize as original):
“Bruce had me up to three miles a day, really at a good pace. We’d run the three miles in twenty-one or twenty-two minutes. Just under eight minutes a mile [Note: when running on his own in 1968, Lee would get his time down to six-and-a half minutes per mile]. So this morning he said to me “We’re going to go five.” I said, “Bruce, I can’t go five. I’m a helluva lot older than you are, and I can’t do five.” He said, “When we get to three, we’ll shift gears and it’s only two more and you’ll do it.” I said “Okay, hell, I’ll go for it.” So we get to three, we go into the fourth mile and I’m okay for three or four minutes, and then I really begin to give out. I’m tired, my heart’s pounding, I can’t go any more and so I say to him, “Bruce if I run any more,” –and we’re still running-”if I run any more I’m liable to have a heart attack and die.” He said, “Then die.” It made me so mad that I went the full five miles. Afterward I went to the shower and then I wanted to talk to him about it. I said, you know, “Why did you say that?” He said, “Because you might as well be dead. Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.”
- John Little
If it kills you, it kills you. If the martial arts doesn't cause you to take a good hard look at your mortality - if it doesn't make you come to terms with the fact that this could be the last day of your life - what's the point? We're either living, or we're just being afraid of dying.
4. Yoshimitsu Onaga > Michiko Onaga
Onaga Sensei and his daughter Michiko are the kancho of the Shinjinbukan Shorin-Kai. His system and his dedication to the cause of incorporating the oldest principles of Okinawan fighting into modern karate are a philosophical bright spot in the karate world. Onaga's method, which he calls Ti, is a reconciliation of the flaws of modern karate with the invisible consideration of fighting that were more or less assumed in old Okinawan fighting. Onaga is fond of saying that Ti is the missing dimension to karate. And I feel strongly that there is merit to this claim, and only one other budoka has ever made me feel that their was a dimension to karate that was truly invisible (see number 1).
Onaga's daughter is by his own admission, his greatest student and the finest karateka he has ever known. She has now taken the helm of his organization and with good reason. So often in the fighting arts a dojo or discipline is administratively or technically left in the hands of a familial descendant with a questionable claim to that legacy. Not so with Michiko Onaga. Onaga Sensei, probably without her even realizing it, embodies, like Kuroda Sensei, the reality that budo is trying to make us aware of - size doesn't have to matter. It can matter, and most people think that it matters alot, but it doesn't have to. Onaga moves with a quiet fluidity, a deadly grace, that is hard to describe. When she punches your stomach, she is aiming not for your solar plexus, she has the expectation that her knuckle will hit your spine. When she kicks she expects to hit your chin every time, exactly the way Anderson Silva did against Vitor Belfort to devastating effect. This is the maximization of all the small details of karate that makes the cohesive whole of karate so formidable. And this is how the small can control the big.
3. Kenwa Mabuni > Kenei Mabuni
The Mabuni family need no introduction. Kenwa Mabuni was virtually a walking repository of karate and probably has the strongest claim to the person in history that came closest to knowing karate in its entirety. Gichen Funakoshi called him "Mabuni the technician". His masters, Anko Itosu and Kanryo Higaonna, the masters of the Shuri-te and Naha-te respectively, represent clear and unambiguous heirs to a lineage, a lineage that Mabuni meant to unite in his Shito-ryu. I don't know how successful it has been: Shito-ryu still has a massive amount of kata in its curriculum, so it might be more fair to say that Shito has combined Shuri and Naha-te rather than coalesced them. All the same, to read anything of Kenwa Mabuni is to get a clear glimpse of what karate was meant to be and what it could have been if he had lived longer or if enormous amounts of karate documentation hadn't been lost to the second World War.
Kenei Mabuni, Mabuni sensei's son, is Soke to one branch of the Shito family and his commitment to karate as budo is unquestioned. He makes perhaps the clearest and most measured analysis of the progress and future of karate in his book, Empty Hand, which unites the insights of his father with his lifetime of experience with karate. It also happens to be one of the most magnificent tomes on karate in the world, and I would hope that it serves as an inspiration to the other venerated members of the old guard of karate and the martial arts in general to put their insights into one place so that they might not be lost when their journeys on the Way come to an end.
2. Tsuyoshi Chitose > Shane Higashi
I have three debts in my life that cannot be repaid. Two are to my parents. The third is to my master, Shane Higashi and his master before him, Dr. Tsuyoshi Chitose. Like Mabuni, O'Sensei Chitose learned from major proponents of the Shuri-te and Naha-te, Shorin and Shohei, and created a discipline that meant to reconcile them. He did this by creating a curriculum that focused on a few key kata, reformatted them to incorporate what he thought mattered most based both on his knowledge karate and his knowledge of anatomy and physiology. He called his style Chito-ryu - the thousand-year Chinese style. What results is a karate that in old Chito-ryu manuals, O'Sensei says is "70% based on strength." I find that claim somewhat amusing but it in no way diminishes what I see in Chito-Ryu - a style that has no preference in kata, kihon, kumite, with a diverse range of clear bunkai, a technical set that ranges from striking to throws to locks and wrist manipulation, a kata dedicated to tai-sabaki, a discipline that puts a strong emphasis on falling and rolling, a style that incorporates some of the best and most unambiguous techniques from judo, jujitsu, aikido, and kendo. It is a comprehensive fighting system that O'Sensei created and I always try to honor his achievement by putting in the amount of time that is necessary to gain facility with even a small measure of it.
Higashi sensei is a good man. He isn't some Japanese jedi master, or a wizard. He's just a sometimes childish, sometimes goofy, sometimes cruel, sometimes strict, always effortlessly precise and everpresent teacher. When he shows you technique, you can understand why it works with your body and your eyes even if you can't understand it with your mind. He's the grandfather that I never really had. Putting into words the moments that I've spent with him diminishes them. Simply put, years from now long after he's gone, his face will smile down upon me from the front of my dojo.
1. Nikichi Zaha > Kenji Ushiro
Kenji Ushiro writes in his book "Karate and Ki" that if his father had died on the same day as his master, Nikichi Zaha, he would have to attend his master's funeral at his father's expense. I remember reading that the first time and thinking to myself what an awful father he must have had. But beneath that empty insight was a frightening question: was that level of commitment even possible? Was he telling the truth? Could you devote yourself that wholly to karate and to your master's memory that it would be even deeper than the bonds of family? I don't know that I can go that far.
But Kenji Ushiro has. And ultimately, that may be the reason why his karate is what it is. He is in my humble opinion, the most safe man in the entire world. By this, of course, I mean that if karate is meant to keep one safe from the aggression of others, no one is safer than Kenji Ushiro. Other people would call him the most dangerous man in the world, but he would see that as so beneath him as not even worthy of comment. His karate has moved beyond the level of what your feet and fist are doing. Beyond space, and time, into thought. He doesn't act based on what his mind perceives, what his eyes tell him. He acts on what his heart sees, what his opponent intends to do. His karate, his budo, pushes the boundaries of the possible.
The master of the Shindo-ryu is also a high level practitioner of Iaido. I have felt his strength, his abilities first-hand and my only doubts as to his skill is in my own abilities to comprehend or explain them. And when you ask him how he does these magnificent things, how he marshals these powers to keep himself safe he answers always the same...Always simple and always the same.
This word is pronounced ki. And we, as karateka, both in the east and west, largely have no idea what it means because it mostly defies definition. Both in English and in Japanese. So it is difficult. But it is, according to Ushiro, the missing dimension in the martial arts. I tend to quickly descend into a kind of madness when I wonder whether or not my karate is obtaining this undefinable thing that I can't see. I can only hope that it is and keep training hard and keep my ears and mind open, to stay on the lookout for it. But I have seen it and I have felt it and the most important thing is to believe what I saw and remember what I felt and search for that feeling. Karate is a feeling, isn't it?