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Dr. Bruce Clayton: an interview on The secret history of Shotokan karate


Dr. Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D


Dr. Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D, is known by many, as a noted forest fire and biological control ecologist as well as an influencial author within the survivalist movement. He has authored many books, amongst which includes "Life After Terrorism: What You Need to Know to Survive in Today's World" and  the subject of interest of this interview, "Shotokan's Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Fighting Origins". 


How did you start your martial arts path?

My early training was in the area of military combative measures, which include unarmed defense against military weapons plus significant amounts of jujutsu.  From my first day in Shotokan, I could see combative techniques peeking out of the katas.  I asked about them, and was told that I would be taught the applications when my "level" was high enough. I waited patiently.  Twenty-five years later I decided that my level must be high enough to learn the applications of the beginner katas, and I began to press for that information.  


What were your main sources of information?

There have been hundreds of information sources, as you can see from the 500+ footnotes in the book. Technically, the research isn't finished yet.  I have been collecting and collating information on Shotokan history since approximately 1994. I have a personal library of over 2000 martial-arts video clips,collected over a lifetime, organized by topic to support the research.  


Was there a source of information in particular that stood out?

If I were to point at the one indispensable volume it would be Admiral Perry's official report on the Japan Expedition, published in 1854.  That and Perry's personal diary provided many insights into Okinawa at the time of Matsumura's prime and Itosu's youth.  One of the photos in the report seems to be a picture of Matsumura and Itosu themselves, on duty protecting the Okinawan king. 

Is that the picture you used as book cover?

Yes, that's the cover art.  Later in the book I set up side-by-side comparisons of this photo with "known" images of Matsumura and Itosu.  The similarity in the faces is striking, and it is fitting that they would have been in that photo.  They were the close-in defense team for the king, and the photo was taken during Admiral Perry's unwelcome invasion of Shuri Castle with 200 U.S. Marines.  Matsumura and Itosu would have been standing right next to the king during that confrontation, exactly as we see them in the photo.


Shotokan secrets: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Origins' book cover

What is so special about “Shotokan Secrets” compared to other books of the genre?


The book doesn't tell you how to perform the dances.  It tells you what the dances mean, and how they make sense in the historical context of 19th-century Okinawa.   Every application I proposed is a real technique taught in a real martial art--- not just another dumb block-punch combination.  The applications of a kata all link up to tell one story, the lesson the kata teaches.  In the case of the Heian katas, each kata corresponds to one of the five enemies Matsumura's students trained to overcome.  The katas focus on the enemies, their weapons, their armor, their training, and their weaknesses.  The training program was very, very practical and absolutely deadly.

No other Shotokan book has ever struck out in this direction before.  

Why did you feel the need to thoroughly research and write about Shotokan karate's history?

I was unable to find any Shotokan sensei who could see the combative lessons in the katas, and worse than that, they didn't care.  They actually had no idea what the katas were about, except that they were dances that had to be mastered.  


Aren’t the many books on Shotokan katas found in libraries and bookstores good enough?

The existing sources of information about kata applications were empty, worthless.  Most of the applications my Shotokan friends shared were just embarrassing to watch.  I started digging for every scrap of information about the Okinawan lords who created the original katas.  Who were they?  What lives did they lead?  Who were their friends and enemies?  Why did they create and practice these lessons?  There was abundant information available, but I had to turn my back on official Shotokan in order to find it.  Japanese teachers have created a culture of ignorance there that one cannot penetrate from the inside.


What do you mean when you say kata applications were empty and worthless worthless? Are you saying that they are impractical?

It isn't just that traditional explanations of kata are impractical.  They reveal the profound ignorance of the teacher, which creates a severe loss of credibility.  I call these embarrassing explanations "dinglehoppers."  I explained it better in the book:

“A “dinglehopper” is a kata application that is pathetically wrong. The word comes from the Disney movie The Little Mermaid, where Ariel the mermaid brings a fork to Scuttle, the seagull, and asks him to explain it. Scuttle, full of false wisdom, says the fork is a “dinglehopper” and is used to comb and curl your hair....”

...The most obvious dinglehopper in shotokan is the first move of empi kata. In this move, we kneel on the right knee and make a gesture that looks like a down block. In his Best Karate series, Masatoshi Nakayama gave us his explanation of this move. He advised us to disrupt a punch to the head by dropping down on one knee and blocking the side of the attacker’s leg![1]



If we respond to a real attack by getting down on our knees, we’ll be beaten unconscious in seconds. In spite of this, traditional sensei teach this horrifying application every day. Why? Because empi is all about grappling, and most hard-style teachers have never studied grappling. Karate’s tournament rules prohibit grasping the opponent so they just don't go there.
The one-knee-down stance at the beginning of empi is called handachi. Handachi is a very common posture in jujutsu and aikido. For instance, in George Kirby's beginning[3] and intermediate[4] jujutsu textbooks, there are 36 throws that finish in handachi. Many of them end in arm-bar submissions that exactly match the hand positions we see at the beginning of empi kata. Empi opens with one of these throws.

[1] Nakayama, M., Best Karate 7: Jitte, Hangetsu, Empi, Kodansha, 1981, p. 138.
[2] McCarthy, 1995, p. 185.
[3] Kirby, George, Jujitsu, Basic Techniques of the Gentle Art, Black Belt Books, 1983.
[4] Kirby, George, Jujitsu: Intermediate Techniques of the Gentle Art, Black Belt Books, 1985.

Confronted with the opening move of Empi kata, jujutsu beginners instantly recognize the throw.  Life-long Shotokan masters like Nakayama often don't, and completely lose credibility as a result. 

What was the general reaction of your friends and readers after they read your book?
My Shotokan friends reacted to Shotokan's Secret in one of four ways.  
1. Vindication.  There are many western sensei who have been silent about the ignorance of their traditional teachers for far too long.  I have become a hero to these men (and a few women). 
2. Enthusiasm.  Some of my karate friends have abandoned karate to take up various forms of grappling.  The book showed them how much of the martial-arts world they had missed by devoting their lives to karate alone. They washed their hands and moved on. 
3. Stealth.  Many friends remain loyal to their karate sensei in every way, but are studying jujutsu/aikido in secret.  I was surprised at a recent karate seminar to find that most of the middle-rank sensei now know how to fall.  They didn't learn that in karate class.  There is a big underground movement to learn grappling as well as striking. 
4. Rejection.  A few of my friends embrace old Shotokan like a religion.  To them I am a heretic.  I respect them for their many virtues and achievements, but it is hard to think of them as "masters"  anymore. A master should know more than just dancing, or punching and kicking for points.


There is a common consensus that Itosu created the Heian (Pinan) katas inspired by the Kanku kata in order to be better assimilated by students. Yet, you claim Itosu really codified techniques the the advent of possible hostile encounters of his era/environment. What are you basing your hypothesis on?

Well, let's ask the question the other way around.  Modern sensei, most of whom are absolutely ignorant of karate history before Funakoshi, have noticed that the Heians look a lot like Kanku Dai.  They drew a simple conclusion.  They don't seem to have noticed that the Temple Katas (Jion, Jitte, and Jiin) look like Heians 6, 7, and 8.  The Temple Katas are Heians for grown-ups.  The fact that these katas all look alike says nothing about which kata was based on which. 
All of these katas were created by Itosu, who liked nice, organized, symmetrical katas.  Kanku has a long history before Itosu, of course, but our version is so different from the original as to be almost unrecognizable.  (The Isshinryu version is the pre-Itosu kata.)  Itosu created it, just like he created the Heians, to suit his own purposes.  The original kata taught night-fighting.  There are still parts of that theme present in Kanku Dai, but Itosu changed so much of it that he must have had a different goal in mind.  I'm still open-minded about what that goal was. 
By the way, I could find no evidence that the Temple Katas are any older than the Heians.  "Everybody knows" that they came from the Shaolin Temple a thousand years ago, but in fact the lineage of these katas goes straight back to Itosu 100 years ago and then stops.  (The only kata we have in Shotokan that could possibly have come from the Shaolin temple is Empi, based solely on the fact that it is old enough to have come to Okinawa with a Shaolin refugee in the 1600s.) 
So, no, the Heians are not based on Kanku Dai, except in the sense of coming from the same mind as Kanku Dai.  They have that Itosu stamp on them.  

Collective knowledge also claim Itosu removed all dangerous techniques when creating the Heians, which explains why most Heian techniques are done with closed hands (fist) whearas most advanced katas barely use the fist. From your research, are there any hint of the veracity of this claim.
The claim has two elements of truth, somewhat garbled.  The legend is not that Itosu removed "all dangerous techniques" from the Heians.  It is that Itosu disguised the eye gouges, not trusting schoolboys to be responsible with them.  The four-finger nukite "spearhand" attacks are the eye gouges.  You grasp the side of his head with your hand and do the gouging with the thumb.  Certainly no one ever stabbed anyone with their extended fingers!  Funakoshi himself warned us to be skeptical of such claims.  
Nukite, or spearhand.
By Kurmis (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
As for the fist/open-hand issue, this is simply bogus.  The "advanced" kata of Shotokan are actually Chinese kata selected a long time after Itosu's death to round out a list of dances for senior black-belt competitions.  In terms of karate technique, the "advanced" katas are actually more primitive than the Heians.  They are also absolutely full of grappling, which you don't do with your fist.   



Why do you feel it is important to know the original meaning of the katas?

Well, if you are going to practice the katas all your life, and spend thousands of hours teaching them to other people, how could you possibly not care what they mean?  And yet, I have known senseis who love the dancing so much that they really don't care about the applications.  
So make a choice.  Are you a dancer or a fighter?  I didn't sign up to dance.
The line between martial arts and dancing arts is sometimes quite blurry.


For more information about Dr. Bruce Clayton, please refer to his book:


Shotokan secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Origins (expanded edition)

or go to 


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Last Updated on Sunday, 25 December 2011 14:45  

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