Project

A Cultural History of Karate

Goal: This project analyzes the development and transformations of karate’s iconographies and mythologies. Here karate is understood in the way of a heterogonous space, at once markedly local and transnational, a hermeneutical device of high heuristic value that expresses the historical and sociocultural dialectics between Okinawa, Japan, East Asia, and the rest of the world.

The approach is based on a wide diachronic perspective ranging from our contemporaneity to the premodern martial culture of Okinawa.

The aim is to trace historical processes, societal contexts, and cultural changes that have nurtured the imaginaries of karate and its representations in popular culture.

Methods: Cultural Studies, Arts and Humanities, Historical Sociology, Martial Arts, Sport Sociology, sociological aesthetics

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Project log

Eduardo González de la Fuente
added 4 research items
Since the 90s, when Joseph Nye coined and popularized the term, the notion of soft power began to gather lots of academic attention, while it was incorporated into national strategies via cultural diplomacy and cultural industries. Hence, several scholars have acknowledged the contemporary return of geopolitics in the global circulation of images, pop cultures, and competitive identities. Regarding this subject, martial arts studies have conducted illuminating analysis on the presence of martial arts in media, particularly during the 70s and 80s boom. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work to carry out in the vector of modern animation, which besides having finally transcended the boundaries of young audiences, today constitutes a large impacting and highly rewarding industry. This proposal aims to advance on this research line by considering the political and cultural discourses of two ongoing martial arts anime: Baki the Grappler (2018) and Kengan Ashura (2019), both internationally aired on Netflix but created in Japan on the basis of successful manga. The series manage very specific and distinctive references to techniques and stories of Japanese martial arts, often proposing a fictional rewriting of their master narratives and history. I argue that at first the representation of Japanese martial arts in Baki the Grappler and Kengan Ashura can be seen as an effort to restore Japanese martial arts to their past fame, a form of nationalistic nostalgia that perpetuates the soft power binomial Japan+martial arts. In this sense, the series broadcasting in Netflix surely align with the interests of the Japanese establishment, and the government plan to officially embed martial arts into the Cool Japan strategy. Yet, a close look to the contents of the series nuances if not directly contradicts such presumptions. Actually, they frequently re-read and re-mediate Japanese martial arts history from an unorthodox perspective. Far from seeking to reinstate the glory of the samurai-bushido-spirit triad, characters and narrative arcs often structure complex, paradoxical and critical views about Japanese cultural nationalism. Therefore, my argument is that these martial arts anime should best be seen as a popular expression of anti-geopolitics, in other words, as a challenge to state-centered geopolitics. Keywords: Martial arts, geopolitics, anime, soft power, Cool Japan
During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, several Daoist deities arrived at present-day Okinawa from the Fujian region. Among them was Tiandu yuanshuai, also known as Marshal Tian, God of Theater and protector of villages, who was also worshipped by local martial militias and schools. Fujianese martial arts influenced greatly karate, originated in Okinawa during the 18th-19th centuries, and today one of the most famous martial arts worldwide. Since the end of the Second World War, Tian has been gradually evolving into the “guardian deity” or “patron saint” of karate. However, this adoption entails a profound re-scripture of the Marshal character that screens most of the Chinese religious folklore, particularly his exorcistic nature and esoteric Taoist abilities. In this sense, Tian, demon incantator and heavenly jester, is re-counted in Okinawa above all as a martial and sober deity, simple called busaganashi (lit. “Great Boddhisattva”). I argue that such abridged narrative –beginning by erasing the god’s name- establishes a new mythology and function serving the socioreligious needs of the karate community, which lacks its own martial god. This proposal will examine the complex historical and cultural process of transmuting the iconography (depictions, attributes, postures) and redefining the cult (legends, rites, meanings) of Tiandu yuanshuai in the self-perceived (semi)secular context of contemporary karate. This includes worshipping carved figurines of the Marshal as embodiments of karate masters, displaying drawings in museums, books, and webpages, or even officially consecrating a golden statue of Tian in a Shinto shrine to attract martial arts tourists to Japan. Yet the cultural origins and symbolisms of Marshal Tian in China remain widely unknown in the world of karate. Paradoxically, clouding the actual knowledge about Tian introduces a suggestive patina of mystery and alluring martial secrets for millions of karateka largely organized in styles, associations, societies, schools, and clubs bonded in transnational networks.
This paper presents a reinterpretation of the two main global mythologies of Okinawan karate, that actually point back to the times of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Using a socio-historical approach, I unveil the imaginations and inexactitudes forming those karate myths, and how they speak about the contemporary geopolitical romanticization of Okinawa. Frequently considered an expression of the Japanese idiosyncrasy, karate has its origins in Okinawa during a time when the archipelago was a semi-independent state known as the Ryūkyū Kingdom (1429-1879). This historicity has, in fact, placed karate in an ambiguous position in relation to which is considered the proper body of Japanese budō, reflecting thus the peripheral situation of Okinawa and the complexity of its modern integration into Japan. Such a situation has found way in popular mythologies about Okinawan karate, of which the two main ones comprise cultural resistance standpoints and anti-Japanese perspectives: First, that karate is a martial tradition primarily bonded with Chinese martial arts at least since 1392, when 36 families from Fujian were sent by the Emperor to settle next to Naha port; second, that karate was largely developed against the background the Satsuma clan invasion of Okinawa in 1609, and the subsequent abuses imposed upon the local peoples by the Japanese samurai. This paper reinterprets these two legendary underpinnings of Okinawan karate with a socio-historical exploration of the Ryūkyūs between the 13th and 17th century. At that time, Okinawa was a stratified society dominated by competing feudal lords (aji) in the pursuit of land supremacy trading networks control. Therefore, violence and military are not only inescapable determinants for the formation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom and its maritime empire, but also an important piece of daily life in the East China Sea territories, deeply moulded by piracy and warlords activities. By analyzing the two aforementioned myths about karate’s past that gained global circulation during the 20th century, this proposal addresses a contemporary core narrative shaping both karate heritage and Okinawan history: romanticized views of the Ryūkyūs as an inherently peaceful land, “a kingdom without weapons”. However, a close reading of the historical roots of Okinawan martial arts reveals clear discursive gaps and contradictions, and hence aspects regarding the ideological nature of karate’s representations. Therefore, I argue that through a critical revisitation of karate’s mythologies we can learn about the present geopolitical situation of Okinawa. Keywords: karate, mythologies, Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa, Japan
Eduardo González de la Fuente
added 6 research items
Karate is one of the most famous sport combats around the world, nevertheless, during the past three decades is experiencing some substantial transformations closely related to the globalization of markets and the expansion of mass tourism. Such emerging circumstances are part of the post-industrial economies shift to the sectors of leisure and cultural consumption, which Japan has deeply embraced adopting the National Branding and the Cool Japan strategies. These new cultural policies aim to promote a change in the global image associated to the Japanese culture, giving a modern shape to old phenomena. In this context, karate, an ancient tradition, is hugely promoted as a bridge from the 80’s Japan of salary men and hard Budo spirit to the Japan that points at Tokyo 2020: international, multicultural, opened to the contemporary world. This case of modern karate commercialization it’s a source of tensions inside the karate community, implying a profound debate in which the very notions of tradition, ethics and japanese – okinawan identities are in play. Keywords: Karate, tradition, commercialization, leisure, identity
This paper aims to explore the transmission of popular Taoist deities to the Ryukyus via the East Asian maritime trade network during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and their ascendance upon the Ryukyus martial arts. Thanks to these commercial routes, the development of specific districts harboring long-distance travelers, and, ultimately, the settlement of migrant communities, a permanent stream of folk belief systems and scientific knowledge transfers, including fighting skills, emerged between the Ryukyus and the South Coastal regions of China. Among the many cultural practices that voyaged through this network stand out religious beliefs originating in Fujian as those of Mazu, protector of sea peoples, and Marshall Tian, Chinese God of Theater, besides other figures of the Chinese Pantheon as Guan Di, saint patron of war and commerce. The ecosystem of Fujianese deities had an enormous impact on the Ryukyus culture and its martial arts, especially those under the direct Chinese influence. This is so to the extent that still today Marshall Tian is regarded as the ‘saint patron of karate’ by some Okinawan styles. Also, the Government of the Okinawan Prefecture currently promotes chinese deities’ temples from the 14th century as heritage sites of the Ryukyu Kingdom era (1429-1879) and list them as “karate related important historical sites and monuments”. In the agitated seas of South East Asia, amidst merchants, pirates and smugglers, Taoist popular cults crossed the borders of the Chinese Empire and reached Okinawa, a small archipelago situated in the peripheral frontier, interacting with its martial arts and developing an idiosyncratic culture. Keywords: Karate, Okinawa, Fujian, Marshall Tian, Busaganashi, popular religion, martial arts, heritage, maritime trade
The hidari-gomon or migi mitsudomoe, the emblem of Hachiman, guardian deity of the warriors, is one of the most extensive images among the multiple branches and dojos of Okinawan Karate and Kobudo. Hachiman, revered by several samurai clans of Japan, ended up becoming 'kami of the clan' (ujigami) Minamoto around the eleventh century. Three centuries later, in 1465, King Sho Toku of the Ryukyus adopted the Hachiman emblem as the coat of arms of the royal family after the conquest of Kikai Island, at the north of the archipelago. However, prior to the hegemonic processes of standardization and politico-aristocratic institutionalization of Hachiman as 'the god of war', the rites and beliefs at the origins of the cult reveal a rich and complex history of cultural contacts between Japan and the Ryukyus. Fundamentally an oral and popular history, related to ancient kaimist rites of oracular-shamanic order, and associated to the maritime communities and commerce. Thus, this paper aims to offer an overview of the crossroads of myths and historical facts that are at the basis of the adoption of the cult of Hachiman in the traditional culture of the Kingdom of the Ryukyu, as well as its outstanding position, still nowadays, among the representative set of symbols of the Okinawan Kobudo.
Eduardo González de la Fuente
added a research item
Since the beginning of the 2010s, the Japanese Government and the Okinawan Prefectural Government have been making significant efforts to develop, professionalize, and promote karate tourism in Okinawa. This article offers a comprehensive overview on this process, by discussing the historical construction of Okinawa as a prime tourist destination, the role of karate in such process, and particularly the recent institutionalization of a martial arts tourism niche. The creation of a karate tourism industry in Okinawa responds to Japan's economic and cultural plans for attracting higher numbers of tourists to the country, thus increasing overall revenues for the southern archipelago and fostering regional revitalization. However, Okinawan karate is also conditioned by powerful global and transnational factors superimposed onto local interests and narratives. Moreover, despite a convergence on economic objectives and heritage safeguarding policies, hierarchical tensions exist between Okinawan and mainland karate stakeholders because definitions on what traditional karate is and which cultural denotations and connotations entails differ considerably among them, forcing a debate about the direction and significance of this karate tourism niche.
Eduardo González de la Fuente
added 2 research items
Journal of Inter-Regional Studies: Regional and Global Perspectives (JIRS – Waseda University). - This article explores effects of globalization on the political and discursive construction of contemporary karate. First, it provides an overview about the role of martial arts and bushidō in the nihonjinron ideologies rhetoric and their postwar spread. Secondly, it surveys the importance of popular culture and emerging global media in propagating karate’s diverse and multivalent images, ethnic, social, economic, and political, both inside and outside Japan. Finally, it concludes with some reflections about the controversy on karate Japaneseness/Okinawaness advocating for a reconsideration of the many traps of methodological essentialisms.
Eduardo González de la Fuente
added a project goal
This project analyzes the development and transformations of karate’s iconographies and mythologies. Here karate is understood in the way of a heterogonous space, at once markedly local and transnational, a hermeneutical device of high heuristic value that expresses the historical and sociocultural dialectics between Okinawa, Japan, East Asia, and the rest of the world.
The approach is based on a wide diachronic perspective ranging from our contemporaneity to the premodern martial culture of Okinawa.
The aim is to trace historical processes, societal contexts, and cultural changes that have nurtured the imaginaries of karate and its representations in popular culture.