A model karateka

Earlier this year, renowned Okinawan karate Sensei Toshimitsu Arakaki, 10th Dan, left his subtropical island home to visit Australia, bringing with him more than a little karate wisdom, along with a set of formidable skills and obvious passion for the art. The fuku-kaichou (vice president) of the World Matsubayashi-ryu Karatedo Association (WMKA) taught at Sensei John Carlyle’s Australian Honbu dojo in Wingham, NSW, as well as in Canberra, where dojo head Sensei Reece Cummings had the opportunity to interview Sensei Arakaki for Blitz.

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Okinawa’s Sensei Toshimitsu Arakaki.

Born in the homeland of karate just two years before the end of World War II, when its central and surrounding islands were ravaged by the Battle of Okinawa, Sensei Toshimitsu Arakaki began his life during dangerous and challenging times for his people. He did not begin karate training until late by today’s standards, entering the dojo of Sensei Hohan Soken to learn Shorin-ryu Matsumura Seito karatedo at 18 years old.

He trained there from 1962 to 1967, but due to the long distance Arakaki had to travel to get to Soken’s dojo, he then joined the Nagamine dojo, which was much closer to his workplace. It was perhaps just good fortune, then, that he came to train with O’sensei Shoshin Nagamine, a man who was later named a ‘living intangible cultural asset’ by Japan for his contribution to karate.

Despite his departure, though, Arakaki still greatly values the training he received from Soken. “Sensei Soken was very much known as a ‘karate person’,” he reflects. “The training at his dojo was physically demanding, and he was a strict and hard teacher who demanded a high-quality karate performance.”

When asked about the difference between training at the Soken and Nagamine schools, Sensei Arakaki says, “The quality of karate at both dojo was exceptional, and both teachers focused very much on the small details of techniques, but Sensei Nagamine had a unique way of teaching through (telling) stories of both his and other’s actions that he had learned from.”

Sensei Arakaki originally took up karate as a young man for the usual, simple reasons: he had wanted to know how to fight back if needed, and to be able to show off his strength. His attitude toward the art has changed a great deal since then, of course, and he attributes his development in character and fortitude to the lessons learned at the Nagamine dojo.

“O’sensei used to say that it was always important to think about the ‘why’ and the consequences of throwing the punch — to think first. Karatedo is more than punching and kicking. He used to stress that you must always first look after your family and own social wellbeing, and it would only be then that you could dedicate the time to karate practice that was required.

“Courtesy and respect must always be adhered to as well,” Arakaki adds.

This mindset was prominent during Sensei Arakaki’s visit to the dojo of WMKA Australia chief instructor John Carlyle, 6th Dan, in Wingham, NSW, and Sensei Reece Cummings’ dojo in Canberra, ACT, earlier this year. During the first children’s class in Canberra, the Okinawan master instructed the young students not only in the physical side of karate, but in reisetsu (politeness), advising them that a karate person must always conduct themself with integrity and respect.

The vast differences between the cultures of East and West are well known to Sensei Arakaki. “I think that culturally there are different expectations,” he says when asked about the differences and the difficulties Western students might encounter in traditional karate. “The thing that Western students sometimes experience the most difficulty with is the concept of reisetsu that is associated with Okinawan budo (martial arts)…it is this reisetsu and maybe the kohai–senpai (junior–senior) relationship and its relation to budo that most new students find initial difficulty with understanding.”

Arakaki’s experience of Western cultures has accelerated in recent years as a rise in the popularity of older-style Okinawan karatedo has seen him welcome many students from around the world to his dojo.

Asked why there seem to be more foreigners travelling to Okinawa to learn its indigenous fighting arts, Arakaki explains that, “More recently it seems that they want to learn the culture through karate. They’re looking for the roots of karatedo, and seem to be seeking more lessons in culture and respect so that they can return home with more knowledge and authenticity to their practice of karatedo. It’s great to see many people visiting Okinawa to train in karatedo.”

In his opinion, there are a few guiding principles that a karate student — no matter their origin — must remember to succeed: “Keizoku wa chikaranari (continued practice leads to more strength); reisetsu; mohan ni naru (you must become the model); and monaru manabu (to copy and learn from your sensei).”

As well as welcoming visitors to his dojo, Sensei Arakaki has recently been travelling the world, not only to Australia but also to Canada, Germany and England. His reasons for travelling reveal an open mind that might surprise some who wear the ‘traditional karate’ badge.

“I think it is important to travel to Matsubayashi-ryu dojo around the world,” he says. “It is important to be able to exchange not only skills, but opinions, thoughts and research, too, between teacher and student, from senior to junior and also junior to senior. The aim is to ensure that karate practice in Okinawa is the same in all countries. The reason I travel is to keep studying and to keep learning.”

Arakaki believes it is important to have a strong teaching philosophy when working with students. When asked what are the important qualities to look for in a karate sensei, he says, “Like O’sensei Nagamine, it is important to be caring and trusting of your students, but I think the good teachers first ask the student to do something, then they let the student try to do it, and then the teacher should show the student how to do it. It is important that the teacher can show the student, too, and not only tell them. I also do not think it is a good teaching method to be too harsh, but I do not let students say ‘I can’t do it’.”

It is arguably much easier today to see the purpose of sports karate than the budo variety, but Sensei Arakaki is confident that the holders of Okinawa’s ancient combative wisdom like him can ensure that traditional karatedo, and specifically Matsubayashi-ryu, continue to prosper in the future. “It is important that the senior teachers spread it to the practitioners around the world,” he says.

“In essence, it is important to remember O’sensei Nagamine’s aim of karatedo and Zen as one, or karatedo and world peace — the goal is to create equality, or peace, through the practice of karatedo around the world.

“To ensure Matsubayashi-ryu prospers, a sensei must remember that if it’s hard to teach, you must teach harder and more deeply, and when you teach deeply, you will teach from the heart. It is important to also teach internationally and ensure there are also many high-quality sensei outside of Okinawa.”

Finishing the conversation on the more practical side of karate, Sensei Arakaki explains his thoughts on a concept with which many Western practitioners of Okinawan karate are fixated: bunkai. A relatively modern term for the breaking down of kata to understand the practical application of its component parts, bunkai has become something of a buzzword among Western practitioners seeking skills that apply outside the sport-karate arena.

“It is important to study or analyse karate waza (techniques),” he explains. “There are so many waza, but one cannot only study the dento bunkai (traditional or more formal applications where everyone does the same thing) but to study the oyo bunkai (applications for practical use). All karate sensei should look at bunkai. It is the role of senior karate sensei, especially those at the rank of renshi (usually 6th Dan) or above to think about applications, to make karate their own, and to never stop studying, even at 10th Dan. Always think about what comes next and how you can continue learning and developing your karatedo.”

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