Thursday, December 30, 2010

Politics and Okinawa and martial arts

It is difficult to avoid politics. History is always political. What is more, the political issues of an earlier era always are reinterpreted in light of today’s political issues.

A study of Okinawa, for example, raises many past and present—and universal as well as particular—issues. I am once again led to this insight by my interest in the history of martial arts. Okinawa, an island that was only fully incorporated into the nation of Japan after the Meiji Restoration of the late nineteenth century, figures prominently in any full accounting of the development of unarmed combat because it is the center of one of the most internationally popular systems, karate.

In the summer of 1964, when Japan hosted the Olympics, I first heard a version of the legendary origin of karate. In 1609, Japanese invaded Okinawa and outlawed weapons-possession by the locals, and, subsequently, the art of unarmed combat developed secretly. The modern political issue that this reminds me of is gun control, which we might more generally call “weapons control.” In most such cases, a total weapons ban is almost never enacted, but, rather, weapons control usually means that some people cannot legally possess weapons while others—their oppressors—are allowed, and in some cases even encouraged, to possess weapons. This practice has been repeated virtually everywhere in all eras, from ancient China to Renaissance England to Turkish Armenia to Nazi Germany to the present day in many countries: first disarm your enemies, and after that it is like the proverbial shooting of fish in a barrel.

More recently I learned the following Okinawan legend: In seventeenth century Okinawa, the Japanese samurai were able to go around Okinawa committing crimes against the locals with impunity because they had swords while the locals had none. One day, a samurai tried to rape an Okinawan woman but an unarmed Okinawan man happened by and disarmed the samurai. The story does not tell whether unarmed martial arts were outlawed by the conquerors before or after such incidents.

Now, either I or the ABC television network back in 1964 got some of the history garbled. Karate did not arise after the invasion by the Japanese, because there were unarmed combat systems on Okinawa before that. To understand this, you have to look at the geography of Okinawa, which is the largest of a thousand-mile-long chain of islands that once constituted the Ryukyu Kingdom, and is situated between the Japanese island of Kyushu to the northeast and the Island of Taiwan to the southwest. The people of this island chain had their own non-Japanese language and were more apt to trade with and be influenced by Chinese than Japanese culture. One of the things they learned from the Chinese was kung fu or kenpo, as it is more often called in Japan. The Okinawans seem to have had their own fighting system, called “tii” or “te,” which they combined with kenpo to develop a hand and foot fighting system called “kara te” or “karate” meaning “Chinese hand.” This would likely have been the already developed system used against the seventeenth century rapist in the legend.

Politics keeps rearing its head in this story. By the end of the nineteenth century, Okinawa was being fully integrated into Japan linguistically, culturally, and politically. At the same time, Japan was trying to dominate Asia and was hostile toward China. It so happened that the “kara” in “karate” came from the word for China in general or the Tang Dynasty in particular, but it also sounds like the Japanese word for “empty”; so, in the early twentieth century, the character for “China” or “Tang” was replaced with the character for “empty” in the Japanese writing of “karate” to make karate seem more Japanese. (Never mind that the Japanese writing system itself is based on the Chinese one.)

In the future—no doubt the near future—we are looking toward a crisis involving a small group of islands that form part of the Okinawa Prefecture. The Senkaku islands, which are claimed by Japan, are also claimed by the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (Red China). The PRC also claims Taiwan. Once China feels they can do so with impunity, they will take over Taiwan, and if they do so, they will sooner or later take the Senkaku islands, too. This will bring them into conflict with Japan once again. The Senkaku islands have no native population, however. Taking the Senkakus would be more of a cause for alarm depending on who was taken first. Taiwan taking the Senkakus would be an international crisis. The taking of Taiwan by Red China would overshadow the fate of the Senkakus whether the ChiComs moved on the little islands or not. It would be very threatening, however, for the PRC to invade the Senkakus before attacking Taiwan because Japan and Taiwan would each regard it as an attack on them. It is always ill-advised to make two enemies at once without neutralizing at least one of them first.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Does everything have to start with the Greeks?

There are actually intelligent (but very mistaken) people who believe that Greek or Sanskrit is the most ancient language and that either Greek is the mother of Sanskrit or vice versa. The academically dominant theory is that there was originally a group of people, possibly living about 5,000 years ago somewhere north of the Black Sea, who spoke an ancient language that we call proto-Indo-European (based on what later happened to it; we do not actually know what if anything its original speakers called it). As these speakers moved away from their original homeland, they lost touch with each other and the language they spoke started changing until, because they were separated, it ceased to be the same mutually intelligible speech, but instead became different languages. Another process went on at the same time: these groups met with other peoples who spoke other languages that had diverged from earlier languages at much earlier times, and these already very different languages would have influenced the Indo-European speakers to change their languages in ways quite different from other Indo-European speakers who encountered and were influenced by completely different languages. Some linguists say that if you combine Greek vowels with Sanskrit consonants you have an approximation of what proto-Indo-European was like. Thus, neither Greek nor Sanskrit is parent to the other, but both are very old children of the much older language from which they both derived, and, so, they share similar characteristics like grandchildren or cousins who share features of their common ancestors while maintaining individually unique characteristics.

Indeed, Sanskrit and Greek are strikingly similar in some respects. Although they have completely different alphabets (the proto-Indo-European speakers diverged long before the invention of writing), there are words that are still strikingly similar even after thousands of years of separation. (Words in different languages that are similar because they have a common “ancestor” are called “cognates.”) For example, “para” in Sanskrit can mean “beyond,” “far” or “distant” while in Greek the same word can, among other things, mean “beyond,” “by” and “beside.” The word seems to suggest more closeness in Greek than in Sanskrit, but it is a word that suggests spatial relationship in both languages. “Maha” means “great” in Sanskrit while “mega” means “great” in Greek. The differences are not arbitrary but quite regular; that is, “a” in Asian Indo-European languages often translates to “e” or “i” in western Indo-European languages; similarly the appearance of an “h” sound and a “g” sound in pairs of cognates is also common. It’s the initial letter or the harder consonants that tend to change less from language to language in cognates. For example, “pada” is Sanskrit for “foot” while “podos” is the Greek for “feet.” (English and German are also Indo-European languages, but in them the “p” becomes an “f” and, in English, the “d” becomes a “t.”) “Is” in Sanskrit is “asti” while it is “esti” in Greek. In Sanskrit “pancha” means “five” while “pente” is the cognate for the same number in Greek.


Today I came across a theory that says something else may have begun with the Greeks: martial arts. Possibly as long ago as four thousand years, Greek warriors developed a fighting system called pankration (often pronounced “pan-krat-eon,” from “pan” all + “kratos” power), which combined wrestling and kick boxing. Pankration might be translated “all powers,” “all strengths,” “all skills” or it might just be a way of saying “no holds barred and anything goes.” Breaking bones, fatal choke holds and other tactics were originally legal even in the Olympic Games. In fact, the Spartans refused to enter the Olympic pankration competition because they thought the rules against eye gouging and biting made the sport suitable only for sissies.

Pankration must have been an effective hand-to-hand combat technique in the right hands. It is said that the pankratiast Dioxippus, unarmored and armed only with a club, defeated the soldier Coragus who had full armor, a shield, a spear and a sword. (Both men survived the fight because Dioxippus showed mercy.) Dioxippus and Coragus were members of the army of Alexander the Great. He conquered the known world as far a northern India. It has been suggested that pankration was thereby spread to central and south Asia and that Buddhist monks brought it to China and Japan where it then became the foundation of kung fu, jujitsu, etc.

I am not sure that I believe this. I have not seen the research that supports this hypothesis. It sounds very speculative to me. An alternative possibility is that pankration/jujitsu techniques tend to arise in every civilization. Their similarities are the result of the similar requirements of unarmed combat and the universal mechanics of the human body. For example, variations on throwing an opponent over one’s hip are universally found but need not require that this practice came from one place, because smart warriors would be likely to discover and rediscover such a technique because of the nature of physical contact between combatants. This has got to be due to physics and biomechanics as much as culture.

And then there is cooking. I have seen a cookbook that maintains (Italian cooks everywhere are going to see red) that all modern Western cooking including Italian and French is based on ancient Greek cooking. They may well have started it, but modern Italian and French variations on food preparation have decidedly improved on the experience of eating since the heyday of pankration.