Martial Arts for Nerds: Epic Fantasy and Simple Reality An Exploration of the Pioneers of 20th Century Karate
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Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Islands, strategically located between China and Japan, was the birthplace of karate

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Mabuni Kenwa, wearing an early prototype for sparring gear


Pro: The 36 Families (9/12)

Ch 1: Lifting Heavy Things (9/19)

Ch 2: Hard and Soft Style (9/26)

Ch 3: Cutting the Top Knot (10/3)

Ch 4: School of Falling Leaves (10/10)

Ch 5: An Empty Vessel (10/17)

Ch 6: Like Flowing Water (10/24)

Ch 7: The Third Son (10/31)

Ch 8: Red Light District (11/7)

Ch 9: A Hollow Instrument (11/14)

Ch 10: One Karate (11/21)

Ch 11: Enduring Trauma (11/28)

Ch 12: Art of Transformation (12/5)

Epi: Timeless Presence (12/12)

On Monday, Sept 12, Fighting Chance Seattle will launch an ambitious fourteen-week program tying the history of karate to it’s modern practice through storytelling and physical training.

Based on extensive research, and inspired by six months of chain-reading epic fantasy novels, Four Uncles: The Pioneers of 20th Century Karate tells the story of four masters of Okinawan karate who reshaped their art for transmission to the world. The four were colleagues — some were friends, some enemies — and were unique in their approaches, but all shared an endless passion for karate.

  • The Poet: Funakoshi Gichin (1868 – 1957), founder of Shotokan karate.
  • The Creator: Miyagi Chojun (1888 – 1953), founder of Goju Ryu karate.
  • The Warrior: Motobu Choki (1870 – 1944), legendary fighter and teacher.
  • The Seeker: Mabuni Kenwa (1889 – 1952), founder of Shito Ryu karate.

They were exceptional martial artists and instructors, pioneers that changed karate, yet they also had flaws. Through exploring their stories and relationships with one another, we will come to see the men behind the legends.

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Funakoshi (4th from left) seated with rival Motobu (5th), and friend Mabuni (6th)

In most fields, but especially martial arts, we deify our heroes. We label them “more than” and place them on a pedestal – their achievements unattainable, we follow tradition blindly and tear down any peers who aim to break from the dogma. We make saints of the dead and sinners of the living when we expect heroes and leaders to be infallible.

What I hope to explore through this series is the humanity of legends. Through exploring their actions in context I seek to learn: why did they do what they did? And how did that shape 20th century karate?

Their stories will be woven into the larger history of karate, told in the context of the events that defined their experiences. The stories will be presented as five-minute lectures at the start of our Karate and BPKC classes through the end of December. Each class will integrate the training methods and principles of the story into our training. I’ll share my notes and research to our public Google Drive folder each week for students who wish to learn more.

Some questions we’ll answer along the way:

  • Why was Okinawa a melting pot for the transmission of martial arts?
  • Do karate and Muay Thai share origins?
  • How did nationalist propaganda reshape karate?
  • How did Motobu Choki come to fight in one of the first MMA matches?
  • Why was Mr. Miyagi named in honor of Chojun Miyagi?
  • What were the effects of World War 2 on the masters?

There is more source material in English than ever before to research and tell the history of karate. This history covers multiple dynamic cultures, larger-than-life figures, and endured through incredible social trauma. I began this research five years ago when I opened Fighting Chance Seattle, and accelerated it once I begun training in the historical analysis and applications of practical karate with Iain Abernethy.

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Front row, from left: a young Miyagi and Funakoshi

As an instructor, when I read the master’s writing I can feel their struggle. I feel that they were not mythical figures, but dedicated martial artists doing their best to get by in a changing world and share their passion for karate. I can relate to their struggles as teachers. I feel kinship with them.

Karate is a living process. Each instructor builds on those who came before. It is the ultimate collaboration. It can be recorded in books or video, but it can only truly be learned through direct transmission from teacher to student. Balancing the historical foundation with the needs of the modern student is the responsibility of all good teachers, to adapt the material while working to understand its original context.

This project is an exercise in total connection. These instructors lived and died decades before I was born. I can read their words, I can watch their descendants perform kata on YouTube. I can practice these movements and follow their guidance. And I can draw them. Each avenue of connection brings me closer to understanding, closer to the unattainable experience of training with them directly.

Drawing is not just the process of illustrating a subject or idea. Drawing is a way for me to connect to the subject. The focus on truly seeing and not just representing forces me to be still and open. It’s intimate. Through light and shade I’m tracing the contours of their face, staring into their eyes, and connecting to their soul. Drawing is how I truly come to know a subject.

It is my hope that through the mediums of storytelling, art, and live practice my students will gain a deeper insight and connection into the shared heritage of karate and embrace their place in its legacy.

New students are welcome to join our karate classes at any point of this fourteen-week series. The material is progressive, but each class can stand on it’s own as an individual lesson.

Fighting chance Seattle is a different kind of dojo. Operating out of Ballard, students focus on strengthening their minds, spirits and community, as well as their roundhouse kicks. The dojo has been in business for five years and is dedicated to empowering students through encouraging personal growth, self-confidence, and martial arts excellence.

By Jordan