Wado Ryu Karate
By Robert Hunt
The world of karate is a strange and wonderful place, filled with a kaleidoscope of colorful characters on uncountable odyssey’s. The roller coaster never seems to end, it just bangs and rattles, climbs and falls, until we pull into the exit somewhere down the line and step away exhilarated from the ride.
Ohtsuka Hironori was a 29 year old budding jiujutsu student from a prominent Japanese family, when Prince (later Emperor) Hirohito “discovered” karate on his trip to Okinawa in 1921 and asked that some Okinawan visit mainland Japan to teach. Funakoshi, then Mabuni, then Motobu answered Hirohito’s plea, karate appeared in Japan and the course of karate history veered off in a new direction.
Ohtsuka, being a young martial artist already, became interested and sought instruction first from Funakoshi, then later from Mabuni and Motobu. It is said that Hirohito, himself, ultimately asked Ohtsuka, who was of somewhat noble or “Samurai” birth, to create a “Japanese” version of karate.
This is a window into early twentieth century Asian politics. Although coming out of Okinawa, karate was still considered a Chinese art. (The kanji then meant “Chinese Hand”.) Japan wanted it incorporated into the Japanese martial system but not as something Chinese. The Japanese had a love-hate relationship with China dating back a couple thousand years.
So Ohtsuka, either from the Emperor or of his own motivation, acquired the mission of developing a Japanese karate style. He hung out with the Okinawans – Funakoshi, Mabuni, and Motobu, adjusted their kata with his ideas, added his jiujutsu, included a couple of hundred techniques he created with the goal of making it more sophisticated, came up with Wado Ryu and gave the world a premier double-entendre.
When I studied Wado in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Shintani Sensei told us that it meant “Way of Harmony” – very noble and poetic and in sync with Sensei’s harmonious nature. But I also studied the Japanese language at Thunderbird, an international business graduate school in the Phoenix area. One day I took my uniform to class and tossed it on my desk, Wado patch exposed.
My Japanese language teacher, Mr. Kumayama, in passing said “Oh, you do karate?”
I proudly nodded – “yep!”
“I see you do the Japanese Way,” he continued.
“Huh?” I mumbled.
“Your patch. It say Japanese Way,” he clarified.
“It d…does?” I stuttered.
He was the teacher and Japanese to boot. What could I say?
“Doesn’t it say the Way of Harmony?” I asked. “Sensei says it means Way of Harmony or Peace.”
He studied it a bit. “Ahhhh, yes. That too.”
Turns out “wa” does mean “harmony” and “peace”. But, in an interesting twist of the tongue, it also carries, to the Japanese ear, the idea of “things Japanese”. “Wa-fuku” are Japanese clothes. A “wa-ka” is a type of Japanese poem. “wa-shoku” is Japanese food. To the medieval Japanese mind, harmony “wa” was “Japan”. The rest of the world was strange and crazy – inharmonious. Japanese friends have told me that they hear Wado first as the “Japanese Way”, and only after prompting, as “Way of Harmony” (Ahhhh, yes. That, too.)
I changed styles not long after that but have remained close to Wado through friends like Marlon Moore and Ray Hughes. What constitutes a “Japanese” style is a source of much reflection. Since karate came from Okinawa in the first place (1600-1900) and is almost as new to Japan (1922) as to the rest of the world (1948), an argument could be made that a “Mexican” style or a “Dutch” style is as logical as a Japanese one. History seems to be a moving target.
Be that as it may, Ohtsuka created Wado and injected his double-entendre into the eager world of karate. Was the double-entendre intentional, or just convenient? Or both? Probably only he knew, and he’s gone.
Whatever the case, he was a successful guy. He built and managed an international organization with thousands of members and inspired them on. He is, of course, afforded a position in karate mythology that is oversized, but you can’t take anything away from someone who could do what he did politically.
Politics, in fact, (as in many karate systems), is probably Wado’s organizational “Achilles Heel”. The Wado related organizations are so rife with it that it has become somewhat difficult to swim in those waters, especially for a non-Japanese.
Masaru Shintani, my early Sensei mentioned above, became so mired in Wado politics that he just gave up. He was Canadian by birth, Samurai by ancestry and was awarded a 7th degree black belt by Ohtsuka, who apparently saw in Shintani the same thing I did, the embodiment of the harmony that Ohtsuka meant his style name to reflect. But, as an outsider, a Canadian with no connections to any Japanese dojo other than through Ohtsuka, Shintani was never accepted by the entrenched politicos.
The Wado system is essentially Mabuni Shi-To Ryu or possibly Funakoshi Shotokan, adjusted to fit the form that Ohtsuka envisioned. Being inheritor of a jiujutsu system, Ohtsuka tried to incorporate jiujutsu techniques into Wado to create a hybrid martial art reflective of the Japanese spirit. It was a commendable idea, because jiujutsu compliments karate. But I don’t believe a jiujutsu-karate art is what Ohtsuka achieved. I believe that Ohtsuka came up with a way of movement, whether inadvertent or intentional, that embodies the idea of the harmony he chose for its name. It flows and moves in unison with the attacker – much like aikido – and ultimately overwhelms by not opposing. Wado can be a great art in the hands of a dedicated student, soft and flowing, hard and powerful. It can also be a great philosophy of life – to live in harmony. And it can be achieved, if you can find the essence of his Japanese Way.
Other karate styles are defined by the kata that embody their system. Wado is not. Wado kata do not reflect what Ohtsuka was offering, at all. They are just standard Okinawan Shorin kata with a twist. Wado is a way of looking at movement – soft, gentle, harmonious, powerful, dynamic, not the analysis of an ancient martial art by means of kata.
For example, Tai Sabaki, “Body Shifting” is a central theme of Wado movement. But, to my knowledge, Ohtsuka made no modifications in any of the katas to reflect that concept. What his goal was in changing the katas the way he did is anyone’s guess, but it does not seem to be to pass on his Wado principles.
The story of Ohtsuka and Wado karate is an interesting one. I have a folder of letters that Ohtsuka wrote to Shintani over the years translated into English. It is a window into a karate point of view.
There is enormous reward for those who can acquire and assimilate the ideals of a martial way and Ohtsuka’s are no different – flow and attack, twist and turn, free the binding chains of conformity. Live in peace and harmony in the world.
If we can steer clear of politicians.