BOOK REVIEW: Karate the Japanese Way

This post was written March 16, 2005, and posted to my first weblog called Shotoblog, which now exists only as a web archive accessible through the way-back machine. I’m reposting here more out of nostalgia than anything else.

It is now March of 2005 and perhaps a propitious time to review Mark Groenewold’s Karate: The Japanese Way (KTJW). I recently suppered with two shotokan students, and in a conversation about great rare karat books, they said their instructor recently got “this great new book by a Canadian actually living in Japan.” I took this to mean that they were passing on what they considered to be some cutting edge information. I didn’t say anything, but I’ve had the book for over a year now, probably closer to two.

The difference between them and me is that I revel in obscure information about karate while they try to get only “the best information” from “the most authentic sources.” I conclude from our discussion, then, that after a probationary period, KTJW has now become part of the accepted corpus of shotokan materials. Other factors indicate this as well–the fact that the book’s official web site has started sporting reviews from some of the world’s most famous karateka, for example. Probably, many people had read the book previously, but had been waiting to hear others’ opinions in private before speaking publicly. Decision by consensus says: “Mark Groenewold, thumbs up.”

Corpus acceptance for this book is in many ways good for shotokan. But it may be bad for KTJW, as its interpretation will no doubt now become a battle-ground for the old enmities of shotokan practitioners. Mr. Groenewold seems a fairly balanced and cautious individual, and so his statements in toto can be taken in more than one way. It seems to me that part of the point of the book is to be a fresh start for shotokan karate in the west, free of the political struggles of the last several decades. However, it could also be interpreted as a way for the JKA to exert its influence through the back door rather than in a direct fashion. Both the dreamer and the cynic can find support in the fact that Mr. Groenewold and his JKA instructor have started making instructional trips to North America. As Mr. Taniguchi the instructor says, “Although this book may help you learn about karate, the instruction and instructors of the Honbu take precedence.”

The book is a combination of the author’s memoir of training in Japan and an introductory karate text. It is rather like C.W. Nicol’s Moving Zen meets Robin Rielly’s Complete Shotokan Karate. But unlike Rielly’s book, which, if anything, promotes the idea of the karateka as a modern samurai, KTJWpokes fun at some of the more silly practices of western dojos. For example, Mr. Groenewold relates a story about training at a Canadian dojo where the class repeated the dojo kun in massacred Japanese when they should have simply used English. “What was that?” asked Mr. Taniguchi.

KTJW contains a certain amount of technical instruction, and it might be tempting to say that the book is closer to Moving Zen meets Nishiyama’s Art of the Empty Hand, except that I don’t think the technical instruction is there to instruct the student in technical aspects. These two chapters, on stretching and warming up and on karate fundamentals follow two chapters for beginning students on finding the right dojo and typical questions of beginners. Although not stated explicitly, I think the technical chapters are there to provide students a way to judge the quality of their prospective instructors. On the one hand, this is an excellent resource for unknowledge beginners. On the other, it sets a quality standard that is Mr. Taniguchi’s and, by extension, the JKA. How is a student who has access only to a goju-ryu dojo or to Grandmaster Carlucci’s Studio of Kung-fu and Kempo supposed to judge the difference between them using KTJW?

To date, the best review of KTJW has been from Rob Redmond, who gave the book the high praise it deserves without pulling any punches. He states that it was a mistake for Mr. Groenewold even to mention a karate organization; complete freedom from organizations is what he sees as the book’s goal. His statement is another way of addressing the book’s problematic applicability to students studying outside the shotokan style. Another of Mr. Redmond’s criticisms is the change in prose style between first and third person. This blemish is simply a single example of a general lack of consistency in the quality of writing in the book. In places, Mr. Groenewold is funny and inspiring. In others, he is flat and trite. Overall, he is a good step ahead of most authors of martial arts texts.

For my own part, I am not bothered by the book’s bias toward JKA shotokan, which is an undeniably strong style worthy of study, regardless of its tendency to descend into tournament training. I do have other bones to pick with Mr. Groenewold, though. For example, although he says his book only a perspective and series of observations, he clearly sets himself up as an authority in relation to the reader. From that perspective, he goes on to address the relationship between karate and western religion. The topic is an important one to many Christians, but Mr. Groenewold’s response simply reflects a namby-pamby approach to religion that sounds like it was written by a Unitarian and glosses over some of the complexities of Japanese culture. (For example, even if bowing in Japanese culture were only a sign of respect, bowing to the kamiza is pointless unless it implies the existence of a kami.) If one is going to have the gall to address Christians with regard to their own religion, he should so on Christians’ own terms. Rather than talking about “the great expansive qualities of karate everywhere” (?!), he could have started with, for example, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he says, “As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one… Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol… But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.”

The imposition of Mr. Groenewold’s apparently liberal, high-self-esteem, pro-multicultural world view in this section of the book and the section on the dojo kun is equally as offensive to me as a Japanese instructor who says that non-Japanese can never really understand karate. In fact, it is moreso since the theoretical Japanese instructor is addressing experience of which you cannot know (being Japanese) while Mr. Groenewold is addressing experience of which he cannot know (your religious faith). It’s true that if the topic is approached from a biblical or theological perspective the writer faces the problem of Christian sectarianism, but at least he has tried to approach the problem from a Christian worldview instead of an irreligious one, which is by definition not something to which Christians subscribe. A much better way of dealing with the issue is through anecdote, as Robert Twigger does in describing a fellow aikidoka’s attempt to reconcile bowing toward the kamiza with his Orthodox Judaism. Anecdotes have the advantage of not being preachy.

Putting aside these sins of commission, I turn now to sins of ommission but maintain the theme of anecdotes, for more anecdotes is what the book is missing. One has the impression that Mr. Groenewold doesn’t know anyone in Japan except Mr. Taniguchi and his wife. More vingettes of life would have made the book a better read. True enough, the book sticks to its theme as an introduction to karate, but a book of this nature, semi-autobiographical, requires vingettes. It would have helped to put a human face on the discussion of Japanese culture and its relationship to karate. In fact, I almost feel that, although Mr. Groenewold has been living in Japan some time, he is still living at the level of a college anthropology course rather than connecting with people. The section on Zen, for example, is something I could have written myself. I don’t want to know what a Zen priest’s daily schedule is like, I want to know what Mr. Groenewold saw when he visited a Zen monastery.

As an object, the book is marred by self-publishing through Trafford and has poor photo quality and other signs of corner-cutting like thin margins, but I understand that the book will be coming out in a second edition that should correct some of these problems. If that’s the case, then I really look forward to seeing that edition, perhaps with the same format and themes but a thorough revision of the content. At this point, if I had to recommend one book as an introduction to karate, KTJW would probably be it because of the range and type of information it covers. But I’m not sure that someone unacquainted with karate wouldn’t drown in the sea of new information. In fact, Mr. Groenewold identifies this problem in the introduction, where he writes that the book was “created to serve a larger karate audience.” Well, a real beginner is not part of the “karate audience.” (In its way then, Angry White Pyjamas is a much better introduction to the practice of modern martial arts than KTJW, although a comparison is not really fair since Robert Twigger is an award-winning professional writer.) But you may know someone in the book’s best target audience, which is the group of karateka who are too serious about all the wrong things in training. For them and for you and me (who may be like them without realizing), Karate The Japanese Way is a great way to start again and rethink some things from the ground up.