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The Oss-Controversy: A Reply by Michael Ehrenreich

The Starting Point of the Oss-Controversy

Last weekend, we published the excellent article by Andreas Quast “To “Oss”, or Not to “Oss”? The Difficult History of Oss!“. It caused the Oss-Controversy. Andreas historically reconstructed in an impressive way the emergence of the term Oss. Due to his research he came to the conclusion that term has a ultra-nationalistic history and for him it is not question to use it.

Michael Ehrenreich wrote a likewise excellent and a little bit provocative comment about Andreas article and allowed us to share it with you. We wont deprive you about this fantastic dispute which – from our point of view – has long been overdue.

Michael Ehrenreich´s Answer in the Oss-Controversy

“Very interesting article. From a historic point of view. I don’t quite see the political or even ethical implication of it for me or for karate in general.

More then 70 (!) years ago the Japanese military held an important role in Japan. They had the power and set the rules. Not much different from many European powers in the past. It was at that time that the OSS movement started. We learn now from this article that they also did a lot of Kirikaeshi in kendo back then. When we skip OSS, does that mean that we also have to get rid of Kirikaeshi?

Oss is a Macho Thing

Yes, OSS is a macho thing. Always has been. Even though it’s being used by females as well. I’ve heard OSS a lot at Nittaidai, which is kind of a macho school. It came from Karateka and Kendoka of course. But also from soccer and rugby players. I don’t think any of them meant it as a political statement. (And even if, it’s their country. They should deal with their own history in their own way.) I heard it my alma mater Tsukubadai, which is a very liberal, Top 10 university. No nihonjinron here. And what’s more, it is pretty popular with the yakuza. And yes, those guys are rather nationalistic. So, it is being used by a variety of people in today’s society. Without a political statement, just because it so handy to use.

Well, how does that all affect me? Actually, not at all. See, Karate and especially the macho JKA had and still have a close affiliation with Shinto. That doesn’t mean that I need to believe in river ghosts (and mostly I don’t). But I’m still able to practice Karate. Which is actually all that I want to do: practice Karate. We use Japanese terms; count in Japanese; we love to call others (and especially ourselves) Sensei and we also use the abbreviation OSS. Like it or not. It’s about taste, NOT a political statement.

Oss in Okinawa

I’ve come across the issue OSS a few times in the past. Also in Okinawa. It was not so much the actual use of the word that people had a problem with. It was much more their dislike of the popular (at least in many western countries) and still fairly powerful JKA that led them to speak out against OSS. I always felt a little like dealing with a pubescent kid rebelling against her parents.

The True Oss-Controversy

By the way, I’m not going with OSS. Not for ethical reasons. But for the distaste I feel when I see many westerners putting more energy in yelling than effort in actual practice.

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To “Oss”, or Not to “Oss”? The Difficult History of Oss!

Should we use the term “oss”? Although Shotokan karateka take it for granted a look back in its history suggest that one should rethink whether it is appropriate to use it. By Andreas Quast

Especially in Shotokan, the term “oss” is omnipresent. But most of the Shotokan Karateka do not know where and why it emerged. In fact, it has a difficult history that dates back to the 19th century and the foundation of the Dai Nippon Butokukai. A brief look into the history of “oss” suggest to think twice about whether we should still use it or better not.

The Dai Nippon Butokukai

The “Society of Martial Virtue of Greater-Japan” (Dai Nippon Butokukai) was established in 1895. It was the year of Japan’s victory against China, ending millennia of cultural and military hegemony of the “Middle Kingdom”. The purpose of the Butokukai was to promote the Japanese bujutsu. It should also galvanize them with the “martial spirit” of Emperor Kammu (reigned 781 – 806) into an ideology of a Japanese spirit (wakon 和魂). This was later propagandized by Japanese nationalists as “the brave, daring, and indomitable spirit of Japanese people”. It also became one of the key doctrines of Japanese militarism. The construction of the Hall of Martial Virtue (Butokuden) was completed in 1899 close to the Heian Shrine in Kyōto and branches of the Butokukai were established throughout the country. Every year in May the Butokukai held its Festival of Martial Virtue (Butokusai) Here it was where Okinawa karate first appeared in Japan.

Ad: Okinawan Samurai: The Instructions of a Royal Official to his Only Son translated by Andreas Quast & Naoki Motobu

The Birthplace of Oss: The Senmon Gakkō

In 1905 the Butokukai opened a private training institute in Sakyō, a district of Kyōto. It became known as the Dai Nippon Butokukai Budō Senmon Gakkō. Literally translated this means the “Specialized School for Budō of the Society of Martial Virtue of Greater-Japan”. Built and managed by the Butokukai, the school served the training of bujutsu-instructors – mainly kendō and jūdō – who were active in regular school education. The purpose of this institution was the same as that of the Butokukai: i.e. the practice of bujutsu and the cultivation of a samurai spirit. A main focus in the education of the bujutsu-instructors for higher school education was the study of the Japanese language and of classical Chinese texts. This was deemed necessary to ensure that the students were also able to theoretically study and understand them.

Senmon Gakkō: A Ferocious Training Regime

The Senmon Gakkō was considered as one of the best institutes for the training of martial arts instructors in the country. Admission was granted without exception to the male gender only. A minimum necessary rank in budō had to be achieved, too. In the event of failure to achieve this rank the university degree was denied.

In kendō the students in the first grade were only allowed to practice kirikaeshi (diagonal strikes to the head alternating from the left to right). In the second grade they were only allowed kiri-kaeshi and kakarigeiko (fierce repetition of techniques in the chord). Jigeiko (free fight, without scoring) was allowed only in the third and fourth grade. Strong basics and spirit were emphasized. Techniques included even grappling and brawls and other techniques unknown to modern kendō. Training was ferocious, including fatalities.

Strict Hierarchy and Evaluation

Once a month an “Evaluation Meeting” took place, hosted by the students of the fourth grade. The third and lower grades had to listen to their “sermons” and exhortations for around two hours while kneeling in seiza. In case of failures in everyday life or elsewhere, such as failing to show courtesy or satisfactory submissiveness, they were physically chastised. A pronounced sempaikohai-relationship with its hierarchical pecking order was a serious matter in this school’s tradition. Graduates of the school received a state license as middle school teachers without having to have completed a proper teacher training course or the accompanying examination.

Budo and the Pre-War Era in Japan

From the 1920s to the 1930s budō witnessed a rapid growth, however, just as a bone in the skeleton of Japanese militarism. While militarism, colonialism, and imperialism were clearly visible already for decades, war escalated from the Manschurian Incident (1931) into the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Pacific War (1941-1945) as part of World War II. Budō as well as the Butokukai as the most prestigious and influential institution became closely associated with ultranationalism and “Emperordom”. Japanese martial arts grew during this time primarily because they were a cog in the ideological machine of national mobilization.

Ad: A Stroll Along Ryukyu Martial Arts History by Andreas Quast

Dissolution of the Dai Nippon Butokukai abd the Senmon Gakkoo

With the defeat of Japan in 1945, the General Command of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces dissolved the Dai Nippon Butokukai and banned the teaching of budō in schools and universities. The Senmon Gakkō was renamed to “Kyōto Specialized School – Department of Humanities and Literature” (!!!). But it closed its gates after the last graduation ceremony in January 1947.

It was the Senmon Gakkō where the salutation “oss!” was born. It is the gross residue of an obsolete male language, bordering to the obscene, and the expression of an ideological budō closely related to ultranationalism, militarism, and imperial megalomania.

To “Oss”, or not to “Oss”? For me it is not a question!

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Traditional Shotokan Karate: What is traditional about it?

By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Many masters, associations, and Karateka claim to practice traditional Shotokan. They usually do this in order to distinguish their Karate from what is called Sports Karate. A precise definition what traditional Shotokan Karate exactly means is mostly not give. The questioner is left in the dark about the “tradition” that makes Shotokan traditional most of the time. If one keeps asking what traditional Shotokan is many respondents have a tendency to use a rhetorical loophole. According to their opinion, traditional Shotokan is exactly all that, what Sports Karate is not. In other words: It is the exact opposite.

For some questioners such an answer might be sufficient because the have a vague understanding what distinguishes both types of Karate. Or they do not care much about the differences. They just want to practice.†

Definition of Traditional Shotokan?

For the community of practitioners and the art of Shotokan itself, however, a definition ex negativo is not sufficient at all. A clear understanding about the traits of Shotokan, a definition ex positivo, is necessary. Only then we will know how to

  • use and to work it out to its full potential,
  • spread its values,
  • create a common identity among practitioners,
  • attract new students,
  • show what is has to offer in comparison to other martial arts,
  • and to develop it further.

Unfortunately, the labels “tradition” and “traditional” do not help to illuminate and to  describe what Shotokan is about. Why is that? If we define the term tradition we see that almost everything can become a tradition. As the people in the Rhineland, which is the region where I life today, use to say: If you do something three times, it has become a tradition. A more precise definition can be found in dictionaries. According to Merriam Webster, a tradition is defined as:

“an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)”

Olympic Games: Sport as A Tradition

If we take this definition serious it has huge consequences whether we should call Shotokan “traditional”. Because sports can be and is already a “inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior”. For instance, the first ancient Olympic Games were conducted 800 before Christ. Back then, they were religious rituals with strict rules and ceremonial elements. According to the definition, they were traditions.

The Olympic Games are already 2.800 years old. Therefore, they are more a tradition than traditional Shotokan.
The Olympic Games are already 2.800 years old. Therefore, they are more a tradition than traditional Shotokan.

The same goes for the International Olympic Games of the modern age. They date back to 1896. With more than 100 years of history one has to conclude that they have become a worldwide social custom. Even modern Sports Karate is already a tradition. The roots of the World Karate Federation date back to the 1960´s. Thus, it is only 30 years younger than Shotokan itself. In 2020, the WKF will introduce Karate to the Olympic Games. Sports Karate will then become a part of a more than 2.800 year old tradition of organized sports competition.

Traditional Shotokan?

Shotokan Karate, on the other hand, was developed by Gichin Funakoshi in the 1920´s and 1930´s. And he did not develop it from scratch. He recombined Okinawa Karate styles and enriched them with some new ideas. But Karate itself is much older and has its roots in China. If we were consequent we must say that Okinawa Karate is more traditional than “traditional” Shotokan Karate. †

Gichin Funakoshi is the founder of Shotokan. But he did not call it traditional Shotokan.
Gichin Funakoshi is the founder of Shotokan. But he did not call it traditional Shotokan.

To label Shotokan as traditional does not hold water. Because we must also understand that the term tradition is not a good quality indicator. A tradition might be outdated, inefficient, and harmful. Thus, we cannot conclude that every tradition is always good. Sometimes it is better to leave a bad tradition behind and develop something new. From this point of view, it is neither logically meaningful nor practically useful to say Shotokan is a traditional art.

Karate Do is the Better Term

But what is the alternative? We have already a better term at hand. It is Karate Do. Because Karate Do means a way of life and a social philosophy. Principles guide Shotokan Karate Do.  The most famous among them is the Dojo-kun. But there are even more. For instance, the 20 Precepts of Karate by Gichin Funakoshi. The first precepts states:

“Karate begins and ends with courtesy.”

One can easily agree that this precept is timeless. It is neither traditional nor modern. It has been and will always be valid. This orientation on timeless values and guiding principles is the unique feature. At the center of the label of Shotokan should, therefore, stay that it is a paradigm to make the world a better place – it is Karate Do.

Note: I have to thank Michael Ehrenreich and Thomas Prediger for the inspiration to this article.

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The evolution of Shotokan Karate Do associations

By Dr. Christian Tribowski

When a movement becomes bigger, but wants to maintain order and set technical as well as behavioral standards, it is just a matter of time until it forms an association. This is a normal process of professionalization.

The same happend to Shotokan Karate Do. Since grand master Funakoshi, several associations have emerged. Some have already been closed. Some have created new branches or split into different suborganizations. Over the course of the last 70 years a constant evolution took place.

However, the ecology of Shotokan associations has become difficult to grasp. Especially for beginners it appears like a complex puzzle. In order to give you an overview, the Asai Shotokan Association International created the geneology of Shotokan Karate organizations. We hope this leads you through the jungle of Shotokan associations.

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Our aim is to cover them all. In the end, Shotokan is one big community.

Your association is not included in the chart? Please let us know. We are curious to hear from you and will add it.