This past weekend I attended another outstanding karate seminar given by my teacher’s teacher, AJ Advincula. Though I learned a lot while training, my biggest lesson came later that evening after dinner. I learned the language barrier is a tough wall to scale, and sometimes the things you believe you understand, you don’t really.
During a discussion of ghosts of Okinawa, the conversation turned toward oni. Oni are demons or devils from Japanese foklore. I first learned about them in 2008 on a trip to Okinawa. I had visited a relative of Sensei Advincula’s and saw hanging on the wall a scary looking mask of a red devil face with horns. His relative told me the name of the mask (my notes say “Yasamen” but I must have written it wrong as it doesn’t come up in Google searches), and that it was for good luck and a protector in the same way shisa are. Then she told me the mask was no oni. Umm, ok. If the nice Okinawan lady tells me the devil mask wasn’t a demon, who am I to argue? Right?
Fast forward to this past weekend and our oni conversation. Sensei said the mask on his relative’s wall was an oni. “But sensei,” I replied, “she assured me it wasn’t.”
Well, with the power of the iPad, we did some research and sure enough I learned that not only was the mask an oni, it was a NOH mask. Noh is a traditional Japanese musical drama where the characters are masked. So all this time I thought she was saying that the mask was “no oni” (not a demon) when the mask was “Noh oni” (a demon mask from a play)!
So what does this lesson have to do with martial arts?
Many American soldiers stationed on Okinawa after World War II studied Isshinryu karate. Upon their return to the US, they opened up their own dojos (schools). Unfortunately, most of these first generation American pioneers of Isshinryu had been stationed on Okinawa for a short time. A typical tour of duty was only thirteen months. They didn’t have time to learn all the finer points and, therefore, didn’t understand how to make their karate work best. They also got much of the history and terminology incorrect because of language barriers. For example, the founder of Isshinryu karate, Master Tatsuo Shimabuku, created a kata (form) called Sunusu or Sunsu for short. Sunusu is translated to mean “father of the old man” or “father of the old man’s house”. Meaning that Master Shimabuku had named this kata after his grandfather. A marine student had asked the master about sunsu, and the master replied, “strong man”. To this day some Isshinryu sensei incorrectly teach that sunsu translates to strong man. What got lost in translation was that the master’s grandfather (for whom he named the kata) was a very strong man.
I had often wondered why there was so much incorrect information being passed down in certain lineages of Isshinryu karate. I now know it’s because what one person believes they understand may not, in fact, be understood at all. The devil is in the translation.