Last month Scott (my husband) and I along with a few other karate friends had the opportunity to travel to Okinawa, Japan – the birthplace of karate – with Scott’s sensei (teacher) and his wife for a Cultural Martial Arts Tour.
Did you notice the word Cultural before Martial Arts? There’s a reason for that. Though we did indeed have an opportunity to train in a dojo there, the number one reason for the trip was to learn more about Okinawan culture, customs, history and traditions. And by doing so, I have discovered more about myself, as well as my country’s culture and history.
Many people (especially Americans) believe karate is only about fighting or self defense. That is simply not true. Karate-do (the way of the empty hand) is a way of life. A philosophy. And you cannot truly understand The Way, if you fail to understand the culture of the people who developed it. The founder of Isshinryu karate, Tatsuo Shimabuku, stated in a 1960 interview in the Okinawan Times, “Even if we cannot promote friendship between Okinawa and America through karate, my true hope is that if karate becomes popular in the United States and Hawaii, then Okinawa would also become more well understood.” Since 1994, his student, AJ Advincula, has been carrying out the vision and wishes of his teacher by conducting these cultural martial arts tours.
Okinawa is known as the Isle of courtesy. The people are friendly, polite and go out of their way to help. For instance, we were taking a walking tour of the area where Tatsuo Shimabuku’s first dojo was. The dojo is no longer there, but we wanted to find the property. An elderly couple out for a stroll pointed us in the right direction, but soon we came to a crossroad and took a wrong turn. They followed us and corrected us before we went too far the wrong way. I ask you, would you follow a group of foreigners to be sure they arrived at their destination? Then there was the man who lived across from the property we had searched for. He stopped working in his garden to talk with us and tell us stories about watching the foreigners (American servicemen) training at the dojo.
Another day, our car’s battery had died. Fortunately, we spotted a tow truck stopping at a red light at a nearby intersection and my husband ran to the guy and asked for help. The driver asked if we were members of whatever organization he worked for (Okinawa’s version of AAA?). Scott said no. The light changed and the tow truck made his left turn away from the parking lot and our car. A few minutes later, after going around the busy city block, he pulled in our lot. The man jump started our vehicle, and refused to charge us. We happened to have a nice bottle of awamari (Okinawan liquor) in the car and gave him the presento as a token of our gratitude.
I don’t speak the language, and only know a few phrases, however, the people we had come in contact with were patient, friendly and helpful. There was no anger toward us foreigners. No one yelled, “You’re in Okinawa, learn the language!” And it made me realize that Americans can stand to be a little more polite and offer a little more assistance to those in need. We can’t allow rudeness and disrespect to be the norm. It is my hope that one day America can be known as the Land of Courtesy.