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The Martial Craftsman—An Introduction

By George Donahue

With this introduction, I’m happy to introduce a new series on FightingArts.com, a series that will focus on the craft and craftsmanship of the fighting arts. Although I’ve been associated with FightingArts.com for a while, my involvement has always been peripheral; as much as I wished otherwise, I never had the time to focus here. Now I do, and I hope to use this opportunity to help the reader—to the best of my ability—more fully enjoy and understand the practice of the fighting arts. (1)

I’ve chosen “The Martial Craftsman” as a series title because it reflects my own chosen path and my profound ambivalence toward the general use of the euphemism “martial artist.” I’ve never been comfortable thinking of myself as a martial artist, even though I’ve been practicing what is generally called martial arts since I was a young kid. It doesn’t bother me that others don’t feel the same way, and my reluctance to identify myself as a martial artist has presented no problem for me in acquiring, commissioning, editing, and even ghost writing martial arts books for several publishers. Or from teaching martial arts most of my adult life.

But I’m not really a martial artist. Like many people dedicated to the practice of the fighting arts, I don’t have the talent, imagination, or unique experience necessary to be a true artist of any sort. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have reasonably good technique, or that I can’t teach others how to improve their technique, or that I haven’t a time or two actually used my training to save my bones, but it does mean that I don’t transcend the practice in the manner of those few who do.

I’ve been very fortunate that some of my teachers have been true artists. For example, the three Okinawans (Seigi Nakamura, Chokei Kishaba, and Katsuhiko Shinzato). (2) who have taught me the bulk of what I know about karate and traditional weapons have been exquisite artists. I’m sure that not one of them considered himself to be teaching me techniques of martial art, however. What they taught and continue to teach me, on the surface at least, is “karate jutsu,” the principles and technical applications of the craft of karate. Although they were all three teaching and practicing the same thing (sometimes all three at once in the same room) they each looked very different from the others, and all others, in their performance of the identical techniques. The difference was in their personal artistic interpretation and understanding of the craft. They were and are, indeed, martial artists, even though they would not ordinarily call themselves so. Their karate could be expressed as true art because, while they did not consciously think of themselves as artists, they, at the same time, in the manner of true artists, no longer had to think about the craft—unless they chose to for the benefit of their students. By demonstrating their artistry for their lucky student, they have encouraged their student to seek the potential artistry within.

At my best, I understand this and maybe even get close now and then, but I still have to think about the craft every second, or I stray into bad technique. Maybe someday that will change. I might someday pass through the barrier that separates me from martial artistry; I might not. In the meantime, I’ll work at my craft.

So, philosophically and realistically, I’m a martial craftsman. But I’m a martial craftsman in a more mundane way, too. I like to build my own equipment to fill needs in my training. I like to devise methods to improve my own training, and I like to help my students devise ways to improve their training. When I or one of my students has a problem with a technique, I like to devise ways to overcome that problem. Together, the student and I attack the problem like scientists, observing closely, testing this and testing that, trying this and that, and ultimately finding a better way to get something done. We are craftsmen plugging away at a challenging piece of work and enjoying every minute of it. In this, we are living the traditional craft from which we have sprung.

Likewise, in this series I’ll plug away at challenges as they spring up. I’ll tell you what I’ve figured out and how you might want to approach similar challenges. This series will cover everything from how to make and properly use a makiwara to, eventually, how to “effortlessly” double your power and speed. It should be fun for me. I hope you find it enjoyable and useful. If you don’t, let me know and I’ll work on making it better.

Footnotes:

(1) I’ll concentrate most of my writing within this series, but I’ll also from time to time address other topics that don’t fit independently as stand-alone articles.

(2) Nakamura-sensei and Kishaba-sensei are no longer with us, but Shinzato-sensei will be going strong for at least another twenty or thirty years.


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About The Author:

George Donahue, editor-at-large for FightingArts.com, is a writer, editor, and literary agent who teaches traditional weapons, karate, and self-defense on the side. He has worked in book publishing for more than twenty-five years. Honing his skills at Random House and with a long stint at Knopf/Vintage Books in New York City, where he worked on David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars” and Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” he went on to serve as executive editor of Tuttle Publishing, directing the martial arts and Asian language, history, current affairs, and religion publishing programs. After leaving Tuttle, he established a new martial arts publishing program at Lyons Press, where he also edited fiction, sports, current affairs, and health titles. Among those he has edited are: Mark Bishop, Paul Budden, Rick Clark, Thomas Cleary, Don Cunningham, John Donahue, Reynaldo Galang, Mitsuo Kure, Bruce Lee, Dave Lowry, Patrick McCarthy, Marc MacYoung, Shoshin Nagamine, Susan Lynn Peterson, George Plimpton, Donald Richie, Rob Reilly, Leung Shum, Mark Wiley, and Mike Young. He is currently writing a martial arts dictionary and a training manual.

Donahue has been training in martial arts his entire life. After spending his early childhood training in self-defense at home under the direction of his parents, he began formal dojo training in judo and jujutsu in his native Tokyo at the age of seven, with the study of Japanese traditional weapons beginning soon after. He has studied widely in other traditions, particularly in aikido and taiji. As a teenager, he took up the study of Matsubayashi Ryu karate and Okinawan traditional weapons and went on to study with Shoshin and Takayoshi Nagamine, to whom he remains deeply indebted; he is an honorary life member of the World Matsubayashi Ryu Karate Association. In the early 1980s, he and his sister Nancy and her husband, Paris Janos, became the first American students of the Okinawan teaching trio of Seigi Nakamura, Chokei Kishaba, and Katsuhiko Shinzato (with whom he also studies Yamane Ryu bojutsu) as they refined the karate and weapons training system now known as Shorin Ryu Kishaba Juku. He is a 6th dan in this style. Following the deaths of Nakamura and Kishaba senseis, he has been a student exclusively of Shinzato-sensei.

Donahue has been teaching for over thirty-five years. After teaching in Florida and Brooklyn for several years, in 1985 he founded, with Arthur Ng, the Shorin Ryu karate dojo at the Ken Zen Institute of Japanese Art and Culture in New York City. He conducts karate and weapons seminars throughout the U.S., as well as a monthly open training session at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.


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